How to Survive a Knife Attack (And 4 Myths That Could Get You Killed)

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With knife attacks seemingly on the rise in the news, I thought I’d write an article to give you some ideas of what to do in case you’re faced with a knife-wielding maniac. Keep in mind that this is super generic advice and some of this won’t be at all applicable in some scenarios.

I’ve had several classes in knife fighting and disarms, etc, but don’t think by any stretch that I’m an expert. As you can see for yourself on my blog, my expertise more in the intelligence gathering/protection and survival realm than hand-to-hand combat.

What relevant experience I do have, however, is in risk analysis and mitigation, which is more what you need to know if you aren’t trained and practiced in defending against edged weapons, so that’s what this article will focus on.

Myths and misconceptions about knife attacks

There are a lot of misconceptions about knife attacks to clear up first.

Myth #1) You can disarm him without getting cut/stabbed

Ok, so this is technically possible, but unlikely. One of the biggest hurdles to get over in a fight where your opponent has a knife is when you start bleeding. You might not feel the cut/stab due to the adrenaline in your system but you’ll see and feel the blood. A lot of people freak out at this point because they’ve never been hurt in a fight that caused them to bleed so their brain will lock up and they’ll hyper-focus on the wound and not getting stabbed anymore instead of dealing with the attacker.

Just assume you’re going to get cut or stabbed during this fight and hopefully you’ll keep your head in the fight when it happens.

One of the biggest things to focus on is protecting your vital parts such as your neck and chest. You may need to sacrifice your hands and arms in order to do this.

Myth #2) The attacker will lead with his knife-hand.

If you’ve ever seen a knife fight in the movies or on t.v., you’ll see the bad guy holding the knife out in front as he tries to stab the good guy. The problem with this misconception is that when you go to a class to learn how to defend yourself unless you have an instructor who’s been in ACTUAL knife fights, your lessons and practices will involve you defending against this type of attack.

This could set you up for failure.

Whereas this does happen sometimes, in most cases, the attacker will use his unarmed hand to keep you at bay and then grab you before he stabs you. He’ll no doubt swing and stab with the knife but the actual attack isn’t usually that forward. Make sure you practice with your opponent trying to get quick control over you before stabbing so you’re more used to that. Sparring matches, with practice knives especially, are much more useful than watching YouTube videos, although the videos can give you some ideas of what to practice.

Myth #3) You’ll have time to come up with a plan

Most knife attacks are ambushes within a few feet of the victim, usually within arm’s length. To adequately protect yourself against something like this, you really do need to build up some muscle memory so you don’t have to think.

Also, when someone attacks with a knife, they usually go right after the victim instead of standing back with surgical strikes. This means you need to act immediately and gain yourself some space or control immediately.

Most knife attacks last less than 15 seconds. You need to gain control of the situation within this timeframe in order to have a chance to survive.

Myth #4) The best defense is to run away

Now, sure, if you have the ability to run away, then this is your safest option. From what we’ve seen above, this is unlikely to be the case. You’ll most likely be forced into a confrontation if someone has committed to an attack.

What you should do

Now that we’ve cleared up those myths above, how do you survive a knife attack?

Learn from a qualified instructor

First things first, nothing beats training with a qualified instructor.

Krav Maga is my favorite self-defense system but it’s not the only one that you can learn to protect yourself against someone with a knife. In any case, check out your instructor’s credentials and experience with defending against and disarming knives before you spend your money and time with them. Just because they’re a badass in karate competitions doesn’t mean they know jack about a real fight, let alone one with weapons.

Practice correctly

When learning any form, it’s best to start slowly and get the basics down before going into more advanced techniques. Disarming movements shouldn’t even be on your radar for quite a while.

If you’re using a shock knife (which I think are great), don’t put the setting up to full until you’ve had quite a bit of experience with sparring against it or you’ll be so afraid of getting shocked (simulating being stabbed) that you’ll shy away from what you need to do in practice and won’t learn anything.

In addition to a shock knife, here’s something called a scratch knife. Just something to keep in mind to bring up to your instructor:

Control the space

When someone attacks you, he’s most likely going to try to grab you and stab several times within the first few seconds. Unless you get really lucky, you most likely won’t be able to control anything and will probably get at least cut. Barring any lucky reaction, you need to get some space between you and the attacker so you can see the next attack coming and have at least some time to react.

Keep moving and watch your space so you don’t back yourself into a corner. Also, see if you can put something between you and the attacker, even if it’s just a table. The longer you can keep him at bay, the more likely it is that he’ll leave or someone may notice what’s going on and help.

Putting some space between you and him may just be enough of a deterrent that he may decide to exit stage right. If not, you may be able to find something useful laying around that you can use to defend yourself.

Control the knife if you can but don’t hyper-focus on it

Gaining control of the knife is extremely hard to do without a lot of training and practice but if you can get a hold of the knife, or at least get it out of his hand, you’re much more likely to survive. Just keep in mind that even someone trained in this will most likely get stabbed or cut.

Now, I know I just said to control the knife but you shouldn’t keep all your attention on it. If you can somehow get in a successful blow to knock the guy out, the knife becomes useless to him. Also, as I mentioned above, he’s most likely trying to control your body before stabbing you so pay attention to blocking his unarmed hand and possibly getting control of it.

Find an improvised weapon

If you’ve been jumped and have now managed to put some space between you and the attacker and have a moment, look around to what’s immediately available to grab. A chair or beer mug or even just something to throw in his face might become very helpful to gain the upper hand or at least make the guy decide he doesn’t want to hang around any longer.

Remember: speed, surprise, and violence of action

This is a basic tenant of most combat situations.

The attacker will most likely rush in at the last second and will be expecting a compliant victim to just crumple to the ground with their hands up as they get stabbed to death. A violent counter-attack can throw off the attacker’s focus and may give you just the advantage you need to survive. In some cases, just rushing in and jamming the attacker’s arm to his body while you move to pin that arm will stop the fight, as long as you’re strong enough to hold him until help arrives or you may luck into taking the knife or using your own weapon.

Basically, put the guy on defense. In a lot of cases, a guy with a knife is looking for an easy target. Don’t be that easy target.

Keep fighting until the fight is over

The worst thing you can do in a knife attack is to stop fighting or trying to find a workable escape. Keep fighting until the guy either runs away or can’t fight any longer. If he isn’t running away from you and you can’t get away, you should be attacking.

Realize a gun may not help

A lot of people immediately just pipe up with some variation of, “That’s why I carry a gun.” Ok, Rambo. If that’s your solution then you’re screwed if he just keeps stabbing you while you’re trying to get your pistol out of your holster and get a bead on him. He may end up dying but you will also. Besides, as I mentioned before, a knife attack is most likely to come by way of ambush from arm’s length. You probably won’t have time to grab it and he just might stab you in your shooting arm/hand/shoulder and disable your response.

I’m not saying it wouldn’t be a good idea to have a gun as an option but it’s not the only solution. What if you’re in a crowd of children and he stabs you? Are you really going to risk killing them because you’ve left yourself no other option?

Most likely, the best immediate response will be to do something other than focus on pulling your gun, aiming, and shooting, but if that’s all you’ve left yourself with then that’s all you’re going to do. Not saying that won’t work but don’t leave that as your only option or even just your immediate first response.

Have you ever been involved in or witnessed a knife attack?

If so, what happened? Share your experience in the comments below.

About Graywolf

Graywolf is a former Counterintelligence Agent and US Army combat veteran. His experience as an agent, soldier and government contractor on assignments around the world gives him a unique perspective on the world and how to deal with it. His website is Graywolf Survival.

Graywolf

Graywolf

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  • northern Thailand 1963 . . . we had been in country about a month training alongside the Thai airborne. One night we snuck out of camp and hitched a ride to a bar in Udorn. we were all pretty drunk when the fight started, all I remember well was being outside in the dark with a guy who was intent on stabbing me. I had martial arts training and all that so when the knife came (it was a thrust from far enough away) I instinctively stepped to my left thinking to block the knife by pushing the guys arm to the right so it would go past my body . . . anyways I was too fast and the knife stuck full bore into the fatty part of my thumb and I ended up in a field hospital. . . . thing was I was in the wrong place doing the wrong things at the wrong time of the day. . . . AND I was lucky not to alone at the time.

  • I was attacked by a pit bull and managed to keep it at bay, at one point stabbing it in the nose. They can take an incredible amount of punishment. I was only slightly nicked in the fight and didn’t bleed much. I learned that with knives, bigger is better (it was hard to get past its teeth to stab it). Also, although I held on tightly and avoided having my hand slip up onto the blade, it’s nice to have a knife with a hand guard to prevent slipping and cutting yourself.

    • One thing I look for in a knife if it can prevent my hand slipping and sliding to the blade because it is likely to be bloody. You would be surprised how many knives doesn’t have sufficient guards on the tang to prevent this. Even the new Navy SEAL knife seems inefficient in this area.

      I like the Ka-Bar knife, big, proven, and a nice big guard on the tang.

  • Good advice but forgot important info.
    Never ever put up bottom side of arms. That is natural;but the ligaments, muscles,tendons are the ones that close your fingers and give it strength.Top of arm opens hand-which would you prefer to grab and hold or wave by-by?Always wear a heavy belt with a large buckle.1. To carry gun? might not always carry one.
    2. To pull off extremely fast and there buy extending your reach by 3+ feet (some of you a MUCH greater distance) and inflect damage,ward off attack completely…..
    Big buckle cut in face usually does the trick. Wrap around knife arm,wrap around neck. Got the picture. Only works if practiced. BTW I’ve been there done that; only got cut a little-still have scar and it didn’t hurt MUCH( LATTER).

  • Try this little exercise: give a nine to twelve year old a marker while you are dressed in a white Tyvek suit.
    Tell them for each mark they get on you they get a prize. Go for one minute straight while you try and stop them from contacting the suit. Now look down at how many times an undisciplined, untrained child marked you up. Now picture a goal oriented, trained attacker. You may get cut, but you must maintain a “win mentality” and get out of the situation alive using every possible resource at your disposal. Knife defence is similar to nuclear fallout protection — time, distance, and shielding. Shield against attack, create distance so they can’t strike you, and give yourself time in order to respond. Remember that the best block against a knife attack is a city block between you and the attacker.

  • Back in 1985 a jealous ex-boyfriend of my then girlfriend attacked me outside my apartment. He set off my car alarm and then waited in the bushes for me to come out. He was military trained and attempted a killing blow by putting the blade under my ribs and up into my heart. Thankfully he was drunk and his aim was off so he just missed my heart. When he stabbed me I fell down and I assume he thought i was mortally wounded so he did not press the attack. That gave me the opportunity to get up and run back into my apartment and call an ambulance. Even if I had had a gun there would have been no chance to use it before i was stabbed.

  • When I was in my early 20´s (back in -98) me and some mates was attacked at a tube station. The first of my mates was stabbed from behind in the spine and just went down, my second mate went over and started to check on him (We did´nt know the guy behind him had stabbed him), and the guy just went all ferral and stated to stab my second mate, over and over (he got a pieerced lung, a nicked heart, to arteries cut and more, he was lucky to survive). When that happned I realised the guy had a knife, I went for him and took to stabs myself (the worst one was the one that saved my/our life/s, the knife got stuck in my shoulderblade, I still have some pain from that stab ´cuz it cut some nerve), when he was disarmed it was quite easy to chase him off, and I started to quench the blood from squrting out of my mates back with my tshirt, mind you this was in the middle of the winter in Sweden so it was quite a few degrees bellow zero, I keept presaure on the bleeding until the ambulance arrived and, thankfully, both my mates survived. I´ll NEVER stepped in to a knife fight unarmed ever again (I´ve been in two more, but that´s for another time and NO I was not a criminal, I worked security). Thats my worst encounter with a knifewelling lunatic, hope it can give some idea how har it is to notice a knife until its to late. Sorry for all the typo´s

  • A very good article.
    I would comment on his “ambush” style, knife attacks line of thinking.
    The key to stopping some of these, is situational awareness.
    If you are watching, then you can not be “ambushed”, only attacked.
    So you will have more time to react to the threat or plan a response.
    This could allow you time to draw a weapon in defense. Whether it be a gun, a knife or something else.

    The author correctly references that most attackers look for easy targets.
    How you present your self, how confident you look, or how well armed you are, (concealed weapons don’t count), all might make the attacker reconsider you as a target.

    Generally these people are punks, bullies and criminals. So they will go for what appears to be the weakest, easiest target.

    However, one must plan and train for the worst case, which is what he presents here. So overall a good article.

  • I saw the knife as it was coming out of his pocket. The worst case scenario would have been if I freaked out and/or hesitated.

    A knife! Freeze! Fear! I might get stabbed! Cut! Oh noes!

    I did not freak out and/or hesitate. I acted immediately. His head hit the pavement while his feet were still in the air.

    Not so fast. His girlfriend got a hold of the knife and flipped it open. I could have easily kicked her in the face as she was kneeling on one knee when she flipped the knife… but, ya know… girl. I ran. I ran for 3 long city blocks, and every time I looked back, she was still behind me, and he was still on the ground. I finally stopped running and let her come to me. She lunged at me, I just side-stepped her, pivoted, and gave her one to her jaw. Down she went.

    I don’t know what happened after that. I didn’t stick around to find out.

    I was 24, it was 1983 in San Francisco and I was learning Kung Fu by a little Chinese guy Sifu Tony in China Town. Strength, speed, and follow through.

  • The secret to surviving a knife attack? Assuming you see the guy coming? GET SOMETHING BETWEEN YOU AND HIM and the KNIFE, if you can without exposing a body part.

    And can’t tell you what but ANYTHING around you. Even take off your shoe if you have to. ANYTHING!! This will be a delay or getaway tactic if you are lucky.

    But it gives you a chance for something else.

  • In the old neighborhood razor blades were used as they also cut thru pants pockets to get to the wallet, in addition to quartering a person’s abdominal region. Sometimes an attacker will use what they’re afraid of assuming you will be too. Visit a hospital ward Friday night to see what is being used, back then, shotgun and domestic violence wounds mostly.

    A friend was caught going thru the old subway turnstile by muggers, one in front, two in back. When told to give them his money he replied that only one of them will enjoy the money. They backed off. Point is do not cower-down as that will only irritate an attacker and guarantee a beating.

    Almost same scenario happened as a kid to me in a park, one in front, two in back. Acted like an idiot (not too difficult) and came short of using Steve Martin’s “advice” of throwing-up on my money, then offering it to them. They backed off I believe only because it was bad joo-joo to attack a crazy person. Not nowadays.

    Any advice when someone is bum-rushing you with a knife? Move laterally to the side, and try and trip them pivotally?

  • Many a police officer will testify that a knife attacker 25 feet away didn’t give him time to draw his gun. If you have one and you see people starting to get close, it might be a good idea to have your hand on it and ready to use. If someone is crowding you and there is no crowd, look around and see who else is working with them and then tell them to back off. If they don’t back off, it is nearly time to draw. They probably won’t show you the knife. It’s that Mexican judo that you really have to watch.
    Judo know if they got a knife,
    Judo know if they got a gun,
    Judo know what they got.

  • I had my throat slashed a couple of centimeters from my jugular vein, the attacker was more shocked than I was from the blood running down the front of my sweater. A mix of adrenaline, alcohol (liquid courage) and God giving me another shot at life kept me in the fight. That was my young and stupid days as a teenager 29 years ago. The 3 guys badgered me into a fight (3 on 1), I was full of piss, vinegar and vodka so I went for it and the fight lasted 30 seconds.

    The police showed up but the attackers were long gone by a 5 minute head start, they weren’t sticking around. There were guesstimate 10 – 12 passengers on the bus that night but know-one came forward probably out of fear.

    The hospital was literally right across the street from the attack but I was not in the best of shape to cross the busy street (good odds of getting run over) so the police brought me over and had my throat stitched up.

  • Great tips! I’ve thought about trying Krav Maga before. Maybe I should stop thinking about it and just do it… 🙂

  • A rough rule of thumb is twenty-one feet in one second is the distance someone rushing you can cover in one second.

    Usually in an urban environment a ” mugger” will be holding a knife with only a few fingers behind their forearm while they enter your personel space, say three feet, while they ask for directions or the time.

    A big knife doesn’t mean a better knife. A knife that can be balanced with a few fingers is good. An large knife that may require an ice-pick grip is too rigid. So a small knife has flexibility and concealment. A two to three fighting blade can be effective. Razors included.

    Take as an example the Gerber Mark II fighting knife. Note, not all knifes are fighting knifes, even the legendary Ka-Bar, as it is an all purpose knife. A stiletto like the Gerber doesn’t need to switched around for the cutting edge when slashing forward and on the back draw. The Gerber has a spear point while the Ka-Bar may have a clip point. Avoid tanto points. The Mark II has a diamond cross-section so the wound will not close and saw tooths on the lower blade to pull out anything that it was embedded. Both have blood grooves. Sorry if that was graphic. The point is the Gerber is nicely balanced at its midpoint, lightweight and more fexible to wield. A concave knife edge is made for cutting and slicing while a convex bevel edge is for splitting.
    A screwdriver with a grinded down point like a pick used to be popular since it created a round wound opening that doesn’t close.

    The point is (pun intended) not all knifes are fighting knifes. Something to keep in mind. And, of course, skill mostly trumps any knife but as the above article mentions, there is still a very good chance of getting cut.

    (In close combat except the fight to go to the floor. Just don’t be the first one on the ground.)

    • I would like to suggest that a 9-10 inch bowie knife is a much better fighting knife than the double edged dagger. Has more reach, penetrates as well as a dagger, slices better than a dagger, has the ability to back cut better than a dagger, and has the ability to chop.

  • As I was entering my car in a dark parking garage, a guy with a shopping bag over his right hand came up behind me.

    My instantaneous thought was a concealed gun. Next action was to push him backwards and run.

    Turned out it was a knife. He didn’t come after me. The police caught the car (4 guys). That’s the only reason I know about the knife.

  • Back in the good old days of 1970 I went out drinking with my big brother and some of his biker friends. A tough guy in a bar decided he couldn’t be happy until he fought Kevin, the most psycho guy in the gang. He invited Kevin outside, everybody headed out the door with the tough guy following close, Kevin turned in the doorway and knifed him in the stomach. We ran, nothing ever came of it. The most important point of the article is that most knife fights are ambushes.
    Coolest knife fight in the movies? How about when Steve McQueen guts Martin Landau in Nevada Smith?

  • I saw a statistic years ago, I don’t remember where, that a stab wound with a knife is deadlier than a typical wound from a gun. The difference is that a gun is a stand-off weapon, while a knife is up close. So basically, the best defense is keep your distance.

    Situational awareness.

    For me, what I do mostly is to avoid bad areas of town especially where there are crowds in those areas as much as possible. Fortunately, I’ve never had to deal with a knife attack.

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