Jimping: The Secret Shortcut for Choosing Characters’ Knives

Jimping: Not a Dance

Even though it sounds like yet another dance move I’ll never try without a few drinks (joke’s on you, suckers, I don’t drink), “jimping” is not at all related to limping, jumping or even pimping. When we’re talking about writing knives in fiction, jimping is the row of toothy grooves roughly located where the handle meets the blade. Like blade tangs, jimping is an overlooked part of choosing a knife for a character.

Here’s a look at what I’m talking about. This is my Benchmade Nimravus Cub II, my favorite fixed blade knife in fiction and reality.

What is Jimping Writing Knives Fiction

“Jimping” is sometimes spelled as “gimping,” although the first version is how I’d write it.

What Jimping Does

Jimping provides a better grip by giving the user’s thumb (or sometimes an index finger) something to bite into as it slips over the blade while working the knife.

You’ve probably slid a thumb or other finger in the same way while preparing food or opening packaging because it felt natural to you. Jimping is like Velcro to help your digit stay put.

Not every knife design uses jimping, though. It depends on the company or person making the knife.

Matching a Knife to a Character

When you’re choosing a knife for a character, look for models that include jimping if the story calls for hard use. That could go for doing battle with an undead horde, survival situations, military or law enforcement characters, private detectives or any character in need of a no-fail grip on that knife.

The Shortcut

Jimping also provides a shortcut for research. Where there’s jimping, there usually are other design elements present that make the knife ready for whatever hell the character puts it through. That includes handle design, blade geometry, materials and other features better explained in a different post.

In my opinion, jimping offers the most benefits when it’s on fixed blade knives, such as that Benchmade in the image. Although jimping is present on some folding, automatic and assisted opening knives, I don’t think it’s significant enough to make a big difference. The jimping isn’t as ergonomic or aggressive, and its benefits can’t be exploited as much because applying too much pressure can make the knife accidentally fold shut onto a finger (ouch). It’s there for looks. That’s just my view, though. I’m sure others feel differently.


This VASP, made by Columbia River Knife & Tool, is an example of a folding knife with jimping. You can see it just behind that hole in the blade. However, that POCKET lettering and the red stripe are not examples of jimping. That’s an example of marketing. (CRKT photo)

Folding Knives: A Tradeoff

Speaking of drawbacks to folders, ruggedness and durability are sacrificed for portability and convenience with any knife that folds. That’s a big decision you’ll have to make for your characters, writerfolk. Folding knives fail (bend, break, refuse to open or close, get ugly-fied, etc.) more often during hard use than their fixed blade cousins. There’s a true story from crime writer Les Edgerton in The Writer’s Guide to Weapons about exactly that. However, fixed blades aren’t as flashy as automatic (aka switchblades), assisted opening and folding knives. Do you want looks or practicality? It’s up to you.

Assault Weapons vs. Assault Rifles vs. What You’ve Heard

m16 vs ar15

When it comes to researching firearms for a story, don’t go by looks. One of these is a genuine assault rifle, and it’s limited to military use. The other is a model any U.S. civilian with a clean record could own, and is not an assault rifle. Can you tell the difference? Leave a comment with your guesses. (Photos via Colt and Gun Digest)

One of my favorite crime writers, Benjamin Whitmer, author of my pick for the best crime novel of 2014, Cry Father, made a post on his website today that caught my eye. It mentions a bit about politics and the president, two subjects I try to avoid on this blog, but I couldn’t ignore his excellent point about the terms “assault weapons” and “assault rifles.”

Here it is, excerpted with permission:

Assault weapon is a political term for rifles that are cosmetically similar to real assault rifles, but without the actual capability. Meaning, they are semi-automatic only rifles, where you pull the trigger once and only one round is fired. The primary defining characteristic of a real assault rifle is that is selective fire, meaning it has the ability to be fired in fully automatic or burst fire mode. Usually what assault weapon means is a small caliber .223 rifle that fires in semi-automatic mode — like many other rifles and almost all handguns — but looks kind of scary.

What to Use

Whitmer covers a lot of ground in a few sentences, so let me recap.

Assault weapon: There is no set definition for what this actually is. It changes with the political climate. Some people pull the “I know one when I see one” a la obscenity. But that’s not good enough for items that have defined mechanical functions. It either isn’t or it is. I’d avoid using this term in your writing.

Assault rifle: This refers specifically to a rifle that can switch between semi-automatic and fully automatic modes. That means the shooter can pull the trigger and the gun will fire only one time OR multiple times so long as the trigger is pulled, depending on which mode the shooter has selected via a toggle switch. That ability to switch back and forth is referred to as “select-fire” or “selective-fire.” Per federal law, assault rifles made after May 19, 1986, may not be possessed by U.S. civilians. If you’re specifically referring to select-fire rifles in a story, use “assault rifle.” Otherwise, don’t use it.

Tactical rifle: This is a much better catch-all term for rifles with features that might be suited for combat or self-defense, but aren’t exclusive to those purposes. Don’t overthink this. Use “tactical rifle” as a default whenever you get the itch to toss in “assault weapon.”

The Confusion

Where this confuses people is when civilian firearms start to look like military firearms but actually aren’t. Take the picture up top. One of those is an M16, which is a legitimate assault rifle. The other is an AR-15, which looks like an assault rifle, but only fires once per pull of the trigger (it’s a semi-automatic, not a select-fire). That’s a huge difference. The AR-15 isn’t an assault rifle, even though it looks identical.

Adding to that confusion is when the terms “assault weapon” and “military-style” are thrown around. Those words don’t mean anything. With guns (and knives), appearances are misleading. The only things you need to know about when assigning a firearm to a character as it pertains to the law of your settings are:

  1. How the firearm functions
  2. How that function relates to the law

A Good Example: The AR-15

If you’re interested in learning more, I highly recommend you read the What Is an AR-15? post from the archive. And for an example of a novel that gets its guns right, check out Whitmer’s Cry Father.

How Gun Smoke Can Shape a Scene

Gunsmoke Shooting Writing Tips

Handguns usually kick out more smoke per shot given there isn’t a long barrel to trap the smoke as it dissipates. This is especially true with cheap ammunition. Generally speaking, if your character can afford or has access to premium ammunition, there won’t be as much smoke because the powder burns cleaner. In that way, the amount of smoke might be an indicator of who the character is in a gunfight scene. Scrappy characters using cheap ammo would be surrounded by more smoke, and professional gunfighters would be clouded in less. (Photo by milan6 via sxc.hu)

Crime writer James Pierson dropped a question into the comments on the What’s that Smell? Cordite vs. Gunpowder vs. Propellant article, and I thought it’d be helpful to turn it into its own post. As always, I’m happy to help with any writerly questions on guns and knives. Just leave a comment or use the submission form.

Here’s James’s question:

In my scene there’s a big shootout indoors (a medium sized, poorly ventilated warehouse) with multiple shooters firing automatic weapons. How strong would the smell be and are the modern propellants completely smokeless?

And here’s my response:

“Smokeless” powders/propellants are sort of like “stainless” steel and rust in that they’re less smoky but not smoke-free. A lot depends on the quality of the ammunition and the firearm. Cheap ammo, like the kind I buy for target shooting, is smokier than the premium rounds a professional would use for gunfighting. Based on what you’ve described with your scene in the poorly ventilated warehouse, I’d say multiple gunshots would leave a haze similar to cigarette smoke.

As far as the smell, it’s sort of like trying to describe the taste of chocolate. Everyone is going to have a different take on it. I think modern propellants smell like sweet charcoal smoke with a hint of sulfur. In your warehouse scene, the smell would be strong and obvious to everyone in the room, but not so much that it would choke someone. Think burning toast strong, but not burning house, if that makes any sense.

While we’re on the topic, here’s how the FBI defines smokeless powder:

Smokeless powders are a class of propellants that were developed in the late 19th century to replace black powder. The term smokeless refers to the minimal residue left in the gun barrel following the use of smokeless powder.

Best wishes on your debut novel, James! Thanks for stopping by.

What’s a Good Cop Knife?

Protech automatic knives

Here’s a shortcut: Just write in a Protech automatic knife. Protech makes great automatics (aka switchblades in the modern era) that would work well in almost any scenario in fiction. Of course, the shortcut to the shortcut is to keep it simple by writing “knife” and leaving it at that. Remember to keep depictions equally generic. (Photo via BLADE magazine)

The post What’s a Good Cop Gun? attracted a nice chunk of traffic, so I figured it needed a follow up post about “cop knives.” That’s not a term I’ve heard used often in fiction or writing groups, but for the sake of this post let’s assume it means “a knife a law enforcement character would carry as an everyday tool.”

Just as with “cop guns,” there isn’t a single type of knife that’s made only for law enforcement. Knife companies and independent knifemakers will design knives with law enforcement agencies in mind, but that doesn’t mean there’s a separate category of just those knives.

It varies by department, but what typically happens is an officer receives a stipend (or not) to purchase a knife, as well as other gear. There might be a set of guidelines the officer must stay inside or there might not. Unlike Joe and Jane Citizen, the law allows police officers to purchase otherwise restricted knives. That includes automatic knives (aka switchblades), which are explained in this post.

Key Features of a “Cop Knife”

From my experience working at BLADE, there are a few key features found in the knives designed for law enforcement:

  • Durability: The more modern materials, the better. So long, grandpa’s old pocketknife.
  • One-hand opening: Assisted opening knives, automatic knives and ergonomic folding knives are great picks. However, remember that a fixed blade knife (that means the blade doesn’t fold) doesn’t need to open. It just needs to be taken out of its sheath.
  • Reliable opening: When the knife needs to open, it better open. Cheap knives made by obscure brands tend to get stuck more often. It’s like anything else. You get what you pay for. Reputable brands are a better bet. Off the top of my head, it’s hard to go wrong with Kershaw, CRKT, Spyderco, SOG, Ka Bar, Zero Tolerance, Emerson Knives, Benchmade, Protech or BLACKHAWK!, although that’s not a complete list.
  • Strong lock: The lock is the mechanism that secures the blade in place when a folding knife is open. Unintentional closing can cost a finger.
  • A reasonable blade length: A big knife isn’t going to cut it for a character who needs to lug it around all day on a belt or in a pocket. Look for knives with a blade length around three inches.

It’s not a necessity, but it’s somewhat common for these knives to sport tanto blades, which you can more read about here.

Keep these traits in mind when you’re researching a knife for a law enforcement character. If you’re stuck, most knife retail websites have a separate category for “tactical knives.” Start there. Tactical knives are designed for hard use.

Some Real World Examples

During my eye-opening trip to the Hennepin County Jail, I had the opportunity to ask Sheriff Rich Stanek about the knives his deputies use. He didn’t mention any model names, but he did say most choose Spyderco knives. The large thumbholes on most Spyderco knives makes them easy to open with one hand, which probably played a large part in that choice.

Here are two of the most popular knives Spyderco makes: the Endura (top) and the Delica (bottom). (image via BLADE)


The Endura sports a 3.75-inch blade, while the Delica is a bit shorter with a 2.75-incher. Both open manually (i.e. it doesn’t pop open with a device inside like a switchblade) by working the thumbhole in the blade. This boosts reliability in that the knife will always open so long as the user has a thumb. (Sorry, thumbless characters.) Either is a great pick for a “cop knife,” as well as for all-around use by just about any character.

Over at Gun Digest, the Ka Bar TDI Law Enforcement Knife keeps popping up in the articles and books we publish. This is a fixed blade knife, but it’s designed for fast deployment. The curved design makes for a strong grip. The blade length is shy of 2.5 inches. (image via Ka Bar)

TDI Law Enforcement Knife Writing Knives

Of course, automatic knives are a popular pick, too. They open with the push of a button on the handle. Out of the many options out there, I think the Benchmade 9052 is a good choice. (image via Benchmade)

Benchmade 9052 police officer character writing fiction

Don’t Let Appearances Fool You

While researching, you’ll quickly notice that a good deal of tactical and automatic knives suited for police are black from handle to tip. That might seem like a nice shortcut (just pick a black knife that looks cool), but it’s also a little misleading.

Black knives are as much a marketing trick as anything else. Not long ago, companies could get away with charging extra for a black knife despite it offering nothing beyond an identical model made with different colors of materials.

Use the specs and product descriptions to guide your pick, not the colors. Black knives are supposed to be more discreet in tactical situations, but that’s not always the case. Of course, a knife with a blaze orange handle is going to stick out for miles, but I think you get my point.

Your Characters’ Knives

What about you? What knives do you give your law enforcement characters?

What’s that Smell? Cordite vs. Gunpowder vs. Propellant

TLDR: Avoid depicting cordite, use gunpowder as a default, reference propellant to look like a smarty pants.

Gunpowder propellant cordite fiction writing

Modern gunpowder (aka propellant) doesn’t always look like a powder. It’s still OK to call it gunpowder when writing, though.

When articles debunk common firearm tropes in fiction, they usually mention how the “smell of cordite” isn’t in the air after a gunfight. Cordite’s heyday as the powder that makes a gun go bang started in the late 1800s and ended with the close of World War II. That means scenes set after 1945 wouldn’t include cordite.

What isn’t usually explained is a better alternative. Browse the aisles of a sporting goods store (always a good idea when researching guns and knives) and you’ll spot canisters labeled gunpowder, blackpowder, propellant, smokeless powder, blackpowder substitute, muzzleloader powder, Pyrodex® and other proprietary names, and itching powder (wait, turn around, you’ve left the store and wandered into a Three Stooges sketch). They all do about the same thing, so why are there so many kinds?

Different powders are designed for specific purposes. Some are designed for older firearms that can’t take the extreme pressures of modern powders. Others are high-performance rocket fuel for the latest guns. These commercial powders are used to manufacture ammunition at home or as part of a business. (Yes, that’s legal to do in the civilian world.)

Cheat Sheet

You don’t need to know the specifics to determine the best term to use in your writing. This cheat sheet sums it up nicely, but by no means is an exhaustive list.

Blackpowder/Black Powder (pick one and be consistent) – Use this term in settings from from the dawn of firearms in 9th century China to the 1880s. Antique or vintage-style firearms would use blackpowder after that.

Cordite – Only use in settings from about 1889 to 1945. Fun fact: instead of powder, cordite actually looks like tiny spaghetti noodles.

* Gunpowder – A blanket term OK to use in any setting, even if the material isn’t too powder-y. This gets the gold star as the best go-to term. Writing this as gun powder isn’t common.

Propellant – Any substance that makes a gun go bang is technically a propellant, but today this usage normally applies to a variety of modern powders that don’t always look powder-y to the eye. Check out the cylinder-shaped grains in the photo at the top for an example. Use propellant if a modern character is exceptionally familiar with firearms or if you want your writing to look hip.

What’s that Smell?

Although they’re similar, each formula of powder has a distinct aroma to hang in characters’ nostrils. I’ve never caught a whiff of cordite, but you can get the sense of it by sticking your schnoz near some nail polish remover. Acetone is a primary ingredient in both nail polish remover and cordite. I’ve read that cordite smoke is sharp and a little sweet.

Blackpowder smoke is musty and sulfuric. The farther back in history you go, the worse it probably smelled, although I don’t have a source for that. Impurities likely made their way into the powder as people made the stuff in all sorts of conditions. And nothing smells better than burning horse shit.

Most modern gunpowder/propellant has an acrid bite to it, but it usually isn’t overwhelming. Much depends on the kind of firearm and whether the shooter is indoors or outdoors. There’s a reason indoor gun ranges use high-tech ventilation systems. (OK, sometimes that tech is just a window, but still.)

As for any other unusual smells on the scene, I’m looking at you, dear writer. I won’t judge you unless you blame it on the dog.

Using a Pillow as a Silencer

Silencers (aka suppressors) usually receive some goosing up in the physics department when they’re used in fiction. But what about the old pillow-as-silencer trope? Is there any truth to that?

Short answer: no. Pillows do a bad job of containing the explosive gases released by a gunshot. Hell, they can barely contain snoring.

Here’s an excellent video demonstrating this with live ammo, different types of pillows and a decibel meter.

For some perspective, here’s a decibel scale from OSHA. Even with the pillows, the gunshots in the video surpassed the noise made from an airplane taking off.


Also, despite what the movie Postal might suggest, cats don’t make for effective silencers/suppressors, either. Not even the fluffy ones.

What are Those Wavy Things on that Knife Blade?

When researching knives for a story, you may come across wavy patterns on the blade that look like this:

Screen Shot 2015-02-21 at 1.14.59 PM

Without getting too technical, those waves are created by layering the steel used to make the blade. The result is called “damascus” steel. A wave pattern is just one of the shapes found in damascus steel. The smith can create any number of wacky designs, from hearts, stars and horseshoes to clovers and blue moons. Er, wait, that’s the jingle for Lucky Charms. But the point is still the same.

Some say damascus steel is stronger or longer lasting than “regular” steel. I’d say there are too many variables to make that judgement call. It’s strictly a design element that looks cool and adds a nice touch to a knife. Here’s an example from one of my own knives.


In this case, the damascus steel has a “raindrop” pattern instead of wavy lines like in the example above. It’s still damascus either way.

When writing, the only time I imagine you’d reference damascus is to look in-the-know about knives, which is fine by me. Because damascus is pricey and most often used for aesthetics, I wouldn’t depict it on knives designed for hard use.

How Loud is a Silencer?

Here’s a handy chart detailing the noise levels of silenced (aka “suppressed”) firearms. This is excerpted from an infographic from Silencerco.

The takeaway: silencers/suppressors aren’t as convenient as fiction would like to think. Get creative in those stealthy scenes. What other ways are there to be silent but deadly? (er, wait…)



If you’re having a hard time reading that chart, here’s the breakdown (in decibels).

  • Library whisper – 30 db
  • Emergency vehicle siren – 115 db
  • Silenced .22 rifle – 116 db
  • Thunder – 120 db
  • Silenced 9mm pistol – 125 db
  • Dish breaking – 129 db
  • Jackhammer – 130 db
  • Silenced .223 rifle – 134 db
  • Silenced 12 gauge shotgun – 137 db
  • Jet taking off – 150 db
  • Non-silenced 12 gauge shotgun – 160 db
  • Non-silenced .223 rifle – 165 db

Guide to Knife Anatomy

These excellent illustrations and descriptions come from BladeHQ.


Anatomy of an Automatic Knife

Automatic knives are designed primarily for Military, Police and EMT duty, these knives are simple to open in an emergency. This is done by pushing a firing button or pulling a lever. Check the laws in your area before purchasing an automatic knife, as they are restricted in many areas.

Anatomy of an Automatic Knife InfographicAn infographic by the team at Blade HQ

Anatomy of a Manual / Spring Assisted Folding Knife

Manual knives are legal in most areas, which means they are extremely common. Often, this type of knife is also recognized as a “pocket knife.” Spring assisted knives are roughly the same as manual knives, but they have a spring inside the handle that helps deploy the blade much faster. Spring assisted knives typically have a thumb stud and/or flipper.

Anatomy of a Manual / Spring Assisted Folding KnifeAn infographic by the team at Blade HQ

Anatomy of a Fixed Blade Knife

Fixed blade knives don’t fold or contract, like other types of knives. Fixed blades are perfect for nearly any use—they are carried by sportsmen, hunters, campers, and more.

Anatomy of a Fixed Blade KnifeAn infographic by the team at Blade HQ

Anatomy of an Out The Front Knife

Out The Front knives are similar to automatic knives in many ways; they are opened by pushing a thumb slide or pulling a lever, but with an OTF knife the blade always deploys out the front of the handle—not the side, like automatic knives. OTF knives are restricted in many areas so be certain to consult your local laws before purchasing these items.

Anatomy of an Out The Front KnifeAn infographic by the team at Blade HQ

Anatomy of a Butterfly Knife

Some people spend years trying to master the skill of flipping butterfly knives, A.K.A. balisong knives. It’s debatable whether it’s more fun to flip a butterfly knife or to watch someone flip— it looks really cool, and it’s practically mesmerizing.

Anatomy of a Butterfly KnifeAn infographic by the team at Blade HQ


Should Characters “Dig Out” Bullet Injuries?

A_bullet_in_the_base_of_a_brain,_viewed_through_x-ray._Photo_Wellcome_L0000624Photo via Wikimedia


Not having been shot by a gun (thankfully), I’m a little naive in the department of gunshot injuries. However, a Facebook conversation the other day brought up the topic of characters treating gunshot wounds. Books, movies and TV shows will often depict a character “digging out the bullet” before wrapping up the wound.

This makes for great thematics, but I always doubted the practicality of digging out the bullet first. It turns out I’m right (self-high five), according to one of my favorite sources for ditch medicine, theLiving Ready Pocket Manual: First Aid (disclaimer: we publish this at my work, and you should go buy it right now).

The author, Dr. James Hubbard, MD, recommends forgetting about the bullet until the wounded person (or character, in this case) can get to a hospital for proper assessment and treatment. Instead, focus on stopping the bleeding (apply pressure/coagulant), treating the wounded for shock (keep warm with blankets) and monitoring symptoms for relaying to a real doctor.

Hubbard has this to say about “digging out the bullet” ahead of real medical treatment:

In most circumstances, you don’t want to remove an implanted bullet. It’s almost impossible to find, and it may actually be corking up a big blood vessel.

Thousands of military members live with shrapnel in their bodies every day. Unless there’s initial infection from the wound itself, the body adapts to most metal without much serious problem.

The exact thing happened to Dick Moonlight, novelist Vincent Zandri’s PI character. A shard of bullet left over from a botched suicide attempt remained in the titular character’s head, causing him to black out at inconvenient moments. It’s suggested the doctors can’t remove the shard without killing him. Moonlight may be a work of fiction, but that’s pretty close to reality.