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First strike


The term first strike refers to being the first one to attack during a confrontation. If you attack someone, for example by throwing a punch at someone with the intent to strike the person, it’s legally an assault, so you can be charged with assault even if the punch did not make contact. If the punch contacts the person, it’s legally a battery, thus the charge of assault and battery.

When someone tries to attack you, you can legally defend yourself. Striking someone is a battery and you may legally defend yourself. The first to attack is assumed to be the aggressor. However, you are not required to wait until you are attacked before you may defend yourself. If the person has shown a clear intent to attack, such as by cocking his arm back and yelling “I’m gonna knock you head off!” you may counterattack before the punch is thrown. However, if the case goes to court and you are first to strike, you must present compelling evidence as to why it was necessary. 

When to strike first

Television and movies have long popularized the "no first-strike" philosophy. In them, police will talk to a criminal who is pointing a gun at them, instead of shooting the criminal. Nowadays, this has become a reality. It is considered "politically correct" to let the criminal make the first move. If you had a gun pointed at a criminal, and the criminal raised and pointed his gun at you, would you wait and let him take the first shot?

The no first-strike philosophy came to international attention with the United States' preemptive strike against Iraq in 2003, but this was not the first time international first strikes have been made; Japan's 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor is a case in point. Both these examples of international first-strikes illustrate a problem with all preemptive strikes—sometimes they do not achieve the intended goal—instead of defeating the enemy, they only awaken a sleeping giant.

In a person-to-person confrontation, the person confronting you may only be posing, not intending to attack you. If you attack first and are not successful, you may enrage the person and he or she then becomes intent on killing you. Also, the relatives of your attacker will appear in the media talking about how sweet and kind he or she was and how they never would have carried to the attack they were threatening you with.

In a self-defense situation, the longer the confrontation lasts, the greater your chances of serious injury or even death. Therefore, you must end the confrontation as quickly as possible. This is best accomplished by striking the attacker first, fast, and hard enough to neutralize the threat. By launching the first strike suddenly and unexpectedly, you use the element of surprise to demolish the attacker's defenses, gain superiority, and ultimately end the threat.

First strike does not necessarily mean one-strike, which is the principle of delivering one quick and powerful strike in the hope that it will end the confrontation. Even if you believe in the one-strike principle, it has no place in a self-defense situation where your life is in jeopardy. When you are defending your life, you should not waste time "feeling out" the attacker or counting on one strike to stop the attack. When you strike, it is with a flurry of quick, powerful, accurate, strikes that overwhelm the attacker.

If you wait for the attacker to strike first, you start being on the defense. If your defense fails to stop the attack completely, you may be injured and unable to mount an offense. By attacking first, you are acting rather than reacting. You are controlling the situation and putting the attacker on the defense, which is not what the attacker wanted, so the attacker will probably seek the fastest way out of the situation. When an attack is inevitable and imminent, do not be timid or worry about any legal ramifications. Just do what you must do to protect yourself.

First strike does not mean you may attack with impunity. You must never use force against another person unless it is justified, and the force used must only be the amount of force that a reasonable person under the same circumstances would have used to suppress the attacker. The decision to launch a preemptive strike must always be a last resort, where all other means of avoiding and defusing violence have been exhausted. Even then, you run the risk of having a criminal complaint or a civil suit filed against you.    

First strike in karate

Traditionally, there is no first strike in karate. Gichin Funakoshi, the father of Japanese karate, emphatically stated "karate ni sente nashi" or "There is no first attack in karate." Funakoshi made the principle the second of his Twenty Precepts, second only to the directive not to forget that “karate begins and ends with courtesy.” 

Shoshin Nagamine, the founder of the Matsubayashi school of Shorin-ryu karate, wrote that “This phrase [...] embodies the essence of Okinawan karate.” 

Masatoshi Nakayama, longtime head of the Japan Karate Association, stated that “[...] it is not an exaggeration to say that it is these words that succinctly and fully express the spirit of karate-do” 

Supporting this tradition, most taekwondo patterns begin with a block. However, not all. Some patterns, such as gwang-gae, begin with a strike.

Is this tradition still viable today? America has also had a tradition of no first strike; however, this tradition was challenged in 2003 in the second war with Iraq when the United States attacked Iraq with no prior attack or direct threat of attack from Iraq. Since action is faster than reaction and it is important to seize the initiative in a threatening situation, some argue that a pre-emptive strike is imperative. So, is first-strike ethically wrong or is it sometimes necessary?

In his book "Karate-do Kyohan," Gichin Funakoshi wrote,
"When there are no avenues of escape or one is caught even before any attempt to escape can be made, then for the first time, the use of self-defense techniques should be considered. Even at times like these, do not show any intention of attacking, but first, let the attacker become careless. At that time attack him concentrating one's whole strength in one blow to a vital point and in the moment of surprise, escape, seek shelter, and seek help." 
In his book Wado-Ryu Karate, Otsuka wrote,
"There is nothing as unfortunate as finding one's self in a situation where he must utilize martial arts to protect himself. The objective of martial arts training is to train hard and yet search for a state where martial arts need not be used. Hence, one must seek the path of peace and desire that path as well."
However, first-strike also has a history in the martial arts. In the classic text on strategy Go Rin No Sho (The book of the five rings), Miyamoto Musashi tells of three methods to forestall the enemy, one of which is, "attacking on the enemy's preparation to attack."

First strike in taekwondo

In taekwondo, we train to avoid a fight if possible, but what should we do when it is inevitable? Some say you should still wait until you are attacked, and then use self-defense. However, when does an attack occur? The law says you have been assaulted when a threat is made with a clear intent to carry out the threat, there is the present ability to carry out the threat, and there is an overt act toward carrying out the threat.

If an angry person threatens to punch you and raises his fist, an assault has occurred whether the punch is thrown or not. So legally, in this case, it appears you may defend yourself against the attack by making a first-strike. However, you may only use force appropriate for the situation and you may not continue the attack after the threat has been neutralized.

What justifies a first strike

When may you reasonably think that an attack is imminent and reasonably defend yourself by striking first? What is reasonable depends upon two factors: the environment and the circumstances.

Environmental factors

The environment evolves the location, such as a street corner, parking lot, park, etc., and the immediate surroundings, such as no lighting or no nearby houses or people. When assessing the environment, consider escape routes, barriers, makeshift weapons, terrain, cover, and concealment.

Environmental factors to consider:
  • Escape routes. These are ways for you to flee from the threatening situation safely.
  • Barriers. A barrier is anything that may obstruct or impede the attacker's path of attack. Barriers may stop or slow the attacker to give you distance and time to escape safely.
  • Weapons. Most any object may be converted into an offensive or defensive weapon. However, the object must be used appropriately; throwing a rock at an attacker can be considered a defensive action while using a rock to bash in the attacker’s skull as it lies on the ground can be considered manslaughter. Makeshift weapons may be used to strike, distract, shield, or cut or stab.
  • Terrain. Does the terrain offer you any protection, does it aid the attacker, or is it neutral? Terrain may be stable, such as flat pavement, or unstable, such as an icy sidewalk. The effect of terrain on the environment will depend on the clothing, footwear, and physical ability of you and your attacker.
  • Cover. Cover is anything that temporarily protects you from gunfire, such as large rocks. Cover must have the ability to stop a bullet. A car door offers little cover. Cover gives you a little time to assess the situation from a position of safety.
  • Concealment. Concealment is anything that hides you from the attacker's senses. It allows you to evade the attacker or to mount a surprise attack. Things that offer concealment may not provide cover, such as bushes. Things that provide cover may not offer concealment, such as bullet-resistant glass.

Circumstantial factors

The circumstances evolve factors related to the confrontation, factors related to you, and your attacker.

Factors related to the confrontation

  • The confrontation may have been instigated or encouraged by you.
  • There may have been some extenuating reasons for the confrontation, such as the person was distraught.
  • The confrontation may have been originally between others, and you voluntarily got involved.

Factors related to you

  • Your physical size.
  • Your gender.
  • Your self-defense training.
  • Your health.

Factors related to your attacker:

  • Relationship.  Is the attacker an acquaintance or a stranger?
  • Number. How many attackers are there?
  • Demeanor. This is the attacker’s outward behavior. Watch for both verbal and nonverbal clues. For example, is he shaking, or is he calm and collected? Are his shoulders hunched or relaxed? Are his hands clenched? Is his neck taut? Is he clenching his teeth? Is he breathing hard? Does he seem angry, frustrated, or confused? Does he seem high on drugs? Is he mentally ill or simply intoxicated? What is he saying? How is he saying it? Is he making sense? Is his speech slurred? What is his tone of voice? Is he talking rapidly or methodically? Is he cursing and angry? Remember that all these verbal and nonverbal cues are essential in accurately assessing the assailant's overall demeanor and adjusting your tactical response accordingly.
  • Intent. Why is this person confronting you? Does he intend to rob or kill you? Is he trying to harass you? Is he seeking vengeance for something you have done? Or is he a troublemaker looking to pick a fight with you? Determining the assailant's intent is perhaps the most important assessment factor, but it also can be the most difficult.
  • Range. Range is the distance between you and your attacker. In unarmed combat, for example, there are three possible ranges from which your attacker can launch his physical attack: kicking, punching, and grappling. Immediately assess the range and its implications. For example, is he close enough to land a punch effectively? Is he at a distance from which he could kick you? Is he in a range that would allow him to grab hold of you and take you to the ground? Is he within range to slash you with a knife or strike you with a bludgeon? Is the assailant moving closer to you? If so, how fast? Does the person continue to move forward when you step back?
  • Positioning. This is the spatial relationship between you and the adversary in terms of threat, tactical escape, and target selection. For example, is he standing squarely or sideways? Is he mounted on top of you in a ground fight? Or is he inside your leg guard? What anatomical targets does the adversary present you with? Is he blocking a door or any other escape route? Is his back to a light source? Is he close to your only possible makeshift weapon? Are multiple assailants closing in on you? Is your assailant firing his gun from a position of cover or concealment?
  • Weapons. Try to determine whether your adversary is armed or unarmed. If carrying a weapon, what type is it? Does he have an effective delivery method for the particular weapon? Is he armed with more than one weapon? If so, where are they located? There are four general points of concern when assessing the assailant's weapon capability:
  • Hands/fingers. When scanning your adversary for weapons, quickly glance at his hands and all his fingertips. Can you see them? Is one hand behind him or in his pockets? If you cannot see his fingers, he could be palming a knife or some other edged weapon. Remember to be extremely cautious when the assailant's arms are crossed in front of his body or when he keeps his hands in his pockets.
  • General behavior. How is the assailant behaving? For example, does he pat his chest frequently (as a weapon security check)? Does he act apprehensive, nervous, or uneasy? Or does he seem to be reaching for something? Is your assailant's body language incongruous with his verbal statements?
  • Clothing. What the assailant is wearing can also clue you in on what he may be concealing. For example, is the assailant wearing a knife sheath on his belt? Could there be a knife concealed in his boots? At other times, you may have to be a bit more analytical. For example, is your assailant wearing a jacket when it is too hot for one? Could it be to conceal a gun at his waist or shoulder? Could he be concealing a gun or edged weapon?
  • Location. Does the assailant seem suspiciously rooted to a spot? Or is he running back to his car, possibly to get his gun? Is he close enough to grab that beer bottle on top of the bar? How far is the assailant from a makeshift weapon?
  • Stereotyping. Do not attempt to stereotype your attacker. Your attacker may not fit your stereotype of a dangerous person. 


Knowledge of these things allows us to create strategies that exploit it to our advantage. In his book The Fence, Geoff Thompson, describes a methodology for dealing with the escalating conflict just prior and into physical violence.

Since this verbal and physical posturing occurs in many arguments before they escalate to physical conflict, one strategy is to strike first just before the opponent strikes. "First hand" is a highly effective strategy to ensure victory.

If you talk with people who must use their fighting skills regularly, such as bouncers, bounty hunters, police officers, or just rowdy drunks, they will consistently tell you the person who hits first usually wins.

Most taekwondo patterns begin with a block, not an attack, but not all, for instance, hwa-rang begins with a strike. However, for the most part, preemptive strikes are not used.

Nearly all our training focuses on defensive tactics. In pre-arranged (one or three-step) sparring, one person attacks, and the defender's response is to block and counterattack. From the beginning, we are taught to react to circumstances. When we are the attackers during practice, our mentality is often that of being there so that the defender can practice his or her defenses rather than of us honing our attacking skills.

So, we practice reaction, but experience says that action beats reaction. Therefore, you could say that we are training to lose or at least give the advantage to our opponent.

There are a variety of types of assault that you may be subjected to and statistically, some happen more often than others, these are called habitual acts of violence. Therefore, it should be possible to rank all assaults in order of the most likely to occur to the least likely to occur. For example, which is more likely to happen in a street scenario; someone attacks with a right-hand swinging punch or with precise a side thrust kick. Of course, the punch is much more likely. The top probability attacks are the ones to which we should focus our training since they are the ones we will likely have to defend against. The most probable attacks are techniques such as grabs, pushes, pointing, gesturing, etc. Many of these attacks escalate from simple verbal attacks to physical assault. 

Once a physical attack is imminent, a preemptive strike may be used most effectively. Depending on the situation, a preemptive strike may be necessary, even if there may be legal or civil consequences afterward. The decision is yours. 


  • Franco, S. (2001). Striking First in a Street Fight.
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