Emerson Combatives: Anatomy Of A Knife Fight

Ernest Emerson | Contributor

Can you really defend yourself against a knife attack?

Can you survive a knife attack?

The only honest answer I can give you is – maybe. I wish I could give you the three magical techniques that work first time, every time. Unfortunately it is not possible in real life and anyone who tells you otherwise is either lying or is Superman.

However, there are things, plenty of things that you can do to #1 increase your chances of survival and #2 lessen your chances for severe injury.

You can use these principles or concepts if you are a beginner with little training, or an expert with years of training, and they do not need constant practice to be used effectively.

First off, let me say this. Practice is one thing, and training is another thing. But the brutal reality of a true deadly attack is something altogether different.

I am going to outline three basic scenarios of how knife attacks generally occur, so that you can see that they are quite different than what most people train for.

1) The Surprise Attack

This is the most vicious and deadly attack that exists. It is exactly what it is called, a surprise, an ambush if you will, even if you have a full view of the opponent from the beginning. This attack is for murder and the bad guy already has decided that he is going to kill you. He could be in front of you or he could come from behind. This is absolutely the hardest attack to prepare for or defend against, since the bad guy can usually get in 3 or 4 strikes before you even know it’s happening — and he’s usually striking for a vital target, the neck or chest area. This is the type of attack where the victim exhibits the common defensive wounds to the hands and arms from trying to block the strikes.

2) The Escalation Attack

You are confronted by an individual, maybe one, maybe more. They’re giving you a hard time, hassling you. Alcohol may be involved. A fight starts. You trade punches with the guy. He grabs you, you go down, you’re rolling around on the floor, and the guy’s punching you in the ribs.  Suddenly your left side goes weak. (The most common statement from the victim after this type of attack is “I never even knew he had a knife. I thought he was just punching me.”) and you can’t catch your breath. You let go, he jumps up and runs away. When the paramedics get there you’ve got nine puncture wounds to the ribs on your left side. It didn’t start as a knife attack, but it turned into one.

Never underestimate the opponent.

You didn’t even know he had a knife until he pulled one out of his pocket while you were rolling around on the ground. In this case, although the bad guy produced a knife, he did not start out intending to kill you. Many times in this type of attack it is just a matter of inches and maybe just dumb luck that you’re not dead.

3) The Opportunity Attack

You are alone. You are approached in the parking lot. The bad guy brandishes a knife and demands your wallet. You hesitate as if you don’t want to give it up and he lunges forward with a strike. This attack was not premeditated or planned; the knife was more of a threat than intended as a weapon. However, because of the dynamics of the event it turned into an attack scenario. The attack is not usually delivered with the intent to kill but rather to wound or harm you. But because the knife is a deadly weapon, it is deadly game of chance, and the chance that you could suffer a mortal wound is high.

If these are the three most common and most likely attacks that you’ll ever encounter, then how do you train to prepare for them and what are the best defensive / offensive tactics to employ?

If you are currently training in the way most edged weapons programs are taught, you are squared off, drilling and sparring with your partner using a knife against each other.

Please notice that in each of the three attack scenarios above, the good guy never had a knife in his hand.

It’s all well and good to practice knife sparring. It develops timing, range, and footwork, but it’s just not real. I’ve trained several thousand military and law enforcement personnel and hundreds of civilians and I have never, not once, had a student who had been in a knife against knife confrontation.

I’ve had plenty who were in confrontations or in actual combat where a knife was used, but out of these several thousand individuals I’ve only had 3 who were the people with the knife in their hands.

What does this say about the training methods you should be using? Well, the biggest thing it says is that you’d better be training in how to defend and counter a knife attack while you are unarmed. All of the “knife fighting” that you’ve been practicing for so long is likely never to be used. In reality, knife fights do not exist. No matter what your instructor says or your system teaches, it just ain’t so. Sometimes there is a wide gap between what is being taught inside the walls of a martial arts school and what’s really going on out in the streets (or for that matter, the jungles and the deserts).

Attack #1 – The Surprise Attack

This is the bad one and I wish I had a simple solution. Everyone has always heard, “If you’re in a knife fight prepare to get cut.” Well in this case, prepare to get hammered.

You are going to get hit 3 or 4 maybe even 5 times before you even realize what’s happening to you. It doesn’t matter how good your reflexes are or your training is, in a real surprise attack it takes you time to process, figure out and respond and as short a time as that may be, an average person (untrained) can usually get in 5 shots unopposed. You’ll never see the knife and you won’t know the attack is coming.

Fortunately, there are some things that will happen, that are in your favor. Notice that I used the word respond above and not the word react.

Respond means that you receive a stimulus, analyze it, and consciously decide or choose an action in reply, the response. What’s really going to happen is that your body is going to react. A reaction is a non-thinking action caused by stimulus. Touch a hot stove, your hand jerks back. The signal doesn’t even reach the brain; it just hits the lower spine and back. This type of attack, any attack, will trigger the startle response.

I will describe the physical aspects of this response. The legs will flex (bend) slightly. The abdominal muscles will contract. The shoulders will hunch up (shrug) and the elbows will be drawn in. The arms will raise and the hands will splay and come up to a position so the fingers are at about eye level. This reaction, this startle reflex, is the beginning of the fight or flight mechanism and as you can see it is designed to protect the vital areas of the body, (organs, neck and eyes) while preparing you to move quickly.

You can further develop this reaction so that it becomes even more effective by following some simple drills I will describe later. You can actually develop this mechanism to the point where it becomes a strong responsive fighting stance, right out of the gate. If you’ve ever been around guys who were in combat, the old story about having to wake them up from a distance is absolutely true. It’s part of staying alive. This startle response produces what we call the Universal Fighting Stance.

Let me describe a common defensive scenario that I teach. As the attack is initiated, you react (the startle response) by getting your hands up as quickly as possible to protect the vitals. At that point the best possible thing that you can do is go to the ground. Fall, jump, roll, it does not matter. If you stand there trying to formulate some type of defense, you are going to die. The other thing this does is introduce something unexpected. The bad guy now has to react to you, not you to him.

Now he has to make a decision on what to do. This buys you time and creates some type of distance. Once you are on the ground you can actually mount a fairly solid defense and it is much harder to attack you. Believe me; his first choice is not going to be to leap on top of you. Use your feet, use obstacles, throw things, whatever presents itself, and make use of it. 

Drill #1

Practice startling or jumping into the startle response from a completely relaxed position and then throw 2 to 3 strikes out of this stance as hard and as fast as possible. Do this 15-25 times every day. You’ll be amazed what starts to happen the next time someone tries to scare you or when you are genuinely startled. 

Drill #2

With protective gear on the bad guy, close your eyes and have your training partner move around you quietly and have him scream or yell as he initiates an attack against you. Have him start from just out of arms reach, 3-4 feet. He can punch you with boxing gloves, he can grab you or he can start striking you with a rubber knife. Don’t think. Just react spontaneously, get those hands up, throw a couple strikes and then hit the deck and defend from the floor. As you advance in this training, start to draw your own knife (training knife) once you are on the ground and attack each time he tries to reach in. 

It is important that you always have the attacker initiate his attack with a shout or yell as this tends to help activate the startle response.

Attack #2 – The Escalation Attack

This one is also tough to specifically prepare for since it’s not completely a surprise.

It’s not evident at the beginning that a knife is going to be involved. First let me say this, and it is probably the most important advice I could ever give you: Assume that every attack, every fight, every physical confrontation is a deadly threat and that you could die as a result. You don’t know what is in the mind of the bad guy. What is his intent, how far will he go to beat you, will he stop when you say “Ok, ok, I’ve had enough”?

You have to respond, counter attack, or preemptively strike with overwhelmingly devastating force and with the sole and only goal of destroying the opponent (neutralizing his ability to harm you). By doing so, and employing the principles we are discussing, you will hopefully prevent him from being able to gain access to and deploy his knife against you. Taking away the distance, destroying his balance, injuring him or disabling him with a choke, arm bar, shoulder lock or similar technique will cause him to be reacting to you in a defensive mind set and make it much more difficult for him to bring his knife into play. By employing overwhelming firepower with no let up, the odds of disabling your opponent are much greater in your favor. Do not forget real eye gouging and biting. 

Drill #1

In order to get you to understand just how difficult or easy it is to access a knife, you should start with yourself. Using a training knife or dummy knife (preferably a folder) put the knife where you usually carry it. Have your partner stand in front of you and attack. Try to ward off the attack, counter attack, or take him down while trying to access and open (deploy) your knife. Have your partner put the pressure on. Arm him with boxing gloves or a padded stick and have him really attack. From your point of view, this drill is good to get you to defend or counter the attack first, and then get the opportunity to access your knife. If you immediately begin trying just to get your knife out, you’re going to get hammered while trying to do so.

Drill #2 – Introductory Knife Grappling

Have your partner lie on his stomach on the floor with a knife in his pocket, mount him crossways, 90 degrees to him. On a “GO” command, he will try to access and deploy his knife. You try to prevent it. Use any technique, chokes, locks, strikes that you can to stop him. Try several different starting positions, him on his back, or you on the bottom in various positions. Be sure to reverse who has the knife, so you can see how it feels and what you should be aware of, both in trying to prevent the bad guy from getting his weapon and in you’re succeeding to get to your own knife. Be creative.

Drill #3 – Knife Grappling

In this drill, start on your knees facing your partner on the mat. On a “GO” command, begin normal grappling and then on a second command, get your knife. Have both of you try to get to your knives while preventing your opponent from getting his knife. The first few times, the grappling will stop and it will be a race to see who can get their knife out first. Get over this phase of the training, and maintain your grappling composure without the knife race. You still have to fight the guy. I’ve trained with Royce Gracie and I’ve seen him remove and choke guys out with their own belt while never giving up an opening.

The key to the learning process of these drills is to learn both what you need to do to get to your own knife and what to do to prevent your opponent from getting to his knife should he have one.

Note: It would be wise to assume that every single person you encounter is carrying a knife. Remember when you run into a confrontation it’s not usually at a church social, and any guy who’s willing to fight has a knife of some type in his pocket.

Every bad guy carries an edged weapon.

Attack #3 – The opportunity attack

This is an attack that you have the best chance of defending against. Note: No knife attack is easy to defend against and no scenario regarding a knife should ever be taken lightly. The probability of getting cut is so high any time an edged weapon is used that there have been times when defenders (good guys) have cut themselves severely, sometimes fatally with their own knife.

In this attack, you know you’re in immediate attack threat condition and you know he has a knife because you can see it. First, I’m going to eliminate the obvious. If you can get away, get away. Let’s say you can’t. For example, your wife and 4-year-old are standing next to you. Now, at the risk of escalating the situation you should already be prepared. For example, while maintaining complete eye contact on the bad guy you should be using your hands in slightly raised “calm down” position so that they do not appear to pose a threat but are very close to the ready (guard) position. You could already be talking calmly, to occupy the bad guy’s attention verbally.

For example, “Hey man, you want my wallet, you can have it. Honey, give me your purse and take Jennifer around the car.”

In any situation like this you must maintain as much control as you can. By verbally assuring the bad guy he’s getting what he wants, you insert the direction to your wife. By not addressing her to move out of the way, but by using the child’s name, it does not appear that you are moving the adult, just the child. It does not appear that he is losing control.

The moment the strike comes you are in as ready a position as you can be. As I’ve already said, training and sparring, even full contact, is one thing, and a real life or death struggle is completely different. Martial arts philosophers and teachers can debate their views on ranges, zones, long range vs. short range circular, circular vs. linear, etc. all they want.

In reality, all combat based fighting systems and military training are based on 4 basic strategies; Parry, Stun, Takedown and Finish. It doesn’t matter whether the opponent has a weapon or not. There’s one thing there that never seems to be addressed; you attack me with a knife, that’s a deadly weapon–I’m going to kill you. I’m not going to fight you. I’m not going to duel you. I’m not going to be dancing in and out like I’m in a fencing match.

Think about a boxing match. You have two trained individuals, skilled in both offense and defense, throwing about 100 punches each in a 3 minute round. Let’s just say each guy connects with about 30 punches. It’s easy to see that a professional boxer, as skilled as he is, with years of training and hundreds if not thousands of hours sparring in the ring cannot stop the other guy from hitting him. Unless one of the boxers uses the only effective technique to stop the fight – The Clinch. It’s exactly the same in a “knife fight.” Just think of what it would be like if every one of those punches had a 4 inch piece of sharpened steel on the end of it. So as you can see, you cannot engage in a knife fight. You fight–you lose–you die. In theory it’s very easy. In reality it is extremely difficult.

You have to react, close the gap, take him down and finish him.

Ernest Emerson is the owner of Emerson Knives, Inc. He is a tier one Combatives instructor, Master at Arms, noted author and lecturer, Black Belt Hall of Fame member and a connoisseur of fine whiskey.

Click here to visit EmersonKnives.com. Mr. Emerson offers a 10% discount on his knives to Daily Caller readers. Use the discount code – tdc (all lower case). Click here to visit the Emerson Training Center.

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