The Hissatsu

by Brian Puckett

Many knives are designed as multi-purpose cutting implements. The Hissatsu is not such a knife. Designed by James Williams of Bugei Trading Co., the Hissatsu has one specific purpose: to serve as a backup weapon for close quarters combat. Williams has over 40 years experience in classical military and martial arts training and has worked as an instructor with numerous military, paramilitary and police organizations, both domestic and foreign. Currently he is head instructor for edged weapons and close quarter battle (CQB) at the Sure-Fire Institute in Fountain Valley, Calif.

Why an article about a knife in a handgun magazine? Because the Hissatsu is designed for use in conjunction with a handgun. Stated more precisely, it is intended to be the pistol¹s complementary weapon. Hissatsu means "final blow" or "coup de grace" in Japanese.

The Hissatsu should be used in preference to a pistol in specific combat situations where experience has shown the pistol to have distinct and potentially fatal drawbacks to the user. This is in contrast to carrying a knife as a last-ditch or tertiary weapon. Thus the Hissatsu is not only unusual in design, but also its intended purpose marks a new dimension in CQB tactics.

First, the knife itself. In developing a knife to meet his needs, Williams has returned to an old Japanese design. "America isn¹t really a blade culture," he notes. "We don¹t have the long history of knife and sword usage that the Japanese have. They¹ve had hundreds of years of combat testing of blades. So instead of studying American knives for ideas or reinventing the wheel, I thought, why not look into what the Japanese developed, what worked for them? And I found this specific tanto design known as the osoraku."

It is perhaps appropriate to acknowledge that contemporary Western societies feel a certain revulsion toward knives in combat. For us, there is something ghastly and terrible about stabbing and slicing another human, But in truth it is no more horrible than violently crushing, tearing and displacing the organs of another human by means of a metal pellet travelling at supersonic velocities. Nonetheless, the revulsion remains, so if you¹re squeamish on the subject, stop reading.

The blade is made from Japanese ATS-34 stainless hardened to about 58 Rockwell. Long and thin, it is meant to penetrate and withdraw with minimal effort. It is slightly tapered for the same reason. The blade is unusually thick (.25") for two reasons: to produce the most traumatic wound possible for the blade size, and to eliminate the chance of bending or breaking under the severe usage that Williams¹ techniques encompass.

The odd upward "bend" in the blade produces an artificial belly to the knife that, on soft tissue, produces the same cutting effect of a true, continuously curved belly. However, on hard or fibrous tissues such as bone or ligament, the angular transition is intended to interrupt the wedging effect that results when a continuously curved blade slices its way inward. Having an enemy disarm you by pulling your knife away with his ribs or skull is undesirable.

The blade is about 7.5" in length, just long enough to reach and damage vital organs housed in the chest cavity and to reach the brain when thrust upward between the mandibles. "Ideally it could be a little longer," Williams notes, "But then you start to compromise the knife¹s handling and deployment qualities. This length is satisfactory for the majority of attacks."

The blade is not hollow ground. While hollow grinding does produce a sharper blade, the sharpness comes at the price of blade strength and edge durability. The V-grind is not only plenty sharp for the intended purpose, but also it actually increases gross tissue displacement/ A surgically clean incision that self-seals is not the goal in combat.

The Hissatsu¹s grip is black polymer with a molded-in deep pebble grain surface. One side of the grip has a small but easily felt protrusion the enables the user to orient the blade without touching it. The oval cross-section grip, 4" long, is slightly narrowed in the middle and flared at the front in order to mitigate slippage in a stabbing stroke.

One of its more conspicuous traits, especially for a fighting knife, is the absence of a guard. There are four reasons for this. Williams says, "Many knife fighting styles are actually a form of fencing and a guard is appropriate there. But the Hissatsu isn¹t meant for fencing, nor do most of the techniques used with it have anything to do with fencing, so for starters a guard would be superfluous."

"This is strictly a tool meant for close-in, body-contact distances. If you end up fencing, in my view you¹ve failed to do your job right, because you¹ve left open the outcome of the fight to chance and reflexes."

More critically, a guard would interfere with gripping the knife in the prescribed manner and would interfere with the slashing techniques for which it is intended. A guard of any useful size might also hang up on clothing- either that of the user or that of the target.

The Hissatsu¹s sheath is made of black polymer, just large enough to accomplish its intended task. It is extremely robust in construction with a three-position belt retainer, reversible to either side of the sheath for left- or right handers. A small diamond surfaced sharpener is provided, which fits into the unused retainer track.

 

Specialized Weapon

As for the application of this knife, Williams acknowledges that it is a specialized weapon meant for a specific purpose and that constant training is necessary to reach maximum effectiveness in its use, including practicing knife manipulation for 10 or 15 minutes daily. However, the combat tactics behind the knife¹s creation and its design parameters require no special knowledge to understand.

For example, experiments have shown that, starting from several yards away, a man can often reach and lay his hands on another man carrying a holstered pistol before the latter can unholster and aim at his opponent. This is especially true when the pistol is held in the holster with a retaining device. In a situation where a rifle has just run out of ammunition or has just malfunctioned, the rifle man must recognize this fact before he even thinks about transitioning to the pistol, thus increasing an attacker¹s chances of closing the intervene distance before the pistol can be utilized.

In such a case, drawing and using a properly sheathed and positioned knife can be much faster and less error-prone due to the grossness of the motor actions required- grab, draw, strike.

If one¹s primary weapon has been seized by an opponent or if one is grappling with an opponent, a properly positioned knife may often be drawn and used faster and more effectively than a pistol and with less danger of self-inflicted wounds.

Yet another example in which a knife is preferable to a pistol is in a situation where one is part of a team facing multiple opponents in tight quarters. Should your primary weapon malfunction or, more likely, run out of ammunition, taking out a close-in opponent with a knife eliminates the danger of shooting a teammate who might cross into your line of fire. Additionally, if your teammates note that you are using a knife to remove an opponent, they will feel safe moving ahead to press the attack without fear of being hit by an errant bullet.

A last example. In the split-second dynamics of CQB, physically moving an opponent out of your team members¹ path or line of fire can be crucial. Here is where the proper knife can do what a pistol cannot. An opponent shot with a pistol either drops, staggers in a random direction or continues to attack depending on his wound. However, a knife lodged in an opponent can be used as a lever to move him. It is for this reason that the Hissatsu¹s blade is unusually thick and rigid.

 

Critical Evaluation

Now a small criticism. While I make no claim to being an expert knife fighter, I have decades of experience in the outdoors, engaging in rock climbing, mountaineering, kayaking, backpacking, hunting and other pursuits. I¹ve seen innumerable examples of equipment failure and I¹m well aware of the unexpected and frequently extreme forces applied to gear via wind, water, ice, falling, striking and catching on protrusions. Therefore, I feel at least minimally qualified to make the following observations.

The blade retaining mechanism, in my judgement, is not capable of applying the necessary force to securely hold the knife in the sheath under rough use, and tests indicate it is subject to prematurely wearing out in normal use.

The second cause for concern is the polymer tab that locks the belt retainer to the sheath proper, and which is ultimately the only thing holding the sheath and knife to the belt. I feel this tab is simply too small to be relied upon alone for such a critical task.

I spoke to Williams about these two criticisms. His long experience with edged weapons makes him comfortable with a lower level of blade retention than would be found in a field knife sheath, and in act he attempted to duplicate the level of retention found in the older Japanese sheaths. He feels that for the purpose this knife was intended, there is a low likelihood of losing the blade, but he also indicated that he would look into strengthening the retaining device.

As for the belt retainer, he states that in actual usage the sheath attachment would most likely be augmented with so-called "rigger¹s tape" or "100 mph tape," a military variant of duct tape, and that his company is offering Velcro inserts as an alternative to the belt retainer, which would provide a more secure attachment of the sheath to clothing or tactical vests. In any case, he is looking into offering alternative sheath designs to provide equipment that satisfies individual preferences and requirements.

For this article I performed some simple tests, comparing the Hissatsu with a very popular knife by Cold Steel, the Recon Tanto. By the way, I own several Cold Steel knives, and not only do I like them and use them, but also I think they¹re the finest mass-production knives available and certainly the best value around. The tests performed were unscientific and meant strictly to test the design of the Hisssatsu in comparison to a more conventional so-called "tanto" blade design.

The first test consisted of slashing with one hard stroke into the end of a pine 2x6. Both sliced in about the same amount. Neither knife wedged itself into the wood grain. Neither blade¹s sharpness was detectably affected after numerous slashes.

However, the "stroke interruption" of the Hissatsu was quite obvious. As soon as the forward curved part of the blade transitioned to the to the straight rear part, the blade would "bump" and lift itself right out of the cut, validating Williams¹ theory in practice.

The second test consisted of stabbing the knives into a fresh sheep skull. Such skulls have penetrable muscle, cartilage and bone in areas along with extremely hard bone sections that neither knife penetrated more then 3/8". What I learned was not altogether surprising: for a given effort, the Hissatsu penetrated farther. I would expect the same results, for example, on Kevlar.

However, the Hissatsu, with its deeper penetration was often harder to withdraw. Of course this makes sense, and in the end I¹d rather have the penetration and worry about withdrawal later. Incidentally, neither knife showed any tip damage at all after numerous strokes into the rock-hard section of the skull.

Again, the motivation for development of the Hissatsu was the knowledge that in certain circumstances, a knife can be much quicker to deploy and use than a pistol. Additionally, a knife can be as effective as a pistol when utilized as a backup or secondary weapon, depending upon wound location for either weapon.

Without actually using the Hissatsu in combat, which I¹m disinclined to attempt for even the best-paid article, I can say the knife appears capable of mechanically performing as intended. Beyond that, it is worth noting the Hissatsu is currently being used by members of elite U.S. special operations groups and that back-channel reports indicate satisfaction with its performance in actual combat.

It is well worthwhile to make note of something Williams said during the course of our conversations regarding the Hissatsu and CQB. "When you get down to it, no matter if this is the best knife in the world for this purpose, it¹s still just a tool and it can¹t think. It can¹t solve any problems. The only real weapon is your mind. You have got to learn how to use your mind in these situations, and then you¹ve got to train."