Knife Attacks: Insights, Strategies, and Pro Tips

Knife attacks: Attackers often approach from behind in ambush fashion. Situational Awareness is key to survival!
December 14, 2020  
Categories: Learnin'

“Don’t bring a knife to a gunfight.” I’ve heard this phrase uttered by people and seen it typed in so many internet forums, that it boggles my mind. Each time I hear or see it, I chuckle and shake my head, then say to myself, they have absolutely no idea.

“I’ll just pull out my (insert favorite zombie blaster here) and shoot ‘em!”

Well…good luck with that. But wait – surely a gun would beat a knife in a confrontation. Right?

It all depends.

If you have warning that the threat is present, and you have the time to access your blaster, and your aim is accurate, and the subject is not mentally deranged and/or using some sort of mind-altering substance, and the threat is far enough away, and…well, you get the picture. There is a myriad of factors at play that enter scenarios.

WARNING: There are graphic images further down in this article. These are not shown to be sensational, but to make it viscerally clear what we are talking about.

caution sign gif

Please proceed with a mindset of maturity, the intention to learn, and a willingness to discuss.

One pesky problem is that the person with the knife knows he is going to assault us before we do. As a result, we will be playing “catch up” in this life and death scenario. Situational Awareness is our best ally here.

Knife attacks: Attackers often approach from behind in ambush fashion. Situational Awareness is key to survival!

Attackers often approach from behind in ambush fashion. Situational Awareness is key to survival!

Being aware can tip us off to the mental state and intentions of those around us. Watch the hands; why does he have his hands in his pockets, is there a weapon in there? Are his hands clenching and unclenching? Watch the eyes; are
they crazy and wild? Are they darting about as if he is looking to make sure there are no witnesses for what he is about to do? Is he nervously shifting from one foot to another? What are his speech patterns like if he happens to be talking? Are his teeth bared?

The above questions are pre-assault indicators and can tip us off as to what may take place next. Learn them, because your life depends upon it.

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Keep a Distance

Distance is our friend when it comes to solving the issue of being attacked with a knife. The further away the attacker is, the better. The Tueller Drill (which, admittedly, is not 100% accurate but certainly provides a place to start) tells us that a person can cover the distance of 21 feet in about 1.5 seconds. That gives us very little time to access and draw our favorite handgun with which to end the threat. In many cases, we would be stabbed by the time we get our pistol into operation and rounds on target. And that is assuming that we even know that we are being targeted, which is highly unlikely because the majority of attacks are of the ambush type, and the victim’s first clue that he is under attack is when he feels the first stab wound. Attackers often carefully watch to see when the victim is at his most vulnerable and pounce at that moment.

Normally, the attack plays out like this: overhead stabs are repeated numerous times until the victim goes down and sometimes continues even when the victim is down.

Knife attack: step off center line.

1. Step off the center line of attack, which buys the defender some safety.


Knife attacks - grab attacker's weapon hand, deliver a strike.

2. Grab the attacker’s weapon hand securely while delivering a strike.


Knife attacks - control weapon hand

3. Use an arm bar to take him down while making certain to maintain control of that weapon hand.

Speaking of Rounds on Target

Pistols suck at stopping bad guys! Most people do not just fall down and die immediately when they are shot. In fact, it often takes several shots to stop an attacker. An internet search of shooting videos shows us that attackers often fail to stop after being shot, even several times.

A friend of mine who was a police officer had to stop an armed subject on an occasion. After several other officers delivered an extreme amount of pistol rounds into the bad man with no effect, my friend had to put four rounds of 00 buckshot (12 gauge type) into the baddie to put him down. Yes, four rounds of 00 buck! Why do we carry pistols? Because they are convenient, and people would likely become upset if we walked around with a rifle or shotgun in public places.

So don’t expect to put an attacker down just because you landed one or two rounds on target. If that happens and is successful, more power to you. The bottom line is that we must shoot until the threat stops being a threat. If it takes
one shot, that is excellent. Remember, we are not shooting to kill a person; we are shooting to stop a threat. Killing is not our goal.

In my career in the state prison system, I have personally witnessed quite a few knife attacks and been on the receiving end of a couple myself.

One occasion that I vividly remember is an inmate being stabbed repeatedly in the stomach with a large clothing shears. He continued to go after the person who stabbed him, long after he should have fallen down and died. But his determination kept him going, even as his intestines were hanging out and he was gushing blood like a sieve. Oh, eventually he fell down, but even then, he continued to try to get back up and go after the stabber again. After a few minutes, his blood pressure went to zero and he did die right there in the corridor in front of me. It took a while, though, and illustrated the point that some peoples’ determination can carry them amazingly far in a physical confrontation.

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Knife Attacks Aren’t All That Uncommon

In 2018, the FBI Uniform Crime Reports indicate that there were 1,515 homicides with knives or other cutting instruments. That’s just the people who were killed, that’s not counting those who were simply attacked. With the easy
availability of knives to everyone in our society, it’s no wonder that attacks by people using knives are fairly common.

Anyone can walk into a grocery store and buy a cheap kitchen knife to use as a weapon without raising any suspicion. A
screwdriver can be sharpened, a scissors or shears makes a fine stabbing weapon. There are dozens of items readily available that can be used as edged weapons. They’re silent (unlike firearms) and never need to be reloaded. And after the crime, they can be thrown away with no regret because they’re either free or cost next to nothing.

It takes no training or skill at all for a person armed with a knife to be an instant deadly threat. Even a 13-year-old kid armed with a knife is capable of killing us, so it’s important to take the situation very seriously.

As I said, no training is necessary. The convicts in the prison rarely trained with knives, and yet they were famously successful in taking each other out. It’s not rocket science, the user takes the knife in an ice pick grip, ambushes the
victim, and stabs repeatedly. That’s all there is to it.

Sure, you can get fancy, you can take classes in how to do it and over-complicate the process. But all that is not necessary. Mindset and commitment are vital keys to successfully using any weapon, and the knife is no different. The convicts whom I worked around were more than willing to use weapons, and so they did.

All of this is not to say that carrying a pistol is a waste of time or useless. Quite the contrary; I carry a pistol myself all the time. Rather, we should expand our mindset so that we don’t solely rely on a pistol as though it were our ultimate
savior, a talisman that guarantees our safety. We may very well have to employ empty-handed defense to save our life at the outset of an edged weapons attack.

Mental Aspects

The mental aspects of close combat, and edged weapons, in particular, cannot be understated. Consider that every moment I was on duty in the prison, I fully expected to be attacked by an inmate wanting to kill me. On at least three
occasions (that I’m aware of), they did just that using edged weapons. I say “that I’m aware of” because on two of those three occasions, I was not immediately aware that I was facing a blade.

The first time I faced a blade, it was very apparent what was happening. The second and third time, I didn’t find out until after it was over. On one occasion, I grabbed an inmate who was running through the door to my cell block
as he was pursued by officers. He spun as I grabbed him, and his body language told me not to press the attack, which may have saved my life. I wasn’t able to leave my post, but the pursuing officers apprehended him on the cell block and
discovered a large shears that was in the same pocket that he had his hand in when I had grabbed him. Had I stopped him, I am convinced that the shears would have come out and been used upon me.

I told you earlier to always watch the hands during incidents, and I stand by that. However, when the adrenaline is flowing, tunnel vision often sets in and it can be difficult to see details. You try to do everything right, but the old saying
rings true: “Everything goes according to plan until the first shot is fired.”

Even though I was in a hostile environment expecting to be attacked, when the attacks happened, there was always at least somewhat of a mental shock that I experienced. Sometimes it was minimal, other times it was mentally devastating.

Now consider the average person walking down the street, or maybe doing his weekly shopping. Suddenly, he is confronted with a deadly scenario. Imagine the mental impact he will experience, maybe having never even been involved in a fight in his life, and now someone is trying to kill him! Shock can paralyze us, or at least delay our reaction, which is not good because fractions of a second mean a lot during an attack.

I can tell you that each time someone tried to kill me, I was terrified. It’s not a video game or a movie, it is serious business. In the movies, the good guy gets cut a few times but keeps on fighting and wins every time. Sadly, that is not

You may notice that the adrenaline makes time seem to slow down, auditory exclusion (lack of hearing) can occur, tunnel vision is common, and a host of other strange things can happen. Adrenaline also dulls pain, and I’ve seen very
many instances in which someone was wounded and did not realize it until after the festivities had concluded. One man whom I witnessed was stabbed four times in the back, nearly fatally, and did not feel any pain for quite some time (he knew something was wrong when his lungs began filling up with blood).

What About Specialty Knives?

I see some knifemakers introduce very specialized knife designs that are purpose-built for knife fighting, and martial arts styles intended for the same. Often, I wonder at the effectiveness of such things, as many of the people making
these items and teaching these things have never been involved in deadly conflict. To me, it’s almost like learning how to swim without ever touching water, or being taught by someone who has never been in the water. Maybe I’m being a bit pessimistic, I don’t know. To me, for the most part, such things are cool-guy novelties that are not practical.

So what can we do if someone with a blade attacks us?

The responses that we employ for knife attacks can be similar to how we’d react if attacked with other weapons.

One of the most important principles that I feel has saved my bacon a few times is footwork. Zone away from the attack at an angle by moving to the attacker’s outside. What I mean by that is, if the attacker is coming straight at us, holding a knife in his right hand, we move to his right at an angle, which will cause him to have to change his direction if he wishes to press home his attack. It buys us a very small bit of time that we can use to either try to escape or employ a weapon if we are blessed enough to have one at our disposal.

We should try not to move to his inside (the attacker’s left if he has a weapon in his right hand) because that just makes it easier for him to index to the inside (as opposed to the outside) and press home his attack. It’s better than standing still, but not optimal.

Just as in gunfighting, it is important to “get off the X”; in other words, move off the center line of attack!

Beware of moving backward because he can run faster forward than we can backward, so the attacker is capable of closing that distance very quickly.

I’ve also heard people say that, if faced with a knife attack, they would simply “run away.” Discretion is the better part of valor, for sure, and if we are able to beat feet out of the situation, that would be optimal. It would be the height of stupidity to voluntarily go into an edged weapons attack willingly if there were any other option out of it.

That said, we cannot always safely turn tail and run. There may be no exits available. What’s more, the attacker might run faster than we can, and our reward may be a knife in the back. Simply claiming that we will run away is shortsighted and not a cure-all for every instance that we might face.

One fallacy that I seem to hear time and again is, “If you’re attacked with a knife, you will be cut.” I’m not sure who came up with this one, but it is repeated like a religious mantra. Personally, I believe that such thinking sabotages our
performance. Kind of like telling a sports team before the big game, “You’re going to lose.” We wouldn’t expect much from that team, would we? Except that close combat is not a game. Sure, we could be cut, but nothing is guaranteed.


The Filipino martial arts have a concept that is referred to as “Defang The Snake”, and it refers to attacking the hand that is holding the weapon being used to attack us. You can use a knife, impact tool, or whatever is at your disposal to
strike or cut the attacker’s hand in which he is holding the weapon, thereby diminishing his ability to attack us. If he can’t hold the weapon, he can’t attack us with it.

Maybe you don’t have a weapon to use against the attacker’s limb, or perhaps you’re not in a position to defang the snake. In that instance, I’d recommend somehow latching onto that weapon arm and hand and holding on for dear life, because your life is exactly what is at stake. Once you gain control of that weapon hand, deliver every strike imaginable to the attacker. Knee strikes, elbow strikes, head butts, hand strikes, run him into a wall or other solid object. Bite, kick, scratch, claw, do whatever you need to because it’s better than being stabbed to death. Once you immobilize the attacker’s weapon limb, you might then be able to access your weapon to employ and save your life.

Beware of trying to use blocks to defend against the knife. You may get lucky and block a few slashes or thrusts, but that is not likely to continue as a trend, and it’s not like blocking punches, which typically won’t kill you. The majority of people can take a punch, but taking a strike from a knife is a different story. Given that most people who attack with a knife use wild, powerful swings, expecting to block more than a few of those is unrealistic, and I’d not count on that as a defensive strategy for any length of time.

Another principle about knife attacks to be aware of: He who hits first often wins. If you see an armed attack coming your way and you are in fear for your life, launching a strike might help you survive. Interrupting the attacker’s OODA (Observe, Orient,
Decide, Act) Loop is a Very Good Thing and may buy us precious time.

close quarter combat knife attack

1. In the event you are in close quarters and cannot maneuver, an explosive response on your part is vital.


Knife attacks: secure attacker's weapon hand, strike throat.

2. While securing his weapon hand, I strike to the throat simultaneously.


Knife attacks: defang the snake

3. As the attacker attempts to slash me, I “Defang The Snake” by slicing the wrist of his weapon hand.notice that he is not close enough to cut my body, but I am close enough to disarm him with the cut.


Regarding wounds, stab wounds are far more prone to kill a person than slash wounds. Stabs tend to penetrate and hit arteries and organs, causing internal bleeding.

knife attacks - slash wounds

This isn’t to say that slashes don’t kill people, but rather that it’s rarer for a person to die from a slash wound. I literally lost count of the number of people I’ve seen suffer a knife attack, and everyone who died had been stabbed. The image of one guy who had a hole in his forehead from being stabbed there sticks in my mind as vividly as the day it happened (his birth certificate had expired).

Watching a person die from stab wounds is especially scary; they gasp for that last breath, blood often pours from wounds (the human body holds a LOT of blood), they make gurgling sounds…it’s pretty hideous.

surviving a knife attack

A slash wound is an incised wound, vs. a laceration (which is typically caused with blunt force trauma).

That said, being stabbed or slashed (or shot or pummeled for that matter) doesn’t mean you will die. Mindset, as discussed, can and will affect that.

Sometimes in improbable ways.

According to the ACEP, a stab wound is a “…A stab wound is a form of sharp-force trauma caused by a thrusting action whose injury length on the body surface is less than its depth of penetration into the body. The force is delivered along the long axis of a narrow, sharply pointed object. The impact force is concentrated at the tip of the object—and the sharper the tip, the more easily it can penetrate the skin. Stab wounds can be homicidal, self-inflicted, or accidental. Internal and external hemorrhage are of concern when treating stabbing victims. Knives tend to make up the majority of weapons used in stabbings. However, any pointed object can be a weapon (eg, pencil, screwdriver, barbecue fork, scissors, awl, etc.).”

That doesn’t help you to defend against it, not to detect an attack before it occurs, but knowledge is power. Understand your threat.

Do some research online, check out videos of knife attacks, it will open your eyes, and provide valuable information. More than likely, it will also scare you, at least a little bit. Beware of those offering magical solutions or training that might be offered; if it sounds too good to be true, it is. Unfortunately, there is no magical, fool-proof solution to the problem.

Good luck!

See also:

Characteristics of stab wounds.

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Jim Davis

Jim Davis

About the Author

Jim Davis served in the PA Dept. of Corrections for 16 ½ years as a corrections officer in the State Correctional Institute at Graterford and later at SCI Phoenix. He served on the Corrections Emergency Response Team (CERT), several of those years as a sniper, and also the Fire Emergency Response Team (FERT). For 25 years, he was a professional instructor, teaching topics including Defensive Tactics, Riot Control and Tactical Operations, Immediate Responder, and cognitive programs as an adjunct instructor at the DOC Training Academy. He was then promoted to the title of corrections counselor, where he ran a caseload and facilitated cognitive therapy classes to inmates. His total service time was close to 29 years. He was involved in many violent encounters on duty, including incidents of fatalities.


  1. Frank Karl

    Hello Jim,
    I very much enjoyed your article. I can’t tell you how many people tell me @they just shoot ’em@ I’d be a richer man if I had a dime for every time. I think it’s important to get your message out.May I reprint your article with a link back to this one and credit to the author?
    Frank (not the other Frank)

    • Jim Davis

      Thanks for the kind words, Frank! Absolutely, spread this information far and wide!

  2. Marcus Aurelius Tarkus

    That does it! After most of a year of people trying unsuccessfully to scare me to death over a virus not yet proven to exist, I am now convinced that every masked person (i.e. virtually every person) whom I encounter could successfully stab me to death–if so intentioned–and get away with it (masked, remember?). I’m not leaving the house again. Ever. Well, at least not without my gun. And karambit. And telescoping steel baton. And 50-foot social distancing. Believe me: the way things are now, I’m only half kidding.

    • John Mayer

      The existence of Covid-19 has clearly and vividly been established and proven to anyone who has wit to learn. I am a nurse and I have to deal with it every day. Our facility housed a bit over 80 people. Many residents have died as well as one nurse. Other staff members have been out for weeks in quarantine, leaving a still greater workload on those of us who hang on. Some of the dead I had to pronounce, probing their cooling limbs for a pulse, shining a penlight into their eyes looking for any reaction of the pupil. Sometimes I have to call their family members.

      All our staff but one have recovered enough to come back. But some chose not to. Of those who have, some have permanent damage as a result of the virus that impairs their best efforts.

      No one can prove ANYTHING to those unwilling to examine facts. The coronavirus is unproven, then, to YOU, and there’s no remedy for that. If you catch it I just hope you keep it to yourself.

      • Jim Davis

        John, thanks for serving during covid . I’m not certain how that relates to edged weapons attacks, though. Perhaps you could write for a medical journal?

  3. Bill Mc Caslin

    Your article was spot on, many believe in Hollywood fantasy’s, a knife attack is brutal to say the least. Having been in a few knife fights myself on the street, an learning from a Filipino martial art black belt many yrs ago, cutting the head off a snake is the only way to win a knife fight, unless you got a gun, a big powerful gun, with lots of bullets an a lot of distance, then maybe, maybe.

  4. Frank

    Good article. Well written, with no grammatical mistakes. That may not seem like a big deal, but I have noticed that so many, even professionals, make errors. Also your article was logical and brought to attention that there is no perfect response and one never knows how a confrontation will play out.

    I think knowing you can never know what to expect or fully trust a specific response or martial art or self defense training or even your choice of weapon, if you are carrying one, will provide the right view and help us realize we need to be flexible, adaptable and aware and not so much afraid, but realistic and calm to allow us to think and react in a crisis.

    • Jim Davis

      I appreciate your kind words, my friend! Glad you enjoyed it!

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