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The Death Blade - The Evolution of The Karambit

The Death Blade - The Evolution of The Karambitby Guru Scott McQuaid

The karambit blade is arguably the most unique, efficient and deadliest blade used in South East Asia’s silat fighting arts. This knife can tear through flesh like paper, cut off fingers with little effort and disembowel a human with one swipe.

The karambit originated from the Indonesian archipelago. Some scholars note the karambit emerging from Java while others believe it came from the Minangkabau tribe in West Sumatra where it is pronounced as "kurambik". It was first used as a tool for agricultural purpose, designed to rake roots, gather threshing and plant rice. The blade eventually became weaponized and was moulded with more curve to maximize its cutting potential. Tribal folklore says the blade’s design was inspired by the claws of the tiger. Perhaps the most famous blueprint for the karmabit is the kuku macan which literally translates to ‘tiger claw’.

The karambit is primarily a close quarter weapon that was favored by the sirkandi (women warriors). In ancient times, the karambit knife was only inherited within the Minangkabau community by the Datuk (clan leader) or the King. Its use in combat was confidential and only shared in inner circles. At first the kesatria (warrior class) in the Javanese kingdom held a mutual disdain towards the karambit, as they saw it as a primitive peasantry weapon. But after seeing how effective and deadly it was in combat by the Minangkabau silek warriors they began to adopt the knife into their preferred silat styles.

There are many regional variants of the karambit, across South East Asia. The length of the blade differs from village or blacksmith. Some curve more than others, some have longer blades, others have jagged edges built into the metal.

The Death Blade - The Evolution of The Karambit

The karambit became popular in all silat styles across Indonesia such as Java’s Harimau Berantai style, Sunda’s Cimande art and the Minangkabau’s Silek Harimau system. The knife’s popularity spread across into Indonesia’s neighboring islands as Malaysia’s Bersilat art adopted use of the blade, while the Philippines incorporated the knife into the techniques of their Kali style of silat.

The Filipinos started to modify the design of the knife, they extended the blade, made it sharp on both sides to utilize the blade into the manics of their existing Kali stick and blade combat art. Eventually the Filipinos evolved the blade into the very own karambit or lihok design, the double bladed karambit. This version of the knife earned an underground title as the ‘death blade’, but officially it has a few names such as the back to back knife, the twin blades and the most common phrase, the double knife known in the Filipino dialect as ‘kabilaam punyal’.

The karambit was already a deadly and efficient knife but this variant changed the game and doubled the outcome of the effects the original karambit caused. By adding another blade onto the handle facing the opposite side with both blades sharpened on either side, it makes it very difficult to counter this weapon without sustaining and injury.

The Death Blade - The Evolution of The Karambit

The original karambit is held with the blade pointing downwards from the bottom of the fist, either curving forwards or backwards. The knife is generally used in a slashing or hooking motion and practitioners can also simply punch their opponent while holding the knife. The finger guard makes it extremely difficult to disarm and allows the knife to be maneuvered in the fingers without losing your grip and dropping the blade in combat. The knife is turned and flipped into various positions to maximize the fatality of the cuts upon your adversary.

The Philippine double knife version eliminates a lot of hand work involved. The knife follows the principal movements of Kali stick fighting using the motion the figure 8 pattern, swirling the blade down but only turning the wrist once to come back. In that one motion you have cut your opponent four times as oppose to the traditional karambit which would have caused two cuts using the same attack.

The karambit knife moves with your body and slices through whatever it makes contact with, as pesilats (silat players) parry, flank, or come from under to counter their attacker they are cutting as they advance in their preferred direction. The double knife karambit is constantly cutting as the pesilat doubles their cuts in their approach but then continues to cut as they retract their blade.

A standard knife attacker thrusts forward to either stab forward or typically back slash at their victim. By countering with the double knife karambit you can cut the knife attacker’s hand twice in one swift motion while following up with a counter attack by double cutting through the attacker’s lower abdomen, using only two fluid motions of your weapon hand.

The karambit blade has evolved over the years, traveling across Asia into the West where it has taken a modern form that is used in hunting and the military. The curve claw like blade continues to influence bladed weapons and more martial arts systems are incorporating the karambit into their style of combat, such as Krav Maga and Systema.

We have to move with evolution and consider the variants of all components within combat, for when our blade has dulled, we shall sharpen another. 

Karambits Of Asia:

  • Kuku Bima - West Java
  • Kuku Hanuman - West Java
  • Kuku Macan - Sumatra, Central Java and Madura.
  • Karambit Sumbawa - Sumba Islands
  • Karambit Lombok - Lombok Island
  • Lawi Ayam - Minangkabau tribe Sumatra
  • Rambai Ayam - Sumatra
  • Beladau - Sumatra
  • Kuku Rimau - Penang, Sabah, Borneo
  • Lihok: Cebu
  • Kabilaam Punyal - Mindanao
  • Kalaj Kutters - Siam (Bangkok)


Published in Irish Fighter magazine, 2015