The Balisong Collector's Opinions on Cuts, Training, and Taping

There's an old saying, "If you play with fire, eventually you're going to get burned." Well, if you play with balisongs, the occasional cut is equally inevitable.

I don't look forward to getting cut. I certainly don't try to get cut. The art of balisong manipulation is about NOT getting cut. It's like tightrope walking is about NOT falling off.

Balisong manipulation is just another "extreme" sport. Compared to some of these "extreme sports", balisong manipulation is fairly tame, in fact. I'd rather get cut on the back of my finger than, say, fall off the side of a cliff.

A big debate rages amongst balisong artists: to tape or not to tape. Should beginners or experienced artists render the blade harmless for practice? (This is usually done by covering the edge with black electrical tape, duct tape, or some other heavy tape.)

The best tape for this purpose, BTW, is 3M Scotch Brand electrical tape. Yes, 3M brand tape costs five times as much as the cheap stuff in the bin right next to it, but you're not gonna be using this stuff by the mile. A roll lasts a long, long time (That's part of the reason to buy the good stuff. The cheap stuff gets gummy right on the roll over time.)

When you take the tape off, it will often leave a black, sticky residue. This is easily removed with a squirt of good old WD40 and a paper towel.


Learning balisong manipulation requires the beginning student do three things at once:

  1. Learn how the balisong feels in your hand, how it moves, etc. Get comfortable with it. Because they have two rather loose joints, balisongs move in ways that you might not initially expect.
  2. Learn the manipulation techniques.
  3. Overcome your normal, rational fear of the edge.

I want to emphasize that fear of the edge, fear of getting cut, is a normal, rational, and healthy thing. Fear in general is a good and healthy thing. Fear tells you things like, "Don't jump out in front of an oncoming bus," "Don't touch that bare electrical wire (especially when it has sparks jumping out of the end)," and "Stay back from the edge of that cliff." But, you can't let your fears control your life. Part of learning balisong manipulation is learning to control your fears.

Doing three things at once can be difficult. Two at once is sometimes even rough. Fortunately, the first two items on our list sort of go together. Furthermore, if you can accomplish one and two, if you can get comfortable with the feeling of the knife, and with the way it moves, and if you can boost your confidence by learning a trick or two, then number three, overcoming your fear of the edge, will be easier.

This is why I strongly recommend that beginners initially tape their blade. Why not reduce the task list to two challenges instead of three? Go ahead and get comfortable with the knife, gain a sense of how it feels, how it moves, and learn a couple of simple techniques so that you can feel some mastery over the knife. Convince yourself that if you handle the knife properly, you can control it and keep yourself from getting cut. Now, you can move on to task three with more concentration, more confidence,and more focus.

The important thing is that you DO move on to task three and do it as soon as you feel basically comfortable with the knife. If you don't do this, you will develop sloppy techniques and bad habits, especially as you move on to more complex techniques.

Once you develop those bad habits, your fear of the edge will only become greater because you'll know that you are dependent on your tape crutch. This a big potential problem.

Part of learning balisong manipulation is overcoming your fear. If you don't do that, then you've failed at balisong manipulation. I don't care how fast you can make your flips and spins. I don't care how smooth your exchanges are. I don't care how high your aerials go. If you haven't overcome your fear of the blade, then you've failed at balisong manipulation.

While some fear is a good thing, fear can become like a cancer. If you don't treat it quickly and aggressively, it can grow into other areas of your life. This is why if you even once pick up a balisong, you must learn to manipulate it. A person who picks up a balisong and then puts it down because they are afraid of it has given their fears a victory. Your fears will just get stronger each time you do something like this.

This is why I don't allow some people to even handle a balisong. I can tell from their attitude that they have a great fear of the knife. They'll gingerly handle it a bit and then hand it back saying "I could never do that." I have done this person a disservice by giving that fear an opportunity to express itself.

But, if you once overcome one fear, you can overcome them all. If you learn to manipulate a live butterfly knife, then when other fearful situations present themselves, you can say, "I can control my fear of a live knife edge swirrling and twirling in my hand, so I can control this fear too!" And, you will.

If you don't take the tape off of your balisong but go on learning more and more complex manipulations, you'll become increasingly dependent on the tape and increasingly aware of that dependence. The longer you go, the more difficult it will be to ever remove that tape. It's a spiral that leads to nowhere good.

Fear spreads. If you fail to overcome your fear of the edge, if you become dependent on the tape crutch, then when other fearful situations present themselves, they'll say, "You're afraid of your balisong. You can't overcome that. How can you overcome me? You can't." And you won't. That's when fear starts to control you rather than you controlling it.

Clay said it well in a recent discussion. He said that manipulating a blunted balisong is like target shooting with blanks. You may make a lot of smoke and noise, but in the end you can't tell if you were actually aiming correctly because there's no bullet holes in the target. In fact, a shooter who might do this would actually be hurting himself. Without the feedback of holes in the target, he might be unknowingly reinforcing bad habits.

Of course, with balisongs, the goal is "no holes in you" and only way to tell is to go at it with a live blade.

Firearms instructors will tell you that blanks and "snap caps" (a snap cap is a piece of plastic or metal formed into the shape of a live cartridge, but with no power at a all, a "total dud") are excellent training tools. When introducing a student to a gun for the first time, many instructors start off with snap caps. They let the student experience the sensation of the gun in his hand, fell how it's often heavier than it looks, heavier than the plastic squirt gun that may be this student's only point of reference. They free the student to feel how cold a chunk of steel can be, let him experiment with the control levers, even pull the trigger, explore the gun and get over any intial anxiety he may fell about holding and handling a "real gun". And, with snap caps, all of these intial experiences can be accomplished without the fear of accidental discharge. (Of course, such training should still be done on a closed range with muzzles pointed down-range.)

Next, the instructor may choose to teach students how to load a magazine, how to load the magazine into the gun, how to cycle the slide on the gun, etc., again using snap caps.

Many instructors now have begining students fire their first few shots with blanks. When you fire a gun, there are a lot of things to think about, stance, grip, pulling the trigger properly, holding your hands properly, dealing with the recoil, etc., oh, and then there's aiming and hitting the target too. Plus, for the beginner, there's a whole world of new experiences that distract. There's the sound of the gun (and it sounds different when you're the one firing the gun because part of the sound you hear in this case travels to your ear through your body), the visual appearance of the flash, what recoil feels like, what the spent cartridge case looks like as it's ejected, even what burned gun powder smells like. Plus, if you're on a public range, there's what it's like to be in a room with people around you firing guns and what it's like to wear hearing and eye protection, etc. For a beginner, this is an all new experience. To many new things at once can be overwhelming. So, many instructors just leave aiming and the target out of the mix for the first few shots. (Again, of course, this should still be done on a safe range with muzzles pointed down-range).

Finally, after the student has overcome any initial anxiety he may have had, after he has learned the basic operations of the gun, after he has gained some confidence and familiarity with the gun, and after he's become comfortable with the gun and with the whole environment and experience, it's time to bring aiming and the target back into the mix, to load live rounds, and start to pulling the whole package together.

Even championship shooters continue to use snap caps. You see, when you fire a gun, where the bullet ends up depends on exactly how you hold the gun. But, when the gun fires, the recoil makes it impossible to see exactly how your hands were at the very moment you pulled the trigger. The flash and smoke can make it difficult even for someone watching you to see, even for a video camera to capture. But, with a snap cap, there's no recoil, no flash, and no smoke, so you can see exactly how your hands were. This helps shooters detect and correct mistakes.

Shooting live rounds is expensive and also quite fatiguing (especially larger calibers). One way to extend a workout is to load your gun with a random mix of live rounds and snap caps.

Likewise, a balisong beginner can use the balisong equivalent of snap caps and blanks, blunted blades, to get over any initial anxiety and gain an intial feeling of confidence and familiarity.

After that, even chapionship balisong artists will occationally go back to taped blades when they're trying to figure out complex new manipulations. Tape is a tool for teachers, for beginners, and for pros. Like any tool, it has its proper uses and it can be also be misused.

It's wise for even the most experienced artist to use tape occasionally when working on a new trick. When you learn a new technique, especially an advanced on that requires holding the opposite handle or a toss-and-catch, etc., you're gonna make a few mistakes and you're gonna get cut, unless you tape the blade for the first few attempts. Getting cut up just slows down your progress. If, while working on a new trick, I make a mistake and feel and see the edge go completely around the base of my finger, I can either say, "That was wrong. It's a good thing that blade is taped. Let's try it again and this time work on that part where the mistake was made," or I can say, "Oh no. That cut is going to take a week or two to heal. In the mean time, I won't be able to work on this technique at all." It's hard to learn a manipulation when you have to wait a week or two between attempts.

The other arguement I often hear is, "Pain is the best teacher." Well, there's a lot of truth in that. Personally, though, I guess that I'm just such a good student that I don't necessarily need "the best teacher". I can usually realize my mistakes and correct them without getting cut. If the only thing that will teach you is pain, well then don't let me stop you.

(BTW, today's guns and today's factory-loaded ammo are so reliable that stoppages, misfeeds, and malfunctions are very uncommon. The key word here is "very", not totally but just very uncommon. Shooters still need to drill themselves on how to handle these situations. So, smart shooters also use snap caps, "stoppers" (a snap cap deliberately shaped to misfeed or fail to eject in some way), and "light loads" (cartridges deliberately loaded with to little powder so that they will cause a stoppage) to drill themselves on these events too.)

So, Clay is, of course, correct. Practicing balisong manipulation with a taped or blunted blade is like target shooting with blanks. It's a teaching and training technique that, properly used, can benifit beginners and champions alike.

So, go ahead and tape the blade until you fell you're comfortable with your new balisong. Go ahead and tape the blade when you're working the initial kinks out of a new manipulation. Just don't let yourself become dependent on a taped blade.

Oh, BTW, take it from someone who's had a few: cuts do heal faster with Neosporin.

While taping a blade can make it safe for manipulation training and practice, taped blades are NOT safe for combative training, sparring, etc. For those applications, you need a purpose-built training knife (sometimes called a "drone"). Generally speaking, it is NOT possible to file down or dull a real blade enough to make a safe training knife out of it. If you grind off enough of the edge to get the edge thick enough to be safe, you end up with very little blade left. Likewise, grinding enough of the tip off to safely round the tip of the blade will generally shorten it to much. If you want to engage in combative training or sparring, then you need a proper training knife.