For Writers – A Bit About Knife Fighting

Back in 2006 I gave myself a nasty cut on the hand – like nine stitches nasty. I came about a quarter inch from severing the tendon that lets me move my thumb. Had I done that the treatment would have moved from a bunch of stitches and an admonition to be more careful with sharp things to “your surgery will be tomorrow and don’t expect your hand to ever work quite like it used to.”

Now, I wasn’t doing anything terribly stupid, which is a change for me. I was studying Kenjutsu at the time and was practicing one of the katas where we slice parts off people. Part of learning sword fighting is learning how to draw the sword and strike in a smooth motion. I got a little over-exuberant and wound up with a bunch of stitches and a serious blow to my ego.

My instructor took it all in stride. He wrapped up the wound and pointed me at the nearest hospital. He later explained to me there were two kinds of Kenjutsu students: those who have been cut and those who will be cut.

I was now in the first (and am probably still in the second) category.

Now, granted, that cut was done by a sword, but a knife is still a seriously dangerous tool. People like to point at guns and worry and fret about them, but you can do some seriously bad things to a person with a knife. It doesn’t even have to be a big knife – sharp, yes, but not necessarily big – to do a lot of damage in a very short amount of time.

I study Kenpo. We’re not big on dealing with knives in my school. As I understand it, the entirety of the 5th degree Black Belt is dealing with knives, but I’m a lowly 2nd black, so I’ve had to expand my studies a bit. Among other things I’ve come across a few tidbits of knowledge.

  • A “knife fight” is a pretty rare thing. A knife murder (or attempted murder) is much more common. Actual knife fighting just doesn’t happen all that often.
  • Anytime a knife shows up in a fight, you’re gonna get cut. Get used to it.
  • From very close range there’s not much of an effective defense against a knife. Guess what – most knife attacks occur at a very close range.
  • Fighting in general is a stressful situation. In any kind of stress situation your mind turns to mush. Therefore, any complicated defense that requires precision is right out the window. Gross body movement and practice will save the day.
  • It doesn’t take much skill or effort to use a knife. Flailing, random attacks can cause critical wounds in a very short amount of time.

So, for writers, those are some pretty good notes, but let’s take a closer look at a few things. First up, we all have this idea that knife fighting is a skill you can develop. Sure, to a certain extent that’s true, but the ways people deploy and use knives in common street situations isn’t exactly like the movies. For instance, a knife attack rarely starts with with both parties brandishing their weapons. That’s dueling. It happens, but not as often as you’d think. According to No Nonsense Self-Defense, someone who had actively practiced drawing and using his knife managed to pull it a grand total of one time over the space of four fights. Even though he had practiced pulling his knife – in less than a second, according to him – the attack happened so quickly he simply never had to the time to pull his own knife.

This is not what a knife attack will look like.


This is what a knife attack will look like


What’s the best defense? Distance, and a lot of it. Plenty of studies have shown that a person can cover 21 feet and stab you 6-12 times in about 1.5 seconds. The average person takes about 1.5 – 3 seconds to realize they’re being attacked. That means the average person will have been stabbed and the assault will be over and they’ll be lying in a pool of their own blood before they even realize they’ve been attacked.

Situational awareness can help this. Paying attention can help this. Some level of experience can help this, but it’s still a frightfully quick attack.

What does this mean for writers? Well, if you’ve got a main character daydreaming it’s unlikely he or she will snap out of it and react to an attack in time to save themselves. A realistic scenario would be the character who is cognizant of his or her surroundings and makes effective use the environment to buy time. A character who was situationally aware would be able to pick up on an assailant through the way the attacker moves, watches the main character, or does something else that seems shady. From there, keeping a piece of furniture or a car between himself or herself and the attacker would be a somewhat effective defense. Now the knife murder part has been defused, the protagonist can arm himself or herself and the fight can continue as planned. Conveniently, the weapon can be almost anything.


For all Star Trek’s fantasy elements, this is actually a pretty good knife defense. You might be thinking “It’s just a pillow”, but you’re wrong. First, it’s a space pillow. From the Enterprise. Thrown by Captain James Tiberius Kirk. So let’s show that space pillow a little respect, okay? Also, it plays into a quirk humans have: if you toss something, anything really, at a person, they’ll usually catch it. You can also hand something to a person and they’ll usually take it. Try it sometime. Hand someone a piece of garbage or toss a pillow at them. They will either try to block it or take it from your hand without thinking. Good times will ensue.

Have your protagonist toss a sheaf of papers at a knife wielding attacker. There’s no way a bunch of random papers will hurt someone, but it’ll buy enough to time to move to a better position and think about the next tactic.

In fact, try it yourself sometime. The next time your boss calls you on the carpet about something, toss a sheaf of papers at him or her and disappear in the chaos. It’s like the modern office version of a Ninja smoke bomb.


What about really experienced knife fighters, the people who have been trained and practiced and honed their skills. If an average person can cover 21 feet and stab you 6 to 12 times in about 1.5 seconds, what’s going to happen if you’ve got a character who knows what the heck they’re actually doing?

Well, that gets scary. I’m taking this from memory because I can’t find any documentation on it, but there was a case about twenty some odd years ago in Phoenix where a young punk tried to mug some guy. It was a pretty clear-cut case of self-defense, but the guy being mugged still wound up on trial for using excessive force. Why? It turns out he cut the mugger to pieces, landing something like thirty stabs or slashes in a fight that lasted seconds. While he was on trial, he claimed he’d actually held back. It turns out the guy being mugged was an Escrima practitioner. For those not familiar with Escrima, it’s a Philippine martial art that specializes in blades. It also goes by Arnis and Kali. During the trial, the defense brought in a board, gave the Escrima guy a knife and thirty seconds and told him to go to town. In that thirty seconds he put nearly two hundred stabs or slashes on the board.

That’s Escrima for you, though. Done with the right intent, it’s a pretty scary system.

Knife attacks, like all fights, are usually over pretty quickly. Outside of professional fighters, it’s pretty rare for a fight to last more than thirty seconds or so. Knife attacks are over quicker than that. The odd thing is even a pretty nasty cut doesn’t really hurt when it happens. When I cut my hand with a sword it felt like a pinch. I’ve read stories of people getting cut a lot and not noticing it. That’s our good buddy adrenaline playing its wicked game. My hand hurt like hell for the next few days and I had to drive one handed for a while, which is no mean feat in a standard, but it didn’t really hurt when it happened.

So, next time you’re writing a scene with a knife fight in it and want to add a touch of realism, there should be a couple good pointers in here.

Of course, writing shouldn’t always reflect the real world one hundred percent. People read to escape reality, not go hang out with it. Which is why you should write the fun moments in along with the realistic moments.


While we’re at it, I’d be remiss if I failed to mention Fairbairn. He’s the WWII Colonel that basically invented modern military knife tactics (and the knife to go along with them). Unfortunately, covering Fairbairn (or Applegate, for that matter) in anything less than a full post would be doing him injustice, so I’ll just leave this here.


Further notes and things to read

Defense Training’s article on the 21 foot rule

The US Marine Corp Close Combat Manual

Tactics for winning a knife fight from Law Enforcement Magazine

Lies about knife fighting

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