Let’s take an honest look at knife usage for self-defense. I know I’m breaking my own rule by writing an article on knife-combat but it’ll be worth the hypocrisy, I assure you. There is likely no single bigger misunderstood element….and most often that misunderstanding comes from the instructor part of this equation – not the public, as it’s so often attributed. (Where do they get their misunderstandings…I wonder…)
So, in real-life case studies, what do we see generally playing out in the real-world?
BLADED-DEFENSE? I’ve seen a handful (maaaybe 2 handfuls) of public case studies where knife usage in a self-defense situation was defended successfully in a court-of-law. Note that these were generally a-l-l after lawyer-retention, court-case, hourly lawyer rates, some jail-time until trial, social stigmas, life on-hold, psychological trauma, and all the other elements that went with that successful defense. I have yet to see one knife defense where legal-case/police-intervention/serious-outcome didn’t end in this way in a public environment. Note also that most were the weapon-of-choice – carried for purposes of self-defense, not weapons-of-opportunity. They are rare in the grand scheme of things. Extremely rare.
The line of legality and public stigma of using a blade against someone without one (regardless of advantage-discrepancy) is pretty steep. How we see most bladed-arts handle this is almost always via the murder or permanent-damage route. 16-cut combos, biomechanical maiming and mutilating, lethal targeting….over-excess of brutality that would and will be seen as overkill in the court-of-law by judge, jury, lawyers, and public. Are there times where these can be successful legally? Yes, there are documented case-studies, as mentioned above. What aided in them be deemed “successful” (in spite of the above byproducts)? Superior forces – multiple opponents, bigger/trained/notoriously-violent/male attack on female victim/younger/armed opponent(s), immediate threat to life, you exhausting all other possibilities. (see ability/opportunity/intent/preclusion tenet present in most Western countries, generally included even here in Costa Rica as well)
DUELS? Simply do not happen very often outside of prison or in lower-class rural areas of (most often) undeveloped nations, sometimes in developed ones though a needle-in-a-haystack. (Here we’ve had some incidents of migrant machete “fights” over social indiscretion, women, land, money, alcohol, etc. but even here, they’re hardly omnipresent.) Poor neighborhoods and rural. Even in prison, “shankings”, educational lessons, and hits seem to take far more precedence than the equal-footing duel. They are incredibly rare in the grand scheme of things.
Yet these 2 are often the focus in the MA/SD worlds to civilians/citizens, with far more focus than given to counter-blade. Blade-on-blade and blade-on-empty-handed aggressor(read: single, one, solo).
So…when else then? Let’s explore a little deeper than many tend to. What contexts have at times shown themselves to be even somewhat viable for actual “successful” knife usage situations? (*noting that “successful” does not include psychological/mental/emotional trauma that may also be a financial burden and a long-term venture)
-War, though with the post-WW2 Geneva Convention and the invention of long-range/distance, chemical, and technological weapons-of-war, I’d say that’s likely even lower than civilian instances – and the majority of us aren’t at war…other than with ourselves.
-Brandishing. Deployment to intimidate. The hope/whim that presentation will be sufficient to nullify the threat. (presentation)
-Brandishing with command presence. Adding aggressive body language and weapon-positions/motions that reinforces the above presentation.
-Brandishing with command presence and adding verbal reinforcement. Implied or direct threats added to the above two.
Now, caveats. Let’s acknowledge that 2 things have to happen for the above 3 to have the desired impact: 1) you to be willing to follow-through on the escalating stages or stand-alone tactics above should your bluff be called, and 2) that you sell it to the other party such that they believe that #1 will happen. Should those not happen, we cycle back to the 2nd paragraph in the article. Rinse. Repeat. Also, be aware that brandishing itself is illegal in many areas so we’ll cover that aspect below a little further as we introduce further aspects…and if your knife is outside the legal limits of length, style, and type, it still may be moot. (The “Scalp-Stealer Mach 2” might not be a great tool for self-defense use either….so you know)
-Pressing. Putting the knife with pressure against the opponent in some manner to gain psychological upper-hand, intimate via threat, or escalate the above 3. Throat, abdomen, back/kidney, face, groin, etc. Upping the stakes on the threat. (accepting the bluff can also be called here but there’s greater risk perceived in doing so) For instance, an old schoolmate of mine had this happen outside a bar in Manitoba (witnesses corroborated his account) He was the instigator, the scenario ended with him having a blade put to his throat by the other gentleman to avoid further violence. It worked. No harm, no foul outside of injured pride.
-Closed-folder used as a fistload or compact pocket-stick. (would apply to situations/contexts similar to other impact weapons with regard to legality and note one can still be killed with a closed-folder strike to the head so it´s perception as non-lethal has a caveat attached)
-Using the carried-blade as a justification for a lower-force tool – a decoy. I was told of a case in the US where a pencil was used for self-defense and the verdict was swayed because the user claimed restrained self-defense, noting he was also carrying a “more-lethal” blade on him at the time of assault. Anecdotal, yes, but a trusted source.
-Non-lethal, minor cuts. Always a risk but cutting hands, arms, legs, clothes, superficial areas. Hardly target-focused and not at all the surgical bio-mechanical variety claimed accessible and medically-viable under great duress (a debate for another time), but generally to create space, demotivate attack/attacker, or allow for escape. I’ve heard many of these, a few ended badly and with unintended results, many not.
*Now, as an aside, I like the concept of biomechnical cutting but let´s be honest, there are 3 major issues with said concept. 1. You´re assuming that legally jurors, judge, and lawyer are going to look more favorably on your choice of “protecting a life” when in reality you have likely maimed or mutilated someone on a permanent level. 2. You´re going into the possibility of a lethally-violent encounter with the mentality of not killing the other human being involved while he will definitely not have that same restraint. That´s akin to going into lion´s den barehanded and deciding to wrestle a creature with claws and teeth. 3. Often the transgressor has to be psychologically-impacted (as outright physical stoppage, as we´ve stated, via biomechanical cutting is no guarantee) by having muscles, tendons, ligaments cut – seeing the damage and blood and being affected by it in the mind, which means he has to see or know that there´s a blade in-play, often defeating the benefits of having a covert knife. (With the opponent not seeing it being deployed or already present.)
I´ve never heard of cases (which doesn´t mean they don´t exist, to be clear) where biomechanical cutting has actually been utilized that I’ve seen as of yet, though the theory does seem sound on the surface. At least – again, on the surface – you can sell people on non-lethal capability. Lethal can be thought-provokingly repulsive, traumatic, and anxiety- and hesitation-building.
Back to the focal point. And when would these be considered “successful” in the post-event aftermath? If the opponent doesn’t know your identity. No law enforcement are involved. No charges filed or report made. No trip to the hospital is necessary. Superficial wounds. Or you don’t wait around to find out the above. (no maiming, disfigurement, heavy-bleeding, permanent injuries, life-threat, etc.) Maybe the offender also doesn’t want to be held accountable, risk an assault charge, have a criminal record, can’t afford a lawyer or hospital bills for minor injuries, initiated the confrontation and isn’t well-versed in legal aspects, etc. None of which you’ll know beforehand or can assume will be true when making the decision to use.
*Let’s also acknowledge that a) most of these occurrences are, of course, anecdotal by nature and from either first-hand participants or witnesses – not actual media reports or court cases out of necessity (so, admittedly, there is obviously some room for error but when isn’t there even in a court case in a battle of “closest-to-acceptable” perception-twisting for others’ benefit). And b) that future legal-battles are still a potential concern should things come to light and circumstances change as, though “successful”, all could still be illegal in nature.
Any others? Sure. Unsolved murders. You went too far and didn’t get caught…yet. And, if not, can you live with yourself? Keep the secret? Deal psychologically with taking a life or permanently-disfiguring one? Manage your guilt? Your cross to bear, as is the actual use of a knife for self-defense purposes. Inevitably it is your choice under the circumstances at hand, and the balance between the potentiality for staying alive vs. being dead.
So, to summarize, successful (meaning circumventing jail-time, lawyer/court fees, criminal record, trial, social stigmas that result) knife-presence in a violent scenario has to have a number of things go right for it to occur. Low-level of force & minimal receiver-injury plus not having the situation escalate out-of-hand. An opponent (and witnesses) unwilling to press charges/go to police/identity offender and not have law enforcement be needed at the scene. OR…successful knife-usage by going through the legal process and “winning” after financial/legal expenses and possibly jail-time awaiting trial. Witnesses (if applicable) supporting you, proving justifiable self-defense against superior force or dire circumstance within the legal channels, a good lawyer, a money supply, and a judge/jury believing your case from their personal (often suburban and isolated) perspective. (not your industry peers) And NONE of these including possible psychological, emotional, spiritual, and/or mental trauma resulting from the act itself and potential therapy that may come with it.
To be clear, I love knife-training. Dueling. Playing. Drilling. Sparring. Handling. Strategizing. Footwork. Measurement. Timing. It’s fun, focus-forced, and attribute-building and I do teach it for self-defense. But I don’t advocate for student-carry. I don’t glorify it and write how-to articles on it. I don’t push it over more legally-viable and higher-percentage stoppers whether improvised, tertiary, or strategically-placed/carried. AND, to be absolutely clear, I am NOT referring to those circumstances where the other option of the above-mentioned is death. Of course, legal/psychological/mental/fiscal issues would always be preferable to the alternative of dying, at least we hope that’s the case. And these are profound choices you’re going to have to make yourself….personally….well prior to an event actually happening. (training or not) This is directed at those multi-bladed murder-advocates who teach others offensive/aggressive knife-defense or knife-fighting or negligent bladed-defense to whatever type of transgression on the sliding scale of attack-seriousness.
But, that being said, as we can see, the window for successful bladed self-defense is pretty streamlined and narrow and even what’s deemed as successful bladed SD can and often does have a fairly steep cost. The above examples also don’t require 20 years of stylistic TMA knife-training. At all, whatsoever. And, to be extra clear, this also isn’t factoring in the wildly unpredictable nature of blade-attack response. Knives are simply not a guaranteed stopper. We see it time-and-again in case studies, Youtube videos, historical references, personal anecdotes from survivors, and medical professionals. There is no specific area to cut, set immediacy of cutting/stabbing shutdown, ensured blood-loss amount, bio-mechanical-cutting surety….that will guarantee the stop of a motivated, intent-driven, aggressive attacking person. Case studies prove this out – they are wildly erratic, hugely unpredictable, and human will and adrenaline are quite the things. Even medical professionals have been at a loss to explain how some victims are walking and talking in the ER after great blood-loss and 40 puncture wounds. Big knives, bigger damage-potential, sure…but that legal-length thing, again. (and acknowledging public-carry is different than private-positioning for a home-invasion are different things entirely)
In conclusion, you need to really study the above examples as they’re what true case-studies, documented incidents, anecdotes, and witness testimonies are predominantly based on….in the real-world. I’ve never ever heard of a successful 16-cut surgical targeting shutdown attack against a right-cross…yet. But I’ll be the first to admit I’m wrong when and if it happens. Keep me posted if it comes to a neighborhood near you…