Hapkido Knife Fighting: The Cutting Edge by KJN Ronald W. Stone
Since Adam and Eve first left the garden, mankind has used the knife as one of two primary weapons, (the first being of course the good old-fashioned club).
What is interesting to note is that with all the thousands of years of human evolution the basic characteristics of the knife (i.e. pointed at one end, handle on the other and sharp on the sides,) and its intended use remain exactly the same. Pick a knife for a weapon and you still have only three choices: stick it in your opponent, slice him up, or throw it.
Even more interesting is that with all the blade cultures the world has seen, from King Arthur’s knights and the French Musketeers to the Samurai and Ninjas, modern day information on real world knife fighting seems lost to history.
Perhaps the reason for this is that in modern combat a very small percentage of troops ever use their weapons in a lethal manner. For example, it was discovered in past wars that many front line combat riflemen merely pointed and reloaded without actually firing. Since the knife is an even more close in and personal weapon than a gun, selecting one for use requires a certain deadly mentality and perhaps even a lack of emotional empathy that most of us do not possess.
When knife fighting is taught today in most martial arts schools it is probably a good bet that the instructor has never been in a true life or death situation requiring a blade. Trust me, deflecting a rubber knife, (no matter how much like a Fairbairn- Sykes dagger it may look and feel), will never be the same as reacting to cold steel held by an opponent intent on doing you harm.
I have quite an extensive collection of videos and books on hand- to- hand knife fighting and have studied several different styles of martial arts on and off for almost 40 years. Since I have never been in a real knife fight (and I thank God for that) I do not profess here to be offering a treatise on survival from a first-hand practical standpoint. I haven’t ever had to deflect a shiv in a prison courtyard or evade a drug-crazed street gang member.
What I would like to offer, however, is a simplified breakdown on some of the more useful theories of knife combat that I have distilled down from some of the best experts I could find. Hopefully with a better understanding of the rationale for specific school of thought one can learn to differentiate practical and effective techniques from reckless or risky ones and avoid the misinformation that is often presented as proven fact.
For our purpose we will break down the basics of knife fighting into six core principles.
Control the distance.
While this may seem obvious to some, it is surprising how often it is overlooked or left unexplained during class. Remember a knife is, and always will be, a close-in weapon. An opponent can flick open and close his lock blade folder and wave his blade back and forth in scary S curves all he wants, but as long as you stay out of arm’s reach, he is harmless.
The leg is obviously longer than the arm and many teach that it is better to kick out at a knife instead of reaching in with your hand, a logical assumption. However, an incorrectly performed, slow, or poorly aimed kick will place your leg right into the range of the attacker’s blade. Incorrectly entering the attack distance of the knife fighter will allow him to control the fight. It doesn’t take much for a sharp edge to slice though the femoral artery or to severe a vital leg muscle, nerve, or tendon. What’s more important, it’s hard to survive a fight on one leg, especially while hemorrhaging to death.
One counter to knife attacks that seems common to the more effective combat arts such as Hapkido, Jeet Kune do and Krav Maga is to circle or angle to the outside of the blade whenever possible. Circling, especially to the attacker’s backhand will off balance him and constantly require him to redirect, redo his stance and change his angle of attack, thereby slowing him down, or better yet, confuse his mental focus.
Blocking or directing your body to the inside of the attacker’s knife hand puts both his arms in play and makes the situation a two-way fight. Successfully circling or wedge-angling to the outside of his knife automatically neutralizes attack from his other hand and leaves you free to either run or to counter attack his undefended backside. At very least he must off balance himself and re-direct.
Never rush into a blade, stumble backwards or be forced to a back pedal. Do not allow your attacker to drive you straight backward or entice you to attack straight into his weapon. Let him wave his Bowie around in crazy circles til the cows come home, just don’t get impatient and rush or reach straight in. That’s what he wants and that’s when he’ll strike.
By circling or angling away the defender gains control of the distance and angle over the attacker, a subtle change that can mean the difference between life and death. Once a knife attacker actually commits, either with a plunge, stab with or a cutting slice, his momentum is finally determined, and the danger zone becomes fixed. At this point one can push against his back, side, head, legs or body to change his angle of attack, thus giving the defender the opportunity to counter.
Control the weapon:
It is wise to remember that a knife is merely a tool and like any other implement, (including a gun), it is intrinsically neither good nor bad. It is an inanimate object that can do no harm until gripped by someone meaning to do you harm. Therefore, the second principle of knife combat is to control the weapon, usually by controlling the attacker’s hand. Unless thrown, (which requires an advanced skill that very few possess), a knife must be held firmly in the hand to accomplish its grizzly purpose. Redirect the arm and you redirect the weapon. Stop the hand and you stop the weapon. Paralyze or incapacitate the hand or arm and the knife is useless.
This can be accomplished by redirecting with body blocks, by pushing, by deflecting, by kicking, or by elevating, blocking, or trapping the opponent’s hand elbow, shoulder or arm.
One word of caution. When attempting to control the knife hand it is wise to remember that a completely closed fist-like grip on the attacker’s wrist or knife hand can lead to a counter whereby the attacker clamps down on your grip, locking it in place. He then uses his body and arm to pull straight back, severing your fingers.
When controlling the knife hand or wrist it is perhaps better to use a “C clamp” closed finger hook type grip rather than closing the fingers completely, and it is certainly better to counter in a fluid motion while off- balancing the opponent. This can be done with a joint manipulation and a simultaneous “neuro stun” to the attacker in order to distract him and to prevent a reverse counter on his part.
It is important to remember that none of these principles are applied individually. Defense against a real-life threat is not a separate A-B-C or 1-2-3 set of moves as often practiced in class. Remember: such an attacker is not cooperating with you as a classmate, nor does he wish to help you gradually work to improve your skills. He wants to do you permanent harm. You must be continuous, precise, powerful, fast and deadly in your response.
If this sounds ridiculously obvious, please realize that sometimes the obvious is overlooked. It is a fact for example that in the past policemen have died because of the older style of police combat firearm instruction that emphasized picking up brass and cleaning up the range after every cylinder or magazine fired. Sounds sad to think of this now, but there have been incidents in the past of officers killed in firefights because they stopped to pick up their empty shells from the street in right the middle of the battle. They reacted instinctively to their training. If there is a moral here it is that improper self-defense instruction can get you killed and that a proper mindset and an understanding of basic principles are as important as physical conditioning.
This next principle implies that merely controlling the distance and weapon means little if you don’t retaliate somehow. If you don’t either gain control of the weapon, disarm, incapacitate, or kill your attacker, sooner or later your defense will fail, usually with fatal results.
Remember, you can’t win battles, football games or knife fights solely with defense. Sooner or later, you have to score and score decisively. Pick your moment and go on the offensive.
Personally, although there are an infinite number of attacks to choose from, I prefer the combination of a neural stun (i.e. a kick to the shin or strike to the neck or throat) applied together with a counter to the knife hand.
Just as it is impossible for the mind to focus on two thoughts at the exact same time, it is hard for an attacker to concentrate on his knife hand while his shinbone is shattering. Your counter should stop the direction of attack, neutralize the force behind the strike, mentally distract the attacker and set up your next technique.
- Follow Though Technique:
Some styles refer to this as “de-fanging the snake.” Once you have countered and either stopped or redirected the knife you must next follow through with a technique to either disarm or disable.
Your counter may be a joint manipulation to the wrist causing pain and grip release, it may be a strike to the forearm causing bone, muscle, and nerve damage, or it may be something as simple as deflecting with one hand while shoving the fingers of your other hand through your opponent’s eyes. Regardless your follow-through should flow from the previous counter from defense to offense, from a block or deflection into a powerfully applied, focused, and concentrated offensive technique.
When you strive to break a board, you have to concentrate on driving your blow behind the board, not in front of it. Stopping short will usually result in more broken knuckles than boards. The same is true of follow-up techniques. This is the time to apply Ki force and to remove the threat.
- Finishing Technique:
Remember the adage that to assume means “Making an Ass out of U and Me.” We all know that applying a halfhearted technique or failing to complete the movement will result in the same thing. More dangerous, however is the assumption that once we have applied a follow through technique and gained control of the weapon, the vanquished attacker will give up and that we can all go home and live happily in peace and harmony.For that one reader out there, who has never heard of Kamikazes, lunatics, crazed drug users or suicide bombers, I would like to stress that not everyone gives up after losing a fight, not everyone plays by the Marquis de Queensberry rules, and even more surprisingly, some are willing to fight to the death.
This brings us to the last principle. “Apply a finishing technique.” Sean Connery said it best in “The Untouchables” when he described the Chicago way. “He pulls a knife; you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital; you send one of his to the morgue.”
A finishing technique does not necessarily have to be lethal, but it should be definitive. Anyone pulling a knife on an innocent deserves no mercy, but if you are so inclined make sure you balance mercy with good judgment. If you do not wish to finish with a slash to your attacker’s throat with his own knife, or a crushing blow to the back of his neck, then at least utilize a finishing technique that insures his inability to re-engage.
I personally don’t care if this means choking him unconscious, cleverly binding him into a knot with your belt technique, or applying a pressure point technique until he wets his pants and faints. The principle is the same. Enough is enough. Do not allow for a second wave of aggression.
Another principle (which if you wish can be used with my permission) can be stated as Stone’s Law: Bad guys often travel in groups!
Which of course leads to the most self-explanatory principle of all.
- Be aware of your surroundings.
Before you are attacked, while you are being attacked and after you have been attacked be aware that there may still be others lurking. One of the advantages to a nonlinear fight style such as Hapkido, Chinese Shin Na, or Aikido is that they teach circling both in defense and in attack. This helps one to better utilize peripheral vision. Regardless of your martial art style, however, remember to utilize all your senses and keep alert for the enemy backup in the bush.
Finally, it is wise to remember that PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT. (I didn’t invent this one, but it applies).
I remember conversing some years ago with an ex-OSS operative from the Second World War. He had trained with the British Commandos and became a hand-to-hand combat instructor. He explained to me that the combat instructors used to practice attacking each other with ordinary keys that had been dipped in red ink. The trick was to get so proficient that they could disarm each other of the key without getting red ink marks (or at least in any vulnerable areas.) Trust me, to get that proficient they had to have practiced a lot. More importantly they practiced with serious intent.
To paraphrase Mr. Myagi the best way to avoid a knife attack is not to be in one, but if you are forced to fight it is better to win. Learn how to suspect dangerous situations and avoid them. Learn to read body language and study aggressive behavior patterns. When in a saloon, sit in a booth not at the public bar. (Better yet don’t drink or do it at home with friends). Don’t go looking for trouble and use common sense. If on the other hand your life is threatened do not go quietly into the night.
Ronald W. Stone, D.V.M
8th dan Grandmaster, HaeMuKwan Hapkido
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