The reality of violent knife attacks.

by Ryan Gregory, September 7th, 2012

I have been meaning to write up some thoughts on knife defence techniques of the sort that we learn in seminars or practice in class, and how these relate to real-world examples of violent knife attacks. The relevance of this topic was brought home by the recent death of Wyatt Lewis in Edmonton, Alberta. According to the report, Lewis was fatally stabbed during an altercation while trying to protect a friend. Lewis was a jiu jitsu expert and mixed martial arts coach, but sadly that appears not to have prevented him from becoming a victim of violent assault.

The truth is, I am torn on the subject of knife defence techniques. On the one hand, they’re enjoyable to practice, they provide some additional understanding of biomechanics, and they may help to keep the level of panic down if one is ever confronted with a knife-wielding assailant in a do-or-die situation. On the other hand, the attacks that we practice bear little resemblance to what real knife violence looks like, and the extreme danger of a knife assault is simply not reflected in most training environments. The latter issue is why shock knives were invented — to get the adrenaline pumping during training as it would be in a real encounter. (I can attest that the threat of even a minor shock dramatically changes the way people react to a training knife, based on the one I made).

Here’s a typical example of a knife defence technique, as demonstrated by members of the legendary Gracie jiu jitsu family:

That’s all well and good, especially when practising on a beautiful beach using a stick. For a dose of reality, here’s a look at what a real knife can do to flesh:

That’s one cut. Here’s what it looks like in the hands of a trained fighter:

If you’re brave, click on these links to see some photos of actual knife attack victims. These are gruesome and you have been warned.

Link 1
Link 2

So, that’s point number 1: knives do way more damage, much more easily, than many people assume.

This leads to point number 2: real-life knife attacks are often sudden, fast, and aggressive.




All of this adds up to a major disconnect between what people expect a knife attack to be like and what it would actually be like. For this reason, good instructors will be very clear that trying to defend against a knife is a last resort. Short of protecting your life or that of a loved one when there is no means of de-escalation or escape, there is no reason to go up against a knife empty-handed.

It’s not just knife attacks, of course. Training for self-defence against unarmed attackers also requires special effort that goes beyond safe, pre-arranged drills performed with a partner in class. These drills, as well as kata, are useful for many aspects of training, including learning about biomechanics (your own and your opponent’s), timing, speed, and distance, and power generation, as well as for conditioning, training reflexes and overcoming a flinching instinct, and targeting. But they do not prepare us for a surprise attack.

In his excellent book Meditations on Violence: A Comparison of Martial Arts Training & Real World Violence, Rory Miller notes that there are four truths about real-world violence that martial artists need to grasp:

The four truths: Assaults happen closer, faster, more suddenly, and with more power than most people believe.

Closer. One of the most common and artificial aspects of modern martial arts training is that self-defence drills are practiced at an optimum distance where the attacker must take at least a half step to contact. Real criminals rarely give this luxury of time. They strike when they are sure of hitting, positive that their victim is well within range before initiating the attack.

That half step of extra distance allows many things to work that are hard to pull off in real life. Blocks and evasions rarely work in real encounters. Even in the dojo, if you stand close enough that you can lay your forearm on your partner’s shoulder (nearly optimum striking range) and allow him to strike with either hand to targets of his choice, you will not block the strikes in time unless he telegraphs badly. Distance is time, and blocking takes time.

The attacker always chooses the time and place for the attack, and he chooses a range at which he can surely hit hard and his victim will have the least possible time to react. This means he will be close. Often, the ambush place will be an area that hampers the victim’s movements — a toilet stall, between two parked cars or slammed into a wall. Will your favorite move still work without room to turn or step?

Faster. Because the threat has chosen the time, the place, and the victim, he can attack all-out, with no thought given to defense. The speed of this flurry, the constant rain of blows, can be mind numbing.
When your martial arts students are sparring, use a stopwatch and time how many blows are thrown in a minute. Even in professional boxing, the number is not that impressive. There is a give and take to sparring and subtleties of timing in defense and offense that are integral to making it a game of skill.

Then time them on a heavy bag … Completely untrained people usually do four hits a second. Eight to ten times a second is reasonable for a decent martial artist. Thirteen to fourteen is the fastest I have done.

An assault is conducted like this flurry, not like sparring. A competent martial artist who is used to the more cautious timing of sparring is completely unprepared for this kind of speed. Even the people who strike ten times a second can’t block ten times a second.

More suddenly. An assault is based on the threat’s assessment of his chances. If he can’t get surprise, he often won’t attack. Some experts say that there is always some intuitive warning. Possibly, but if the warning was noted and heeded, the attack would be prevented. When the attack happens, it is always a surprise.

This is one of the hardest aspects of an ambush to train for. The very fact that you know you are training removes the element of surprise. The unexpectedness of an attack can negate nearly any skill. You psych up for training, for competition. You have time to use breathing techniques to adjust your adrenaline balance in class, but an assault happens while you are in your nine to five mind; when your brain is dealing with bills or shopping lists or lost car keys.

More power. There is a built-in problem with all training. You want to recycle your partners. If you or your students hit as hard as they can every time they hit, you will quickly run out of students.

Truthfully, the average criminal does not hit nearly as hard as a good boxer or karateka can hit. They do hit harder than the average boxer (because of gloves) or karateka has ever felt.

Being hit is part of the normal environment of an attack. More often than not, the first strike in an ambush lands. So do many others. It can be a sharp and stinging pain, not like the dull ocean roar of a boxing hit or a kind of wincing where part of your face wants to curl over the point of impact. Good martial artists, good ring fighters often freeze for a second because the attack doesn’t feel like training. If anything feels, sounds, or smells different than you have trained for, your body will be aware that it is a new experience and might freeze. Fighting with a concussion doesn’t feel like sparring.

There are many good reasons to train in the martial arts; self-defence is just one. But we should never assume that what we do in the dojo will translates into invincibility in the street. The best defence, as any good instructor will tell you, is avoidance and awareness.

Further reading:

Comments (4)

Noah LSeptember 7th, 2012 at 4:18 pm

This is a very good article, because I do think a lot of martial artists–both traditional and modern–ignore the reality of knife defense because they have inherited techniques that originally came from Japanese jujutsu that were intended for use against a certain style of attack. I highly recommend that people look at Libre Fighting Systems on YouTube and see what those folks are doing with realistic knife defense, because it is the most realistic and effective method I have ever seen.

Ryan GregorySeptember 7th, 2012 at 4:44 pm

Hmmmm. Seems like a lot of their training is on how to murder someone with a knife!

Noah LSeptember 7th, 2012 at 7:57 pm

I was specifically referring to their more recent videos regarding empty handed defense against someone with a knife and their research behind it and live training methods for it. Scott Babb, the founder of Libre, did a lot of research watching videos and reading news stories and police reports about knife attacks in order to find out more about how they happen. After that, he got together with other people he trains with (almost all of whom had training in other systems of martial arts) and they worked on paring down the effective defenses for those scenarios. Along the way, they also compiled a collection of data in regards to survivability through their drills. You can find a great discussion about it here:

Their knife fighting portion most certainly IS training how to kill someone with a knife, but I have only ever seen them doing it against someone using a knife on them–if someone is trying to kill you (which is assumed by the fact that they just attacked you with a deadly weapon) you are allowed to kill them–in the US, at least–so that is not terribly out of bounds.

Ryan GregorySeptember 8th, 2012 at 6:30 pm

Thanks for the link Noah — very interesting stuff!

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