Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Way of the Warrior: Responsible knife carrying (Part 2)

(Took a long time to finish this one. I had trouble choosing the most important knife skills for self-defense. This hints at the complexity of the overall issue; using a knife never just comes down to a handful of skills.)

Whenever you want to carry a knife for self defense, there are three questions you have to ask yourself.
  1. What are local laws? (Part 1)
  2. What is your formal training? (Part 2)
  3. Why do you really want to carry? (Part 3)
In part 1, I looked at the laws and ordinances governing knife carrying in Chicago. The first consideration in most self-defense questions is often legal. The police and courts are the final arbiters of any violent scenario, and if you are carrying a knife, you had better be prepared for violence. Even if you can navigate complex local statutes, whether through an attorney, the police, and/or personal research, there is still a martial component to knife carrying that you have to consider.

Just because you fulfill the legal requirements to carry your knife, that does not mean you have the requisite skill, practice, experience, and training to do so. It's the same as with firearms. The weapon alone does not give you protection from violent crime. You need to use your tool and survive. A gun or knife is no good if you get disarmed, injure bystanders, cut or shoot yourself, or just don't know how to draw the weapon in time. This brings us to the second important question you must ask yourself if you intend on carrying a knife for self-defense: What is your formal training?
(Note: Another form of the question might be, "What is your experience with knives?" I imagine that most of my readers are not actually SEALS or CIA field operatives who have used knives in combat. It is likely that the majority, if not all, of their experience comes from the gym, so training becomes a proxy for experience.)

Replicating technique under pressure is a self-defense theme. It is just as important, if not more, than the actual techniques themselves. Anyone can cut up an imaginary opponent in shadow-sparring. Anyone can poke at a training partner with plastic knives in the gym. Can you execute those same maneuvers when overadrenalized, your heartrate exceeding 200, and having already been walloped in the jaw? What about if you got cut in the arm or stabbed in the gut? Most people will freeze, curl into a ball, fumble their knife, or hack wildly. You might pass out, vomit, or soil yourself. Fear and adrenaline will do that to a person, and the physiological response varies for each individual. You won't have these experiences in the gym (and if you are, tone your training down). The goal of proper stress training is to approximate those stressful physiological conditions.

You can never really be ready for a violent engagement, especially one with knives. But you can be more prepared than others. You will have a better chance if you have already trained while exhausted, while being beaten with gloved punches or pads, against multiple partners, in the dark, or in any number of other stressful circumstances. And even after months and years of such a regimen, you will probably only get 30% of the technique right when you need to do it outside of your gym. But that 30% is what separates the survivors from the victims, those who go to the hospital with cuts from those who go to the morgue with holes.

Some martial arts emphasize stress drills more than others. If you want to carry a knife for self-defense, you need to be taking one of those martial arts that puts you through stress drills while armed. Most of the explicit self-defense systems (Krav Maga, Systema, Kajukenbo, etc.) incorporate stress training into everyday curriculum. Moreover, many of them also teach knives, which gives you the best of both weapon and stress training. That means you need to be using your knife while fatigued and tired. Do 10 minutes of hard pad work. Add in some pushups, squat jumps, sprints, and unarmed defenses. Then, when your mind is frayed and your muscles limp, try and execute your knife techniques. Exhaustion like that will degrade the dexterity of even the best blades of Braavos into that of an old man.

You shouldn't go into an armed self-defense scenario with the intention of replicating Psycho's shower scene. Keep it clean, keep it professional. Under horrible pressure and fear, you will lose precision and might make a mess. But if you train to cut with cool, calm accuracy, you will be much more likely to strike true it in the worst case scenarios.

Random stabbing and slashing will damage an opponent and it might win the engagement. But in doing so, you will put yourself in needless danger, both during and after the encounter. During the fight, your uncoordinated attacks may miss vital targets, and an adrenalized attacker can persevere through mere flesh wounds (just ask the Black Knight). You might get disarmed. Your knife might snag on clothing or bone and fall from your hand. Overall, your armed attacks will count for less if you are just hacking away. You will negate the advantage of martial training and weaponry. If, however, you have practiced your targeting under stress, you might be able to replicate it when needed.

After using a knife for self-defense, you need to be able to justify your use of force to police officers, district and county attorneys, and maybe even a jury and judge. Law enforcement will favor a defender who used his weapon just as much as was needed to stop the attack. Your assailant tackled you to the ground and started pummeling you into the concrete. Fearing for your life, you slashed at his neck. Maybe he survived, maybe he did not, but that single attack (or series of attacks, if needed) can be explained. It might fall under "justified use of force", depending on the severity of the attack and the escape/deescalation options available. If you had no choice, that single slash might have saved your life. Multiple attacks, however, are increasingly difficult to justify (especially to those unfamiliar with the realities of violent confrontation). Although the police might understand why a fight turned savage, a judge, an attorney, and a jury likely will not. They do not understand stress, fear, and adrenaline. They will hold you, as a martial artist, to a higher standard than the criminal. You are a warrior, and your defense should reflect your high degree of training and skill. It should not look like something out of Sweeney Todd.

Practice clean, professional targeting in training. Do it under stress and while relaxed. This will make your aim better prepared for an actual engagement. It will also improve your odds when facing the legal aftermath of a violent confrontation.
(Note: Again, I am a social worker, not a lawyer. Please do not interpret these words as legal advice. This is just a synthesis of my experiences, observations, and ideas regarding these topics. Consult with legal experts if you have questions, doubts, or just want clarification)

Never brandish a knife unless you intend to use it. Criminals and predators are not scared when you wave a weapon at them. If anything, it only makes them more determined to come after you. This means that you never, more or less, have your weapon in hand at the beginning of hostilities. To succeed with your knife in a self-defense scenario, you need the skills to rapidly deploy the tool and bring it into the melee.

It is fairly easy to show off your quick Wild West knife draw to your friends. Doing so when tackled, pinned on the ground, slammed into a wall, or bearhugged while pummeled is another matter entirely. While fatigued and under pressure, you must practice drawing and deploying your knife from as many positions as possible. You will never know the exact circumstances under which you need to get your weapon out and ready. Instead of training for specific positions, learn general principles that will help you from a variety of angles. On the ground, learn to shrimp your legs so you can reach your pocket. While standing, learn to draw a knife even after you have been whacked in the face. If pinned to a wall, practice scooting aside and redirecting attacker momentum to expose your knife for deployment.

You should drill the draw and deployment until it becomes as easy as whipping out your iPhone. Only when it is committed to muscle memory will the skill journey with you outside of the gym. When you need it during a violent confrontation, you might fumble with your handle for a second, and you might take two wrist flicks to get the blade out. But if you had not put in the hours of draw/deployment training, the weapon might never clear your pocket, or you might just cut yourself when opening it.

Formal training encompasses a lot more than just these three points. But if you are looking for the three most "important" aspects to self-defense knife training, these three should be at the forefront of your practice.
  • Train under stress. Learn to execute techniques while exhausted, sore, and under high pressure. 
  • Practice professional, precise targeting. Your attacks will count for more if they hit vital areas. The cleaner your defense, the easier it will be to justify it to the law. 
  • Draw and deploy your knife (under stress) until it becomes second nature. Be able to do it from any position. 
I am definitely not a knife expert in any system, but in my 5-6 years of martial experience, these lessons have really stuck with me. You don't need to dedicate yourselves to the above bullet points, but you should at least give them serious consideration.

In the final part of the series, I will talk about what it means to want to carry a knife. Why are you really carrying? How does that affect your use of the weapon? We will consider this, and the previous 2 parts, to make some final conclusions on knife carrying.

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