How to Throw a Knife Like Bill the Butcher

by Brett & Kate McKay on October 20, 2011 · 40 comments

in Manly Skills, Tactical Skills

One of my favorite movies is Gangs of New York. The antagonist of the film, William “Bill the Butcher” Cutting (played by the always intense Daniel Day-Lewis) remains one of the most memorable characters of recent cinematic history. Bill the Butcher was a bad, bad dude, but the man had mad skills when it came to throwing knives, which came in handy for entertaining crowds, hewing down would-be assassins, and fighting on the mean streets of NYCs Five Points.

During the Civil War, Confederate soldiers threw knives in battle and for entertainment at camp.

Like the tomahawk, throwing a knife in combat has a significant downside–even when you’ve successfully stuck it in an enemy’s back, you’ve still lost your weapon. Which is why knife throwing has always been more popular as entertainment, sport, and simply as a method for whiling away time. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the “impalement arts”–in which a thrower hurls his knives breathtakingly close to a human target in order to demonstrate his accuracy–were popular as vaudeville, circus, and sideshow acts. Today there are groups that take part in knife throwing as a sport, similar to archery competitions.

If you're going to get into the impalement arts, you'll need to convince a beautiful dame to be your assistant.

Knife throwing is also an essential skill for secret agents–it certainly came in handy for James Bond:

I always thought it would be pretty cool to throw a knife like a strange and menacing oldtime master of the impalement arts, so while I was at the Meadowlake Ranch, a working dude ranch in Sand Springs, Oklahoma, I had ranch owner Tom Warren give me a tutorial on it after he taught me how to throw a tomahawk. Knife throwing takes a little more skill and finesse than hurling a hatchet, but when you stick it, it’s even more satisfying.

Throwing Knife Types

There are three kinds of knives you can use for knife throwing: handle-heavy, blade-heavy, and balanced. According to Tom, most professional throwers use a balanced knife. If you’re just getting started with knife throwing, Tom suggests going with a blade or handle heavy knife. They have a much easier learning curve than a balanced knife. In this demonstration, Tom used a blade-heavy throwing knife.

Whether you go with a handle or blade heavy knife, remember this axiom: throw the weight and hold the opposite of that. So if you’re using a blade-heavy knife, you want the blade to be thrown first, so you’ll hold the knife by the handle. If it’s a handle-heavy knife, you want the handle to be thrown first, so you’ll hold the blade when you throw. Savvy? Savvy.

How to Hold a Throwing Knife

Tom suggests an unconventional hold and release when knife throwing.  A lot of people will hold the knife so that their thumb is on the side of the knife and will release it so that the blade is vertical to the target.

Tom doesn’t like this knife hold for two reasons. First, he believes it puts your hand in an awkward position, thus preventing sufficient oomph in your throw to make the knife stick.  And second, when you hold and release the knife like this, your thumb can inadvertently cause it to wobble in the air, causing your knife to bounce off your target instead of sticking.

Here’s how Tom suggests holding the knife:

Place your index, middle, and ring fingers dead center on the handle (our knife is blade-heavy). Your little finger can just hang off the end.

Place your thumb directly on the center of the other side of the handle.

When you release the knife, you just open your hand. No interference with the knife.

Throwing the Knife

Find your throwing line. As with throwing a tomahawk, the key to successfully throwing a knife is the distance between you and the target. Measure off about five normal steps from the target and draw a line. That should give you enough distance so the knife makes a complete rotation in the air before sticking in the target.

Take a full step back. Once you’ve found your throwing line, take a full step back.

Take a 45 degree step back and to the left. Sort of like a field goal kicker. If you’re left-handed, take a 45 degree step back and to the right.

Throwing steps. You’ll notice that your throw line is now two steps in front of you. That’s what we want. This room for two steps will allow us to get as much power as we can behind our throw. As Tom says, “You want to step to your throw line.”

Stand so your weak-side shoulder faces the target. If you're right-handed, your left shoulder is facing the target; if you’re left-handed, your right shoulder faces the target. Take one step forward with your back foot.

Now step towards your throw line with your front foot. Tom says it's almost like you're winding up for a baseball pitch. Really stretch towards that line.

Throw the knife as hard as you can. In order to successfully throw a knife, you have to throw it hard. “You gotta throw it so hard that when the knife sticks, the tree’s ancestors feel it,” says Tom.

Keep your knife horizontal to the target throughout the throw. This ensures you get proper knife rotation when you release the knife.

Release the knife. When your throwing arm is fully extended towards the target, simply let go of the knife.

Just let go of the knife.

Follow through. Whether you’re throwing a baseball or a knife, always follow through.

Always follow through on your throw

Putting It All Together in a Video

Other Throwing Techniques

Professional Technique. Tom mentioned another technique people like to use–what he calls the “Professional Technique.” As you can gather from the name, it’s a technique professional throwers often use.

To perform the Professional Technique, first find your throwing distance. Typically, it’s about five steps from the target. Stand at your throwing line with your left foot back (if you throw right-handed; switch feet if you’re left-handed). Just take a step forward with your left foot and throw. That’s it.

Tom doesn’t like this technique. “It’s kind of a wimpy ass throw, if you want to know the truth,” says Tom.

Spear Style. The spear or arrow style throwing technique is used primarily in combat situations. You throw the knife much like you would a spear, so that there’s little or no rotation in the air. It’s a much more difficult throw than what Tom showed us above. The advantage of the spear style throw is that you don’t have to worry how far away you are from the target or gauge how many rotations you need to have before your knife hits your target. You just throw and hope it sticks.

______________________________

Special thanks to Tom for taking the time to show me how to throw both a knife and a tomahawk. If you’re ever in Oklahoma, I definitely recommend planning a weekend at Meadowlake Ranch. It’s pretty much a playground for men–tomahawk throwing, long bow shooting, horse riding, fishing, hunting. You name it, you can probably do it at Tom’s ranch.

Do you throw knives for fun? Got any other knife throwing tips? Share them with us in the comments!

{ 40 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Kyle Atkinson October 20, 2011 at 7:43 pm

That’s one bitchin’ throwing knife that guy has.

2 Jordan Howard October 20, 2011 at 8:54 pm

Bill the Butcher is indescribably manly. He inspired me to buy some little throwing knives, but my friend lost them by throwing them on an unmowed lawn. And thus ended my career as a knife thrower. Perhaps I’ll try again someday.

3 Jay October 20, 2011 at 9:01 pm

Wouldn’t Bill be the antagonist rather than the protagonist?

4 Oscar October 20, 2011 at 10:39 pm

I think Bill was an antagonist in the beginning and end.
But anyways, my knife is handle heavy and i put my middle and pointer finger tips on the dull side of the blade, with the sharp part facing me. Just input.

5 Casey October 20, 2011 at 10:42 pm

If you haven’t got the coin for a real throwing-knife setup, meaning quality knives and a quality target, I once read an article about making a sort of needle-knife. You take a wire coat hanger, snip the bar (where you’d hang pants) in the middle and snip each side just past the curve up toward the hook, so you’ve got two lengths of metal that each look like little shepherd’s crooks, then you bend the curves down toward the bar for a little handle. They’re not quite as much fun as knives, but you can throw them into anything soft like gardening-foam blocks or a cheap boogieboard.

6 R October 21, 2011 at 1:24 am

With all of the companies out there that sell throwing knifes, what are the best ones?

7 Majub October 21, 2011 at 4:56 am

Its a pretty nice method, although if he got me with a knife toss I would die of humiliation first. I am familiar with a different methods of knife tossing the first which I learned when I was 16 maybe from an ex KGB I could describe it but I found a video

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IhEzY_QzyhA&feature=relmfu

He doesn’t mention it, but when you put the knife behind your head it should align with your vertebrae. You should try it.

8 james October 21, 2011 at 5:30 am

he said he was an amateur. pay attention before you call people names geesh

9 Russ Ebert October 21, 2011 at 6:42 am

Best throwing knives? Ones that don’t break. Usually one with a thick tang and a no frill handle). I used to throw Gil Hibben’s dedigns, which are very good, but lately I’ve been throwing what is, for lack of a better term, a buckskinner knife. It’s similar to the one in the pictures. It’s hand made, essentially spring steel with a leather handle attached my brass pinning screws. In knife throwing, something I’ve been doing for 30 odd years, the center of mass is what really counts, because it is the one thing that stays constant. That being said, controlling the spin of the ends around that center so that the blade end sticks is the key. Regardless of which end you grab it by, knowing where the center of mass is on the knife and making sure the spin matches up to the distance of your target improves your throw exponentially. That’s my experience at least. Once that understood, no-spin, half-spin and full spin throws start to make sense.

10 Kyle October 21, 2011 at 8:52 am

Even though this is a good way to throw a knife there are multiple ways to throw a knife and get a stick. Personally I know 7 different ways to throw a knife. Also throwing a knife in combat doesn’t have a down side if you take a lesson from the Apache and Comanche Native American tribes and carry 8-10 knives with you. The reason I know that is because I’m both Apache and Comanche, and learned to throw while visiting the my ancestral nations. We did the same with tomahawks also.

11 throwing tomahawk October 21, 2011 at 10:54 am

Does the same principal for throwing knives apply to throwing tomahawks? I want to be able to do both.

12 Curt October 21, 2011 at 10:54 am

Get ready dads. Mommies are really likely to resist this one. My sons love throwing and have some really nice knives designed for throwing. Some knives aren’t designed for throwing, particularly some pocket knives, and will break. There is an abundance of inferior metals in knives these days, I hear from China where they use the cheapest steel available. Better spend the money and get the real stuff.

13 Daren Redekopp October 21, 2011 at 11:29 am

Nice. This’ll work perfect for discouraging any door-to-door solicitors from approaching my yard.

14 actionjksn October 21, 2011 at 12:17 pm

This guy doesn’t know what he’s doing, I could smoke him in knife sticking big time. You should not have to adjust your distance like that. You hold the knife by the blade and release it without flipping your wrist to prevent it from spinning more than 180 degrees. Instead of moving closer or further from your target. With practice you develop an instinct for your release position. I am by no means a professional knife thrower but I can stand 8 feet away and consistently stick one and then stand 12 or 15 feet away and do the same. controlling it is all about not flipping your wrist. then according to your distance you may release it with the handle going toward the target, or with the handle up with the knife almost vertical if it’s spinning too much. I learned this way back in the mid 80′sfrom some West Virginia Hillbilly. I can go years without ever sticking one and pickup any knife heavy handle and all and stick that sucker within two or three tries, quite often within the very first. after that I’m very consistent, it doesn’t really matter the distance as long as I’m not way to close or far. This is how you stick a knife. I mean is a live target going to say, OK now you’re at 10 feet that’s wrong for that knife you need 12.5 for the rotation to be right. Here let me move back a couple of feet. That is just a flawed technique. If you’re really close with a long knife you might even have to let you wrist flip a little bit to make it spin 180 degrees a little faster to make it around on time. But other than that you don’t let your wrist break. There may be some knives that work better throwing blade first but I’ve never seen one. And I have stuck more knives than I can count. He did seem to have a decent grip though. I suppose his technique is OK for showing off but for practical real world use no way. If you’re going to do the practice, as much as it takes you might as well learn the way that might someday come in handy. Which is the way that doesn’t require being a very specific distance from your target.

15 J October 21, 2011 at 12:20 pm

A skill that I find that very, very, very few people have (I know of only one person at this moment, but I’m sure there are more) is the ability to adjust the rotation of the knife to accommodate any distance of throw. Rather than letting the rotation dictate the distance they can throw at, they can adjust the rotation based on the distance. But then again, that’s more of an art, not just a skill, and takes years upon years of practice to achieve.

16 E_ROCK October 21, 2011 at 2:10 pm

I’ve turned cheap fixed blade knives (full tang) into throwers by removing whatever handle material is on them and then wrapping the handle with para-cord to fit my hand the best. these will turn out to be more balanced or slightly handle-heavy.

17 Colonel October 21, 2011 at 4:10 pm

Look out, everyone’s unzipping their pants to see whose is bigger.

18 Josh Einstein October 22, 2011 at 12:20 am

F*** Bill the Butcher. What about John Locke?

19 Russ Ebert October 22, 2011 at 4:05 am

A cheap setup to start throwing knives would be a piece of soft, 1/2 inch or thicker plywood cut at 3×3 feet or larger propped up in a place with a backdrop and side area that is safe (open areas work best) and finally, an old knife…any knife will do.This knife is going to get banged up, nicked, dented and destroyed so be aware that by old I mean “ready to throw away”. Note that it’s probably best to dull the edge a bit to avoid nasty cuts. I used to use a tree in my backyard, a huge dogwood that I literally bored a huge hole into….but that is probably not the best thing to do. Avoid trees. It kills them and really, no one wants that. Also know that in throwing knives, there is going to be a ricochet, keep your eyes on it at all times and be ready to move your legs or duck if it comes back to you. An easy and fairly safe way to start throwing is to lay the plywood on the ground and simple throw the knife blade first into the board without any spin. Do this until you feel comfortable, and then prop it up at a fairly close (but safe) distance and try to do the same “no spin” throw. Move back a little farther, try again. More than likely it will ricochet, so be ready to duck and run. anything over 12-14 feet is a very, very hard throw, so keep that in mind and start closer.

20 Russ Ebert October 22, 2011 at 4:33 am

If anyone is interesting in some very fine throwing knives….

http://trubalthrowingknifesociety.com/
True Balance. Started in the 1960′s and is still going strong. Recommended.

http://www.hibbenknives.com/
Gil Hibben. These are pretty good. Not too spendy either.

Buckskinner knives (like the one in the article)

http://www.woodenhawk.com/Catalog/tabid/52/List/1/productid/283/Default.aspx?txtSearch=throwing+knives&SortField=ProductName%2cProductName

http://www.crazycrow.com/mm5/merchant.mvc?Screen=PROD&Product_Code=4926-004-003&Store_Code=CCTP&search=throwing+knives&offset=&filter_cat=&PowerSearch_Begin_Only=&sort=&range_low=&range_high=

Normally, local gun shows have a buckskinner or two trading in them, so it might be fun to check that out as well.

21 Bennette Harding October 22, 2011 at 12:39 pm

I am an avid knife thrower but I’m still kind of young. I learned how by reading Gil HIbben’s book. The knife style above seems pretty cool. I have been able to throw successively by using the same grip but on the blade. It will not work for all throwing knives though. My knife was made to also have practical use and one cannot hold the handle in that method. Anyway great article!

22 Carter October 23, 2011 at 2:03 pm

I learned another method from a cook in a restaurant I worked in once. This one is a handle only style though. First make your hand as straight as you can and keep it rigid. Next, simply put your thumb on the other side of the handle. and keep your hand pretty stiff. Only grip it tight enough to keep it from flying early.

When you throw, use the same motion you would use for throwing a tomahawk, or maybe a spear. to release simply move your thumb away but keep your fingers and the rest of your hand straight, and make sure your arm is pretty much straight. like the barrel on a gun this is to guide the knife in a straight trajectory, as there is no rotation in this technique. The goal is to release just as, or slightly before you are even with the ground. If you release too late you will likely get some rotation and you will be aiming below your target.

It is actually a very simple method that takes almost no time to learn at all. I doubt its as good as the professionals techniques but its so easy and you can go from just holding it regularly to throwing pretty much instantaneously. It also allows for a pretty strong throw as you don’t have to worry about rotation or distance.

23 Coilín October 25, 2011 at 10:51 pm

I’ll have you know that about ten, fifteen minutes after reading this, I managed to sink six throws using a sixteen dollar bayonet I bought off Amazon at thirteen paces. This was the first time I’ve tried throwing a knife. Pretty good article.

24 Fritz October 27, 2011 at 12:42 pm

Great article. It’s got me interested in knife throwing. And Bill the butcher is definitely one of the best film characters of all time.

25 Bob November 26, 2012 at 9:04 pm

I don’t recall where i picked up the trick, in a movie or a book i’m not sure, but I have had alot of luck teaching myself to throw heavy blade kitchen knives under handed. Could never get them to stick over hand.

26 jamal November 30, 2012 at 9:43 pm

Like a boss: throwing knives while enjoying a cigar.

27 Mr. Crispy January 2, 2013 at 10:11 pm

As a professional knife thrower this technique seems to be sacrificing accuracy for power. It’s quite different than you’ll see competition throwers or impalement artist use. Here’s some tips for those interested in the hobby. Go straight to good knives, small/light knives will be inaccurate and teach you bad habits. The rule of thumb is that the knife should weigh one ounce for every inch in length and should be a minimum of 12″ long. I use an older set of knives that are no longer made called Dragon Pro’s they are 13.5 inches and 13.5 ounces. Generally it’s around 8′ for a half spin than another 4′ away for every half spin from there (IE 12 foot 1 spin, 16 foot 1.5 spin, etc.) When trying to stick the knife, instead of trying to adjust the spin on the knife adjust your distance. If the knife is hitting the target with the handle pointed down it’s not spinning enough, step back a little so it has time to spin further before hitting the target, if the handle hits up step forward, your too far away and it’s spinning too much.

28 Nolen Cox March 17, 2013 at 11:28 am

In the late 40,s in rural North Louisiana we played mumble peg at school and with friends. Yes, at school, that was before knives started killing people. The favorite game was to draw a square on the bare ground standing on opposite sides the first thrower stuck his knife in the square. A line was drawn intersecting the square in line with the flat line of the blade. The opponent threw to his choice of the selected pieces. The pieces get smaller each throw, If you miss the chosen piece you lose if the opponent can stick it.

Maybe this will help keep the game alive, I had not thought of it till I read your article.

29 Robert April 13, 2013 at 12:57 am

This is a great teaching tool; during my deployment to Afghanistan I bought a “Gerber Combat Fixed Blade”. I did not like the handle it comes with, so I took it off and wrapped Para cord around the handle area, but that was too slippery so I wrapped the Para cord with Electrical Insulation Tape, it is NOT standard e-tape, it is not sticky but it sticks to itself, makes a great handle. (NSN- 5970-00-685-9059)
Anyway, I found my distance to be 5.5 steps from the dart board, my knife’s handle is heavier so I grabbed the blade as suggested, and threw it. No luck at first but with a little tweaking here is what works:
Thumb on top down by the point, (the point will rest at the first crease from the tip of your thumb), the spot where the thumb bends, with your, pointer, middle and ring finger underneath in a line. Then throw the knife keeping it perpendicular to the target (means pointing at the target) the knife will rotate once and land with the most satisfying “THUNK”. I found that if I try to throw the knife too hard it only bounces off the target (I guess you could throw it hard but you would have to figure out the distance needed to make the point find the mark)
Using this method , I went from never throwing a knife before, to making it stick 9 out of 10 times.

30 Anthony April 19, 2013 at 10:47 pm
31 Albert May 31, 2013 at 8:28 pm

an even better way to throw a knife is by the tip of the blade because you have the weight of the handle making the impact of the knife harder

32 Christian July 10, 2013 at 7:47 am

I have to agree with Mr. Crispy: Throwing with full force (“as hard as you can”, the article’s Tom suggests), is a surefire way to ruin
A Your joints
It won’t be your muscles stopping the motion, but your joints. And they won’t do this job for long.
B Throwing consistency
After 10 or so full-force-save-my-life throws, do you think your still throwing with the same power? Didn’t think so. You will be altering your throw because of tired muscles. And thus changing the rotation completely -> Goodby to hits that stick.

The rest of Mr. Crispys advice is also spot-on. Please read it first, and then the article above (might be too late, I guess).

33 Ryan December 18, 2013 at 9:42 pm

Couldn’t help but crack up during the videos, that guy is awesome haha! Good info though for any beginners.

34 MD Waller January 1, 2014 at 2:39 pm

I enjoyed reading your posts, as most may have overlapping theories as opinions from trial and error, though not needing to insult to toot one’s own horn. Now with the latter I stated above, I am a my own open mind and have also employed a learning as to the methodology from Hibben’s book, then passed the book on to friend to see if any others in my area would share the same interest, and we did have some good times rotating, and also liberating by diversity of gender.

35 MD Waller January 1, 2014 at 2:53 pm

Oh, shoot I haven’t got to my advice, to which is more less opinion times wisdom, and also evolution of revolution, but I must go meet my day before I end up making point so I shall try and go over my primary points. If I try to do it now, I will add more rhetoric than recourse. Thank you

mdw

36 Mick January 15, 2014 at 10:38 pm

Good article. I don’t agree with everything, but each to his own. Whatever works for the individual. I’ve been throwing knives since I was a kid. Any fixed blade knife (and some folders as well no doubt) can be thrown. No special knives needed. If you can throw a knife then most any knife is throw-able. I’ve thrown axes, hatchets, swords, bayonets (the big bastards of past era’s) as well as a multitude of different knives. A great skill to have, and an enjoyable pastime. I’ll admit to being a bit of a ‘knife nut’ though :).

37 Garret D January 26, 2014 at 6:27 pm

Great Article,

Movie was a classic. Also its great how he throws knives with a cigar in his mouth the whole time. Knife throwing is definitely fun and along with Mick I think it’s a great skill to know.

Appreciate the read!

38 phatereigns February 19, 2014 at 1:50 am

me and my friends have been throwing knives in our friends barn for a few years now. takes time but I made 20 sticks in a row a month ago. check out (most amazing knife throwing video jbe) should see two guys throwing the old wood magnets. thank you all for your interest in this amazing skill

39 James February 21, 2014 at 9:22 pm

I love throwing knives, I’ve never been particularly good at it, but it is a lot of fun. Thanks for the tips, they help a lot.

40 John Thornley March 10, 2014 at 7:32 am

Hi

I prefer a balanced blade to you can throw by handle or tip with a pinch grip. Adjust your range to either 6/7 feet for half spin, 11 feet 1 spin or 15 feet for 1.5 spin. He’s dear right about horizontal hold – this is so your knife will more easily penetrate the rib cage. Ahem.

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