The Winning Edge: Improving Knife Defense Training

Incorporate as many variables as safely possible in your edged weapon training and you will see that some techniques and concepts hold strong, while others fall apart.

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If you’ve ever trained with edged weapons, be it in martial arts, law enforcement, military, or other fields, you’ve likely been exposed to questionable knife defense techniques and theories. Some courses will have you convinced you could disarm Bruce Lee by the end of the class. Others leave you struggling to recall just one technique after a day or two has passed.

How is it we have such a plethora of expert instructors on this topic, and so few of them align on tactics? More importantly, how do we know which training to trust out on the streets? What we can do is ask what training will be as effective as possible in a real-life encounter.

The first question is, if we feel good about the training is that an indicator of quality or effectiveness? Not necessarily. In their book “Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning,” authors Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III, and Mark A. McDaniel demonstrate with evidence and research that even though you may feel as though you learned something successfully, the training may have been inadequate, or you may not recall it long term.

Applying this to edged weapon defense training for law enforcement,  we can say if an officer spends an 8-hour day of massed practice, simply blocking a midline stab to the abdomen by the end of the day that officer will be able to flawlessly execute that technique. That officer will feel good about the training. They might even strut around believing the training has made them capable of countering any knife attack. However, if that same officer spent two four-hour sessions working on varied angles of attacks, that same officer might believe this training was inferior because it fills the officers with doubt about his or her ability to counter a knife attack. But should that officer face a real-life knife attack, the varied practice will be more valuable than the single angle of attack training. The varied training has created more mental mapping to pull from to deal with an unknown encounter.

The authors of ““Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning,” write: “Like interleaving, varied practice helps learners build a broad schema, an ability to assess changing conditions and adjust responses to fit.”


Narrowing the scope and purpose of what you’re training for is critical. Are you wanting to learn unarmed defense against a knife? Tactics to progress from unarmed to your duty weapon? Knife on knife defense?

While some concepts will cross over, it’s important to understand what your intended goals are. Edged weapon tactics are all essentially derived from martial arts. Some instructors have received their training directly via a martial art, others from military, law enforcement, or other sources, which were derived from martial arts and adapted specifically for their profession.  Then there are those 8-hour, 16-hour, or 40-hour training blocks that certify one as an instructor. Often, each instructor will begin to add their own twist to their training, maybe based on something they think seems good, worked good on the mats, or something they saw on TV or on YouTube. The result is 101 ways to get stabbed, I mean, defend against a knife…hopefully.


So, how do we filter out the good from the bad? One way to identify effective training is to stress test it. To do so, incorporate as many variables as safely possible in your training and you will see that some techniques/concepts hold strong, while others fall apart. These variables include stress, distractions, obstacles, unknowns, and movement (no fight is stationary) yet a lot of defensive tactics trainings is.

When adding variables to training, make sure the variables are as proportionate as possible. For example, let’s discuss speed using a scale of zero to 10, with 10 being fastest. To learn a new physical skill, we may start at a slow level like 1 or 2 or 2 or 3. With improvement, we speed the drills up. So, where does this go wrong? When the speed of the attacker is a slow 2 or 3 and the speed of the defender is disproportionately faster at a 7 or 8, the gained experience is unrealistic, and likely not even humanly possible. Slow practice is necessary but needs to be well regulated.

There’s a YouTube video where a martial artist defends against a knife attack, blocks the stab, side steps, delivers three kicks to the head, two punches, a foot stomp, and a hip throw for the finish. The attacker either never moved after the initial stab or moved at turtle speed while the defender went full throttle. This display may look cool but doesn’t reflect the speed in which physical altercations unfold.

Unfortunately, I’ve experienced disproportionate training at law enforcement training conferences. More alarming, at the end of the course, most of the participants expressed how they loved the course and felt like they had a handle on edged weapons defense.


Adding variables can result in better edged weapon defense instruction, but there are other options. Thanks to Force Science Institute (FSI), we can apply research and data to our training and tactics to further improve them.

First, let’s look at how quickly some basic knife attacks take to execute. Based on FSI edged weapons research, at arm’s length a knife thrust can be completed in 0.10 seconds, a pick style attack in 0.18 seconds, a palmed blade in 0.23 seconds, and a butterfly in 0.33 seconds. In the clearest setting, when you know an action is going to occur, it takes about 0.25 seconds to perceive and start a response to visual stimuli. Add in factors such as a startle-flinch response, shifts in attention or focus, and those times can double or quadruple quite easily. For more perspective, a blink of the eye is around 0.33 seconds. What does this mean? At arm’s length, if you missed context cues and/or pre-attack indicators, common knife attacks moves can be completed before you can even observe and start your response to them. In any ambush, but especially in close-quarter ambushes, situational awareness must be your first line of defense. Not merely just keeping your eyes peeled, but observing with intent, and understanding what to look for.


Hick’s Law tells us that by reducing our number of choices, we reduce the time it takes to make a decision. With the above data in mind, what can we begin to eliminate in training to help simplify our decision-making process?

Let’s start with directions of movement. Again, if these attacks can occur faster than observations can be made and faster than responses can be initiated at this distance, the last thing we want to do is step forward. Let me clarify, I’m not talking about sparring, dueling, or other fights where you already see the knife and the angle of attack based on other body movements. This conversation is specific to a rapid knife pull and attack in an ambush fashion. So, stepping forward with any sequence of defenses as an initial response is thereby off the table.

We can clean our defensive strategy up a bit more using additional data from Force Science Institute’s Sprint Start Study. Most of us understand you can’t move backward faster than someone else can move forward, but let’s put some numbers down to help solidify this. In six strides backward, you only cover approximately 14.94 feet in 1.56 seconds. In six strides forward, you can cover approximately 25.72 feet in 1.67 seconds. The average person can cover nearly two-thirds more distance forward as the average person moving backward in the same allotted time. It’s also important to note that these times are slower when adding duty boots and duty equipment into the equation. Additionally, if you review video footage of anyone attempting to retreat backward in response to a threat, often the person becomes a victim of gravity and ends up on their butt.

So, how do lateral steps fair in comparison to forward movement? Almost identical out to the sixth stride. The average person can move 24.98 feet in six left strides, in 1.64 seconds, and 24.98 feet in six right strides, in 1.65 seconds. Moving left and right in a rapidly unfolding situation is almost exactly as fast as moving forward. It also gets you off the “X,” perhaps allowing you to step off the attacker’s radar, as attackers can experience tunnel vision as well. In addition it slows the attacker’s movement toward you, as it forces an angle change to reacquire you. And with the initial step laterally, you are still in range to observe what’s taking place and decide whether to physically re-engage the attacker or continue moving away.

You can apply this science as a filter to your curriculum or use it to measure the quality of the training you’re receiving. To help solidify your understanding of the above data, use a cell phone or other recording device with slow motion playback and run some tests; have someone record while an attacker employs these knife attacks against you, at arm’s length. Once you witness firsthand the action vs. reaction delay with slow motion playback, you’ll better understand what these times mean. The information within this article can be applied broadly to defensive tactics training and is not just limited to knife tactics.

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