The Reality Of Knife Attacks

17 Apr 2012 15:48

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As part of my self defense training I've been exposed to many situations involving a knife and even though I deal with a rubber knife, knives scare the living s*&^ out of me. I would rather be attacked by a gun than a knife, hands down, and there are many reasons, most of which are overlooked, that make knives very deadly and very difficult to defend against. Through my own training and looking at how other disciplines and methods handle defense against knives it is very clear that knives are often not given the proper respect that they deserve.

In fact, my own outlook of the reality of a violent attack has progressed just as much as the techniques I have been practicing. As a result, I'm continually trying to make training scenarios more and more realistic. Whether that involves a more aggressive attacker, more attacker improvisation, or even special equipment, you can never truly replicate, or appreciate, what can happen but we have to do our best to come close to it. In writing this, it is my goal to pass on some of what I've learned to you. But before I get into all of that, let's not forget the two most important knife defenses:

1) RUN!

2) Pick up a weapon or object to defend yourself with. It can be anything, but ideally you want something to keep the attacker outside of striking range.


Many martial arts and self defense systems cover defense against other weapons as well, namely gun and stick (longer striking objects like a baseball bat or baton), which are arguably as popular a topic as knives. The difference however between gun, knife, and stick primarily lies in the method of attack. For the most part, guns are linear attacks (barrel indicates the direction of the threat) and stick attacks are very committed (think of swinging a baseball bat) while the knife is more dynamic and maneuverable. While many defenses against a variety of armed attackers are popular and common, knives, knife attacks, and defense against knife attacks has got to be one of the most heavily covered, heavily documented, and heavily misunderstood aspects of self defense. You may ask, why is that? The reasons are very simple, based on a several characteristics of the weapon, both real and perceived:

Aspects that Make Knives Popular in the Self Defense Literature

  • Easily accessible. An average household can have anywhere from 6 to 12 (and possibly many many more) knives and that is only counting the ones in the kitchen…
  • Easily concealable. Folding knives, box cutters, folding utility knives, and razors (to name a few) can be very easily concealed in a pocket, on or in a piece of clothing, or even 'palmed' (held within the hand).
  • Easily utilized. The only thing needed to make a knife deadly is the ability to pick it up. Knives require no training in order to become deadly.
  • Used dynamically. Knife attacks are often aggressive, random in attack pattern, rapid, and very dynamic.
  • Cool. As silly and unfortunate as this sounds, knives are cool, hardcore, badass, or any number of buzz word adjectives. There is a great fascination with knives and knife fighting in general.

Traditional Defense Against Knives

Defense against knifes and edged weapons is taught within the majority of traditional martial arts and self defense disciplines. Although the forms and lessons of today are considered to be modern, many of them are better classified as modernized forms of traditional techniques. To explain this a little better we need to go back, way back, to the days where wearing a suit of armor in public didn't mean you were on your way to a comic-con.

You see, back then you had to thrust a blade in order to penetrate armor and to get enough power behind it you had to commit to the action and really drive that blade forward. As you can imagine, the attacker would make a powerful and deliberate thrusting motion and through a sequence of blocks, joint locks, or other forms of manipulation the assailant was thwarted and disarmed. However, there is a subtle detail implied in this attack that is often overlooked but the most obvious once revealed.

Look at any number of the martial arts technique videos on Youtube. Many knife defenses rely on some form of countering the momentum of the knife (forearm block), movement, weapon hand manipulation (wrist/arm lock) or any combination of these. While all of these techniques seem equally effective against the outstretched opponent's weapon, they lack one fundamental aspect. Recoil of the weapon. Multiple stabs and slashes, from different angles, are very common. Given the circumstances (someone intending to harm or kill you, adrenaline flowing, the possibility of drugs, etc.) it is not realistic to believe that an attack will consist of one "stab" or that the attacker will leave an outstretched arm for you to manipulate.

Below is a video from Paul Vunak talking about this and some other aspects of knife fighting. He does include some knife technique within the video but it is all very relevant.

Systema Knife Defense

There is one system in particular, the Russian martial art "Systema", that I strongly disagree with. While I admire the concept of bettering ones self and striving to achieve this goal, I have to disagree with their approach to knife defense (amongst other things). A lot of what Systema teaches is based on movement and body mechanics. Rather than focus on techniques and distinct sequences, it focuses more on fundamentals with learning to move in a relaxed and flowing motion at its heart. It is very much a free flowing, improvised, martial art. It is a very novel idea. It is also, however, pure fantasy to believe it will save you during a knife attack.

The movement and flow and manipulation of the attacker looks very effective at the speeds that are typically shown within Systema. Before I get an ear full, I realize that there is benefit in slower speed training. There is also an equal or greater benefit to training under stress at full speed, or at least close to it. I have seen a couple of videos that attempt to show the effectiveness at full speed, but again, they lack certain details, recoil typically being one of them. The ability to move, flow and manipulate an aggressive attacker in real time is better left to choreographed fight scenes. It is unrealistic to believe this will work against one attacker, but gets particularly ridiculous once there are 2, 3 or even more people "attacking" with knives. To get a better picture, the following video showcases some Systema knife work against both single and multiple opponents.

Knife Reality Versus Hollywood's Idea of a Knife Attack

Knives cut. It's what they are designed to do. So it shouldn't be a big surprise that they're efficient at slicing and cutting soft tissue. It won't be the same as when you tick your cat off and they scratch you, it won't be a paper cut, and it won't be the same as that time when you nicked yourself cutting an onion. It will be a large gushing, gaping wound. This is the reality of a knife. They cut, and they do it well.

If Hollywood action movies were real, a knife wouldn't be a big deal. Often, unless you're fighting the head of some criminal syndicate during the final fight scene, you probably won't be cut. The bad guy will go flying into some cans, his buddy will grab the knife but you'll dispatch him quite easily as well. The big boss however is no easy feat. Most likely he will land an attack, resulting in some superficial wound to your shoulder, bicep, or rib area. Not such a big deal since a) it's not a deep cut and b) you're about to kill him anyway. If only it were so (but then again we would probably just abandon the knife for a samurai sword, something more capable of maiming and killing). The truth is, if the initial attack doesn't get you, you'll probably cut yourself making the defense or disarming the knife. I'll admit that during stress drills I've grabbed the rubber knife by the blade or even scratched/marked myself because I've rubbed it against my arm or body while going through the disarm (accidentally, of course). In an adrenaline fueled life or death scenario its bound to happen. When dealing with a knife, chances are you will get cut, anything else is just Hollywood fantasy.

What a Knife Attack Really Looks Like

So far we've primarily talked about 2 things: knives are sharp and people are crazy. The whole discussion goes away if knife attacks don't exist. People kill people, not the knife, not the gun. If knives and guns kill then keyboards cause typos. While we're focused on the danger of the knife we need to also focus on the danger of the person wielding it. To be quite blunt, if I was to the point where I'm ready to stab you to death, I'm not going to half ass it. It will be dynamic, unpredictable, wild, violent, and committed. This is why the vast majority of knife defenses are not effective. There is no outstretched arm to manipulate because it is being recoiled to stab you again, from a different angle most likely. The average knife wielder is not going to be trained in Filipino knife fighting. The knife is just going from point A to point B as fast as your arm can take it there. This is also another reason why most defenses don't work. Let's say you manage to block or redirect or dodge the first 3 strikes, sooner or later the attacker is going to change tactics, overwhelm you with strikes, or your luck will run out.

Which takes us back to our Systema defense. We already have two strikes against it, no recoil and no attacker aggression. The third one is the reliance on movement and avoidance of the knife. If you can dance around a knife, you should (by extension) be able to avoid a punch or similar strike. Top fighters cannot dodge a barrage of strikes consistently. It is not realistic to believe you will be able to simply maneuver your way around, manipulate the arm, and disarm the knife. It just isn't happening.

A knife attack is one of the most violent and unpredictable situations. A gun at close range is arguably a better scenario. The gun is only dangerous in one direction (the direction the barrel is pointed), it is predictable, not very dynamic (it's tough to stay on target when you're waving a gun through the air), and touching it won't potentially injure you like a knife blade.

The video below does a good job of summing up what a knife attack will look like. Warning: video may contain coarse language.

The Shocknife

With all this being said, what is the biggest drawback of any knife defense? It is the ability to replicate an actual encounter. You can come very close to it but it never becomes quite the same. For one, most people use rubber knives. A rubber knife doesn't have the same "oh shit" feeling as a real knife, the danger is not real. If you make a mistake there is no consequence, no fear. This is the heart of the issue. We can replicate the environment, we can simulate an aggressive attacker, but it is very tough to replicate the weapon. Or at least one that is safe. Which brings me to the Shocknife. The shocknife is basically a personal taser in the shape of a knife. It hurts, it provides feedback (i.e. pain), and creates the "oh shit" factor. While it is not quite a real knife, it is probably the closest you can ever get without using an actual knife (which I DO NOT recommend you ever try).

To sum this whole mess up, training needs to replicate the situation you're training for. Or at least come as close as possible through appropriate actions and equipment. Believing that the attack or attacker will not be violent and dynamic is a fiction that should be left to Hollywood writers. As I've shown here, a knife can cause some serious damage in the hands of anyone able to pick it up. If reading this has given you a degree of anxiety or fear towards knives, though not my intention, then you are one step closer to understanding the reality of knife attacks.

This page created 17 Apr 2012 15:48
Last updated 24 Jul 2016 03:28

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