My Styer's article

Lion of Narnia
12-22-2006, 03:10 PM
I wrote an article about the John Styers bowie method a few months back, posted it at bladeforum. would anyone be interested in my reposting it here?

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12-22-2006, 04:29 PM
Of course. Bring it on.

Lion of Narnia
12-22-2006, 05:22 PM
Here it is :D

The Wheat from the Chaff...

Robert J. Lehnert, Copyright 2006; Permission to copy and publish granted, with proper citation and credit

Part I

Back in the 1980's, knife maker Bill Bagwell started a Nor'easter of controversy from his "Battle Blades" column in Soldier of Fortune magazine. Bagwell championed Western Fencing using a large Bowie Knife (9 1/2"+ blade) as the most effective knife fighting combination (Bagwell, 2000). At that time, the nascent "knife fighting" community was roughly divided into two methodologies: Asian Martial Arts and Military-Street Combatives. Both factions reacted to Bagwell's position as if they were the members of either a Buddhist or Pentecostal congregation and someone had stood up during either of their respective services and loudly shouted out the error of anything less than a Latin-Tridentine Mass. Compounding his "heresy", Bagwell recommended the book Cold Steel (Styers, 1952) as a valuable knife-fighting manual as long as the student "sifted out the wheat from the chaff".
I and other tail end Baby Boomers were a media indoctrinated generation believing any Asian martial art or melee weapon was, a priori, superior to any non-Asian method or weapon. We thought it inconceivable that fencing (those guys in white suits playing tag with toy swords) teamed up with a honking big hillbilly knife was better than the blade arts and weapons of Japan, China, and the Philippines. We swallowed tales of Nipponese katanas cutting through machine gun barrels (Yes, we were gullible), so we jumped on the tanto bandwagon. Those of us with at least one foot in the Military-Street Combatives camp (Fairbairn, Applegate, etc...) were doubly annoyed by Bagwell's promotion of Cold Steel. We regarded its author John Styers little better than his mentor, Anthony Drexel-Biddle, for both men taught "knife dueling" which "would get you killed in the real word". The mutual anti-Biddle and Styers critique boiled down to "knife fights are close range, in your face, balls to the walls dog fights where the winner goes to the hospital-in a knife cut expect to be cut!"
The epitome of anti-Biddle and Styers texts was Prison Bloody Iron (originally titled Bloody Iron Knife Fighting), written by two former Federal convicts, Harold J. Jenks and Michael H. Brown. Leaving aside some very suspect physical training advice and historical commentary, the book is a gripping account of knife as weapon both inside and outside of prison-though there is only one mention of knife vs. knife combat, the others are knife user vs. unarmed user affairs. Jenks and Brown's criticism of fencing-based knife fighting is based on the analogy just as rifle handling is not transferable over to pistol shooting, so you can't adapt swordsmanship to the much shorter knife.
It must be stressed Prison Bloody Iron ( PBI) advocated the combat use of knives six or less inches long. While PBI's posed photographs show the inept "fencing knife user" (Brown?) with a 7"-8" blade length Bowie, PBI promoted shorter weapons (Buck folders, Gerber Mk I). One photograph shows a large Bowie (the Western Cutlery model) but the texts gives no indication how its use might differ from smaller knives. Indeed, one of PBI's historic deficiencies is the authors were unaware of fencing masters (such as Pepe Lulla) teaching "saber fencing" with the Bowie knife in Ante-Bellum New Orleans.
Melee weapons are not only damage multipliers they often (but not always) are range extenders. A knife with a 6" blade is only a minor range extender, shorter blades correspondingly less so. If either an "ice-pick" or "hammer" grip is used rather than a more extended grip (PBI favored a horizontal "foil grip") even more range is lost. PBI drew upon Jenks's reform school experience of "knife fighting" using the last 1/4" of a nail file-a deep scratching implement with no reach advantage whatsoever. From the background of using short knives, PBI quite rightly criticizes knife fighting stances where the weapon arm is significantly advanced forward of the non-weapon arm. Stances like the classic Saber stance or the Biddle "Knife Duelist stance" leave the weapon arm vulnerable to weapon strikes, off-hand grabs, or even being "slipped" by an opponent's sudden rush if the fencing stylist is using a short-blade knife. PBI correctly observed a knife-fighter's weapon limb was as vital organ as his heart-to make it vulnerable to a weapon forward stance was suicidal nonsense. Consequently, PBI promoted an offhand-forward stance (a.k.a. "Military Knife Stance"), with the forearm held up as a shield and ready for grabs and strikes while holding the knife well back out of range of an opponent's weapon or empty hand attacks (See both earlier and later promotions of this basic stance: Applegate 1976, Pentecost 1988, MacYoung 1990).
PBI repeatedly asserted that the longer ranged attacks of either Biddle or Styers were easily evaded and countered-the implicit assumption being that such attacks would be both telegraphed and slow. PBI and other books (Pentecost 1988, Kelly 1983) disdained the Biddle and Styers use of linear-delivered edge strikes (a.k.a. "snap cuts", "snipe cuts", "hack cuts") as a bridging and crippling attack. These authors felt such strikes lacked any potential to inflict significant damage especially to the above advocated "shield arm"-the ulna bone could shed such low commitment strikes with only a minor flesh wound in exchange for the opportunity to seize the opponent's weapon arm and bring one's own knife into play with repeated thrusts and cuts to the opponent's weapon limb and vital organs. Hence "take a small cut to deliver a big cut"
This premise contained at least two other assumptions:
1. The damage done by the snap cut to the forearm is unlikely to be disabling, let alone lethal.
2. The snap cut will not only be telegraphed and slow, it will also remain in full extension long enough to be counter attacked.

For the many writers who criticized both Biddle and Styers' "dueling mind-set", it is curious they not only expect a fencing stylist to cooperate in using ineffective weapons and attacks but also to be personally incompetent. PBI and like-minded works showed no appreciation of how longer blades (by just a few inches more length) radically changes the conduct of knife combat.

Lion of Narnia
12-22-2006, 05:23 PM
Part II

Anthony Drexel-Biddle was the gentleman-scholar of American close-quarter combatives. A dilettante and an amateur in the original senses of both words, Biddle used his family fortune to learn and promote Western armed and unarmed combat methods (especially boxing). As William Cassidy (1997) noted, Biddle used family connections to get a commission in the USMC Reserve, allowing him to teach Marine officer candidates both during and after World War I. Biddle's core method was published in Do or Die (1937). Biddle based his "knife-fighting" method on Western Swordsmanship; he had extensive experience in dueling sword (epee), foot saber (still the wide cutting blade) and broadsword (basket-hilted claymore).
Robert McKay (1986), like Jenks and Brown, thought he devastated Biddle's knife technique by claiming Biddle created a fine sword fighting method that was utterly unsuitable for knives. McKay and others utterly ignored the fact Do or Die's photographs show the "knives" being used are pre-WWII bayonets with blades ranging from 15' to 18" long. This blade length is in the true short sword category. That such sword bayonets were used as military side arms is not just claimed in Do or Die but in other period war writings (MacBride 1987).
The increased momentum (What Bagwell inaccurately calls "leverage") these long blades can generate should not be underestimated. An ineffective snap cut with a short knife can be a bone-shearing strike with a well-honed sword bayonet. Using your forearm to block such a weapon is to invite immediate disablement of your arm--if not by amputation then by cleanly severed tendons and muscles. This is apart from any physiological shock or psychological effect of receiving such a major wound.
Both the Biddle Knife Duelist stance and the Saber stance shine with blades of this length. An opponent armed with a significantly shorter weapon (or unarmed) cannot directly attack such a combination-not without risking either of his arms being sliced to ribbons, or being "spitted like a pigeon" (Heinlein 1963), or both.
There is some anecdotal evidence that after US entry into WWII, Biddle tried and failed to adapt his sword-bayonet method to shorter military knives (KA-BAR's, M-4's). Regardless of the veracity of these rather biased accounts, this is the same period John Styers was Biddle's protégé. Whereas a 70+-year-old man might have failed, the pupil succeeded.

Lion of Narnia
12-22-2006, 05:23 PM
Part III

John Styers joined the USMC prior to December 1941. He and bunk mate Charles Nelson became close combat instructors not only under Biddle's tutelage, but from Marine Corp veterans-many of them "China hands" exposed to the William Fairbairn's evolving combative method. One estimate claims Styers taught some 30,000 Marine recruits the basics of close quarter combat (CQC) both prior to his deployment in the Pacific theatre and after his discharge in 1945.
As Carl Cestari (2000) noted, Styers' teaching had its greatest impact after war's end, when his post-marine career as a flag salesman allowed him access to military bases across the country. He not only sold flags, he continued to teach the troops, and continued to have access to battlefield feedback from other combat veterans. The onset of the Korean War in 1948 provided a wealth of information. The fluctuating battle-lines and the enemy's propensity for infiltration created proportionately more close-quarter incidents than either WWI or II. These combat reports would have augmented Styers' motivation to present a CQC system where young Marines could prevail in a hand to hand encounters, not just survive as scarred and crippled casualties.
In 1951 Styers presented his basic CQC method in the pages of the USMC's official magazine Leatherneck. In five separate articles, Styers showed the fundamentals of bayonet fighting, knife fighting, unarmed combat, stick fighting, and arguably the "candy" of the series, knife throwing. Constrained by the brevity of a magazine article's text and photo limitations, Styers (and text editor Karl Schuon) did a magnificent job in teaching techniques and underlying principles and inculcating confidence in both.
In 1952 the articles were collated into the book Cold Steel: Technique of Close Combat, serving as an unofficial but still highly influential CQC manual for the USMC and other services for almost 20 years. When CQC training became a victim of the more suspect "reforms" of the post-Vietnam US military, printing rights to the volume were purchased by Paladin Press where it has remained in print ever since.
Cold Steel's knife-fighting chapter became (and still is) the whipping-boy of many in the Military-Street Combatives crowd as well as the Asian Martial Artists-the latter doubly so when Filipino blade arts came to prominence in the 1980's. Styers (or Schuon) did use the words "duel" and "knife duelist stance" which, to the present, opens Styers up to the charge of "possessing a dueling mind-set". In response, it is adamantly clear from the text Styers intends "duel" to mean mortal combat with melee weapons-not a pre-arranged affair of honor. There are only two conditions the Styers knife-fighting method is predicated on:
1. Both you and your opponent are, for whatever reason, reduced to fighting with some contact weapon (in your case, a knife).
2. You were able to get your knife in your hand before contact-you were able to keep it from being a complete ambush

Lion of Narnia
12-22-2006, 05:24 PM
Part IV

As Cestari (2000) has so aptly argued, the Styers Knife stance is deceptively lethal in its frontal openness. An enemy unfamiliar with it will tend to be sucked into the Styers stance's effective range well before the enemy can launch an effective attack of his own-see pp. 50-51 of Cold Steel. Versus a Styers stance, an extended limb knife man (off-hand or weapon hand) is leaving himself open even if the Styers-user is armed with a short-blade knife (or course, a weapon-forward man can negate this by using a significantly longer knife, say 9"+) Also, self-initiated action beats reaction! A knife thrust or snap-cut is a simple burst speed motion. Like a boxer's jab, it's delivered on target and is already retracting back out of range within .25 to .3 seconds. Human response time to perceive a stimulus and start a muscular response is rarely less than .25 seconds-it's very unlikely a counter cut will be successful if the initiating-attacker is at all competent. As Cold Steel claims, "if an opponent is open and in range of a left jab, he's going to be hit" (p.44). Against the non-telegraphed attacks Styers taught, reaction tends to be critically behind the response curve-especially if the weapon hand has a longer distance to travel.
Unlike a boxers jab, a single knife strike can be lethal-especially a well directed thrust to the torso or neck. Again referencing Cestari, the Styers' knife method was to KILL an enemy in dire circumstances-NOT to get involved in some prolonged duel. The knife technique in Cold Steel was predicated on taking advantage of the weaknesses of the most common knife methods found on the battlefield or the street. If you enemy tries to guard his knife hand and vital organs with his off-arm, well you cut that arm or hand fast and hard, and while he's still in shock you stab him in the torso or neck, fast and hard. You retract your attacks as fast as they are launched, you never let your enemy close into his effective range-you only step in when it's obvious you can deliver the finishing strike(s) without risking getting skewered in return (pp.72-73). Proper distance (think of a boxer who cannot be touched) is the key to understanding where Styers was coming from (pp.61-65)
Regarding the "chaff' that Bagwell said you have to sift out-actually, Cold Steel has very little indigestible material. The "Back-cut' Styers advocates is marginal at best-more likely than not if there's any bounce-back from a snap-cut, the Bowie's concave back edge will hit nothing but air-and if it hits a resistant target the "saber grip" is not the most secure hold (again, Cestari). Modern teachers are of the consensus snap cutting is one type of critter and back cutting another-you can mix and match 'em while carving your way through to the kill-zones but they shouldn't be combined in a single action. Cold Steel's lack of a dedicated back-cut (taking full advantage of the Bowie's concave back-edge capacity to inflict crippling and lethal wounds) is probably the chapter's greatest "hole".
The rear approach sentry removal using a snap cut (p.60) is optimistic at best-unless you are using a weapon of better cutting capacity than an issue KA-BAR. Here's where a traditional sized Bowie knife comes into play (9 1/2" or better)-and you don't use a snap cut, with an opportunity like that you chop-through the spine or downwards into the skull. No grappling, no fuss (still, wouldn't a silenced HK be better?)
In regards to snap cutting, short and thin blades do have problems in making effective, low-commitment cuts (Kelly, 1983, Bagwell 2000). In Cold Steel, Styers understandably used demo knives with blades of KA-BAR length (cut down "Patton" 1912 sabers). Styers' own custom Randall only had 1/2" over the KA-BAR's 7" (however, the Randall's 1/4" thickness makes for deeper cuts and slashes than the issue weapons 3/16" stock). Styers' method BEGS for a larger, better balanced weapon--perhaps why his private purchase recomendation are for a blade 7" TO 10" length.
Since he died in 1983, Styers didn't live to see the revival of the large Bowie as military and civilian weapon. Regardless, Styers' influence lives on, through new teachers and students who see the gold in a once derided book-but most of all it lives it the veterans who learned from Styers-and PREVAILED.


1) Applegate, Rex; Kill or Get Killed; 1976 (reprint); Paladin Press

2) Bagwell, Bill; Bowies, Big Knives, and the Best of Battle Blades: 2000; Paladin Press

3) Biddle (Drexel-), Anthony; Do or Die; 1937 (2000 reprint); Paladin Press

4) Cassidy, William; The Complete Book of Knife Fighting; 1997 (reprint) Paladin Press

5) Cestari, Carl: Who is JOHN STYERS?; online article, accessed at: ( ; 2003,

6) Heinlein, Robert A.; Glory Road (Novel); 1963; Charles Scribners & Sons
--While a work of fiction, the fencing and close-combat references in the book come from the author's back ground, both as a champion fencer for the US Naval Acadamy in the late 1920's and being trained in close combat by USMC instructors--possible those teained by Biddle himself

7)Jenks, Harold & Michael Brown; Prison Bloody Iron: 1978; Cornville Press

8) Kelly, R.; Ninja Knife Fighting; 1983; Paladin Press

9) MacYoung, Marc "Animal"; Knives, Knife Fighting, and Other Related Hassles: How to Survive a REAL Knife Fight: 1993; Paladin Press

10) McBride, William: A Rifleman Went to War; 1978 (reprint); Lancer Militaria

11) McKay, Robert: Modern American Fighting Knives; 1986

12) Pentecost, Don; Put 'Em Down, Take 'Em Out; Knife Fighting Techniques from Folsom Prison: 1988; Paladin Press

13) Styers, John: Cold Steel; Technique of Close Combat: 1952; Paladin Press

12-23-2006, 07:36 PM
An excellent lesson. If he has a knife ... don't hesitate ... just shoot several times.

Lion of Narnia
12-26-2006, 07:14 PM
An excellent lesson. If he has a knife ... don't hesitate ... just shoot several times.

Yup, yup--and as Styers himself said at the end of the Bayonet chapter "shoot if you can"

But sometimes you don't have that option---and if it degenerates down to knife vs knife (granted a rarity but it happened then, it happens now) the method in Cold Steel is a great basic method--in fact, the training method I've worked out is thorouly based on Styers, with insights from Keating, McLemore, & Cestari.

12-26-2006, 08:30 PM
Yep...But most states won't let you walk around with a 10" Bowie.


Lion of Narnia
12-27-2006, 11:50 AM
Yep...But most states won't let you walk around with a 10" Bowie.


One reason I live in Arizona--we CAN!

Lion of Narnia
12-28-2006, 02:49 PM
BTW all, here's the link to the online Cold Steel: Technique of Close Combat

12-31-2006, 11:53 AM
Lion - Nice article.
Styers is a big part of how I roll the voodoo that I do with a knife as well.

One thing to note is that while Styers speaks of the "10 bowie" aforementioned, his material can be distilled for work with smaller blades. The late Bob Kasper (Founder of the Kni-Com program and designer of the CRKT Companion and many other knives) drew on Styers a great deal, and yet his most popular (and seemingly favored) blade designs were in the 4" to 6" range (Namely his Companion, as executed by Al Polkowski, and CRKT, his Kasper Fighting Folder executed by Pat Crawford, and CRKT, and the KFK and Bulldog again made by Al Polkowski).
My knife work is pretty close range, and utilizes smaller knives that are easier to access in the midst of a fight, and I still draw on Styers. His material is invaluable, and not just for the knife.

Thanks for that link BTW, I didnt know Cold Steel was online anywhere. Most excellent.

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