Defending Against Small Edged Weapons

In many cases, the victims of stabbings never knew the knives were in play. Their first indication that something was wrong was when they saw blood. And that's often too late.

Photo: Mike SiegfriedPhoto: Mike Siegfried

Editor's note: View our related photo gallery, "Small Edged Weapons."

Over the past few years, I have trained thousands of cops. One thing I have noticed is that most of them have received little or no training in how to defend against edged weapons. One of the reasons for this could be an over-reliance on the use of firearms. The axiom is true: "Never bring a knife to a gun fight." And training exercises like Dennis Tueller's groundbreaking 21-foot drill reinforce this mindset. But this thinking has critical flaws. What if you don't see the knife? Or what if you do not have time to accurately shoot your firearm before you are cut?

In many cases, the victims of stabbings never knew the knives were in play. Their first indication that something was wrong was when they saw blood. And that's often too late. When adrenaline is flowing, some people don't even realize they have been cut. This is complicated by the fact that small edged weapons are harder to see—especially at night.

Remember, weapons like razor blades can be deadly. It has been widely reported that the 9/11 hijackers used box cutters-basically razor blades with handles-to threaten the passengers on the planes; they are terrifying weapons. I remember one of my knife-fighting instructors saying, "Most cops do not have enough respect for the blade. When a bullet is fired, the bullet decides how big the hole is. When someone cuts you, they decide how big the hole is."

As a police officer, you may now have more reason to take these words to heart. With federal, state, and local budgets getting slashed across the country, many jails and prisons are being forced to release inmates early. Many of the criminals being released have learned to use small edged weapons in prison. In correctional facilities, inmates often attack each other and sometimes custodial staff with razor blades. Some of these inmates are very skilled at using these blades to slice and kill.

Watch for Blades

Job one is to not get cut and to stop the attack. To do this you need to know that the weapon is in play; you cannot defend against threats you do not see. Watch a suspect's hands and recognize when they are accessing a weapon. Under most circumstances, the suspect moves his thumb and index finger to the center of his body and the elbow moves away from the center of his body. Officers can use this information to anticipate when the suspect is accessing a weapon and respond accordingly.

There are other signs you can look for, too. With small blades without a handle, the suspect will usually hold the blade between the thumb and index finger using a standard grip. If the suspect wants a greater element of surprise, she may grip the blade with a scalpel grip, which is very difficult to detect and easy to use. It can be used to hide small and large blades. With this in mind, it is generally a good idea to have the suspect spread his fingers apart before you get close to him.

Deal with the Blade

If you are aware or lucky enough to realize a blade is in play, you have to react quickly. It takes the average officer two to three seconds to draw a firearm and fire. How many times do you think a skilled blade fighter could cut you in that time? I personally don't want to find out.

Your greatest chance for success is to draw your firearm and deal with the blade simultaneously. If you draw your firearm without dealing with the blade, the assailant will most likely have time to cut you more than once. You don't want that to happen. Getting cut is damaging not just physically but psychologically. No one likes to see their own blood spilled. Another aspect of injury during a knife attack is shock. Symptoms include confusion, low blood pressure, dizziness, rapid breathing, unconsciousness, and in extreme cases, death.[PAGEBREAK]

Another reason not to depend on your firearm in this situation? Getting your gun out is not enough to stop someone with a knife; you also have to get accurate shots off. Then you have to hope those shots will actually stop the assault. In 2006, the FBI produced the research summary "Violent Encounters: A Study of Felonious Assaults on Our Nation's Law Enforcement Officers." According to the report, officers only had a 40 percent hit rate when shooting at a suspect in deadly force encounters. Again, don't just draw your firearm; deal with the blade.

It is important to remember when dealing with blade attacks that there is a strong possibility your assailant will cut you. The trick is not to get cut in the wrong place. Knife fighters have a saying that when two good blade fighters meet, the winner goes to the hospital and the loser goes to the morgue. Don't be the latter. When you are confronted with a blade, you have three options: block it, pass it, or trap it.

Blocking the Blade

A block uses strong force, generally with the outer forearm to keep the blade away from the defender. When blocking, keep pressure on the suspect's arm. This will make it harder for them to press the attack. Use the outside of your forearm to block. The veins on the bottom of the wrist are too exposed and easier to cut. As you are blocking, draw and fire your gun until the threat has stopped.

Passing the Blade

If you are unable to block, another option is to pass the blade. Passing involves going with the suspect's arm momentum and pushing their arm across their body. This technique differs from the block in two ways. First, the officer keeps contact with the suspect's arm by using arm and body pressure to keep the blade from returning at him. The officer's goal is to glue himself to the suspect's arm. Some blade instructors call this cohesion or sticky hands. Secondly, the officer moves his body away from the threat (Photos 1, 2 & 3).

Trapping the Blade

When you have no room to move, you may need to trap the blade. This is the riskiest option. If you decide you must trap the blade, one of the best options is to wrap your arm over the top of the suspect's arm (photo 4). Wrestlers and mixed martial artists commonly refer to this technique as an "overhook." When using the overhook to defend against a blade, it is imperative that you grab the suspect's tricep muscle to limit his ability to continue attacking your body with the blade. You must also pull the elbow of his arm that is overhooking to your ribs. This will additionally limit the mobility of the suspect's blade. As with the other techniques, you should draw your gun while you are defending against the blade.

Don't Underreact

Remember that being attacked by a knife is a deadly-force encounter. Unless you are in surgery or at the barber shop, persons that invade your personal safety zone with sharp weapons probably don't have your best interests in mind.

The 1985 Supreme Court decision Tennessee v. Garner is the cornerstone case on police use of deadly force. That case makes it clear that officers have the right to use deadly force to protect themselves and others when faced with a threat of great bodily injury or death. Unfortunately, some officers are confused as to when they are legally and morally obligated to use deadly force. No one wants an officer to overreact or to use excessive force. But underreacting can also have consequences: It can get an officer killed.

Get the Training

Coming home in a safe condition is your responsibility. If your agency does not provide blade defense training, use your own time and money to educate yourself. I have heard too many cops say, "If the department wanted me to know it, they would have taught it to me and paid me to sit through the training." The suspect that wants to cut you doesn't care.

You don't want to wake up in a hospital disfigured or not wake up at all. There are numerous books and videos on blade defense. Get some. Or better yet, find a good trainer and practice. Defending against small blades can be extremely difficult, but if you take the time to practice it can save your life. Find out what works for you and get proficient. Be safe and don't get cut.

Mike "Ziggy" Siegfried is a detective, instructor, and use-of-force expert with the San Bernardino County (Calif.) Sheriff's Department. He teaches courses in blade defense.

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