Knife Defence is a very controversial topic and Karateka seldom train it. However, it is important to know what it means and how Karate can be utilised to defend against a knife, if one has no other chance to remove oneself from a situation. By T.D. McKinnon in his column Karate Essence
This is a topic that is always controversial. Everyone has an opinion on the subject, some through the mirror of their own experiences. However, many seem to have an inflexible opinion on the subject, with little or no real experience and with a very rudimentary education on the topic.
I think that one point should be made here before we go any further. If you are confronted by anyone with a stabbing or bladed weapon, if at all possible, you should remove yourself from the situation immediately. Do not make it an ego thing! Even if you master knife defence; having to disarming someone with a blade, regardless of the antagonist’s skill, or lack thereof, is extremely dangerous. However, if you are unable to remove yourself – you may be cornered or protecting someone – you owe it to yourself to be as prepared as you possibly can be.
My own Experience with Knife Defence
Growing up in the coal-mining communities of Scotland and England, in the 1950s and 60s, blades were an ongoing reality. I escaped most confrontations by running away, very fast. However on one occasion, when I was 14 years old, I was cornered by two 17 year- old youths who wanted my leather jacket. I had been delivering papers, morning and night, for an entire year to pay for it; they would have to take it from my dead body. One of them produced a flick-knife to cut it from my body if necessary. I was terrified. Pure luck got me out of that situation, when the sudden appearance of a bunch of motorcyclists caused my assailants to run away.
A couple of years later, while serving in the British Parachute Regiment, a soldier in the neighboring bed had a psychotic episode one day. I found myself (whilst lying flat on my back on my bed) with the point of his bayonet pressed firmly against my jugular vein.
I had trained in close quarter combat but I was not prepared for that. If you have never been in that situation – when you feel you might die at any moment and there’s nothing you can do about it – it is a chilling experience!
I somehow managed to reason with him; remaining calm (at least I made a fair approximation of sounding calm) I talked him out of a bloodletting. As he stood up, the tension left his body, and the hand holding the bayonet went limp. Springing off the bed, I slapped it out of his hand. Adrenaline pumping, I slammed him against a metal locker; one hand around his throat, I was ready to smash my fist into his face. Long story short, I didn’t hit him; the poor guy was mentally very ill.
When I left the Paras I started working the nightclub scene in the Glasgow area (once reputed to be the knife attack capital of the world) where I encountered several situations where a knife or an open-blade razor was presented threateningly. We were of course prepared for these predictable displays. Funny how the site of a baseball bat changes the mind of a knife wielding lunatic. Suffice to say that the sight of someone wielding a knife is not strange to me.
Kase Taiji and Knife Defence
I attended a Kase Taiji Sensei seminar in the 1970s. Sometime during the course, while we were doing a lot of basic blocking techniques, he was trying to stress the importance of good, strong basics. Some of us were obviously not getting it to his satisfaction.
Kase Sensei began to tell us about a time when he first went to Paris and he was confronted by a knife wielding thug, who demanded that he hand over his wallet.
Kase Sensei did not have good English; he had been living in France for many years and I don’t know how good his French was but he had a strange way of speaking, a heavy mixture of Japanese/French accented Pidgin English. However, with the aid of mimicry and simulation he certainly got the story over.
It happened one evening as he was going for a stroll, taking in the Paris sites. For those who don’t know, I would describe him as a 4X4 (very short, he was as wide as he was tall) and I can imagine that a would-be mugger might not see the potential danger in him. Kase Sensei wasn’t sure what his assailant was saying but he understood the drift of the situation and decided not to hand over his wallet.
When he made no reply and no move to comply with his attacker’s demands; frustrated, the man tried to stab him in his ample belly. With a classic soto uke, Kase Sensei smashed the mugger’s arm at the elbow and then, while delivering a devastating yoko empi to the jaw, he wrenched the smashed arm across his ample chest.
“Cut…” he said, showing us a scar on his forearm, and shaking his head as if it was nothing. “I break ‘is arm…” he continued, indicating with gestures that told us he had snapped the elbow in the opposite direction. “And ‘is…” and grabbing his own jaw, shaking it, he added, “Shatter!”
Knife Defence requires Strong Basics
Twenty years later, while working at a night club in Sydney’s Kings Cross, I stepped between a patron and a woman he was in the process of beating-up. I actually suspected that she was one of his working girls. Without the slightest compunction, he pulled out a knife and stabbed me in the stomach. Well, he tried.
I smashed his elbow the wrong way and shattered his jaw into a dozen pieces. The circumstances were completely different to Kase Sensei’s incident, but the knife attack and the results were exactly the same. And I too sport a scar from the incident on my right wrist. I agree wholeheartedly with Kase Sensei: strong basics are indeed essential.
As well as being a martial artist for the past 57 years; learning to defend against weapons, knifes in particular, has been a lifelong objective. However, It wasn’t until I worked in close protection (real bodyguard work, not there just for show), protecting someone who was afraid for their life, that I had real close encounters with knife wielding individuals intent on doing me serious bodily harm.
I have defended myself against four serious knife attacks, I was cut in three of them, minor injuries, only one of which needed fairly immediate attention. However, after all four attacks, I was back on the job straight away, while all of the attackers spent considerable time (1-6 weeks) in hospital; before doing serious jail time.
Teaching Knife Defence is a Serious Affair
Teaching knife defence to Close Personal Protection (CPP) operatives who just might find themselves up against someone with a knife is a serious affair. It needs to be practical, and they need to believe that it will work; because doubt is the back stabber (pardon the pun).
I think we should differentiate between the categories of knife or bladed threats. There are some dramatic differences in threat levels; consequently, there is a difference in the defence strategies used. There are three main threat levels but with a myriad of intensities:
1. The knife presented to intimidate or as an overt threatening device.
Generally, in this case, the intention is not to kill or do serious damage. However, there can be many and varied mitigating factors and this kind of threat can still progress to a real and sometimes life threatening danger. If you are presented with a knife threat situation, remember that an action is quicker than a reaction: initiate the action (Deai). Examples:
2. The knife used in an aggravated assault. Perhaps to intimidate during an attempted robbery/mugging/rape et cetera, where injury is not the main intention, but where it all too often escalates to the next level.
I am not talking about the legal definitions here; what I am talking about is the intentions of the knife wielding assailant. This, by degree only, is a more serious situation for the victim of threat level 1.
3. The knife deliberately used in an attempt to murder or seriously injure.
Again, I am not talking about the legal definitions; I am talking about the intent of the assailant. There can be a hairs breadth between attempting to seriously injure someone and killing them.
In answer to number 1 and 2, your responses need to be instinctive and immediate. There will be a variance in the degree of danger and the method of intimidation; however, providing you train your responses until they are instinctive (Mushin), you will minimise injury to yourself by remembering these rules:
- An action is always quicker than a reaction: implement the action.
- Act without doubt and without hesitation and don’t stop until your assailant is disarmed and nullified.
In answer to number 3, if you get the opportunity to initiate the action the same rules apply. However, considering the nature of number 3, you may not get the chance to initiate the action. There are far too many variables to generalise; however, when I was putting together my knife defence seminars, apart from utilising my own personal experience, I studied hours of CCTV footage of brutal knife attacks, from all around the world. The situations were many and varied but the outcomes were all pretty grim; mostly ending in a fatality.
How defend against a Knife Attacker intent on Murder?
However, after studying the different ways that people are attacked on that footage, I determined the best ways in which to combat each different kind of attack. There is one defence I teach for a very distinctive type of recurring attack that is used when an assailant is determined to kill his victim. This attack is a rapid stabbing motion; not unlike a rapid, repeating gyaku-zuki type motion, while controlling (pulling/pushing/grabbing) the recipient with the free hand.
I watched CCTV footage of an attack on a police officer. The recipient of the attack was a big policeman; when he stopped a small, suspicious looking, man to questioning him. Attacking suddenly, viciously, without provocation, a knife appearing in his right hand, the small man used his free hand to clamp the policeman’s gun hand against the gun as he was frantically attempting to draw, while stabbing him repeatedly, to death right there on camera.
Here is a step by step sequence of still photographs, and a slow motion video of the defence for just such an attack. Perhaps you can recognise the entry from Sochin Kata.
- You must meet the attacker head on; do not wait until he has got the first stab in. This is a repeated stabbing action, meant to kill you.
- Do not let his free hand control you.
- You must strike, simultaneously ramming your forearms, a/into the forearm of his knife hand, and b/ into the attacker’s face: jamming his first stab and smashing his face (Sen no sen). This action will halt his forward momentum.
- You can see the first technique from three different angles.
- It is then important to move quickly, smoothly into the next action, taking advantage of the first shock to his system.
- Vigorously, simultaneously, push his head down and lift the knife hand up in the manner shown.
- Keeping your back straight for best results and least chance of losing your balance, bend your knees and drop your centre of gravity, to pile-drive the attackers head into the ground.
- To finish, using a wrist/arm lock, wrench hard to take control and or break the arm.
- It is doubtful that the knife will still be in his hand, but if it is it will have been nullified all the way through and can be taken easily at this point.
Repetition with Full speed is important
Let me be quite clear about this; I know from practical experience that this technique works, and I taught it to the high risk section of the security industry for 25 years with nothing but positive feedback.
It is not practical (from the point of view of the damage you can cause) to practice this technique, repetitively, with a partner at full speed with power. However here is a demonstration of a method of practicing a modified version of the technique, along with 3 other possible knife defence techniques with a partner, with a little speed. Some training tools if you will:
At the risk of repeating myself, I must reiterate: If you are confronted by anyone with a stabbing or bladed weapon, if at all possible, you should remove yourself from the situation immediately. Do not let your ego get you seriously injured or killed! Even if you master knife defence, disarming anyone who has a blade is extremely dangerous and should be a last resort.
When there is no other option: ultima ratio; if you have no choice, do it boldly, with Mushin and Zanshin.
The Unmentionables of Knife Defence
There are still a couple of areas not yet mentioned. To talk about knife defence and not mention the most difficult types of bladed weapons to defend against would be grossly duplicitous. I could do what most people do when covering knife defence: put these weapons in the too hard basket and just ignore them!
Obviously, anything involving knives is more than a little dangerous. If you are thinking of employment in the close protection industry you should consider training in one of the knife fighting systems. You might also familiarise yourself with as many others as possible. My initial knife fighting training, in the military, consisted of a mishmash of the most useful, deadly techniques from a variety of origins. My additional knife fighting education comes care of Tantojutsu from Bushido, and the Filipino knife fighting of Kali. I also acquired some of the practicality of stick fighting from Kali; which applies very nicely to an extendable baton; and is extremely useful against a knife.
I grew up on stories of the Glasgow razor gangs. There was still the occasional incident, but on the whole the open-blade razor had gone the way of the dinosaur. Quite obviously, they were not used for stabbing but for slashing. They could be used with devastating effect: blinding, opening up or slashing pieces off face and hands et cetera. In an experienced hand they could kill quite easily but, for the most part, they were meant to menace and intimidate. Designed to cause extensive damage without the risk of accidentally killing someone; they were quite a terrifying weapon!
The box-knife is fairly commonplace in Glasgow nowadays: with a capacity to do massif amounts of damage, but without the depth of blade to accidentally kill someone in the process. Another terrifying weapon!
Defence against the two aforementioned weapons, mostly because exponents of said weapons usually train in their use, I would put firmly in the realm of ‘the knife fighting cultures. I would therefor advise that defence against them should follow the same lines as any of the knife fighting martial arts.
Knife Fighting Martial Arts
Lastly, I’ll touch briefly on knife fighting martial arts, which are numerous. Here are just a few of the most prominent:
Pencak Silat (Indonesian)
Silat practitioners use a curved blade called a Karambit. In trained hands, this is a deadly weapon.
Kali Escrima (Filipino)
Kali practitioners use a relatively short, single bladed, stabbing and slashing knife. This is another devastatingly dangerous weapon.
Paranza Corta (Italy)
Practitioners of this deadly art use a stiletto bladed knife; primarily, a deadly stabbing weapon.
Using a Tanto; this is a devastating, stabbing and slashing knife fighting art.
Military Special Forces (various countries)
This is usually an amalgamation of the deadliest techniques from various classical knife fighting arts. The weapons vary, my experience was with a bayonet; however, it is adaptable to most knives.
Distance and Weapons
If you are cornered and you have no weapons, distance is your only ally; long range striking is most advisable. Utilise, as a weapon, anything that you can get your hands on. If you are protecting someone, professionally, then you should be carrying some kind of weapon, an extendable baton at the very least.
Will Karate help you in knife defence?
So, will Karate help you in knife defence? Certainly there are tools within your Karate training that will assist you. However, you really need to train, specifically, for knife defence to stand a decent chance against someone with a knife. And the more skilled your adversary, the more skilled you need to be.