Knife Training for Law Enforcement and Private Citizens

Recently I have read quite a bit, in law enforcement periodicals and on the web, about either training to defend against a knife attack or training to use a knife. Some of the things I have read have raised an eyebrow or two, some have just about pegged my “bullshit meter,” and some are just so downright stupid and dangerous that I hope that few, if any, people read them, because someone is going to get seriously hurt if they try this crap. Now the title of this rant includes private citizens as well as law enforcement, because private citizens concerned about self-defense should know a bit about knife and stick fighting.

There are many in the law enforcement community who arrogantly posture when anyone talks about knife attacks and/or knife defense. Their answer is always that they will draw their firearm and the poor bad guy will be in the position of “bringing a knife to a gun fight.” Many sneer at anyone who practices knife techniques as want-to-be ninja knife fighter types. I agree that the second best answer to a knife or stick attack is to have a lot of distance and a good, loaded, reliable firearm and the skill to use it. In case you are wondering, the best answer is not to be in the situation at all. Having arrested a bad guy or two myself, conducted dispute resolution in many a domestic dispute, and interacted with, interviewed, or just plain talked to people while performing law enforcement duties, I can tell you that I did not always do this while 21 or more feet away and looking through the red dot sight of my favorite MP-5 submachine gun. Many times law enforcement officers are talking to and interacting with someone prior to determining that an arrest needs to be made, and they are not generally doing this from that magic 21 foot reaction distance that is supposed to guarantee that they can get their gun out of their holster and shoot someone who is coming for them with a knife. I am sorry to burst this comfortable bubble (not really) but that 21 foot distance assumes a mythical “average” attacker, that your lightening fast gunshot is accurate, and that it stops the attacker cold. Having seen a man shot in the chest twice with a .45 ACP run a hundred yards down a street, and having seen trained personnel miss man size targets completely from under 30 feet when called upon to shoot fast under stress, I really don”t have a warm and fuzzy feeling about the magic 21 feet.

Now, many law enforcement officers carry a knife, usually a “tactical” folding knife or “tactical folder.” I have grown to loathe the word “tactical” due to its misuse and overuse, particularly in the desire to sell everything from apparel to cutlery. I am currently awaiting the appearance of a “tactical shaving cream,” and, in general, do not understand the mystique of the word. We don”t have a lot of strategic swords or martial machetes out there, so why do we have tactical knives? In any case, the “tactical” thing is perhaps the subject of another rant, and I digress. Most law enforcement officers will go through their careers cutting tape to lift fingerprints, opening boxes and letters, and doing any of the other myriad of chores that can be accomplished with a good, sharp knife. Few of these knives ever are used as weapons, and rightfully so. The good quality folders are carried because they are sturdy enough to stand up to hard “cop” use. One of my favorite lines, for years, has been that the average police officer or federal agent can break an anvil with a glass hammer. We really do often seem to be that hard on equipment. Another reason a good quality or “tactical” folder is carried is that, in the incredibly unlikely event that it needs to be used as a weapon, the blade, lock and knife in general has the strength to survive the stresses imparted to a blade in combat, and not break, leaving you weaponless, or have the lock fail and shut on your fingers, leaving you potentially fingerless. A good quality and sturdy tool that does not break in hard use will generally be a good last ditch defense weapon. Here is a hint, it does not have to be a VG-10 steel, laser sighted, tactical tanto with titanium handle scales, nitride blackened blade, sharpened swedge, armor piercing point, combination edge, with a pointed guard designed for trapping enemy blades which doubles as a grappling hook, and a skull-crusher pommel that incorporates a nifty bottle opener for cracking open a cold one after filleting a group of hyperactive criminal Kung Fu masters.

One of the problems that I encounter is that, once they have the knife, many officers now feel they have another viable use of force option. They will grab the knife if they need it and use “natural” techniques to cut their way out of a problem. Yes, even an untrained person is dangerous if he or she has a knife, but such a person can be dangerous to his or herself, as well. I can”t tell you how many students I have seen strike themselves while engaged in drills and sparring with training knives. After 15 years of law enforcement and a few years shy of 30 years of martial arts training, I have to say that I have never seen “natural” technique. You react the way that you have been trained. If you have done little to no training in defending yourself from a knife or learning to use a knife to defend yourself, during the stress of a real fight for your life, you are very likely to be seriously injured. Many injuries may be self inflicted. Rather than use a real knife and an “unloaded” firearm for weapon retention drills (here are a couple of clues for the rocket scientist who wrote that police journal article, one of the cardinal rules of firearms safety is that all firearms are considered loaded, and it is common knowledge that all knives cut--if you want to engage in this kind of drill invest in “red handle” or training guns and knives) I have a very simple drill. Get a partner. Invest less than $20 for a couple of rubber knives from a toy store, department store, or costume shop. Buy some chalk used for marking lines on fields for soccer or football from a department or sporting goods store. You and your partner dress in dark blue or black sweatshirts with full sleeves and full-length dark blue or black sweatpants. Thoroughly chalk the blades of the knives. Start out with your free hand grasping the knife-wielding arm of your partner somewhere on the forearm (above the wrist and below the elbow) and his or her free hand grasping you in the same manner. Now wrestle, and I mean really wrestle. The objective is to get your opponent on the ground with you in a position of advantage and to free up your knife hand and inflect as many cuts and thrusts to your opponent as possible. Don’t worry about targeting at this, untrained, level, just try to hit him somewhere on the torso. When you are finished with this drill, you will normally find yourself sweaty, breathing hard and thoroughly marked with chalk, much of it from your own knife. So much for natural technique, and you can also say goodbye to the beautifully choreographed mental movie you have envisioned of you cutting through your enemies with cat like grace. Real fights involving knives are often bloody, sweaty, dangerous and unglamorous affairs. An old aphorism in the Filipino knife culture is that “winners drip; losers gush.”

I believe that anyone interested in self defense should train with stick and knife. Stick trains knife and knife trains empty hand. Knives and clubs are some of the most common weapons used in attacks by criminals. If you are going to rely strictly on a firearm for defense against a knife, then you need to carry a firearm everywhere and always. You also will need to be able to shoot while constantly moving, zoning your body, and using your off hand to deflect and parry attacks. Anything less than this and you have a very high potential of being killed or seriously injured by a determined knife-wielding opponent. Knife attacks generally are initiated from very close range and firing range marksmanship techniques will often result in you being cut, injured, or killed. If you train in stick and knife techniques, you will develop the footwork, zoning, and parrying techniques which could save your life while you try to use your handgun to stop a knife wielding attacker. For those who say you want to learn how to defend yourself from a knife, but never plan to carry one for defense, and so see little value in training with a knife, I say that learning how to use a knife teaches you parrying, zoning, disarming, and limb disabling techniques that work well when you have no knife. Also, to practice knife defense, you need a partner. How fair is it for your partner to always attack you with the knife and never get any unarmed defense training? If you do attack your partner with a training knife, should not you be giving him or her the benefit of real and trained techniques to work against, rather than the typical “dojo” telegraphed and easily defended attacks?

Lastly, I will address the use of a knife in handgun retention. Recently there has been a trend in law enforcement magazines to talk about pulling a knife, either a fixed blade knife out of a sheath carried on the belt, or a folder that is clipped to a pocket, and using it in retention of the officer’s handgun. Yes, a knife can be used to cut the arm, or cut or stab vital areas, of a person who is grabbing your holstered handgun and attempting to take it away from you. I submit that it is a bad idea for a person who is untrained with a knife to attempt this, as the person using the knife is very likely to cut their own arm when attempting such a move at speed and under stress. Secondly, the person attempting this will take some of his or her attention away from keeping the attacker from ripping the firearm out of the holster. Thirdly, use of a knife in this situation is slow, compared to the various empty hand responses that can be used, as you have to locate and draw the knife (and open it if it is a folder). I think that the idea of using a knife to accomplish handgun retention is garnering press and adherents because it a) involves a gear or gadget based solution to a problem and cops love gadgets and b) during handgun retention drills conducted in police defensive tactics training, many officers have found that they cannot keep a determined aggressor from taking their handgun. I teach quite a few different weapon disarming and weapon retention techniques. One of my favorites involves breaking the opponent’s arm in two places while opening up his center line for a lethal counterattack, should this prove necessary. This technique can also be completed faster than I can draw a knife and cut an opponent”s arm (and I can draw a knife and perform a series of cuts very quickly indeed). If you choose to use a knife for handgun retention, that is your prerogative and I hope everything works out for you. The technique can be viable if you practice diligently, and I really ask that you seek training in knife and stick fighting. It might just save your life.

Tuhan Holloway
March 2007

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