Think your job is tough? Try getting tied to a spinning board called the “Wheel of Death” and having sharp steel blades thrown at you. Indeed the impalement arts are not for the faint of heart performer. But contrary to the name, success in the art form actually relies on not impaling the target, which is usually a human being.
Dating back to ancient times, marksmanship has always been a form of entertainment as well as test of skill between warriors. But marksmanship specifically with the use of a human target did not become popular until the growth of the American circus in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Specifically one man, Buffalo Bill, caused a rise of interest in the impalement arts with his Wild West Shows, which toured across Europe and gave people a taste of the newly founded wild west with shooting, knife throwing, bullwhip, and archery demonstrations. As the American circus grew grander, knife throwing became a standard sideshow attraction. Sideshows were extra productions that could be viewed at an additional fee, and usually featured such things as freaks, museum items, girly shows, or acts of skill such as fire breathing, sword swallowing, lying on a bed of nails, and of course knife throwing.
The standard knife throwing show involved the thrower and his assistant, who was almost always a woman (most often referred to as “target girl”), and usually dressed in risqué clothing, giving the art a slightly sexual and sadomasochistic, if not misogynistic, undertone. The woman would stand in front of a board in various positions while the marksman would attempt to hit the surrounding board as close as possible to her body. Some popular tricks included the profile, the headstand, and the very dangerous “Wheel of Death,” in which the assistants body was tied to moving circular board spinning on its axis. The idea of a moving target was brought to the states by the German husband and wife duo known as “the Gibsons,” who introduced the wheel to the states in 1938 at the Ringling Bros. Circus in Madison Square Garden. Among other popular tricks, another favorite among throwers was balloon bursting, which involved popping balloons pinned to the board or held in the assistants’ hands or teeth. Cutting straw or a flower stem was also popular, which consisted of having the assistant hold such an item in her teeth and taking off pieces with each throw of a knife. And although highly risky, a handful of acts also partook in the covered target, in which the assistant was blocked by a paper or other material, forcing the thrower to remember her exact position.
As the invention of television killed the circus, the impalement arts found a new home in TV variety shows. But contrary to depictions in pop culture (specifically a very popular I Love Lucy episode), knife throwing never involved illusion or trickery, such as imitation knives popping in reverse through the backboard. Accidents do happen, in fact sometimes even on television, as is with the 2003 case of Yana Rodionova, who was injured by her thrower Jayde Hanson while filming for British channel ITV’s This Morning program. Cases have been recorded throughout history of numerous injuries and even deaths as a result of accidents in impalement arts.
To make an excellent knife thrower consistency is key, meaning a thrower must throw the same way every time, to continually achieve the same desired results. Unlike normal kitchen knives which have a two-pieced blade and handle design, throwing knives are made of one solid piece to provide better weight distribution. A single piece must be durable on one end (so the thrower can handle it) and extremely sharp on the other, with adequate weight to provide enough force for a stick. Throwing styles differ among marksman, from spinning to no-spinning depending on the obstacles and the target intended; but no matter what, a knife should not do more than a total of 2 rotations for any target up to 30 feet away.
There are three ways a thrower can handle a knife. Best with heavier knives, the hammer grip consists of holding the knife just like a hammer and using a stiff wrist when throwing to avoid frantic rotations. Best with lighter knives, the pinch grip consists of holding the knife in between the thumb and index finger. Lastly the blade grip, which should only be done with unsharpened blades or the dull side of the blade, consists of palming the blade with the thumb and middle fingers.
All professional knife throwers must also become master physicists. When thrown from the handle, the blade of a knife goes down first allowing it to spin through the air before hitting the target. Thus if a knife hits the board sticking up, there was too much rotation in the throw. Sticking down means not enough rotation. However depending on the position of the assistant, a thrower can use rotation to his advantage. For example, with an assistant doing a back-bending profile pose, a thrower would want to end his sticks downward so as to appear closer to the assistant’s body, when in actuality the blade entering the board is a safe distance above the assistant.