Real Athletes Throw Knives

What can you learn by chucking tempered steel blades into a target? Performing to potential is all about trusting your instincts.

Now hold on—

Rex Applegate kept his mouth shut, but his mind was screaming. World War II had just broken out, and his Army instructors were busy teaching him and a bunch of other new grunts how to shoot, but Rex knew one thing they didn’t.

Uncle Gus never shot that way.

Rex had grown up in the backwoods of Oregon with his uncle, Gus Peret, a professional hunter and trick-shot artist. Gus was a Wild West barnstormer, one of the last of the old breed who could thunder into a ring at a full gallop and control his horse with his knees while blasting thrown bottles from the air with a big old Navy Colt in each fist. Rex used to spend his summers helping Uncle Gus keep his eye sharp by heaving bricks into the air as flying targets. The one thing Gus never did was exactly what the Army was telling Rex to do now: steady the pistol at head height and aim carefully down the barrel through the sights. Gus was just blazing away from the hip, but he was still way deadlier than any of these Army experts.

So what did Uncle Gus know that the U.S. military didn’t?

Rex was pretty hardheaded, and even though his country was in peril and drill instructors were bellowing in his face and the whole point of an army is to button your yap and follow orders, Rex couldn’t shake the feeling that everyone was wrong except him. So when he spotted a chance, he grabbed it; Rex found a way to meet “Wild Bill” Donovan, the maverick industrialist appointed by Roosevelt to create America’s first black ops fighting force. Rex harangued him about Uncle Gus, and Wild Bill was intrigued. He authorized Rex to go off base and research frontier sharpshooting. And that’s how, while digging through ancient diaries and letters in a dusty Dakota mailroom, Rex made his big discovery:

Instinctive aim.

All you really have to do is point your finger. That’s it. That’s the secret that allowed Annie Oakley to split a playing card from 40 feet away and fire left- and right-handed at two hurtling clay pigeons and vaporize them both. Humans have an amazing natural ability to zero in on a target, Rex learned. Just glance at something and instantly—faster than the speed of thought—your fingertip can find it. (If you don’t feel the urge to immediately test this for yourself, see a doctor.) But not even Rex fully grasped the scope of his discovery. He wasn’t just reviving a nifty sideshow stunt; he was pulling back a shroud from one of the greatest technological advancements in human history.

Doubt it? Watch Patrick Brewster chuck a knife. You’ll change your mind.

Brewster came to my house one afternoon to teach me no-spin knife throwing. He mounted a slice of log on an easel, pulled out three knives, and—as he whipped them in from all kinds of angles and distance—demonstrated why no-spin might be the answer to one of the great riddles of modern anthropology. It goes like this:

  • Hitting a target is an amazing act of calculation, because often you’re not aiming where something is; you’re aiming where it isn’t. You have to factor angles, directions, and muscle force, all of it in a blink.
  • We’re the only animal that can pull it off, and once we did, it changed everything. Learning to throw transformed us from prey into predators. Better hunting gave us more food; more food grew us bigger brains. We also upgraded our software: Throwing taught us the kind of sequential thought that would become the human imagination and spur the creation of language, technology, medicine, and art.
  • So explain this: If humans are such natural marksmen, why are the majority of us like Shaq at the free-throw line?

“Yeah, that was me,” Brewster says. “I had all the cards stacked against me. Never played baseball, no real sports background at all. First time I threw a knife, I failed miserably.” He’d seen videos of expert throwers, the kind who send knives flipping end-over-end toward showgirls, but when he tried to copy them, he clanged all over the place. Then one day while working construction, Brewster began monkeying around with a screwdriver. If he held his finger straight up along a screwdriver’s spine, he could fling it perfectly into the ground. Every time. A quick Internet search later, Brewster found himself in the midst of an entire tribe experimenting with the same throwback throw. There was Roy Hutchinson, “The Great Throwzini,” and Xolette, a high-school science teacher in Florida who likes to no-spin butter knives across her kitchen.

Brewster explains that the spin technique—the kind of throwing you see at every circus and Vegas show—is inherently flawed. It’s not natural. Spin is terrific for long tosses, and it can be supremely accurate, but only under artificial conditions. For a spin to work, both you and the target have to be stationary, and you can only be a precise number of steps away. Shift even a little and you shank.

But with no-spin, you cash in on the fact that your index finger is neurologically wired to your eyeballs. In fact, you can learn no-spin with startling ease. You’ll need a target, naturally. Any solid chunk of wood will do. I just sawed a round slice off the end of a log and bolted it to an old picnic table turned on its side and braced with a two-by-four. (So easy, it almost took me longer to write it than do it.)

Next up: your blades. One of the beauties of no-spin is that just about anything will do. Steak knives, butter knives, screwdrivers, metal chopsticks, nails—if it’s got a point, you can fling it. For ease and safety, though, Brewster recommends a tempered-steel knife that won’t shatter or feel weird in your hand. He makes his own by hand (and sells them at FlyingSteel.com) and brought me a set of three of the simple black shanks he calls North Wind.

The best place to start is so close to the target you could almost reach out and touch it. “The nearer you are, the less you’ll try to overpower the throw,” Brewster explains. “You’ll let the knife sail on its own.” For your first throws, face the target slightly in profile with your left foot forward (opposite for lefties). Then remember these four steps:

  1. GRIP the knife lightly, with your index finger straight up.
  2. EXTEND your arm back and high over your head.
  3. Push your ELBOW forward, not your hand.
  4. RELEASE when the knife passes your ear and the point is still aimed at the sky.

As soon as you get the feel (and don’t be astonished if it only take two or three throws) you can begin stepping back, adding distance each time and experimenting with angles. With a little practice, you’ll soon be letting fly the way your ancestors did: fast, on the move, from any direction. And any gender—in Australia, indigenous girls play the same throwing games as boys, and both develop fabulous arms. Of course, we now live in an age when most high-velocity hurling has been outsourced to teenage Dominicans, so you could say, “Why bother?”

Or you could think a little harder and realize that throwing is really higher function in disguise: It’s directly linked to “temporal-sequential ordering” and “spatial cognition”—math, in other words. “Throwing is about finding order in chaos,” I was told by William Calvin, PhD, a professor of neuroscience at the University of Washington and a specialist in the evolution of the human brain. “The more you’re able to think in sequence, the more ideas you’re able to string together. You can add more words to your vocabulary, you can combine unrelated concepts, you can plan for the future, and you can keep track of social relationships.”

So, someday in the future, when Little League World Series phenom Mo’Ne Davis is designing the guidance system for your personal hovercraft, thank the mom who first slapped a ball in her hand.

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