It’s been called the edge-of-the-hand strike, the ax hand, the shuto, the thousand-hand strike and the "judo chop." It can be found in virtually every martial art from karate to kung fu and in every kata from those practiced at the Kodokan to those done at Kukkiwon.
So how did this time-honored technique go from martial arts mainstream to martial arts punch line? How did the only strike found in almost every established style go from secret technique to something your grandfather did?
The fate of the technique was sealed in 2002 when Austin Powers executed his patented “judo chop” in Goldmember. Since then, it’s been called outdated, labeled ineffective or simply ignored. But that is not entirely accurate.
While most martial artists and self-defense enthusiasts have abandoned the move for Western-style closed-fist strikes, there’s still a group of steadfast practitioners who know the full story and understand how to correctly apply the technique that was described as “the most deadly blow without the aid of a weapon” by American close-combat pioneer Col. Rex Applegate.
Col. Rex Applegate and other close-quarters-combat experts in the early 1900s realized how effective the karate chop could be, and they proved it time and time again in real-world situations. However, because of the rise of boxing, kickboxing and the mixed martial arts, it’s been put on the back burner.
While the knifehand strike has little application in the ring, it’s still effective for what it was designed for: up-close combat and self-defense. In fact, it’s the most versatile method of striking and, even better, it can be mastered relatively easily.
The Knifehand Strike: Tough
Despite the delicate bone structure of the appendage, the edge and heel of the hand are the only two places that can naturally take a lot of punishment while suffering a minimal amount of damage. That’s in stark contrast to the punch, which may appear formidable in the ring but, when delivered without the protection of hand wraps and gloves, frequently leads to shattered knuckles or dislocated fingers if a skull or elbow is hit.
To be effective with a punch, you must condition your hands — which can take months or even years. To be effective with the karate chop, however, you need only invest in a few weeks of training, after which you’ll be able to hit any target on your opponent’s body and inflict maximum damage with little or no injury to yourself.
The Knifehand Strike: Versatile
The blow can be used from any angle or position. On your feet, it enables you to protect the vital areas of your head and neck while you advance, keep your target off-balance and deliver a barrage of strikes. From a rear-body grab or bear-hug position, the technique can be delivered as an elbow at extreme close range. As you create space using it in conjunction with head butts and stomps, you can inflict more damage with the edge of the hand.
On the ground, it’s also useful. From a dominant position — for example, the mount or guard — the edge of the hand is incredibly effective. If you try to punch a constantly moving target, you stand a good chance of shattering your knuckles on the ground if you miss. You also run the risk of breaking bones in your hand if you hit an elbow or head.
Because the karate chop is delivered along an arcing path, it minimizes the chance of making contact with the ground. That empowers you to deliver a series of hard, fast strikes without the risk of sustaining an injury that might render you incapable of continuing.
The Knifehand Strike: Effective
Experts agree that when it comes to survival, you need to cause as much damage to your target as rapidly as possible while maintaining the integrity of your bone structure. The karate chop is the keystone of this concept. It enables you to strike anywhere with a sharp, powerful blow, the results of which can range from a stunning strike to a fight-ender.
With a little training, an average person can develop good technique; that same amount of training will enable a martial artist to create an awesome strike that works in a variety of situations. With the rise of reality-based fighting, the karate chop is making a comeback as more and more people are recognizing their need for no-nonsense self-defense techniques.
It proved itself on the streets of Shanghai in 1910, and it’s every bit as effective in the deserts of Iraq — or the small towns of America — today.
Story by Damian Ross