Knife Fighting

A Fairbairn-Sykes; I’ve always wanted one of these…

Knives, knives, knives – they do so much more than sit next to forks. They are mankind’s first real tool, apart from the crude bludgeon; one of our earliest attempts to make up for the fact that nature did not grace us with fangs, tusks, claws, exoskeletons or wings.

And, of course, we didn’t waste too much time in developing a habit of sticking them into one another on our off hours. After all, beating each other to death with rocks was so barbaric…

I think, for many people, part of the brain still feels an immediate and instinctive fear at the sight of a blade. After all, a sharp-edged knife is not something that nature produced and we feel no desire to come into contact with its edge. Most folks will still become very uncomfortable when a knife is held near them.

As I see it, there are three uses of a knife: First of all, as a multi-purpose tool. It can be very handy in that respect, and there is nothing sinister in that function. The second use is as a weapon of fear. It can be used as a psychological tool of intimidation; nobody wants to go anywhere near the nasty thing and they tend to comply rather than take the risk of doing so.

There are some problems with that theory. Against a layman, yes, a knife is scary and may be intimidating. However, against someone with some experience, the scare tactic is not going to work. Statistically, many people who carry guns and knives ‘for self-defence’ end up having their own weapon used against them. If you try to use such a potentially lethal device to scare somebody away, you are banking on the fact that they will not call your bluff. If that does happen, and you are not willing to seriously injure them, then there is a good chance that the tool will be grabbed  away from you and then it’s off to hospital for you.

Which brings us to the third function; people trying to do grievous bodily harm to someone with a knife.


Incidentally, I should point out that ‘knife fights’ rarely happen. Unless you roll with a 1950’s gang (In full Technicolor!), two people are rarely found to be circling each other with switchblades. The thing is, knife fighting in that fashion is a largely regional thing. There are still some countries where it does occur, but in North America (and I would venture to say most of Europe) knife duels went out of fashion with greased hair and hot rod drag racing. In contemporary situations, the use of a knife in an altercation is most likely going to be a fast aggressive

“I WILL KILL HIM!”

attempt to kill or maim the intended victim before they have a chance to react.

You have to be a special kind of crazy to want to fight another person knife-to-knife.

I only practice this kind of combat in sparring for fun and sport (and because I love Dune). It’s not a self-defence art.

Now, in the good old days of thick doublets and leather jerkins, one didn’t have to worry so much about slashing cuts with a blade. If you are strutting around with layers of linen, wool and leather between your skin and the world, you are pretty well protected against incidental scrapes. As a result, most of the defensive techniques of the Renaissance are based against hard, aggressive attacks with a long dagger. These manoeuvres were very effective, and I still consider Marozzo’s dagger pressas part of my core curriculum for reliable self-defence. However, they do not always work as well against an opponent with a short, fine bladed knife who tries to attack with quick, spastic cuts. Especially when, in place of heavy Renaissance fashion, one is clad in only in shirtsleeves.

Modern knife defence is a slightly different game. Over the centuries, many people started to favour quick, wounding cuts over direct, killing thrusts. This results in a higher risk of injury, possibly leading to a serious amount of blood loss rather than a immediate kill. This shift also means that an opponent will be much less predictable, especially if they have no real training in using a knife. When dealing with knives (or rapiers for that matter) a person who doesn’t really know what he is doing can often be harder to deal with than a trained martial artist, for the simple reason that you have no idea what insane movements he may try to throw at you. And, if you try to even the playing field by drawing a knife of your own you run the risk of trading off injuries until both of you are bloodies and scarred.

There are obviously opposing viewpoints on the subject, but this is my opinion;
In a unexpected encounter with an opponent armed with a knife, I would choose to remain unarmed rather than try to draw a blade myself. (Well, ideally I would like to have a sturdy cane to defend myself with, but I still get odd looks for using a walking stick in daily life.) Two knives make for a whole lot of panic, and that can lead to a very nasty conclusion. I have spent many years training with knives, and I am finally confident in my ability to deal with them. As such, I would actually feel safest relying on good footwork to help me find an opening to close in and disarm/grapple/hit repeatedly a person who threatened me in this way. I could try to draw a knife as I closed in, but I would personally try to refrain from doing so.

No matter how tough you think you are, actually killing a person with a knife, even in self-defence, is not something you want on your conscience or your legal record if it can be in any way avoided.

Breaking bones is fine, though – I can live with that.

Now if you don’t have many years of training in dealing with knife attacks then run. Just run. The last thing you want is to end up wrestling over a knife as if in a cinematic fight scene, as it never works out how you want it to.

As to techniques for dealing with these situations, there are plenty to choose from. Personally, I would never rely on any specific technique too strongly. As I mentioned before; If a strange, possibly inebriated, lunatic comes at you with a knife, you don’t really know what they are going to do. A ‘do-this-when-they-do that’ approach may leave you unprepared for a clumsy, frantic slash from a desperate foe.

Simply blocking a knife attack, for example, is rarely a good idea.

The key is to understand the angles, distance and timing of attacks. The best counter is to be able to position and reposition yourself so that you can deceive you attacker while also defending yourself, then to close in quickly and decisively. Once you get past the point where the opponent can stab at you, you can use whatever striking or wrestling art with which you are most confident. I favour elbow and grapple tactics myself. It is always handy to hit someone in a fairly painful place before going for any kind of wrestling hold, and a quick elbow does a good job of that.

Once the basics of a particular art are mastered, then I consider slow work to be the best way to become more comfortable with this aspect of defence. It is important to be non-competitive while doing this.

My favourite knife drill is to begin with one partner attacking constantly while the other defends. Once the pair has engaged, both practitioners continue with a ceaseless flow of motion, using footwork and simple close-fighting techniques. With this drill there should be no point where there is any hard resistance or muscular shoving. This isn’t a combat technique, but a drill to teach positional awareness and adaptability. Once the defending partner manages to get the knife away from the attacker, the drill does NOT stop; the student who gains the knife immediately attacks back with the same constant assault. Now it is the other person’s turn to defend and disarm.

This continues back and forth, with the knife being taken from one partner and then the other. There are no set rules to what each person can do; anything from leg sweeps to joint locks are fine as long as they are slow and constant. It is important that both students never stop moving. Gradually the pace of the drill is increased, until eventually both students are moving at more-or-less full speed.

After a student has performed this drill consistently, it is often true that they  become much more effective in sparring.

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