SHARPEN YOUR PERSONAL PROTECTION WITH EFFECTIVE UNARMED DEFENSE AGAINST A KNIFE
Knives both fascinate and frighten me. Aside from all the amazing functions they can perform, edged tools are quite deadly. To put it bluntly, blades can ventilate, lacerate, eviscerate, and decapitate.
And those are some pretty big reasons why I have spent the past 25 years continuously studying personal protection and (particularly in the last seven years) edged-weapon defense.
Movies, TV shows, and pop culture have given us a false sense of reality when it comes to bladed attacks. They’re often portrayed as duels, with the hero facing off against a villain who twirls his knife before launching into a beautifully choreographed action scene.
The truth is the vast majority of knifing victims don’t even realize they’re being stabbed; they think they’re being punched.
That’s because criminals and the criminally insane are not trained martial artists. They are two-legged predators who often hide their weapon until the last possible second, search for unsuspecting prey, and pounce as quickly as possible so they don’t get injured or captured.
Having watched real-life knife attacks captured on CCTV and cellphone videos since 2005, I discovered that the majority of knife fights aren’t fights at all—they’re knife ambushes.
And once I teamed up with my cousin Dr. Conrad Bui to form a combatives training company called Tiga Tactics, we traded notes from our combined decades of research to find that we’ve come to the same conclusions about edged-weapon assaults.
KNOWLEDGE IS POWER (AND SURVIVAL)
Out of the hundreds and hundreds (possibly more than a thousand) videos of violent assaults that Conrad and I have reviewed, few of them showed knife duels. Of course, knife-versus-knife fights do happen, but they are not as common as you may think.
“Your retaliation should do as much damage as possible in the shortest amount of time.”
What’s far more common is a thug (who appears to be unarmed) getting within 3 feet—we call it “bad-breath distance”—and either harassing, grabbing or punching another person. Then, in a flash, the criminal will draw his or her hidden blade and stab the victim repeatedly. Over and over. Like a piston.
Generally, the edged weapon will come from the attacker’s right hand toward the victim’s center line or left side. Why? Because about 90% of humans are right-handed, according to an Oxford University study. Why is any of this relevant to empty-hand defense against a knife? Because you can’t formulate a realistic solution unless you have an authentic picture of what the problem is.
Many traditional martial arts, combat sports and even so-called reality-based self-defense systems teach defenses against hypothetical knife assaults. But reality will always beat theory; these counterattacks fall apart once we pressure-test them at full speed and full power against a resistant partner with a training knife.
Heck, even the gun owner’s classic response of “I’ll just shoot ’em” doesn’t necessarily hold water. Sure, maybe you’re a modern-day Doc Holliday and can draw your handgun from concealment and get a few rounds off within two seconds.
But remember, the majority of knife attacks are knife ambushes that happen within 3 feet. At that range, it’s going to be a trade—your shots might kill the knife-wielder instantly, but you might bleed out later from severe stab wounds.
Most bladed ambushes happen so quickly and at such short ranges that protecting yourself must be the priority. That’s why Conrad and I created the Tiga Tactics P.R.O. System—which stands for Protection, Reposition and
PROTECTION IS THE PRIORITY
The most advanced form of knife defense is avoiding the attack altogether. That means living a defensive lifestyle, staying as humble as possible to avoid conflict and maintaining mindfulness to stay aware of potential dangers.
But, let’s say you’ve done all the right things and you’re still unlucky enough to be confronted by a knife-wielding goon. What should you do? “Run!” according to a lot of self-defense experts. Sure, that will work. But what if you’re with your three young kids? Do you expect them to sprint after you? Or maybe you’re stuck in an elevator with the maniac? What then?
As the P.R.O. System implies, the first priority is to protect yourself. How exactly? Well, because we’ve done years of research, we’ve realized that most untrained criminals will attack in predictable ways: If they have a reverse grip, it’ll be the Psycho Stab (named as an homage to the Hitchcock movie “Psycho”), and if they have a forward grip, it’ll be the Sewing Machine (named for the repetitive linear thrusts).
Understanding these natural human instincts dramatically narrows down your defensive responses, which is a good thing. As Hick’s Law tells us, having too many options increases the time it takes to make a decision—which could be fatal in the middle of a knife ambush. So, we essentially have two defensive moves: the Low Shield for the Sewing Machine and the High Shield for the Psycho Stab.
The Low Shield is a modification of an ancient technique, what traditional martial arts would call a low block or a down block. The aim is for the middle of your left forearm bone to intercept the middle of your opponent’s right forearm bone (and vice versa if the attacker is left-handed), thereby stopping the stabbing motion.
It’s modified because we’ve added in the support arm to act as both a secondary block and, more importantly, as a trap. Some martial artists might look at this and say, “That’s just a useless X block.” But the difference is two-fold: 1) Your left forearm is doing most of the blocking, unlike in an X block in which the arms split the duties evenly, and 2) You use footwork to get closer.
That might seem counterintuitive, but every time the attacker draws back to attempt another stab, you must step forward while maintaining the Low Shield. This takes away their power and leverage, because the more they rechamber, the more you trap their arm with forward pressure.
When you’re defending against a Psycho Stab, you essentially do the Low Shield but above your shoulders, hence, High Shield. The concepts are the same though: Block the middle of the bad guy’s forearm bone with the middle of your forearm bone, use your support arm to trap his limb, and use your footwork to take away his balance, strength and leverage.
REPOSITION TO A SAFER SPOT
We want to get past the knife and keep it away from us. That’s where the R in P.R.O. comes into play. It stands for “reposition” or “restrain”—as in, move yourself to a safer spot and hold the bad guy in place.
To do this against the Sewing Machine, you’ll pivot your body as your attacker attempts to thrust forward to get out of your Low Shield trap. This will allow the weapon to go past your body while extending his arm straight.
As you do this, you’ll slide your hands down to his wrist, grabbing it like a knot at the end of a rope. You’ll also want to press your shoulder against his and face the same direction, ensuring that the knife is not pointed at you.
Last but not least, you’ll want to drop your weight as much as possible to disrupt his balance and ability to pull his arm back.
From the High Shield against the Psycho Stab, you’ll rotate your arms until you can slide your hands down to his wrist, again grabbing it like a knot at the end of a rope. This time around, you’ll be facing your opponent, but the blade should be pointed at him, making it a safer spot to be. Next, drop your weight and keep his arm straightened.
Of course, the fight is not over—far from it. That’s why, after you’ve established your new position and restrained the bad guy, if even for a second, it’s time to shift to the last phase.
K.I.S.S. OFFENSE: KEEP IT STRONG AND SIMPLE
Your retaliation should do as much damage as possible in the shortest amount of time. So, we keep our offensive tools as simple and powerful as possible.
The first strike really isn’t a strike at all but rather just a move. It’s called the Eye Wash, and it’s not to be confused with an eye jab or an eye gouge.
The difference is that the Eye Wash is not a linear strike like the eye jab, or a squeezing or hooking motion like the eye gouge. You simply extend your loose hand as if you’re holding a wash cloth or softball and jam whatever fingers you can into the eyes.
The advantage of the Eye Wash is that you’re unlikely to damage your fingers yet you can easily control the head, allowing you to follow up with more devastating attacks, such as the Palm Strike.
I advocate for the Palm Strike over a punch because the former delivers just as much knockout power as the latter, but you won’t risk breaking your hand. And the last thing you want to do in a knife fight is lose the use of a primary tool.
Another fantastic counteroffensive is the elbow strike and its variations, including horizontal, vertical and reverse. The elbow strike is my favorite empty-hand weapon because it delivers tremendous power but it’s almost impossible to hurt yourself when using it.
And much like its upper-body counterpart, the knee strike can also do some serious damage to a bad guy. It can crush testicles, break ribs and of course knock people unconscious. Simply put, it’s a fight-ender.
As you might have noticed, I didn’t discuss knife disarms at all. That’s because attempting to take away a blade from a violent criminal intent on taking your life is a fool’s errand.
Many martial arts teach disarms as the primary defense against an edged-weapon attack, but those only work in the dojo because they require a compliant partner. On the streets, a murderer is not going to freeze to let you do a fancy technique.
Disarms do work … but only after you’ve tenderized the attacker with multiple, painful strikes. That’s why you should first protect yourself, reposition to a safer spot and restrain the bad guy, and then fire a violent counteroffensive until they release the weapon or are immobilized or unconscious—at which point disarming him becomes much easier to do.
Ultimately, carrying a knife without thinking about the consequences of what a blade can do to your body is kind of like driving a convertible with the top down and without a seatbelt: The chances of an incident are low, but if it does happen, it’ll probably be devastating (and potentially fatal).
So, the more you acknowledge the dangers of a blade and study what knife attacks are most common, the more effective you’ll be at knowing how to survive and, ultimately, stopping a deadly edged-weapon ambush.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
A frequent contributor to Knives Illustrated, Patrick Vuong is a lifelong “knife knut” whose first edged tool was a Swiss Army Knife given to him as a gift when he was 8 years old. He’s a certified handgun instructor as well as a teacher of several self-defense systems, including the blade art of Pekiti-Tirsia Kali.
Moreover, Vuong is also the co-founder of Tiga Tactics, a combatives training company. To learn more about effective edged-weapon training, go to KnifeDefenseTraining.com.
A version of this article first appeared in the March/April 2023 print issue of Knives Illustrated Buyer’s Guide.