Why I Don’t Pretend to Teach Knife Defense

Sunday, March 8th, 2009

Rory Miller (Meditations on Violence) teaches a seminar called, Why I Don't Pretend to Teach Knife Defense:

The class starts with some pictures I’ve collected of knife wounds, empasizing that one set was from a prison shank, just a piece of metal that had been scraped on a floor, not some custom fighting knife sharpened to a razor edge. The most gruesome was a single cut from a kitchen knife. Gives them a very basic idea of what the hell they are talking about. What the stakes are if they choose to gamble in this arena.

Then I ask for someone with no experience or training with a knife. I take the volunteer aside, hand her the training knife and whisper, “Keep the knife moving, get it in to them any way you can. Cut anything they stick out, if someone grabs your hand switch hands and keep stabbing and slashing. Got it?”

I then turn back to the students and say, “This person now has less than thirty seconds of knife training. Who in here teaches knife defense?”

At this point, with the put up or shut up time, there are no volunteers. I pick somebody.

The first time I did this drill (for those who don’t recognize it, it is Tony Blauer’s Manson Drill) the volunteer was a sixteen-year old female green belt in Uech-ryu karate with no knife training. The expert (and, honestly, the Uechi guys didn’t need to be picked, they did volunteer — they have consistantly been both braver and humbler than most martial artists, in my experience) was a sixth-dan and 20 year veteran police officer. He only got hit twelve times. (We count the stabs and usually end it at twenty, which is just a few seconds.)

In a big diverse group, it quickly becomes clear that almost nothing works against a fast moving, aggressive knife. The guys who have spent years with knives get slaughtered just as fast as people who have never tried it before — faster, if they really believe it works — they practically jump on the blade.

Then they talk about how knives are actually used:

I demonstrate some prison shanking techniques and some mexican gang assassination techniques and the one Japanese tanto kata I know and they all have a lot in common — very close, from surprise, and using the other hand to freeze the target before the knife come into view. Are those the attacks you train against? If not, too bad, because those are the attacks that happen. This brings up one of the big rules: Knives aren’t used for winning fights. Knives are used for killing people.

Then comes the Reception Line drill:

One student is picked out and I joyfully announce that he or she has been elected governor. It is now time for the inaugural ball. You first duty is to shake hands with all the people lining up to congratulate you- contributors, friends, political allies and rivals. You have to be nice, friendly. By the way, your security detail has information someone plans to kill you. Have a nice party.

The governor then faces away and one of the other students gets the knife. All the students are given instructions. Be happy, be friendly, shake hands, hug, then mill around behind the governor. The assassin can attack at any time — while shaking hands, later, after everyone else is done, while the governor is getting a hug…

The students cycle through the governor role. At least once, time permitting, there is no assassination attempt and the whole class gets to take a good hard look at how stilted and weird the body language of someone who is afraid can be… good education.

In the end, the critique is always the same:

No one yelled for help. No one ran. No one yelled, “He’s got a knife!” No one used the mirrors all around or the weapons lying everywhere (we usually do this at a MA seminar, remember). In the end, people were trying to come up with martial arts solutions to survival problems. As much as we want to pretend otherwise, that is rarely a good fit.

Rory’s friend Mac made an insightful comment:

In 40 years of training with weapons, I have never seen anyone actually attack the knife wielder and not defend first, except for you. Only the attitude of, “today is a good day to die”, or running away at top speed, has any hope of defeating a knife attack.

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