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Cost of Knife Use
Dueling vs. Survival
Lies About Knife Fighting
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It is still more ridiculous, if we reflect that the same critic,
in accordance with prevalent opinion, excludes all moral forces
from theory, and will not allow it to be concerned with anything
but the material forces, so that all must be confined to a few
mathematical relations of equilibrium, preponderance of time
and space, and a few lines and angles. If it were nothing more
than this, then out of such miserable business there would not 
be a scientific problem for even a schoolboy.
                                      Carl von Clausewitz
                                                 On War (Strategy, Book III)

Dueling vs. Survival

On this page:
Background and What I Am NOT Saying | Lump It Together Thinking, Fuzzy Goals and Messed Up Definitions | Moral Forces | So What is Dueling? | Training for the Duel | The Physics of a "Real Knife Attack" | Display/negotiate | Torture/punishment | Dedicated Attacks | CreateYour Own Venn | Test It For Yourself

Let's put the record straight here: Knife defense occurs under the most stressful and hostile conditions possible.  

What do I mean by this? Simple, in order for you to legally use a knife in "self-defense" someone has to be in the process of trying to kill you. Not "oh dear me, I'm scared that this big bad person might try to beat me up" conditions, I mean someone is legitimately trying to put your ass down for an extended dirt nap. It ain't no fear of what could happen, it's really happening. If you think you've been scared before, just wait until this happens.

Under these conditions, you not only have the raw terror of someone trying to kill you and the problems associated with stopping his actions, but you have one hell of case of performance anxiety going on to boot. Which, as you well know, doing something while nervous is difficult -- even if you know it well. Mistakes happen and things don't work out as well as planned. And that's under normal circumstances, not someone trying to kill you. When that happens, "nervous" reaches all kinds of new levels.  

So on top of the potentially lethal question of "does what I know work under these conditions?"  you have another problem. That being, even if it does work, doing it under extreme conditions and adrenal stress. Failure, in either area, is bad.

Oh, and guess what? just to further complicate the issue about 99% of what I have seen being taught out there as knife fighting/knife self-defense is going to fail under the conditions of  legal knife use. (Take a look at Brandon Otto's Introduction to Use of Force page for what that means) It works great if you are the aggressor, but tends to fall apart if you aren't. And discovering this in mid flight is going to really put you under stress about how to extract yourself from this mess.

Face it, odds are either your training is going to get you killed when you need it or, you're going togo to prison for using it when it wasn't justified.

The reason I say this is because what most people are training to do is, by and large, duel with a knife. An act that makes them an aggressor! They are not training to survive, much less be effective, against the majority of knife use.  There are many critical differences between the different types of attacks -- and just as importantly, knife displays. And you need to know what these differences are, what's involved and what is the most effective response under those differing conditions. Because while knife fights are rare, knife attacks aren't.

Background And What I Am NOT Saying
Unlike many so-called "knife fighting experts" I have been in multiple situations where knives were used. In case you missed it folks, I just said that over and above my training in knifework,  in my life I have used knives on other human beings, had them used against me, watched them used on numerous occasions and stood over the results of knives having been used on what was a person. Not one or two incidents, nor hundreds, but enough so, that even if I tried (and I have), I can't count them all (1).

Putting it mildly, they suck.

Having said that I have been there and done that, let me also state: I am not claiming to have the ultimate truth, nor am I promoting my "knife fighting system," with this page. In fact,  when it comes to knifework my opinion of the subject is best summed up by Masaad Ayoob in his Judicious Use of Lethal Force (LFI1) course. Paraphrased: Using lethal force is like chemotherapy. It is a horrible, traumatic, painful and life altering experience. One that no sane healthy person would willing submit themselves. But when the choice is that or dying of cancer -- you take the treatment.  

I can personally attest to the validity of Mas's words. Having to use a knife, will have traumatic psychological/emotional/spiritual impact on your life. An impact that will negatively affect you for the rest of your life. If you think it's bad now, wait until after. Using a weapon on another human being cannot be undone, and you have an entire life to reflect on the reality of what you have done. What you thought was so bad/cool/justified in the heat of the moment takes on a different perspective as self-justification fails over the years.

As such, I am the absolute last one to encourage using a knife on another human being unless you are in immediate danger of losing your life. I am definitely against willfully engaging in "knife fighting."   Having said this, it has been my unfortunate experience to have encountered many systems -- whether they mean to or not -- that appear to encourage these very things.

What did Virgil say about the Gates of Hell are open day and night? Hell's always open for business and the highway there isn't paved with good intentions, it's paved with ignoring reality and only looking at what you want something to be about. Telling yourself that you're some kind of real bad-ass because you train in a deadly knife fighting system is a good start for making that trip. And don't you worry, there are a lot of instructors who will take your money and help you head down that highway by giving you the components to tailor your fantasy.

In case you think this is somewhat harsh, just remember this is experience talking. Not only mine, but that of many others who have used knives on people. Knife work isn't a fantasy, it is a living nightmare. One that macho instructors who are selling knife fighting neither know about, or if they do, then they don't warn you about it. There's a big difference between reality and fantasy, namely that reality has a long term aftermath. Oh and BTW,  if macho boy really has done all the stuff he is claiming and he ain't twitchy about it, he's sociopath. And that isn't someone you want to learn from or give your trust to.

If encouraging this kind of self-damage weren't bad enough, the training  I have commonly seen, realistically, only addresses a small percentage of how knives are used out there. Yes, knife-to-knife fights do happen, but they are only a minute percentage of actual knife use. Namely because they tend to be limited to very specific ethnic and socio-economic groups. There exists  a wide variety of ways that knives are used. Most of which are not addressed by most training commonly available

It is these differences that I address on this page. I am reporting what is happening out there and the complexities involved. Differences and complexities that you need to know about before you make the fatal assumption that your training prepared you for everything regarding surviving a knife encounter.  

Having said that, let me also add: The separations and distinctions that I make on this page are not presented as absolutes. They are models to explain factors involved in knife use -- not pronouncements from the mountain about the whole of knife use. Therefore any attempt to make them so, is on the part of the reader, not the author.

To make sure that I was communicating clearly, I  ran this page past a group of people who's fighting skills, experience, martial arts knowledge, legal savvy and critical thinking skills I respect. Several pointed out a potential misunderstanding, which clearing up required a large amount of extra text. Let's start with the most common misunderstanding. What I want to address in this section  is readers assuming I'm talking about specifics when I am in fact, talking about a more generalized idea.

When I discuss knife use, I am not talking about any system, style, specific training or instructor's program.

This confusion over what I am talking about largely arises from a combination of misconceptions of what is involved in bladework, people's tendency to seek absolutes and their tendency to want to put things into familiar boxes/categories. Mix this in with sleazy marketing that not only preys on these habits, but, in fact, encourages misconceptions, and you end up with all kinds of problems.

This includes misunderstandings about what I am saying because people think they already know about knife work because they study (insert style name here). One of the more common misconceptions is them attempting to put everything into a "style box." Let me give you an example, later in this page I talk about a "dedicated attack"  I am talking about a mindset/application, not a system. I am especially not talking about any so-called prison knife fighting style (2) Nor am I talking about a WWII combative or a martial art. What I am talking about is a mental/tactical approach to knife work. A mindset and set of strategies that supercedes specific styles or systems. And yet, when I mentioned dedicated attacks some people automatically assumed I was talking about such mythical organized prison knife systems. WRONG! I am talking about a dedicated attack.

There are common tactics to dedicated attacks. Fundamentally  military knife use, prison hits, and plain old homicide -- which are all dedicated attacks -- have more in common than differences. The commonality of dedicated attack is based more in mindset than it is in technique. It is that dedicated mindset that gives rise to effective tactics and application -- not a particular system. The details of the attack are exactly that, details.

On top of all this, trying to put a dedicated attack in the box of a specific system is a logical fallacy: A (prison knife) attack is most often a dedicated attack, but not all dedicated attacks are (prison knife) attacks. Take whatever system/style you know and put it in between the parenthesis's of that last sentence. When you do that, you will begin to see what I mean by saying that the types of attack are not style specific. I am talking general categories here. Remember: The box fits inside the room, not the room inside the box. Systems and styles are boxes, not the room. The room is the nature of the attack.

Having said this, let me also add: To assume that I am talking about the superiority of a specific knife fighting system over other kinds training is another error (3).

Both assumptions are common -- and mistaken -- ideas arising from another false assumption -- namely that a knife attack must be part of a system. Not true at all. A system is an collection of attacks and defenses organized for communication (e.g. basic training). It is not the actual attack/application. Nor does the attack require the system to exist. It exists by itself and independent of the system, even if it has been incorporated into a particular system. (It's that whole box/room thing again).

On top of that little fact, there is no such thing as a superior knife fighting system because there is no such thing as a professional knife fighter! Nobody makes his living being a knife fighter! Another reason why there is no such thing as a superior knife fighting system is, quite frankly, areas where knife fighting is common are economically depressed. That is to say, if they could afford better, longer range weapons, they would use them instead. In other places where knife work is common, there are severe limitation on weapons availability -- including knives -- as such, stabbing slashing weapons are improvised. These weapons are a) not reliable, b) limited in scope of use and c) must be small enough to be concealable both on the person and from cell/room/locker search. Contrary to what you might believe from Okinawian weapon systems, there are not a series of complicated maneuvers for improvised shivs;  the weapon itself cannot withstand anything except limited application. And even then they often break or collapse. Although it is possible to stab someone with a treated piece of paper, you cannot do so multiple times before it gets wet and collapses. That's the reality of improvised stabbing/slashing weapons.

An understanding of knife use is just one of many skill sets in a much larger and over-all survival skill. Without these other skill sets to create a larger skill, you're dead. "Knife fighting" alone won't save you, no matter how superior you think it it. Focusing on only on acquiring a fighting skill set means you neglect others that are even more necessary for survival. I've known too many "tough guys" who forgot this and ended up being shot in the back.

What is also incorrect is to assume that knowing a supposedly superior knife fighting system will automatically instill in you the willingness, commitment, ferocity and cold-bloodedness to do someone in this manner. I should also add cunning to this list as an overwhelming majority of dedicated attacks are, in fact, ambushes or an unexpected escalation of force. Those few that are not, tend to operate along the lines of assassinations, homicidal rages and/or criminal insanity. You may have issues that attract your attention to the idea of knife fighting, but they are a far cry from actually using a blade on the flesh of another human being. Someone who has gone that far is 99% of the time, not a good person.

The reason I must go to such extreme to clarify what I am and am not talking about is people's tendency to assume that if I am not talking about about an FMA system, I must be talking about another system. Excuse me, but effective  blade use is NOT solely limited to arts that arise from a specific group of archipelagos, WWII combatives, supposed prison systems or alleged systems based on how historical figures used a knife. In fact,  attacking or threatening someone with a knife does not have to belong to any system at all: As the homicide rate by non-trained knifers demonstrates. For being untrained in deadly knife fighting systems, they certainly do have an impressive success rate.

And it is against these people you need to know how to defend yourself, not duelists.

Let me further state: It is neither my message or implication that training in these systems is useless. Training is good. Training, that prepares you for the circumstances you are most likely to encounter, is better. From that idea, I have two quotes about training. One I picked up from Dr. Lynn Sieser at Aiki Solutions, the other is mine.

We do not rise to the level of our expectations, but fall to the level of our training -- Lynn

Train for what happens most and you will be able to handle most of what happens -- Marc

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"Lump It Together" Thinking, Fuzzy Goals and Messed Up Definitions
One of the most common misconceptions taught in Americanized martial arts  circles is that a stick -- because it is an "average" weapon -- will teach you how to use other weapons. Their logic is,  because it has similarities with other weapons, you can extend what you learn with a stick to these other, more effective, weapons. While there is a lot to be said for this idea for training, what it fails to take into consideration is that the differences are just as important as the similarities.

Quite naturally when we point this out quick thinking instructors immediately reply "Of course, that's obvious!"  Well,  A) it's easy to say that after it has just been pointed out that you've stepped on your dick and B) Even if the instructor does know about this critical differentiation, is it getting through to the students? 

In my experience, not really. Most students I have met think that a stick does teach you how to effectively use any other kind of weapon. Then they pick up a stick and proceed to wag it around to prove their point. Sure you can pick it up and club someone with it, but hell, anybody can do that, even with no training. You don't need to know a deadly knife fighting system to pick up a knife and plunge it into someone's chest either.

The reason I bring this "similarities outweigh difference" training myth up is it results in "lump it all together" thinking. Having never dealt with a specific, but being told that the general teaches them about it, people believe it. They don't have the experience to know any different. For example, it isn't until you pick up a machete and spend a day clearing brush that you suddenly realize all the elements of its use that you didn't learn from a stick. And a machete is a tool; the differences become huge when you're talking about weapons, especially how katanas, rapiers and western broadswords are used. Each of those weapons have their own specific mechanics, physics and use styles. None of which you are going to learn from a round stick. But you won't learn this until you work with someone whose area of expertise is that weapon. Unfortunately, many people do not bother to discover this for themselves, instead accepting the contention of an average weapon prepares them to defend themselves with anything (4). This is lump it all together thinking.  

This same fuzzy thinking also tends to extend to perceptions about what is self-defense, combat, dueling, fighting and assault with a deadly weapon. Namely, that just because things have points in common it means they are the same thing. And by extension, if you train for one you can handle them all.

Not true at all.

Below is an explanation of what I am talking about. The interlocked circles are called a Venn Diagram. Venn Diagrams are  used to explain overlapping issues as well as their differences. If all these subjects were truly the same, you would have one all-encompassing circle. If they were truly separate, you'd have four circles. By nature, however, there is overlap. It is in these overlapping areas where the similarities exist. It is here that interconnections, influences and commonalities exist. It is ludicrous to say that they don't. It is, however, equally ludicrous to state, imply or allow someone to infer, that they are all one big circle.

The big question is how much overlap? You will note  that even though there are similarities, there still remains significant differences. Enough so that training in one will not equip you to deal with those issues that define the other. In short as each is defined by differences as much as their similarities, each have their own requirements. Let's take this idea out of the martial arts field and see if this premise still stands up. You would not expect a podiatrist to perform brain surgery, even though both he and the neurologist are doctors. They are different specializations. So don't automatically assume your training prepares you to survive, much less win, in these different conditions. You will not be qualified to deal with these differences without specialized training. Training that addresses the uniqueness of each specialization.

And yet, this is exactly opposite of the conclusion that so many people come to with average weapon training. They apparently believe it is one, all encompassing circle. I make this comment based, not on their response when shown a Venn diagram, but their normal conversations about the effectiveness of their systems. What other conclusion can we reach when they are constantly going on about the superiority of their system, its completeness and that it is all that you need? From the school owner, salesmanship obviously. But from the followers? If you can think of another, more realistic answer, I'd love to hear it.

Incidentally, above is a prime example of what I mean when I am not talking specifics, but rather general. I will assume that many FMA (kali, escrima, arnis, kunato) players will have taken umbrage at the preceding paragraphs. After all the concept of the stick as an average weapon is often a cornerstone of their instructional style. Believe it or not, I don't have a problem with this concept. It is a good training tool and a good starting point. But I wonder if instructors/practitioners realize how extensively this idea has been pirated? Across the country there are countless commercial martial arts schools, whom the instructor, after attending a few seminars, is now teaching sticks as part of the style's curriculum. No matter what the style. What is being taught is a rip off of FMA training. And "the stick is an average weapon" is being parroted by these instructors and their students. Most of whom  have no idea what that really means, much less the limitations (like where you have to put down the stick and pick up a weapon and learn its specifics). While what I have said in this section may not apply to how things are done at your particular school, I assure you in the bigger picture of the martial art world, it is more the norm than the exception. Go find a strip mall dojo that claims to teach sixteen different styles, then sit in on their "weapons" class and see if this isn't the case. Feign ignorance of your art and talk to the people, ask them why they train with sticks. You'll be appalled. It's like someone sent a parrot to a seminar.

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Moral Forces
At the beginning of this page, we used a quote from Carl von Clausewitz's On War. It will be interesting to note who takes offense at that quote as it flat out states that there is more to the issue of war and conflict than simple forms or systems. But that is not something many fantasy warriors want to hear. Instead they often dismiss these critical external factors with such insipid responses as "There are no rules in a real knife fight" or "I'd rather be judged by 12 than carried by six"  Or, equally inane they make statements like "(Fill in the name of the style) is a complete system and all you need to know."

What was the last part of the quote? If it were nothing more than this, then out of such miserable business there would not be a scientific problem for even a schoolboy. Pretty true, because those dismissive responses are kindergarten thinking about a complex subject. Unfortunately there are many instructors who encourage such remedial thinking by promoting their battle tested combat systems.

With that in mind we need to point out, if there is a so-called knife fighting expert alive today that has more experience than ol' Carl Von had with war, he must also be an expert at hiding his light under a bushel, 'cause we certainly have never heard of him. Realistically, while martial artists may quote Musashi, Clausewitz is still required reading for officers in the modern Western military. People who fantasize about fighting read Musashi, people for whom war is a profession read Sun Tzu and Clausewitz to learn their craft. As such, if Clausewitz felt it was important enough to dedicate a significant amount of time to what he called the "moral issues" of war then it is probably something that you need to think about too.

Why? Simple, while Mushashi may be good for the guy in the field who is taking orders, Clauzewitz is for the person giving the orders. The general needs to think in a different manner than a mere warrior. This means taking more into consideration than the common foot soldier need to concern himself. The reason this is important is that when it comes to personal safety -- you are an army of one. You are both the soldier AND the general. The forces you are marshalling are your own, the tactical deployment you do must be based on the strategy that you devise. You are the one leading your army.

And if you don't pay attention to all this "other stuff" you're going to lead your army into defeat...or Pyrrhic victory.

While were are not going to go into what Herr Clausewitz was talking about  regarding moral forces, one cannot underestimate or dismiss these factors when considering violence. As they are often as much of the defining differences between fields illustrated in the Venn diagram as physical elements.

The most obvious moral consideration is legal. As laws reflect the moral standards of a culture. And that means, like it or not, if you use a knife on another human being other than him offering you an immediate lethal force threat, then you are committing murder (or attempted murder)...and you will be prosecuted accordingly. No matter what your reasons are or how justified you think you were for doing it, your actions must conform to the standards of justifiable use of force. It doesn't matter what you think is justified, what matters is what the cops and DA think is justified. If your actions don't meet their standards, you're going to be in trouble.

Obviously, getting convicted of murder, manslaughter, aggravated assault, felonious assault, attempted murder, brandishing or whatever they call it in your local can cramp your scheduling for the years to come. But what few people realize is exactly how dependant your ability to perform your ultimate knife fighting system's moves is influenced by your intent. If you find yourself in circumstances with different radically different intent than your training conditions, then often you will be unable to mentally/emotionally shift to the new -- and necessary -- paradigm. As such, you will be unable to perform your training. This is well known among police, military, medical/EMT training as well as academic and psychological circles, who are all working together to find ways to overcome this problem. Billions of dollars and countless man hours have been spend over the centuries trying to find more effective training solutions. This unpalatable complications is, however, commonly ignored among self-proclaimed knife fighters.

A further complication arises however. That is the training that most people undergo in these systems resemble, not self-defense, but instead the moves of a punishment type knife assault. Quite frankly, it is under those very conditions that they would work best, better in fact, than in dueling. As such, your training is most likely to work very well if you go in with the intent to punish your opponent. The problem? This intent is both illegal and morally abhorrent to civilized cultural standards.

The point of this particular section is to get you to realize how important these external factors are to defining the differences between subjects like combat, dueling, self-defense and fighting. While Clausewitz wrote in a time before the disciplines of psychology, sociology and criminology were invented -- and as such, spoke of many these concepts under the title of moral forces -- he is the first one to have defined war as an extension of politics. Under this definition, war does not stand by itself, it is determined by external forces. This is something that you, as the general of your own forces must seriously consider; as your intent going into a knife situation will greatly effect what you do.

And it is those actions that -- if you live -- you will be judged by. Your actions will be weighed and judged by the legal system, people you know and -- in later years -- yourself. So think long and hard about what your training isn't telling you about or preparing for.

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So what is dueling?
In many ways a duel is a ritualized fight. Much in the same way that the sports of boxing, ring sparring, sumo,  grappling and muay Thai are ritualized and controlled aspects of fighting. A duel, however, is not self-defense, any more that self-defense is fighting, or that a fight is combat. This failure to differentiate between topics, while a bonanza for sleaze bucket instructors, is pure marketing. Odds are against what you are being taught saving your ass against a dedicated attacker. And if you use it on a non-dedicated attacker, then your ass is going to be getting a lot of action in the prison showers.

But let's look at some of the salient points that dueling, fighting and sports contests share. First of all, what they all have in common is choice. By definition, with all of them you choose to be there. And that is an incredibly important point, because by this choice, you approach the event with a different mindset. One that is prepared to engage. Yes, you mentally psyche yourself up  

Second in all of them you have the ability to withdraw before the contest.

Third, you are facing a similarly equipped, trained and/or hostile person. In short, it is theoretically a level playing field.

Fourth, they all have rules. If you object to applying that concept to a "fight" then you better go out and do some reading on A) legal issues B) social hierarchy  process and C) human aggression. Fighting is a social process to achieve dominance and/or a means of acquisition. Whereas a duel, might encompass those elements, but it also includes issues as pride, honor and revenge.

So in light of these, let's look at dueling. A duel, as a fight, means you choose to be there. This includes the fact that you had the chance to withdraw, usually by means of a public apology and a change in your behavior. If you choose not to, then you are willingly and consensually engaging in conflict against an equally equipped opponent.

Quite simply, dueling is about pride, revenge and your perceptions of face/honor. In short, it is about maintaining your social position/self-esteem... not about staying alive. Another way of putting it is it is about what you want, not what you need in order to survive. And quite often duels resulted because both parties were being assholes. That same motivation as with less formalized and spontaneous fighting.

Historically speaking the protocols of dueling, had many "outs" that would allow "honor to be satisfied" without bloodshed or death. Up to and including, showing up and both wagging their dicks at each other to show that they were not scared and then withdrawing. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn't (Ask Alexander Hamilton). The point is, that if a situation escalated to the point where a duel did occur it means that the two guys did really want a piece of each other. They had to work for it to get that far gone.

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Training for the Duel
Not to put too fine of a point on it, but someone who intends to kill you by any means possible is going to attack differently than someone who is concerned about the damage you can do to him because you are  similarly equipped. There is an world of differences in strategies.

In case you missed the significance, let me repeat that in clear, concise terms: You attack and defend differently against an equally armed, equally prepared and equally skilled opponent than you do when you are trying to murder someone before they can defend themselves.

This is why I say that an overwhelming majority of the training and drills that is done in Americanized martial arts  is training for the duel. It is EXACTLY what you need to do and train for when you opponent is equally armed. And for those exact circumstances it is pretty damned effective(5). It is for when you and your opponent are both very concerned about the damage that each the other can inflict, but not concerned enough to withdraw.

It is not like combat where you need to kill him quick and move on. It's not like self-defense where getting away safely is your only goal. No, it is more punitive in nature. It  means you are going to stay there and engage, possibly kill him, for other reasons than personal safety. Usually, among hot heads, that is pride, anger or revenge for perceived insults or wrongs.

DO NOT underestimate or dismiss the influence that this punitive aspect has on the strategies and tactics employed in real life and how it influences your training. In most cases, conflict is personal. It is very much about punishment, torture and dominance A duelist and/or fighter wants the person to know who is punishing him; who is doing this to him. It is all about "winning" and he will stay and engage in order to let you know that he won.

Whereas a professional doesn't care about you knowing that he has won. What matters is the job is done. This comes in many forms: maybe he shoots you from a distance, maybe he steps out of the shadows with a shotgun and shoots you in the back without saying anything, maybe he hires someone else to kill you or, in the case of the criminal, without warning, you're down and out and he has your money. Whether he busted you over the back of the head with a tire iron or just walked up and shot you, it is the both the ferocity and unexpectedness of the attack that makes it effective.

The absolute last thing any of these are interested in is fighting you. And that mindset is going to drastically effect how such a person attacks. Up to and including, striking with full lethal force, before you have a chance to defend yourself. Sadly enough, this same attitude is common among bullies and violent people. They don't want to fight you, they don't want to fight at all, they just want to attack you and get their way. In this case their attack strategy  is very much about torture, punishment and dominance, but without the cost of a fight. And to get it, he will attack in many of the same unexpected ways as a professional.

This is the non-dueling/fighting mindset. And it is far more common among those who use violence to get what they want than the dueling mindset. Unlike the conditions of dueling, he doesn't want you to be his equal. Therefore odds are he will attack, and attempt to overwhelm you before you have a chance to deploy your weapon and duel with him. Like a duelist, he fears and respects your weapons. Unlike a duelist, his answer instead of fighting accordingly, he's going to do his best to make sure you never get a chance to fight back.

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The Physics of a "Real Knife Attack"
Among those who claim to be knife fighters there are three hated names. Don Pentacost, Peyton Quinn and myself. The reason for so much of our popularity is that what we talk about is how knives are used by people who aren't interested in dueling, but instead on killing you with minimum risk to themselves. Such a bohemian attitude reveals many of the limitations of duelist training assumptions, which is why we are spoken of so highly in circles that pretend to know what "real knife fighting" is about.

Well, tough tit.

My point is that if you want to stay alive and/or out of prison, you need to know, that other than dueling, knives are used in three basic ways.

Each of these has a very specific set of physics that are radically different than dueling. Although again, there are similarities, it is the differences that are the most important.

1) Display/negotiate
In the book The Fifth Elephant, Terry Pratchett has his character Samuel Vimes engage in a heated discussion with an assassin. An assassin who is in possession of a disguised weapon.

"This is not a weapon. This is for killing people!" Vimes said. "Uh...Most weapons are" said Inigo
"No they're not. They're so you don't have to kill people. They're for... for having. For being seen. For warning. This isn't one of those. It's for hiding away until you bring it out and kill people in the dark!"

Although his books are humorous, Pratchett has a very keen understanding of human psychology. In four lines he has identified about six different critical dynamics about weapons, weapons display and the threat of weapons. A weapon that is displayed as a threat, is not about attacking: It is about threatening to attack.

This action can arise from several different sources and motivations. It is however, a threat display which puts it firmly in the area of "posturing." Even it is not utilized in an attack manner, its presence and display is a consideration of force. That makes it a tool of negotiate. An item that the threat of its use -- rather than designed use -- is used to get what the person wants. Quite often knives are used in this manner to end arguments, commit robberies, enforce boundaries and, in general, change another person's behavior.

The attack issues here are radically different than dueling because quite simply, by only displaying the knife, the person is neither attacking or defending.

Quite often the knife is stopped so it can be displayed. Yes the threat is there, but quite often, if you look at it objectively, the knife is being displayed at a range that is ineffective. He's standing across the room waving the knife. In short, the person would have to close in order to use the knife, ergo it is threat display.

The threat, even if the knife is being waved around in a slashing manner, is far enough back that the person on the receiving end has a choice, comply with the knife holders demands or get hurt. As such, it is not a legitimate attack, but rather the threat of a pending attack. This can be clearly demonstrated in a situation where a knife holder is slashing the air, telling the other person to leave and/or back off. If the knife holder's demands are not met, then yes, it can escalate into an attack.

Obviously in these kind of circumstances you have the choice to comply. You do NOT have to close. In fact, most of the time, the option being offered to you is to leave, so take it. If, despite the chance to withdraw, you choose to engage, the law demands that you have a really, really good explanation for that choice.

It should be pointed out that criminals commonly use the threat display in a closer range. In these cases, they are indeed close enough that if they encounter resistance they can immediately strike. Under these circumstances if you chose not to comply, closing is necessary. Do not attempt to withdraw, nor should you attempt to operate at the criminal's chosen range (which coincidentally happens to be very close to the range many people train for). Such mistakes tend to be dire in consequence.

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Once again we come into an area that has several similarities with others, but it is the differences that define the subject. Like both the duelist and the dedicated killer the person who uses the knife for torture/punishment must come close enough to use the weapon. Unlike dedicated killing attacks, the knife holder does not commit to a full bore attack. Instead although he is close enough to attack he still maintains a distance. Unlike the average displayer however, this kind of attacker is definitely in striking range, albeit, the farthest range. This type of attacker will hang back in a range that is closer to the criminal knife displayer. A range that he will continue to maintain.

This kind of person is attacking, but unlike the dedicated killer, he wants to draw it out. This isn't just retribution, this is punishment and torture. It is commonly a power trip. Where the attacker relishes in the fear, pain and confusion that he is causing by pressing this kind of attack. In case of this type of attack, the absolute worst thing you can do is to try to back away. The attacker will just continued to close and maintain, what is to him, an optimal range.

Theoretically this kind of attacker is who most "defense against the knife" training is addressing, except for one thing; They have the physics wrong. Much of what taught as defense against the knife is predicated on the assumption that you attack the same way with a knife as you do empty handed (again the misconception that if you attack this way with a stick, you attack that way with everything). Among the many errors with this approach is that it is both too slow and too predictable. Unlike a punch, a knife does not need correct body movement or proper structure/body alignment to deliver an effective attack. As such, a knife can -- and will -- be used in a much faster type of movement. Nor does the slashing action of the knife need to follow any particular pattern. It is most often wild and unpredictable.

 It is the combination of speed and not needing to create alignment that makes handling these kinds of attacks so difficult to handle. They are viper -fast, confusing, each one damaging and random. What's more, is that he doesn't necessarily want to strike your body yet, your limbs will do just fine for right now, thank you very much. Remember this is torture and punishment.

With each strike serious bio-mechanical damage is being inflicted on the victim. This, in combination with the speed and unpredictability of the attacks is why attempting to spar with such a knife attack is suicide. You will be cut to ribbons. And with each cut, your ability to effectively defend yourself greatly reduced. By the time that the victim attempts to rally, or the attacker decides to close in for the kill, enough damage has been inflicted on the victim that the defensive acts tend to be ineffective.

It is important to realize that the range of the torturer/punisher is the same as the duelist. His reasoning for hanging back at this distance is not out of fear of the damage that you can inflict on him  This is however, the reason people attempting to spar with a knifer hang back...which only leaves them in his optimum range. Do not attempt to stay in dueling range unless you have your own weapon -- and even then it ain't very smart. No, the reason he stays in this range is to enjoy and to draw out the experience of torturing/punishing you. He wants you to know who it is doing it to you.

Obviously from a legal standpoint, this is a legitimate self-defense situation. You need something that will effectively and quickly end an attack before the cumulative damage such an attack creates renders you incapable. By in large, figure that if your attacker is not incapacitated by your third move, he has won. That is what is necessary to survive such attacks before the damage he is inflicting on you overwhelms you.

I would also  like to point out however, that the wound patterns inflicted by this kind of attack are incredibly similar to the wound patterns that many Americanized FMA and FMA-based training procedures will inflict. The whole idea of multiple strikes, defanging the serpent and aggressive bio-mechanical cutting, create wound patterns that are almost indistinguishable  from this form of murder. As such, inflicting these wounds that such training teaches you to do is seriously going to undermine your claims of self-defense to the cops and the DA.

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Dedicated Killing attacks
The guy is coming at you to do you.

It isn't about torturing you or showing you where it is at. It isn't about convincing you of anything. He is going to take you out. He also knows that the best way for him to be safe, is not through wounding you so you cannot continue to fight back (that is a dueling mindset), but rather to just get in and get it over with.

Yes, there can be a certain degree of wounding involved, but that will not be the main purpose. The main purpose will be to kill you before you have a chance to rally. An example of this would be to slice the guy's weapon arm so a) he can't pull his own weapon, b) he can't keep you from closing, c) he can't push you away once you have closed and d) that he is unable to defend himself from that side. You do this then close (in order to further render the weapon arm useless by pinning it between your bodies) and plunge the knife into his vitals.

Sometimes there is one combined move, before the lethal attacks begin. But just as often the attacks go straight to lethal (e.g. sentry removal techniques). None of this dancing around, defanging the snake, tickity tack of sticks or wagging and twirling of knives that you see in so much dueling training. You're there to take him out. To make sure that fifteen seconds from now -- ten of which was you walking away -- he is dead on the ground.

That's what it looks like if you're the attacker, but what if you are on the receiving end? This is an all out blitzkrieg assault. It is not subtle. It is not sophisticated. It is not balanced. It is brutal, savage, fast and totally committed to achieving an end. He's going to hit you with everything he's got. It's strategy is to make sure that you can't counter attack on account of you being dead. And quite honestly, it will blow through most dueling defenses, like Hilter's blitzkrieg blew through the Polish cavalry at the start of WWII. And just to make it all that much more fun and exciting, it is most of the time an ambush. You know the attack is happening when you are unexpectedly grabbed and the knife driving into your flesh. You don't have time to prep for the duel, much less drop into combat mode, before someone is killing you.

The dedicated knife attacker is not afraid to close, in fact, it is job requirement. This tendency to close -- and with full force -- is another reason why the duelist's strategies tend to fail. He was expecting the attacker to stay further back, not ram into him and check his limbs. The dedicated attacker is inside the duelists defenses before the duelist knows what happens.

Obviously a lethal force response is justified self-defense in these circumstances. The challenge is living long enough to do it.

Realistically, the chances of surviving a dedicated attack are slim. Your best chance to do so is the ability to drop into combat mode and attempt to kill your opponent as quickly as he is killing you. You cannot dwell on anything other than the most fundamental form of defense before you go on the offensive. Here too the rule of him incapacitated in three must need apply. And then you are both, at the best, going to the hospital.

The realities posed by this kind of attack are why we maintain that there is no superior knife fighting system. What will save you from dying by this sort of attack are all the other factors like awareness, alertness, knowledge that someone is after you, preparation and countless other skills that determine survival -- by recognizing when such an attack is developing before it is launched. These skills, more than any so-called superior fighting system are what are your best chances for survival.

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Create your own Venn diagram
What I have just described are basic types of knife use. Again I will stress that this is only a model to explain the factors and complications involved. The reason I don't want you to get "married" to the definitions presented here is because one type of knife use can easily turn into another. Much less have elements of the others. But until you have separate models you cannot see how they can overlap, much less change into one another.

For example, a threat display, if the person feels that it is not having the desired effect, can easily become a punishing attack. From there it is not a matter of absolutes, but of degrees. Sometimes the person will only slash once before retreating, other times he will continue to press the punishing attack. It depends on the intent and emotional state of the person.

In the situations I have seen (and been in) when it went knife-to-knife, what was going to be a punishment  type of attack (where only one participant was armed), it immediately shifted into a threat display. In every case, both knife holders wagged their knives, made a few half-hearted swipes at each other (threat displays) and quickly disengaged. Conversely, I have several, reliable eye-witness accounts of dedicated duelists closing with each other and, if not both dying, then one dies, one is permanently crippled. So although it started as a duel, it turned into combat.

It is obvious that many dedicated knife murders were motivated by revenge and punishment. I have furthermore seen assassinations/murders that were very much a threat display. Not for the victim obviously, but to send messages to others not to engage in the same behavior as the victim did. Or to spread panic and fear among the witnesses (e.g. this is what we are willing to do, comply or be next).

Test It Out Yourself
Now I can talk until I am blue in the face and the legions of self-proclaimed knife fighters and dowel masters will stand there and argue about what I have said on this page. A whole lot of people who have their egos wrapped up in being big bad knife fighters, will, in fact, squeal like stuck pigs, when they read this page. Fine. I expect to get all kinds of diss'ed on internet forums and in knife fighting/FMA seminars around the world once word about this page gets out.

My it's lovely to be popular...

I accept the fact that I will never change the mind of the true believer or the person who is neurotically trying to prop up his ego by being a  big bad knife fighter. That's not my goal anyway. But I will let you, the average reader, decide for yourself the effectiveness of what you have been taught vs. the differences I have discussed.

And it's real easy to do so.

Take what you know and see how it stands up against these different types of knife use. See if someone threatening you with a knife is really attacking or if he is displaying it it. If he is out of range do you have to move into range?  And if you do, is moving into dueling range really such a smart idea? Compare that with the differences of someone who is trying to keep you in torturing/punishing range. Try it without you holding a weapon and see how scared he is of your attempts to keep him out of torture range. And every time you take a hit, you lose the ability to grab, hit or block. Now see how well what you know stands up against a dedicated killing attack

Hell, go to your teacher and do a torturing/punishing attack and see if he tries to hang back and fight you in dueling range, or if he closes in to take you out. If you don't care about staying at that school anymore, see how well he stands up against a dedicated full on, rushing, killing attack. You may get hit, but how many times did you stab him?

Then see how much more effective what you are being taught is against someone who, while they want you, doesn't want to get nailed while doing it a.k.a. the strategies, ranges and degrees of commitment of dueling. For the record, let me say that a whole lot of the stuff that you have been learning will work under these latter circumstances. Hell, it is what it is designed for

But, you decide if what you are being taught as knife work would work against these other realities of knife use.

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1) This is not bragging attempting to impress people, in fact, it is the exact opposite. When you live a certain lifestyle, surrounded by violent and selfish people -- and have many of the same traits yourself -- these events are common. Not necessarily because one was looking for them, but as a natural extension of these kind of choices and behaviors. Crime and violence was not unusual. We had a term for killings, muggings, rapes, fights, robberies, knifings and shootings, we called it "Saturday Night." If you doubt this, ask any cop, paramedic or ER staff member -- it's still very much an active lifestyle out there. Return to Text

2)I have extensive dealings with criminals, convicts and parolees of many races and I have never encountered an "organized fighting system" among them, much less a specific prison system. As such, any organized "prison fighting system" is pretty much a marketing creation. Return to Text

3) This is why I also have to again state that I am not promoting MY ultimate deadly knife fighting system (as if there was such a thing). People seem to automatically assume, by me talking about knives that I am playing the same game as the self-proclaimed "knife fighters" who are promoting these misconceptions. Return to Text

4)Supposedly a stick is always present, but again this is not the full story. A pool cue handles different than a shovel, which handles differently than a rake, which handles differently than a broom, which handles differently than a tire iron. Many of which do not have the mass to effectively stop an attacker from closing and beating the hell out of you Return to Text

5) As a training consideration, it has been my observation that individuals trained to "attack correctly" (i.e. what you need to do to keep from getting your guts cut out when facing an equally armed attacker) tends to move the same way during drills where his partner is supposed to learn how to defend empty handed against a knife. This does not realistically reflect the physics that are common when an armed attacker assaults an unarmed victim. Don't be afraid to come in harder, faster and with the idea that you can soak up a few blows to get him with a knife. Return to Text

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