How to survive a knife attack

knife image (last updated March 2019)

In this part, we will discuss the most effective ways to survive a knife attack.



This is the second chapter of our series on knife attacks. Part 1 (Knife attacks: analytic study) focused on the analysis of over 150 knife incidents caught on surveillance (CCTV) and phone cameras.

Here, we will discuss the most effective ways to defend against and survive a knife attack.

This will be done through the review of the most common pieces of advice you can get from self-defence experts and martial artists with regard to knife defence and in view of the elements we uncovered during our research on the topic.

Surviving a knife attack

If you were to ask about defending yourself against someone with a knife, or simply "how to survive a knife attack", typically you'd hear or read things such as "run!", "Don't be there in the first place", or  "awareness, look for the dodgy guy", "you have to be in yellow condition", "give them whatever they want" or "just get a gun".

Although these are not bad pointers per se, they also tend to over-simplify the reality of knife attacks.

As a self-defence 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.

In this chapter, I will discuss the following concepts (in view of the findings highlighted in Part 1) which seem key to survive a knife attack:
  • First Aid
  • Avoidance & Situational Awareness
  • Knife Awareness
  • Escaping
  • Compliance
  • Weapons (including improvised weapons)

Stab Wound: First Aid Management

One intriguing thing about knife defence material (articles and videos) -already noticed in a 2012-article by Deane Lawler- is the lack of First Aid or Medical content.

As we've seen in the first part of this series, in a case of a knife attack you'll likely get cut and stabbed so knowing how emergency treatment for stab/slash wounds could be instrumental in your surviving the assault.

There are three simple steps to manage stab/slash wounds and help someone who’s been stabbed:
  • Put pressure on the wound
  • Call emergency services (UK: 999, USA: 911)
  • Keep pressure on the wound until an ambulance arrives

If the stabbing object (e.g. knife or screwdriver) is still in the wound, don't try to remove it as it would make the bleeding worse. Just apply pressure around it and wait for emergency assistance.

NB: Anyone who’s been stabbed needs immediate attention.

To avoid any risk of aggravating the injuries, it is recommended to lay the victim down. The shock of the attack and the loss of blood is likely to cause dizziness or even loss of consciousness.

If the victim loses consciousness, assist them to their left side and in the recovery position.

Wounds to the limbs: (i) stop bleeding by applying direct pressure to the wound, (ii) ensure that the wound is above the level of the heart to minimize blood loss.

Spurting blood and lung collapse

Spurting blood is a sign that a major blood vessel has been hit. This should be treated in priority. It might be necessary to apply pressure on the main artery leading to the wounded area. Keep the pressure directly on the wound at all time. This will increase the chances of survival

A serious cut to any of the major blood vessels -such as the femoral artery, the brachial artery or the carotid artery could result in a quick death.

Human Body Main Arteries

If your femoral artery was severed, for example, 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.

In case of puncture wound to the chest, you need to keep air from entering the wound as it could lead to the collapse of the lung (a.k.a pneumothorax). Lung collapses when air fills the space between the lung and the chest wall (i.e. pleural space). The buildup of air puts pressure on the lung which cannot expand as fully as it normally does when you breath in. This in turns can lead to respiratory failure, shock and cardiac arrest.

Note that a pneumothorax can also occur if air is leaking from the lung into the pleural cavity, so you might also need to let air escape from the wound while also preventing air to enter it.

Always check yourself for stab/slash wounds

Quite often, people don't realise they've been stabbed until they see blood. In some cases, bleeding can be mostly internal and thus hard to detect without proper examination.

This simple procedure can make the difference your surviving a knife attack or dying.

One of the most famous cases was the assassination of Empress Elisabeth of Austria. On Saturday 10 September 1898, she was stabbed by Italian anarchist Luigi Lucheni.

According to witnesses, Lucheni seemed to stumble and made a movement with his hand as if he wanted to maintain his balance. In reality, he had stabbed the Empress with a 100 mm sharpened needle file.

Although she collapsed after Luchini struck her, Elisabeth was helped on her feet and manage to walk a 100 meters to the boat she had planned to board. As she lost consciousness again, her corset was cup open so she could breath (tight corsets were a common cause of fainting at the time).

Her court lady then noticed a small brown stain above Elisabeth's left breast. The Empress was rushed to the hospital where she died 30 min later.

"The autopsy revealed that the weapon had penetrated 85 mm into her thorax, fractured the fourth rib, pierced the lung and pericardium, and penetrated the heart from the top before coming out the base of the left ventricle.

Because of the sharpness and thinness of the weapon, the wound was very narrow and, due to pressure from her extremely tight corseting, the hemorrhage of blood into the pericardial sac around the heart was slowed to mere drops.

Until this sac filled, the beating of her heart was not impeded, which is why Elisabeth had been able to walk from the site of the assault and up the boat’s boarding ramp. Had the weapon not been removed, she would have lived a while longer, as it would have acted like a plug to stop the bleeding" (Wikipedia contributors. "Empress Elisabeth of Austria." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.Accessed June 2017).

So, always check yourself for stab/slash wounds after an altercation.

Let's now talk about avoidance and situational awareness.

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 on interpersonal violence, 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.

Knife Awareness

Being able to quickly recognise an incoming attack before it actually happens, can make a big difference and help you to survive an attack.

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) or his/her thumbs, you should assume he has a weapon (knife, screwdriver, stick, bottle, hammer, etc).

In the following video, Nathan Wagar (FORTAC) breaks down footage of a street fight that escalates into a knife attack, with an emphasis on pre-assault cues:

The following CCTV footage shows what a good Situational Awareness (i.e. reading body language and situation) along with an opportunistic and quick reaction, can achieve in terms of surviving a bad encounter:

The question, now, is: at such as short distance can you always run away? What if the opportunity doesn't present itself?


In part one of this series (Knife attacks: an analytical study), we've seen that escaping and third party intervention were important factor in surviving a knife attack.

Given a good head-start (see more about that below, in the section "Weapons") and a quick reaction, running away can indeed 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.

As in the video above, victims are often distracted and don't see it coming (and you can't always see everything as a threat). So you will be taken by surprise and won't have much time to figure out your options (also note the use of the leveraging arm).

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)
What Babb found out during his experiment is that against a knife attack, the most successful strategy is to prioritise escaping and running away.

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') 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 will to recognise when you have a good window of opportunity to escape.

In my view, this is one of the trickiest part of knife defence (to train AND to teach): you might have to fight, but it should always be done with the idea to break away as soon as possible.

And you don't need much, as seen in the following footage where the bad guy just runs after losing his blade to the victim:

As Scott Babb highlighted, in order to survive a knife attack, 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 empty-handed self-defence against knife attacks is important because you can't always run away and compliance doesn't always guarantee your safety.

The use of weapons

The "Glock" answer is a very common reply to question such as "What do you do if someone attacks you with a knife" or "How to survive a knife attack".

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 major issue 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. But if you have the opportunity to use something to create space between you and your aggressor(s), it could very well save your life:

The opportunistic use of weapons of fortune should be integrated in knife defence training. 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

Let's recap

How to survive a real life knife attack?

  • First Aid Management + Always check yourself after a situation
  • Knife Awareness: learn to read situations and body language
  • Escape the situation as soon as you can
  • Create distance any way you can
  • Use a weapon (of fortune) if you have a chance

You very likely have to fight you way out empty-handed thought which is why hand-to-hand combat skills are important:

Now, let's see what are your options if you can't run or can't deploy a weapon to keep them at a distance and you have to fight bare handed:


  1. It is better for them to say, "Yonder he went", than "Here he lies". Don't be too proud to run.

  2. Best oportunist weapon is an Monkey Fist...with a 1.5" steel ball bearing and at least 16 inch long..

  3. Great insight and article.