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Rethinking Knife Training

The chance that you will ever use a blade as a weapon in the course of your law enforcement duties is slim. It's far more likely that someone will attack you with a blade. Still, you carry knives. So you need to know how to use them. More importantly, the bad guys carry knives so you need to know how to counter them.


Certain objectives must be set when establishing a law enforcement knife training program. First, you have to help some of the officers overcome their overwhelming fear of edged weapons being used on them and their squeamishness about using a blade on a bad guy, if absolutely necessary.

American police officers live and work in a gun culture. To many of them the blade is a brutal weapon, and they are squeamish about using an edged weapon in a fight or facing an edged weapon in a fight. Yet, most officers carry blades as well as guns, and so do the bad guys who may attack them.

Some very important questions an officer has to ask him or herself include: Do I know how to use this knife? Do I know how to stop someone from attacking me with a knife? Do I know what will happen to me legally if I have to use a knife as a weapon? Will my agency back me if I have to use a knife to protect my life or the lives of the people I serve?

The chance that you will ever use a blade as a weapon in the course of your law enforcement duties is slim. It's far more likely that someone will attack you with a blade. Still, you carry knives. So you need to know how to use them. More importantly, the bad guys carry knives so you need to know how to counter them.

Only one problem, most of you carry blades, but your agency has not issued your knives nor trained you to use them. That needs to change.

A Serious Threat

First, let's talk about the single most important aspect of knife training that any law enforcement officer should receive: how to prevail in an attack.

Never be dismissive of a knife as a weapon. A lot of cops like to talk about the stupidity of someone who brings "a knife to a gunfight." Your agency should teach you better.

In the hands of a skilled or even unskilled person, an edged weapon can be just as deadly as a gun. An edged weapon can amputate body parts, puncture entrails, slice arteries and veins, and with a hard thrust the point of an edged weapon can penetrate body armor as simply as a butter knife slices through butter.

And think about this: While you may not encounter a person with a gun in your entire career, the chance of facing someone with a knife is more probability than possibility.

Also the chance that this person will have some skill with that edged weapon is highly probable. The general population now has access to high-quality resources for edged weapon training, including martial arts books, DVDs, step-by-step training instruction on the Internet, and movies like "Under Siege," "The Hunted," and the "Bourne" series, all of which feature knife fighting scenes choreographed by martial artists with extensive expertise in edged weapon combat.

Where Knives Come Out

The first thing that should be taught to police officers in edged weapon awareness is where they are likely to encounter a suspect who might be in possession of an edged weapon.

When you are called to a domestic dispute, you have entered an environment where any type of weapon can be within reach to one or more suspects. This is especially true in the kitchen.

Another danger zone is a bar. Most people know that if they bring a gun into a bar, they may get arrested for it. Even concealed carry permit holders are not allowed to be strapped in a bar. So they will bring the next best thing: a sheath knife or a folding knife. So when a fight breaks out in a bar, knives may be involved.

You also need to know who is likely to be carrying a knife. First of all, just about anyone can carry one. Law abiding citizens often carry folding knives for defense, something that is legal in many states. But certain groups of people are also likely to carry blades as offensive weapons, including robbery suspects, rape suspects, gang members, and emotionally disturbed persons.

On the Defense

The first step in establishing a knife training program in your agency is to find a qualified trainer. Your defensive tactics trainers may be suited to this job, but don't just throw it at them.

As a nationally recognized instructor and trainer of edged weapon combat techniques, I have been blessed enough to have the opportunity to train with some of the world's best recognized knife trainers, including my wife Yelena Pawela.

Just recently, I attended the RedMan Edged Weapons Defensive Instructor Course, which is something of a mini officer survival program with an added emphasis on edged weapons defense. The course's objective is to provide the student with ample working knowledge of techniques for surviving an edged weapon attack. I really like this course as a foundation for teaching officers how to counter knife attacks.

The RedMan course teaches officers how to control and redirect an assailant's knife, ground stabilization techniques, grappling techniques, takedown methods, empty hand strikes, knee strikes and kicks, ground defenses for edged weapons, tactics for deploying a folding knife (referred to as a "life saving device") under extreme duress, and finally how to shoot someone who is attacking you with a knife.

One of the most interesting techniques taught in the RedMan program is called "reverse tactical shooting." Developed by POLICE Magazine Advisory Board member and RedMan trainer Dave Young, this technique is designed to help officers create more distance between themselves and knife-wielding bad guys.

It basically works like this: The officer turns and runs away from the advancing attacker while drawing his or her sidearm. Then instead of assuming a standard shooting stance, the officer who is running away from the threat, positions his or her weapon in the small of the back just above the buttocks, angling the weapon upward and discharging the weapon in the direction of the oncoming assailant. While shooting and creating distance, the officer can tactically maneuver in an "L" shaped formation, assess the situation, stabilize, and continue to return fire from a more standard shooting stance.

Of course, this technique cannot be used against someone who is up close and personal. If the officer and the assailant with the edged weapon are within reach of each other or at contact distance, then it's likely the officer will not have the precious time necessary to engage his or her duty weapon.

This is why defensive tactics are an essential part of any edged weapon program for police. When somebody attacks you suddenly and at close range with a knife then you will need techniques that are proven to work under extreme stress and can be executed without a lot of complicated movement.

I've found that the best defensive tactics against a knife attack follow the "hinge" concept. This means using anatomically correct techniques to control the body without relying on pain compliance. After all, many suspects are already impervious to pain due to the fact they are emotionally disturbed or under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

The hinge concept uses the hinged points of the skeleton system, causing the hinge of the joint to lock out.

The six hinges on the body are:

  • Shoulder at the rotator cuff
  • Elbow
  • Wrist between the pivot bones
  • Hips at the lower portion of the waist
  • Knees at the top of the cap
  • Ankles

In order to use the hinge concept, you have to be aware that attacks come in a variety of limited forms: the lunge, either left or right handed; the slash left or right handed; overhead left or right; and underhand. To counter any of these attacks, you need to stop the motion of the blade, control the movement of the subject, and disable the subject so that you can disengage and escalate to deadly force, if necessary.

On the Attack

Legally if you have cause to use deadly force on a subject, then it doesn't matter if you do it with a gun or a knife. Politically, however, the fallout from using a knife may be much different. You are issued a gun as part of your police powers; odds are you are not issued a knife. If your agency trains you when and how to use a knife, such action will be much more defensible in court and in the court of public opinion.

A good knife training program should teach you how to use it when the chips are down and you can't access your gun, usually because the bad guy has grabbed your gun. It should also teach you techniques for cutting, stabbing, and slashing your adversary, and where these wounds will be the most effective.

Books have been written on these topics, and I don't have space to go into detail. For a quick look at how to disable an attacker with a knife see "Knife Targets" by Douglas Iketani in the June 2008 issue of POLICE Magazine or online at PoliceMag.com.

Make It "Real"

It is critical to make edged weapon training as realistic as possible, whether the officer is on the attack or the defense.

By using training gear such as that made by RedMan, FIST, and other companies, you can make defensive tactics training as realistic as possible while reducing injuries to officers. In addition to plastic knives and other props, you can also use the Shocknife, an electrified training knife that uses pain to tell a student that he or she has been cut. A less expensive alternative to the Shocknife but one that doesn't provide the pain reinforcement is the VirtualBlade. This inexpensive training tool uses chalk to show a student his or her wounds.

These things are great, but I think if you really want to add a touch of realism to your knife training, it's time to get theatrical with some fake blood. You can make pretty realistic fake blood by combining one part water with three parts corn syrup and stirring in red food coloring and a drop or two of blue food coloring to darken it up. Warning: This stuff is sticky and it stains. But it also has an upside: It teaches the students that a knife attack will be messy, and it drives home the point that their lives hang in the balance.

Paul Pawela has more than 25 years of combined military and law enforcement experience. He has served as both a firearms and a defensive tactics instructor.

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