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Facing an attacker armed with an edged weapon is one of the most terrifying situations you could ever imagine. If you do not have a weapon, or if you recognize the attack too late to draw a weapon before the attacker closes the distance, you will most likely have to rely on empty-hand defenses to save your life. To increase your chances of survival, those defenses must be practical, logical, and easily learned.

At this point I can already hear some of the well-worn gun-guy clichés start to fly. “If someone attacks me with a knife, I’ll just shoot him” or “That guy shouldn’t have brought a knife to a gunfight!” Irritating clichés don’t qualify as real weapons against a knife-armed attacker—especially when they’re backed only by archaic, square-range marksmanship skills.

Yes, firearms are the best way to deal with a knife-armed attacker; however, when you’ve brought a gun—or empty hands—to a knife fight and you’re playing by the knifer’s rules, solid, unarmed counter-knife tactics are what you need to survive. I began studying empty-hand defenses against knife attacks more than 30 years ago, when I first got involved in the martial arts. The knife defenses I learned were derived mostly from aikido and based on classical exaggerated knife attacks, not the dynamic methods actually used on the street. When my training partners and I “turned up the heat” and attacked with intent, the contrived defenses we were learning invariably fell apart.

Practical Defense

Frustrated with the system I was studying, I began looking for martial arts that actually taught practical, street-realistic knife tactics to see how they addressed counter-knife skills. After all, if they could cut well, they probably had a good idea of what it takes to not get cut. I ultimately found the Filipino and Indonesian arts, which include some of the most effective small-knife systems ever developed. They also provide a great foundation of knowledge on effective knife defenses and served as the basis for much of my study.

Although the traditional techniques of those arts were a significant improvement, they were not an ideal “turn-key” solution for modern self-defense needs. In some cases, the techniques reflected legal and cultural norms of Asian society that were inconsistent with modern self-defense. They also tended to focus on high-level skills that required intensive training to gain combat efficiency. A system was needed that took the proven counter-knife tactics of these arts and distilled them into a practical, easily learned system that was consistent with the training goals and legal concerns of modern society. The result is what I call Counter-Blade Concepts (CBC). My first goal in developing CBC was to understand how most real knife attacks actually happen. Analyzing videos of actual knife attacks from all over the world helped me define the common elements of all knife attacks based on instinctive human body mechanics.

Typical Knife Attack Elements:

• Knife attacks start at close range.
• Typically the weapon is not brandished before the attack.
• Most people are right handed, so most knife attacks are right handed.
• Attackers typically use gross motor skills, which are primarily forehand motions.
• The non-weapon hand is usually used to grab and gauge distance.
• Attacks will involve repetitive motions, not a single cut or thrust.

Using these common traits to define “the problem” of the typical knife attack, the CBC system uses a logical sequence of actions as the basis of its defensive tactics. This sequence is as follows:

• Minimize injury to you
• Counter and disable immediately or draw your own weapon if possible
• If you cannot disable immediately, maintaincontact and control the attacking limb, limiting its mobility to the shoulder joint
• Create a power base to attack and disable
• If you are duty bound, restrain, control and disarm
• If you are not duty bound, break contact, evaluate, scan, and escape

This basic sequence forms the foundation of the CBC system. Another critical element of CBC is the significance of the term “concepts” in the name. That term is not intended to imply that the skills of the system cannot be quantified; it emphasizes that principles are more important than rote technique. These principles are expressed in the four phases of CBC training: deflect and counter, control and counter, returning blade, and combined skills.

Phase 1 – Deflect & Counter

The best counter-knife techniques are based on the same body mechanics as sound knife-fighting methods. However, rather than using the knife to disable the attacker, you must use your natural body weapons and available improvised weapons. The defensive actions remain basically unchanged.

With this concept in mind, the first phase of the Counter-Blade Concepts program is called “Deflect and Counter.” It focuses on blocking and redirecting incoming attacks with the back of the forearm and checking with the palm. No attempt is made to capture the attacker’s limb or to disarm the weapon. Instead, the checking or passing action interrupts the attacker’s motion and creates an opening for the primary counterattack: a finger strike to the eyes. Attacking the eyes disrupts the attacker’s vision, causes intense pain, and often creates a spontaneous disarm. Eye strikes can be immediately followed by low-line kicks to the ankle or knee to create a “mobility kill” that allows you to create distance and leaves the attacker unable to follow you as you escape. These tactics also create an opportunity to deploy your own weapon so you can continue your defense on equal or preferably superior terms.

Deflect and Counter is a simple hit-and-run approach to empty-hand knife defense. It does not require any grappling or controlling actions and is designed to immediately debilitate your attacker so you can seek escape.

Phase 2 – Control & Counter

In confined quarters or situations where law enforcement officers are duty bound to subdue a knife-armed attacker, the most effective defense is to achieve positive control of the knife-wielding limb while you deliver blows and/or throws to incapacitate the attacker. This phase of CBC is called “Control and Counter.”

The core training method for this phase of CBC is the Seven-Position CBC Flow Drill. This drill teaches defenses for the four primary zones of defense (angles 1-4, or high left, high right, low left, and low right, respectively), two defenses for thrusts to the lower abdomen (low angle 5) and a defense for a thrust to the upper chest, neck, or face (high angle 5).

The key concept of the Seven-Position Drill is to control the attacker’s arm so his mobility is limited to one joint: the shoulder. Rather than focusing on “stripping” or disarming the knife (a focus of the traditional Filipino methods), Control-and-Counter tactics bypass the hand and wrist to control the entire arm. They therefore work equally well against all sizes and types of edged weapons, including common street weapons like box cutters and razors that cannot be stripped by traditional methods.

CBC control positions focus heavily on the use of a “compression lock,” a structure derived from the Muay Thai plomb (clinch) position in which the hands are clasped palm into palm. However, instead of applying this structure to the attacker’s neck, it is focused on his arm, creating a powerful joint lock and pain-compliance hold that is structurally superior to traditional arm locks.

Every CBC control position can be used as a foundation for takedowns and throws. This approach uses the ground and surrounding objects as handy “impact weapons” and also supports follow-up restraint-and-control tactics (i.e. handcuffing). For civilian self-defense, the control positions are used primarily to create a power base for delivering powerful strikes and low-line kicks to disable your attacker and take him out of the fight.

The Control-and-Counter phase of CBC is the core of the system and the most heavily emphasized skill set in CBC training.

Phase 3 – Returning Blade

The Returning Blade phase of CBC is exactly what it sounds like—feeding the attacker’s blade back at him. Although traditional techniques often accomplish this by first disarming the attacker and then using his own weapon against him, this approach is inconsistent with the legalities of modern self-defense.

If you are unarmed and your attacker has a knife, you are legally justified to use extreme force as long as he has the weapon and poses a viable threat to your safety. However, if you disarm him and then use his own knife against him, things get much more complicated. If you end up in court—especially if the incident happened to be caught on surveillance video—you will have to prove that all your actions were in self-defense. Your initial response would be easily justified; however, once you take possession of the knife and use it on an unarmed person—even one who was trying to kill you moments before—you will be viewed as a criminal.

From a practical standpoint, disarming a weapon in the middle of an encounter is also difficult and dangerous, especially when the knife is a box cutter that will do significant damage to you but offers very little leverage for traditional disarming technique. Conversely, turning the knife back on the attacker while he is still holding it is both safer and easier.

Returning Blade tactics are typically an outgrowth of the previous stages of CBC. Once you have avoided injury and achieved some level of control of the attacker’s limb with Control-and-Counter tactics, you can use counterforce motions (i.e. push-pull) to collapse his arm at the elbow and direct it back against him. This action is combined with body mechanics, anatomical leverage, and low-line trapping and destruction to make the return of the blade as uncomfortable as possible for the attacker. Returning Blade tactics are often used to distract or disorient an attacker so you can return to Control-and-Counter methods that will enable you to decisively control and disable your attacker.

Phase 4 – Combined Tactics

No counter-knife technique is 100-percent reliable or foolproof. That is precisely why CBC emphasizes concepts over rote technique. That’s also why the final phase of CBC training emphasizes integrating the first three phases to create a system of “back-ups.” In this phase, students learn how to flow from one tactic to another based on the attacker’s energy and intent, as well as the effectiveness—or lack of effectiveness—of his/her technique. This is where “outcome-based education” really shines and the effectiveness of the defender’s tactics—as well as his ability to improvise—overshadows the “style” of his/her technique.

The Combined Tactics phase of CBC focuses heavily on “reference points”—specific physical relationships between you and your attacker that are common to the concepts learned in the first three phases. By learning to immediately recognize these structures in the context of a dynamic situation, CBC students develop the ability to spontaneously and reflexively transition from one tactic to another while maintaining their safety—exactly what is needed in an unpredictable, high-stress situation.

Defending yourself against an edged-weapon attack empty handed is always going to be a worst-case scenario. CBC was developed to provide a practical, logical, and highly effective system of tactics that will increase individual survivability in such situations. Very importantly, it also recognizes the utility of weapon-based defenses and dovetails seamlessly with close-quarters shooting and other weapon-based tactics. To date, CBC has been taught to and successfully used by law enforcement officers, correctional officers, security professionals, military personnel, and defense-minded civilians. Based on the time-tested methods of some of the world’s best counter-blade systems and adapted to the needs of the modern world, CBC truly represents the state of the art in counter-blade tactics.

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