Knife Defence Fundamentals: What Really Works?

It’s always a bit dangerous when you talk about knife defence. Lots of people when they talk about knife defence believe they speak the truth; that the defences they describe or teach really work.

Very few of those people who talk about knife defence ever say that in fact, they could be completely wrong, that the defences they describe just may not work at all.

knife defence 

The trouble is that not too many people who have had real, extensive experience with knife attacks ever really talk about it. They are certainly not self protection instructors. More likely they are hardened criminals, either in jail or keeping a low profile somewhere.

I doubt they are writing texts on how best to defend against a knife. Even if they did, do you think they have a full proof method for defending against a blade?

Of course not. More likely they just found a way to get through the attack at the time. They did what they had to do at the time. I seriously doubt they had a plan of defence that they followed to the letter. Maybe after a few encounters they picked up a few tricks along the way, but certainly nothing that could be classed as a full proof defence.

There is no such thing as a fool proof defence, especially when it comes to defending against knifes wielded by determined and possibly psychopathic attackers.

That’s the first fundamental of knife defence: Nothing is guaranteed to work, not even some of the time.

If you face a knife attack, you face possible failure followed by death.

The risks are serious, the odds stacked heavily against you. Training only slightly lowers those odds.

All of which makes it kind of difficult for people who desire to know what really works against a real knife attack.

Barring the small amount of credible information we have, we are left only with conjecture and faith in techniques that we have an idea might work, but that’s it.

And let’s not forget here that the real purpose of knife defence is not to win or beat your attacker, but to simply survive the attack. That’s the best we can hope for, to survive the encounter fairly intact.

We must understand that we may suffer damage, possibly great damage to ourselves, but we have to remember we are dealing with a very deadly weapon that is very nasty even in untrained hands.
The risks are high. We get that, right?

Of course we do. So the question now becomes: What’s the closest we can get to good knife defence (remembering of course that there is no ultimate answer to that question and that any attempt made at it would still be conjecture, unless the defence in question was thoroughly tested in the real world, which is highly unlikely to happen)?

To get close to good knife defence we first have to look at what doesn’t work. And you may be thinking, Well, if we can’t test any of this stuff, how do we know what doesn’t work?

Well we can test this stuff– to an extent. We can don protective gear and go full contact with these defences. If the defence doesn’t work under those conditions, it is highly unlikely that it will work under real conditions, with even more pressure added.

 So let’s look at some stuff that has been tested and found to be lacking. I am automatically dis-including any traditional martial arts defence here as most of them are silly beyond words. I’m only talking here about some of the more “reality-based” defences.


Grabbing The Wrist Or Knife Hand

This is very common in most knife defences, grabbing the wrist of the attacker with one hand and striking with the other, or grabbing both wrists and trying to wrestle the knife free or head-butt or knee.

First of all, it is very difficult to grab an attacker’s wrist like that, especially if it is moving fast and unpredictably. Add to that your own adrenal response, your fear (and likely surprise as well) and the psychological shock of seeing a gleaming blade coming your way and you’ve got a difficult job on your hands.

If the attacker is making multiple passes in all directions with the knife, catching his wrist can be like trying to catch a fly with chopsticks. And unless you are Mr.Miagi you’ll have great trouble doing it and will probably get stabbed multiple times before you succeed.

Having tested this under pressure, I can safely say that I won’t be basing my knife defence around this method. It simply does not work against a determined attacker.

There is also the fact that when you do actually manage to grab your attackers wrist (which isn’t often, believe me) they usually just pull it free again with shocking ease.

It’s also not safe to assume that hitting your attacker while clinging to their weapon arm will distract them enough from continuing to try and stab you.

Yes there is a decent chance that hitting them may work, but don’t underestimate the determination of most attackers.

If someone has made the decision to stab you, they have made their intentions pretty clear: They want to do you real damage, maybe even kill you, otherwise they would just have used their fists to attack you instead.
That kind of violent intent is hard to dampen or counter. Many knife victims are inflicted with multiple wounds because the attacker was so enraged and in such a frenzied state.

When you test these techniques the attacks you defend against should be highly aggressive, like your attacker is trying to kill you.

Train for the worst and you increase your chances of survival.

Let’s now look at another very common defence to a knife attack.


The Front Kick

Kicking an incoming attacker is another very common defence that is taught– when the  attacker attacks, kick them in the chest or abdomen, sending them to their backs on the floor.

Again, sorry, but against a determined and adrenalized attacker, this doesn’t work.

For a start, not everyone is skilled enough to land a decent kick on target. In tests at my gym, some people were not even quick enough to get a kick off properly before their attacker closed on them. Of those that did manage to land a kick, some were so off target as to be useless and some had not enough power behind them.

Of the kicks that did land correctly, the most they did was knock the attacker back a bit, but they soon recovered and quickly closed again. Admittedly, the attacker was wearing body armour, but I still seriously doubt that even without body armour a kick would have stopped them. The adrenaline would take most of the impact. A really determined attacker would take it easily.

Aside from this, when you kick like that, hit or miss, you end up falling forward into a bad position, leaning towards your attacker and possibly even off-balanced. Not a good defensive position and it takes precious time to recover from.

You may get lucky and stop your attacker with this defence, but I wouldn’t bet my life on it.

Take at look at the video below. The guy in the green body armour tries to stop me with a front kick but all I do is continue my attack unabated. In the same video you can see me land a pretty good kick, but it does little to stop my attacker.

Blocking And/Or Backtracking

Backing away from any attack is never really a good idea. Even against a knife, it is better to move into your attacker offensively, attacking the attacker as they say.

Moving back constantly away from the knife will inevitably ensure you get stabbed multiple times, for not only are you on the back foot, but you are giving your attacker space to attack.

It is always the first instinct to move away from danger. In this case you must condition yourself to move towards it, sooner rather than later.

Blocking can prove useful in the short term if done correctly. In the long term it will get you killed eventually.

So let’s now discuss how we can increase our chances of surviving a knife attack, aside from avoiding the stuff that doesn’t work under pressure.

Just what does work under pressure?

Moving Into The Attack

Moving into the attack works because you are deriving your attacker of space and movement, two things they need in order to attack properly. Yes you may still get stabbed, but it is better to get stabbed once than multiple times, as you would if you backed away from the attack.

It should be pointed out here that grappling will not work, not when the person you are grappling has a knife. While you are trying to grapple, your attacker will be stabbing you in the neck, shoulders and back. Even if you do manage to take him down somehow, he will continue to stab you once on the ground.

So if grappling is out, what do we do when we close distance?

Striking your attacker would be another option, but still not the best one (at least not yet).

You may get lucky and deliver a knockout blow as you jump in, but this would be unlikely. It is very difficult to knock someone out when they are completely adrenalized and riled up. They probably won’t even feel the hit and they will carry on attacking like nothing has happened.

There is an argument that goes if you attack the main computer–the head–then your attacker will be distracted from stabbing you, allowing you to keep hitting until they go down.

There is some merit in this. When I’ve wielded a knife against a training partner who would then simulate shredding me, just wiping his hand over my face, it was very distracting. I wasn’t really thinking of the knife, only about stopping the horrible sensation of someone’s hand pressing violently into my face.

A technique like the Shredder may work in a real situation, and it may not. I’m not sure that I’d want to rely on it working. The knife would still be in play. If I wasn’t controlling the knife arm properly I’d get stabbed. Even if I was holding the knife arm it would be a battle to keep control of it and do enough damage with my other hand to incapacitate my attacker.

Like I say, the Shredder is a very effective technique. It’s just when it comes to knifes, you can’t afford to mess about.

Your first objective should be to control that knife before anything else. If you don’t control the knife you don’t get to do anything else without getting stabbed repeatedly.
So how do we control the knife?

Controlling The Knife

Controlling the knife means controlling your attacker’s knife arm so that he cannot use the knife on you anymore. Once you have control you can then begin to strike your attacker.

No matter what direction the knife is coming in, the objective is the same– seize control of the knife arm.

Once you have control of the knife arm you can either trap it or lock it.


To trap the knife, clamp your arm over your attacker’s wrist so that the knife hand is behind your arm. Do not trap the arm itself as your attacker will still be able to move the knife around and will thus be able to stab you in the back. Trapping the wrist ensures no movement of the knife (none of any significance anyway).

Once you have your attackers wrist trapped they will find it extremely difficult to pull their hand away again without loosing the knife. In the meantime, you will be putting in heavy knee and elbow shots.

In the pressure tests we performed at my gym, this was by far the most effective method of controlling the knife and minimising damage to yourself.

Unfortunately, it is also very difficult to pull off under pressure. Out of ten attempts, you may succeed at trapping the knife three times. With practice you will get better, but it always remains a difficult objective to accomplish, quite simply because the attack is so determined–a real attack is shockingly fast and aggressive, not to mention unpredictable, depending on who is wielding the knife.

Still, the alternatives to this method are a lot worse and a lot more dangerous because they leave you open to so much damage in different ways.

Check out one of the pressure tests in the video below and you will see not only how difficult this defence is to get right, but also how effective it is when you do succeed at it.


I’ve used up a lot of words in this article. I’ll let Krav Maga expert and former Captain of the Israeli Special Forces Itay Gil explain the locking after controlling the arm. This video is from a seminar that was held recently at my gym.

So those are just my observations on knife defence, many of which I got from the above seminar. You may disagree with some or all of them, but it would be hard to see why you did. Not much works under pressure. The tactics and techniques mentioned here have been thoroughly pressure tested and they have been found to be the best course of action against a determined knife attack. If you have any better ways of doing things, ways that you have pressure tested, then I’d love to hear about them.

Should you wish to add your thoughts to this discussion them please do so below. Other than that, don’t forget to share this post on Facebook if you liked it.

Written by Neal Martin

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