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I run a knife-throwing club and have taught more than 1,000 people how to enjoy the sport safely. Among them was Lenny Henry, who needed to learn how to throw a knife for a production of Othello, which opened in Leeds in 2009 and then went on to the West End. He wasn’t a natural but he never had an accident on stage.
I’ve always been interested in archery and darts, and in 2005 I decided I wanted to learn how to throw knives too. I practised at my home in Pontefract, Yorkshire, but found that it was a lot harder to be accurate than I had expected. It was frustrating because when I went online, I couldn’t find anybody in this country who could teach me.
Then I spotted a convention being held in Austin, Texas, organised by a group called the International Knife Throwers Hall of Fame. It was an open invitation to visit and meet other people involved in the sport. I decided the only way I was going to improve was to buy a plane ticket and get out there myself.
Meeting other people with the same interest was a revelation. There were men and women throwers, even children. The sport is much bigger in the US than it is in Europe. I was the first foreigner to attend one of the conventions and they made me feel very welcome. All the throwers have a nickname and they wanted to call me Big John, because I’m 6ft 4in and 18st. But they already had somebody with that name, so I became Little John.
When I got home to Yorkshire, I started practising a lot more. I find that I switch off when I start throwing and forget about any worries. My wife doesn’t understand why I spend so much time throwing but it is relaxing.
Learners should start with knives at least 12in long and weighing around 15oz. That’s because if a knife is short and the thrower stands too close to the target, there is a risk that it might bounce back and injure them. So, standing six yards away, a longer, heavier knife is less awkward to throw and less likely to cause an injury.
Throwing an axe or tomahawk is actually easier. The axe head is much more likely to stick into the target because of the weight distribution. I’ve never injured myself – or anyone else – in eight years of throwing but, of course, safety is the most important factor. It’s not something you should try at home without proper instruction and the right kind of knives. I’m 62 and I spent 30 years as a policeman trying to protect people from knives – but it’s a very safe sport if everybody follows the same rules.
Being a good thrower comes down to practice and trial and error. I grip the knife by the blade or handle, depending on its weight and the throwing distance. A beginner might stand about 8ft from the target, eyes on the bullseye, throwing from above the shoulder and following through. The idea is to ensure your knife lands horizontal near the bullseye every time, then you can start to increase the throwing distance.
It took me a year before I was confident enough to throw around a human target.
I was nervous, but an American friend thought I was ready and volunteered to stand in front of the board. The knives don’t have a sharp blade but they do have a point, which could obviously cause an injury. Since then I have appeared on the History Channel and in the television drama Heartbeat throwing knives. I’m also a qualified instructor.
Four years ago I helped set up the Knife, Axe, Tomahawk Throwing Association UK (knifethrowing.co.uk). We have a clubhouse in Yorkshire with 15 throwing lanes and more than 60 members around the country. I think people are sometimes drawn into the sport because of what they see in films but that’s pure Hollywood – the truth is nobody can throw a blade as accurately as they do there.
Photograph: Christopher Nunn