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Departments : Officer Survival

Surviving Knife Attacks

Know what to look for and how to react when confronted with a subject wielding an edged weapon.

June 01, 2004  |  by Ernest Emerson

The slashing attack is usually not done with the intent to kill you. Each slash is more or less a single move and usually made when a target is presented, i.e. you reach in to grab someone. While almost defensive in nature, this is still an offensive attack that can kill you just as dead. The stand-off perp or the mentally or emotionally disturbed tend to use a knife in this manner. The attacker who uses this method is often less skilled or “schooled” in the use of a knife as a weapon. This is usually not a surprise attack. Someone planning to use this method often already has the knife in hand as you approach.

Stop the offensive capability of the attacker as soon as possible. By shifting from a defensive to an offensive mode, both mentally and physically, you force the attacker to react to you, not you to him.

The slash and stab is the scenario you hope you never have to face. This attacker is usually the most skilled in the use of an edged weapon, and this is the most dangerous knife attack you could ever face. This attacker is set upon killing you and has both the skill and intent to do so. Individuals in this category could be ex-cons, trained killers, or even ex-military. Fortunately, this type of attacker is also the one you would least likely encounter. There has, however, been recent evidence of organized training among such groups as the Mexican Mafia in various fighting skills that include edged weapons training. This is another ambush/surprise attack situation.

The Defense

The first thing that you must understand about defense against edged weapons is this: Fighting is fighting. There are only so many ways that one human being can strike another human being. The structures of the attacks are basically the same and the appropriate defenses should reflect these similarities.

If someone starts shooting at you, do you try to shoot the firearm out of his hand? No, you try to disable the weapons delivery system—the individual. This is true in all acts of defense.

As a police officer, you are faced with an additional dilemma. You have a deadly weapon and you must keep the bad guy from gaining access to that weapon because it could be used against you.

This brings us to the first rule or principle that comes into play during any attack.

Rules of Attack

Rule 1: Present the least vulnerable target. If you are under fire, you find cover. The same principle applies here. If you are physically attacked, you move, you angle, you put something between you and the attack (in this case, most likely your arms).

After this initial reaction/action you progress to Rule 2.

Rule 2: Stop the offensive capability of the attacker as soon as possible. This is where your actual physical training kicks in. This is where you must turn reaction into action and turn the tables on your assailant. By shifting from a defensive to an offensive mode, both mentally and physically, you force the attacker to react to you, not you to him. The embodiment of this principle alone negates most of his offensive capabilities. This is where your skills and training are used to control the weapons delivery system—either the arm or the individual.

Rule 3: Gain control of the individual. This is the final aspect where your training comes into play. However, this principle can only be applied if you have successfully applied rules 1 and 2. Rule 3 is where you take final control of the attacker. Remember that the best way to control the weapon is to take control of the individual. The best way I ever had it put to me was this: “You have far more to fear from a deadly man than from a deadly weapon.” Never forget this.


Now let’s see how these three rules are actually applied to the attack scenario. For reasons of space I’m going to start directly with the knife attack (the actual strike) and not the details leading to the attack.

The first thing that happens to you is your reaction to the attack. This is also the phase that you have the least control over and it is made up of two parts. The first part is during the initiation of the attack where your mind is simply saying, “What is going on?” Although it lasts only a millisecond, you are basically frozen in time, which provides plenty of opportunity for the attacker to get in one, two, or maybe even three strikes, if you are caught totally off guard.

The second phase is when your protective instincts kick in. This is pure fight or flight mechanism and your conscious mind is still not in control. I call it the startle reflex and it leads to the universal fighting stance. Your arms and hands come up, the knees flex, your stomach tightens, and your shoulders hunch up and in. The next thing that happens is that you start to move, usually backward, away from the danger: the attack.

You can actually practice the above sequence to increase its efficiency. By combining mental imagery with the physical actions I have just described you can decrease the time it takes to go from the “oh, no” phase to the protective universal fighting stance. Simply practice it over and over at an ever-increasing speed. Start from a completely loose and relaxed state and instantly mimic the natural reactions as I have just described. This just might save you one or two strikes from the bad guy.

One of the best ways to take control of a fight is to introduce the unexpected. Having moved backward, I drop to the ground. By doing this, I have taken away the target, presenting something far less vulnerable (my feet), minimizing potential lethal injury. This also allows me the fraction of a second I need to access my weapon.

One thing to bear in mind is that you must take control of the situation as quickly as possible. One of the best ways to do so is to introduce the unexpected. For example, if a knife attack is overwhelming me I can move backward and drop to the ground. By doing this, I have taken away the target, presenting something far less vulnerable (my feet), minimizing potential lethal injury. I control the situation. This also allows me the fraction of a second I need to access my weapon.

For the skeptics: I have never been aware of one single time when a knife-wielding opponent has leapt upon an officer who has used this technique. It completely stops the forward momentum of the attacker and if you bring your weapon to bear, it stops them dead in their tracks.

The reality of the situation is this: I’m not going to tell you what to do. I’m going to tell you what to do with what you end up with.

These are three simple techniques out of the thousands of interactions possible between you and an attacker. It is impossible for even the most dedicated martial artist to learn, know, and remember even a fraction of them. If you get hung up on the techniques you will forget the principles. If you remember the principles the techniques will manifest themselves. It is extremely important to remember this point.

Reality is not like a choreographed movie fight, not like training with a partner. In a real fight you just end up with what you get. Your arms may be up, over, under, around, outside, inside—you may even be on your back. Remember that no matter how you end up tangled with the attacker, the principles apply. Remember the principles and the techniques will appear all on their own.

Click here to view the knife techniques featured in this officer survival article in streaming video.

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