The reality of defending yourself against a knife attack

The reality of defending yourself against a knife attack

This is a common subject that comes up often and there are many different opinions. The question is…

What do I do when someone attacks me with a knife?

Let’s have a look at a class showing us the brutality of a knife attack. The instructor, Deane Lawler, states the situation very plainly and clearly shows the difference between “mythical” techniques and hard, ugly reality. An excellent piece of teaching.

So where does one start when it comes to knife defence?

In general, the starting place is trying to start well before there is an actual weapon. By the use of situational awareness. Which means that you have put yourself in a good position to see if the aggressor has a knife or may have a knife. Both aspects are just as important as sometimes it isn’t obvious that someone has a weapon and this can be more dangerous than if someone shows you the weapon.

Stay aware of the possibility they may be armed

Being switched on to your surroundings is vitally important as many a stabbing incident occurs without the victim really knowing they have been stabbed before it is too late. If someone seems odd or out of place, take notice, they could be armed and ready to use any weapon without warning. Always try to keep a good distance from someone suspicious as this could be the difference between getting hurt or not.

There is a phrase that says “ a shower never stabs and a stabber never shows”, which really means that a cold assassin type would simply stab you without you even knowing it or picking up any warning signals. A “shower” on the other hand, uses the weapon openly to inject fear firstly and can be more reluctant to actually use it. Either way, once you are in a red alert situation, you have to switch on and act.

So, if we have moved beyond a suspicious type to the person now having a knife, what do we do?

Over the years in my training in the martial arts, the one thing that seems to be the constant, is to try to open up the space as quickly as you can. I have never been in love with some of the techniques we were taught as most of the time they are very unrealistic. But the basic simple action of firstly using any large object, like a chair if available, to open a gap, whilst evading your attacker and applying any form of blocking or counter strike is vital.

To train properly in knife defence it is important that the person defending can strike their opponent as hard as they would in a real assault, so this is often difficult to achieve in a normal training situation. The “assailant” in a training drill would have to wear protective equipment( see the last video example ) and very often this is something beyond the average traditional dojo.

A true life story

A story I know, regarding one of my instructors, illustrates this point about opening the space very well. He was attacked in the street by someone with a knife, whilst in his native Zimbabwe. To nullify the attack he kept moving around a car and fending off ( not diving in to attempt to grab the knife ) until the aggressor eventually stopped, thinking that the police might appear ( I would imagine the police are armed in Zimbabwe)

By doing this, it was enough to make it difficult for a clean strike whilst having enough threat himself, ( a seriously powerful knockout blow, I know, having been on the end of it a few times) to keep the attacker at bay.

So this illustrates the key point about keeping moving. Don’t be a static target and attempt to buy time if you have the space to evade and fend off.

But what happens when there is no space to evade the attack?

A real knife attack is frenzied and brutal, so if you are too close, you have no way of continuously blocking thrusts, it simply is not possible, no matter what martial arts myths may say. You have to try to crash into the space to attack the assailant and keep the focus of the knife away from your body.

A good illustration of this point

Here is a video clip from the excellent Kelly McCann who teaches modern “Combatives”. In it, he clearly illustrates the process of vaulting into the space to damage the attacker. He makes a very clear point about reconditioning yourself in training to not flinch away from the attack, but to drive into the space to force your opponent back, thus taking away their impetus.

This isn’t easy, but it is the best way to survive an attack. If you can force them back, and make them worry about what you are doing to them, they won’t be as efficient with the knife.

A different perspective

An excellent book that I would recommend, called “ Put ’em down, Take ’em out” by Don Pentecost describes very matter of factly how street knife fighting is and how very far away it is from a Hollywood movie. Don likes to put himself in a very good light and his life story could be questioned, but there are some good, realistic, techniques in there.

It shows how an attacker would attack you, which is straight in with no hesitation if they really meant to do you harm. Something similar to the class in the first video clip. He also gives good advice on how to fend off and strike back if you have managed to keep away from the first assault. As soon as you are aware of a weapon, you cannot take it lightly and your attitude and ability to hurt the assailant, as Kelly McCann describes above, is key to survival.

To conclude:

There is no one easy way to deal with a knife attack if you are unarmed ( or even armed). The reality is far different to the mythical idea of a supreme master who can disarm an opponent with lethal skill. But. (There is always a but.) Training, as ever, is the key to giving yourself a chance of survival.

Good, well supervised and realistic training with an experienced teacher, can give you the knowledge and skillset to deal with an attack. There is no easy answer and no 100% sure answer when it comes to defending yourself and least of all against a bladed weapon. But through training and testing as realistically as possible, you can develop a mindset and enough skill to significantly raise your chances of survival.

A final video example


Let me leave you with another video clip, this time from Nick Drossos, where he goes through techniques in the street ( well, a park in this case) with untrained people. This is an excellent one that shows that with the correct training and through an understanding of what works and what doesn’t, you can give yourself a fighting chance against a knife attack.

Author: Andrew Johnson

I trained many years in Kung Fu, fought in full contact competitions and am a qualified instructor at The Combat Academy in the UK. The aim of this blog is to look at what modern self-defense training actually is and what it most probably should be.

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