FMA technique pitting a stick against a knife

Read Part 1 of "5 Misconceptions About Escrima" here.

Read Part 2 of "5 Misconceptions About Escrima" here.

Misconception No. 3: It's Possible to Stay Safe While Facing a Knife Attack

In FMA — escrima, kali, arnis and so on — it's taught that knife fighting results in getting cut. Anyone who claims he can fight with knives and not get cut is not telling the truth, plain and simple. If you ever meet a teacher who claims to have been in lots of knife fights, ask to see his scars because if he doesn’t have any, he didn’t have the fights.

In fact, a 10-year-old is dangerous if he has a knife because power is not needed to inflict damage. Even against a gun, if the gun is not drawn and ready, the knife is the more dangerous weapon at close range.

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Read about a martial artist's adventures in the Philippines — and plenty of other countries — in this Black Belt book.

A few years ago, some police departments sponsored a test to see how armed officers would do against a surprise attack by a knife-wielding assailant, and the results were dramatic. It was found that the officers were unable to draw their weapon fast enough to save their life from any distance of less than about 20 feet. A well-known escrima practitioner played the assailant, and in nearly every scenario, he was able to “kill” the armed officers.

You may be thinking, Well, what’s the point in training to defend against knives if you are going to get cut or killed anyway?

The reason is simple: With training, you may be able to redirect the cuts to non-fatal areas and at the same time prevent your opponent from executing further attacks. It’s a question of surviving, not of avoiding a cut.

There is a related misconception about knife training, and it is very important for surviving a real encounter. In many schools today, the training focuses on trapping drills and passing the opponent’s blade back and forth and from side to side using the back of the hand and forearm to maintain contact with his arm. To put it bluntly, this is dangerous. While it’s a plus to gain a feel for where the opponent is at any one time, you are learning more bad habits than good ones.

First, because cuts cannot be avoided, it is wrong to practice giving your opponent additional chances to cut you. In a real encounter, you must judge the proper timing and distance and, when the attack is made, deal with it. That means avoiding or redirecting the attack and responding immediately.

Every time you successfully live through an attack but do nothing to your opponent, you’re just giving him one more chance to kill you. Dealing successfully with a knife attack means disabling your opponent, disarming him or getting away. The first two require you to grab, strike and/or close with your opponent.

FMA master used his empty hand to deflect a knife attack Photo by Brandon Snider

Second, because you do need to block, grab, strike or parry with your hands, using only the back of the hands is another error. While the reasons people give for using the back of the hands are valid to a point (fewer blood vessels, tendons and ligaments are better protected, etc.), they can’t make up for the loss of sensitivity and the resulting decrease in available responses.

Using the back of the hands is effective for drills and training, but in a real life-threatening situation, you must be prepared to grab and parry with your hands, which means you must use your palms and fingers.

Also, in a real fight, the resulting flood of adrenaline, which is a part of the fight-or-flight response, gives the impression of slowing things down. Your focus becomes sharper, and increased concentration allows you to accomplish things you normally can’t do in training. Unfortunately, as already mentioned, you will probably still get cut — but better your palm than your throat!

Read Part 4 of "5 Misconceptions About Escrima" here.

About the author: Steven C. Drape has practiced escrima for more than 17 years. He is the U.S. representative of the Institute of Filipino Martial Arts in Cebu, Republic of the Philippines.

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