Knife Self Defense – It aint gotta be pretty

I’m not confident in my ability to defend myself against a knife. I’m not.  Knives are small, quick, furious weapons that can shred you up in a heartbeat. Worst of all, a knife is formidable even in the hands of an unskilled attacker.

If you’ve never seen a knife attack at full speed (or even if you have), check out the following video. The weird guy in the ski mask sees it coming, and still winds up in an unpleasant situation:

That’s against some average dude with a fairly even keeled disposition. Imagine if you encountered someone who is good with a blade. Like this individual:

The credit card trick is interesting, but it’s his knife speed that is both impressive and frightening (note: I found this video initially at Low Tech Combat).

A couple of years ago, my gut reaction was to ignore these kinds of videos because they were simply too intimidating. It’s difficult to imagine a successful defense against such deadly assaults. I told myself that I would ‘deal with it later’, or that my basic scenario knowledge was enough to get me by. Eventually I realized though that I would have to take knife self defense extremely seriously or I might as well not even study martial arts for combat purposes.

So now that you scared us Matt, how about some solutions!?

Don’t worry, this isn’t all scare tactics (I promise). I’ve found some great concepts that I think maximize a citizen’s potential for self defense. The truth is, defense against a knife is rarely pretty and clean; but perhaps by adopting some good practices we can increase the odds of survival.

Mind, Then Matter

Before I dive into videos or techniques, I need to harp on something quick. The mind is the greatest tool for avoiding knife conflict (or conflict in general). Using good judgment and maintaining a constant vigil for bad situations can be the best defense against assault. Furthermore, keeping escape as our #1 priority can increase our chances of survival, even if things do move to a fight.

But, assuming a situation does escalate to conflict, we need to investigate defensive concepts.


One of my absolute favorite knife self defense concepts comes from Krav Maga. Now, I know what you’re thinking: “is this traditional karate guy hyping up Israeli military tactics? Where’s the Samurai s*** Mr. Ikigai?”

It’s true, I really like Krav Maga’s knife work. Krav has achieved a level of effectiveness born from sheer practicality and necessity (as most good techniques do). The Israelis really need to know how to take down a knife attacker, so they worked on it and created, amongst other things, bursting.

What is bursting exactly? I’ll let Human Weapon explain:

The critical concept here is that the block and strike occur simultaneously. There is no room for error. If the block comes even a moment before the strike, the attacker can recoil and stab again. *Remember how quick the knifer in the first video struck the man in the ski mask.*

Furthermore, trying to control the knife arm/wrist without first striking your opponent makes for a lesson in futility. The knife is coming in at unusual angles and is thrusting and recoiling at a remarkable pace, even for attackers with average speed. Getting a grip on the knife wrist can be like trying to catch a wasp with your bare hand – you end up missing or getting stung.

The ‘burst’ allows for broad safety moves (like blocking into the forearm) while delivering a punishing blow to vital areas.

When Natural Reaction Kicks In

Bursting is a great tactic, but sometimes we are taken by surprise and don’t have the chance to mount a balanced, effective burst. In that case, our body’s natural instinct is to “get outta the way!”. For situations like that, especially when a stab is coming toward the stomach (like the one that felled our masked hero in the first video), this next video could prove valuable.

When watching this, try to mentally incorporate bursting into the instructor’s explanations. His defense is good, but he could benefit from utilizing lightning quick strikes to the face and vital regions.

A skilled (or just clever) knife wielder will probably stab you before you see it coming. That’s the bad news. The good news is, if your spidey senses are alert the way they should be, you’ll probably see him eyeballing you or giving out a weird vibe. Unless you’re being targeted by a really skilled killer, there will hopefully be a moment’s notice of danger.

Scenario Thinking

Although I’ve mostly discussed general concepts like bursting and reactionary movement, scenario training is still valuable. The caveat is intent. Unfortunately many of us (**raises hand**) spent time discussing the intriguing theory behind scenario defense and not actually trying to perform against a non compliant attacker.

For scenarios, I like this guy’s approach:

A little bit scary right? That’s a good thing. He uses his persona to deter possible attackers. “Maybe i’ll wait for an easier target”, they might think.

Things To Avoid

If it looks pretty, be wary. I know, that’s a totally bogus generalization. Level of expertise is as important as the technique itself. But it’s been my personal experience that highly conceptualized disarms don’t work on an extremely tense and agitated attacker looking to stab you repeatedly.

Some examples of things I don’t see panning out in the ‘real world’ are as follows:

We can readily see severe differences in the behavior of the attacker than what would normally happen with an aggressive, determined knifer. Unfortunately, some of this is trained compliance that can lead to trouble in the long run.

In my own training I’ve tried to integrate good concepts of my core style (karate) with realistic training practices done by other styles. Even still, knife defense concerns me, and will continue to do so for a very long time.

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