By Matthew Schafer
Copyright 2013, All Rights Reserved
There is a lot of bad information in the martial arts. A key reason is that many martial arts are technique oriented, meaning that they are focused on specializing in very specific techniques to the point where they kind of lose sight of the overall goal.
An example of this is Taekwondo; Taekwondo is a form of kickboxing from Korea that specialized in kicks and can be taught as a martial art but is mostly just taught as a sport. I’m not insulting Taekwondo by the way, as they freely admit they are a sport and they are proud that they are the national sport of Korea.
I did Taekwondo for years, got my black belt, and found it enjoyable but the school I went to was all based on a large collection of kicking techniques. I went to class and we learned “this” kicking technique, then they showed me “that” kicking technique which was really cool, and then they showed me another kicking technique that had a jump in it that was a lot of fun...but then at some point you stop and say, “This is a lot of fun, but aren’t I supposed be learned to defend myself from a violent attacker, like someone trying to stab me to death or something?” The instructor would then kind of stutter and then introduce the next kicking technique.
Where some of the most misleading information comes about is when you’re taught to use a knife. Very few schools or styles teach you how to use a knife for self-defense and the ones that do mostly take their information from the Filipino Martial Arts which specialize in knife and stick fighting, but a lot of that information isn’t necessarily reliable once modern medical science looks at it. It is the same as all the martial arts schools that still teach the myth that you can kill someone by pushing their nose up into their brain.
In this article I’ll discuss the most commons myths the martial arts teach about using a knife and I’ll go over the truth of what will really kill someone. I do want to state that this is not an article on how to kill someone but rather this article is meant to educate martial artists who are studying the use of the knife for educational or practical self-defense purposes. While I do realize the information I provide can be used in the wrong way, I’m not teaching the majority of criminals something they don’t already know and can’t or haven’t learned in prison, I’m just providing the general public and the serious martial arts student with the same information to hopefully save their lives.
The knife, however, in addition to other stabbing weapons, is not the perfect self-defense weapon. The purpose of self-defense is to avoid, deal with, and escape unprovoked attacks. While the best example of self-defense is to detect a dangerous situation in advance and avoid it, if that isn’t possible it may result in you having to utilize deadly force in order to save your life or the life of your loved ones.
If you pull a knife, or take one away from your attacker, you really only have a few options. One option is that you can brandish the weapon in hopes of scaring your attacker(s) away or trying to create a situation which gives you to opportunity to escape, but that is not very reliable. A second option is that you can attack your attacker with the weapon when they come after you, or be the aggressor yourself and go after them, and this will more than likely end with someone being seriously injured or even killed.
Pepper spray (not mace!) is, in my opinion, a much better self-defense tool than a knife. Pepper spray is convenient to carry, easy to get (in fact you can make it yourself), legal in most locations, allows you to engage your attacker from a safe distance, allows you to engage multiple attackers at once, has disabling effects that occur rapidly, it can disable an attacker for up to 45 minutes, it can mark their faces so the police can identify them later on, and being non-lethal people are rarely hesitant to use it.
With the exception of being convenient to carry and perhaps being legal, a knife is none of the things I described above. You have to get close, you have to be aggressive, and you get blood on you. In addition, since people inherently know that as soon a knife is used serious injury or death can follow they tend to hesitate to use it when they need to which can lead to their injury or death.
A knife is also not the best killing tool. Again, unlike a gun where you can stand back and pull a trigger, with a knife you have to get close and do all the hard work yourself. People don’t realize the amount of intent it takes to kill someone with a knife. You have to move in on them aggressively and plunge that knife into them as hard and as deep as you can, pull it out, and repeat while being covered in their blood and seeing and hearing them react to being stabbed. As the knife gets covered in blood the blood will lubricate the blade and it will go in easier as you go, but at first you will really have to punch it into their body.
You are also going to have to be accurate in your stabbing. The human body, while very frail and easy to damage, is also quite resilient. There have been people that have been stabbed 60 times and not only survived but never lost consciousness while they were attacked. You have to know where to stab someone to shut the body down right away. This is another drawback of the knife; even if you stab them and inflict a mortal wound that will end up killing them within the next few minutes they might continue to fight you, and scream for help or to alert their friends to come jump in, until they do lose consciousness. The person that you’re trying to injure will most likely not suddenly stop when you stab them so killing someone with a knife is actually a process that is very involved, very violent, and requires a great deal of violent intent to get the work done.
On top of that most knives are not very good for using on the human body. Ideally you want a blade that is at least 5 inches long because a shorter blade may not be long enough to reach everything you want inside their body. Also, a quality blade that has some thickness and weight is desired because a thin blade can bend and have the tip break off if it hits the ribs. If you get attacked in the kitchen and have a choice of what edged object to grab choose a heavy knife with large blade or an ice pick.
So, for these and other reasons, the knife is not the best self-defense tool and it should be looked upon as a “killing tool.” My reasoning behind this is that brandishing it to an attacker in hopes of scaring them away is not guaranteed to work and may cause them to pull their own weapon and escalate the situation and trying to cut someone will not immediately stop them unless they are a good psychological candidate for ASD (talked about below); which leaves aggressively stabbing people and that can be an effective means of stopping someone right away but it can very well be lethal. The only effective combative use for a knife, in my opinion, is to stab people and since that can easily be fatal in my book the knife is a killing tool and should not be brought out unless the decision is made that killing your attacker is a necessity to save your life.
As far as techniques go, most schools teach the tactic of “cutting in and cutting out,” which means that when an aggressor attacks you, or you take the offensive and close distance, you cut everything you can on the way in (arms, legs, face, hands, etc.) and once you’re close you cut the body at key areas to shut down the body, and then back up and break distance as you again cut the limbs and everything else you can as you exit. An example of this might be your attacker lungs at you with the knife he is holding in his right hand and you “defang the snake” by cutting his hand with your own knife to stop the attack and hope that he drops his knife, then you step forwards and quickly cut the inside of his left forearm, followed by the inside of this right armd, turn the knife around and slash upwards into his face, followed by a slash to each side of his neck, the inside of each thigh, across the stomach, and then he backs out as he quickly cuts the left arm again.
The thinking behind this approach is based on shock; when you cut his hand he feels the pain, sees the wound, sees the blood, and he goes into shock allowing you to slice and dice him at will with each cut extending the shock. It sounds like a sound method except that isn’t how shock works. Shock (called “Hypovolemic Shock”) occurs when the body loses so much blood it cannot effectively operate so it starts to shut down. Shock isn’t instant, it is a process of blood loss that can take several minutes to occur.
What we’re really talking about is “psychological shock,” formerly referred to as “Shell Shock” and it now called “Acute Stress Disorder” (ASD). ASD occurs when someone experience, or perceives to experience, an instance of extreme stress or trauma. Someone suffering from ASD can quickly enter a detached and numb state where they dissociate with the outside world in a trance like state (think the guy from the beginning of the movie “Saving Private Ryan” who is walking around the battlefield looking for his arm) and this state can exist to various degrees from hours to several days and can turn into full-fledged Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
So yes, you can slash someone’s arm causing a large bloody wound and they might look at it and panic in an occurrence of ASD allowing you to slice and dice him at your leisure. It is very possible, but reliable. What would make one person freeze like a deer in the headlights is perfectly tolerable for another.
Years back I read an instance of two police officers who walked in on a robbery in progress at a convenience store. The robber fired at the police officers and ran out the back exit. A bullet grazed the hand of the first officer who then dropped his gun and fell to the floor holding his hand and screaming at the small amount of blood making its way down his wrist from the minor wound. The second officer took two rounds to the stomach (this was before officers had to wear vests) but he chased the robber out of the store. Outside the store he exchanged fire with the robber being hit four more times in the chest, arm, and abdomen. The robber ran out of ammunition and turned to flee but the officer chased him, tackled him, cuffed him, called it in, and was waiting for the ambulance when it arrived. One police officer received a minor cut to his hand and was useless while the other took 6 bullets and was still able to think, fight, win a foot race, and overpower another man.
A person going into ASD should never be counted on. If it happens that is great for you but since it is not reliable it should get no more than a mention in training.
Another thing often taught is using the knife for cutting as opposed to stabbing. Cutting is preferred because it is seen as faster and it allows you to keep the knife in motion, but the problem is that cutting merely opens up the skin and all the important things are deeper inside the body.
A key problem, and a big reason I’m writing this article, is that with so much misinformation around people don’t understand what actually shuts the body down and/or kills it. If you want to shut the body down with a knife in a timely manner (the short period of the violent encounter thus saving your own life) you have to either create enough blood loss to induce hypovolemic shock and perhaps death, or you have to go after the nervous system.
To create enough blood loss to stop someone you will either have to severe a large number of blood vessels, a couple large veins, or an artery. This pretty much all requires stabbing, as any good (or bad?) prison inmate will tell you. Even if you cut someone deeply you will most likely not create enough blood loss to end the situation in a time manner, although they may bleed out later or die from infection. It is better to “punch” a blade into their body over and over in rapid succession (as you see in videos of prison stabbings) to severe as many blood vessels as you can, and you may even hit an artery or organ. You can even rock the knife back and forth inside their body to make sure the wound is open wide as possible before you withdraw it.
The best way to achieve rapid blood loss is to go after an artery or the heart. One of the best places to attack is the carotid artery with is located in the neck on either sides of the windpipe set deeply into the neck behind the jugular vein. A common method of execution you see in movies is for someone to have their throats cut. Most militaries in the world teach “sentry removal” techniques which are techniques for sneaking up on an enemy soldier who is standing guard and killing him from behind in a silent manner. It used to be one method widely taught was to “slit their throat” but most militaries have stopped teaching that method because it is not effective.
If you were to take a knife and push the blade deeply against someone’s throat and cut them ear-to-ear you would most likely cut open the windpipe and both jugular veins which sit in front of the carotid artery on both sides of the windpipe. The jugular veins are large veins that take blood from the head and brain and return it to the heart. Severing a vein will cause a lot of blood but as long as pressure is quickly applied and medical treatment is acquired it is very survivable. In fact, there are a lot people, especially immigrants from war torn countries, walking around with large scars on their necks from some criminal or soldier who cut their throat thinking it would kill them and it didn’t. Sure, if you leave them there for long enough with no medical attention they will pass out after a minute or so then bleed out and die but it is not quick.
To get the carotid arteries you have to stab into the neck. Most soldiers are taught that in you’re in front of your enemy combatant to stab them in the carotid artery two or three times rapidly and then stab the one on the other side of their neck the same way. If they’re behind them they are taught to pretty much do the same thing. By stabbing the neck you can get deep enough to cut the carotid artery and you will also cut the jugular vein as well as perhaps the windpipe, several nerves, and also several muscles. Stabbing just gives you a bigger band for your buck.
The main reason a person whose carotid arteries are cut loses consciousness so quickly is because the oxygen rich blood isn’t getting to their brain. Starving the brain of the oxygen carried by the blood in the carotid arteries will produce unconsciousness in under 10 seconds, assuming both arteries are cut which a decent stab will do. This is very similar to applying a “rear naked choke” in Judo except here the blood flow isn’t returned. Death follows in mere minutes.
Other ways to access arteries are in the upper thighs (stabbing into the Femoral Artery), up in between the groin and anus into the bottom of the abdominal aorta, or, if you have a long enough blade, straight into the stomach towards the spine to also reach the abdominal aorta.
Stabbing straight into the torso and going after the abdominal aorta is not optimal nor is trying to stab someone straight into the heart. There are so many things in the torso to absorb or deflect the blade, such as the ribcage,that make efforts elsewhere better spent. The heart sits behind the sternum making reaching it difficult which is why you have to go after it from either underneath or from the side.
In medieval times there were hundreds of ways to kill someone and the manner of death often depended upon how much you wanted them to suffer. A fairly painless way was to stab into the heart by going in from the side just underneath the armpit. In this manner the only thing protecting the heart are a thin layer of muscle and tissue and the ribs and the tip of a sharp blade can easily find its way in between those ribs and straight into the heart.
The other method is to stab the heart from underneath. If you are going to stab someone in the torso, again going straight in isn’t the best method. The upper torso is protected by the sternum, ribs, and thicker muscles and the abdomen is protected by thicker muscles and fat, and beneath that is the digestive system which provides a slower death. The organs, however, are an effective target in terms of stopping a person quickly. Once punctured the heart, spleen, and liver quickly cause a person to lose strength and the will to fight and cause massive bleeding.
Since the organs are fairly well protected you want to attack the upper abdomen and stab at an upward angle with a longer blade. By going into the upper abdomen you go into softer tissue and underneath the ribs and upward into the liver, spleen, heart, lungs, and gall bladder. It is important to think not of “stabbing” them but of punching them as hard as you can with your fist and you happen to have a blade on the tip.
Another area to consider is the kidneys. Punching a knife into the kidneys will have to effects; the first is the impact of your fist and knife slamming into the kidneys which will cause immediate extreme pain. A hard shot to the kidneys is often enough to put someone of the ground and take all fight out of them. The second effect is massive blood loss when the kidneys are cut due to the renal artery actually entering the kidneys. Your attacker will feel a sharp blow, searing pain, and then they will begin to lose their strength. With no medical treatment they will lose consciousness in about 20 minutes and die in about 30 minutes.
An important is the location of the kidneys. Right now place your hand on where your kidneys are and push in lightly and take notice of what you feel. If you’re like most people what you feel is your hip bone. Most people believe the kidneys are a lot lower than they are higher getting close to the middle of you back. If you look at the distance between a person’s groin and their shoulders and draw a line around them right in between you have what we call the “target belt.” On this line are their solar plexus, liver, spleen, floating ribs, and their kidneys. Now place your thumb on your kidney and press in and you’ll find that small amount of pressure quite painful.
Again, with this target you should punch the blade in at an upward angle, rock it back and forth or turn it, remove it, and repeat.
The heart, arteries, and organs are the only effective targets when trying to shut down the body due to blood loss. The other way to shut the body down quickly is by attacking the nervous system. Making someone bleed slowly lead to a slow shutdown of the body while making someone bleed a lot leads to rapid shutdown of the body, however attacking the nervous system can create an instantaneous shutdown of the body.
The nervous system is the electrical system of the body and if you shut that down it is like unplugging a radio, it just turns off. The question is where can you attack with a knife on the body to cause the shutdown? The common teaching is to attack the brain. In fact, an old technique taught in military circles and also utilized by professional killers was to pull someone’s head down and plunge the knife downward into the top of the head so the knife pierces straight down into the brain.
The problem is, it doesn’t always work. I have a photo on an x-ray from an assault victim from brazil where someone had done just that to him and he survived. In the x-ray you can clearly see the large knife sticking out the top of their head clearly inside their brain and one would think there is no way someone could survive. The problem with the piercing the brain is that it is very resilient. No one really understands exactly who it works. Millions of people have been stabbed, shot, had metal pipes or rods shoved through their brain and been just fine.
At the end of the day there are only two areas of the body that can cause immediate shut down: the spinal cord and the brain stem.
The spinal cord is like a large bundle of wires that come out of the brain stem and run down the center of the spinal cord to carry messages to the body. Cutting into or severing this cord will provide a shock to the electrical system of the body and unconsciousness will follow instantly.
Your spine is divided up into three sections: cervical (your neck), thoracic (your upper and middle back), and lumbar (your lower back). There are seven cervical vertebrae (expressed C1 to C7), 12 thoracic vertebrae (expressed T1 to T12), and five lumbar vertebrae (expressed L1 to L5). To severe the spinal cord you hold the knife so the blade is horizontal and you punch it in between the vertebrae. You don’t have to know exactly where one vertebrae stops and another starts, you simple drive the tip of the blade into the spine and the tip of the knife will normally slide up or down in between the disks as your bodyweight follows. Twist the knife or jerk it back and forth and remove it.
Severing or making large cut anywhere in the spinal will cause unconsciousness and the body will no longer be able to send signals to the body below where you damaged it. Therefore, wherever you stick your knife they will most likely end up paralyzed below that spot.
There is a saying that goes “C5 stay alive” which means that if you cut or sever the spinal cord anywhere from C5 down the person will most likely survive, but if anywhere above they will die. The reason for this between C1 and C4 are nerves that carry the signal for you diaphragm to contact and allow you to breathe. Severing these nerves or the spinal cord in this area will cause instant unconsciousness and then death by asphyxiation several minutes later.
This is the same way that a broken neck can be fatal. You can break the vertebrae themselves and have a broken neck but still be conscious and moving around because all the vertebrae are is bones. However, if those vertebrae break and the broken pieces (which are quite sharp) compress, cut, or completely sever the spinal cord that is when you have serious damage.
The last target is the brainstem. The brainstem is where the brain connects to the spine and it is the only area of the brain where a bullet or stab wound is guaranteed to result in instant unconsciousness and death. The brainstem is right above the top of the spinal cord and stabbing through the skull into it is the most efficient way. If you are coming up from behind and you draw a line from the top of one ear to the other that is where you will be attacking. The skull here is a little thicker than it is on the top of the skull, as discussed earlier, so full commitment and body weight is needed.