Improvised Weapons for the N(o)PE

There's a trend in the edgier end of the tactical community to talk about improvised weapons. How much of it is realistic? Check us out for our answer.

December 30, 2019
ISG Team


There's some strange space in the overlap of the tactical community's Venn diagram. Somewhere in between lock-picking, shooting, survivalism, and martial arts, there's a gray space where the edgy kids gather to play rebel. They claim to be using the secrets of tradecraft and the criminal underworld, and it has been making a significant impact.

Born from a desire to be able to improvise efficient tools anywhere, there are developers making 'low signature' weapons that emulate those used in the seedy street culture of the homeless, the drug-addicted, and the criminal.

We've got one problem with this, and it's a big one: 

It's all fake. While there may be some tools like this used in prison, or extremely restrictive foreign nations, the lack of efficacy, durability, and utility means the trend of 'discreet' improvised weapons is entirely fraudulent.

When we say fake, we mean this from a perspective of having dealt with street people on a street person level, and it's from that perspective that this article is being written.

Street Culture and Weapons

Fashion for the 'gram, close to useless in reality. When you see these things, think to yourself "Artist's Interpretation". Really similar to the knives you see in a gas station.

Contrary to pop culture, most homeless people aren't usually violent. While mental illness runs rampant in homeless populations (and indeed, may be considered a 'cause' of homelessness), only a very small percentage of them are violent, or addicted to drugs like meth or crack (which *are* associated with violence and risky behavior), but by and large, they're docile and drug addicted. While desperation may play into their decision making, most are not bold, risk-taking criminals with big ambitions. They're meek, timid, drug-addled, and adrift.

"Criminal activity isn't a staple characteristic of these people," Fischer says. "It may be more accurate to think of them as people struggling to get by."
-American Psychological Association, 'New insights on homelessness and violence"

The idea of "hobo tactical", for example, is mind-numbing for the utter lack of forethought. When your list of priorities in life looks something like this:

  1. Breathable oxygen
  2. Dope
  3. ...Everything else

It doesn't leave a ton of space for calculating, cold-blooded tactics, and you're crazy if you think hobos, who are largely drunks and opioid addicts, sit around in cardboard boxes improvising weapons all night.

Does that mean the homeless don't arm themselves? 
No. Of course not - they do.

What it means is they're not sharpening ice picks, or making blades from putty knives.

The reason? 

They, like almost every other human on the planet, have access to real knives, or better weapons. The streets aren't prison, and if a cop shakes you down and finds you with a sharpened ice pick, he's not going to say "oh, I guess this guy is just chipping ice, might as well turn him loose."

...Because cops, unlike the tactical community, aren't retarded.

They know a weapon, be it improvised or not, so pretending your improvised tool is 'low pro' is a laughably bad miscalculation.

When to Improvise

Not a bad option if you have to improvise, but the sheath says "this is intentional", not "improvised". If you can buy a knife, there are probably better options... and there's no plausible deniability here. This is obviously being carried for defense.

Improvisation does happen. One person we interviewed recalled an attack that happened with a regular pen.

So what do street people use as weapons? 

"Whatever they can get ahold of."

More often than not, what they can get ahold of fall into two loose categories:

  1. Edged weapons
  2. Blunt weapons

The ubiquitous pocket knife is lower profile than a sharpened ice pick. If you haven't seen it, now vendors are selling pointed pens that look like Crayola markers as "low signature" defensive tools. They're selling sharpened paring knives and box cutters.

Real talk: Who buys that?

You think an adult has any business with a Crayola marker? ANY adult who thinks that's going to slip notice is wildly out of touch with reality.

Almost any adult you come across would see that and be thinking "well, that's a weird thing for a grown man to be carrying around." This particularly bad idea has the added benefit of being a weapon that will attract children's attention. Brilliant work, guys.

Same with a box cutter. If you're not opening boxes at WalMart, it's out of place.

The entire purpose of being 'gray' is blending in and doing things in such a way that if you *are* forced to resort to violence, everyone is completely caught off guard and thinks to themselves "holy s***, I thought he was just a regular person".

There are arguably no people more invisible than the homeless. They're societies "untouchables". We shy away from them, avoid eye contact, get uncomfortable when they're around, and promptly forget them. They live without addresses or social security numbers or checking accounts. There's a ton we can learn from them in terms of how to be resourceful in a "worst case" scenario.

Not on that list is "weapons selection".

So, just like on the street, if you're caught in a moment of unpredictable violence, you can improvise by grabbing a brick, a rock, a pen, or a purpose built tool... but if you have access to better weapons, why not do exactly what they'd do and use the better weapon?

Blunt Weapons
Actual improvised weapons found in actual squats. Homeless people understand police can identify the difference between weapons (improvised or not) and tools. While some of this varies by location, it's legal to have a hammer nearly anywhere.

One of the things we see most common among the homeless, in their squats or in their packs is the blunt weapon. This could be an axe or a hammer, but the method of injury is blunt force trauma when used.

So, why do the homeless carry blunt weapons? 
For two main reasons:

  1. Plausible deniability.
  2. Utilitarian use.

Think about this: You're a cop and you come up on a squat. You see a sharpened garden trowel. Does that stand out?

How about a hammer or a hatchet?

Here's what we need to look for: 


If someone creates weapon intentionally out of a normal object, they're showing that they've got violence on their mind. Backpackers carry hatchets. Hammers are ubiquitous and good for pounding heads or setting up camps. They're easy to find, easy to steal, and don't raise huge red flags. They're not serialized and don't come in wide varieties... so it's hard to say "wait, that's MY hammer!" if it turns up in an evidence locker.

They're multipurpose items that aren't high risk to be caught with and generally are available and cheap. If someone confiscates it, oh well... they're probably not going to arrest you unless the thing has blood and chunks of hair on it. It's just a hammer.

Carrying around an improvised weapon won't keep you low profile if you get the shakedown, and it's not really good for much of anything - violence or otherwise.

When you carry your entire world in a cart or on your back, this is how you think.

When you dig through social media trying to find what's cool this week, you buy pointy Crayola markers.

Efficacy and Interdisciplinary Fighting

Improvised weapons really aren't amazingly effective.

Not only are they easy to break (metals are rated for a reason, check "Bring a Knife to a Gunfight" for more on how kitchen knives snap off in bone), but they're hard to carry on your person as well. Whereas a simple pocket knife can fold up and go in a pocket, how do you carry an ice pick? How about a putty knife?

Another hammer in another squat. The ball peen hammer is commonly carried by bikers because they trash helmets and are effective at cracking skulls.

While several of us have experienced fights with knives present, we draw heavily on known research on edged weapons.

Piercing weapons such as ice picks or screwdrivers really can be tremendously effective - but paring knives, pointy tipped pens, box cutters, and so forth typically only result in superficial slashes, which aren't immediately incapacitating.

Where talks on efficacy often stop is "what happens in a mixed weapon environment?"

Well, typically, a fight. If you've got a marginally effective tool and you engage in a fight with someone who has a more developed fighter's triangle (see Hard Lessons: Fights), you'll probably end up losing the positing and posture needed to effectively *use* a contact weapon, be it improvised or not.

If you're escaping from prison and you need to shank a guard, improvised tools and ambush might be the right recipe. But for the regular person, you're FAR better off with a well rounded striking and grappling game, and good awareness.

So what if you're outside the U.S. and you can't find a good knife? Well, we have to stop seeing the weapon as the only solution. As we've discussed time and time again, Awareness, Judgment, being fit enough to run or fight... those all work in the place of a poorly crafted impromptu weapon.

Spend time working against opponents who have training knives (or handguns, for that matter) to get used to how they're handled in an entanglement. You'll see it's still a game of physical chess, and even empty-handed, you have some advantages.

Who causes trouble?

Among street level offenders, there are three demographics that are likely to use violence:

  1. Drunks
  2. Gang members
  3. Desperate (dope sick) Junkies

Drunks aren't really different in any sphere of violence. They're as unpredictable and dangerous to the police as they are to the citizen.

Gang members in this context are usually in some position of the supply/distribution chain for illegal drugs. Not only are they organized enough to have some risk mitigation, but they're connected enough that if a desperate junkie tries to rob them, the junkie better catch a bus way the hell out of there, because they'll probably end up dead.

As to the junkies... well, if you've ever seen a junkie in a state of dope sickness, it's a spectrum with 'flu-like' symptoms on one end, and some pretty hard core delusions and erratic behavior on the other. They'll do just about anything to 'get well', but let's face it, their ambition/desperation isn't really in lock step with their ability.

Also worth keeping in mind is that regardless of alias or lack of address, street people know one another. If someone gets punched in the nose, well, that's just the dominance game. If someone ends up a chalk outline, it ups the ante, just like it would for a everyday citizen.

If you're worried about desperate junkies, keep in mind they're predominately thieves and aren't known for being determined fighters. This can have some variation between sub-cultures (heroin addicts are far more docile than crack addicts, FWIW), but what does that mean to you, as a regular person?

It means if you aren't getting involved in drugs your chances of dealing with any of this is pretty slim.


This is the long way around making a really, REALLY simple pair of points that almost shouldn't even need to be made:

  1. Weapons can be improvised on the fly out of pretty much anything.
  2. If you can get a purpose built tool for the job, that's always preferable.

Just like people 15 years ago talking about using tampons to stop bleeding, we have people who've never been in a knife fight talking about fighting with knives, improvising weapons, and determining efficacy by stabbing pig carcasses.

We're going to follow Hanlon's Razor and say that we shouldn't attribute to malice what can be adequately explained by stupidity.

While we don't want to insinuate that these guys are stupid - they're not, they're probably making more money than we are by peddling weird stuff to edge lords and knife goths - that doesn't make them experts on using those tools.

So, to summarize:

  1. Homeless people can teach us a few things about urban survival. Weapon selection isn't really one of them.
  2. If you have to improvise a weapon, there will probably be some serious consequences for using it. Think that through ahead of time.
  3. Knives are a lethal force tool with a 7% chance of lethality (statistically, in the 1st world). Having one in a non-permissive environment ups the stakes, and shouldn't be done to replace some decent hand to hand skills (which can be taken anywhere and are pretty hard to prohibit).

Chances are, you already know this. It's probably nothing new to you if you're at ISG. But it might be to your friends or colleagues who off-handedly mention a passing interest and are easily lured into the weird "what's happening now" school of thought in the tactical industry.

Pass this their way, if so. Maybe you'll save their life.

Cheers (and probably some jeers),

ISG Team

join the pack

Get personalized training & consultation.


Latest articles


Concussions, the Silent Epidemic

One in Four Americans report to having suffered a concussion, but not nearly that amount know what to do about it.

Level Up

Intro to K9 Emergencies: IFAK Composition

Dogs get hurt, too. What you need to patch them up isn't all-too-different from what you'd use on yourself, but the differences are important.

News & Events

Particle Collider to Blame for 2020, leading scientists say

Breaking news: Leading scientists believe act of slamming together "God particles" may have awakened cosmic wrath.


Special Forces Worship

The preparedness community loves guns, and our SF units are the major leagues of using them. But is right for them right for us?

Level Up

CAT TQ 101

The Combat Application Tourniquet (CAT) from North American Rescue is easily the most ubiquitous tourniquet in the North American landscape. Heres some tips.

Level Up

Ruth Stout's "No Work Gardening" Method

If you're looking to plant a garden but don't have the time for digging and soil amendment, give this a try. All you need is hay, seeds, and a patch of ground.

Firearm Skills

Pistol Shooting Drills 201

A collection of warm-up pistol drills to work at on the range. Focusing on the fundamentals and marksmanship.


Collecting Hammers and the Pillars of Skill Building

There's an adage in the training world; "tools for the toolbox". but are people really building a complete and useful panoply of skills, or collecting hammers?


Selecting a Backpack

From the mundane to the opulent, we've tested a wide variety of backpacks for sustainment, fieldcraft, and emergencies. Here are some of our takeaways.


Neosho Falls

In the interest of both history and adventure, we often travel to place that have been left behind. This is one of their stories.

The Deep End

Gell-Mann Amnesia and Group Identity

Schopenhauer said "All truth passes through 3 stages". Here we discuss why ridicule and violent opposition are the defenses of weak organizations.


Building an ISG Rig 3: Land Rover Discovery II Roverhaul

The Land Rover Discovery II was a vampire of the car world, notoriously sucking owners dry with repair bills. They also had some superhuman capability off road.

never miss an update.

Get all the newest articles sent to you first.

Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.