But how do we get that understanding?
The truth is, we mostly rely on other people (the 'experts') to give us the answers.
The problem is that the Martial Arts / Self-Defence industry is plagued by misconceptions and fallacies.
That's why I decided to do a research. I wanted to understand the dynamics of real knife attacks and I wanted it to be based on evidence.
Luckily, in recent years CCTV and phone footages have provided us with abundance of real-life examples we can learn from.
Data were readily available for anyone who was willing to carry out the (tedious) analysis.
And today I'm going to share with you the results of my investigation where some interesting findings were uncovered.
This article is structured in three parts:
- Part 1 presents the keys points of the analysis of 150+ knife attacks (video material)
- Part 2 addresses commonly-debated issues such as awareness, avoidance ("running away"), compliance, the use of weapons (incl. improvised weapons) in the context of knife attacks
- Part 3 covers empty-hand techniques in view of what's discussed in the first two sections
The following article contains graphic content that could be disturbing to some.
Viewer discretion is strongly advised
KNIFE ATTACKS: FANTASY AND REALITY
Defence against knife attacks remains one of the most contentious parts of Martial Arts and Reality Based Self-Defence (RBSD).
The reason for this, in my view, is that very few people actually have any substantial experience of this type of violence. And among those who have that experience, even fewer are actually keen to talk about it.
So we're left with people who have been "twice attacked" by a knife-wielding nutcase. Although, I'll listen to these people -any experience is worth hearing- two incidents don't make you an expert on a question.
Think about it.
Would a major car-maker hire you as a car-safety expert if you just added "Have been twice in a car crash" to your CV/resume?
It takes more than that.
The issue of expertise, with regard to Martial Arts, was addressed in a very discerning way by Wim Demeere in his 2014 article "Are you really an expert?".
In the Martial Arts / Self-Defence industry, unfortunately, we too often hear "appeals to self-authority" where the speaker expect you to believe him based uniquely on his (often unverifiable) pedigree.
In other words, "Trust me, I'm the expert!"
What is sorely lacking is comprehensive, analytical and thoroughly researched studies. Facts and Statistics.
One notable example of this type of evidence-based approach is the work of John Correia from Active Self Protection. As of today, Correia has carefully analysed over 175 incidents (robberies, muggings, attacks, etc) caught on camera (see his youtube channel).
To a lesser extent (26 incidents), Rener and Ryron Gracie have done the same but with a focus on grappling situations. You'll find the videos (along with the analysis of 62 UFC fights!) on their youtube channel GracieBreakdown.
The detail examination of CCTV and surveillance footages of knife attacks offers invaluable lessons.
And here is what I've learned:
KNIFE ATTACKS: AN ANALYTICAL STUDY
Data for this research has been gathered and compiled from 150+ knife incidents caught on surveillance and phone cameras.
All the videos are accessible on my youtube channel in the following playlist: Knife Attacks (CCTV).
More videos will be added through time and statistics will be updated.
Let's get started,
71.1% of knife attacks are led with the empty hand
The fact that, during a knife attack, aggressors usually lead with their free hand, while keeping the knife close to their side, was first pointed out in 1988 by Don Pentecost in his contentious book Put'em down, take'em out! knife fighting from Folsom prison.
Back in the 80ies, Pentecost simply and brutally shattered a number of popular myths and preconceived ideas about the use of knives in real life situations (see a review of the book on Wim Demeere's blog).
Most commonly (71.1% of the time) aggressors will lead the attack with their empty hand, effectively shielding the knife, such as in the following video (segment starts at 0:21):
As Pentecost also clearly stated, the empty hand is not a dead, "paralyzed", hand and attackers will use it to strike or, more commonly, to grab the victim.
Indeed, when aggressors lead with their free hand, 80% of the time they will also use it to latch on the victim:
This use of the empty hand (also known as 'leveraging arm') greatly changes the dynamic of the fight. Particularly because your first reaction, as a victim, will be conditioned by the movement of the aggressor's empty hand (more on that in Part 3).
But the prime lesson though is that most of what is taught in the Martial Arts and RBSD industry (i.e. attacker leads with the knife, no grabbing, no forward pressure) doesn't apply to the vast majority (70% +) of real life knife attacks.
Most knife attacks are ambushes, not duels
For the same reasons bad guys will use a force multiplier such as a knife -i.e. they don't want a fair fight but an easy prey- they'll make a surprise attack on you from a 'concealed' position or with 'concealed' intentions.
And you probably won't see it coming.
As you can observe in this CCTV footage, the saleswoman was ambushed and cornered. She stood absolutely no chance.
The aggressor didn't threaten the victim. Instead, he kept his weapon concealed until he struck the woman. Clearly, his intention was not to try to get what he wanted through intimidation/coercion but to eliminate the saleswoman.
“Victims who survived a violent confrontation against a knife-wielding assailant consistently reported that they were completely unaware of the existence of the weapon until after they had suffered stab or slash wounds. In essence, these survivors of edged weapon attacks state that they believed they were engaged in some sort of fist fight; only later, after sustaining injuries, did they realize that the assailant was armed.” Imi Lichtenfeld (Krav Maga founder)
In 80% of the cases I've analysed, the knife is kept hidden until the very last moment. That is until the attack is launched.
Aggressors will try to distract the victim and wait for a good window of opportunity to strike and won't hesitate to attack the victim from the back.
Situations with multiple attackers seem less common with only 11.4% of the incidents I've analysed.
The following video (segment starts at 0:31), shows the ambush of a store clerk:
In a typical way, the victim is 1) distracted, 2) cornered, and 3) the attack is launched at close quarters.
70.6% of knife attacks are launched within 3 feet of the victim
Knives are short range weapons, so it doesn't come as a surprise that 70.6% of knife attacks start at conversation range.
It's important, though, to stress that "within 3 feet" really means "at arm-length or less":
This leaves you with very little space (and time) to react!
Such a small 'reactionary gap' means that it's almost impossible to stop the first stab if you're not expecting it.
This is why it is so important to maintain distance and keep control of the space when you're in a confrontation (see here an interesting article on Space Management in Self Defence)
As aggressors so often lead with their free hand (usually the left one), victims end up being stabbed in the neck, like in the video above, or to the chest on their left side (where the heart is located!).
Knife attacks are fast and furious
Another consequence of such close-range attacks is that victims tend to fall as they move backwards trying to escape their aggressor.
This is the case in 55% of the incidents I have analysed:
This way of charging a victim, as seen in the video above, is known as a "prison yard rush" (or "prison knife rush"). It was made notorious in the Martial Arts industry by Don Pentecost in 1988.
In his then-contentious book, Pentecost further points out that someone who is attacking you with a knife is trying to kill you.
They won't hold back, they won't hesitate.
They will go after you like mad dogs.
"Research tells us someone willing and ready to carve you up like a thanksgiving turkey is far different than someone with a gun [...]" Hank Hayes (Knife Defence 101)
Here is an illustration of these points with an interesting analysis by John Correia from Active Self Protection:
As you can see in this video, the aggressor goes full on with ruthless determination in an attempt to overwhelm his victim and cause maximum damages as quickly as possible by whatever means necessary.
Knife attacks don't last long
Indeed, the average incident time (i.e. arithmetic mean) for knife attacks, from the moment the attack is launched to the moment it stops, is 23 seconds.
"The time frame of a knife attack is usually very short - it is often over in a matter of seconds" Don Pentecost
The median time is 14 seconds which means that half the attacks last 14 seconds or less.
But 80% of all attacks last less than 32 seconds:
The graph shows a sharp increase in numbers up to 23 seconds indicating that most attacks (70%) last 23 seconds or less.
After that point, the curve starts to flatten and reaches 90% at 59 seconds.
It's interesting to note that, although it takes 9 seconds for a 10% increase to 80%, it then takes 27 seconds to complete another 10% and reach 90%.
What this means is that if a knife attack lasts 23 seconds, you have a fair bit of chance that it will go on only 9 more seconds. But once a knife attack reaches the 32 seconds mark, the same "fair bit of chance" may mean an extra 27 seconds.
In other words, if a knife attack goes on for longer than 32 seconds, it is more likely to last a lot longer.
Did you notice how the curve seems to go up again around 45 seconds instead of plateauing as expected?
Let's visualise the data differently,
The following graph shows the number of knife attacks plotted against time. To make it clearer, I just show the trendline:
There's a peak in the number of attacks around 7 seconds with 25.2% of all attacks lasting between 5 and 10 seconds, and half of all attacks lasting 14 seconds or less.
The fear of being caught is likely to be an important factor that keeps knife attacks very short.
Obviously, the longer an attack is carried, the more likely someone -including the police- will intervene.
In that regard, it is interesting to note that 55.9% of all attacks are stopped by the intervention of a third party.
But here is the interesting part,
From the 7 seconds mark, the number of attacks goes down sharply to reach a minimum at about 45 seconds and then goes up again.
What the graph suggests is that there's a tipping point around 45 seconds after which a knife attack will tend to go on much longer. Most commonly an extra 14 seconds. More than half of the "over-45-seconds" attacks last between 53 and 66 seconds.
Although it is hard to infer any solid evidence from such a small number of cases, it seems that third party intervention occurrences are much lower in the 45-seconds + group than in general.
In other words, these attacks lasted longer because no one intervened.
Unsurprisingly, attacks by 'psycho lovers' -who don't care much about being caught- seem to be concentrated in this group as well.
Although the average duration of a knife attack is 23 seconds, it is important to keep things in perspective.
In that short amount time, the average attacker will stab you at a rate of 5 to 7 times every 5 seconds!
Knife attacks are more often performed with quick, short, repetitive stabs at different angles
Commonly, there will be a first wave of stabs during which the attacker, taking advantage of the surprise, will land between 5 and 10 stabs. Then, as the victim fights back trying to escape, the stabs will be spaced-out.
The more you get cut or stab, the more chances a vital organ, such as the heart, or a major blood vessel, such as the carotid artery (neck), will be hit which would result in a quick death.
As you can witness in the following surveillance video, things can go really fast. The first victim is stabbed twice between 0:03 and 0:06, and totally collapses less than 40 seconds later!
Sure, many people have survived a greater number of cuts and stabs. But the unavoidable truth is that you only need one to die!
This is an important point because most attacks are not a 'single straight thrust' (i.e. bayonet thrust type of motion) or a 'wide sweeping stroke' (i.e. slash).
Knife attacks are predominantly executed with quick, short, repetitive stabs at different angles (e.g. switching from low, upward, stabs to the chest, to high, downward, stabs to the neck).
Also known as the "sewing machine" and "prison shanking", short rapid stabs are very difficult to stop because there is not much time and not much space to 'deflect-and-redirect' the attack or 'block-and-strike'.
The majority of attacks are carried out using a regular grip (58.8%) but the reverse grip (also known as "icepick grip") is, at 29.9%, more frequent than commonly thought.
In a small number of cases, around 6%, the aggressor changes his grip during the assault, moving from regular to reverse or vice versa.
It's worth noting that I've not seen any case of hand-swap (i.e. knife being moved from one hand to the other).
What have we learned
In this first part, we've seen that knife attacks are most commonly ambushes, launched at short range (within 3 feet of the victim).
They are extremely violent; carried with speed and determination within a very short span of time (i.e. they don't last long).
Attackers will lead with their free hand, effectively shielding the knife, and will stab the victim repetitively with quick short thrusts at different angles.
Attackers frequently grab and push the victim who quite often will fall to the ground.
In other words:
- you will be taken by surprise and you will be overwhelmed by fear and aggression
- you won't see the blade before the attack is launched
- you very likely won't be able to run away and avoid the attack
- you will have very little time and space to react and deploy a counter-attack
- you probably won't be able to stop the first stab(s) so, yes, you will be you will be cut and stabbed a number of times but you might not even realise you've been stabbed (which is why you should always check yourself for wounds after a physical confrontation)
- you probably won't have time to draw your own weapon (gun, knife, kubotan keychain, pepper spray, etc); at least not before being stabbed a couple of times
- you will be likely moving backwards, your balance will be compromised, and you'll probably fall to the ground
- your movements will be restricted, your fine motor skills will be gone, you won't able to access the knife bearing arm easily
- any technique that is based on smooth arm deflection and manipulation has very little chance to work
- any technique that rests on the assumption of a single straight thrust ('full-stop one-step zombie attack') or a wide sweeping slash has very little chance to work
These results should definitely inform our training methods and I will expand on that point in Part 3.
But the nagging question at this point is "how do people survive knife attacks then?"
KNIFE DEFENCE: SURVIVING AN ATTACK
Some of the most common pieces of advice you can get from self-defence experts and martial artists with regard to knife defence revolve around 'avoidance' ("run!", "Don't be there in the first place"), 'awareness' ("look for the dodgy guy"), the need for a force multiplier (i.e. 'weapon') and 'compliance' in case of mugging situations.
Although these are definitely good general pointers, they also tend to over-simplify the reality of knife attacks.
As an instructor, I'm not satisfied with guidelines. I want to understand the full dynamic of situations. The ins and outs. So, I'll always question the status quo.
And there's a lot to learn this way.
Let's start with 'avoidance'
Avoidance & Situational Awareness
"Don't be there in the first place", "avoid dodgy places and dodgy people", these are commonly heard pieces of advice.
The mother of 'avoidance' is 'situational awareness'. Clearly, being able to anticipate danger can go a long way in keeping you safe (see how to improve your situational awareness with your brain natural capabilities).
But as I pointed out in another article, troubles may find you despite your best efforts to avoid them.
"No matter how good your awareness, you can’t remain switched on all the time, you can’t always be at the top of your game. There will be times when you are pre-occupied or ill or injured or whatever, and these are the times when you are usually attacked. Attacks always come when you least expect them and usually when you are not ready for them". Neal Martin (Combative Mind)
You can avoid dodgy places and dodgy people, but not all attacks occur in contexts that could be deemed dangerous or at least more prone to incidents (e.g. night clubs, security work, police work, etc).
Actually, an awful lot of knife attacks take place in shops where the unlucky victim happened to be working.
Attackers don't necessarily come for the victims; they might come for the money or anything else, and the victim just happen to be on their way. Bad luck (see below at 0:20).
You could also cross the path of a deranged person like below in the streets of New Orleans:
Although it's not always possible to avoid situations and attacks, violence is a long road and in a given situation you might be able to read the signs of an impending attack.
Being able to quickly recognise an incoming attack before it actually happens, can make a big difference.
Look at the following video, can you see the main cue (attack occurs at 1:36):
Yes, the aggressor checks the entrance door a lot but the main thing is that he kept his right hand in his pocket and his body was always bladed like he wanted to keep the knife away.
Now, look at the following footage, can you see the cues?
See how the guy with the brown jacket angled himself and kept his hand down along his leg when he moved (at 0:20) towards the young lad in a dark sweater just before striking him?
His attack was somehow disrupted a bit when his younger opponent weakly punched him in the face. Brown jacket also briefly struggled with his weapon (a pair of scissors according to a report). But all this didn't stop the attack and he managed to stab the teenager in the neck.
Had the kid recognised the cues, he could have kept his distance and avoided a very serious injury.
Can you now recognise the signs in the following footage (starting at 0:41)?
Two guys can be seen arguing. The man with the dark t-shirt keeps his right hand down and behind his leg. Because of the darkness we can't see if he's holding anything in his hand but his distinctive position strongly suggests he does.
As the argument goes on, he starts angling his body (0:45) -shifting his right side back- with his hand still down and hidden behind his leg.
At this point (0:47), his body language says "I'm going to hit you":
He used a hammer but it could have been a bottle or a knife.
It's important to stress that if, during a verbal confrontation, you don't see your aggressor's hand(s), you should assume he has a weapon (knife, screwdriver, stick, bottle, hammer, etc).
The question, now, is: at such as short distance can you run away?
Given a good head-start (see more about that below, in the section "Weapons") and a quick reaction, running away can be a successful tactic as seen in the following surveillance video:
Note that the guy who got away had a decent head-start and a bit of time to assess the situation.
He was also lucky to have an exit route readily available. He managed not to fall (unlike what happens in half the incidents) and the bad guy chasing him could not catch-up.
Now, remember that most knife attacks are ambushes;
They're usually launched in a semi-closed environment, within 3 feet of the victim who is cornered.
This means that there will be few exit routes and they won't be easily accessible. On top of that, you won't have a great head-start and the bad guy will be on your heels right away.
Victims are often distracted and don't see it coming. So you will be taken by surprise and won't have much time to figure out your options.
But can you still escape once you've been engaged?
In an interesting vlog, Scott Babb from Libre Fighting describes some of the experiments he and his team had been conducting back in 2012.
On a number of points his research on knife attacks confirms my own conclusions:
- attacks most commonly happen in a semi-closed environment,
- within 3 feet of the victim,
- aggressors don't brandish the knife ahead of time
- aggressors latch on to the victim with their free hand
- the stabbing rate is 1 to 2 thrusts per seconds ("5 to 7 times per 5 seconds")
- most wounds are inflicted to the left side of the victims (abdomen, lungs, throat)
In other words, people ended up being stabbed fewer times when they focused on escaping than when they were trying to disarm/stop the aggressor.
This is a significant result which should inform every knife defence training programme.
It's a shame, though, that Babb doesn't show more of the experiment. I would love to know which techniques they've tested, how many times they pressure tested each technique ('sample materials') and how many people participated ('subject pool')...in other words, what was the size of their sample?
For statistical analysis, the size of the sample is important as small samples are not always reliable and the results might not be statistically significant.
Particularly, I understand that the people who participated in the experiment were all people from Libre Fighting. So they were all trained in Filipino Martial Arts (FMA) which means that they were all familiar with the use of a blade.
In other words, the 'subject pool' of aggressors was flawed to a certain extent. This is probably why, on the latter phase of the experiment, Babb measured a stabbing rate of 16 to 26 thrusts every 5 seconds (3 to 5 times higher that what can be seen on videos of real knife attacks).
I would also like to know how 'lethality' was measured/decided (the devil is in the detail).
Did the experiment stop when victims manage to disengage or did the aggressors try to run after them very much like what might happen in real life?
It's an important question because you can get lots of punishment during the 'escape phase' (i.e. when you turn your back to run away).
Most of all, I would love to see what people actually did when they put the priority on escaping.
How did they escape? Did they punch? Did they push? Did they wrestle? What did they do? Chances are, they used some fighting techniques.
Sadly, we have to admit that, in most cases, victims have to fight their way out and it's not a straightforward business as we can see in this CCTV footage.
Once engaged, you would have to fight too and the difficulty is to recognise when you have a good window of opportunity to escape. Even though you might not have a choice because the bad guy might just not be too keen on letting you go and/or the circumstances might not be favourable.
To his credit, Scott Babb highlighted a major point: escaping should be the priority. Knife defence training should emphasise that aspect and techniques should be used to facilitate the escape.
When threatened by a knife-wielding mugger who's asking for your belongings ('territorial violence'), compliance is probably the safest course of action (note that the opposite is true in cases of sexual assaults).
"a smartphone can be replaced, your life cannot"
If they use the knife as an intimidation tool, they probably don't intend to hurt you if they don't have to; otherwise, as we've seen, they would've already stabbed you.
But not always.
In the surveillance video above, the victim was stabbed several times despite being quite compliant.
Although this is quite "evil" from a moral standpoint, accepting this argument as the only explanation for what happened seriously limits our understanding of criminal behaviour.
As you probably noticed in the video, the aggressor's accomplice who drives the car didn't totally stopped the vehicle and the door was kept open.
Obviously, the pair was in a hurry.
And that's a very important point.
Time is always against the bad guys. Cops could be around the corner, someone could intervene, the victim could pull a weapon, etc...
In other words, bad guys are always in a rush and their patience is limited.
They won't take a chance to let the situation get out of their control and they'll stab you if they have to in order to get things going faster because they want to be out as fast as possible (and this, by the way, also means that if you can defend yourself, they probably won't stick around too long).
So, whatever you decide to do (i.e. to be compliant or to fight back), I would advise, in view of what we just saw, to show committed compliance right away. Don't be as hesitant as the victim in the video.
If you decide to fight back it will give you some cover and surprise will be on your side.
Whether you decide to fight back or not, you should always expect the worse and be ready to block a stab.
Again, it's important to repeat that if you don't see your aggressor's hand(s) during a confrontation, you should assume he has a knife (or any other blunt/edge weapon for that matter).
Knowing basic self-defence against knife attacks is important because you can't always run away and compliance doesn't always guarantee your safety.
The "Glock" answer is a very common reply to the question "What do you do if someone attacks you with a knife".
One problem is that weapons such as knives and guns are not legal everywhere. In most of western Europe, for example, you can't carry a gun and there are strong restrictions on knives.
Another problem is deployment.
If someone ambushes you and launches an attack within 3 feet of you, would you have time to draw your weapon?
Here comes the "21 feet" rule
Research carried out in the early 80ies by police sergeant Dennis Tueller (Salt Lake City PD), showed that in the time it takes a trained officer to recognize a threat, draw his sidearm and fire 2 rounds at center mass (i.e. around 1.7 seconds), an average subject charging at the officer, from dead stop, can easily cover a distance of 21 feet.
This means that you need enough time to draw your weapon and operate it properly before your aggressor reaches you. But time is related to space ('distance travelled' in this case):
Time to reach target = Distance travelled / travelling Speed
In other words, you need enough space/distance to react to an attack (i.e. draw your weapon and operate it).
This space is your 'safety distance'. That's the minimum distance from your aggressor you will be able to react properly to his attack. This is why it's also called 'reactionary gap'.
If the attack is launched within your safety distance -i.e. a distance that is shorter than your safety distance- you won't have enough time to draw and operate your weapon which means that you will need to know empty-handed defence.
In the following video, Eskrima martial artist Dan Inosanto demonstrates how fast, and thus dangerous, an attacker with a knife can be:
The safety distance a trained police officer needs, according to Tueller's research, is 21 feet.
First published in SWAT magazine in 1983, the results of this experiment have since been known as the "The 21ft rule".
Note that in this type of situations, running away ('avoidance') is not an option because, as you can infer from the video, the aggressor would be on you before you can create enough space between you and him.
It's also important to keep in mind that speed can be increased by 'rage' and 'stimulants' such as certain drugs and alcohol.
Similarly, your reaction time can be increased by a number of factors (e.g. fatigue, fear). This is why the 'safety distance' has been extended to 30ft by a number of specialists.
Weapons of fortune
Weapons of opportunity can be great equalisers in a fight.
Any object that would extend your range, thus keeping the knife at a distance, can be used (see here for some interesting suggestions and discussion).
Beware that, against a knife-wielding attacker, car keys and pens are not as good weapons as commonly held.
The biggest issue with improvised weapons though is "deployment" (check the other issues in The Truth About Improvised Weapons For Self Defence by Neal Martin).
As we've seen, most attacks are ambushes so you might not have much time to look for a weapon of fortune and grab it.
This is why a little preparation, training and awareness can go a long way.
Here are some suggestions:
- a metal pipe,
- a lamp,
- a chair,
- your backpack,
- a roll-up magazine
- your belt
- bicycle chainlock
Your belt, in particular, is a great improvised weapon against an attacker armed with a knife. Readily available, a belt can be used as a slungshot, particularly efficient if it has a strong buckle.
Here is a good tutorial video by Nick Drossos on how to use a belt as an improvised weapon:
Let me insist on one point, though: you must know how to use your weapon of choice.
It doesn't always work as well as expected as you can see in the following surveillance footage:
At 0:13 the guy in red pulls his belt and attacks the knife-wielding man (in white). White-shirt uses his free (left) arm as a shield and counters with an over-hand stab to the side of the neck (0:17). That's a very bad injury and you can see red-shirt bleeding profusely in the rest of the video.
There are important lessons here:
- Don't jump into an armed attacker
- Use the weapon to keep him at a distance (which red-shirt does properly after being stabbed!)
- Don't overlook training! Training and preparation are key
Now, let's see what are your options if you can't run, can't deploy a weapon to keep them at a distance and have to fight bare handed.
KNIFE DEFENCE: EMPTY-HAND TECHNIQUES
We've reviewed lots of information regarding knife attacks so far and it's fair to say that someone armed with a knife is at a huge advantage so it's best to avoid physical confrontation if possible.
This being said, we've also seen that a knife attack is decided by the aggressor and it will happen on his terms.
"If someone with a knife tries to attack you, then guess what? You're in a knife fight whether you like it or not."
At such a short range it's not possible to avoid the fight. Once you're engaged you'll need to defend yourself and you might not have the time and opportunity to deploy a weapon.
Although priority should be put on escaping, you'll need to fight your way out while minimising damage as much as possible because each new cut or stab could be fatal.
At this point, it's important to say that there's no silver-bullet empty-hand technique to thwart a knife attack. No technique is fool-proof.
Due to the variety of possible situations, my opinion is that you'll need to know a range of empty-hand techniques that will allow you to improvise and adapt to different situations.
Techniques should therefore be seen more like tools/skills that you can use to adjust to various situations.
Let's now see some techniques.
The 'free hand' issue
In his 1988-book, Don Pentecost insisted that aggressors won't lead with the knife when they're within striking range (i.e. within 3 feet) and they will use their free hand.
"The fact is, an experienced fighter will have his knife hand held close to his side until the empty hand has done its job and created an opening" Don Pentecost
This is something we can clearly see in CCTV/surveillance videos. More than 70% of knife attacks happen that way.
The study of these footages reveals that even inexperienced aggressors tend to use their free hand instinctively to latch on their victims.
They won't necessarily hit you with their free hand as Pentecost contends in the case of experienced fighters, but the use of the 'leveraging arm' makes the whole situation a lot worse for the victim.
A leading free hand will change the dynamic of an attack in several ways:
1- it will condition your initial reactionYou will react to what you see first, and that will be the free hand coming towards your face; not to the knife that will still be concealed.
2- it will allow the aggressor to keep you at a distanceLeading with the free hand will allow him to keep you at the right distance to prevent you from (i) reaching and controlling the knife, (ii) reaching him (e.g. punches).
The blade will give him additional reach that he will use to stab and cut you, inflicting maximum damage.
3- it will give an aggressor some control over youYour aggressor will try to grab you which will make it harder for you to escape.
4- it will allow him to apply forward pressureThe aggressor will be steaming in. Leading with his free hand will allow him to apply forward pressure (i.e. to push the victim). The victim will be going backwards which is why over 50% of victims fall on the ground while trying to escape.
To be able to deal with a knife attack, you need to find a response to these issues.
There's very little material online with regard to this specific situation.
Actually, the most surprising thing for me during this research on knife attacks was that this type of attacks -which are the most common- is almost never addressed by martial artists and self-defence instructors.
So I went to see a couple of people I knew in London who had both extensive knowledge of martial arts and combatives, and also first-hand experience of knife attacks.
The first person I met to talk about this situation was Stewart McGill.
Founder and Chief-instructor of Urban Krav Maga, Stewart has his martial art background primarily in Judo and Goju Ryu karate (3rd Dan) and was a Civilian/Law Enforcement Instructor with several Krav Maga organisations (including IKMF under Eyal Yanilov). He's also a senior instructor with the British Combat Association.
Here is one option we came up with:
Here are some other options for a slightly different situation (but see at 4:38), by Stewart McGill and MMA/Vale Tudo fighter and BJJ world Champion Leo Negao:
Then, I went to see my friend and fellow instructor David Kyriacou who grew up in one of East London roughest boroughs and experienced several violent situations involving knives.
David is an accomplished martial artist (primarily TKD, Muay Thai and more recently BJJ and wrestling) and a Krav Maga Instructor. He's worked at the door of some of the most unpleasant clubs in the capital for more than 10 years. So it's an understatement to say that David knows violence (see his story here).
Here is his take on the situation:
As I said earlier, very few instructors have actually addressed this particular situation, so it's worth having a look at their solutions.
I like Nick Drossos' genuine approach to self-defence and I follow him with interest but I'm not sold on this one:
Drossos raises good points regarding the necessity to trap and isolate the knife and his move is functionally simple but I can see a number of issues:
Firstly, it might be hard to apply a strong bearhug to a big guy. It's also relatively easy to get out of such a bearhug, so it's fair to say that many things could go wrong for you. Thirdly, you need to know how to finish it.
Let's be honest, once you 'bearhug' the aggressor, you're not going stay there to cuddle and hope that calms him down, are you?
You'd need something like this, or a more violent version of it rather:
Not an easy feat against a much larger, adrenalized aggressor who's holding a knife with the intention to carve you like a Thanksgiving turkey.
Besides, you have to do the move before the guy secures a firm grip on your shirt. In a typical attack (no warning) the knife gets into action shortly after the initial move, so you need to react fast.
Renowned martial artist Ron Balicki, who extensively trained under Dan Inosanto, offers some interesting insights on the issue here:
Whether you like his concept or not, whether you agree with him or not, we have at least to acknowledge Balicki's genuine effort to figure out a solution to a very difficult situation.
I've personally tried a variety of things and I can't see this option working for several of reasons:
The first one is that the impact of the "shoulder grab" is very limited particularly if the aggressor changes angles and goes overhand to strike the neck which is quite common.
The second reason is that the technique relies on fine motor skills and complex moves that will be hard to pull off in real conditions.
The third reason is that your position is not improved so you'll be going backwards which makes the whole punching thing a lot less efficient/disruptive than shown in the video.
"You may get lucky and deliver a knockout blow as you jump in, but this would be unlikely. It is very difficult to knock someone out when they are completely adrenalized and riled up. They probably won’t even feel the hit and they will carry on attacking like nothing has happened." Neal Martin (Combative Mind)
Besides, the aggressor's arm is in the way and might shield his face. Also, if he has longer arms than you, you might simply not be able to reach him.
That's also why I don't see the classic Krav Maga 360 defence working in this situation either.
Knife attacks are extremely violent and the efficiency of punching and kicking in these situations should not be overestimated as can be seen in the following video (punches at 2:20; kicks at 3:20 and 5:14):
Finally, a number of martial artists advocate elbow/shoulder manipulation and armbars (see here for example). Pressure testing, though, shows that joint-locks of this type are really hard to pull off against a non-compliant, aggressive attacker, so I'm not a big fan.
We've covered the most common type of knife attacks (70% of cases): no warning (knife concealed), attack launched within 3 ft of the victim and led with the free hand.
If you have any links or videos addressing the issue please feel free to post in the comments. All suggestions are welcome.
Now, let's see what can be done for the other 30% of knife attacks where the aggressor leads with the knife.
The good news is, there's lots of material for this situation.
Parrying the knife
In discussions about how to defend against a knife attack (see here or there for example), one common piece of advice is "keep them at a distance".
It's a very tricky and contentious point.
It sounds like common sense to stay far from a knife but, remember what we've seen, it's not always so easy to achieve once the fight is on at close quarters. And most knife attacks occur at conversation range (less than 3 feet of the victim).
Truth is, if you can't put significant room between you and the knife (i.e. escape), distance might not be such a good friend.
Look at the following video. Paul Vunak shows the problem with parrying a knife bare-handed:
The point is: if you can't escape or if you don't have a weapon to safely keep your aggressor at a distance, moving out and creating space will just give him more opportunities to slash/stab you.
And he'll keep coming at you, adding more cuts every time.
"You can’t defend against a determined and/or frenzied knife attack. You’ll just end up cut to ribbons..." Neal Martin (Combative Mind)
Let's repeat it here: the more times you get stabbed or cut, the more chances a vital organ, such as the heart, or a major blood vessel, such as the jugular vein, will get punctured or slit.
The same reservations can be applied to kicks.
Kicking the attacker
In cases of knife attacks, 'groin-kicks' and 'push-kicks' are often presented as a viable options.
Remember, though, most attacks are launched within 3 feet of the victim so you probably won't have the space for a kick.
Even if you had the space, kicks are actually much harder to pull off in a fast moving, dynamic, real-life encounter, than a drill in a controlled training environment would suggest.
Below is a video by Neal Martin during seminar with IDF Yamam operative and Krav Maga instructor Itay Gil, that shows the limited effectiveness of kicks (at 0:05):
The limitations of groin kicks are very well detailed in "The Myth of the Krav Maga Groin Strike" by Gershon Ben Keren (Krav Maga Yashir Boston).
But the main point is that a knife-wielding aggressor who is charging and reaching, will probably stab or cut you before your kick lands.
In that regard, it's important to keep in mind that a serious cut to any of the major blood vessels -such as the femoral artery (inner thighs), the brachial artery (arm) or the carotid artery (neck)- could result in your death in less than 5 min.
Note: If your femoral artery was severed, bleeding would be heavy at first. Then, after losing 1/3 of your blood volume -which would take 30 seconds to 1 minute depending on a number of factors such as your built, the depth of the cut and your heart rate- your blood pressure would drop and you would pass out. At that point the flow of blood would decrease significantly but, after another 1 to 3 minutes, you would go into an irreversible shock due the loss of so much blood (i.e. exsanguination) and eventually die.
This leads us to the conclusion that you need to control the knife-bearing limb.
By "controlling", I mean 'trapping'/'capturing'/'grabbing' and 'holding'/'locking' the knife-bearing arm so your aggressor can't use it.
Trapping the knife
Before you can properly trap the knife" -more precisely the knife-bearing arm- you need to block it.
"...when I say stop the knife attack, I mean stop the knife from entering your body by whatever means necessary..." Hank Hayes (Knife Defence 101)
Obviously, you want to block it in such a way that allows you to get control and capture the arm in order to stop the attacker recoiling and thrusting.
For this reason, you will often see double-hand grabs with C-grips / V-grips in knife defence training videos such as the one below by Jeremy Pollack:
It's been demonstrated on a number of occasions that grabbing your aggressor's arm (ideally the wrist) with only one hand is not the safest option because it's easy to break free from that type of grip.
It's better than nothing, sure, but the moment you are dealing with a concerted stabbing effort, 'one-on-on' might not be enough to mitigate the attack. '2-on-1' is always safer.
If you end up with only one hand on your aggressor's wrist -which is by no mean the safest situation- you'll need to seriously disrupt his attack by hitting him (namely in the face).
Double-hand grabs give a strong control but there a small catch.
Trying to block someone's arm at full speed just with your hands is very difficult.
Additionally, your outstretched and already hyper-extended arms can become a target for some kind of armbar: all the attacker has to do is spin clockwise and smash his left forearm into your elbow.
It may also result in your thumbs being broken/dislocated as Richard Dimitri perfectly explains it in the following video (skip to 1:35):
For these reasons many instructors advocate blocking with the forearms as demonstrated by Michael Janich in this video from Black Belt Magazine:
Or Ken Brayman in the following tutorial:
The problem with this type of blocks is that the space between the arms, along with the underhook, leave too much room for the knife to slide up your arm and directly into your neck.
This is why some instructors advocate the cross-block -using both forearms- as shown by London-based Darren Selley in the following video:
The main criticism of these types of blocks is that the attacker will retract/recoil (e.g. if you get the timing wrong) and your arms will get slashed, resulting in severe limb mutilation.
Of course, that's what will happen if you just stand static after you blocked the knife.
As you block the knife, you need to explode forward and take control.
Close in & Take Control of the Knife
In order to attack properly, your aggressor needs space and movement.
By closing in after you've blocked the knife, you'll deprive him of both as demonstrated by Stewart McGill (Urban Krav Maga):
Moving into the attack is critical to stop the stabbing (by reducing space and movement) and to prevent counter-attacks (e.g. punch with free hand, head-butt, etc).
Now, you may still get stabbed or cut, but it is better to get stabbed once than multiple times, as you would if you backed away from the attack.
Here's the important part:
You have to shut your aggressor down right away.
The solution is to cut the attack short and close in with as much kinetic energy as possible.
The movement is driven by your legs which hurl you forward into the attack as explained by Itay Gil in the following instructional video:
It's critical to lock your aggressor's arm so he can't use it. As soon as you give up that control, the knife will be back in action.
"Your first objective should be to control that knife before anything else. If you don’t control the knife you don’t get to do anything else without getting stabbed repeatedly." Neal Martin (Combative Mind)
The whole issue is brilliantly summed up by Master Wong here:
SELF-DEFENCE AGAINST KNIFE ATTACKS
LET'S WRAP IT UP
Knife attacks are a very difficult and complex topic.
Most of what we know looks more like inherited wisdom, passed on from and by instructors, than primary information source.
Hence the importance of evidence-based approaches.
For that reason, it would also be amazing if readers who experienced knife attacks first-hand could tell us their story. That would make a great contribution to the topic.
I would love to know your thoughts particularly about training methods, but also about techniques.
Or maybe you have a question or just want to share a link.
Either way, don't hesitate to leave a comment below.
Thanks for reading this article, I hope you enjoyed it and found it informative.
Remember to share it!
In Part 1, we saw that:
- 71.1% of knife attacks are led with the free hand and this dramatically alters the dynamic of the attack along with your initial reaction.
- Most knife attacks are ambushes, not duels. Attackers rarely brandish the knife; they keep it concealed until the very last moment.
- 70.6% of knife attacks are launched within 3 feet of the victim
- Knife attacks are fast and furious, often resulting in the victim falling on the ground.
- Knife attacks don't last long, avg time is 23 seconds but 50% of attacks last 14 seconds or less.
- Knife attacks are more often performed with quick, short repetitive stabs at different angles. There's usually a first, very aggressive, wave of stabs (5 to 10).
In Part 2, we covered:
- Avoidance and Situational Awareness
- Knife awareness is key
- Escaping should be the priority
- Compliance and its limitation
- Weapons and the issue of deployment
In Part 3, we highlighted a number of principles to remember:
- you need to get control over the knife-wielding hand (or arm)
- grabbing the knife wielding hand is always preferable to parrying/blocking
- close the distance quickly and smoothly and stay as close to your aggressor as possible
- maintain forward pressure and
- take control of the knife-bearing arm as soon as possible
- shut down your attacker aggressively