The knife is an incredibly potent close-combat weapon. When wielded with proper skills and judgment, it can also be an extremely effective personal-defense tool. Unfortunately, few self-defense systems have successfully bridged the gap between knife fighting and practical self-defense. For example, the tactics of traditional Japanese tantojitsu, while very effective, were developed primarily to suit the needs of Japanese warriors during feudal times. The context for which they were developed, the rules of engagement of that culture and time period, and the weapons used to apply those tactics were all very different from the rules of self-defense in modern society. While past practices are potentially adaptable to modern needs, they are by no means foolproof guides for conducting modern-day personal defense with a knife.

Before you even consider carrying a knife as a self-defense weapon, you owe it to yourself to develop sound logic and tactics appropriate to that context. The purpose of this article is to examine that context and provide a logical outline for the responsible defensive use of a knife.

What You Really Carry

Although knife laws vary greatly from state to state, for most people a legal, practical carry knife will be a lock-blade folder with a 3- to 4-inch blade. Our goal is responsible self-defense, so if that’s what the law prescribes, that’s what we’ll carry. That’s also what we’ll have to fight with if we’re forced to defend ourselves. As obvious as this may seem, many systems of knife training nevertheless focus exclusively on large knives and the tactics appropriate to them.

From a historical and martial arts perspective, the tactics of using a Bowie knife or a tanto with a 12-inch blade may be fascinating, but that doesn’t mean they translate readily to a 3-inch-bladed folder. A thrust to the torso with a traditional Bowie knife could easily reach the heart or aorta and inflict a fight-stopping wound. The same thrust with a 3-inch blade, especially against a large-framed attacker, may not have any immediate effect.

Destructive Power

To understand what your carry knife is capable of, you need to actually cut something that is comparable to a human attacker. Traditional Japanese martial arts use tameshigiri (the test-cutting of water-soaked straw mats and similar targets) to quantify cutting power and to test skills. For modern self-defense purposes, a target that replicates muscle and skin makes the most sense. My standard test medium consists of a pork roast or tenderloin, butterflied and tied around a wooden dowel with heavy twine. It is then wrapped in about 20 to 30 layers of plastic wrap to represent the resistance of skin. Covered in one or more layers of clothing, this “Pork Man” target is a very accurate analog to the human body, especially the muscles of the arms and legs.

With careful attention to safety, cutting and thrusting practice on this type of target allows you to accurately quantify what kind of damage your actual carry knife will do to flesh. Based on this understanding, you can accurately envision the probable impact your tactics will have on your attacker’s body. Without this insight, you’d be cutting blindly and hoping for the best.

Stopping The Fight

In the realm of firearms tactics, stopping power is a key concept, both in defining effective tactics and in justifying your application of force. “Shooting to stop” has become the standard in good firearms tactics and has also become the operative phrase in articulating your actions to the authorities. We don’t shoot to kill; we shoot to stop. With a firearm, this is best accomplished with high center-mass hits and even more reliably with hits that cause direct damage to the central nervous system—the brain and spine. Since a firearm is a projectile weapon, delivering these hits from a safe distance is both possible and preferred.

Conceptually, the defensive application of the knife (or any other weapon) is exactly the same: The goal is to stop the attacker from inflicting harm. However, the types of wounds that a knife inflicts are very different from those caused by bullet impact. Targeting the central nervous system is also extremely difficult in a stand-up encounter with a knife. More importantly, if you are defending yourself with a knife, you are doing so because your attacker is already at close range and probably also armed with a contact-distance weapon.
While it may be very possible for you to inflict a mortal wound that ultimately proves fatal to your attacker, unless it decisively stops him or her from continuing the attack, you’re not safe. If the attacker dies several minutes after you inflicted a wound but still had the time and ability to mortally wound you, you’ve failed. Conversely, a proper stopping wound may immediately disable the attacker without actually being life-threatening.

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  • J

    Excellent material as always from Mike Janich. MBC is a logic-based system and the best I have found out there. Not that there aren’t other worthy systems out there – there are, of course. But so many are dictated by dogma and egos and logic and reason get thrown out the window. Or, many do not make sense in a modern self defense context, as Mike details.