The Problem of Knife Attacks and Knife Defences

By Stephen Cheney

The London knife attacks in June 2017 by terrorists should guide one’s thinking into what you could do if caught up in a similar situation, for such attacks are becoming more and more common to daily life. The Londoners under attack, those who could not get away, did toss objects at the attackers, but they said that they “felt helpless”. And they were helpless: for they did not know what to do. They did not know what to do as they had not previously participated in any training that might assist them to have less damage or to not die.

The knife attacks around the world from terrorists (or from lunatics, or even from temporarily deranged partners), are becoming more prevalent. A knife is indeed a formable weapon. Even for black belts who have had knife defensive training there is no guarantee of surviving a knife attack unscathed.

Man is not born to generate his own fang and claw. Instead we have adaptable hands that can hold tools or weapons of many descriptions. This has allowed us to out-tool and out-spear and out-gun all other animals, to their detriment, to their extinction, or to their ending up on our dinner plate.

When humans bash each other the trauma is from clubbing (Fists) or stunning (hand chops) or air constriction (choking the windpipe). A blow from a knife is more penetrating due to its focus of force into a very small area. A slash from a knife is life threatening due to the opening of blood vessels and incapacitation or death from swift loss of blood. A knife bites deep.


The advantage a black belt has over that of an untrained victim, besides a trained quick response, is the more important trait of developing an acute awareness of their surroundings. Forewarned is forearmed.  Situational Awareness maximizes the distance between you and danger.

An advantage of a knife is that it extends the reach of the attacker’s arm and thus its point/edge reaches you before you can reach the attacker with your hands or hand/fist strike. The physical dynamic element to be utilized is DISTANCE.


You cannot be hurt if the weapon cannot reach you. Thus the best defence is distance: being far away leaves the attacker with no use for his knife except to throw it and risk a miss, or you collecting that knife and attacking him. So all competent Self Defence classes should heavily recommend that: when confronted by a knife: that you run for your life. You cannot be stabbed if you are not there. All physical combat is risky, no matter how much ability and training in fighting you have, there is no firm guarantee that you will live to see tomorrow. Remember, many a world champion, although winning numerous fights, has lost a fight, and if knives were involved he would not, upon losing and being dead, be returning for a next bout. You lose your life once, and that is enough; game over.  Life is not a video game.


If boxed in, or being not a fast enough runner, or having a need to defend more helpless loved ones.


Unless you choose to constantly carry with you some defensive object (baton, spray etc) you are at the mercy of the environment you find yourself in when the attack occurs. Situational awareness, your constant alert radar, should tell you of all the objects in your vicinity that you can use for cover or use to fend off an attacker. Also where the escape exits are. There is little sense in being unarmed and having to fight a weapon when you can arm yourself. Do not focus only on grabbing things and throwing them, as that is delaying, not very intimidating to a determined on-comer, and you can only throw an object once and can then be defenceless. You don’t pick up a weapon and then throw it away. Nearly anything can be used as a defensive tool, even a metal garbage tin lid. You might pick up a light chair, keep hold of it, and use it to keep the enemy at bay by a quick thrusting of the four prongs or legs at him; and not letting him grab the chair. Unfortunately, when an attacker wields a knife (and thus cannot use that same hand to grab you), he still has his other hand with which to strike or grab and hold you still. Once you are grabbed you are a stationary target and your survival chances decline.


(1) Spray:

If a pepper spray or the like is in your purse: you will never have time to get it out and aim it. Same if you have a holstered gun, the drawing of it requires not much time, but a near knife thrusted will get you first: so arm/arms out to block any advance, back up and get space to draw your gun. Speed, movement, is life; so you are quick or you are dead. When suddenly attacked, if you do not have your spray already in your hand, then the attack occurs first and your spraying, if it ever can then happen, is later: too late.

(2) Cane:

In the 1800’s British gentlemen who walked the dark and dangerous streets of London, or dangerous areas of the British Empire where they could be set upon by ruffians, often carried with them a walking-stick type of cane with a knobbed head. Sometimes inside that cane would be sheathed a long narrow sword or rapier. The walking stick is a defensive weapon and a normal type of such a stick is allowed to pass through security checks and is not legally offensive if needed to assist walking. And you will need some such assistance in walking, especially if set upon and damaged by ruffians or terrorists. You will need to fend them off and move your damaged self away from danger and to hospital. As the age of ruffians is once more upon us, a walking stick or strong umbrella may be a prudent instrument to assist with your safety and that of your companion loved ones.

(3) Weighted Cloak:

In such earlier times, officers of the law could wear, in their weather cloaks, weights sown into the bottoms, such as lead pellets. Encountering a ruffian or group of them, the officer could twist their body to whip around their weighted cape and cause confusion and disruption of an attack. Perhaps saving their own life.

(4) Deer Scroll:

The ninja, being mainly intelligence gatherers rather than assassins, sometimes went into sensitive areas where they could not carry a knife without being exposed. In a similar usage to the SAS’s joined spread-open hands to catch the wrist of a knife wielder, the ninja used to use a deer skin to wrap and block and fend-off a knife. Deer skin was used as it is resistant to slashing or even knife penetration from ordinary thrusting. The skin was formed into a scroll with handles for two hands to hold the skin stretched. Material that is fairly slash proof is available for making such implements of defence.

(5) Belt:

In similar vein to the deer scroll, if there is time, is taking off your belt and flicking the buckle to keep the attacker distant; if he moves in, then by your holding the two ends of the belt use can be made of it to block a lunge or slash and wrap the offending arm; similar to the use of the deer scroll.

(6) Forearm Guard Bracers:

Leather, and the like, has many uses, such as in forearm guard bracers, as found in archery. With you guard arms thrown up to fend off slashes, using a firm covering for your blocking forearms would be a prudent and non-aggressive defence practice, and the use of such clothing is not outside of the law.  The braces can be discrete under your long shirt.

(7) Yawara Type Short Stick:

Small metal rods can be held in a certain way in the palm and used to parry a knife. This art is from ancient China and found its way to Japan into use by Geisha girls who used as a substitute either their long hair pins, or chopsticks. Mainly when entertaining Samurai who could get violent when drunk. A skilled geisha was not allowed to kill a Samurai (death penalty to her), but could restrain him through nerve pressure and take him out to be transported home. Rods were useful also in parrying a knife from a ruffian in the street; but in such a fight from a non-samurai thug, a swift defensive kill would be necessary. The iron rod ribbed fan was of similar use in defence and attack. As a substitute for a metal short rod, a long metal pen may do. Also a magazine that you roll up tight when transversing danger zones has thrusting uses.


To be street-effective a technique needs to be simple to teach, simple to learn, simple to execute; and simply be practiced as much as you value your life that is to be preserved. Real attacks and defences to them are cutting edge, swiftly over and done, there is no second and third time for a replay as in the Dojo. Replays are for movies. You are only as good as your last recent practice.

A street knife attack by an adept is not the same as the basic one-go attack used in a training session used to start the learning process. The attacker will likely attack when very close, by surprise for the Fear Freeze factor, and do multiple stabbings within one second. Rapid fire. The knife need not be long, to penetrate enough centimetres to cause shock to organs and overwhelm the nervous system. Basics methods are very necessary for learning basic forms, but always they must soon be taken into reality by dealing with faster and faster attacks: so faster and faster automatic reactions. If a red lipstick smeared training knife is used with Students (in throwaway clothes) they can soon see what to expect.


Striking is not just striking: you go for specific effective targets and an instruction course should cover vital points on the body; how each is best impacted and what results you can expect.


(1) Kicking:

When a knife-bearing arm lunges at you or slashes at you (so you must be in range for that to contact), your forearms must be up to guard your head and torso and you must move both head and torso together out of range. Unlike a ‘You are no-threat’ messaging guard where your forearms are up with open palms facing outward to an aggressor; when knives are involved, you must have your palm facing inward, to you. The inside of your arms are where your veins are. Expect to be cut, slashes to the outside of your forearms will bleed but can be stitched up later in hospital. In any knife attack expect to bleed and completely accept that so as to lessen any shock: know what will happen. So as the incoming knife reaches your body space, your forearms are up, and you pivot to be side-on to them so limiting your exposed targets, and you tilt your head and torso away from the blade: all in one smooth move. Moving the target is vital. Using this tilt to immediately raise your leg nearest to him, bring it up and with hip thrust you deliver a hard side-kick to his knee. Retreat your leg swiftly so that your inner thighs do not get slashed. Practice until: your arms up and pivot and torso tilt away and kick are all one quick movement. Practice all in one constant breath outward. Or if he is too close for a side-kick: then hard stomp on top of his foot with your heel to break the delicate bones there. Hit and grind your heel in. Knee or foot damage immobilizes him and limits the range of his knife; you can safely step away and the fight is over. Still holding his knife he might hop on one leg to chase you but his normal mobile advantage is gone. If he (a maniac) wants to hop at you then kick hard his other knee also. With shoes being commonly worn, a hard kick with a shoed foot to the right target can be devastating.

(2) Clamping Wrist in Both Hands:

In similar vein to the deer scroll is the method favoured by the Special Air Service Regiment (SAS). To block a knife bearing arm: instead of using just one hand and its limited spread palm width to grab, they use both palms spread with the thumbs crossed to give a maximum sized clamp to catch a limb when fine motor skills are unavailable; such as in a fearsome attack. They keep their arms extended fairly straight, as a rod keeps away a snarling leopard. Controlling the knife by controlling the arm/hand that wields it is the priority. From there you can clamp on and lever their arm to immediately kick or knee their groin, wheel their arm over their head, lowering that head into a kick etc. Keep the attacker off balance.


(3) Clamping His Arm in Both Arms:

Alternatively, if you are too close to kick or block, you need to move in, even after being stabbed, and clamp firmly your arms one under and one over his knife arm (so by limiting his arm mobility there is no escape for him by pulling away in any direction). Press firmly his arm to your body, and before he can reach around your body to grab the knife into his other (free) hand: you step onto of his foot and thrust your nearest hand into his throat (such as palm heel or crab claw) to off balance him backward. Twist your body to assist and throw him to the ground, and his ankle will be broken. Hold onto his knife arm as he goes down and break it with a jerking upward arm-bar. Once again, with leg damage, he is immobilized and you are free to go and get treatment and inform the police. Do not pick up the knife and hold it, as it will then have your prints on it and not those of the attacker: that can be a serious problem for you later in court, as it can dispute the ownership of the knife and thus the ownership of the initial attack.

Techniques must be practiced or they are useless and you mincemeat. When practising: Care for your partner and do not break his ankle: but release his trapped foot before he falls; and he falls on a prepared soft surface to especially protect his head from trauma. Care for those who help you to improve yourself.


A person who does not want to be a victim should look at carrying such things as: leather guards on the forearms; a pants belt that you can swiftly whip out; a cane or umbrella; a yawara stick. A medical bandage kit would help but if in a pouch on the belt it would slow the belt extraction.

Practice technique with a partner at various ranges (for safety using eye goggles plus soft rubber knife, later a hard rounded blunt practice knife). A frenzied attack rapid fire and close is more realistic and is the ultimate aim. As you will respond swiftest according to how you trained. Attacker yelling, screaming obscenities and frothing at the mouth to be intimidating would mimic what you can expect. Death is no respecter of protocol and etiquette. As it is the aggressor who chooses to bring a life and death situation to you, be considerate and let the aggressor go first through the Doorway to Death.

Fear needs to be attended to as a subject to be overcome as it will always be a slowing-of-the-mind factor in a real attack. Practicing sudden surprise attacks will simulate fear. As you train to react without thoughts, so you will do when given no time to think.



As outlined in most defence and martial arts courses, your attacker starts from some distance away comes forward to your front, and delivers one plunging knife downward or upward, or a long straight thrust, or a large slash. Techniques designed to deal with such attacks have a good chance of working. However, such attacks are delivered by amateurs, or ordinary people with no fighting experience or training.


A criminal who means to kill you will hardly approach you from the front where you can be fully aware of him. Side or behind are safer for him, besides, being devious is his nature. Giving notice of an attack from some distance is naive; a surprise attack may be expected in the street and launched from close to your body. Many criminals not only have street fighting experience, but also they have studied courses for criminals for years at university: that is, in prison, taught by other prisoners. Attacks there are vicious and sudden and from close quarters. There is no one thrust only from a shank or makeshift knife, expect to be struck 50 times in rapid succession. So instead of a similarity to a single one shot-like attack, you are being suddenly overwhelmed by machine gun fire. So, again, the best option: is to run like mad to safety and or hospital, if you can. In a knife attack simply expect that you will always be cut in the frenzy, but better to be cut than to be eliminated by staying. Sitting ducks stay, flying ducks flee. Staying too close to the fire, your goose is cooked. Removing the target limits the damage.


Thus some prisoners prefer to wear, as a knife defence, makeshift armour under their clothing, though it be only made of paper wrappings. Some safety conscious people, aware of medieval armour, have constructed and constantly wear a chain mail shirt under their clothes. Chain mail with small links, if the garment is long enough, gives full protection in covered areas against slashes and stabs. Although until you get terrorist attacks daily, the public would be unlikely to take up that option; and there is a weight consideration. There are also lighter slash-resistant fabrics. Here is an entrepreneurial opportunity; provided the marketing of it arouses demand for the product by clearly messaging its defensive usefulness in a knifing encounter.


It will be noticed in the three defensive technique methods given, that the attacking killer is probably still alive. That is not a sensible outcome unless you have full domination and control of the situation. The winner of a fight who then proceeds to attack the now helpless first unlawful attacker is guilty in the eyes of the law of being an unlawful attacker. When the battle is won a de-escalation of violence shows civility.

However, a person who tried to kill you and being thwarted, for now, may retain his original intent and attempt to kill you tomorrow and you might not then be lucky. When he is on the ground he may pull out a gun and shoot you; he may at a later date succeed in killing you. If he is a gang member he may communicate with his gang and they come and kill you. There is a danger to you in just restraining a knife wielder or killer as there is then no guarantee that he might not escape the hold and kill you still. Saving the life of a murderer in action is to risk your own life and that of others. That is why police are allowed, if the circumstances warrant it, to shoot to kill.

In the circumstance of life and death combat it is foolish not to kill your attacker as fast as possible as the longer a fight goes on the more likely you are to lose. In such a situation you are not temporarily safe until the attacker is rendered unconscious and not permanently safe from that attacker unless that attacker is dead. So: unless you have a need to take the attacker prisoner, and have the training to do so; or are lucky enough to completely dominate the scene; your counter attacks need to be killing attacks where possible. Ordinary blows will just hand the initiative over to your killer.

An attacker’s intent to kill is why he has a weapon in the first place. All you need to quickly assess or notice is whether or not the attack is of the killing type, and a knifing is such an attack category. For attacks that are only fights killing is not justified. Verbal vicious threats to kill you mean nothing. However, physical types of killing attacks, with or without verbal threats, are what matters. Weapons and gangs are an overwhelming killing level. Unarmed killing attacks upon you are throat chokes and King Hits to the head (sometimes called Coward Punches). It is common that a King Hit knocks out or stuns and the helpless body then falls to the ground without arm use to break the fall. If the skull impacts on a hard surface it can have permanent damage. When your life is clearly physically (not verbally) threatened, then you need to do whatever is needed to survive, and that includes the allowance of a pre-emptive strike.  Your clarity of judgement of the deadly danger to you will need to later be elaborated by you in court.

Some more defensive techniques should be learned of course, but not a huge number, as picking between many responses when in a rush slows thinking, slows response and succeeds only in failure.

Defensive strategies also need to be researched by those wishing to live.


This modern world has been chosen by killers to be their battle zone. In ancient times all peasants knew something of fighting from various levels of practice and weaponry. Ruling authorities in the past, such as England’s King Edward III and King Henry V wanted and demanded that the citizens train in weaponry. Modern governments, who have a duty of care, should do the same, for they cannot provide armed police ready to save you on every street corner or in every large building. Required weekend archery practice won the battles of Crecy, Poiters and Agincourt. Such are examples of air warfare (arrows) winning over land warfare (knights). Utilizing equal kinds of weapons is no guarantee of victory. A citizen carrying a knife is no guarantee of a win against a knife. If the citizenry is to be armed then consideration needs to be made on just what tools would be effective and acceptable. Switzerland is a nation which demands that its citizens be armed, and its history shows that it works. However the Swiss are of a sensible mindset and that is not exactly common elsewhere.


I suggest that a mnemonic be used to assist the stressed mind in a crisis: “RADAR”.

RADAR for the mind pre-attack, and then R.A.D.A.R for choice of actions on attack.
It is best to spot an attacker before he spots you, giving maximum running distance. So having your mental radar switched on when out and about is the way to go. Your senses sweep fairly constantly your surroundings. Notice anything unusual. This is Situational Awareness, your first and primary defensive tool. As a warship in a dangerous ocean area, if you don’t have your radar on, you can get hit by surprise. Surprise is a primary factor in who wins a fight. Removing Surprise removes one of the main causes of fear and inaction: shock.
Once you are aware of a serious threat, such as an attacker with a knife, you then have two choices: to either (1) Run or (2) Fight.

When an attacker approaches you use “R.A.D.A.R”, that is:

RUN, or Avoid-Deflect-Attack; RUN.


There are reasons why one cannot just run away, and they would need to be later articulated to any inquiring court. Such as: you were cornered; invalid; scared; your loved ones were infirm and needed you; you were a law officer and were expected to deal with the public threat.

I mention that it is no good to just run away and not be fast enough to escape the fast killer attacking you from behind, tackling you, their weight being on top of your back, they happily plunging their knife in you. You need to assess that you can make an escape. Girls throw off your high heels if there is no time to use them in your hands as a weapon.


The target that the knife is being sent to is where you body is at this moment: So Avoid the path of the knife by moving you body. Moving targets are less easy to hit. If you keep your body stationary eventually a strike will hit it.


Blocks are for trading sequences of blows and blocks, as in boxing. You might box against fists, but not against a knife. Instead, soft-block (which is a Deflection) with your forearm or parry with your hand the hand/arm that has the knife. Do not parry the knife itself. Soft-blocking requires relaxed arms and a calm controlling mind to read a weapon in motion. Thus much practice. If you deflect with your forearms ensure that your outer forearms are presented towards the enemy. That is, your palms face you. Slashes on your outside forearms (which you must expect and accept) can be later stitched up in hospital; but slashes to the veins on the inside of your forearms will quickly bleed you out and diminish you.


All is for nought if you do not capture the moment presented by your Avoidance and Deflection to counter-attack. This means a fast full-on strike to an extremely vulnerable part of his body. Attack with killing or disabling blows. But a single strike may be the only blow you can get, thus it has to be serious.


After your counterattack or Defensive Technique you should not stay and wrestle but leave the area immediately. RUN. You need to get help to report to police, to go to hospital, to warn others.


The Defensive Technique “Avoid-Deflect-Attack” should take less than a second from beginning to end; longer gives you less chances. The motions should be smooth and fast. Train for that. Thinking takes time and you don’t have any.  Do your thinking before an actual attack; your killer has already thought about what he will do.  Think, decide and train before an attack.  An attack is when you practice what you preach; to prevent a preacher having to give a speech over you.

So RADAR for the mind and R.A.D.A.R for the body.

(Image: Knife Attack - Self-Defense Guides)

[The views expressed in this publication are solely those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of Dissecting Society]


  1. Mr Stephen, do you think populations are ready to face terrorists? Are we more resilient?

    1. Hi Pietr, seeing the attacks and seeing the responses of those attacked, they all appear to be caught unaware, unplanned and untrained. The attacks succeed, the victims die or are damaged, the police come later. People so far seem to be in denial that any misfortune can happen to them. It is the herd mentality of the African plain.

  2. We have a lot to learn still and the danger nears fast! Thanks for taking the time to teach us, Stephen.

  3. Stephen, I was overwhelmed by this post actually. I'm under the impression if a terrorist would come for me right now, I'd die! Literally! Fear Freeze is a problem with most of us, so how can any of us overcome it? Is there an exercise for this?

    1. Hi Ana, Yes, when terrorists attack you are then in a killing zone and thus need every bit of advantage that you have previously set up to assist in your survival. With no previous setups in training or strategies: then you allow yourself to be drowned by the tide of terror; a body dumped on the sands of time; a wasted life.

      In the martial arts and Self Defence courses techniques or the physical acts are a major focus of training. Often forgotten, however, is that the mind rules the body. It rules with preset Instincts or internal computer programs, and they are fast reaction; Analytical thinking which is slow, as it seeks information input and analysis before commanding a reaction; and Emotional, which is your biochemistry and that depends on your conscious mind’s interpretation of the inputs from your environment. Controls on this are possible and useful. A maniac swearing about your mother: you interpret as an insult and get mad and so are mentally off-balanced. A dog barking somewhere: you interpret as of no concern because you cannot read its language. So the meaning of images, sounds and words are yours to give meaning to, to interpret, and in this you have control. Deliberately turn the words of insult and savagery, when met, into meaningless sounds and you retain some control over your emotions. That requires a deliberate mental act early, on the very onset of the verbal/visual attack.

      An attacker, especially a terrorist, unleashes fear into the region around him. With weaponry, a shouting of the terrorist motto, and being merciless: These inspire the Fear of death and often freeze victims into stationary targets. An instinctive hope, for some, that by not moving maybe the passing tiger will not notice them. That may work for a tiger, which looks for one meal victim at a time, but not for a terrorist who seeks many victims at a time. For primitive times, as the saying goes: you do not have to outrun a lion, only outrun the person running with you. For civilised times, with terrorists, you need to get away, or if unfortunately too close to get away, then you must fight.

    2. I teach a number of martial arts, but also teach the mental arts, which is ways of controlling the mind. As the mind is an exploratory and reactive creature, both in its conscious and unconscious aspects: it needs controlling by your centred Will, wherever that floats in the structure. Long practice of the physical arts does indeed lead to a mind calming as it learns to know what it can do and being familiar with being attacked so that encountering an attack is just a daily chore. Confidence conquers fear to a great extent. But methods of mind control should also be specifically taught. When one goes about their daily business or even when entering a Dojo, one’s nice sociable self is captaining the mind and body. This is Not the state of mind needed in combat. One needs to be able to switch instantly into a combat state, like a calm cat into a ferocious wildcat. Ordinary citizens need to fight ferociously for their life as they do not have the long-trained skills of a master who can afford to fight calmly and win. The subconscious mind can on its own go into a paranormal state and this must always be redirected and controlled. Within your mind, are many ‘characters of being’ (not of schizophrenic neurosis). They are all still you of course, but their usefulness is that they hold different talents. With training you can switch from one to another. So you can change into a wildcat, a tiger, a dragon. You do after all hold often at least 50% of the programs of most other living creatures in your DNA (and they yours). You are not them of course but these fighting creatures are much better to be mentally in an attack than just a puny human. Shape-shifting is not just for the movies, but unlike the movies it is mental shape-shifting, not exactly physical shape. Not exactly, as it is not what is, but what the attacker perceives to be: a changing form before him that wasn’t there before. The mind rules.

      A number of martial arts do teach the fighting methods of fighting animals, Shaolin’s five animal styles for instance. But the focus is often on just physical technique similarities, when also is the vast mysterious realm of the spirit of those creatures in the mind. With imagination one can change the outlook of the mind. The projection of self into another is similar. Mental communication is a two-way street.


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