Dicing with Death

Written by Pablo Cardenas

From the jujutsu that germinated among Japan’s samurai to the blade-focused fighting arts of the Philippines, most martial arts’ knife defence methods include disarming techniques as a major component. But when life is at stake and adrenaline is surging through the system, is the average student realistically capable of pulling off such complex movements? In many cases, argues Wing Chun instructor Pablo Cardenas, attempting to disarm an opponent is often dicing with death.


There are many options in edged-weapon defence and most are useable when selected under the right circumstances for the right individual. However, in real life, violence is rarely encountered in ideal circumstances or delivered by an opponent who's an ideal match for you in stature, strength and skill. Therefore, instructors should teach in accordance with students' individual abilities rather than applying the ‘one size fits all' mindset - against a blade, an ill-fitting response could mean an early lie-down in a well-fitted suit. Many instructors may be proficient at edged-weapon defences, but does that mean students should simply try to emulate instructors' skills, disregarding their own anatomical weaknesses? An instructor's abilities as a teacher will be tested by how the student can make a technique work for themselves rather than make it work the way the instructor wants it to work. Much of what is taught in self-defence slants towards the instructor's strengths, such as height advantage, martial art/jobs experience, athleticism, etc. Taking into account the instructor's ability and physicality, it would be a mistake to assume that their technique will work effectively for all students.

There are many considerations and much testing and evaluation needed to find the defensive options that work with an above-average success rate. It's well documented that, more often than not, victims of knife attacks sustain multiple stab/slash wounds as a consequence of the rapidity and frenzied nature of most attacks, regardless of whether they survive. It's important to replicate this type of realistic attack when testing your selected defence options while evading, standing, sitting, kneeling, in confined space, on the ground or surprised with a concealed weapon, to name just a few likely scenarios. This process will weed out preconceived ideas of what works; you'll likely find that many techniques that look good when performed by numbers in the dojo, will not work under realistic field conditions. It is better to make mistakes and experience the failure of technique in training than on the street, where you may only get one chance.

Many years ago, I heard the simple acronym ‘CCC', which laid a basic foundation for knife survival: Clear, Control and Counter. With that in mind, let's take a look at the various tactics that can potentially be used to survive a knife attack.

Survival Basics


Wrist-grabs: Attempting to capture the wrist (secure the knife) as you are closing the gap affords many risks, as the attacker's knife-hand can travel too quickly and at unpredictable angles. You may also find it difficult to get a secure grip, especially if your hand is small in comparison to the attacker's larger wrist. This can compromise the grip's security and still keep you susceptible to attacks by either hand.

Reliance on hand speed also increases the risk of fingers being severed on the thrust forward or withdrawal of the knife. Mistiming leaves too much to chance; once fingers are severed your grab option is compromised.

Overall, wrist-grabs are very reliant on timing, speed and precise gauging of distance, making them a high-risk option with a low success rate. Test this assertion by throwing a jab at speed - can you capture the wrist? Now attach a knife!

Also, a point often neglected with wrist-focused defences is the need to control the elbow; if the attacker's elbow is free it allows him to twist and turn, potentially cutting at various angles, and also creating torque to break free, or change his body angle to strike with his other hand.

While it's not a primary or preferable tactic, the wrist-grab can be an interim option when the knife-wielding arm is in the exchange stage, before transitioning to a more secure position that can be supported by your size, strength and weight.

Simple Striking Options

Body-shifting/evasion: Taking the target away by shifting the body mass or angling the body off can be considered slower than deflecting the attack with the arm - compare both individually and then simultaneously: is an arm-thrust slower than shifting your entire body mass? Stepping back/evasion is a viable option, but you will still ultimately need to bridge the gap and take control to prevent a relentless, frenzied attack. This method relies on speed and timing. Standing your ground and ‘hollowing out' while clearing with your arm allows close proximity for the option of engaging control.

Kicking: This may work at first as a surprise option, but thereafter the leg can become the attacker's alternate target, increasing risk with no controlling capabilities - unless you're confident your leg is faster than the attacker's hands! Injury to the legs will compromise your foundation and ability to launch any defensive strategy, whether it be escaping, evasion or applying techniques with the necessary stability and balance.

Simultaneous attack and defence: Controlling the attacker's knife is vital. The risk with simultaneous attack and defence is that there is no control; if the attacker is not neutralised efficiently (with a disabling, decisive blow) the attack will remain rapid and relentless. This option also relies on arm reach. Whether successful or not, you will still be forced to control the knife-arm, taking you back to the option of control to mitigate further risk of a stab or cut. It must be stressed that disarming an attacker is not a requirement for survival - the attacker is welcome to the knife if unconscious or otherwise immobile. The priority is to destroy the computer centre (brain) that directs intent and thus disable the foundations (body) that supports the ability to launch an attack. Fracturing, dislocating, joint-manipulation, etc. is not a priority, as this requires power, strength, and/or complicated technique. It would certainly be great to be of better ability than the attacker, however, the smaller person needs a simple and effective equaliser.

Restraining holds: Restraints should not be excluded as a defence but they are really only a viable option if the attacking limb falls into the shoulder-lock - otherwise, effecting them is not ‘simple'. Securing the arm without the use of a complicated technique is a safer option, though not without its own risks as capturing the withdrawing arm requires determination, commitment and overcoming fear. An arm-drag does the job, while focusing your two arms on one as a life-saving priority. This is invaluable for those who are smaller or weaker than their attacker, as a single-handed wrist-grab will not do as it is reliant on speed, coordination and strength. Fending off the knife attack and capturing the arm is important for the minimisation of further cuts and stabs to vital areas. When creating a defensive position, protection of these vital areas is your primary concern.


Training various options of securing the arm is important as you have to deal with what you have been given by the attacker, as opposed to predetermined technique. Some scenarios may include, but not be limited to: both arms by your side; one arm high and one arm down (opposite); both hands in defensive positions; four quadrant angles of attack; peripheral attack; frenzied attack; defending with an incapacitated hand, etc.

High-Risk Controls

There are many challenging drills you can use to evaluate each technique. Try these:

• The attacker has a knife in one hand and a boxing glove in the other, with no limitations - now try to disarm or control. • Run a gauntlet scenario that is fatiguing and exhausting, then face a knife attack; the mind and body will do only what they're capable of when under stress. • To create very challenging circumstances, have three or four people circling and/or menacing before one launches an attack.

The idea is that you learn to respond to the various attacking angles and defend from positions of disadvantage, as opposed to the ready-set-go preparation. The counter-attacks may include all available options, but among the most effective are: finger-striking the eyes; C-clamping the throat; groin-striking and grabbing; and biting the attacking arm. However you respond, you must be rapid, relentless and determined.

The last point is important, as the potential reaction of the attacker is often overlooked. As you elevate your response (e.g. with an eye attack), the attacker may do so too, and what you can do, he may do just as well. The attacker may have the experience and disregard for life required to trump you, the law-abiding citizen, so you must be mentally prepared to do whatever it takes and not relent.

We achieve this through our training methodology; it must be as real as safety allows. Anything less will see the training fail you at the most critical time.

Have you ever asked yourself, do arm/shoulder/wrist-locks really work? Generally they may work on an attacker whose intention is to threaten and/or injure rather than cause death, but what about on those who are motivated to take life? If the attacking limb falls into the place of a potential lock during the struggle, then go for it, but otherwise stick to tactics with a higher rate of success. Ending up on the ground is another potential reality and this favours the larger, heavier attacker, regardless of your skill level. A single wrist-grab will not do if your life depends on it. Fear and survival instinct will force most defenders to engage the ‘Oh s***' grip, using both hands against the attacker's one knife-arm - it's best to know, then, where to go from there.

Your best defence, of course, is your offence - as always, prevention is better than cure. So clear, control (disarm not required) and counter decisively. The underpinning tactics necessary to effect this principle include the following:

• Defend the left side of your body with your left hand, and the right side with your right (‘same hand, same side')
• Apply your closest hard weapon against the closest soft target
• Don't fight force with directly opposing force
• Control the elbow/arm (two hands on one arm is the safest bet)
• Keep it simple and direct.

Remember, the more movements required, the more complicated it becomes; the more training required, the more that potentially can go wrong. Put everything on the table and test your techniques, tactics and instincts against an uncompliant partner who attacks and defends with intent and who is a foot taller, and preferably more than 20kg heavier.

Only then will you see what techniques survive the pressure test.