Among the criminal element that preys on the innocent, knives are king. No matter where you are in the world, even smack in the middle of a triple-max secure prison, a cutting edge or piercing point is only a little sweat and elbow grease away.
The prevalence of ready-made knives everywhere else means that a knife attack is a perpetual risk. Even in the hands of an untrained person, a knife can inflict terrible wounds with absolutely zero training.
Defending against a knife attack is a high-stakes all-or-nothing affair; it is certainly not the flashy, artistic series of feints and parries you see on the big screen or demonstrated by practitioners of Far East martial arts. Knives are easy to hide and blindingly quick into action.
Many victims do not even know they are being attacked by a knife until they see their own blood gushing out of their bodies. This is something you simply cannot get wrong, and anything less than subconsciously programmed and relentlessly drilled responses will fail.
Today, let this article serve as a primer for your entry into the world of knife defense techniques and tactics. While no article on the internet, even here on Survival Sullivan, will ever replace training, blood, sweat and effort for keeping you safe, it can serve as a guide to point you in the right direction.
Table of Contents
What Does a Knife Attack Look Like?
A street knife attack does not look like the cat-footed fencing matches you see in movies.
A knife attack on the street is an ambush of immense violence, one that you will, statistically, not see coming until the bad dude has grabbed hold of you with one hand and then starts machine-gunning the knife into you over and over and over again with his other hand.
The knife may come in low, go high, or alternate. Stabs are the order of the day and by the dozens.
If you cannot stop, stall or contain an attack like this, you lose. And by lose I mean die.
Where “Traditional” Knife Defense Fails
Knife defense as peddled by “masters” of traditional martial arts are almost entirely, completely and utterly inadequate for stopping a knife attack from a determined assailant.
I am not bashing these people, by all means they should practice whatever art form they like if all they are doing is putting their pound of flesh on the line, but they should not preach their techniques as suitable for legitimate, no-holds-barred live-or-die defense of life when someone is trying to shove a knife into your guts six times a second.
Without turning this article into a roiling takedown of old world martial arts, consider the following observations when assessing if a traditional technique will work for knife defense:
- Is it Performed at Full Speed? Many formalized martial arts techniques look more like a dance or play, even when “really” sparring than combat techniques. Any self-defense technique must be capable of being performed quickly and work at fight-or-flight speed or it is useless.
- Is it Performed at Full Power? Lots of fancy and intricate multi-step counters, blocks, reversals and disarms look like the cat’s meow when the attacker is not putting a full tank of gas behind his movements, or following through on them. When your attacker is as weak as a kitten or treating your confrontation like a pillow fight your techniques do not have to be mechanically sound or “engineered” in such a way so as to be failsafe.
- Do they Work as Advertised against a Determined, Resisting Attacker? No one ever punks sensei in traditional martial arts. Training partners always set you up for success. A single, baby-soft attack will be fed to the defender along a pre-determined, arranged and agreed path to be perfectly intercepted by a pre-determined, arranged and agreed defense. There is no guessing, no improvisation and no will to win on the attacker’s part, who is little more than an autonomous mannequin. Real knife attacks are viciously intimate, fast and relentlessly intense. A real bad guy will not fold up after one weak-ass, hugely telegraphed thrust or slash.
If a technique for knife defense cannot work against a free-acting, free-thinking opponent who wants to win and won’t stop until he does, it is worse than useless; it is actively harmful because you have wasted brain processing cycles on learning something that, at best, won’t help and at worst will actively get you killed.
There is a better way.
Real-World Knife Defense
Knife-defense techniques that work in the real world don’t look good. At least they don’t compared to the traditional fancypants stuff above we talked about. They look ugly, brutal and crude.
You might say they look like a fight looks. That’s because they do, and that’s what you’ll be in. If you want to get out of the fight with the same number of holes you came into it with, you had better start paying attention.
Knife defense is not about fending the knife off all day long. Even if you are supremely fast, strong and coordinated, you’ll get cut and/or stabbed eventually.
As your wounds pile up and the bad guy keeps coming, you’ll be losing more and more blood and he’ll be getting closer and closer to that big payday stab deep into your trunk or a limb. Then it’s over.
Instead, knife defense for success revolves around three simple concepts: One, stuff the attack before you are hurt, or stop the follow-on attacks if you get caught unawares.
Two, tie up or immobilize the “sharp” limb to minimize its threat or remove it from play entirely. Three, go on the offensive tearing into the attacker with such rage and ferocity the urn containing his parent’s ashes will scream in terror.
That is the only way to turn the tide and STOP the attack. But while the concepts are simple and easy to remember, executing them well takes a ton of long and painful practice until you cannot get it wrong.
Technique 1 – Conditioned Counterattack
More a principle than a proper technique. Countering a knife attack must be done offensively. It seems counterintuitive at first; your every instinct will naturally be to get away from the knife, understandably, but you will be setting yourself up for more harm than good doing that.
Every time you pull away from the knife it is another opportunity for the bad guy to redirect it or re-chamber for another stab or thrust. Keep in mind, unless you are very lucky you will not be able to simply run away when the fight is on, at least not without first disabling your opponent.
If you are fortunate enough to see the attack coming in or realize you have been attacked when the first stab lands, you must, must, must be drilled and conditioned so that your first, immediate and only instinct is go on the offensive. If you do not begin to pile damage on the bad guy, there is no hope you’ll stop the attack in time to save your life.
To attack with an empty hand and also have any hope of controlling the arm wielding the knife, spike or whatever is coming at you, we must move into the attack, rather we must get inside the arc of the attack and lay hands on the attacker. This requires considerable training, practice and will to win, but it must be done. You won’t stop getting cut open until you do.
There are a few obvious gotchas here: You cannot charge into an attacker’s range clumsily and make his life easier. Instead you must dash in immediately after a good block or parry so you have time and opportunity to start doing your own work.
That also means you must have a plan when you go for it; a block or parry does no good on its own. You’ll need to tie up the offending limb immediately after and simultaneously attack.
Practice this with your training partner until you dream about it. Any attack, known or unknown, is met with immediate counterforce.
Technique 2 – Neutralize the Knife
This is always a tentative thing, but is the best way to reliably get the knife out of play if only for a brief respite so you can apply damage to the bad guy with greater safety.
Instead of training to attack the knife hand directly (“chasing the knife”) or attempt a complicated disarm, you’ll want to immobilize his arm at and above the elbow. This is most easily accomplished on the backside of a good block.
If a stab or thrust comes in midline or high, time it right and move into the attack to block his arm with both your forearms. You should take care that you are clear of the line of attack, point or edge.
Done properly, this will both hurt and halt the bad guy for a moment. Immediately drop your elbow closest to his attacking arm straight down to trap his arm. The knife should be past you, i.e. behind you. At the same time, grip his upper arm high past the tricep on the underside. Now you have him!
The only mobility he should have left in that arm is at the wrist, and while the thought that his “free” hand still holds the knife, behind you, don’t let that worry you.
While he might be able to poke or scratch you with it, he will not be able to generate sufficient power to do major damage IF he cannot get his arm free or moving.
It is imperative that you maintain a rock solid grip on the arm and keep in really close to him. If you allow distance to build between you, you can start the classic tug of war or rubber band-whip situation that can see him rip his arm free with terrible consequences.
Practice this element at 80% or 90% power with your training partner. Blocks will hurt both of you! Use thin pads if you absolutely must, but accuracy, fluidity and explosive speed will only come with long and grueling practice.
Technique 3 – Go on the Offensive
You might rightly be wondering what your free hand should be doing during all of the above, or perhaps what your attacker is doing with his. Good, now you are learning.
Unlike most traditional martial arts systems’ defenses we don’t hang out after a block as each component of the technique unfolds discreetly from one to the next.
As soon as you have secured the knife arm, you should be going on the offense with your free hand and even your leg if the situation dictates it. This should occur so fast that Technique 2 and Technique 3 appear virtually simultaneous in execution.
A great first move is to fire a punch, chop or forearm smash into your attacker’s face. Then rake or gouge his eyes. Elbow him. If he doubles over, knee him in the head. Kick his knee in. However you can hurt him, and badly, do it!
The more harm you inflict on him, quickly, the less he’ll be thinking about what he is going to do to you and the more he’ll start worrying about what you are doing to him.
Remember to keep your distance close so he has no opportunity to start tugging his arm free. Be relentless! If he starts going down, you don’t stop until he changes shape, drops the knife or falls unconscious. Maul him!
Even if he does drop the knife, keep going until he has submitted utterly or is incapacitated; you cannot allow him to recover the knife or pull another weapon!
Practice this element with a training buddy by moving past Technique 2 immediately into this one. Don’t actually hammer the shit out of your partners head! Go fast but pull your punches, or strike a strategically placed target bag worn or held near the head.
Lacking that equipment go slow and build speed and power until you are both comfortable working with the other.
Tips and Mindset
You are doubtlessly worried about being cut by this point. You should be! Remember what I said in the beginning: you will probably know you are in the fight when you do get cut! Most victims won’t even see the knife coming or know it is a factor.
Your decision is this: do you want to get cut a little (hopefully!) or a lot? If it is the former, you must accept the gruesome nature of these most violent and grisly of encounters and go all out. Fending, dodging and giving ground or submitting will only give your attacker a free pass to carve you up like so much offal.
Remember that there is nothing truly “defensive” about saving your life from a violent attack. It isn’t enough to block your way to safety. You cannot turtle up and stymie a knife; that will only furnish the scumbag murderer with better opportunity to tee off on you.
When the fight is on, it is on. Don’t hold back. You must be willing to do everything to the attacker that he was going to do to you and worse! If he does not immediately regret his decision you will only be in for a worse outcome.
You should practice getting your own tools and weapons into gear to finish the fight, but only after you have stuffed the attack and have an opening. Too many people on “go!” try to get their own knife or gun into play before they have even halted the attacker and secured his means to hurt you.
To do so is foolish and will only see you filleted. When the opening appears, you should have practiced drawing from a variety of concealed positions so that your draw is fast, certain and unhindered.
A slow, botched draw is just another opportunity for your resisting opponent who will very much want to avoid getting shot or cut himself.
A knife attack is in many ways the worst thing you can face. Knife attacks are exceptionally brutal and bloody, and the people that employ them are different, mentally and emotionally, than people who use guns.
It is this personal, intimate and vicious nature of a knife attack that means you must be completely prepared to retaliate with massive force.
Tom Marlowe practically grew up with a gun in his hand, and has held all kinds of jobs in the gun industry: range safety, sales, instruction and consulting, Tom has the experience to help civilian shooters figure out what will work best for them.