Story and Photos by Michael Janich
One of the longstanding arguments among practitioners of edged-weapon tactics is the dispute over which is better—cuts or thrusts.
Like any other argument, “better” is subjective and is best defined with clear context. In the case of “knife fighting,” it is also heavily influenced by the type of knife being used. Tactics that worked well with a big, heavy Bowie Knife aren’t necessarily the best basis for fighting with a folding knife with a three-inch blade, even though they may have been “proven” in combat.
To explore the answer to this question rationally, let’s take a look at some of the common beliefs concerning thrust-oriented tactics, put them in context, and see how they hold up logically.
To establish a solid framework for that logic, let’s also consider them from the perspective of self-defense—the most likely modern application of such tactics. To do that, remember that self-defense is all about stopping the attacker and creating the opportunity for safe escape.
If he dies but has ample time and opportunity to kill or severely injure you before he does, whatever you did obviously wasn’t effective.
When considering this topic, the first claim many people will make is that thrusts are more lethal than cuts. They’ll also assert that there’s plenty of historical evidence to back this up. While there is a lot of truth to this statement, it’s important to understand why.
Before reliable handguns became commonplace, knives were considered primary defensive weapons. The laws and social conventions of the time also allowed them to be carried openly. As such, it made sense to carry as much knife as you could, so large, heavy, broad-bladed knives were the norm. The wounds inflicted by these knives were horrendous and historically included both cuts and thrusts. Because of the large size of the blades, thrusts could easily reach vital organs and cause serious, life-threatening wounds. However, that didn’t mean they necessarily “stopped” the attacker.
In his excellent book Bowie Knife Fights, Fighters, and Fighting Techniques, author Paul Kirschner provides scores of historical accounts of actual incidents involving Bowie Knives. While some of them describe men expiring quickly after being stabbed, others mention them dying hours, even days, later, in many cases after killing their opponents. Killing and “stopping” an attacker—the real goal of self-defense—are not the same thing.
It is also important to remember that medical science left a lot to be desired during the heyday of edged-weapon combat. While doctors had the ability to suture cuts, deep, penetrating thoracic wounds were a different story. Without surgical repair, such wounds certainly proved fatal, and more stab victims died than victims of cuts.
From a self-defense perspective, however, instant or near-instant incapacitation is still the defining criteria of effectiveness.
The bottom line is that a well-aimed thrust to the torso with a blade that is 12 inches long and two inches wide could certainly cause enough physiological damage to stop an attacker quickly. However, unless you are actually carrying a knife of that size today, you can’t expect the same type of result from the same tactic.
As such, basing the tactics for using your three-inch-bladed folding knife on classic Bowie Knife technique isn’t logical.
Some approaches to knife fighting purposely model the tactics of criminals. In simple terms, the logic is to “do to them what they’re trying to do to you,” hopefully first.
Once again, in determining the validity of this approach, context is king. Assault with a deadly weapon and attempted murder are concerted efforts to injure or kill the victim—period. Typically, the victim is unarmed, so the tactics are not actions of self-defense, nor are they necessarily concerned with rapid incapacitation.
One extreme example of this approach to knife tactics is modeling prison knife tactics. Again, the alleged logic is that hardened criminals have more real-world experience using knives than average citizens, so we should learn from their experience.
This approach overwhelmingly favors the use of thrusting tactics over cutting, but never bothers to explain why. However, if you take even a cursory look at the shivs, shanks, and other improvised blades prisoners fabricate in prison, it’s pretty obvious. Melting a piece of plastic or sharpening a toothbrush to create a sharp point is easy; creating a functional cutting edge, not so much. If all you have are stabbing tools, your tactics will obviously have to focus on stabbing. That doesn’t mean it’s better, just necessary.
From a self-defense standpoint, basing your skill set on criminal patterns of behavior makes it extremely difficult for you to justify your actions legally. Similarly, your “work product,” in the form of the wounds you inflict on your attacker, will look like a typical criminal assault—even if you legitimately acted in self-defense.
Since law enforcement officers, coroners, judges, and everyone else in the legal system is used to associating that type of violent signature with criminal behavior, it’s likely you will also be viewed as a criminal.
Thrusting with a knife basically creates a wound cavity the same size and shape as the blade itself or slightly deeper, since tissue is compressible. The width of the wound replicates the width of the blade, so accuracy becomes critical.
Based on these facts, the ability to stop an attacker quickly and decisively with a thrust depends upon two things: finding anatomical targets that, when punctured, cause immediate or near-immediate incapacitation and being able to accurately hit those targets in the dynamics of a violent attack.
As far as targets go, the only ones that really offer the possibility of instant incapacitation are the brain and spinal cord—ideally high on the spine where damage will have the most profound effect.
Accessing the brain is best accomplished by penetrating the eye sockets, but even then, a significant blade length is required. Targeting the spinal cord is even trickier, as it faces away from you in a stand-up fight and is very narrow and difficult to hit.
There are plenty of other anatomical targets that can be damaged with thrusts that could eventually cause incapacitation or even death, but they still don’t produce rapid results—especially when targeted with a short blade.
Conversely, targets like the flexor tendons and muscles of the inner forearm, the bicep and triceps, and the quadriceps can all be readily cut to the bone with a blade as short as 2.5 inches. The inner forearm is a favorite target of many Western and Asian knife systems, since a cut there can instantly sever the structures that allow the hand to grip a weapon.
Known as “defanging the snake” in the Filipino martial arts, it disarmed the opponent and was typically a precursor to finishing tactics, which often focused on thrusts. In battlefield combat, that makes perfect sense—disarm your enemy, then kill him. In self-defense, the disarm is the goal, since that’s what stops the lethal threat and keeps you safer sooner.
Modern self-defense plays by different rules—and uses different tools—than historical combat. While the thrust may have been king back in the day, cut-oriented tactics offer greater advantages today. K&G
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Nine-year veteran of the U.S. Army Intelligence and Security Command, Michael Janich also served a 3-year tour at the National Security Agency. Highly decorated, Michael is a two-time graduate of the Defense Language Institute and served around the world in intelligence and investigative capacities for many years. Utilizing his extensive training in various martial arts and military/LE combatives, he established Paladin Press’ Video Production Department in 1994, running all aspects of video production for 10 years – personally recruiting some of Paladin’s most popular authors and being selected to work with the late Col. Rex Applegate as the producer of his landmark instructional videos on handgun point shooting. Published book and magazine author, Michael has been featured on various television programs and designed knives for many different knife companies throughout the industry. Michael is the founder and lead instructor of his signature knife defense program, Martial Blade Concepts.
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