How I won my Knife or Death episode

The History Channel’s Forged in Fire: Knife or Death gives viewers and competitors tons of obstacle-smashing, blade-breaking fun.

I had the privilege of competing in the show’s third season against some top martial artists and bladesmiths. With over a decade of historical European martial arts (HEMA) and competition cutting experience, I felt confident heading into the competition.

I ended up with two of the show’s cleanest runs to date: zero penalties in round one, Knife Fight (until knockout), and just one penalty in the second round, Dead Run. My runs even earned me the nickname “speedracer” from host Bill Goldberg!

How did I win my episode and make it to the finals? The trick is long-term practice and targeted preparations. For anyone looking to take on the course, here’s what worked for me.

I cut things. All the time.

I’ve been cutting with blades since I was a kid growing up on a farm in Hawaii. After swinging my machete at everything from bamboo to banana trees (you can cut through an entire tree in just one swing) since age 9, it was natural for me to focus on cutting once I started practicing HEMA in college. I’ve since won seven medals in cutting, two of them gold.

There are countless aspects to good cutting, and it’s important to pay attention to as many of them as you can. As a HEMA instructor, I’m constantly teaching proper form (which translates to good cutting), as well as cutting itself. Demonstrating, teaching, and analyzing students’ and competitors’ cuts are some of the best ways to understand and practice your own cutting mechanics. Regularly doing a few test cuts after sharpening students’ blades also sharpens my skills (pun intended).

I always make my cuts deliberate (AKA: edge alignment).

Every time someone holds a sword, knife, or even a blade simulator in their hand, they are cutting. Too often, I see HEMA students focusing on the specific movements or footwork of a technique, while saving cutting practice for when they’re handling a sharp sword. We all need to remember: Good cutting form is essential for overall technique!

Every swing, in every drill I do either alone or with a partner, is an opportunity I use to perfect my cutting form. Ultimately, this comes down to edge alignment. Structure, power generation, and other skills are important, but nothing—seriously, nothing—beats edge alignment. 

Before the cut, during the cut, and after the cut—in both drills and in actual cutting practice—it’s crucial to always be aware of exactly where the edge is pointed. Once again: EDGE ALIGNMENT!

I practice on different targets.

Frequent practice cuts through the air is great training, but mastering cutting means practicing on a variety of targets. These provide concrete feedback on your form. I use plastic water bottles, clay, tatami, fruit, and other objects when they’re available. Some are more difficult than others, but each can show when you’ve made a good cut—and when you need more practice.

Other challenges also help hone cutting form. HEMA cutting competitions often put fighters up against moving targets, extra-wide targets, and targets with a very small window in which to accelerate and stop the blade. These demands force competitors to push their skills to the limit. Competing regularly at events also helped immensely with preparing me to cut well under pressure, with the cameras rolling on the show.

I chose the best knife for the course.

Knife or Death is intended to be as demanding a course as possible, both for the competitor and their knife or sword. It is incredibly abusive to blades, forcing them to smash through objects they’re not designed to handle.

Unlike in standard recreational or competitive cutting, competitors on the course must often devote many swings to weakening targets before they can successfully cut them. These objects are also specifically designed to damage blades. There is exposed steel that competitors can hit with their edge while swinging at full power, targets full of gravel, and other objects that we would normally keep far away from our swords. In watching the past few seasons of the show, I’ve seen many blades bend, break, or simply be ineffective against the targets.

With the particular challenges of the course in mind, I chose a medieval kriegsmesser as my weapon for the show. Messers are long knives that were popular in 15th century Europe. They have strong, broad blades well-suited for cutting heavy obstacles. Being able to swing with both hands also added power to my cuts and prevented me from tiring as quickly.

Ilya Alekseyev of Baltimore Knife and Sword forged my messer perfectly to specifications designed to make it as effective as possible on the course. The sword is a composite of three steels, intended to ensure extreme edge retention while preserving the strength and flexibility needed to survive a lineup of brutal obstacles. I also requested a small, swelled point to be added to the knife’s false edge that I could use to strike at the ice block obstacle without dulling the blade.

I was extremely happy with my messer’s performance on the course. It worked just as intended to get me through the obstacles while sustaining minimal damage, a feat in itself when cutting such destructive targets.

On the course, I gave it my all.

Due to the absolutely grueling nature of the obstacles, Knife or Death pushes competitors to swing their weapon of choice at 100% power for several minutes straight. Typical recreational or competitive cutting, which might involve a few cuts in succession at full power, did little to prepare me for the multiple powerful cuts the course required. The course was exhausting, but I did my best to maintain power, speed, and accuracy to make it through.

For me, the most challenging part of the course was the boxes. Those sawdust-filled wooden crates may not look like much, but they took a significant amount of energy and stamina to muscle through, and it was a huge relief to be finished with them.

The course involved a lot of target-smashing, but obstacles tested hand-eye coordination too. Technically, the most difficult of these was Ball Buster during the second round. It was a fun challenge managing to hit each of the foam balls (with edge alignment!) before they bounced off the platform.

Looking back…

I had a great run on Knife or Death, but looking back, there are a few things I would have done differently. Mainly, I would have cut more with my messer prior to filming the show. While I had several training sessions, I should have cut with it daily for a couple of weeks before the competition.

Extra practice would have truly fine-tuned my accuracy with my messer and fully acclimatized me to its weight. In order to destroy and survive the course, it was made to be significantly heavier than a typical fighting messer. This caused considerable fatigue to my hands and arms, making the course more difficult than it might have been.

Of course, I also would have liked to successfully cut the rope. Failing this Lifeline obstacle did not affect the outcome of my episode (my time was still fast enough to make it to Dead Run), but a clean cut (with proper edge alignment!) would have made my run even better.

On the whole, I had a fantastic experience. The challenge of cutting through objects that I would never usually approach with a sword was well worth the exhaustion of the course. Given the opportunity, I’d absolutely do it again, and I’ll soon be back with some tips for anyone who wants to give Knife or Death (or a similar competition) a go!