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.

Understand Knife Wounds

Once you understand the type of damage you can do with your carry knife and relate that to an attacker’s body, the next step is to figure out which parts of your attacker’s body you can realistically target to achieve reliable, predictable stopping power. A full discussion of knife stopping-power is beyond the scope of this article, but in simple terms, you should focus on severing the muscles and tendons that allow an attacker to effectively attack you and, in the process, the peripheral nerves that control the attacker’s limbs.

Again, if you are defending yourself with a knife, it’s most likely because you’re being attacked by someone wielding some type of contact-distance weapon (a brick, pipe, tire iron or something similar). By swinging that weapon at you, the attacker is also giving you access to some of the best “stopping” targets on his or her body: the muscles and flexor tendons of the inner forearm that enable the attacker to grip the weapon. Cut these deeply, and you immediately destroy the attacker’s grip on the weapon and probably disarm the person. At that point, you have functionally stopped the lethal threat and made great progress toward keeping yourself safe.

Fight, Don’t Duel

Some knife systems structure their tactics around the presumption that your attacker will be armed with a knife, essentially envisioning a knife-dueling scenario. While it’s certainly possible that you could face a knife-armed attacker, it’s not necessarily what you’re most likely to face, nor is it the only situation in which defense with a knife would be a viable option.
Just as a firearm can be used to defend against a broad range of potentially life-threatening attacks, the knife’s scope of application is also broad. Good knife-training should therefore focus on tactics that work equally well against any type of handheld weapon and against larger, stronger or multiple unarmed attackers. As long as the threat you face justifies the introduction of a knife as a defensive weapon, you should be able to apply it effectively.

Practical Knife Deployment

The first rule of fighting with a knife is to have a knife. Many traditional knife systems focus exclusively on training with the knife already in hand, or base their deployment tactics on classical methods of carry. As established above, you will fight with the knife you actually carry, so your ability to deploy your knife into action quickly and positively is a critical part of your skill set.
Knife deployment is a dynamic combination of carry position, carry style, drawstroke and blade-opening technique. Since producing a knife under the stress of a real attack is extremely difficult, your carry and deployment methods should emphasize simple, gross motor skills and try to eliminate fine and complex movements. You should practice your draw regularly until it literally becomes second nature. Anything less may mean that you won’t have your knife when you need it most.

Empty-Hand Defense

If you are attacked at close range, your first action should not be to draw your knife but to minimize getting injured by any means possible. Typically this means defending yourself with empty-hand combative skills to buy the time and the opportunity to draw your blade.

Just as in the gun world, many people are attracted to the study of knife tactics because, not wanting to invest the time and effort to train in empty-hand skills, they want an immediate equalizer. Unfortunately, no matter what lethal weapons you may choose to carry, you will always need empty-hand skills or other less-lethal tactics for the many non-life-threatening self-defense situations that do not justify the deployment of lethal weapons.

Retain a Self-Defense Context

Many self-professed knife experts argue that the “best” knife tactics come from military combat or prison knife-fighting. Unfortunately, there is a huge difference between defending yourself against an attack on the street and fighting on a battlefield or in a prison yard. As noted earlier, a military-style fighting knife with a 7-inch blade is very different than a folder with a 3-inch blade, so the tactics for their use must also be different. Likewise, most weapons in prison are improvised “shanks” that are only suitable for stabbing. Just because they are frequently used to kill in prison doesn’t mean that they or the tactics of their use are the most effective—it just means that prisons are full of highly motivated killers.

Practitioners of medieval combat systems, fencing and other traditional martial arts also argue that their tactics are the most effective because they are combat-proven. Again, the argument is relevant only if those tactics were employed in the context of self-defense—not warfare—and if they can be used to produce reliable stopping power with a 3-inch-bladed folding knife.

Sparring, although useful for developing timing, distance appreciation, speed and accuracy, is not the best framework for developing self-defense skills with a knife. Sparring, by nature, is mutual combat. Self-defense is all about creating an opportunity for safe escape, not consenting to a duel. Sparring often promotes a “tag” mentality in which sudden, intense clashes or long-range sniping duels are interspersed with long periods of dancing and jockeying for position. One very common demonstration is for two students with marking knives to spar for a short period and then compare “cuts.” Invariably, both are covered in marks, supposedly illustrating that “there is no winner in a knife fight.” In reality, it is a clear demonstration that when two people choose to be stupid at the same time, both will get badly hurt.

If you want to spar, place your sparring in a self-defense context. Have one person assume the role of attacker and the other, the role of defender. The defender should focus his or her “defense” on attacking the attacker’s weapon-wielding arm. Every time the attacker attacks, the attacker should pay the price. If possible, this should be followed by a decisive, fight-stopping follow-up. Every clash should be viewed as a potential separate incident, not a flurry within a prolonged duel of mutual consent.

With proper training, the knife can be an amazingly potent personal-protection tool. The key to fueling that training is sound logic firmly rooted in the realities of self-defense.

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