Exclusive Web Extra: Sticking Your Neck Out

Choosing And Using
Neck Knives

By Michael Janich

Published In The American Handgunner Tactical
2012 Special Edition

If you are serious about carrying a knife for personal defense, you need to consider a number of different factors. While it would be nice to guarantee you’ll have the biggest, baddest fighting knife possible at your fingertips when trouble starts, both legalities and practicalities can easily spoil that plan.

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The Perrin Neck Bowie has excellent edge geometry,
allowing it to cut and thrust effectively. This is the
most versatile and capable style of neck knife.

In simple terms, the process of choosing a personal-defense knife starts with looking at the way you dress, by both choice and by requirement. How you choose to dress will determine the typical styles of clothing you wear and the consistency of things like pocket location, wear of belts, belt-loop location, etc. All these things affect how readily and consistently you can carry weapons in a particular way.

Dress requirements include practicalities imposed by the weather and limitations based on the “image” you’re required to maintain. Concealing a sizeable knife is easy when you can wear a jacket all the time; but in hot weather with high humidity, that’s not practical. Similarly, if you work in a suit-and-tie environment that frowns on the idea of seeing a tactical folder clipped in your pocket, you need to look for other options.

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Neck knives come in all shapes and sizes — some much better than others.
These mid-tech neck knives from renowned French knifemaker Fred Perrin
are among Janich’s favorites, offering true cutting performance and good
handle ergonomics.

The Neck Knife Option

One unique style of knife that has become popular in recent years is the neck knife. While the practice of carrying a knife on a cord around the neck is nothing new (many cultures have historically carried knives handle-up in neck sheaths), the idea of a purpose-designed defensive knife with a sheath that allows inverted, handle-down carry didn’t come into vogue until the 1980s.

The greatest advantage of neck carry is that it remains completely consistent regardless the styles of clothing you wear. Whether you’re in a suit and tie or shorts and flip-flops, as long as your head is still attached, neck carry works. With that said, neck knives are not perfect. To get the most out of them — and to avoid overestimating their defensive potential — there are a number of things you need to consider.


The first thing you need to consider before you hang a knife around your neck is the legality of doing so in your area and wherever you may travel. Neck knives are fixed blades and may be prohibited in some areas. If you have a particular style of knife in mind — especially one with a double edge — you really need to do your homework with regard to blade style, blade length and the number of cutting edges allowed.

Another legal aspect of neck knives has to do with concealment, the permissibility of concealed weapons and how “concealed” is defined. Knife laws are notoriously imprecise and confusing, so if in doubt, consult an attorney with case-law experience regarding weapons. At the very least, if you are ever challenged by a police officer on your carry of a neck knife, be prepared to explain your choice calmly and respectfully and, if necessary, voluntarily surrender your knife. Giving up your knife with a good attitude is invariably less expensive than going to jail.

knife 8

Some neck knives, like Brent Beshara’s XSF Micro,
are thrust-only weapons. To make the most of this
style of knife, grip it bracing the butt of the handle
against your palm and extend your index finger along
the blade. Instinctive poking with your finger is
transformed into puncturing with the blade

Neck Knife Selection

Assuming you live in an area that allows the legal carry of virtually any type of neck knife, how do you choose the right one? This is where training and your preferred tactics should come into play — provided you actually have some.

People wear a lot of things around their necks for good luck or to ward off evil spirits. A neck knife should not be considered in that category. If you don’t have the skill to draw and do something worthwhile with it to defend yourself, you might as well hang a rabbit’s foot around your neck instead.

Regardless of the style of blade you might choose, most neck knives fall into one of two categories: they either cut well or they don’t. In my opinion, the ones that have broader blades, wide bevels and good edge geometry are much more versatile than narrower, “stabbier” designs. Because these knives can actually cut, they can be used to target the parts of your attacker’s body that allow him to be dangerous to you. A sharp, 2″ blade is fully capable of severing the flexor tendons of the forearm, the muscles of the upper arm and even the quadriceps muscle just above the knee to destroy your attacker’s physical mobility and increase your chances of escaping safely. If you regard your neck knife as a utility tool and a weapon, one that cuts well is obviously more useful than one that doesn’t.

In addition to the blade size and configuration, you also want to consider the shape, texture and thickness of the handle. Ideally, you want something that will conceal well even under a light shirt, yet provide enough grip area and traction so you can use the knife with power. In many cases, neck knives sacrifice grip comfort for concealment, leaving precious little real estate to hang onto.

In choosing a handle style for your neck knife, your preferred tactics and training should, again, weigh heavily on your decision. If, like me, you practice a cut-focused skill set, the handle will need to be long enough providing leverage to apply pressure into a cut. A “ramp” on the back of the blade will allow you to extend your thumb and apply pressure, making the knife a natural extension of your hand and providing greater control. Although some neck knives have textured scales of G10 and other materials, many are solid or skeletonized steel to reduce thickness and weight. For these knives, textured grooves on the edges of the tang/handle (known as “jimping” in knife talk) help provide better control during hard impact. Finger grooves or choils are even better, offering a more solid stop to keep your hand from sliding onto the blade.

One unique approach to providing an ultra-secure handle on a small knife is to cut a large hole in the blade just behind the cutting edge. Pioneered and popularized by French custom knifemaker and tactical trainer Fred Perrin, this index-finger hole anchors the knife firmly to the hand, prevents it from sliding forward, and even allows you to grasp things without having to drop the knife. Perrin’s hole allows even small knives to function as viable weapons, which is why I like his neck knives so much.

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Parachute or 550 cord is often used for neck knife cords. The disadvantage
of this material is that it can provide an attacker with a ready-made garrote.
Breakaway ball chain — like a dog tag chain — is therefore a much better choice.

knife 9

Perrin pioneered the use of an index finger hole in small fixed-blade knives.
This hole locks the knife into the hand and allows the thumb to brace the back
of the blade. Gripped in this way, even his diminutive Shark model can cut with authority.

Sheath Considerations

A good neck knife is ineffective unless it is paired with a proper sheath. Since the knife is designed to carry upside-down, good retention is critical. Until you’ve had a sharp knife bouncing around freely inside your shirt, you won’t fully appreciate this, but take my word for it.

Proper neck knife sheaths should be flat, as slim as possible, offer excellent retention of the knife without making it difficult to draw, and present enough of the knife’s handle to ensure it can be drawn easily. They, along with the knives they carry, should also be light enough that the resulting package is not uncomfortable or inconvenient to carry.

The most widely used sheath material for neck knives is Kydex or similar variants like Concealex and Boltaron. Since it is heat-moldable, it can be shaped to provide snap-fit retention of a knife, holding it securely in place while allowing it to be drawn with a reasonable tug. Kydex is also lightweight, impervious to water and sweat and available in a wide range of colors. Although many folks are stuck on tactical black, for a sheath designed to conceal next to the skin and possibly under a light-colored shirt, you might consider tan or other colors closer to your skin tone.

My standard test for neck knife retention is to hook the chain or lanyard around my thumb while holding the sheathed knife in my fingers. From shoulder height, I toss the knife down and allow it to snap at the end of the chain. I don’t do this hard, but try to replicate the force that would be created if I jumped a fence or jumped off something. I repeat this three times without re-seating the knife. If it doesn’t stay in the sheath, the sheath needs tuning or, if I like the knife, it needs a custom sheath that works properly.

For hanging the knife, I prefer ball chain (the same type of chain used on military dog tags) over cord — especially parachute cord. Military parachute cord, or “550” cord, is so named because it has a break strength of 550 pounds. That’s more than twice my body weight, so I don’t really want that pre-positioned around my neck — it’s a garrote waiting to happen. Ball chains are designed to break at a specific tension. A 20-pound-break strength will allow you draw your knife reliably, while eliminating the threat of being choked with the chain.

One often-overlooked aspect of sheath design is the positioning of the hanging holes in the tip of the sheath. If the sheath is too narrow, it can easily spin. For double-edged knives, this isn’t a concern, but if your knife is single edged, it may result in a poor draw with the edge facing the wrong way. Widely spaced holes allow the sheath to lay flat, preventing spinning and aiding concealment.

knife 16

One of the greatest advantages of neck
knives is they work with all styles of
dress, including casual clothing that
doesn’t support other carry methods.

Carry And Draw

The exact positioning of your neck knife will depend on your height and physique and the knife/sheath combo you choose. Ideally, it will ride in front of the sternum with the end of the handle just above the solar plexus. If it rides too low, the end of the handle will tend to print through your shirt, especially if you’re “well fed.”

My general rule of thumb is to never have more than one layer of clothing between my hand and my neck knife. If I’m carrying under a shirt and put on a jacket, I don’t zip the jacket, or I move the knife out one layer if I do. That way I don’t have to dig under multiple layers to find it when I need it.

Drawing a neck knife involves reaching under your shirt or jacket, securing a positive grip on the exposed handle and drawing straight down while keeping the knife away from your torso. Since you’ll probably be doing this in response to a close-quarters threat, I also like to simultaneously guard my head and neck with my free hand.
Since drawing from under a tucked shirt is the most challenging, let’s see how all these pieces come together. First, grip your shirt with your non-weapon hand just above your belt. Pull your shirt straight up out of your pants and reach under it with the other hand to establish a solid grip on the knife’s handle. Once you’ve gripped the handle, move your free hand up and stick it to your forehead just above your eyebrow. This creates a solid shield protecting your head and neck. Pull the knife straight down, keeping it away from your body so you don’t cut yourself as it clears the sheath.

Neck Knife Tactics

Once your knife is out, you should apply the tactics and techniques of your knife-fighting skill set, adapting them to the limitations of your weapon. You should also objectively consider the capabilities of your neck knife and whether it’s a true fight stopper. Many small, thrust-oriented neck knives are useful defensive tools, but only if backed with fight-stopping, empty-hand skills. For these knives, I recommend gripping them with the handle butt braced against your palm and index finger extended along the blade. In this grip, poking with your index finger translates directly into powerful, accurate thrusts with the blade. Attack the eyes to compromise your attacker’s vision and get his attention up higher. This way he’ll never see the low-line kicks that break his knees.

Like any other weapon, effective use of a neck knife is a combination of proper tools and proper training — make sure you have both.

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Janich’s recommended technique of drawing the neck knife begins by
“lifting the shirt with the non-weapon hand — here the left.

knife 4

knife 5

As soon as the right hand can reach under the shirt, the left hand moves
up to anchor, just above the left eye, to create a guard.

knife 6

The right hand grips the knife handle securely and pulls straight down
and away from the body to clear the sheath and shirt and assume a fighting posture.

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KIMBER’S REMARKABLE NEW SOLO: Reinventing The Pocket Pistol
FIRE AND STEEL: The Birth Of A Colt 1911
GUNFIGHTERS LOGIC: Wisdom For Modern Day Pistoleros
STICKING OUR NECK OUT: Choosing And Using Neck Knive
RUGER SR 1911 .45 ACP: The Old School Warhorse Done Right
REVOLVERS: Still Relevant Today
Modern-Day Defensive Stoppers
DAN WESSON CCO: Shoots As Good As It Carries
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