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Knives for Self-Defense

If a person with a gun attacks you from a distance, then the only defensive weapon that makes sense would be a gun (or other projectile weapon).  However, if the attacker is physically close to you, you have more options, and one option to consider is a knife.

Compared to a gun, it is relatively small (or at least less inconveniently shaped) and light, making it less obnoxious to carry and easier to conceal.  Plus, it would generally be less restricted by laws, completely silent, less expensive, and not subject to a limited ammunition supply.

However, if the attacker is close to you, having a knife (or even a gun) other than actually in your hand, is not going to be able to protect you.  If you intend to defend yourself close in with a weapon, you must first be able to defend yourself without a weapon, at least long enough to allow you to access your weapon.  Check out this video to see what an unexpected knife attack could be like:

If a trained police officer with an externally holstered gun can’t stop a close in knife attack, how do you expect to do it with a concealed knife?

You need to maintain personal distance from potential attackers, and be prepared with bare hand techniques at least until you can disengage long enough to safely draw your own knife (or other weapon).  This requires situational awareness and some martial arts training.  In particular, it requires plenty of “sparring”, practice with a partner.

You can start with knife training, but you will still have to learn about stances, balance, blocking and targets, so it would tend to be more efficient to start with martial arts and then add knife training.

What style, you say?  That depends on what is available locally, and what “feels right” to you.  I’d check out several options, and even take a trial lesson in any which appeals.  If the place offers knife training, that would be a significant incentive.

Styles to look at closely would be Ju-Jitsu (jujutsu), a grappling style designed to defeat armed and armored attackers (samurai) using no weapon or only a short weapon, or Krav Maga, the vicious Israeli street style.  Filipino Martial Arts (FMA, including Kali and Escrima) has a fair amount of stick and knife fighting, so might be a good choice.  “Competition” styles such as Tae Kwon Do would be less suitable than one designed for the “street”, but any martial arts training is better than none.  In my case, I had the martial arts experience, and found my knife instructor through a knife shop.

Doing a quick search of knife training currently local to me, I found FMA is available, as well as Aikido (related to jujutsu) and a Krav Maga school which specifically includes knives.  There are also a couple of security or survival skills places that advertise knife fight training without mentioning any particular style.  The only way to tell what a place like that is teaching would be to go there and check it out.

Knife Parts

Knife Anatomy

A knife is simple in concept, but there is more to it than you may think.  Refer to the image above to get an idea of what parts make up a knife:

– The HANDLE is the part you hold onto

– The TIP is important for stabbing

– The EDGE is used for chopping and cutting.

– The BELLY is used for slashing.

– The BACK EDGE may be partially or fully sharpened, or not sharpened at all.  If not sharpened, it may be used for blocking in some styles.

– The SPINE is the thickest part of the blade.  It may be down the centerline of the blade or identical with the BACK EDGE.

– The GUARD (aka HILT) helps prevent your  hand from slipping over the EDGE.  It can also be used to block or catch an enemy’s blade in some styles.  A “full” guard provides more protection, but limits some of the ways you can hold the knife, so often there is only a “half” guard.

– The BUTT or POMMEL, if it extends beyond the hand, can be used as a blunt striking point.  BUTT is the general term; POMMEL usually refers to a discrete part that is often decorative or functional.

Knife Choices

A misconception is the idea that “any knife will do”.  With a knife, your options are to slash, cut or stab, or possibly chop.  Different styles of fighting will use and even hold the knife differently, and a particular style of knife will fit those techniques the best.

Thus find your training first, and then select from the knives or knife styles they recommend.  And first thing, get a training knife as close to your real knife as practical.  After all, you are going to have to do a lot of sparring and we want to keep training injuries to a minimum.

When choosing a knife, there are some basics.

– It has to be strong.  Having the knife break on you while using it is really bad news.  The two weakest areas can be the tip or the junction between blade and handle.  Having the blade break elsewhere is less likely unless you get a piece of junk with low quality, poorly treated steel or a poor design.

– You must be able to get the knife into service quickly and reliably.

– The knife must be SHARP.  The duller it is, the less effective it will be.  Every time you use your knife, it will reduce its sharpness.  If you use your fighting knife for any purpose, resharpen it as soon as possible.  Make sure you have the equipment and skills to return it to razor sharpness.

These elements are pretty much independent of the style of use.  The first one favors a full tang fixed blade knife.  A folding knife is inherently weak at the junction between blade and handle because that point is DESIGNED to move.

You have relatively loose fitting, small parts, which makes this point much more likely to break than a solid slab of steel.  But if concealment requirements make a folding knife the only choice practical to you, then choose one with a very strong lock, which not only reduces the chance of the joint breaking, but the chances of the blade folding up on your fingers during use.

Usually “liner” locks are very common and quite strong.  Cold Steel’s “Tri-Ad” lock seems to be one of the “strongest” non-liner lock styles.  I prefer the “Axis” lock from Benchmade or the similar “Ball Bearing” lock from Spyderco.  They are easier to close with one hand and are fully ambidextrous.  My second place favorite is the liner lock, which is rather less ambidextrous.

“Switchblades” (including OTF – Out The Front) and “assisted opening” knives may look impressive in action, but they are less satisfactory than manually opened knives.  This is because they have more parts to break, the joints have to be looser in order to function reliably, and they are not that reliable at opening.

Dirt in the mechanism (hey, it’s a pocketknife) or the blade running into something while opening can prevent them from locking open, and that could have serious consequences.  Even if you realize it is not locked open, manually locking it will probably not be a practiced maneuver, and will likely require time and attention you may not have.  Moreover, some places have more stringent laws about switchblades than they do for “manual” knives.

The second criterion again favors a fixed blade knife, in a sheath that does not have straps, snaps or flaps.  No matter how you carry the knife, whether it is fixed blade or folding, you must practice drawing it, and practice some more.

The goal is to produce it quickly and smoothly, preferably in one continuous motion, every time.  However the knife is carried, it must be secure until you need it.  If it falls out of the sheath or your pocket, it could be embarrassing at best and fatal at worse.

As for sharpness, this requires much research.  The maximum sharpness is dependent on the cross section design of the blade and the molecular structure of the steel used.

As a hint, usually, but not always, knives made from better steel formulations tend to be more expensive.  Once you have a blade as sharp as possible, edge retention (how long it holds that sharpness) is based on the steel formula and heat treatments.

Knife steels range from “carbon” steel to “stainless” steel.  Carbon steels tend to be capable of a sharper edge, tougher, and easier to sharpen, but rust if you look at them wrong.

Stainless steels don’t rust as easily, but often are a bit more brittle and harder to sharpen.  The steel used for your knife is pretty important, but the treatments applied by the manufacturer usually make the difference.  Worse, today’s best steel is often tomorrow’s second-rate choice.

Other basics are highly dependant on HOW the knife will be used and probably should not be chosen until you have chosen your style.  You COULD get the knife you like and then attempt to find training in how to use it, but this has a high probability of ending in failure.  And failure could mean death or severe injury, so should be avoided to the degree possible.

– It has to be long enough to support the techniques you will be using.  If you will be attempting to stab vital organs, then you will need at LEAST four inches of blade, and five or even six inches would be better.  Blades for slashing only and/or shallow stabbing can be shorter.  Chopping blades can and probably should be longer.

– It has to be an appropriate weight.  Too light and it won’t have the oomph to cut deep, while too heavy and it will be unwieldy.

– The blade shape needs to be appropriate for the techniques you will be using.

– The fighting style you use will have a particular way of holding the knife (there are four ways I find suitable for various forms of combat, and other ways of holding which some obscure style might be able to make effective).  The handle size, shape and material must support the hold(s) you will be using, and allow the hold to be comfortable and secure.  This means that it must be unlikely the knife can slip out of your hand.  In addition, your hand must not slip forward onto the blade, even if your hand or the knife is wet or oily.  You lose points if you cut yourself with your own knife.

Combat Grips

Combat Grips 2

– It has a guard as required by any blocking techniques used; configured such that it is not preventing any of the ways you want to hold it.

Knife Examples

Although we are not choosing a knife at this point in time, here are some examples of possible styles.  For instance, one of the stranger knives is the “karambit” (and its training version), which is used in FMA and Silat.  It is primarily for slashing.  On the other hand, we have the “dagger” (its training version), which is sharpened on both edges, excels at stabbing, and is decent at cutting, but poor at slashing.

There is a handle style called “subhilt fighter”, which has a second “guard” which helps lock the knife into your hand.  The blade style of this model (training version) is “drop point”, which is one of the more versatile blade styles, and is good at stabbing and cutting, and decent at slashing.

The “bowie knife” is a classic, for styles that can use the size and weight, which is a particular advantage when chopping.  The blade style is “clip point” which increases the sharpness of the tip, but makes it weaker.  In this model (training version), the clip is not too extreme.  Some bowie knives have a very deep clip, which gives a needle tip with no strength at all.  If the clip is sharpened, it enhances the slashing ability, as you can slash both forward and reverse, but it weakens the tip even more.  Another classic is the K-Bar Marine Combat knife (training version).  It is decent for stabbing and good at slashing and cutting.  This blade also has a clip point.

My favorite is the Cold Steel “Tanto”, based on the shortest of the three blade set typical of the samurai warriors.  It is good at stabbing, slashing and cutting.  According to their web site, Cold Steel (who popularized this style when starting their company) does not seem to make it any more, except in the insanely expensive “Master” and “Magnum” versions and the “Lite” model which appears to have a plastic guard and pommel.  Here is another version of Tanto (training version), without the effective pointed (and solid) pommel of the original Tanto.

Much of the time, it is impractical to have a fixed blade knife with me.  For EDC, I like the Spyderco Manix 2 XL.  It has a handle that is excellent for my style and a blade shape that is good for stabbing and cutting, and decent for slashing.

The large hole in the blade is about the quickest opening system I’ve found.  In addition, it is well designed for everyday use and most survival tasks.  At nearly four inches blade length, it is not petite; there are similar, smaller Spyderco models that would be suitable for last-ditch defense, but avoid the “light weight” models.  They don’t have steel liners, which means they are not as strong.

The Secrets of Knife Fighting

Knife fighting is not a fight, and it is not a duel.  It is a life or death situation.  If you are involved in one, there are four possible results.  You could die, both you and your opponent could die, you could live but be seriously injured or you could win with minor injuries.

Three out of four of these are disastrous, and the last one might not be pleasant.  Therefore, the first secret of knife fighting is to avoid it whenever possible.  Concentrate all your efforts into running away when practical.  If chased, you choose the location best suited for your defensive stand, and be sure to save enough energy for the fight.

Most martial arts styles of knife fighting teach counters to various knife attacks.  For each attack, there is a block or disarming technique.  And when you are sparring with others in that class, guess which attacks they will be using:  those they (and you) have learned to counter.

In the real world, your attacker will probably not be trained in the same style you have been, so his attacks will be different than you are used to.  Or worse, he will have survived a number of knife fights through unrelenting ferocity.  The second secret is to expect (and practice against) a flurry of slashes and stabs once you are comfortable defending against single techniques.

In anyone’s hands, a knife is dangerous to you, and you probably don’t know what training or experience your attacker has.  Unless they are obviously reacting out of rage, it is best to assume “a lot”.

Thus, the third secret is to always look for advantages; ways to “cheat”.  This could be an impromptu way of protecting yourself from his blade, such as wrapping a leather jacket around your blocking arm.  Or a way of blocking or inflicting damage at a greater range, such as a walking stick, collapsing baton, or belt with heavy or sharp buckle.  Always keep an eye on your environment, looking for what you can turn to your advantage.

A small, very bright flashlight can be one of the more important things you can bring to a knife fight.  Shone in your opponent’s eyes, he could be effectively blinded for a few seconds (particularly if it is dim lighting conditions).

Armor is another helpful item.  For centuries, the classic chain mail shirt has been protecting against bladed weapons.  Butted links are not effective; they will open up under the force of a stab.  You want small, riveted or welded rings.  Finding good chain mail might be a problem these days and wearing it under your clothing might be annoying.  Fortunately, there have been significant advancements in Kevlar and other soft stab-resistant vests.

Another secret is that after winning a knife fight, often it is not over yet.  If the justice system is still in effect, you will need to be able to show that you did not use “unreasonable” force.  Be aware that often, in the eyes of law enforcement, “any” force is unreasonable (see this article on legal/moral use of lethal force – make no mistake, any use of a knife is considered lethal force).

Thus, be careful if your style has disarming techniques followed by fatal ones.  It might be a hard sell that after disarming your attacker, you then killed him.  Be aware of the laws of your location, and select your weapons and techniques to stay within those laws to the degree practical.

If the SHTF and the situation is WROL (Without Rule of Law) then you may not have to deal with law enforcement, but you might still have to deal with friends, family or gang members of the foiled attacker.

The converse is also true; the knife fight is not over just because you think you have won.  People are different and a wound which disables one person may not disable another.  Some people are sneaky and “play possum” to get you to lower your defenses.

If a person is standing, they are still a danger.  If they are on the ground and still armed, they are still a danger.  If they are disarmed yet can still move effectively, they are still a danger and may have another weapon.  Only a person who is disarmed and cannot move or at least cannot move effectively can be considered no longer a threat.

In case you have to turn your back on your defeated opponent, or attend to other tasks in the area, it would be wise to carry a few “flexi-cuffs” or large, heavy-duty zip-ties.  This will allow you to immobilize him easily and fairly reliably.  Although less convenient, duct tape can also be used.  Still, be aware of him, as there are tools and techniques to escape from such restraints.  Best is to get away.

Techniques

Giving specific techniques probably won’t do you much good; you need actual training and practice to be effective.  Techniques that work for my style and knife might conflict with yours.  However, there are some general hints that might be of more universal use.  Keep in mind your primary goal, which is to survive the fight with minimal damage by avoiding the fight, or ending it as quickly as possible.

In order to provide the greatest chance of doing this, always strive to maintain your distance, ideally at the limit of the attacker’s range without him moving his feet.  The closer the attacker is to you, the harder it will be to defend against him.

Backing up may be necessary if he advances, but this will eventually get you in trouble.  It is better to evade to the side some of the time, but don’t be predictable.  Of course, the opposite is also true; the closer you are to him, the harder it will be for him to defend against you.  The one doing the closing, with a strategy, has the advantage.  If any closing occurs, let it be deliberately by you, with a plan, rather than by your opponent.

The next concept, particularly of concern when you are using open hand defenses, is to avoid focusing completely on the knife.  The attacker has another hand and two feet and other body parts that can do you damage, and if both your hands or all your attention are occupied with the knife hand, your ability to block any other attack is lessened.  The converse is also true.  If you have an opening for a kick or strike other than with your knife, take it.  Just be confident he can’t get to your leg or arm with his knife.

One thing I was taught, which may not be included in some styles, is if someone executes a knife technique against you, attack the knife (more accurately, the hand holding the knife) rather than the person.  As the attack technique is executed, the knife hand is closer to you than the attacker’s body, which gives you the reach and timing advantage.

If you damage or disable the knife hand, usually by cutting across the wrist, then the knife threat may be removed or at least reduced.  As an aside, this should indicate to you the advantages of also training using the knife in your “weak” hand.

All techniques will involve moving your knife from where it happens to be, to a position and orientation that should have an effect or at least gives that impression (feinting).  Whenever practical, try to include a secondary technique as part of your recovery, or using the ending position of your primary technique as the starting position for a secondary technique.  For instance, after a slash in one direction, stab or slash in the reverse direction.  Don’t focus on single techniques, since your opponent then only has to bother with single counters.

Targets

In order to end a knife fight as quickly as practical, with minimal damage to yourself, consider what will stop the fight.  Pain might do it for some attackers; most people do not like to be cut and that may be enough to dissuade him.

However, don’t rely on this; some people are willing to take the pain, and some are so charged with adrenaline (or other drug) they won’t “feel” the pain until later.  More reliable would be if the attacker can’t breath, does not have enough blood left to circulate oxygen, or does not have working blood circulation organs.  Finally, if he is paralyzed or can’t stand up or move or see, you can easily get away.

Thus, you need to know the targets on your opponent to know where to strike for best effect.  For that matter, you will also know where to defend yourself the most.

Some of these would be difficult to access during a fight.  The back of the neck and back of the knee would seem to be unavailable in many cases.  You would need to be familiar with rib placement and have a good degree of accuracy to be sure of getting through the rib cage to heart, lungs or liver.  That makes throat, shoulder and groin the most practical of these targets.  To blind an attacker, you can attack the eyes or slash above the eyes to get them filled with blood.

The wrist is often accessible, and although a cut across might not put him out of the fight right away, it may disable or reduce the effectiveness of the hand.  Below the rib cage (abdomen) is fairly accessible, and if you stab upwards under the rib cage and damage the diaphragm, it should affect the attacker’s breathing.

A kick to the knee can cut their mobility significantly.  Finally, if you find yourself on the ground or have a kicking foot near you, slicing the Achilles tendon will also limit the person’s mobility.

If you don’t have an effective target, go for an ineffective one.  Any damage you inflict can add up.  If you complete a stab, remove the knife as quickly as possible, since at that moment, you are essentially “disarmed”.  In addition, the blade will somewhat block blood loss, and that is contrary to your goal.  Twisting the blade as you remove it can increase blood loss.

Conclusion

Forget about what you see in knife fights on the screen.  They are choreographed to be visually pleasing and to result in the desired conclusion.  In the real world, knife fighting is an attempt to avoid death or severe damage.  The most effective way to get good at it is to survive several such fights, which is a path with very high odds of failure.  A less dangerous path to have a decent chance of surviving a knife fight is lots of the remotely second best method of gaining competence, which is training and practice, practice, practice.  When you can win all your practice fights, your odds of winning a real one are increased.

What style of knife fighting or martial arts do you think is the most effective?

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About John Hertig

John Hertig
While employed at a major computer firm, I took advantage of a number of club activities and classes offered to employees, including martial arts, advanced first aid, photography, rock climbing and wilderness survival. It is my nature to "tinker" and delve into the technical side of things. As a kid riding bicycles, I learned bicycle mechanics. Knife collecting let to throwing and making them, as well as leatherwork for sheaths. An interest in firearms led to combat competition, reloading and gunsmithing. The martial arts led to knife fighting and making and using primitive weapons.

One comment

  1. I have carried a number knives over the years from folders to fixed blades. (Buck, kirshaw, Spyderco, kbars, randals and glocks). I was the victim of a knifing as a child living in a low incoming complex. My brothers rival walked up behind me “aren’t you xxx brother?” as I turned around I heard the switch blade open, he took a single slash across my midsection, as I pulled back he got my arm and the back of left hand. I was 9 years old, he was 14 or 15 years old, anyway I can remember clear as day and I am 58 years old. I trained my daughters knife fighting because you never know, they are 31 and 32 years old. Skills are like an onion with many layers, H2H open hand, street weapons, knives are redant skills for that one momment your in grappling range or as some say, fighting in a phone booth, which I doubt a millinial has ever seen. Just my 2 cents folks from experience (58 years livin, 10 years DOD, 3 years security, 3 years contractor central america

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