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History and Philosophy

Surviving a Knife Attack

This article is not just for martial artists but also for people with no martial arts training. While some of the points below may briefly discuss the principles behind some techniques, they are in no way meant to provide instruction on executing techniques. For this we recommend you enrol in a reputable class that has a well-established background in knife-defence skills. Be sure to watch the British Red Cross video at the end of the article (video 3) about what to do if you are cut in a knife attack. To help you better absorb and remember the points made some videos have been added and there is also a summary at the end.

First and foremost, never ever try to fight when there is a chance to run away! Let that sink in...



Now, hand to hand combat should always be a LAST resort, when all else has failed.

It starts with trying to maintain a sense of awareness. In martial arts the term for this is zanshin. Awareness of our surroundings and being alert to potential threats can prevent us from walking into many dangerous situations. Of course it could be mentally exhausting being constantly on a state of alertness, so we pick our moments. For example, while walking home at night we'd expect to be more vigilant than usual. Most of this comes second nature to many. Just don't underestimate how much alertness can help us to avoid walking into trouble. When you feel as if there is a threat don't hesitate to change your direction or location despite how inconvenient it may be for you eg. walking the long way home. It is better to act on your gut instinct than to regret not doing so.


Unfortunately sometimes we are unlucky and may not have the opportunity to avoid danger. This is the focus of this article; for those instances when running away is not an option. As for knife attacks specifically, there're a lot of misconceptions out there about what works and what doesn't so here is a summary of a few principles studied at our club, Jikan Dojo.


Every weapon has an effective range. Unless you're dealing with some knife throwing Rambo, a knife can only hurt you when you're within ARMS REACH of your attacker.

The average leg is longer that the average arm, so KICK FOR DEAR LIFE to keep the knife-man out of reach! For an untrained person it is best to aim for your attacker's torso or the hip as it is a big target. Try not to kick much above your own waist height as the higher you lift your leg, the more likely you are to lose balance. If you are considerably shorter than your attacker, aim for the knees. Even martial arts experts should avoid grappling when possible. Make your escape the second your attacker sufficiently distracted!

An important point about knife attacks is that many of them come as ambushes! So if you are suspicious of someone approaching you don't hesitate to go the other way. Keep them well out of range.


If your attempts to keep your attacker out of range fails with kicking, your transition to the short/close range defence must be super fast! When escape is impossible and the attacker is in stabbing range try to seize their knife-hand with TWO hands, always pushing it AWAY from your body. Grabbing his knife-hand with one hand makes it easier for him to break free. Two hands are better than one (see video 2 below). Forget fancy one-handed grabs and wrist locks. Stomp feet, headbutt, knee kick to groin or even bite in hope to distract him enough. The longer the encounter lasts, the more your chances of getting stabbed are. The aim is to stun or control your attacker just enough to escape.


Hope for the best, but prepare for the worst.

Assume that you WILL get cut!

It's definitely not what you wanted to hear, right?! The fact is that knife attackers require very little skill or strength to cause you injury. If the blade can touch you, then it can cut you!

Getting that scary fact out of the way.. you now need to prioritise defence of vital organs and arteries. These include the neck, the torso area (heart, lungs, kidneys) and inner thighs (femoral arteries). This may mean sacrificing minor cuts to your hands and legs from kicking or grabbing/blocking. If you have been cut seek emergency medical care immediately. Apply pressure to the wound to stop bleeding! See the British Red Cross video below.


This point is particularly aimed at martial artists or individuals thinking of enrolling in a self-defence course.

The medieval ages of Europe and feudal times of Japan were lawless and armed assaults or barbaric death sports were not uncommon. People were often free to carry around weapons and would sometimes resort to using them for whatever reasons, good or bad.


Thankfully, in modern times this is not so much the case. The rule of law has brought about greater civility and mortal combat is no longer commonplace thanks to policing and the rule of law in developed countries.

The problem however is that while knife crime still exists today, few people inside police and military forces and even less civilians can honestly claim to have regularly used knife fighting skills in real combat. Unfortunately this means that many instructors out there teach techniques with no actual experience or a basis in reality. While an instructor may be skilled at unarmed martial arts, it does not necessarily mean that his knife-defence methods are safe or practical.

Training in unrealistic methods are not only a waste of time, but actually put students' lives in danger. For example, an attacker using a single thrust or downward stab does not usually happen in real life, yet many people teach students defences against it (see video below).

Video 1

Knife attacks more often come as multiple, fast and aggressive thrusts and slashes from various directions. So if a self-defence instructor doesn't train you for this type of 'fast and furious' assault you should consider seeking instruction elsewhere. That being said, knife defence skills aren't something easily acquired!


In feudal Japan many robbers, assassins and warriors used knives. Just about anyone could carry a knife. As a result martial art systems of those eras (jujutsu) developed a vast array of techniques to deal with the many variables. In knife defence, there is no 'one-size-fits-all'. For example, a defender with a short arm's reach may not have the same success with a certain technique as a defender with a longer reach.


If you do a short course in knife defence be aware of its limitations. Techniques taught in a short-course just may be sufficient if they deal with the most common types of knife attacks, however keep in mind that attacks in the real world could be more complex and would require a greater skill set.

Video 2

Video emphasizes points 2. and 4. above



When the brain perceives a threat certain biological reactions in your body are triggered by the central nervous system. This is called the fight-or-flight response because in nature an animal experiencing this response is primed to fight or flee to safety. The same happens in human beings. At this time the body is primed for intensive muscular action through chemical reactions such as the release of adrenaline.


The onset of panic is accompanied with certain negative physical symptoms such as decreased coordination, difficulty in thinking clearly, dilated airways and blood vessels affecting breathing and causing dizziness.

However, there are also good physical reactions;

A rush of hormones under stress such as adrenaline, facilitate immediate physical reactions associated with a preparation for intensive physical exertion. Simply put, the fight-or-flight response allows us extra speed, strength and tolerance for pain. We should use it to our advantage!

The will to survive is a powerful human instinct. Let it take over you. Shout, scream, bite, headbutt and scratch if you can (while avoiding the blade). 

Become that inner crazy person you know you could be! Overwhelm your attacker with your shear aggression and will to survive. That aggression could give you the extra 5% or 20% you may need.


Try to be aware of pathways for escape. Always try to run away as soon as there is an opportunity to do so safely. However, if for example your attacker can run faster than you and is chasing you, then turning your back on them simply leaves you more vulnerable. Whether they will chase you depends on their motives.


When we perceive a threat severe enough to cause us panic the brain experiences a delayed cortex function which means a lower mental responsiveness. This causes decreased coordination and also a difficulty in thinking clearly. In a knife attack one of the biggest costs of panic is the loss of TIME.

It only takes a split second for an attacker to get within striking range. A split second can be the difference between being cut and narrowly avoiding a blow. It only takes a split second to distract your opponent enough to run away. This all goes back to awareness.


The point is that whether an attack has caught you by surprise you or whether you see it coming, the time you take to react can make a big difference in whether you live or die. Reducing this time depends on your state of mind. It’s easy to say, “be calm, don’t panic”, but some people just naturally cope well under pressure, while others freeze at the slightest sign of trouble. What is for certain is that no matter who you are, the more ‘experience’ you have with a difficult situation, the better you cope. You can do this by enrolling in a self-defence program, or practising with a friend, taking turns in being the attacker or defender.



If you have been left with a knife wound after an altercation it is important to act quickly as the loss of blood could be fatal. At the same time, the effects of panic and shock could result in loss of consciousness. So try to remain calm and focus on the following things you need to do;

1. Apply pressure to the wound. If an article of clothing is available then use it to stop the bleeding. Maintain pressure until emergency services arrive.

2. Call emergency services. Be as calm as you can over the phone to help them understand you better.

3. Relax. To avoid going into shock try not to over exert yourself. Sit somewhere warm and comfortable.


Please watch the video below on dealing with stab wounds.

Video 3

Created by Art Against Knives in collaboration with the British Red Cross



All the points made above may be a lot to take in at once, so here is a short summary worth memorising.

  1. *Be alert - Especially when in a higher risk environment.

  2. *Try to stay out of reach - If the attack is already upon you try to kick your way out. Look for an escape.

  3. *Two hands - If kicking fails then use two hands to grab the attacker's knife hand.

  4. *Desperately protect the neck, torso and inner thighs. If holding attacker's knife arm keep pushing it away from your body.

  5. *Be aggressive and act quickly! Shout, scream, headbutt, bite. Don't try complex martial art techniques!

  6. *Keep looking for your escape, but don't turn your back on the attacker unless you're well clear.

  7. *If stabbed after escaping remain calm. Apply pressure to the wound. Call emergency services. Get comfortable.

Knowing the points made above by no means makes you Steven Seagal, but if you can act on any when the adrenaline starts pumping you'll increase your chances of surviving. Walk through these actions in your head, simulate with a friend or even better, enrol in a reputable self-defence course keeping in mind what you expect to be taught.

You are much more likely to do the things you've read in this article if you practice them at least once.

Last but not least, if you find this article useful please share with friends and loved ones.

Be safe!

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