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Low-Impact Test Cutting

How to have all the fun of test cutting
Without beating-up your good knives!
(First Published in Knifeforums Magazine)

The well know Japanese swordsman Toshiro Obata once said that practicing swordsmanship without doing any test cutting was like practicing marksmanship without using any bullets. By this he meant that although it might look good, it wasn't real, since the practitioners didn't actually understand how to cut with a sword or have the correct body dynamics in their movements to do so. If you are not capable of actually cutting with a sword, why carry one?

In the knife world, however, very little is said about test cutting. It is not generally something students learn in classes. If they have been exposed to test cutting at all, it is usually limited to a clip on a video where some guy takes a whack or two at a side of beef and delivers the ubiquitous warning "that could have been your arm". It is thus presented more as a scare tactic than as any attempt to instruct a student in the art of proper cutting.

One notable exception to this is on the tapes put out by Lynn Thompson from Cold Steel. Anyone who has seen their free "Proof" video or Lynn's "Warrior's Edge" tapes can attest to the zeal with which the CS folks cut tubes, ropes, meat, and everything else to show what their knives can do. If you have not seen these folks in action yet, then I advise you to do so, even if just to put the fear of God into you about what a big knife can do in skilled hands!

Another test cutting advocate is Dr. Michael Kaye, who demonstrates precise control and the mental outlook behind test cutting on volume two of Jim Keating's "Legacy of Steel" video set. The good doctor is very much a believer in the "low impact" methodology from his lecture, and he shows how to cut with efficiency and good form instead of brute force.

Cutting Through the Myths and Misconceptions

I have found that when the subject of test cutting comes up, there are three basic misconceptions people have about it. The first is that it is too dangerous to practice, the second is that it is too expensive or too hard to get the materials to cut, and the third is that it will destroy your knife, which you may have spent hundreds of dollars on. All three of these are misconceptions, as we shall discuss further here.

Now, before we go any further, let's set some ground rules. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that test cutting involves sharp blades moving at high speeds. There is no room for error or ignorance. So, be smart:

1) Obviously, don't be drinking, guys. When you take this lightly, you are asking to have an accident.

2) Don't test cut alone. In case of an accident you want someone there to help you out.

3) Keep a first aid kit handy.

4) Set up the cutting area correctly - place the cutting stand at 12:00, the blade table at 3:00, and all the participants at 6:00, well behind the action.

5) Only one person ever has a live blade in hand at a time. That is the person doing the cut.

And last, but by no means least…

6) Keep your body out of the path of the blade at all times!

The concept of range safety should be nothing new to all you shooters out there. It is simply a formalized way you act when on the range to insure greater safety for all. It is a series of these small things, like "muzzles face downrange" and "finger off the trigger until sights are on the target" which allow big groups of shooters to get together every weekend across the country without any problems.
It should be no surprise that for test cutting we have a rage safety procedure also, which is as follows:
1) Walk into cutting area and place your target on the cutting stand

2) Select a knife from the blade table and return to the cutting stand

3) Check 360, check yourself, focus, do your cut

4) Return your knife to the blade table (and dry it off if need be)

5) Retrieve your target for inspection and head out of the cutting area towards 9:00.

6) Only when the previous person has left the cutting area does the next person start to enter.

Though this may seem like a very simplified, or highly ritualized way to test cut, the safety procedure above is in fact just a simple way to make all the circumstances around the actual cut safer for all the people involved. Accidents happen and people get hurt when someone decides to step outside proscribed safety standards, so don't let people start to screw around. Cutting is fun and highly social and so you want to enjoy it responsibly, just like alcohol. Remember, though, that booze might give you a hang-over but a bowie knife will give you a hand…hanging-off!

Low Impact Cutting Medium

There are a number of popular cutting tests done with knives. Some are simply tests of edge-retention, such as seeing how many times a knife can cut a rope before becoming dull. Though this is a valid test, it not dynamic in nature or directly related to combat, as are the tests we will be discussing. Obviously, destructive cutting tests (like trying to cut through a brick) will not be discussed here either, as they violate the principles of "low impact" test cutting.

Perhaps the most well known dynamic test is simply cutting a piece of free-hanging rope. If you have ever been exposed to any videos from Cold Steel, you will have seen this method extensively. This is an excellent test, perhaps the only drawback of which is the cost of the rope involved and what to do with all the 2'-3' sections of severed rope afterwards.

Rolled newspaper tubes (or cardboard tubes) are another popular test medium, and Dr. Michael Kaye demonstrates this quite clearly on the Legacy of Steel video series mentioned earlier. He shows how to roll and cut newspaper tubes, which are cheap, recyclable, and non-damaging to your blades. The only drawback here (if any) is that horizontal cuts are slightly more difficult than diagonal cuts, due to the nature of the tube, which will more likely bend from a straight horizontal cut than be severed.

For versatility and cost-effectiveness, one of my favorite test cutting targets is simply a water filled plastic bottle. Relatively smooth sided pop-bottles, half-liter, full liter, 2-liter bottles, and so on all will work for this. Soda and water bottles tend to be easier to cut than some of the very heavily textured sports-drink bottles. Try cutting different size and shape bottles and you will really feel the difference!

Even a 2-liter bottle is no match for the Cold Steel X2 Voyager

For some of the smaller folding knives, a half-liter size bottle is about all you can hope to cut in half with one swipe, but with a larger knife you can cut right through a 2-liter bottle, no problem. The 2 liter bottle in the photos was effortlessly cut in half with the X2 Voyager.

As a variation, one can hang the bottles from a cord rather than cutting them on a stand. This gives a different feel to the cut, and is not that much slower to set up. Use a slip-knot at the end of your cord to expedite changing bottles, and choose ones with a decent lip at the top for best results. You must be fast with this cut or you will simply push the bottle away.

When you're done with your test cutting, just chuck all the bottles in the recycling…they are going to cut 'em all up at the recycling plant anyhow. Now you've learned something, had fun, and you've helped the planet, too! Don't you feel good?

When we do test cutting, new students are required to keep their free arm behind their back, in a classical position, and simply practice cutting with angle #1 (diagonal downward forehand slash) until it is smooth and comfortable for them. The idea here is for the student to perfect their form in each cut. You get only one chance per bottle, so you must do things correctly! The old-school Karate stylists have an expression "One encounter, one chance" and this is very true with test cutting.

One indicator of good form is the line that you see on the bottle from the cut. Is it a clean, straight line? Or is it curved? A clean line means you slashed evenly, with your knife and wrist at the proper angle, but a curve shows that you angled your blade somehow while doing the cut. Does the plastic appear bent in, or is it cleanly cut? Again, this reflects on your form. You want to do this as perfectly and effortlessly as possible.

If you find that you are just knocking the bottle off of the stand and not cutting through it, then it is likely that you are hitting the bottle and not cutting it. Many people who have trained with sticks in place of swords have this habit, and though the mechanics can be similar between the stick and blade, they are not the same. You don't want to just impact the bottle with the blade, you want to draw the blade through the target. If you do this well, the lower half of the bottle will not move at all…you will simply cut the top off and leave the bottom standing there!

When you can do this consistently, you will know you are on the right track!

Some people do this same test cut with water-filled aluminum beer or soda cans. This is certainly valid, and again a cheap medium, though it is clearly rougher on your blades than the plastic bottles. Still, it is a very impressive cut! I have also seen this done with an empty aluminum can, which requires even greater precision and speed, the target being so light that it will fly away if struck in an imprecise manner.

As you can see, with low impact test cutting you are not trying to cut anything that will damage your knife. If you feel, however, that the knife you have is not sturdy enough to cut a newspaper-tube or a half-liter plastic bottle, then perhaps it is time to rethink your choice of bladeware! Cheap flea-market grade knives should never be used in test cutting because they do have a risk of breaking, but any decent tactical folder or fixed blade by a reputable company (Cold Steel, Columbia River, Ontario, Spyderco, etc.) will have no problem in this department.

No matter what medium you chose to test cut, always make sure to follow the safety guidelines and your own common sense. Like shooting, driving, riding, diving, women, and the other dangerous things we enjoy, test cutting can be a fun, rewarding, and safe experience when approached intelligently.

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