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The Reality Of Edged Weapon Attacks

By By Lloyd De Jongh

“It is better to never fight; but win if you have to."

I live in South Africa; here knives are commonly used on our streets. Knives are seen as a thug’s weapon, and unfortunately our culture has developed an unusual, sophisticated criminal knife method. Blade-to-blade combat, or facing a knife unarmed, is a reality here. We have learned both to fear and respect the blade because of this.

This article addresses aspects of the very real threat of the blade by examining what we (whether civilians or law enforcement personnel) really face, and the training methods designed to counter it. Hopefully this will benefit your own research and practice.

To best counter an enemy, study him. Know his methods and know why he does what he does. Thus, we learn from those who use blades in their culture, and study the kinds of people that are considered a threat. Then, take those methods apart and learn to respect them. The people who would harm others know only too well how to speak with a knife. Think like a violent, criminal individual.

When you do this you will see that violent people are rarely there to ‘fight’ on equal terms, they are there to win. Their use of a weapon is to give them, quite literally, the edge.

The Dual Fantasy

We, as the potential victims of criminals, have a peculiar idea of a knife ‘fight’ based on the assumption we will be given warning of an impending knife attack, and allowed time and room to prepare. We have a mistaken expectation of a duel. Question: Why would I carry a small, easily-concealed weapon with a very limited range and then reveal it so that you can find an equalizer?

In prison the knife is an assassin's weapon and victims are taken by surprise. Wardens who are assaulted are attacked without warning, with no chance of meeting the assault on equal terms. Policemen who are knifed have fractions of a second to respond, as the weapon is employed at very short range as a surprise attack. People who are mugged with knives usually don't see it coming until way too late. If you still imagine that these scenarios are duels then your wheel's spinning, but your hamster's dead.

There are knifings, there are stabbings, there are threats made with knives, and there is armed robbery. I have seen people trying to kill each other, but I have yet to see people fight an extended duel with a blade. Combat with knives is not the equivalent of a fist fight. In my experience blade-to-blade scenarios involved warring gangs in close-in lethal combat; drunken or otherwise highly emotional individuals in an argument that escalated into physical violence; or assaults in neighbourhoods where residents expect to be accosted with a knife and habitually carry their own. Such duels were brutal, violent and very short. I have yet to see scenes like these at the movies, or in knife training classes.

Criminals and others who have experienced knife assaults respond in two ways. Either they get a better weapon with a greater range, or they just run from a potential assault. If they don't want to go toe-to-toe on an equal basis with a determined knife-wielding attacker, why would you think about it?

The Fantasy of Empty Hand Defence

Since we know that a knife can provide a massive advantage psychologically and tactically (and is employed for these very reasons), let us examine another potential fantasy in our knife training: going it empty hand. Empty hand against a blade is not your first option because it is potential suicide. You see, you don't “fight” an armed attacker, you SURVIVE the assault.

Why then do exponents of various knife systems speak of how lethal or disabling knives are, and then go on to say one should "expect to get cut"? Somehow this makes a committed assault with a legally recognized deadly weapon seem a minor inconvenience when used by the bad guy. An assailant uses a weapon to minimize his risk by removing your options, allowing him to overwhelm and dominate. If you play his game you will be more than inconvenienced.

To quote a brilliant observation by self-defense expert Marc Mac Young: “self defense is not about fighting, it’s about not being hurt by physical violence”. If you must get cut, do so on your terms. Unarmed, you do not trade blows with a knifer. Only trade a cut for a kill.

The Fantasy Of Protection By A Handgun

Ownership of a handgun does not guarantee immunity from a knifer, and Law Enforcement Personnel have their own unique set of concerns – which we’ll bring into the picture from this point on. But many of the same principles apply to any owner of a handgun.

An edged weapon does not guarantee a quick kill. Neither do bullets. Often there is no time to draw; very often this is by design. It is well documented that bullets often fail immediately to stop a motivated attacker. Law enforcement officers thus need control tactics to deal with someone at close range so that injuries sustained from bullets can take their toll, or to create an opportunity to draw and bring a weapon to bear.

Prison warders have perhaps a greater awareness of the dangers of edged weapons due to the fact that they are unarmed when they go about their duties, relying on instinct, natural weapons and the use of their environment. Armed officers however, may have an unrealistic, perhaps false, sense of security

There is a saying “Don’t bring a gun to a knife fight.” Here is the reason. The Tueller Drill (named for Sgt. Dennis Tueller of the Salt Lake City Police) demonstrated that the concept of draw and fire on a target at 7 yards (6.5m or 21ft) was not decisive, but resulted in a tie when the aggressor charged the shooter. An average time of 1.5 seconds was calculated for an aggressor to cover a distance of 21 (6.4m) feet.

In local experiments it has been shown that 7 metres can be covered in just over 7/10ths of a second, and an expert draw time was calculated at 1.3 seconds. If you are taken by surprise by a knife wielding assailant, or the assailant takes evasive action, you are almost sure to lose the confrontation should you rely solely on your firearm.

Sgt. Tueller concluded that someone with a knife or club at a distance of 21 feet or less was a potentially lethal threat. (Note that Jeff Cooper at GunSite teaches a drill time of 1.5 seconds for drawing a handgun and firing two aimed shots)

To illustrate the seriousness with which this threat is viewed, the "Tueller drill" is now a standard part of Massad Ayoob's Lethal Force Institute classes (nationally known for arms training programs for law enforcement).

Facing An Armed & Motivated Aggressor

Let us assume that we are facing a highly motivated, determined and goal-oriented aggressor.

What we need then to follow up on this new awareness is to be at least as motivated and goal oriented in our tactics to confront violent aggressors who wish to attack us with knives, clubs, machetes, bricks etc.

The aggressor has a goal: use violence to neutralize you as a threat and to achieve their aims.

To follow up on our awareness of the threat we need to have equal or greater intent than who we face, and make use of sound goal-oriented tactics to deal with them when we are attacked with knives, razors, machetes and clubs. Why? Well, those are the tools used successfully by those who regularly use violence. With that in mind, your goal should be to survive the assault and stop your assailant.

The horrific events of September 11th 2001 brought home to us all the reality of how effective even a small bladed weapon is in the hands of a determined man. It also taught us how only equally committed action will allow us to prevail against this kind of threat when we cannot retreat.

Potentially Threatening Situations

Since police officers carry weapons and face dangerous people and situations on a regular basis, it makes sense to examine some of the scenarios they have faced.

  • One might have to face multiple opponents, one or more armed with knives.

  • We might not be able to reach our firearm, or not immediately.

  • You have shot an assailant, but he is still attacking. (In one incident in Cape Town, three police officers shot a knife-wielding man who had randomly assaulted people 12 times with a police issue weapon. He still assaulted two of them and ran a fair distance in an attempt to escape before collapsing.)

  • You have slipped and fallen, or were knocked down.

  • Your attacker has two knives.

  • Only after you have been struck do you notice blood and realise you have been cut.

These incidents are based on actual events. Speak to those who deal daily with violence, and you will hear worse examples.

There have been situations where guns have been emptied into an on-rushing assailant who still managed to kill the shooter, with both dying. In police work this is not an acceptable result.

Too often, training fails to take into account the emotional impact of surprise on performance, such as shock, hesitation, fear and doubt. It also often fails to address the real-life issues of poor lighting, wind, rain, restrictive clothing, crowds and slippery surfaces. Firearm competence alone is thus insufficient.

Adding Strikes To Handgun Retention Tactics

Defensive tactics emphasizing handgun retention skills and close-in evasion and escape to create distance for a draw are necessary. In South Africa, I believe that 4 out of 5 handgun owners are shot with their own guns by assailants. That statistic begs the question why.

I believe that knowledge of striking tactics that do not utilize fist strikes is a requirement for handgun users. Studies done at the excellent Modern Warrior facility have shown that the most common injury due to fist strikes is to the last two knuckles of the hand, and strong hand injuries are the most common arrest-related injury - due to these fisted strikes. Officers who were asked if they could get a solid grip on their weapons after the injury most often said no.

For this and other reasons, the Modern Warrior Defensive Tactics Institute has removed fist strikes from their Police Defensive Tactics curriculum and has replaced them with palm strikes and other open handed alternatives. Palm strikes have been proven to produce the fewest number of injuries when used by police. A fracture will take almost 2 months to heal, while a torn ligament (sprain) can take up to 6 months.

Training For The Real World

Is the training environment dynamic, chaotic and unorthodox? When training for life and death and learning the risks and limitations of using or reaching for a handgun when being taken by surprise or rushed by a knife-wielder, we need to simulate as much stress, confusion and shock as possible to acclimatize to the realities we face.

Does your training teach you to be aggressive? Learn to project all of your energies: voice, gaze and body language as a clear signal. Life and death struggles are no time for timidity.

Since we are dealing with the risks attached to facing a bladed weapon, which necessitates that the aggressor is very close, learn to treat any striking movement as if a knife was coming at you. Don’t find out after the ‘punch’ withdraws that you have been cut.

Protect yourself from harm with your awareness and your own offense. Turn the tables by putting the assailant on the back foot. Use the same game plan and strategies he uses because people who are ‘professionally’ violent know that in these situations those methods work.

The initial stab or cut is usually not fatal or disabling; it simply opens the way for further aggression that will finish you off. Do not allow an opportunity for his momentum to build; you keep fighting no matter what.

Since the chaos of violence is by its nature unpredictable, and thus hard to prepare for, let’s bear a few things in mind:

  • Adjust your response when it isn’t working. Have a positive, aggressive, winning mind-set. Believe you can prevail. Learn to deal with surprise and shock and keep going.

  • Question and experiment, learn the fact that there is no perfect defense. However, there are attributes that make you far more likely to succeed.

  • Learn to react to sudden aggressive arm movement appropriately. Stay close, jam and neutralize; evade and escape; or evade and find/produce a weapon of your own.


Know that an attacker at 21 feet (6.4m) can be a lethal threat, even if you are armed with a gun, and even if they “only” have a knife. Hone your knowledge and awareness. And remember this in a potential life and death struggle. Offense wins fights. Defense keeps you fighting to allow your offense a chance to work.

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About the Author:

Lloyd De Jongh has been in the martial arts for 14 years and for five years he as studied and learned criminal methods – from surprise assaults, muggings, fighting methodology, weapons use and psychological tactics. His website is:

To find more articles of interest, search on one of these keywords:

Knife attacks, knife self-defense, bladed weapons, street self-defense, handgun retention tactics, self defense

Read more articles by Lloyd De Jongh

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