Of all types of violent attacks, knife attacks are some of the most ubiquitous. In Britain alone, the year 2007 saw 277 fatal knife attacks recorded by the Police and the number of injuries is just staggering. We propose to address the key elements that make up a knife attack and the requirements to be considered for a simple and effective defense against it. In turn, we will explore the physical and psychological conditions in which the attacker and the target are when put in this type of situation, and we will end on some considerations for further study.

While being practitioners of several martial disciplines (Aikido, Krav-Maga, Self-defense), the authors do not claim the status of experts, the analysis that follows is only one way to do among many other systems. However, we tried to keep track of most interesting answers for practitioners of Aikido. The goal here is not to teach a technique, but to open axis of study, even though some responses detailed herein will be detailed on a practical level.

As a preamble it is interesting to note that there are three major types of possible attacks with knives:

  1. The threat without contact between the weapon of the aggressor and a body part of the victim.
  2. The threat with the weapon as a direct contact between the aggressor and the victim. This is usually accompanied by a grab or restrain.
  3. The actual attack, that is to say the decision of the aggressor to puncture or cut the target with his weapon. We could subdivide the latter type of aggression in two categories:
a. the attack preceded by an initial threat
b. predetermined attack without warning

      It should be noted that the first two cases are fortunately the most common although they are only rarely addressed in traditional martial arts.

      Before discussing the description of the response that seems most appropriate to each of these three types of aggression, it seems important to bear in mind some physiological, psychological and empirical facts

      • Very few people can do two things at once. I cannot answer a question and make the decision to cut the throat of the person I am threatening.
      • The perpetrator is in a mentally dominant position and the victim in a position to be dominated. During a threat, robbery or a racket, the dominant is quickly subjected to a loss of vigilance, particularly if the dominated party amplifies his role as a dominated.
      • A person who threatens you or attacks you with knives will focus on his weapon and will only rarely use his other natural weapons.
      • The particular way to hold a knife authorizes certain movements but also makes others either impossible or at least impractical. For example, if I hold a razor blade, I will hold it so as to slice, I cannot stab and if I hold my knife with the blade facing downwards, I won't be able to cut.
      • The majority of knife attacks are not fatal. It might be reassuring but when put into context with the statistics given above; this is really worrying as to the actual number of knife attacks per year. Some sources cite over one knife attack every 4 minutes in the UK alone.
      • It is now quite rare that an assault (armed or not) occur on a one against one basis. The surrounding population and location of the attack are factors not to be overlooked under any circumstances.
      • Statistically, 80% of knife attacks target the chest.

      Facing a threat from a long distance

      The fact that a person threatens you from a distance of one arm length can often be indicative of a lack of confidence and a deep stress. It is not a good sign however as the less the attacker is dominant, the more he will be unpredictable and impulsive, and therefore dangerous. It is therefore important to judge who you are dealing with. If the abuser is experienced in stabbing, knife waving motions will be absent because he will keep his weapon under the strictest control. An expert with a knife generally keeps the weapon close to his body, leaving the ends of its members away from a potential entry or scope of any other weapon. He will also preferably target a part of the opponent's body which is not protected by bones, in which the blade can penetrate more easily, focusing for example the bowels below the ribcage.

      What we seek when looking systematically to any phenomenon is reliable models for analysis and prediction. Remember that the main thing about training is that it can allow you to stack the odds slightly in your favor. A model, whether psychological or physical, is applicable only if the body or the brain of the attacker works "normally", that is to say in a rational and therefore predictable manner.

      Faced with an aggressor, it is therefore appropriate to reassure him so that he adopts an attitude of domination. For example you can take a gesture of submission as looking down, putting your hands up (gently), tell him that you will give him what he wants and that you have kids. The interest of this submissive attitude is to lower his level of vigilance and to make him behave more calmly and rationally. It works because the human brain cannot maintain a state of high concentration and alertness for a long time. Like in sports or games, a distraction or a success makes us automatically lower our level of attention. This is also exactly the principle that a magician uses during a trick. The tense moments are the moments where nothing happens except for a dramatization of the scene. The magician performs the slight of hands or "trick" just after one of those moments of tension, during the relaxation phase, when the viewer is not as perceptive (refractory period). Just like what we are trying to accomplish in defense (to consolidate the aggressor's dominant position), a magician is often deliberately clumsy in order to push his audience to underestimate his abilities, and thus lower its degree of attention and suspicion. Again, the magician uses mental techniques to manipulate the public; however, for this to work, the public must be attentive. There is nothing worse for a magician than the presence of people around him who are not really watching what he does, because these people cannot be induced in error as easily as an attentive public, and they will be likely to perceive unintentionally "trick" from the corner of their eye.

      Back on the street, all of this should not take more than 3 or 4 seconds as an external event (noise, presence etc. ...) could quickly switch the assailant in anguish and even push him to the attack in a reflex action. For this reason, experts street fighters fear users of certain drugs because they make them unpredictable and "without limits" (or taboo) in terms of aggression, violence and pattern of aggression compared to a sober person. Even if a person of sound mind normally has these limits, it is however possible that he chooses to set them aside for some time in order to achieve his objective. That is why the gain-motivated crimes are generally less violent crimes because they are perpetrated by an individual whose violence just is a means to an end. We talk about it often as the "code of honor" of some criminals, especially in organized crime.

      Once the attacker is in a stable psychological state, it is important to trigger the action of defense in the most opportune time so as to put as much chance of success and maximize the effect of the action. The bets attitude is generally to ask the offender what he wants. This way, it puts him on the track of his main objective, putting aside the option of attacking. The response should be triggered preferably while he is answering, in the middle of its explanation, in the middle of a sentence, and in the middle of a word. During that time the attacker's brain is too busy formulating an answer to be fully alert.

      It is interesting to note that in general, violence is the last possible means of communication, when every other mean have failed. This is true for individuals when a misunderstanding prevails, but also in politics when all peaceful means of negotiation have been exhausted (war). Here, by forcing the individual to speak, it restores the communication system prior to the violence.

      It may be noted that some instructors encourage the victim to speak and act in the middle of his own formulation. The main interest is to better control the timing without being dependent on the speech of the attacker. One could in that situation probably lead the opponent to some confusion by using speech techniques like Neuro-Linguistic Programming. We mention this interesting approach mainly for information purpose because it seems to us that the exercise is rather difficult to achieve by non-specialists, especially considering the conditions of stress generated by the attack.

      The purely technical aspect of a response to a knife attack is divided into three general phases: 1. deviation of the weapon, 2. simultaneous strikes, and 3. grab (photos 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5). Control is possible, however, keep in mind that another attacker may be present. The finishing lock is not there to control, but to destroy the aggressor's means to harm. The aggressor should of course never be allowed the access to his weapon even if he is KO. It should be noted that in the type of threat that we are going to describe, the holding of the weapon is classic that is to say, the threatening part (tip of the blade) is extended toward the target.

      Defense against knife attack 01 Defense against knife attack 02
      photo 1 photo 2
      Defense against knife attack 03 Defense against knife attack 04
      photo 3 photo 4
      Defense against knife attack 05
      photo 5

      Facing a threat from a short distance

      In contrast to the type of threat mentioned above, a person who threatens you from a short is displaying a certain confidence. Therefore, he is probably already in a state of mind rather dominant and chances are that he probably has some experience in this type of aggression. The threat may be apply from the front (with or without seizure), and more rarely from the back. The contact with the weapon is usually on the neck, abdomen, or towards the kidneys if the blade is in the back. Of course, this induces an extremely important stress for the target, especially if it is adjacent to a wall, which deprives it of a number of possibilities of escape such as simple techniques of dodge.

      This overwhelming feeling of helplessness has to be controlled and it is precisely an assiduous training which will allow getting over it through the repetition of these types of situations in training. The plot remains substantially similar to the management of the long range threat described earlier. However, the idea of appearing as dominated is less crucial than in the previous situation because the opponent is already in a confident state of mind. His position still must still strengthen this position before you start making the opponent speak while you act as before in the middle of its formulation (Photos 6, 7, 8, 9, and 10).

      Defense against knife attack 09 Defense against knife attack 10
      photo 6 photo 7
      Defense against knife attack 11 Defense against knife attack 12
      photo 8 photo 9
      Defense against knife attack 13
      photo 10

      Dealing with an actual attack

      Here we are at the time when the decision to attack has just been made by the opponent. We have previously seen that the holding of the weapon and the type of weapon used are indicative of the level of the attacker. One can add that if the attacker holds his knife with the blade pointing down and his thumb on the pommel, or if the blade if facing upwards while the pommel rests in the palm of the hand, this indicates a good knowledge of the handling of knives. He therefore may be one of the very few attackers who are able to use efficiently both a knife and natural weapons (feet, fists, elbows ...). He does not get angry, his eyes are fixed and his pupils dilated: sign that he is determined, attentive but relaxed and able of feints or cons.

      It can be quite sensible, just before the onset of the attack, to distract the opponent with a diversion, for example to throw keys, wallet or mobile phone in his face. This saves a little time and might get you the initiative in the action, which is preferably a grab followed by one or more atemi, before moving to the control (photos 11 and 12). The diversion triggers the attack, we are therefore in the context of a preemptive attack before the attack or "sen no sen" in Budo. It should be noted that this tactic is very effective as it is simple and does not carry intrinsic exaggerated risks.

      Defense against knife attack 19 Defense against knife attack 20
      photo 11 photo 12

      Particularly with an attacker who does not really attacks but waddles and makes feints, it is usually a good idea to go head-on because even if he manages to strike a blow, it will rarely be strong, causing if any only little cutting or piercing. In general, the area targeted by this type of aggressor is not a vital area so the risk is reduced. That being said, we feel that it is important to state that most of the instructors of unarmed combat say: against a knife attack, even if you're doing everything right, you will most likely get cut. We must be aware of this fact. In this case we can proceed as above, that is to say, take the initiative either with the help of a diversion or without preamble. We might opt instead for a mae geri type-kick in order to ensure a greater extension than that of the arm of the assailant.

      The first act of defense must above all be natural. It is essential to study the instinctive movement that we perform naturally when someone gives us a hit unexpectedly. The stress and surprise coming into play; it will be very difficult when the time comes to go against our instincts of primary defense. Speaking generally, our sympathetic nervous system takes over and adrenaline is pumped to our brains, boosting our speed and our reflexes (fight or flight response), but rather dramatically altering our state of consciousness, reducing the complexity of what we can do in terms of fine motor coordination. One should therefore not forget that in such cases we only have access to a small fraction of our potential.

      A simple example: we all have at one time or another been slapped by surprise; the reflex is of course to protect the face, raising his hands. We should therefore work from this and use this reflex to our benefit (photos 13, 14, 15, 16, 17).

      Defense against knife attack 21 Defense against knife attack 22
      photo 13 photo 14
      Defense against knife attack 23 Defense against knife attack 24
      photo 15 photo 16
      Defense against knife attack 25
      photo 17

      It quite interesting and rather funny to try to highlight the reflex movements that are performed in response to different types of attacks. Generally, for everything that happens in the face, hands go up (just like children) and what happens to the abdomen or lower abdomen, they go down! Once this fact is established, we can simply combine the instinctive defense with such techniques as atemi followed by a key strike. The advantage of this approach is that it is based on a technique learned instinctive action, allowing the overall response to be natural and done following the right timing.

      The types of atemi which can be used can vary greatly; however, simplicity and efficiency should be at the heart of the reflection. Without going into details, a key point to remember is that it is essential to give priority to considerations such as to preserve our physical integrity throughout the action. That is why we promote atemi delivered with open hands, allowing strikes and immediate grab, or even a projection all in one motion. Also, phalanges are very fragile so that way, they do not risk to be damaged, which can make face another attacker without being dropped or injured.

      We therefore consider here two forms of attack: one is with the feet, the other with our hands. In this regard, one must keep in mind that there are five main targets of strikes with the hands that are both easily accessible and effective. These areas are the throat, the face (triangle, eyes, nose, chin), the neck (carotid, neck), the abdomen (photos 17, 18, 19), and the solar plexus. As far as foot strikes go, we will consider three key areas: the shins, knees, and again the genitals. High kicks are well known to be suicidal outside sports competitions.

      Defense against knife attack 31 Defense against knife attack 32
      photo 17 photo 18
      Defense against knife attack 33
      photo 19

      It is now necessary to analyze the conditions required to ensure the effectiveness of these two major types of attacks. A good offense with the upper limbs is done with open hands and free of warning signs (the tsuki is banned because of the obvious signal that the clutching of the arm sends). Regarding feet attacks, priority is also given to the absence of signal. Although this is common sense, it requires some training because it is not at all natural. It is actually very complicated to be simple! For both types of attack, it is important to be able to hit in all directions. For example, the abuser is my right to my left, front or behind me and I must be able to hit with open hand to any area.

      It is the limb which is the closest to the attacker that will be used first. So, if I keep a left guard, it is out of the question to strike with the right leg or right hand. The principle of striking is essential before considering control techniques; however, there is one notable exception: that of the junkie. A person under the influence of drugs (even alcohol) has a very strong resistance to blows as well as locks, so efficiency is not necessarily immediate, which is dangerous for us but also for the perpetrator. It happened recently to the doorman in a nightclub who and repeatedly hit his drugged opponent with his elbow (of course a devastating weapon) because he did not find any immediate effect on the first strike. The aggressor died a few hours later. For this specific type of offenders, is it desirable to primarily go for a choke, which alone can enable "a return to calm" of the attacker in the safest conditions possible for both. In this case, striking is then just a tool of destabilization to move to strangulation.

      The guard position must be assumed only in the cases where the attack is imminent or if we have already faced one aggressor and more are coming into play. This brings us to the problem of a group of attackers. We must cope with all directions of attack whether we are in a right or left guard, the same entry technique must be possible to apply efficiently. Unfortunately, faced with several attackers, the element of surprise cannot reasonably be used indefinitely, even if it can be assumed that the transition of their situation from dominant to dominated, and the transformation of their victim from a lamb to a wolf can make them think twice before continuing! It is therefore the perfect opportunity to escape. Sometimes there's nothing else to do. The best martial technique is running fast. In the case of a grouped assault, in addition to the answer given above, it is possible to adopt the technique of human shield such as the one used in Aikido randori. This technique, after answering the first threat or attack, aims at "hijacking" one of the attackers to protect ourselves from the rest. This application requires specific training that we will not develop here since it is technically quite complicated, it deserves a separate article.

      Finally, it is very important to keep in mind the principle of "equalizer". If you have the opportunity to bring an umbrella, a cane or a bottle to cope with an attack, you should not do without! That's what did Master Gozo Shioda in 1941 while in a gambling den; he used a broken bottle to cope with several belligerents.

      Also, do not forget that it is entirely appropriate to recover the weapon of the aggressor for use on potential associates. In this regard, an interesting exercise in the case of attack knife against knife is to slice the inside of the wrist of the opponent (or any other end) during his attack, rather than trying to get "inside" such as what is recommended in the defense with bare hands. The rationale is that the shock induced by considerable blood loss due to a cut in that area will put the opponent out of action pretty quickly. This approach is particularly suitable when the attacker makes waving motions with his weapon.


      The subject of dealing with a knife attack is large, and a comprehensive understanding of the principles cited above is important, but it will never replace the practice and the repetition of gestures. In addition to this technical work, the scenario proposed by Aikido randori is worth experimenting upon as it guarantees a significant result. In this, the training in Aikido can be highly instructive for the principles that we discussed since Aikido practice is often well adapted to these situations thanks to the notions of Irimi, deflection of the force, peripheral sight etc. Of course, the "traditional" training may seem quite remote from the situations described in this article but like everything else, Aikido has to change and adapt to the types of situations that we may face. What was the standard in terms of violence 30 years ago is now very different. The training and techniques should be flexible and adaptable. This requires a great deal of thought and creativity to break the yoke of conformity imposed by our beliefs, our code, our systems and styles.

      Tori: Bruce Dugardin; Uke: Didier Mounier; Photos: Jean Philippe Mohimont

      About the author
      Bruce Dugardin
      Author: Bruce Dugardin

      Tagged under: self-defense efficacy knife
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