Anytime martial artists get together to discuss defensive techniques that employ the empty hands against a knife in a real-life scenario, arguments ignite. Then proclamations start: “There’s no way you can make that work against a real attack.” “Do that and you’ll get cut for sure.” “That move will get you killed.”
So goes the banter in discussing self-defense techniques, and the debate often gets hot when practitioners are talking about knife fighting. It’s interesting that very few of the speculations about knife fighting are based on criminal case studies or military research. Instead, the speculations about self-defense techniques employed in a knife attack revolve around anecdotal observations and shortsighted, nonscientific testing.
Which “get you killed” self-defense techniques incur the greatest wrath of martial artists? The arm grab and the knife disarm are usually the first to go. Other tactics — such as verbal skills, footwork, strikes, blocks, passing and takedowns — are frequently relegated to the trash bin even though such self-defense moves are just as likely to come back into favor next year.
The debates about the dynamics of knife fighting really hinge on three critical points on which all false arguments are built. They are:
- the myth of the first event
- the myth that all knife attackers are experts
- the myth that all knife victims stop and drop on first contact
Knife-Fighting Myth #1: The First Event
When a martial arts instructor declares that certain self-defense techniques won’t work against a knife, it’s usually because he’s tested it against a prepared, trained, athletic student. In this format, the stab or slash is the focused, first and main event of a staged knife-fighting experiment.
The star pupil attacks, and the instructor fails to pull off the intended move. Then he declares: “See? You can’t do this!” Thinking he’s proved to his students that such self-defense techniques can’t work in real-life situations, he eliminates them from the curriculum.
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But what if your countermoves occurred on the fourth or sixth event of the fight instead of the first? What if the first event was a chair or lamp smashed across his head? The subsequent knife counters, once impossible in the isolated dojo test against “Superboy,” suddenly work with a little kryptonite.
To experience this, try catching the weapon-bearing limb of the most athletic martial artist in your class. Hard, isn’t it? Next, hit him in the head with a lamp and try the grab. Not so hard, right? Stick your fingers in his eye. Easier?
Never dismiss self-defense moves to counter a knife solely on the fact that you can’t do them on the first event. First-event responses against blade attacks should be blinding and stunning strikes effected while you evade. Such self-defense techniques shouldn’t be complicated, multi-step sequences.
Knife-Fighting Myth #2: All Knife Attackers Are Experts
Beware the street fighter! He slashes tight and fast. He stabs like a pumping machine! His other hand strikes, pushes, pulls and confuses you!
How many times have you heard warnings such as those? They’re designed to convince you that your worst nightmare is the trained knife-fighting expert that has set you up for an ambush in the worst possible surroundings so he can exploit, yes, the element of surprise. The greatest armies of the world have been defeated that way.
The good news is, martial artists are usually forced to use self-defense moves against people who are referred to in professional circles as zero-to-moderately-trained opponents. Even then, real life has shown that they fall closer to the zero end of the spectrum.
Such nonexperts frequently make a host of mistakes in knife-fighting scenarios. In fact, they often do the opposite of what was described at the beginning of this section. They don’t plan. They’re overly emotional.
They overextend their arms in power stabs and slashes. They fail to adequately use their free hands for support. And worse for them but better for you, they tend to be out of shape, slow, uncoordinated, drugged or drunk.
Of course you should train and practice self-defense techniques for the worst-case scenario, but you should never dismiss a tactic based solely on the expert-attacker myth.
Knife-Fighting Myth #3: All Knife Victims Drop at First Contact
In a fencing match, one opponent’s epee touches the other person. The buzzer sounds, indicating a point. The toucher wins, and the touchee is theoretically dead. The crowd applauds.
The dirty little secret of the match? A split second after the winner touched the opponent with his weapon, the loser touched the winner with his. But the match was already over because of first contact. Hypothetically, both combatants would have died in seconds.
It gets even more complicated because in a street or battlefield fight, would either person have died? For an answer, let’s move that edged-weapon clash to the typical prison, where victims are stabbed and slashed 10 or 20 times but still manage to fight.
Consider the common street fight or, as the military calls it, close-quarters battle. Once again, multiple wounds and prolonged encounters are the norm. A modern-day knife-fighting situation is more like making contact in a football game than receiving a thrust in a fencing match. Rarely will a first-contact stab or slash put a person down. To be truly prepared, you should plan on fighting long after one of you is wounded.
Past the Myths
If those are the main myths, you’re probably wondering, How do knife-fighting encounters really end?
Research tells us that one common way is with an arm wrap that targets the weapon-bearing limb. Once the arm is slowed or stopped by a block or a successful stab or slash, it’s easier to effect an arm catch.
Other frequently used methods to end knife-fighting situations include the ones “dismissed” above. Yes, verbal skills, footwork, strikes, blocks, passing and takedowns account for most success stories on the street.
The best way to develop your counter-knife skills is to focus on realistic scenario training. Acting is essential. The latest trend in police training and some martial arts circles is force on force. It involves suiting up and fighting full speed, low drag.
The underlying idea is that if the self-defense moves don’t work in this rabid experiment, it won’t work at all. Not so, macho grasshopper! Such suits protect the attackers from realistic injuries that would stun them and break them down. If the man in the suit doesn’t act wounded, the value of this training method drops considerably. Realistic acting on the part of the attacker is mandatory when evaluating self-defense techniques for their usefulness.
As in all fights, knife attacks are situational. We live in a world in which an obese, 54-year-old New York City bus driver recently grabbed the weapon arm of a 20-year-old, drug-pumped passenger and disarmed him. How can anyone say that knife disarms and arm grabs are impossible?
If you get lost in the three myths, you might mistakenly remove viable tactics from your go-to list of self-defense techniques training and thus rob yourself and your students of the opportunity to develop real lifesaving skills.
About the Author:
W. Hock Hochheim is a reality-fighting instructor with more than 25 years of law-enforcement experience and 30 years of martial arts training. In 2001 he was inducted into the Black Belt Hall of Fame as Weapons Instructor of the Year.