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Defeating A Knife To The Neck

By Christopher Caile

It’s very scary. Of all the possible attacks, having an assailant’s knife pressing against your throat evokes the worst fear and trepidation. And this is for good reason – it is a very dangerous situation, one in which you could die, or at least suffer a gory, bloody and life endangering wound.

If the intent is to rob you, gladly give up your money. But if someone is intent on causing you serious bodily harm, or intends to take you as a hostage, you might take action. Action is also warranted if you are a women and someone is using this tactic to force you into a van, truck or back of the car. In this type of rape or bodily assault situation statistics are dire for those who are so manhandled.

I wish there were a simple remedy, a fool proof escape that could be easily executed. There isn’t. There are lots of people who demonstrate self-defense techniques against this type of attack, but unfortunately many of them will just get you very dead. The reason is that what seems effective against a cooperative practice partner is often ineffective against a larger, stronger and determined attacker.

First, accept the fact that you might get cut. Also be aware that your technique could go wrong at any time. Thus, below we outline one effective technique, but also give roadmaps to several detours, just in case things happen that you don’t expect.

An attacker reaches around from behind and puts a knife to your throat (lead photo). Here, I do two things, one to increase my reaction time and the second to slow the attacker’s possible reaction to my defense. First, I partially raise my right arm (optional), while also raising my left towards the knife hand. To the aggressor this seems to be a gesture of capitulation. At the same time I start to say something not wholly comprehensible like “Ok, Ok, my wife needs..,” which occupies the attacker’s mind. An occupied mind slows his response time, and gives you a split second advantage.

While you are saying something, grab the knife hand with your left hand (notice the hand grabs across the wrist so I can get all my fingers around it) and roll the arm downward and keep it pinned to the chest (If you practice aikido or other jujutsu, see footnote (1) below). Also raise your right arm so your shoulder blocks the knife arm from moving across and cutting you. Also aim your fingers toward his eyes also distract him.

Here the danger to your throat comes from two possible angles, but, as dangerous as the knife position is, it is now blocked. First, the wrist holding the knife, if it is bent as in this illustration, is usually incapable movement to the side. Also your raised right shoulder blocks any movement across the throat by pinning the attacker’s arm behind his elbow. (If you are a karate-ka please look at footnote (2))

At this point it is usually quite easy to pivot to the left, inward under the opponent’s arm. But, if for some reason the pivot is blocked, or the attacker is just so strong compared to you that you can’t turn, bite down hard on the attacker’s wrist – doing your best “vicious dog” interpretation. This should loosen the attacker up.

Continue your turn (an added possible distraction that is not shown in the illustration can be a sharp downward stomp of your heel against the attacker’s instep). As you continue to rotate you will find that your raised right arm will end up on top of the attacker’s shoulder or upper arm. As you complete the turn, pull your right hand down the arm across the bicep to the elbow – a continued pressure used to keep the elbow bent. Assisting in this “keeping the elbow bent” process is inward pressure on the attacker’s knife wrist by your left arm. If you step slightly behind the attacker, the elbow will continue to bend. Now let go of the attacker’s left wrist which you had grabbed with your left hand, and with the palm up, slide the arm up along the attacker’s back.

When practicing this move, at this point I often find myself also first striking to my opponents head with my right first (option not shown). Then I follow by putting my right palm on the opponent's neck and executing a hard upward right knee kick (not shown)to the face (this helps drive the head upward so you can easily reach around with your arm).

Now, reach around in front of the attacker’s head with your left arm. Here, there are a number of things you can do. You can pull the opponent’s face, turning it to the left, while you also pull his head back toward you (shown left photo). You can also reach around the attacker’s neck and back toward yourself to get a deep grip on the opponent’s shirt or jacket collar and then pull your arm tight across his neck for a choke (right photo) – which can cause unconsciousness.

Either position is quite painful, for the opponent’s arm bent like a “chicken wing” across his back, produces torque pressure in the shoulder – very painful and potentially. In any case you now have established control over your attacker. You can maneuver him if needed, use pain to force him to drop the knife, use pressure to tear shoulder muscles or dislocate the joint, or choke him out (if a choke hold was used).

There are times, however, that even if you get control of the arm and rotate under it, the attacker is able to force his arm straight (first photo on left). If this happens don’t fight the straight arm. Go with the action by still slipping your left arm, palm up, under the straightened knife arm while stepping inward so the arm slips upward along the back. At the same time your right arm can press down on the opponent’s neck – a knee to the face can be added (middle photo). Since the knee to the head could not easily be seen in the third photo this sequence another photo was added (right photo) giving a side view of the knee to the head.

Use your left arm along the back to leverage up the attacker’s knife arm and press your right hand down on his neck (or upper arm) to take him to the ground, face down.(3) As you sink down your right knee can pin the attacker’s head (also painful) while your left arm pries the attacker’s left arm upward causing shoulder pain. In this position you can easily take away the knife while controlling the opponent.

Editor's Note: This article in part relates to part 2 of my series, Fighting Back At 40,000 Feet, which discusses possible passenger strategies and techniques that could be used to resist and overcome terrorists trying to take control of an airplane. In part 2, the possiblity of hostages held a knife point was discussed. This article addresses one knife scenario. See: Fighting Back At 40,000 Feet: Part 2 - Group Principles, Individual Strategies.


(1) If you practice aikido or a number of other jujutsu systems your natural response in this situation might be to grab the opponents hand and wrist (in a different way than is illustrated above) so the palm of you hand lies on top of the attackers closed fist, thumb on top and fingers below.

The disadvantage of this grip is that you only have thumb leverage in order to pull down and lock the opponent's wrist to your chest. This is much weaker than using all of your fingers as in the illustration in the body of this article. At the same time, this position has an advantage. As you turn (keeping your left arm close to your chest) you can rotate the attacker's wrist and lower arm to effect a nikyo (wrist) technique (photo at left) on the opponent, which torques his wrist and lower arm in such a way as to cause him pain while also keeping the arm bent usually this type technique is done with two hands). Here I prefer to continue the technique by bringing my right hand (already at the attacker's shoulder area) down to the opponent's upper arm (photo at right) to help leverage him to the ground, and/or hold him so he can be kicked in the head with my right foot and then taken down. At this point you can continue with a hold down technique as shown above.

(2) Interestingly this technique can be found in the karate kata, Pinan one. Part of the kata includes three steps forward, each step (into a front leaning stance) accompanied by upper blocks. Now visualize how an upper block is done. One arm is raised above the head (exactly the position of the right arm in the above self-defense technique) while the other, which had been held vertically in the center, is pulled down (some styles of karate do their upper blocks differently, in which case this example would not perfectly apply). This downward motion is the same as the grab and pull down on the knife hand used in the above situation. Both the kata and the self-defense technique also follow by a turn inward. In the kata this is seen a only a pivot, but in the self-defense technique it is a turn under the knife arm (the attack could also be a one arm, around the throat grab). Now in the kata the next move is a double are knife hand technique or block. In some styles a Shotokan karate this technique is sharper and more angled, while in other styles as Seido Karate and Kyokushin the block is more circular. In either case, however, the left forearm moves downward and the right forearm moves back toward the body. This is the same motion as when you have the opponent’s arm bent backward – you apply pressure out and downward with your forarm along his back. With the right arm you reach downward and around his head (pulling his head or in a choke) backwards toward your middle – just as the right hand in the kata.

(3) With the left arm across the opponent’s back, leveraging up the opponent’s arm, you can also just pivot your body to the left to move the attacker in circular takedown directed by you let hand (palm up).

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About the Author:

Christopher Caile is the Founder and Editor-In-Chief of He has been a student of the martial arts for over 43 years. He first started in judo. Then he added karate as a student of Phil Koeppel in 1959. Caile introduced karate to Finland in 1960 and then hitch-hiked eastward. In Japan (1961) he studied under Mas Oyama and later in the US became a Kyokushinkai Branch Chief. In 1976 he followed Kaicho Tadashi Nakamura when he formed Seido karate and is now a 6th degree black belt in that organization's honbu dojo. Other experience includes judo, aikido, diato-ryu, kenjutsu, kobudo, Shinto Muso-ryu jodo, boxing and several Chinese fighting arts including Praying mantis, Pak Mei (White Eyebrow) and shuai chiao. He is also a student of Zen. A long-term student of one branch of Traditional Chinese Medicine, Qigong, he is a personal disciple of the qi gong master and teacher of acupuncture Dr. Zaiwen Shen (M.D., Ph.D.) and is Vice-President of the DS International Chi Medicine Association. He holds an M.A. in International Relations from American University in Washington D.C. and has traveled extensively through South and Southeast Asia. He frequently returns to Japan and Okinawa to continue his studies in the martial arts, their history and tradition. In his professional life he has been a businessman, newspaper journalist, inventor and entrepreneur.

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