Some like to carry a knife for self-defense. As with any other weapon, to be useful in a self-defense situation the knife must be with you, be readily available, and be usable under the circumstances. For a knife to be a self-defense weapon, you must have the knife with you and readily available when you are at work, at church, at a birthday party, etc. You must be able to draw the knife while wearing a heavy coat or gloves, and you must be able to hold the knife with wet or cold hands.
In a fight, no matter your skill level or the skill level of your opponent, if the opponent has a knife, you will get cut! Even if you are one with the knife, you may still get cut. So be prepared to get cut and not to let a cut interfere with your resolve to win the fight.
It has been said, “proximity negates skill.” Even a skilled person may be killed in close combat by accident. Most self-defense situations are at close range; an attacker is not going to stand back and duel with you. Therefore, if you want to rely on a knife for self-defense, you had better know how to use it in close combat.
Types of knives
Any type of knife can be dangerous in a fight, but some types are as dangerous to the user as they are to the attacker, such as cheap folding knives with a weak blade lock that allow the blade to close on your fingers. A fighting knife is one best suited for self-defense. Since it is designed as a weapon; however, local laws may prohibit carrying a fighting knife. A knife best suited for ordinary use and is legal to carry may be practically useless for fighting.
Here are some points to remember when choosing a fighting knife:
- A fixed blade is stronger than a folding blade.
- A double edge blade better than a single edge blade since both sides may cut.
- The point should not be so sharply tapered that it may easily be broken off when striking bone or accidentally striking a hard surface. However, even with a broken tip, the blade will still be a deadly weapon.
- With a double edge blade, a lightly oval handle is better than a round one, so you may know by feel which ways the edges are facing.
- The handle should not be slippery when wet, too soft when hot, or too hard when cold.
- The handle should be slightly longer than the width of your hand so the butt may be used for striking. Some knives have a metal pommel on the butt to make striking more effective. However, if the handle is too long, it may snag on clothing or be grabbed by the opponent.
- A blade with a shiny surface is intimidating, while a blade with a matte finish is more easily hidden.
- The handle may have a guard to protect the hand from the opponent's blade as it slides down your blade during a block and to keep your hand from sliding over the blade if the tip hits a hard object during a jab. A guard may angle upward so it can be used to trap the opponent's blade.
To use a knife, you must grip it. Not only is a proper grip important to you when using the knife, seeing the grip used by an attacker may give you some indication of the skill level of the attacker. There are four methods of gripping a knife. As with any fighting technique, each has its advantages and disadvantages.
In this grip, the knife handle is gripped between the thumb and forefinger, with the other fingers wrapped loosely around the handle, such as the way a fencer grips a foil. The handle is held loosely but is gripped tightly when attacking. This allows you to switch to a reverse grip quickly. A single edge knife is held with the edge facing downward, a double edge knife is held with the edges facing horizontally. The blade is pointed toward the attacker. While the grip may be suitable for knives with small handles, it is unsuitable for knives with large handles.
This is the grip used by "flashy" knife fighters. It allows the wrist to move the blade in many directions, make blade flips, provides maximum reach for the blade, and presents the weapon in a more threatening manner. It allows you to "shimmer" the blade, wiggling it quickly to make it reflect light to intimidate and confuse the opponent and make it difficult for the opponent to predict the movement of the knife.
However, the grasp is not firm. If your hand is struck while using the fencer's grip, you may lose your grasp on the knife. The thumb may be injured if it slips down the blade or if the knife is forced backward.
In this grip, the knife handle is held in a fist, with the blade pointing downward, like how you would hold an ice pick when using it to chip ice. This is the grip used by many novices.
A single edge knife is held with the edge facing outward, a double edge knife is held with an edge facing outward. This grip enables deep blade penetration into soft body armor, heavy coats, or other protective clothing, however, when raising the knife for a downward strike, you telegraph your intentions, expose your chest area, and make it easy for your opponent to see the weapon. The grip does not provide for parrying or thrusting, and it is easy to block a downward thrust.
Also known as the heaven or saber grip, this is the preferred grip of experts. In this grip, the knife handle is gripped in a fist such as you would hold a hammer. The blade is pointed upward. A single edge knife is held with the edge facing forward, a double edge knife is held with an edge facing forward. The wrist is kept flexible but may be locked when needed.
With this grip, the knife is less likely to be knocked from your grasp and it permits the hand to punch or deliver butt-end knife strikes. The grip provides for deep penetration and power so the blade may easily cut through heavy clothing. Also, there is less likelihood of injury to the thumb, and the knife may be used for chopping, slashing, and especially thrusting techniques.
A reverse hammer grip with the blade pointing downward and backward is used in the pakal knife fighting method. Pakal, in the Visayan dialect of the Philippines, means to rip. Most knife fighters want their edge facing the attacker, so the attacker must fight through the edge to get to them and they use knife thrusts to keep attackers away. Because the blade points downward, the reach of forward thrusts and the depth of penetration using this grip are limited.
While pakal fighters do use forward thrusts, most of their thrusts use a backward motion and any cutting, shearing, or tearing are considered secondary. Like an animal’s claws, pakal movements are designed to pull in and tear apart flesh, not push it away.
In normal attacks, when you push an attacker away, he or she will probably attack again. This constant disengagement and re-engagement creates too many opportunities for something to go wrong. When you thrust forward, the attacker will usually step back to avoid or diminish the power of the strike, and then step back in for another attack.
In pakal, if the attacker pulls back, he or she will move into the power of the strike. If the attacker does not pull back, the strike will still pull forward into the attacker. When people are cut, they tend to jerk away quickly, so if a preliminary cut is made on the way in for a backward thrust, it will cause the person to jerk backward into your thrust. In a pakal knife fight, you do not square off with the attacker and have a lengthy duel; you use deception, feints, speed, ferocity, and controlling tactics to end the confrontation as soon as possible.
Since pakal uses a lot of thrusting and ripping, a short blade held in a reverse grip is the best weapon. You may pull against the edge of any blade with much more force than you may push against the edge. Attackers are not usually naked, they wear clothing, and depending on the situation and the time of year, there may be many layers of clothing or heavy clothing. It is difficult to cut skin through all this protection. In a forward thrust, the defender is usually moving backward away from the attack, so it is difficult to penetrate the clothing, even with a large blade. However, when a small blade is pulled inward against the person's body, it is easier to penetrate clothing since the clothing is now backed by the firmer surface of the body.
Because of clothing and the flailing movements in a fight, the short knife has less of a chance of getting snagged or trapped. In a thrust, only a small portion of the length of a large blade will penetrate, so it is difficult to get enough leverage on the handle to control the knife. A short blade may penetrate the guard, and this gives the user tremendous leverage for pulling and ripping. If a large blade penetrates too far or strikes a bone, it may become lodged and difficult to remove. The added leverage of a small blade aids in its release from the same situation.
Stand in your normal fighting stance with the knife in the leading hand. "Hide" behind the knife, letting it be all the opponent sees. Keep your free hand close to the midsection to protect vital areas. In escrima, the free hand is used as a shield and is sacrificed, if necessary. The creed is "You may cut my hand, but I will take your life!" The freehand may be used to parry, punch, fake a blow, throw objects, distract the opponent, assist balance in rough terrain, or even grab the opponent's blade. It may also be used to trap the opponent's hand as he or she attempts to draw a weapon.
As with empty hand fighting, to neutralize the opponent as quickly as possible, you must strike the best targets. This does not mean you always need to attempt to strike vital points. Opponents will usually be defending their vital areas making these areas hard to hit. Since drawing the first blood has such a tremendous psychological advantage, the more you strike your opponent the better, regardless of where you hit. A primary target is the weapon-wielding hand. By disabling the hand that holds the weapon, you neutralize the weapon.
Unless you regularly train in knife fighting techniques, your best option is to fight in the same manner in which you normally train, except you will have a knife in your leading hand to add to your arsenal of weapons. Use the leading hand, in the same manner, you would if it did not have a knife in it. Use the knife to block, jab, hook, uppercut, etc. If the opponent has a knife, always be aware of it and its location.
Contact fighters are used to getting hit. Many times, they do not bother to block because they know they can take the attack and come back with an even more powerful attack of their own. When the opponent has a knife, this is not an option. Point fighters, especially ippon (one point) fighters, lose if the opponent scores one technique on them, so they are trained to avoid or block every attack. Theoretically, a point fighter would have a better chance than a contact fighter of surviving a knife attack (when neither is a trained knife fighter).
A deadly target used by escrima knife fighters is to sever the sciatic nerve on the back of the opponent's thigh, high up where it comes down through the pelvic bone. If the nerve is severed, then the leg becomes useless.
The femoral artery on the inside of the leg is another good target. If it is cut, the person will bleed out quickly. However, it is difficult to locate and cut during a fight.; it is best reached you are on the ground and being attacked.
The iliac artery is the best low section target, accessible with a thrust at the hip joint, it branches directly from the aorta and feeds into the femoral. In the mid-section, every part of the aorta is a good target, but it takes skill, strength, and focus to reach it.
The best high-section target is the carotid artery in the side of the neck. A hard cut to the side of the neck may sever the artery and both jugular veins, the internal and external. The positioning of the hand post-cut allows for an immediate follow-up cut across the trachea and a stab to the brachial plexus, containing a large nerve and artery.
Minor cutting as often as possible may be counterproductive. The more a person is cut, the more likely they are to go into a survival mode, fighting harder and ignoring the pain.
One punch, one kill
This saying is used in many martial arts, but it seldom happens in the real world. In the world of firearms, they speak of "one shot, one kill" or of "one-shot stops" where an attacker is stopped or killed by one-shot. Even with a firearm, this seldom occurs. Sometimes an attacker may be hit with numerous shots and keep attacking, even while slowly dying. Are one-shot type stops possible with knives?
There are three types of one-shot stops:
- Physiological stop. This occurs when the central nervous system is shut down (such as a bullet to the brain), or where either the heart or thoracic aorta is instantly and catastrophically damaged.
- Psychological stop. This occurs when the person believes he or she is supposed to react a certain way to an injury.
- Surrender stop. This occurs when the person believes that any further hostilities may lead to more pain, injury, or death, so the person gives up.
In self-defense, the primary concern is not killing the attacker, but stopping the attacker from continuing the attack. A cut or stab may cause a psychological or surrender stop. However, even a stab to the heart may not instantly kill or stop an attacker. For a knife attack to be fatal relatively quickly, the injury must be to the heart of a major artery or vein, and either:
- the blood must not clot, or
- pressure from surrounding tissues must not stop the flow of blood, or
- direct pressure is not applied to stop the flow of blood.
If these things do not occur, it may take minutes before a person bleeds out (exsanguination). In most cases, it would take transection (complete severing) of the thoracic aorta to cause enough hemorrhage to cause unconsciousness in about 4 to 5 seconds.
For an average 70 kg (155 lb.) male the cardiac output will be about 5.5 l (1.4 gals.) per minute. His blood volume will be about 60 ml. per kg. (0.92 fl. oz per lb.) or about 4200 ml. (1.1 gals). Assuming his cardiac output may double under stress, his aortic blood flow can reach 11 liters (~2.8 gallons) per minute. If a wound completely severed the thoracic aorta, it would take about 4.6 seconds for him to lose 20% of his blood volume.
This analysis does not account for oxygen contained in the blood already in the brain that will keep the brain functioning even longer. Of course, hemorrhage is cumulative, so, over time, many small minor cuts may cause as much blood loss as one major cut. Therefore, for someone to be suddenly stopped because of bleeding, large arteries and veins must be cut, and even then, it may take several seconds or minutes before the person is incapacitated.
Knowing this, about bleeding, some knife fighters advocate focusing knife attacks on the structures of the body that allow hostile movements to continue. They seek to disable the attacker by targeting the muscle groups, tendons, etc. that control grip and arm movement. As with hemorrhage, structural damage is cumulative, but also, as with hemorrhage, it may take many cuts before any appreciable damage is done. Attackers do not stand around while you carve on them; they are trying to kill you, so you do not have a lot of time to mess around.
As discussed above, any of the three types of one-shot stops is difficult to achieve using a knife. However, if you combine blood cuts and muscle cuts, along with the pain they cause, you may succeed in stopping an attacker rather quickly.