Note that this article presupposes an unarmed victim of an attacker who wields a small cutting/stabbing weapon, i.e. a knife and not a machete or sword. This would apply to any situation in which the victim does not already have a hand on an effective weapon (e.g. cane, gun) at the moment of contact.
"Knife defense" (actually, "defense against weapons" in general, but let’s stick to knives/shanks/little pointy things for now), as trained these days in most martial arts/self-defense schools, and even in many (but not all) "Reality-Based" ones, is more entertainment than life-saving training.
The Artistic Method: What Does This have to Do With Violence? Let’s eliminate from consideration up front all the thousands of schools where the "armed attacker" brandishes a knife, cocks it at the hip, then lunges forward in a single, committed thrust… then waits or falls off balance while the "defender" performs (yes, it is a performance, as artistic and false as anything on Broadway) the prescribed technique. Of course, that’s Knife Attack #1. Knife Attack #2 would have a similar dynamic, only the knife is held in the ice pick grip, and the thrust comes down from waaaaay overhead to where the "defender" can best perform the counter technique. Wonderful performance, elegant, good fun.
Now, some schools, the ones that purport to take "knife fighting" seriously, expand the number of prescribed knife attacks or "angles". Instead of two, you may get five, or twelve, or over 100 (at least from what I’ve seen)! And of course, you must practice your techniques against every angle. While you start out practicing each angle and defense technique in isolation, with the knife attack freezing conspicuously at its apex to allow the counter to work, eventually things go a little faster, and the "feeder" (that’s actually an official designation of the "attacker" in this version of the drama) starts feeding the angles out of sequence, without telling the "defender" . . . except insofar as the feeder cocks the blade in the prescribed starting position for each attack before launching it, even at high speed (can you say "pattern recognition"?). Especially when things start going fast, and the slapping sounds of parries and passes against the arms start sounding like a drum solo, this is REALLY fun!
Does anyone not see some of the problems inherent in this kind of martial choreography? At least insofar as training to protect yourself is concerned? The limited, pre-planned attacks, the "if he does A, you do B" memorization, the lobotomized attackers with no limbs save the knife-holding one, the lack of any context whatsoever for why you’re going toe-to-toe against someone ostensibly (but not demonstrably) trying to gut you. . . . The list can go on much longer, but you get the idea.
Getting Warmer: The "Reality-Based" Method Now, these days, many (but not all) of the "reality-based" camps have taken things a step beyond the foolishness described above and done away with a lot of the choreography and performance art. Armed aggression is not parsed so finely into discrete, prescribed "attacks," and the "feeder" now acts a bit more like an attacker, at least insofar as he is told to try to repeatedly stab or cut the defender with a training blade (albeit not so fast or hard as to cause injuries). At times, the attacker even remembers he has a free hand. The stances are relaxed, and movement is actually encouraged. Sometimes the action is preceded by some improvised dialogue, and a "scenario" is suggested. Students are told to expect to get cut, even while trying to avoid it. This is progress!
However, problems again arise. . . .
"Realistic Training" The instructors want the students to feel like they’re training "realistically." After all, this is "RBSD" (Reality-Based Self-Defense)! One way to make them "feel" more "realistic" is to remove the need for them to "hold back" or move at less than full power. Unfortunately, good striking cannot be performed full-power in training without bulky, unrealistic protective gear. And even when the gear is used, the dynamic is changed considerably because strikes do not have a realistic effect. What is the only method of fighting that can be trained with nearly full intensity without a prohibitively dangerous risk of injury? Sportive Grappling!
Lo and behold, we now have on the market a bunch of "Reality-Based" (more accurately, "Training-Drill-Based") knife defense methods that are grappling-oriented. The common thread amongst them is that one must initiate one’s defense by grabbing the weapon-bearing arm or wrist through various methods and then control it while launching incidental strikes with the unoccupied limbs (e.g. knees, headbutts) and/or taking down the attacker. The more sophisticated methods teach combinations of classic standing wrestling techniques and positions (e.g. the shoulder stop, arm drag, two-on-one, various takedowns, etc.) in dynamic Greco-Roman wrestling-like drills with a rubber knife added in.
So, the training is dynamic, forceful and uncooperative. What could be wrong?
How about the fact that even in the less intense drills, the students constantly get stabbed in vital areas?
Training To Die You can view video clips of these kinds of drills on sites like Youtube.com. Well, the instructors said the training would be realistic, and that you should expect to get cut while defending against a knife. . . So, by telling the student to put himself in positions where the knife is very near his own vital areas, the instructors are basically training the student to die. . .
But you know what? The training is fun! You sweat, it’s dynamic, it’s lightly competitive just like mixed martial arts training, and everyone cheers you on. I suppose the idea is that as you get better at it, you’ll get stabbed in the heart, liver and kidneys less often than when you started out, just like you eventually get punched less in your boxing training (unless of course the other guy is good or cranks up the intensity…)
Anyone see a problem with this supposedly "realistic" training? Sure, under adrenaline, you may not feel the pain of being stabbed (many people when stabbed say it felt like a light punch). But that does not mean that you’ll survive long with a hole in a vital organ!
The Root of the Problem A major cause of this illogical training paradigm is that many of the programs were developed by instructors who attempted to replace their lack of real-world experience with "hard-core" drill experience. Many instructors have created systems based on thin or non-existent real-life experience with blades, but lots of experience in martial arts training. Some of the instructors may have lots of experience in high risk jobs (bouncing, police, military, etc.), but this does not necessarily equate to vast experience defending against deadly, committed, armed attacks. Even a situation where the opposing party is armed does not necessarily equate to a vicious attack if the armed party is not intent on using the blade to do more than intimidate.
As Lt. Col. Al Ridenhour USMC has repeatedly pointed out (most recently in Guided Chaos Newsletter #58), no matter how "realistic" they may be, sport methods and training drills can never approach the multi-faceted reality of violent conflict! "Realism" is not reality! A real blade does not "tag" you, reminding you to improve your grappling clinch position. It penetrates flesh and bone and does real, disabling, possibly lethal damage. Your body instinctively knows this, and will naturally attempt to maximize distance from a real blade--provided you’re not trying to force it to do the opposite!
Untrained Instincts Morgue reports show that a normal, untrained person, when mercilessly attacked by a determined killer or psychotic armed with a knife, typically reacts in one of two ways, depending on the individual’s mindset going into the situation:
1. The victim panics, curls up in a fetal position, cries out to God or whoever will listen, and generally puts up no significant resistance, so overwhelmed and horrified is he by the sheer brutality and violence of his fate. This is the reaction killers want to illicit when they attack with extreme speed, surprise and violence of action (factors it behooves us to utilize ourselves in violent conflict). It makes their task easier.
2. Even with no prior training, the defender’s body attempts to do everything in its power to keep the weapon away from vital areas. This appears to be to a certain degree instinctive. It typically takes the form of running away if possible, dodging, pulling back the abdomen to avoid thrusts and slashes, swatting the knife away with the hands at adrenaline speed, and kicking out with the legs if the victim falls to the floor. These actions are the cause of the "defensive wounds" frequently found on victims of knife attacks. In many cases where the untrained defender was eventually killed by thrusts and cuts to vital areas (typically chest and throat), dozens or even scores of cuts were taken first on the limbs as the attacker attempted to cut and stab past the defender’s fast, convulsive animal instincts for self-preservation. What prevents the defender from surviving is his inability (through lack of knowledge, experience and training) to damage the aggressor. However talented one may be at keeping the knife away or even controlling it, if no avenue of escape is available, the attacker must be damaged in order to end the attack.
Real World Experience
Contrast the experiences of the instructors we have discussed so far with the extensive experiences of the WWII-era close combat pioneers like William E. Fairbairn (discussed in Attackproof Newsletter #58) and his contemporaries.
Then, look at the advice they gave:
Late in his career, during an interview, Fairbairn was asked about defending against a knife while unarmed:
Fairbairn had only two suggestions:
B. "With a lighting-like kick of either foot, kick him in the testicles or stomach."
But when my brother asked him to demonstrate this move, "Willie never even got up from his desk. He just said, 'You missed the phrase “lighting-like.” I don't do “lighting-like” anymore.'"
--From The First Commando Knives by Prof. Kelly Yeaton, Lt. Col. Samuel Yeaton (USMC) and Col. Rex Applegate
Kill or Get Killed by Col. Rex Applegate, one of the most complete of the classic close combat manuals, discusses strategies such as using a chair, using a baton and kicking as preferred methods for defending against a blade. Other less preferred methods are also included for closer attacks or for controlling a less dangerous adversary.
Carl Cestari, one of the foremost modern authorities on WWII-era close combat and also an experienced police officer and veteran of all sorts of mayhem, taught several kicking methods to counter a knife-armed attacker, involving straight “savate” kicks to the midsection and low side kicks while stepping offline, all done with rapid-fire “lightning-like” execution that is enhanced by Guided Chaos dropping and balance training.
Finally, a man of my acquaintance with experience on both sides of the law revealed the only strategy he had ever “seen” work successfully against a planned hit in prison (i.e. being suddenly assaulted at close range by multiple shank-armed experienced assassins): get into a corner, drop to the ground, and kick out madly with your feet until the “hats ‘n’ bats” arrive to break things up.
Where’s the disconnect? Why are the methods advocated by veterans of real, desperate life-and-death combat so different from those advocated by masters of sport-based martial arts and “realistic” training drills?
Dynamics of the Blade
In training, no matter how "hard-core" and "alive," if you miss your pick-up of the knife arm or lose control of it as you grapple, you get poked, and you try again.
In real life, that "poke" can end everything for you! If it penetrates a vital organ, you may have only minutes (or less) to get emergency medical care--and even then, they may not be able to save you. Even if no vital organs are hit, if you're cut well across the abdomen, it is unlikely you'll be able to prevent him from finishing the job as you trip over your own intestines. Blood loss from "non-lethal" cuts can make you dizzy and unbalanced very quickly, as well as complicating attempted grabs by making things very slippery. Cuts and stabs that happen to transect critical muscles and tendons (of which there are many) can render you incapable of using your hands or arms to protect yourself. And we haven't even gotten to the physical and psychological effects of cuts and stabs to the neck and above. . .
But if you get very good at your grabbing and controlling techniques, you won't suffer such things, right?
Let's examine the dynamics of how a knife in the hand of a determined or psychotic attacker moves and maims:
Unarmed limbs require momentum and accuracy to cause damage. A punch or other strike will have little effect if it doesn't have umph behind it, and even with some umph behind it, it will be most effective only against certain target areas (i.e. the ones we're trained to attack in Guided Chaos). The requirements of momentum and accuracy limit to a certain extent the ways unarmed limbs can damage you. For example, a hand that slaps lightly across your abdomen or a finger that swipes the inside of your arm would be of little consequence in a fight in terms of causing damage. On the other hand, a sharp implement requires relatively little momentum (almost none if it's very sharp) and accuracy to generate massive injury! Therefore, a blade can move in many more ways, far more deceptively and quickly (because it doesn't need to coordinate with the rest of the body), and still cause massive injury with virtually any contact with your body! Far less skill is required in moving the blade effectively, because far less accuracy and body unity are needed to cause damage. Of course, if you add accuracy and good body mechanics into the equation, things get even worse. . .
A psychotic attacker's (i.e. one whose mind is not perceiving remotely the same reality as yours is--you may look to him like a devil about to eat his children) attack with a blade will be "predictable" only in two aspects: it will be fast and it will be furious. Adrenaline will cause his limbs to move as fast as they are physically capable of moving, which for most people is far faster than the eye can track at close range. He'll pounce on you like an animal, moving the blade every which way except for where you think. And the sane, but determined attacker's attack will be similar, only more efficient and calculated.
Anyone want to reach into this fury to attempt to grab the blade arm--bearing in mind that the attacker's other limbs are likely doing everything in their power to disrupt and damage you as well?
What the truly experienced close combat pioneers realized is that you cannot count on a) grabbing an attacker's knife arm out of the air in the midst of a violent attack, or b) preventing the blade from moving decisively even if you do get a good grip on the arm, unless perhaps you grab concurrent with or after doing serious damage to the attacker! Diminishing the attacker can possibly reduce blade movement potential.
How to Stay Alive
Because we see that we cannot count on controlling a blade being wielded violently, we must keep maximum distance between the blade and our vital organs, and/or keep something solid (preferably that's not a part of us) between the blade and our vital organs! All of the close combat methods discussed above, and all of those taught in Guided Chaos, support this priority.
Here is a general (not exhaustive) outline of Guided Chaos tactics against an assailant trying to kill you (as opposed to scare you) with a small sharp object (bearing in mind that everything depends on the specific situation):
1. If you can perceive the attack before the attacker gets within arms' reach, here are your best options, roughly in descending order of preference:
A. Run to create a lot more distance! Use cover as you go!
B. If you can't run (or you think he's faster), get something solid (e.g. chair, trash can) in between you and the blade! Hurt him with it and/or create time and space to run!
C. Get something that can extend your destructive reach (e.g. a cane) and hurt him with it and/or create time and space to RUN!
D. Drop kick like lightning (hopefully with solid boots) to keep him away and hurt him (while covering your vital organs--note possible reach disparity, if his arm plus the blade outreach your leg)!
i. "Rockette" front and side kicks
ii. Kick with the leg that will cover your groin if possible (parallel leg to knife hand)
iii. Move offline while kicking if possible
2. If the attacker is already within arms' reach or is about to breach that distance:
A. Dog-dig (Guided Chaos method of high speed, alternating circular parries with both hands) to keep the blade away from your vital organs while lunging away and offline to regain distance!
B. Go to the ground (Modified Native American Groundfighting style) to gain more distance between the blade and your vital organs and destroy his legs and body!
C. If you're forced into a close-range, face-to-face fight,
i. Dog-dig to keep blade away from vital organs while attacking (destroy throat and neck, penetrate eye sockets, create traumatic brain injury) and while moving to get behind him!
ii. If you happen to grab the blade arm concurrent with damaging him, congratulations-- but do not count on a grab to keep you safe-- you must end him or regain distance!
This is a real test of your sensitivity, looseness, body unity and balance. Even if you get stabbed, your best bet for survival at this distance if you can't get away is to shut him down immediately so that he can't stab you anymore, not to wrestle with his knife arm as he cuts you anyway and rips your face off with his free hand.
Train your awareness to pick up signs of possible attacks before they breach the critical distance. The further away you detect a possible threat, the more time and options you have to avoid it.
Some may at this point bring up the issue of, "What if you don't know he has a weapon? Many stabbing victims say they did not see the weapon and didn't even realize they had been stabbed until they saw all the blood."
It's true, you may not see the weapon . . . but can you see the palms of his hands? Assuming you are aware of the approach of a potential attacker at least a second before he's within range to strike, if you cannot see the palms of both of his hands, you must assume that he is holding a weapon!
If you're not aware of his approach before he's in range to strike, well . . . good luck. . .
"What if he has it concealed but is not holding it yet?"
This is why close combat and Guided Chaos emphasize the need to shut down an attacker right away, before he has the chance to draw a weapon.
Is it possible for an attacker to cut your leg while you kick him, standing or from the ground? Yes it is. Remember however that an attacker is not likely to expect kicks from you as he beelines towards your vital areas. You can further reduce your chances of getting injured by working diligently to improve your balance, speed and power in drop kicking and kicking from the ground (use wobble boards, heavy bags and groundfighting kicking exercises). Additionally, the boots (or at least sturdy shoes--right?) covering your feet are probably the least penetrable pieces of clothing you regularly wear, making your feet the most armored part of your body. Unless the femoral artery (which is accessible to a small blade only near the groin) is hit, cuts and stabs to the legs will generally be non-lethal, and will usually allow you to continue fighting, especially as the muscles and tendons in the legs are much bigger and tougher than those in the arms.
Could other methods work? Certainly, they have and they will. It's a matter of luck and the specifics of the situations and adversaries faced. Not every knife-wielding attacker is a determined killer or murderous psychotic. However, a cornerstone principle of Guided Chaos and close combat is to train primarily for the worst-case scenario, so that you'll be as prepared as possible no matter how bad it gets. While going for a grapple and takedown could possibly work consistently for a large, athletic bouncer facing severely inebriated bums wielding broken beer bottles, that's hardly a scenario to base life-saving personal protection training on.
Reality Ain't Fun
Unfortunately for enrollment in Guided Chaos classes, training for the reality of an attack with a small sharp weapon is difficult and not as much fun as wrestling around or doing patterned drills. Fortunately for the students, though, having a serious idea about the reality of such attacks and the stakes involved goes a long way towards improving their awareness, thereby reducing the probability that they will ever have to physically deal with such an attack.
And if someday they do have to deal with it, hopefully what they've learned and trained will help them.