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Black Belt
Black Belt

Joined: 20 Nov 2003
Posts: 2237
Location: Atlantic Canada
Styles: Shotokan (Ryukyu Kobujutsu, Iaido)

PostPosted: Sat Oct 03, 2015 7:00 pm    Post subject: Ulu Knife Techniques and Lessons from How It Is Used Reply with quote

It has taken me a long time to write this because I have been thinking so much about what I've gone through and the lessons I learned. I've decided to express how it all happened and let you take away from it what you will. What I learned enhanced my knowledge of the martial arts and opened my eyes to the true impact of our ability as martial artists.

I have some training in the use of weapons, but none as unique as the ulu knife (pronounced oo-loo). I lived in northern Canada for a period of time. While there, I was taught how to use the ulu in exchange for secretly teaching women's self-defense. To the public, I worked as a janitor/handyman for a public building, during fake book club meetings in exchange for learning how to use the ulu for skinning and cooking.

What Is an Ulu?

It is a single-edged, crescent-shaped blade set perpendicular to the handle using no more than two tangs. The blade can be as little as 6 centimeters (a few inches) to 31 centimeters (12 inches)! The curve makes it easy to work around bone to cut blubber and meat. The shape makes the bulk of the force come down in the middle of the blade; thus when cutting bone and sinew, a rocking motion is used to cut. It's very efficient at it, too! Especially with a practiced hand. It is also used for food prep to cut and shape meat, vegetables and blubber. It's quite useful for cutting and shaping snow for shelter construction, and I've even seen it used to cut hair, as a replacement for scissors in tailoring and sewing.

Here is what a modern ulu looks like:

Credit: Alan Sim (CC BY-SA 2.0)


Since the blade is perpendicular to the handle, it is illegal in Canada (where I live) and other nations. This is due to the desire to limit possession and use of anything that can be used as a pushing blade. There is an exception for the indigenous people of Canada and, when I moved back "south," I had to leave it back there. Before you consider purchasing one, please review the law in your area.


There are a few grips you can use when holding the ulu. First, and most common, is wrapping your fingers around the grip with the tang between the middle and ring fingers and the thumb pressing down on the middle finger's first knuckle. In other words, your basic fist. Another common grip is between index and middle finger so it doesn't interfere with wedding rings. The thumb is usually on the end of the handle (like when you held a joystick back the day for playing Atari or Nintendo!) or along the lateral side of the index finger


The use of the ulu for self-defense is not unique. My instructor said the style was used by others but that it wasn't the most common she'd seen. Because there is no formal school or association, many just go with their own style, which flows down the family line. She knew a few styles and decided to teach me this one in particular because she believed it was applicable to what she'd learned from me.

One of the main things I taught her was frame of mind. In self-defense, it is my belief that your frame of mind must be that of an acknowledgement (if not acceptance) of the fact that you will hurt someone. You must act decisively to remove yourself from the situation in order to save life and limb. I felt both impressed and grateful that she felt I was worthy to learn it - mainly because there is a lot of racism and discrimination toward Caucasian people in that region. After all, I wasn't a neighbor, I was a stranger from far away. Outsiders weren't taught these things - it was their knowledge and their culture.

Despite these obstacles, she shared this knowledge with me, and I'm thankful. This style, she explained, has no name but is broken into two distinct modes. The first is "warning," where the intent is to scare off the opponent. The second is "consequence," where the intent is to end the fight in the most efficient manner possible.


"A simple cut" is the goal, nothing more. Most encounters that include the ulu knife are over at this point. The cut desired is only about a centimeter long (just over a third of an inch for you imperial types), and the depth isn't as important as the pain it inflicts. This forces the potential attacker to focus on the pain and the immediacy of the danger. The ulu knife wielder must by definition take the initiative to both control the situation and give themselves a moment to increase distance from their potential attacker. This warning wound functions to prove something else: I am dangerous.

There are two main ways to perform this warning. The first is a slash. The technique is a simple small-arc slash with the hand returning to its original position. The middle of the ulu is not necessarily the point of contact with the skin, it can be anywhere along the edge. The hand always ends where it began. The angle of the arc doesn't matter.

The second is straight-on. A forward thrusting of the ulu with the basic fist grip. It is delivered straight and to the point with no flourish. It is almost completely identical to gyaku-zuki (straight punch).

I really enjoyed learning this because it is very similar to Shotokan's one strike mentality. If that one strike doesn't kill or disable the opponent, then the fight has been taken out of them. Highly practiced users can execute a simple cut so fast that you aren't fully aware of their arm moving. If they had one ulu in each hand, then it should be impossible to determine which ulu cut you.

Many users do their best to keep the altercation at this stage. Cut after cut, scarring your opponent serves quite well to remind the attacker both of your expertise and the danger they're in. Even if the situation escalates, most ulu wielders will not move on because they typically know who their attacker is, due to small populations. I remarked that if someone kept abusing an ulu wielder they would accrue a lot of these small scars. My teacher responded "yes," and that it did happen from time to time in some communities. Those people were referred to as "slow learners" and were sent to be counseled or submit to band law.


This series of techniques are very much like the pragmatic peoples of the north: up front and no beating around the bush. None of these techniques are meant to wound but rather only to kill. The consequence being death. It is a big change from "wound and then back off," that's for sure. Once the lethal techniques are in play, that's pretty much where they're going to stay. I was told that this is done in the rarest of circumstances, and we should hope it never comes down to it.

It's interesting to note that the techniques themselves are still simple straight forward attacks. They target only four places: the crook of the elbow, the brachial artery, the throat and the face. My instructor would only teach me all four attacks at once rather than one at a time. She taught it in this manner because if you miss, the attack will continue, and one of the others must land. You trained these four targets in order, based on which of the four targets was the easiest to get to first. The other three occur immediately afterward. This represents the commitment to ending the life of the attacker. Once you are in a position where you cannot escape and you have no options, you must act. This is why she refused to break it down into four separate techniques. "Too much thinking," she said. In real combat, there is no time to mull over where to go, so this style goes to all four places. Simplicity is key.

I can sum up these attacks in one word: brutal. In targeting the soft spots, the goal is to bleed the target and limit their ability to counter. Once the attack has "landed," the ulu wielder simply steps back and waits for the attacker to bleed out.

The entire mindset changes in a split second from motherly to a dispassionate lethality. Once moving away from warning, the ulu wielder doesn't hesitate. They take initiative and end the conflict, period. I saw this change in my teacher's eyes and face. It was truly terrifying. There is a certain detachment when you see a predator like a bear take down prey. This mindset, she said, is important. You step outside of your emotions and do what is necessary. You must be aware of the surroundings and of your instincts, because when it's over, you come back to yourself. "Then you can cry because you're human again."

As an aside, I'd like to mention where she spoke about mindset paralleled Shotokan in another interesting manner: Mind Like the Moon (Tsuki No Kokoro) and Mind Like the Water (Mizu No Kokuro). These phrases have significant meaning for karateka, and possibly to you, based on your own training. Essentially what she is talking about is a simpler-stated version of both of these concepts. The former referring to the moon: as the light from the moon covers everything so too does an unclouded mind see everything. The latter referring to water: using knowledge gained from mind like the moon, you gain an insight or intuition. Use of this intuition/instinct allows you to react more appropriately to danger, making your techniques more effective. Elaborating more on this is for another article; suffice to say that she came to this understanding without training by a martial arts master. Rather, this knowledge was passed down to her.


It is interesting to note that this lethal mindset is a relatively new one in ulu use. In the past, everyone needed everyone else due to their small numbers. After all, if you were a small group hunting caribou, could you truly afford to punish one of the few people who could hunt for the community? You'd diminish your chances of getting food, thus risking everyone. Due to this, people dealt with conflict using public jeers, chants, etc., meant to humiliate their antagonists. The one who was most humiliated at the end was the loser, and everyone moved on with their lives. The "attacker" would still be able to help hunt and support the rest of the community. The "defender" would feel justice was served by publicly humiliating their antagonist. In modern times, the antagonist agrees to submit to law based on the decision of the elders/band council. I remember asking about the consequence techniques and why these were developed. The answer was simply this: "pride, alcohol, drugs, stupidity or evil." She also implied that modern North American society had influenced people to no longer care about the authority nor punishments of their elders and laws.

The last thing she said to me: "Thank you for reminding me about my body and how strong it is. You're welcome for learning the ulu. Use it to cook for your family. If you must step outside of your emotions, remember to come back to them. Or you'l' look like an idiot and the [Royal Canadian Mounted Police] will arrest you, and I will hate you forever."

Her training put some things into perspective for me. Certain techniques I'd been using in the past now have new meaning. A light has been shed on the lethality of the techniques I already knew. Before learning ulu, a punch was a punch. It was meant to defend me. Yes, I could hurt someone seriously, but it never really sank in that if I punched someone in the sternum, their heart could stop. I hadn't allowed myself to truly consider the lethality of gyaku-zuki. Now I understand. The consequences of weaponless techniques upon a real life opponent's body are different now. The few fights I've been in, during my life, were resolved using techniques that could kill given the right circumstance. The most damage I've done to another person was a fractured hip bone, a very serious injury. It was delivered in the mindset of protecting myself - not in the mindset of ending my attacker's life. That technique could very well end a life.

The weapons I've trained in cause damage to the body. I've learned how to break a bone with a bo, break a nose with a yawara, etc. Those techniques now have greater meaning as well, because of the type of damage they can do. This only increases the responsibility we, as martial artists, have to the rest of society. If we constrain our actions within our conscience, reinforced by sound reason and the guidance of our instructors, we can always make the right decision on the use of force.

Could I use empty hand techniques with such lethality if it came down to it? I have trained for years to control myself and the techniques I use to such a degree that I can use 100% speed and power and only strike the gi of my sparring partner. After much introspection, the short answer is yes, I could, but the long answer is I really, really hope it never comes down to that. I hope the same for you.
The best victory is when the opponent surrenders
of its own accord before there are any actual
hostilities...It is best to win without fighting.
- Sun-tzu
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KF Administrator

Joined: 01 May 2001
Posts: 27145
Location: Los Angeles, California

PostPosted: Sat Oct 03, 2015 7:01 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Thank you for sharing this with us, Shawn!

Patrick O'Keefe - Administrator
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KF Sensei
KF Sensei

Joined: 23 Feb 2008
Posts: 14611
Location: Houston, TX
Styles: Shindokan Saitou-ryu [Shuri-te/Okinawa-te based]

PostPosted: Sun Oct 04, 2015 10:18 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Very, very interesting article, to say the least. That weapon looks devastating; it's not your normal pocket knife, is it?!

**Proof is on the floor!!!
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KF Sensei
KF Sensei

Joined: 17 Jan 2007
Posts: 6186
Location: UK
Styles: Tae Kwon Do & Yang family Tai Chi

PostPosted: Sun Oct 04, 2015 3:06 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Really interesting article cathal.
"Everything has its beauty, but not everyone sees it." ~ Confucius
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KF Sensei
KF Sensei

Joined: 31 Mar 2006
Posts: 27927
Location: Hays, KS
Styles: Taekwondo, Combat Hapkido, Aikido, GRACIE

PostPosted: Wed Oct 07, 2015 11:13 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

I really enjoyed this article! I love to hear about the local histories and fighting styles/weapons of various areas, and as you write here, how it can overlap with styles from other areas in the world in similar regards. I also enjoyed the introspective aspect you shared with us, how the training affected you and your training.

Thank you very much, Cathal.
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KF Sensei
KF Sensei

Joined: 04 May 2008
Posts: 6851
Location: McHenry County, IL
Styles: Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, Bujin Bugei Jutsu, Gokei Ryu Kempo Jutsu, MMA, Shootfighting, boxing, kickboxing, JKD, Pekiti Tersia Kali

PostPosted: Fri Oct 09, 2015 7:20 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Really neat stuff! Thanks for the insight. I really like that there's still small, family based lineages of things out there. The fact that they are this unique is even more fascinating.
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Joined: 13 Feb 2003
Posts: 6154
Location: Upstate NY
Styles: TKD;Shotokan;JuJitsu;Tai Ji

PostPosted: Mon Oct 12, 2015 12:03 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Thanks-good read, cool stuff!

"A Black Belt is only the beginning."
Heidi-A student of the arts
Tae Kwon Do,Shotokan,Ju Jitsu,Modern Arnis
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KF Sensei
KF Sensei

Joined: 18 Oct 2010
Posts: 2452
Location: Phoenix, AZ
Styles: Shorin-Ryu, Shuri-Ryu, Judo, KishimotoDi

PostPosted: Mon Oct 12, 2015 3:26 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

As someone with some experience with knifemaking, I'm familiar with the ulu as a tool, but not it's use as a weapon. This is very interesting, and I thank you for sharing it! Out of curiosity, did your teacher use "true time" with her techniques, in the same way European martial arts emphasize with their weapons?
Kishimoto-Di | 2014-Present | Sensei: Ulf Karlsson
Shorin-Ryu | 2010-Present: Nidan | Sensei: Richard Poage (RIP), Jeff Allred (RIP)
Shuri-Ryu | 2006-2010: Sankyu | Sensei: Joey Johnston, Joe Walker
Judo | 2007-2010: Gokyu | Sensei: Joe Walker, Adrian Rivera
Karate Obsession | Arizona Practical Karate
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