Instinctive Counters to Knife Attacks – Introduction

Knife attacks are a most formidable and frightening experience.  That immediate fear evoked by suddenly being thrust into a literal situation of life and death, experiencing the cut of a blade, the stabbing and puncturing of your body, the blazing pain as nerve endings are sliced and severed, or being totally unaware of being injured as your body reacts releasing hormones into your system attempting to ensure its survival.

The reality of a knife attack

Then that shocking realization of seeing the blood seeping dark and slow or spurting bright and vibrant and dealing with the subsequent shock both physiologically and psychologically, then that feeling of uncertainty that seems like it is overcoming you, draining you, making you question whether you may be able to counter this attack and survive.

Experiencing that sinking thought and desperate realization that you have no choice, you must either continue to fight to counter the attack defending yourself or do you attempt to escape your attacker as your only chance of survival.  Either way, giving up is definitely not an option.  You fight on with the uncertainty of success; you’re disorientated,      weakened by injury, fear and fatigue.  Although an understatement this is an extremely sobering experience.

Such an experience hopefully will not be a reality for us.  However, those thoughts should still motivate us to reflect on our training.  To analyze our application of knowledge, levels of physical and technical ability and mental approach and how we prepare for this experience and what we are indeed prepared to do to survive if ever confronted with such a situation.  Actual experience in managing this type of scenario is hard earned and one that we should not willingly look forward to.  In countering knife attacks it can be safely stated that in reality everything does not necessarily go as we have envisaged when training.

When we train it is always a controlled environment no matter how realistic we attempt to make our training.  Realistic training develops instinctive behavior and enables us to enhance our psychological commitment when dealing with this type of situation and is always necessary.  However, having been compelled to defend myself in actual knife attacks I can speak from the perspective of experience that although training assists it is still challenging to deal with the reality of this type of attack by an armed assailant.

A consideration that we all must recognize is always expect to get cut and consider how you will have to work through that, then train for it, if we’re lucky we will not be seriously injured. We need to remember that this outlook is our start point.

flashy yet skillful techniques
may not be appropriate

When dealing with a knife wielding assailant intent on attacking you, you may have to make the choice of making sacrifices to be able to counter the attack and if so how do we minimize that loss so that we still survive?

Therefore, do we need to consider in our training programs only the splendid, acrobative, and wow factor techniques that can be designed to counter a myriad of possible attacks by would be assailants of varying skill sets and stylized backgrounds for this type of situation which we are only too familiar with through Hollywood adaptation.  In reality, our defences must be much more instinctive displaying focus, fluidity of motion and controlled use of power.  We must use our maximum strength against the attacker’s weakest point while avoiding and controlling the weapon and ultimately neutralizing the attacker.  To do this the following applies:

  • How do we understand and develop our mental approach to such incidents to counter initiated attacks in a manner which is committed and focused enabling the defender to survive such an attack and traumatic environment?
  • Conceptually what is the successful counter strategy for such an attack?
  • Technically how do we initiate counters to these types of attack ensuring that we are able to successfully defeat those that are accomplished and experienced in the use of these weapons?
  • Like the assailant we need to have a high level of understanding of the tactics of knife fighting to support our technical knowledge so that we can defend against and defeat the assailant.
  • Furthermore, what are we prepared to do ourselves in defeating such an attack and is that response that we are prepared to go to still within the legal and moral constraints that make up our society and what we are bound to by law.

This series of articles will attempt to raise relevant issues for consideration by the reader to assist where appropriate the training of instinctive counters to knife attacks.  It will address in brief areas that we need to consider such as our mental approach enabling us to understand where we are reacting the way we do but to know how to deal with such an incident and how do we train for such an incident.

The article will also highlight what are the conceptual guidelines for managing an attack with a knife as well as the technical application of counters to knife attacks that are instinctive.  The issue remains however, that although our defensive responses must be instinctive we must always maintain a conscious awareness of the legal ramifications and compliance requirements we must be mindful of that our society compels through law.

This legal requirement compels us however, to train harder and to achieve a much higher level of explosive and focused skill.  The defender does not have the advantage here the attacker does because obviously they are not attempting to be compliant to the law where the defender is legally compelled to do so.  Technically we must be finely attuned to how our body including our psychological responses to such attacks impacts our performance. It is a necessity to develop our ability to respond instinctively and therefore hopefully stay alive. It is understood that differing martial art styles and experiences of the defender will impact the selection of knife attack counters, all of which are effective when executed by experienced and skilled practitioners in those styles.  However, what if our levels of experience and practical skill are not supported by years of experience and skill development.  Therefore as an element of this series of articles I have offered several example solutions to differing forms of attack from my own experiences and training options which may be of interest and are proposed for review by the reader.  These techniques are based on instinctive action and understanding how our body responds to this type of stress induced from such an attack. And although these proposed techniques may not require years of experience and skill development they do require a reasonable amount of training and understanding by a novice or someone not familiar with them.

In conclusion by no way is it intended that these techniques are the only solutions available.  It must be remembered that our choices in countering knife attacks will be impacted by varying considerations that will include the scenario at the time of the attack and the ability, level of experience, and state of mind  of all those involved including the defender attempting to counter a knife attack instinctively.

A martial artist of 27 years Glen Gardiner is experienced in a number of martial art disciplines. Having trained, taught, conducted seminars, and competed in Australasia, South East Asia and North America. He has been involved in and assisted in the development of military unarmed combat in the Australian Army commencing in the 1980’s through to the late 1990’s.  He has trained policing organizations in Australia and South East Asia and developed programs for Voluntary Principles of Human Rights and Security, security risk management and been involved in capacity peace development programs for youth and martial arts in conflict environments. He lives and works in Indonesia with his American wife.  He teaches and trains at the non-profit Combined Martial Arts Academy he started with other interested members of the Jakarta community.  He still competes in various national and international events.

Further Reading and Sources:  Gavin de Becker the Gift of Fear – Lt Col David Grossman, On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society – Lt Col David Grossman On Combat: The Psychology and Physiology of Deadly Conflict in War and in Peace – Col Rex Applegate, Kill or Get Killed – Morality of Martial Arts – Boyd Cycle, John Boyd

Identification and Appreciation of Stress Types
Maintaining Our Psychological Commitment During Conflict Stress

The General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS).

The GAS is how we cope psychologically to stress.  Stress is our physiological response to an internal or external stimulus.  How do we cope with stress? We need to either control the source or develop the capacity to tolerate the source. The two forms of stress our bodies deal with are chronic forms of stress which impact us over the longer term and in the case of the initiation of the fight or flight response acute stress which affects us in the short term.  An example of acute stress would include a physical threat such as a life threatening attack by a knife wielding assailant.

                 General Adaption Syndrome (GAS)
There are three stages to the GAS which defines how our bodies deal with stress whether the stress is chronic or acute:

Alarm:- The first stage when the stressor is realized or identified.  In this stage our bodies produce adrenaline which induces the fight or flight response, the hormone cortisol is also produced at this stage

Resistance:– The second stage occurs as the stressor persists and this is where it becomes necessary to be able to cope with the stress.  As the body attempts to adapt to the strains of the stressor the body is incapable of achieving this indefinitely as its resources gradually become depleted.

Exhaustion:– The third and final stage is characterized by the total depletion of the body’s resources and ability in adapting to the stressor and it is unable to maintain its normal function.

Stress Defined.

 In understanding how our bodies respond in stressful situations endocrinologist Hans Selye in his 1975 model further defined stress in understanding how we respond to different scenarios and situations involving stress.  When our body is subjected to stress enhancing our body’s functions such as physical training or mental conditioning the stressors are defined as being eustress that is healthy, and as giving us a feeling of fulfillment or other positive feelings and is a process of exploring potential gains.  Where stress which is persistent and is not resolved is deemed as distress leading to anxiety and withdrawal or depression.

Both are equally straining on our bodies and are cumulative and dependent on each individual’s ability to cope or adapt.  Distress or eustress are not physically able to be discerned by the body.  The difference between experiences which result in eustress or distress is determined by the disparity between an experience (real or imagined), personal expectations, and resources to cope with the stress. Alarming experiences, either real or imagined, can trigger a stress response.

Primary and Secondary Appreciation in Defining a Threat.

Psychologist Richard S. Lazarus was a pioneer in the study of emotion and stress and their relation to cognition.  He argued that the cognitive process of appraisal comprises what he defined as primary and secondary appraisal.

The process of appraisal is central in determining whether a situation is potentially threatening, constitutes a harm or loss, is a challenge or is benign.  He argued that the trigger for the selection of the psychological coping process was influenced by both environmental and personal factors as elements of primary appraisal in defining a threat.  He identified that problem focused coping was directed at managing a problem and emotional focused coping processes was directed towards the management of negative emotions.

Whereas secondary appraisal refers to the evaluation of what resources are available to cope with the problem and which in turn could alter the primary appraisal.

Emotion and its Relationship to the Appreciation and Definition of Threat.

In general Dr. Lazarus’s theory of appraisal defined that appraisal occurred before emotion and was an automatic and unconscious assessment of the situation and scenario including the potential impact on them or others they cared about. This further defined and from this perspective, emotion became not just a rational but a necessary component of survival.  Our emotions in threatening situations impact the appraisal process and are defined according to core relational themes which are intuitive to summaries of appraisals related to goal conduciveness and which are of relevance and are involved in differing emotions.  These themes help in the definition of the function and the elicitation of the emotion during the appraisal process in defining the threat.  These emotions include:

  • Anger – a demeaning offense against me and mine
  • Fear – facing an immediate, concrete, and overwhelming physical danger
  • Sadness – having experienced an irrevocable loss
  • Disgust – taking in or being too close to an indigestible object or idea
  • Happiness – making reasonable progress toward the realization of a goal

Psychological Appraisal.

Dr Lazarus outlined that primary appraisal was the perception of how stressful a problem is and furthermore, that the realization that there were either sufficient or insufficient resources to cope with the problem affected the appraisal of the level of stressfulness experienced.  The theory also highlighted that coping is flexible where the individual is capable of gauging the effectiveness of coping strategies and being able to change strategies if not successful.  However, what does all of this mean to us when we are confronted by a knife wielding assailant?  We will exclude at this stage the physiological processes our body goes though in such a situation and which impacts our automated psychological appreciation process.  This will be discussed later.

Psychologically we are assessing the threat and our capability to manage that threat and counter the attack. Therefore it seems that as an instinctive function as we become aware that the attacker is preparing to or commences an assault our appraisal process will occur subconsciously and is automated.  This occurs through a series of continually recurring interrelated processes of assessment and reassessment for the duration of the altercation as observed incoming information is being oriented and analyzed, decisions made and we act and respond accordingly (The OODA Loop – Observation, Orient, Decide, Act) which is an automated function.

This includes the comparison of each opponent’s ability comprising physical capability and capacity, skill, knowledge and observation of perceived experience and very importantly the attacker’s mental focus displayed through their drive, determination and commitment to their attack. Which in turn enables us to psychologically assess and define the realistic threat and if the attack can be successfully conducted to its intended conclusion by the attacker.

Overcoming the Human Phobias Related to Violence and Aggression.

It is a small percentage of human society who as an exception does not have an aversion to killing or committing acts of violence and aggression against other human beings.  The majority of humanity on the other hand possesses that normal phobia towards killing or being aggressive towards other human beings.  However; there may be a requirement to use lethal force in the act of self defence requiring this phobia to be overridden.  In the
1960’s Dr. Stanley Milgram conducted a series of studies relating to obedience and aggressive behavior.  These studies have since been repeated over the years in many countries by numerous researchers but all have established that the human phobia of killing, inflicting pain and aggression towards another human being can be overcome.  The primary conclusions were that average humans are capable of killing when they could psychologically distance themselves from the victim; rationalize the act through the demands of authority and group absolution.  These three major psychological interactions are further sub categorized as follows:

  • Physical distance:  The ingrained human revulsion to the threat of close combat employing edged weapons is a powerful psychological control mechanism.  Hence the majority of incidents of this type are far less than other mediums allowing the extension of distance to separate each protagonist. Superior posturing expressed by willingness either perceived or real or the reputation of such willingness for participating in close combat with edged weapons has a devastating effect on the other protagonist’s morale.  Overcoming the defenders anxiety and revulsion to close encounters with an assailant armed with an edged weapon is a primary training requirement to instilling confidence and minimizing uncertainty prior to ultimately enhancing skill development.

  • Emotional Distance:  Emotional separation from the act of killing either on the battlefield or in an act of self defence employing lethal force is a primary requirement to be able to overcome the human phobia of revulsion to killing or acts of aggression.  That level of psychological leverage attained as an enabling process by as example not seeing the protagonists face is interesting as a means of separation. Hence, a large number of gangland or totalitarian dictatorship executions are delivered with a bullet to the back of the head.  Hooded hostages face a much higher threat of being killed than those that are not by their captors. And, in a combat scenario throughout history a fleeing force that has been routed will traditionally suffer a higher rate of casualties.  Not having to look the person in the face aids the separation process through subsequent denial and rationalization of acceptance of having killed. There are other elemental components which impact the separation of emotional distance further including:
  • Cultural Distance:  Cultural distancing through ethnic and racial separation enables the killer to dehumanize their victim.
  • Moral Distance:  Moral distancing is quite similar where the killer believes in their moral superiority motivated through religion, political cause and vengeance.
  • Social Distance:  Social distancing results from members of one class believing that they are socially justified in their behavior and that the victim is less than sub human which enables the separation and rationalization of the act.
  • Mechanical Distance:  Mechanical distance is a condition of desensitizing the act of killing for example the percentage of violence in today’s children’s TV and video games including X-Box and Nintendo.
  • The Demands of Authority:  Human nature allows us to rationalize acts of violence and aggression if the killer can deny responsibility abrogating it to another entity such as an authority figure.  This is impacted by the proximity of the authority figure during the act by the killer, the killer’s subjective respect for the authority figure, the intensity of the authority figures character, and the legitimacy of the authority figure.
  • Group Accountability and Anonymity:  A sense of accountability motivates the killer to conduct the act while abrogating the responsibility to that of a shared responsibility.  This diffusion of responsibility allows for separation through a shared experience, a sort of bonding.  This shared responsibility enhances a group reliability and group empowerment through the killing process.
  • Victim Characteristics and Tactical Circumstances-The Shalit Factor:  Israeli military psychologist Ben Shalit in his research developed a model based on the nature of the victim and the tactical considerations involved in killing him.  Although his model is based on the combat environment of the soldier there are similarities when discussing an altercation between a criminal and a person defending themselves.
  • The Predisposition of the Killer-Training and Conditioning:  Training and experiences will define the killer’s ability to override the human revulsion to killing.  Realistic training automating the responses and skill sets achieved through the development of operant conditioning.  This conditioning induces the respondent to act immediately without hesitation, instinctively.
  • The predisposition of the Killer-temperament:  It is a very small percentage of humanity that has a predisposition of a psychopath with violent and aggressive tendencies.  It is these individuals however which do not have any resistance to killing.  Studies have established strong evidence that this may be a genetic predisposition.  This genetic predisposition when combined with environmental experience or social conditioning will result in higher levels of violence and aggression being displayed.  Researchers have also indicated that these types of individuals lack empathy for others and are unable to understand the suffering or pain of others.  Within this group there is also another set of individuals, those who although possess similar qualities do not attack the innocent but strive to maintain their skills and capabilities in the case of using them in a legalized scenario.  Such character types have been identified in employment roles of soldiers or members of law enforcement agencies.

Understanding Psychological Commitment its Development and Association to Social Conditioning.

In how we counter knife attacks and in general from a martial arts perspective there is something I colloquially refer to in a conflict scenario as both protagonists level of “Psychological Commitment” which is a subconscious function.   The psychological commitment is exceedingly important in how an attack is delivered and in the course of countering attacks in an altercation.  This is especially the case when attempting to ensure that those counters to the said attack are instinctive.  As discussed psychological commitment defines the level of focus, drive and determination to initiate an attack or a counter to its conclusion.

It also considers each protagonists ability to overcome or rationalize those natural and responsive phobias the majority of people have to injuring and or killing each other.  This is inclusive of the resultant impact of the social conditioning we have experienced.  Our traditional, historical, and moral values that we have in relation to the practices of society.  What is right, what is wrong, what is good and evil, what is compliant to social and legal values.

This is further defined through the training and association we have and go through in managing such situations as well as the exposure to such situations either real or simulated.  This also includes for example differing types and styles of training methodology to include realistic and instinctive training or cultural desensitization such as through the use of video games, media or entertainment mediums like film.  Organizations such as law enforcement and the military, the affiliation we have with individuals, groups and associations including family, clubs and or gangs also plays an important part.  The social conditioning related to the inculcation of these groups to include martial arts, its training and associated values and type and level of morality imbued within the trainee is integral in the development of psychological commitment.

The resultant phenomenological process of inheriting tradition and gradual cultural generational transmutation and the manifestation of this conditioning will have an impact and define how well we perform at enabling us to psychologically deal with the stress of an attack and counter instinctively with a suitable response.

There are many examples of training methodology which lend themselves to the characteristics of social conditioning that develop the qualities, mental attitude and psychological commitment required to deal with threats deriving from interpersonal aggression and combat.  Basically these methods involve the conditioning of the participant to never give up, to always maintain the desire to  win, to adapt and overcome, and to step up to the plate and perform no matter.  Within martial arts I recall an instructor who likened his training processes to the forging of a finely handmade sword. You take a raw piece of metal, you heat it, and you bend and smash it with a hammer and repeat the process developing its strength and quality. Then you polish the hardened and tempered metal ensuring its finish, balance, strength and endurance is perfection, a truly enduring weapon.  I must admit that I personally subscribe to this analogy.  However, it must be remembered that it takes the sword maker a lifetime to learn his trade.

That having been said these types of training methods and the associated social conditioning which go hand in hand are designed to develop the participant enabling them to possess the will to do what is required including the use of lethal force if necessary.  The defenders resolve to overcome the assailant must also be based on the knowledge and acceptance that they are prepared to bleed if necessary to achieve the aim.  It is this determination and acceptance of what must be done which personifies what I describe as psychological commitment.  At times this psychological commitment may be enough to actually deescalate the situation in itself with the assailant not prepared to test such demonstrated resolve.  Like the forging of the finely made sword such a person displaying these traits is in reality the weapon.

Possessing the required psychological commitment enables the defender to be prepared well in advance of any altercation where the possibility of the use of lethal force may be employed.  That resolve in association with the subsequent training methodology intensifies instinctive response where it in itself should become an automated response mechanism of the body’s processes in response to an assault by an armed assailant wielding a knife.