As I look out at the landscape of self-defense and combatives training, I see one commonality among almost ALL systems and styles: Bad knife training. This goes for both offense and defense. This is largely because close range, lethal combat, is very uncommon on a large scale. This has been the case in military engagements for well over a century, and it reflects in the assumptions which persist in close quarters combatives. The main reason for this is the psychological and emotional aversion to killing in close proximity. Distance provides a psychological and emotional buffer which makes violence easier.

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One thing we must remember is that the use of the knife, a piercing instrument, is repulsive and terrifying to both the user and the victim. Until recently modern militaries issue bayonets to their infantry soldiers, however the use of the bayonet was EXTREMELY rare. Many soldiers when engaged at bayonet range would choose, instead, to grab the rifle by the barrel and swing it like a club. Bayonet charges were extremely rare, and even more unpopular with all infantrymen involved.


Those that did use the bayonet would often slash with it, counter to their training which was to thrust with the bayonet. Slashing is a far less effective means of using a knife, sword, or bayonet, it has a much higher survivability as the wound is more superficial. The early proponents of spear use, the Romans, would ridicule opposing soldiers who would slash with their spears, and believed this made them an easy target. The thrusting attack is far deadlier, however far more personal as it was an actual penetration of another person. This is a critical distinction in the thrusting attack, the penetration of a person’s essence, which carries enormous psychological weight for both the attacker and the victim.


Bayonet charges, when they did occur, generally led to a route of the opposing force, the psychological effect of seeing a force charging with bayonets fixed would either drive the opponents into flight or freeze them in place out of fear of turning their backs to such a ferocious enemy.


The fear of the blade was terrible and widespread. During the Sepoy Rebellion in colonial India, captured rebels would beg the British soldiers to shoot them instead of being bayoneted. During the Rwandan genocide, Hutu captors would force their Tutsi victims to buy the bullets for their own execution to avoid the alternative of being run through with a blade.


In modern combat, kills with bayonets are extremely rare, and the last recorded serious bayonet engagement was during the Crimean War in 1854 and appears to have been accidental as a French unit collided with a Russian unit in dense fog. Large studies of combat wounds over the last few centuries find a near total absence of bayonet wounds, even in engagements where bayonet charges were made.


The use of the knife is almost unheard of in contemporary warfare. French soldiers in World War II were reputed to prefer knives and daggers for close range, surreptitious killing. Again, however, this is not born out by the evidence, as such wounds were not regularly reported.


Knives form a much larger part of close range interpersonal violence in modern western (and eastern) society. Several reasons for this may exist. 1. They are easy to carry, conceal, and deploy in societies where carrying a larger weapon such as a long rifle, or club, would bring too much attention. 2. They are silent. 3. They provide a very intimate killing experience, and when used in an emotionally pitched situation, such as domestic violence, or revenge killing, can provide the attacker with additional satisfaction. In any event they form a much larger segment of violent encounters in civilian life. It seems also that as other tools become less available, edged weapons become more prevalent. Stabbings in the UK have skyrocketed as firearms have become harder and harder to acquire. To this day I still use London Police stabbing statistics and data to inform my training curriculum.


Overwhelming evidence suggests two things that should inform our training. 1. The most dangerous attack with an edged weapon will be thrusting/penetrating. 2. The presence of a blade will induce panic and fear in the intended victim, if it is seen.


These two conclusions should focus ANY training with a knife, be it on offense or defense. We must prioritize offensive movements in a hierarchy that favors thrusting attacks, if our goal is to create lethal wounds. This may require a conditioning element to overcome instinctive aversion to such attacks. Likewise on defense we must prioritize an avoidance of penetrating attacks, as these represent the greatest threat to ourselves. Additionally, we must train in a way that seeks to replicate (at the advanced level) the psychological effects of confronting an edged weapon.
However, what I generally see in edged weapons defense training in almost every system and style, is the use of a rubber knife and the attacker delivers an exaggerate single stab which is easy to defend. After the initial defense the attacker freezes while the defender then launches a series of improbable counter attacks; strikes, throws, joint locks. This kind of training is actually counterproductive, it fails to account for the single most important factor… psychology.


-Alex Trafton

Cold Steel, The Knife and Psychology in Self Defense
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