Knife attacks are freaking scary. Knives are available anywhere, easy to hide, quick to put into action and extremely effective in close quarters.
A knife is every bit as lethal as a gun once someone has closed the gap with you, and that part is often something you can count on occurring no matter how hard we try to avoid it.
Most traditional martial arts techniques for dealing with a knife attack are less than useless. Flashy, stiff, and ritualized procedures won’t cut the mustard before you get cut.
Wounds from knives and other stabbing weapons pile up quickly, reducing your ability to fight back while increasing the speed with which you bleed out. All self-defense is high stakes, but defending against a knife-wielding attacker might be the riskiest of all.
Despite the common advice to “just run away” you probably won’t be able to. When the fight is on, escape is usually impossible without stunning or incapacitating your attacker or sacrificing your pound of flesh.
What you need to do instead is disable the knife by any means necessary and then reduce your attacker’s capability to fight. In this article, we’ll show you a few foundational techniques to do just that before you get turned into dog food.
Priorities, Reality and “Common Sense”
If you are a mind-your-own business civilian type, and I mean specifically someone who does not run toward danger without a cause, look for trouble, or stack bad men up like sandbags for a living, your only priority is to keep your ass alive so you can go home to your family and the people that depend on you. And, of course, keep those same people out of danger when it threatens.
Ergo, the pinnacle of success when it comes to fighting, especially with lethal force in play, is to not do it. Avoid it, dodge it, run from it. Whatever you can do to completely escape from a potentially lethal situation is the ideal.
Hey, you might not think it is manly or cool and that’s fine I guess. But maybe you also like the idea of your family caring for an invalid, or crying their eyes at your funeral, or you living the rest of your life in a wheelchair with a colostomy bag.
We should always get away if we can. That’s true. When it comes to knife attacks, that’s not so easy a solution, though it is one we hear trotted out the most often.
“Man, I see I guy coming at me with a knife I’m gonna run like hell!” Good advice! “Just run away! If he cannot reach you, he cannot hurt you. Not like a gun.” Indelibly true. And if you can pull it off, you should.
But that does not take into account the reality of the situation, the very real and very scary dynamics of a violent attack, especially one involving a knife in the hands of the assailant.
Do you think you’ll actually see the bad guy coming? Do you think he’ll be across the street or down the block and announce his intention before accosting you? Do you think you’ll see the knife, unless he wants you to see it, in order to gain compliance?
Do you think you’ll have the speed and acceleration to escape from a knife wielding attacker who will be, statistically, younger and faster than you are? Will you even be able to pull away?
Plenty of knife users grapple their intended victims. All of these and more represent very real and significant problems for those who will be facing a knife-wielding attacker, and chances are you have not heard any of them mentioned around the rest of the internet unless you are following some pretty switched on people.
Common sense would dictate you run away if you can. That move, chosen at the wrong time and from the wrong phase in the fight, could see you cut up terribly.
No, to deal with an in-your-face knife attack you’ll need to start conditioning and developing responses that may seem highly counterintuitive to the uninitiated.
The Knife is a Fixture of Violent Criminal Attacks
It is imperative that all defenders understand the nature of the knife as it is used in violent attacks by criminals.
The knife is more than a fixture as a tool of the trade for criminals; the knife is a truly elemental artifact of humanity and has been with us basically since the beginning.
A knife can be anything from a napped piece of stone to a scavenged piece of metal equipped with a primitive handle and the form of a wrap of cloth or a hunk of wood.
Knives can also be incredibly intricate, purpose driven tools benefiting from the best that ergonomic sciences can deliver with materials and craftsmanship to match. In every instance, a knife is quite literally point driven.
Anything sharp enough to pierce flesh or cut can serve as a lethal tool when wielded with intent.
A crazed untrained junkie that weighs less than 100 lbs can you use a scavenged shank to slash your throat or hack you to pieces, inflicting stab wounds as quickly as he can move his arm, and potentially each of them can be fatal or incapacitating in its own right.
No matter where you go, no matter what you are doing and no matter the setting there will always, always exist a knife in that space and at that time, or at best the makings of a knife should a person desire one.
To omit serious knife defense training from your curriculum is a grave mistake.
Complications of Knife Attacks
Sadly, we have a large body of work to draw from when we want to inform our analysis of knife attacks.
Police officers and other law enforcement agents disproportionately suffer knife attacks in the line of duty because they most commonly deal with people who have knives on them either as dedicated weapons or tools that are employed as weapons of defense when they decide they aren’t going to go quietly into custody.
In addition, there are a frightening amount of knife attacks against civilians all over the world, and this doesn’t even include the truly harrowing amount of criminal-on-criminal violence that occurs in and out of prisons with knives as primary weapons.
In all of these examples, we see similar patterns emerge, ones that we will use to inform our own training methodology and procedures for dealing with knife attacks.
First, traditionally taught defensive tactics, be they in the vein of traditional martial arts or institutional counter knife skills are all but useless.
For civilians in particular, simple situational awareness training is often not enough to ensure avoidance of a knife attack.
A knife attack is a truly predatory event, perpetrated necessarily by a predator. As we will learn in the following sections, even trained, skilled civilians are often taken unawares by a knife until it is too late to effectively disengage.
Once the attack is underway, serious injuries are often incurred very rapidly and the attendant blood loss of these injuries debilitates the victim quickly, particularly in the case where major blood vessels are struck by the knife.
In short, a knife attack is terrifying and once it is underway without immediate and effective counter action the situation will deteriorate so rapidly and so precipitously that your fate is all but sealed.
What Does a Typical Knife Attack Look Like?
A real knife attack does not look like a duel, does not look like a movie slasher villain stalking toward you with evil in their eyes and definitely does not look like a hugely telegraphed overhead strike.
The typical knife attack is most often launched from extremely close range as an ambush; the victim does not know the knife is involved in the attack until they start getting cut and stabbed.
Here are more traits that many of these attacks have in common all over the world.
The attack is launched as an ambush or under false intentions. As with all defensive encounters, the bad guy gets to choose the time and place, but with knife attacks in particular they will wait until you are distracted by something, boxed in, or in a transitional space before springing the attack.
Alternately the attacker will get close to you in such a way that they have cover for being there or in a way that does not raise your suspicions.
The Knife stays hidden until the attacker is at contact distance. By the time the attacker draws the knife, it is too late to really see it coming.
Contact distance is arms’ length away. Way too close for you to have much in the way of a reactionary space to work with. You will not have time to draw a pistol, your own knife or hardly anything else.
If you are lucky or very good you may have time to react to their draw, but not much else. Chalk this up to another good reason to maintain a gap from all unknown contacts if at all possible, though this is impossible if one cares to go out in public.
The attacker will initiate the attack with their non-knife hand. The attacker’s free hand is used alternately to strike or latch onto you. This will both protect their weapon from you as well as serve as a sort of red herring for your conditioned response.
If you react to an empty hand with a defensive maneuver the knife has a much higher chance of scoring a severe first hit. After making contact to grab you, the attacker will apply pressure to keep you off balance and keep their blows coming.
Knife attacks are extremely brutal. Frankly, an attacker uses a knife when they want to kill you real good, not intimidate you as with a gun. Expect a frenzy of blows with the intent of driving you to the ground for a coup de grace.
Their intent is to inflict as many lethal wounds as they can in a short amount of time, which knives excel at. Even among the violent ones on the margins of society, a knife attack will be beyond horrible in its ferocity and murderous intent.
Rapid-fire stabs are the MO, not slashes. As is commonly seen in prison knife attacks and elsewhere where they have been captured on film, a knife-wielding attacker will often stab as quickly as they can along various attack paths to score as many hits and create as many wounds as they can.
Attacks may start high and go low, or start low and go high. This repetitive stabbing is often referred to as a “sewing machine” motion or just a sewing machine. It is not fancy, but nothing fancy is needed to kill with a knife.
A knife attack will usually conclude as quickly as it starts. The vast majority of knife attacks will be over in half a minute. Many won’t last a quarter minute.
Some knife attackers will halt their attack early over fear of being caught, especially if you are making a good show of defense. Others will not and will press on as long as they have to in order to kill you unless stopped first.
In summary, a knife attack will be launched from bad-breath distance when you don’t see it coming and don’t expect it. You will not be able to run without being wounded if you can run at all.
You may take several wounds by the time you are even able to react to the knife. The attacker will attack you relentlessly and at speed, in a bid to kill you before any resistance can be mustered.
So, we must have the skills to fight back and defend ourselves. What about martial arts? The very systems that sprang from historically blade oriented cultures. Nothing could be better than that, right?
Wrong. Big time.
Failures of Traditional Martial Arts for Knife Defense
Much of what is taught as standard procedure for knife defense originates from various traditional martial arts systems, especially those that are blade-centric as with those found in the Philippines.
While there may be considerable merit in many of these systems and individual techniques, as a class much of it is unsatisfactory for real-world interpersonal violence.
Why? Simple. So much of what is taught is taught for use in a dojo by people engaging in the same system in a dojo. Nowhere else, except perhaps a formalized tournament or competition.
Yes, the techniques all appear very efficient and certainly effective when used against a training partner, but on the street and out in the world your opponent will not be helping you or waiting patiently after you block his attack for you to employ your elegant countermove.
Your average traditional martial arts defense drill versus a knife looks something like this: upon a pre-agreed ready signal one training partner, the attacker, will employ a massively telegraphed and comparatively slow overhead stab, equally slow and wide slash or a comically staged thrust.
The other partner, the defender, will then employ the proscribed block or parry at which time the attacker freezes as if affected by some spell while the defender applies counter force. At the end of the defender’s movement, the drill is reset.
That’s no good for practicing and conditioning yourself for a real-steel knife attack.
There is so much wrong with this methodology. Lest you think I am picking on those who practice traditional martial arts, please know that is not the case. I am though making an argument against their suitability for real-world lethal force solutions.
For starters, an knife wielding attacker, even a crazed novice, will not telegraph their stroke or thrust to such an extent, or do so at a measured pace. The knife will be delivered with hateful intent, that is to say quickly and repeatedly.
Additionally, assuming you do block or parry the initial attack, the fight continues; the attacker will be withdrawing the knife for a follow-up slash or stab attempt, not halting waiting for your move.
The final nail in the coffin against TMA techniques is the fact that the vast majority of them (at least the vast majority of them as they are typically taught) never, ever have you employ the technique against a truly resisting opponent. Sure, they may in fact be performed by both parties with speed and some force, but all of the above critiques remain.
Your attacker will never be piling in with a “sewing machine” style attack, tackling you to the ground, or grabbing your gi in a rude way with their free hand to tie you up and keep their range.
A missed block will not be followed by 10 more rapid fire stabs. There will not be a truly physical clash, just a tightly choreographed dance between two consenting parties.
My litmus test for real world techniques is simple:
- Does it work when performed with both parties at full speed?
- Does it work when performed with both parties at full power?
- Does it work against a resisting, thinking opponent?
That’s it. It is a simple affair to setup safe training in a gym or dojo setting and sort this out. Headgear, mouth guards, light gloves and groin protectors along with safe training blades will quickly sort the legitimate from the hobby techniques.
With both parties moving at near full-power, at full-speed and allowed to do basically anything they want (just like a real fight!) you will soon hear all kinds of excuses coming out of the traditional martial arts camp.
None of them matter. They want the fight to be one way, but it is the other way. All I care about and all you should care about is how effective the techniques are. Nothing more. Nothing less.
The next section will provide you a couple of fundamental techniques for armed and unarmed knife defense that, when practiced, will help you survive a knife attack on the street.
Knife Defense Factors
There is no great secret to knife defense that I learned from some forgotten monk on a Himalayan mountaintop. The key factor in knife defense is this: you must control the knife and the arm that wields it at all cost. Failure to do so may cost you everything.
That’s it. Nothing new, I am sure you are saying. The difference though between techniques that work and ones that don’t is how they go about this.
Any technique that would have you going for the attacker’s wrist or hand in an attempt to hold the knife away from you or control it thusly is doomed to fail. The physics of it are against you.
The attacker will able to create too much space and too much leverage and rip their hand clear (or at least try to) potentially cutting the hell out of you in the process. This 2-on-1 technique also does nothing to contain or address their free hand which will be put to use working you over or producing another weapon.
If armed, much the same will be proscribed with the key difference being that your knife will be attacking the attacker’s knife arm in an attempt to “defang the snake”- disarming the attacker- as it is called in Filipino systems.
While this certainly works better, a failure still results in the same thing: the attacker retains his weapon and has enough of his wits and options about him to keep attacking.
A better option, and the one I recommend, is to crash into the attacking arm, tie it up to deny its use to the bad guy and then immediately go to work on the attacker in an attempt to disable him one way or another.
I can hear your gasps from here. “Move toward the knife?! Are you crazy?! I want to get away from it, not move closer to it!” While it seems counter intuitive, it really is the only option in close combat that will end the assault.
Think about it: if you keep your distance, fending, dodging and parrying the knife every time the attacker thrusts or slashes, how long do you think you can keep that up without getting tagged? How good are you?
Every time you fail, even on some half-assed slash, you are getting cut. Blood is flowing. The mental and physical wounds will start piling up and then you’ll start making mistakes and then the big stab, the one that kills you, comes.
That is assuming of course the knife does not come in on a charge, held low, with one arm trying to grapple you and hold you in place so the knife can give you the old in-and-out to the guts or kidneys in a prison yard style sewing machine attack.
The only possible close-in defense against either is to take the knife out of play, if only temporarily. Sure, you can do that by attempting a disarm, but a more reliable and safer method is to simply secure the arm holding it to rob it of the ability to do work on you and then you go to work in a big way on the guy holding it.
You have probably heard that the best defense it’s a good offense. Whoever said that isn’t wrong.
Tying up the Knife
While it is easier to show than tell, the following steps describe the standard knife defense when the knife comes in level with the chest of the belly. The starting position is the classic “hands-high” startle or faux submission position, with the hands held vertically and palms toward your attacker level with your chin.
Step 1. As the attacker moves forward, dash toward the attacker’s knife arm using both forearms to check above and below the elbow. This “crashing” movement produces enough power to stop the knife arm cold. Ensure arms are rigid and held far enough from the body to provide space to stop the knife before it makes contact.
Step 2. Immediately wrap arm on same side as attacker’s around the attacking arm, gripping ahead of the elbow and cinching attacking forearm tight against body.
Step 3. Simultaneously move other arm to top of attacker’s bicep near shoulder. This allows temporary full control of attacking arm and knife. DO NOT LINGER HERE!
Step 4. Counterattack! You have three options here:
- 4A. Use offside arm to strike attacker’s head: punches, elbows, eye gouges, etc.
- 4B. Attempt to use leverage to arm bar attacker over at the waist, bringing head in range of knee strikes.
- 4C. Go for knees to groin and foot stomps to start lowering attacker for follow-on strikes.
There are a couple of ways this can branch from here. Your attacker will not appreciate this and he will definitely be trying to free his arm. You must hold on tightly! But, if he is tugging backward fiercely, do not participate in the tug of war- go with him!
Using this momentum against him will keep the knife arm right where you want it, safe and securely trapped by your arm. Alternately he will be attacking with his free hand. Be prepared to deal with either but you must never, ever give up your grip on his arm.
Now, some folks working through the physics of this may have noticed that, in the ideal capture position, the knife will be immediately behind you in the attacker’s hand. You might be worried that he can hurt you with it.
Normally, that would be true, but consider what else we have secured: by keeping the arm secured at the elbow, he can no longer use it to control the knife and build power. Relying solely on the mobility of the wrist, there is little harm that can be done.
Sure, you might get scratched or cursory cuts, but that is nothing compared to being laid open with full power slashes and stabs.
Work Him like a Summer Job
While all of this is going on, you must be giving it to him 10 times worse than he tried to give it to you. Every moment you have you should be attacking him somewhere and with fury. He needs to understand that he has seriously screwed up.
Using any of the techniques above, keep the pain coming until you gain position and can disable him with a stomp or a knockout. Keep your ears perked and you might hear the knife drop. If that happens, and you are sure, then you might consider releasing his arm to make a break if you think he has had enough.
That being said, think before doing so, as this asshole tried to shiv you and needs to be put down with some certainty before you potentially cut him loose. He might try to do it again, draw another weapon, etc. etc.
If you know how to throw good punches, elbows and knees, you will still be capable of dealing plenty of damage even with one arm occupied with the bad dude’s arm. Commit! Don’t stop until he flops to the ground or changes shape. Only then can you be assured of a safe escape.
If you attempt to run, the other guy still gets a vote. He might catch you, tie you up to prevent you from leaving, or you might be too injured to flee.
If you have a weapon of your own to employ you should assume that you will not have time to get it into gear prior to you stuffing the attack and securing the attacker’s arm.
You might have it in hand already, and if that is the case it should get to work immediately (if it is a gun, shoot him the entire time). If you are armed with a knife, you will be adding a step to the above list.
Assuming the attack is the same, you’ll insert two steps immediately after Step #3. The first is a strike to his face, eyes or groin to soften him up and buy a time gap where you can safely access your weapon without our perp trying to stuff your draw. Immediately after that step you’ll be accessing and drawing your own knife.
Step #4 is the same, just with a new approach. Start working him over with your own knife. Not too nice is it, Mr. Scumbag?
The very best defense against a knife and the one that will stand any chance of ensuring your escape in any shape but ground beef is a counterattack so massively violent, so ferocious and terrible that it makes the other guy scared to death. Nothing else will do.
Knife vs. Knife Meeting
Frankly, I was always taught if you found yourself in an opening fight against a knife and you already have a knife in your hand you are either a chef or you have screwed up every single thing you did that day from the moment you opened your eyes.
The chances of this happening are extremely low, but even so this is a terrible occurrence and very high risk for all parties for obvious reasons.
Forget the Hollywood fencing and circling antics you see on the big screen. A knife fight will be a frenzy of activity and blood or two guys grappling and stabbing the hell out of each other.
Your defense should be the same as the weapon-based variant above with one modification: when you dash into the attacking arm lead with your blade to execute a nasty push cut and hopefully take his weapon out of the fight early.
The intricacies of real-deal knife-on-knife combatives are too prolific and nuanced to get into in this article so we’ll save them for another time.
Practice Makes Perfect
Most preppers would rather face a gun attack than a knife. A gun at least requires a modicum of skill to use effectively. A knife can be used with terrible effect by a completely untrained individual.
Defending against the close-in fury of a knife attack requires proper training, correct technique and a conditioned response to close in aggressively against all instinct and “common sense” to the contrary. To stay at close range against a knife is to court lethal or at best disfiguring, crippling injuries.
For any of the above to work you must practice till you die almost in order to condition your response to a knife attack as one of closing in on the knife, not fleeing.
To backpedal and try to fend a knife is to incur more injury, period. Yes, it entails risks, but not as much risk as the other options! Make sure that whoever you train with or whatever school you attend is putting its pupils through drills that replicate the freeform intensity of a knife attack correctly, otherwise you are training to fail.
Using these principals and techniques as a starting point you can develop an effective knife defense regimen that will work with empty hands or weapons.
last updated 03/04/2022
Charles Yor is an advocate of low-profile preparation, readiness as a virtue and avoiding trouble before it starts. He has enjoyed a long career in personal security implementation throughout the lower 48 of the United States.