Basic Knife Defenses

Defending Against the Opponent Armed With a Knife

Editor's Note: This is a re-write of an article originally published in 1985. Wearing the jeans and black turtle-neck in the first video clip is Master Earl Squalls, who tragically lost his life in a Karate Tournament just two short years later.   We still miss him after all these years.  The images with Earl were photographed by a 12 year old student, Soodchai Phonsanam, known as "Ting", Master Squalls' protege. The photographs were remarkable for a 12 year old, and not unexpectedly, "Ting" went on to Black Belt, then graduated from Cornell, and is now a business executive in Seattle, WA.  When Earl and I posed for the still shots, we were intentionally targeting martial artists who were just getting introduced to knife defense. We could have made this more glamorous, or more complicated than it is...after all knife fighting is the calculus of martial arts. The objective was to give the reader 20-25 responses, some guidance on learning and practicing the techniques, then encouraging the reader to decide for him or herself which techniques worked, and which didn't. So, keep that in mind if you will, and enjoy what follows.   Following that, there are a few videos where I am demonstrating in the rain assisted by Ralph Howard.  Ralph was a Purple Belt at the time, who just happened to be there when we needed him.  Several decades later, he is a recognized Master of Gun Fu and an exemplar of  all to which we aspire as martial artists.The closing videos provide expanded detail on the techniques and I am assisted by Master Donald Wasielewski of Isshinryu.  In addition to being a very generous fellow (with his time), Don is one of the greats in the pantheon of Pacific Northwest martial artists.  If you’re interested in the full story behind the video click here

Inevitably, knife defense articles draw raised eyebrows and skeptical feedback from readers. Even novices can sense the great risk one assumes in confronting a knife wielding assailant. Moreover, of the hundreds of knife defense techniques I've either learned or seen, only a handful offer the economy of movement necessary to qualify as effective against an armed opponent.

Rather than pronounce these or any techniques will enable you to successfully confront the armed opponent, I'll get right to the bottom line. No matter how many knife techniques you learn, and no matter how well you learn them, confronting people armed with knives can get you killed. The first line of defense is always to defuse the situation, either with carefully orchestrated psychology, or by investing in a good pair of running shoes.

So, why this article? Well, for start's, there's always the possibility the armed assailant may not buy into your psychological approach, or your attempt to defuse the situation.   Moreover, he may be wearing running shoes of his own, or he may just have you trapped. The choice about whether you should engage the armed assailant may be out of your control.  There may be no alternatives.   As noted above, the situation is fraught with risk of serious injury to the defender. He or she will have to rely upon every facet of past training just to stand a break-even chance of survival. When one finds him or herself in this critical situation with no way out, having an understanding of the knife, the basic attacks, the targets, and responses to the basic attacks will go a long way toward reducing the possibilities of failure and serious injury.

It must be remembered, knife fighting is sophisticated enough to be a martial art in its own right. To master knife fighting, one must become intimately familiar with the major blood vessels of the body, as well as the locations and sensitivities of the various internal organs and mechanisms. As in empty hand fighting, there are many areas for specialization. Some prefer to perfect their attacks, some work on defenses, some master target throwing, and some develop a cross section of skills and applications. The value of basic knife defense skills is they provide you with responses to encounters which are occurring with increasing frequency in today's world. From the standpoint of the martial art's technician the degree of precision required in mastering knife defenses forces the student to truly come to terms with the dire consequences of a missed block,  and the need for counters that will be on target and effective. Knife fighting is on another plane from point karate, or free sparring in the gym, or mixed martial arts for that matter. Even with practice knives, for every mistake, there is a price. A missed down block may result in a fatal thrust to the heart. The outcome requires no judges. Feedback is immediate.    The defender knows whether he's been successful, and by the poignant feel of the practice blade against his body, when he's erred.  You won’t be happy when that happens.

Knowing the Targets

Our approach will be to first gain insight into the most likely targets for a knife attacker. Only after appreciating what is in the mind of the attacker will we acquire the appropriate instincts, and react with a meaningful defensive response. Knowing the targets, and the consequences of successful strikes at those targets, we create an instinctive movement which consistently covers the vital targets from attack. Knowledge of the targets also helps the defender to assess the extent of injury after being hit, and to adjust tactics accordingly.

For purposes of this article, I've defined the ten most likely targets of opportunity. Of course, there are innumerable possibilities, but if we're thinking of accessibility, ease of penetration, and downright deadliness, these ten top the list.  For ease of assimilation, they are presented graphically (click here to see) and are pretty much arranged descending from anatomical top to bottom. Targets #8-10 are vital organs within the trunk of the body. The table describes the optimal attacks to each target, and probable consequences if the attack is successful. Students of knife fighting should commit these targets to memory. To gain additional insight, take the time to research each, using medical texts, anatomical references, and even first aid guides, so as to minimize further damage or injury once the confrontation is concluded.

The Basic Attacks

After becoming familiar with the targets, we must contemplate the various attacks which might arise. Though an experienced knife fighter can present a confusing array of thrusts and feints, the starting point for all knife fighters is four basic motions: 1) The straight in attack; 2) The downward stabbing motion; 3) The outside in stab/slash; and 4) The inside out stab/slash. Perfecting responses against these four maneuvers is the starting point for creating your own viable knife defenses. Once responding to these attacks becomes instinctive, you'll see that virtually any knife attack begins to "look" like one of the four basic attacks. As you begin to work your defenses into a "free flowing” type practice, you'll become more adept at applying your skills against any type of attack. Moreover, you will develop the ability to string sequences of defensive responses so that in time, one response will lead into the next, literally giving you a defensive "net" providing you with the added advantage of multiple and combined  responses to virtually every conceivable attack. For training purposes, the student must learn to develop confident reactions to each of these several attacks. As with many concepts in the martial arts, it is analogous to learning the ABC's. Master the basics, then master stringing  them together.

Of course, being able to execute some defenses doesn't make you an expert, and it doesn't guarantee you will defeat an assailant armed with a knife. You will however have a better understanding of his strengths, and your response options.  Ultimately, you will be less likely to make a fatal error in judgment.

As was mentioned earlier, once having mastered responses to the four basic attacks, you'll find adjustments to unusual scenarios aren't as great as originally anticipated. Over time, you'll combine movements to accommodate demands of particular situations, and in fact, will be able to develop your own responses to new situations spontaneously. Again, it’s just like learning a language.

The Straight In Thrust

You'll know your work is cut out when suddenly you're faced by an opponent postured with one foot forward, weight equally distributed, knife in lead hand paralleling the ground, and ready to explode into targets such as your eyes, neck, heart, groin, and stomach. An experienced knife fighter, having mastered this thrust, might modify his attack mid-movement, so the expected abdominal thrust suddenly mutates into a slash at the femoral artery (inner thigh), or the radial artery (arm). Complicating matters, the master attacker will move the knife from one hand to the other, virtually unnoticed, as he closes. Or, he might position himself with weapon in rear hand, freeing the lead hand and leg for kicks, grabs, and feints, setting up the ultimate lethal attack for the weapon. The defender should expect the weaponless hand to serve as "foil" for the weaponed hand. Facing the master knife fighter, you'll sense parts of his body are intentionally obstructing your view of the weapon. By constantly causing you to lose sight of the weapon, he forces you to expect an attack at all times, causing you to stick in reactive mode, expecting the attack, but never getting it when you expect it.

A variation of the straight in thrust is the upward or hooking thrust. This is favored by fighters of lesser experience but is effective nonetheless. The knife sits in the attacker's rear hand for the most part, and the attack is relatively straight in with an upward hooking thrust to the abdominal cavity. Most experienced fighters avoid this posture entirely, if only because it requires the attacker lead with his body to generate power for a meaningful thrust. In defending, most of what works against the straight in thrust is effective here, and for economy, the hook attack is not treated extensively in the techniques presented.

The Downward Stabbing Motion

This is the "ice pick" motion (remember Norman Bates), directed at targets such as the top of a defender's head (nerve center/brain), the indentation between the base of the neck and either clavicle (the carotid artery and the jugular vein), either side of the chest (the subclavian artery), or the heart. Of all the attacks, perhaps this is the most limiting to the attacker, because the defender can forecast his moves based upon targets likely available to the opponent. This attack is also more favored by inexperienced fighters. Skilled attackers steer away from it as a lead because of the limited targets available, the difficulty in hitting the targets, and because of the "give away" nature of the movement. Lastly, the nature of the downward ice pick attack lends itself to defense by positioning and evasion, as well as defense by attacking sensitive areas of the attacker's body outside the immediate trajectory of the knife.

The Outside In Slash/Stab

This compares to the three quarter sidearm motion of someone pitching a baseball, and if this is the only attack tendered by an opponent, it too would be an indication he lacks experience. Fortunately, this type of motion also opens up many vital areas for the defender. Because many of the responses to the downward stabbing motion are equally effective against this particular motion, I have avoided duplicating those techniques and have a few particularly on point to this particular attack.

The Inside Out Stab/Slash

This motion is a little too complex to be effective as a lead in attack, but for the skilled attacker, it is lethal as an add-on movement to other attacks. The targets are the exposed neck, the spleen and liver, as well as the spinal column, the kidneys, and the other vital organs.

In summary, there are numerous knife wielding positions, and equally numerous lead ins and attacks. An advanced knife fighter will be virtually impossible to defend against, no matter how skilled you are in empty hand knife fighting. A complete novice, who stumbles onto proper positioning and knife holding posture, will have a greater than even chance of winning the encounter, and at the very least, is likely to cause a serious wound. Before presenting the following techniques, I stress that a knife, in the hands of a skilled opponent, virtually assures victory to the attacker, no matter how confident you are in your defense.  Any decision to engage someone wielding a knife must be made with the presumption  the person may be skilled in its use, and a decision to defend is made with the expectation death may ensue.

Video Overview
(Basic Techniques Frame by Frame)


Video Overview #2
(Basic Techniques Demonstrated)


Video Overview #3
(Basic Techniques Demonstrated)


Video Overview #4
(Basic Techniques Demonstrated)


Video Overview #3
(Two Attackers Demonstrated)


The Techniques

Defending with Strikes


Defending with Breaks


Defending with Throws


Down Strikes


Reverse Grip Attacks


Strategic Concepts


The Uncommon



These several techniques are interchangeable to some extent, and likewise, can be applied in combinations. The only way to master knife fighting is to practice. There are many more techniques that are relevant to knife fighting, to include numerous responses wherein the attacker is thrown. Maybe those techniques not covered here will motivate a future article on the fine points of knife defense. The techniques selected for this presentation were chosen for their effectiveness and/or their technical content. For example, several of the pressure point counters are good fighting tactics regardless of whether the attacker is armed.

Master these techniques by practicing with a fellow student and using a PRACTICE knife! Never take unnecessary risks with another human being. Develop a sense of how to keep your vital targets covered at all times. Make each counter meaningful. Remember, on the street, your life can depend on it. When your responses start smoothing out, have the attacker come from the opposite side, and then learn to integrate the responses into your overall fighting arsenal by freestyle practice, which increases in tempo as skill in the responses increases.

Of course, as I stated in the introduction, you can practice these a long time, and became quite adept, with no guarantee of success in an actual attack situation. There are simply too many variables or "unknowns" that surface when facing the armed opponent. Today we may have partially eliminated the variable of inadequate knowledge. Though I can't eliminate all the elements of uncertainty, I can at least offer my heartfelt wishes for "best of luck" should you ever face the opponent armed with a knife.

[Home] [About Us ] [Archie] [Concepts] [Contact Us] [Gun Fu Manual] [Kata]
Philosophy] [Sticks] [Stories] [Web Store] [Terms of Use] [Video]

Copyright 2000-2024, Mc Cabe and Associates, Tacoma, WA.  All rights reserved.  No part of this site can be used, published, copied or sold for any purpose, except as per Terms of Use .