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How to survive a knife attack

Defending yourself against a knife attack

Knife fights are rare – knife attacks on the other hand, and much more common. Knife attacks typically occur when the attacker is within arm’s reach of you but experts will say, anyone with a knife that is intent on attacking you is a threat as far as 30-feet away (many experts quote a “21-foot-rule” but research has proven 30-feet is a more reasonable danger zone).  Here’s how to defend yourself from and survive a knife attack.

Understand your attacker

Terrorist with a knifeFirst, you must understand the different types of attackers. The mentality of the knife attacker grants you clues to not only why they are attacking, but the method they will most likely use to attack you with their edged weapon.

Hard killer

The hard killer will attack anyone who presents a threat to him. They are likely more experienced with an edged weapon and thus, are extremely dangerous. Their intent is not to scare or intimidate you but rather, they aim to kill you dead.

Opportunity attacker

The opportunity attacker is using his knife to attack you at the spur of the moment. They have no plan – their decision to attack occurred in a split second. They are likely not an experienced knife fighter and may have pulled their weapon as a means to “posture” themselves.

Criminal caught in the act

Like a trapped animal, the criminal caught in the act has been forced to react and the knife may have been the most convenient weapon they had on hand. They are similar in nature to the opportunity attacker but more defensive in nature. With quick thinking on your part, they may leave you with additional options to avoid the attack altogether.

Mentally ill attacker

A mentally ill knife attacker is the least skilled attacker with a blade – and the most unpredictable. This attacker is highly dangerous because it is difficult to predict how they will react or what they intend to do with their weapon. They may not be proficient with a knife but you have no idea how they will use it.

Person under the influence

Similar to a mentally ill attacker, a person under the influence of drugs or alcohol are also unpredictable. The influence of drugs may hinder their attack or it could enhance their ability with a weapon. If drunk, a surge of adrenalin may have sobered them up. As such, avoid the tendency to underestimate a knife attack from a person under the influence of alcohol. Just because their reaction time has been slowed does not mean they are not a threat – even a small child can kill a man with a sharp knife.

What do these attackers have in common?

If they pulled knife, they all have the ability to kill you. Most are not simply aiming to prove themselves but rather, they want to stop you in your tracks. Recognize that the cliché “knife fight” is just that – a cliché. Most knife attacks are not “knife fights” – they are attempts to assassinate you.

Types of knife attacks

Counterattacking a knife attackThere are three primary types of knife attacks. The stab, the slash, and the slash and stab attack.

Stab attack

The stab knife attack is a deadly form of attack – it is meant to kill you, not slow you down. The attacker will use quick, short jabs while driving you backward into a reactive position. The stabs are typically aimed at your body (mentally ill attackers may aim for your face) and are often used in ambush style attacks. The stab attack is a commonly used by experienced knife fighters.

Slash attack

In the slash knife attack, the attacker uses a single, swinging movement with the knife, typically moving their weapon when a target presents itself. This method is commonly used with mentally ill attackers or other inexperienced knife fighters. If a slash attack is used by a more experienced knife fighter, they will typically slash at your neck.

Slash and stab

This is the most deadly form of knife attack and used by persons who are most skilled with edged weapons. It is a common attack method used by trained killers, ex-cons, and ex-military personnel. The attacker will slash at you (likely aiming for your neck or a body part that you have presented for defense) and follow quickly with a stabbing movement. Then they rinse and repeat. In this type of attack, it is important that you watch for a pattern and “rhythm” to their attack that you can effectively anticipate and defend against.

Defense against a knife attack

The beginning of a knife attack – confusion

During the first few seconds of a knife attack, your mind is simply trying to understand what is going on. You are surprised and stunned. Your mind is racing, trying to decode a situation that it likely has never encountered before. Since you are essentially defenseless during this period of time, the first few milliseconds of the knife attack are extremely dangerous. The attacker is in complete control and attacking a victim that has yet to begin to defend himself. It is important to reduce this period of time to a fraction of the norm. Practice can teach you how to decrease this period of innate inactivity, the span of time when you are most vulnerable, so you can quickly shift into a defensive position.

Defending the attack

Universal fighting stanceFirst, present the least vulnerable target to your attacker. This will typically be the outside of your arms or legs. Your body is designed so the outer areas are highly muscular and protective. The most vulnerable areas are the neck and side of the head, inner arms, inner thighs, and the sides of your body. To defend, shift quickly to the “universal fighting stance” (or “natural stance”) while presenting the least vulnerable areas of your body to the attacker.

In the universal fighting stance, your arms and hands are brought up and in front of your body (about chin height) with elbows tucked inward to protect the sides and palms facing each other. Knees are flexed, feet shoulder-width apart, stomach tight, strong side slightly to the read, with shoulders hunched and in. Keep your chin down and your eyes up. Do not turn your back towards the attacker. Turning your back to the attacker is often a natural reaction but puts you in a 100% defensive position while offering the attacker the opportunity to be in a 100% attack/offensive position. Instead, quickly shift into a defensive position, hands and arms up, presenting the outside of your forearms toward the attacker (inner forearm damage is to be avoided – a cut to the inner forearm can not only damage vulnerable arteries but may also damage muscle tissue which will prevent you from gripping a weapon yourself).

Once in the universal fighting stance, begin moving backward, away from the attacker, in a controlled manner. Find and move behind a protective barrier such as a car or tree (preferably not in a location that would allow you to be pinned in). If the situation (and time) permits, you can wrap something around your forearms (shirt, belt, or jacket) to protect the vulnerable inner forearm area. Again, practice can help reduce the time it takes you to move from the “startled” mode to the defensive mode.

Decision time

Next, a decision must be made – fight or flee. If you choose to flee, flee fast and far. Experts believe any person with a knife in hand is a threat as far as 30 feet away. Remember that this is not a contest – it is survival. Running from the attacker is typically the best option.

If you choose to fight, you must shift from a defensive or reaction mode, into an action mode. Your intent will be to force the attacker to react to you, not the other way around.

Switch to offense

Vulnerable parts of the human bodyMost knife attackers are focused so intently on the knife in their hand, they forego use of other body parts to attack you (e.g. legs to kick, other hand to punch, head to head butt, etc.). Keep your eye on the knife unless they give you reason to expand your area of focus. Watch for the opportunity to grab the knife wielding arm, preferably at the wrist of muscle of their thumb. Once you gain control of their attacking arm, quickly turn the weapon against them.

Arm yourself with any weapon you can find – a knife, stick, bat, belt with buckle, broken glass, etc. – and don’t forget to “fight dirty”. This is survival, not a contest. Throw dirt in their eyes, gouge their eyes, strike their throat, etc. You want the attacker to stop thinking about killing you and instead, turn their focus to their own survival. Once the attacker’s focus turns from the attack to defending their own safety, the situation has shifted in your favor.

Finally, look for a means to disable the attacker. You have more to fear from a deadly man than a deadly weapon – disable the attacker as quickly as possible to end the attack.


Review these steps repeatedly and come back to refresh them in your mind.

You can practice quickly moving into the universal fighting stance with a friend or by yourself in front of a mirror.

Finally, a faux knife attack can be played in your mind, over and over, to “teach” yourself what is expected and how to react. Your body may not be able to physically react without actual practice, but playing a knife attack scenario in your head will train your mind how to react.

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