The way of the knife is not just about creating or designing a particular knife for a specific or general purpose. It involves the spirit of the blade, the dynamics of personal conflict, the techniques of defense, the physics of metallurgy and the medical study of human anatomy. The art of knife fighting is combined with the craft of knife making to form a pathway in life.
From the beginnings of martial warfare, edged weapons have been in the forefront, forged from combat. Throughout the ages, knives, daggers, machetes, swords, axes, spikes and spears have evolved into thousands of variants worldwide, fashioned by culture and personal inspiration.
These tools and weapons evolve through the efforts of those masters keen on improving performance and durability, mixed with the current available technologies and the knowledge, skills and imagination of the artists. Michael Janich is one of those artists—one of those “Masters of the Blade.”
How does one acquire the superior craftsmanship and artistic skill needed to create such works of technical precision? For Janich the journey began as a teen, when a simple need for defensive skills sent him to the YMCA for boxing lessons. The thirst acquired during martial training soon led him to a studio that taught a system known as American Self-Protection (ASP).
ASP was developed by Evan Baltazzi, who drew the best defensive and offensive skills from a variety of martial arts, including Karate, Tae Kwon Do, Judo, Aikido, Savate, Jujitsu, Wrestling and military combatives. Practical applications of these techniques are learned during sessions of full contact realistic sparring. It was during training that fate pointed Janich towards the path of the blade. Because his previous training failed to help him defend himself against aggressive, committed knife attacks, he set out to find a realistic way to defend himself against knife attacks.
Many of the standard techniques he had learned seemed either too complicated or not fast enough to counter a knife. Putting it bluntly, the basic ASP knife defenses did not work. Then an instructor told him that to learn how to defend against a weapon, he must first learn how to use that weapon.
This led Janich to a lifelong study of knife tactics in which he incorporated physical training, using wooden tantos as a training weapon and wearing kendo style bogu body armor. By the end of high school, just prior to enlisting in the U.S. Army, Janich was already an expert in knife combatives compared to the average soldier.
Janich then served nine years in a distinguished military career, which took him to posts in Maryland, California and Hawaii. He learned Asian languages and earned an assignment to the National Security Agency (NSA). This allowed Janich the opportunity to study other martial arts systems, and this thirst for martial knowledge led him to a proficiency in Aikido (Japanese self-defense), Muay Thai (Thai kickboxing) and Wing Chun (Chinese Kung Fu).
While stationed in Hawaii, he was introduced to the Filipino martial arts systems, which ultimately became the focus of his training and served as the basis of his knife defense system—as the basic techniques for empty-hand, stick and knife are relatively the same.
Toward the end of his military tour, he was assigned to temporary duty for the Joint Casualty Resolution Center (JCRC) in search of the fate of our Vietnam MIA/POWs. He was relocated to the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok, Thailand as an intelligence officer, debriefer and interpreter. His duties demanded extensive travel throughout the Far East, including Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and Vietnam. Taking advantage of the locations, he researched the martial knowledge of the areas.
Later, after completing military service, Janich continued the MIA/POW mission, working for the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) as an intelligence officer in Hong Kong and the Philippines. While in the Philippines, Janich was able to add authentic Filipino blades to his significant knife collection.
Around 1991, Janich progressed to the position of team leader for the POW/MIA mission, now called the Joint Task Force-Full Accounting, or JTF-FA. He was assigned to the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok where he met James Webb, an Army Warrant Officer and veteran of the 1st Special Forces Group out of Ft. Lewis, WA. A ready-made training partner, Webb had just produced a video from Panther Productions on combative skills for the military.
After a few training sessions, Webb was so impressed with Janich’s knife skills system that he pitched it to Panther Productions and they co-produced a series of instructional videos on knife tactics. That experience was also Janich’s introduction to the video industry, which would serve him well later in his career. Training with Webb also opened the door to membership in the International Close-Combat Instructors Association (ICCIA), an elite group of military instructors.
While still in Indochina, Janich took a stab at a new profession—writing. In a short span, he authored “Knife Fighting: A Practical Course.” In addition, he began writing articles for both Inside Kung-Fu and the former Fighting Knives magazines. An opportunity afforded a transfer back to the JTF-FA headquarters in Hawaii, where his search for knowledge of the Filipino martial arts led him to instructor John Lau, and he continued delving into the movements, tactics, dynamics and practice of eskrima (stick-fighting) and open-hand techniques.
This led to the opportunity of a lifetime—working for Paladin Press. Having been a Paladin customer for more than 20 years and already a seasoned author, he moved to Colorado and established Paladin’s video production department. During the next 10 years, he took Paladin’s video production from a fledgling effort to state- of-the-art in instructional personal defense videos.
Along the way, he also recruited and worked with some of the best instructors in the business, including James Keating, Joseph Simonet, Kelly McCann and the late Colonel Rex Applegate of Office of Strategic Services fame. Applegate not only served as the bodyguard for President Roosevelt while at Camp David, but was also the official close combat trainer for the O.S.S. during WWII.
Janich had the distinct pleasure of not only meeting this historical figure, but also of becoming close friends with Applegate during his last years while working on several video projects. Applegate personally instructed Janich in his point shooting techniques, and they ultimately co-authored a book on the topic called “Bullseyes Don’t Shoot Back.”
While working for Paladin, Janich also continued his writing career, accepting a position as an editor for Tactical Knives publication and contributing his expertise and works of interest for the last 15 years. In 1997, the Masters of Defense (MOD) knife company selected five nationally recognized edged weapon experts to design personal defense knives. In addition to Janich, the other designers included James Keating, Massad Ayoob, noted female martial artist Graciela Casillas-Boggs and legendary U.S. Navy SEAL James “Patches” Watson.
Even the shooting industry sat up and took notice when the prominent firearms academy Gunsite requested Janich and others to teach at an edged weapons symposium in 1998. The seminars and videos produced by Janich paid off in 2000 when the knife company Spyderco offered Janich the chance to design knives and teach his system under its banner.
After 9-11 he was approached by Homeland Security as one of 12 subject matter experts recruited for the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to teach simplified personal defense tactics to airline crews. Janich specifically developed a course called “Counter-Blade Concepts,” which focused on defenses against edged weapons attacks.
Throughout the years, Janich has refined his instruction in knife tactics, modifying the concepts and sharing them via instructional videos. He also teaches frequent seminars in his systems, known as “Martial Blade Concepts” (MBC) and “Counter-Blade Concepts” (CBC).
In 2003, Masters of Defense, founded by Jim Ray, merged with BlackHawk, the premier tactical equipment company, to form BlackHawk Blades. Janich was on the original MOD design team that developed a series of state-of-the-art tactical knives, and Janich assumed the role of BlackHawk’s category manager for knives after Jim Ray’s retirement. Most of the knives introduced by BlackHawk in the recent past have been Michael Janich designs, including lower cost versions of the awesome MOD CQD Mark I.
BlackHawk recently did some restructuring and staff reductions. Janich, the survivor, used the opportunity to purchase the patent rights to his Jani-Song design and joined Spyderco of Golden, CO as their special projects coordinator. In addition to contributing his creative insights to Spyderco’s innovative designs, he will take an active role in representing Spyderco’s products to the law enforcement and military communities. He will also continue to teach, write and produce videos with their enthusiastic support.
As for the future of knife making, Janich says as steels and other materials continue to evolve and knife designers continue to innovate, knives will also continue to evolve in all directions. In some cases, that evolution will be artistic, or technology for technology’s sake. However, he also says knife designers will continue to perfect the simplicity of knife design. When you apply the strongest, highest performance materials to proven, ergonomic designs, you start getting closer to the “perfect” knife.
He also has some advice for future knife artists. Read and watch everything you possibly can on the topic and test it yourself. There is no substitute for hands-on experience and training. Many people pontificate about knife design without ever picking up a blade and cutting things. Don’t fall into that trap. Get off the couch and train.
Officer William Harry Challans retired in 2008 from the Denver Police Department. His career in law enforcement spans 34 years, most of which involved street patrol in downtown Denver, with experience in Swat, Investigations, Airport Police, and the Bomb Squad. He can be reached at email@example.com.