Knife defense

Some of the strategies and techniques that are taught as defense against a blade attack are fatally flawed. Find out what the problems are, then learn the solutions!

Reality-Based Fighter Shows You the Right Way to Neutralize a Blade Attack!

Defense against edged weapons is a heated topic among martial artists. Opinions vary based on style, background and experience, but the seriousness of the subject requires that everyone think about it because trying an ineffective technique can get you killed.


One critic of commonly taught knife defense is Montreal-based Richard Dimitri, founder of senshido. He notes that many instructors would rather modify reality to fit their system than adapt their system to fit real life.
Examples: The partner attacks in a manner that makes the defense work, or he holds his blade in a position that makes it easy to execute the prescribed disarm.

In contrast, real attacks involve chaotic, ballistic motions, and real attackers move rapidly before, during and after the assault. They retract their knife after thrusting and slashing and follow up with more thrusts and slashes. When they hold their blade stationary to rob or threaten you, they rarely do so in a manner that lends itself to picture-perfect disarming.

Fixing Your Knife Defense

The first step toward overcoming that deficiency, Richard Dimitri says, is to restructure your training so your partner really tries to “stab" you. It's also crucial to create the emotional conditions that exist in a real assault. To do that, you need a partner who issues verbal threats and who behaves and reacts the way real criminals do.

The first component of an effective defense is awareness — not just awareness of your general environment but also awareness of pre-assault indicators and the rituals of violence, Dimitri says. You must be able to recognize the situational and behavioral elements that precede an armed attack, along with the body language and movements.

Before attempting to disarm a thug, it helps to distract him. To do that successfully, you must first figure out what he wants because that will determine what you need to say or do.

Richard Dimitri recommends asking the assailant a question that forces him to think, thus creating a momentary hesitation. It will permit you to use your hands in a manner that's consistent with the behavior he expects from someone who's terrified. What appears to be a pleading gesture on your part can be an excellent way to maneuver your hands closer to his weapon.

Principles Over Techniques

When it comes to the physical response, Richard Dimitri advocates learning principles rather than specific defenses. Planning to use specific defenses is problematic, he says, for two reasons: You need to learn a technique for every possible situation, and remembering and effectively executing the right technique in a split second is nearly impossible.

The shortcoming is exacerbated by instructors who create unnatural situations in the dojo to make their techniques work. For example, if your partner attacks you in a realistic manner, with his knife moving quickly and changing from a slash to a thrust or from one angle to another, it's unrealistic to expect that you can discern the angle of attack and apply the appropriate response. That's why you need to have general principles that work against a variety of offenses.
Some of Dimitri's knife-defense strategies depend on whether the weapon is stationary or moving, while others apply to all situations. Common to both is the need to avoid getting cut in a vital area (neck, heart, inner thigh, etc.), even if it means placing a less-critical body part in the path of the blade.

Next, he says, you must clear your body. That means ascertaining how the knife has to move to hurt you and then shifting in the opposite direction to get out of harm's way. You should attempt to seize the attacker's arm and pin it against something to stabilize the weapon and prevent it from damaging you.

Securing the knife need not occupy both your hands for the rest of the fight; once you have control of it, you can briefly let go with one hand and strike a vital area. As soon as you do that, however, you should go back to securing the weapon.

Finally, you need to neutralize him using the most effective means available. Aim to inflict maximum injury so he concentrates on the pain rather than on attacking you.

Will You Get Cut?

Martial artists love to argue over whether you should expect to get cut during a knife attack. Although some claim it's defeatist to tell yourself you'll be injured, Richard Dimitri says you should anticipate getting sliced so you don't freeze or panic if it happens.

He relates a story about getting slashed across the chest with a knife back when he was new to the martial arts. He stopped to look at the gash before re-engaging. Afterward, he realized that if the knifer had been more competent, he'd have taken advantage of Dimitri's momentary distraction and finished him.

Don't buy into claims that you'll pass out or die if you get stabbed in a specific spot, Dimitri says. If it happens, it happens, but you can often keep on fighting.

How does that translate to training? Never quit. Even if you sustain a “fatal" stab with a rubber knife in the dojo, continue to fight back. On the street, people survive knife attacks, some of which involve multiple stabs and slashes, all the time.

Defensive Strategy

If you're held at knifepoint, it's essential to employ a passive stance that has your hands moving slowly in a manner that's congruous with someone who's scared. During this time, your adversary will be extremely aware and tense while he measures your ability to resist. If you make any sudden moves, you could be stabbed.

One of the most important parts of weapons defense against a static attack is playing along with the attacker to cultivate a false sense of security and distract him. Efforts to verbally de-escalate the tension will likely lower his guard and bolster his ego. Then, if you need to get physical, he'll be less prepared to react.

If you find yourself facing a static knife attack at a distance, running away is usually the best option. Grabbing an improvised weapon is also good, as long as doing so doesn't leave you open to your opponent's rush.
Since you can't realistically expect to discern the nature of a moving knife attack and then select and execute the proper defense, it's even more important to follow Dimitri's belief that principles trump techniques.

On the subject of trying to control the weapon versus attacking the attacker, he leans toward controlling the weapon. However, if that's not immediately doable, you should switch to a plan that takes advantage of whatever your opponent makes available — attacking his weapon hand or overwhelming him with strikes.

Weapons defense is one of the many topics Kelly McCann addresses in Combatives for Street Survival. Order here.

When facing a dynamic knife attack, assume a posture that makes it hard for the blade to reach your vital areas, Richard Dimitri says. Your chin should be tucked and your shoulders raised to protect your neck and throat. Your arms should be up in a boxing-style stance with the backs of your arms toward the knife and your hands closed.

Your ability to block his offensive moves is but a minor obstacle for the assailant, Dimitri says. After his strikes are stopped a few times — at most — he'll start stabbing from another angle. That's why Dimitri advocates jamming his arm against his body or otherwise grabbing it and anchoring it to arrest the knife's movement.

A firm anchor involves wrapping the limb and cupping the elbow while pinning it to your body. As soon as the knife is stabilized, pummel the attacker to put him on the defensive. Then he'll be more concerned with avoiding what you're doing to him than with attacking you.

Right Way to Jam an Attack

Jamming shouldn't be confused with blocking, parrying or passing. Jamming entails slamming your forearms or hands into the attacker's knife arm with the goal of immobilizing it. Jams are preferred because they're gross-motor movements and can be used on a variety of attacks.

Ideally, one of your hands should jam the biceps of his thrusting arm and the other his wrist. Make sure you drive forward with your whole body. Using only your arms is weak and leaves you overextended and vulnerable.
Moving in to jam the knife might get you cut, but it offers the best chance of controlling the weapon, thus minimizing the overall damage. As soon as you pin the knife arm against his body, use one hand to keep it there. With the other one, attack his eyes or throat.

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If the knife isn't within jamming range, Dimitri says, you must attack him as viciously as possible. Your aim is to make him more concerned with defending himself than with stabbing you, thus reversing the predator/prey mentality.
If he's outside “traffic range" — the distance at which both parties are close enough to hit each other — remain far enough back to force him to telegraph his intentions before he can get to you.

If he's close but not lunging toward you, Dimitri favors throwing quick, low-line kicks to get him to back off or to distract him before you drive forward with a jamming technique. Kick with the leg that's closest to him.

Richard Dimitri knows that when it comes to knife defense, there are no guarantees. However, if you concentrate on the facets of fighting described above, you'll be better able to turn the tables on an attacker when you otherwise wouldn't have stood a chance.

Photos by Anthony Lukban

About the author: E. Lawrence is a freelance writer who specializes in reality-based fighting.

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