Blades and Knives

Throwback Thursday: Knives for Defense — What You Need to Know

pistol and revolver with three folding knives

If you do not train for every type of combat, your training time isn’t rich — it’s impoverished. The majority of defensive actions do not involve firearms. Some are verbal, some require the open hand, and some involve edged weapons. Blunt trauma is a common injury during an attack and so are knife wounds. Knife defense is serious business.

We wish to be able to meet the problem head-on and prevail whatever the threat may be. An important part of the whole picture is understanding edged weapons and edged-weapon attacks. We must understand the consequence of a criminal assault with these weapons and also understand how to deploy such weapons. We need to train to correctly use the edged weapon in close-quarters battle.

As an example, if you are unable to access your sidearm during an attack and the battle becomes a struggle for your holstered sidearm, the edged weapon is an excellent force multiplier and handgun retention aid. Knives never jam or run out of ammunition. There are many advantages to carrying an edged weapon, even for those of us who are normally armed with firearms.

Why Carry a Knife for Defense?

Let’s consider all of the angles. If you draw your handgun on a person who is attacking with only his hands, you are in a debatable legal position. The attacker may gain control of the handgun, especially when it’s drawn too soon. A wrestling match could ensue, and the firearm may be discharged. On the other hand, an attacker armed with a knife is presenting a potentially lethal weapon and you are justified in firing on them.

The edged weapon is also a superior weapon in the hands of a determined defender compared to the open hand. In certain situations, it can trump a firearm. A terrible case that stuck in my mind involved a nurse who was assaulted in the hospital parking lot. During the course of the attack, she pressed a .380 semi-auto pistol against the assailant’s body and pulled the trigger. The pistol fired once and jammed. The assailant was wounded, but simply stepped up his attack. An edged weapon will not jam and there is some merit in the old saying ‘Show them their own blood.

True, knife-on-knife fights are uncommon, but not rare. As an acquaintance of mine recently told me, ‘A dude tried to strong-arm me as I came out of the (convenience store). He cut me. I cut him, and he left.’ He lives in a different world than some of us and handles it better than most.

Strength training is an asset, and so is a knowledge of open-hand techniques. The greatest predictor of survival is always prior training. In the compressed time frame available in most classes, I can only stress that if you can box, you have a beginning in using the knife well.

An important advantage of the knife is that an attacker cannot easily grasp the knife. If they do, you need only jerk the blade and produce a cut. While I do not like to rely upon anything but actual damage to end a fight, there is some evidence of the psychological effect of drawing a knife. Gunshot wounds are less predictable, but far more deadly than a knife wound.

A knife may produce a degree of deterrent. As I often tell my female students, a felon intent upon profit will seldom wish to venture into a slashing defensive circle. A true psychopath, or those blinded by hate, will demand all in fighting to the finish.

jeans pocket with folding knife clipped in
A good clip makes carrying a modern folding knife a breeze.

Edged Weapons

By their nature, most defensive knives are relatively short. Few of us will carry a Ka-Bar or Ek Commando knife. After all, the reach of a bayonet isn’t something we will use in street defense. The bayonet was designed to reach the vitals of men and horses, with the latter goal current until about 1930. The common concealed carry knife is capable, but seldom immediately deadly. It’s more of a deterrent and a tool for retention of the handgun.

Edged weapons may be deadly, and even a short blade to the neck may inflict death, but they are not as potentially deadly as the large choppers. As a reference, my own scars add character I am told, but not charisma. All edged weapons are not knives.

An increasingly common instrument used in edged weapon attacks is the machete. When answering a domestic call some years ago, I spotted a machete leaning against a tree and secured it quickly. A well-made machete such as the Linder is very effective in clearing a path in the brush and also in an attack.

The machete was once carried on the belt, crossdraw, by Cuban police as one example. When they drew the machete and advanced with the machete swinging in an arc, an unruly crowd would disperse. They sometimes inflicted blunt blows with the flat of the machete.

Pistol and fixed blade knife
Knives make a valuable backup to the firearm.

Sobering Thoughts

The table below was developed in the days of Sykes and Fairbairn for the illumination of British commandos. The idea was to teach the calculation of time to death by the result of a knife wound. The goal was to take out sentries, and the commandos certainly utilized these techniques in action. The penetration of the knife from different angles and areas of impact was calculated. These men were trained with large knives and bayonets.

The table shows the time to death if you are hit with a knife with sufficient penetration. This table’s validity may be debated, but it was efficient enough to gain the respect of the commandos and Colonel Rex Applegate among others. I present it for your education.

Wound LocationTime from Stabbing to Death
Heart3.0 Seconds
Carotid Artery1.2 Seconds
Subclavian Artery3.5 Seconds
Brachial Artery1.5 Minutes
Radial Artery1.5 Minutes

Edged Weapon Potential

We need to understand the potential of an edged weapon. By the same token, we need to understand its defensive value. As an example, the knife is a perfect retention aid when an attacker attempts to gain control of your weapon. If you carry a handgun, you should carry a knife.

There are several angles of attack that are common in gun grab attempts. Both forward and rearward originating attacks are common. No one is too smart to be caught unaware, but we should be smart enough to have a plan of defense and counterattack available.

The attacker that springs from the rear is often practiced in prison. Members of our protein-fed, ex-con criminal class practice these attacks in that school for criminals, the penitentiary. The attacker will wrap his left arm around your neck and attempt to bring you off of the ground while the right hand reaches for the holstered sidearm. A peace officer or armed civilian is vulnerable to this form of attack.

If you open carry — depending upon the strength of the attacker — you will have a second or two to respond before you lose your pistol, and precious little more time before you lose consciousness from the chokehold. The first impulse is to grapple with the choking arm or to attempt to dislodge the hand that is on the gun. This may not work, as your brain is quickly deprived of oxygen.

If the adversary is strong enough, you will be lifted off of the ground or at least forced onto your tiptoes, taking away your leverage and balance. The proper response is to draw the defensive knife and strike either the gun hand or the arm that is around the neck. I cannot imagine anyone taking a slash the length of the forearm from a sharp edged weapon and maintaining their chokehold. They will move and you will pivot and strike the other hand that is on the gun or pivot and control the attacker.

I have seen a combination elbow strike to the hand that is on the gun and slash to the attacker’s arm that is brilliantly fast, but which requires hours of practice — it may be worthwhile. With all due respect, those of us who are trainers and instructors spend many hours training. Others may relentlessly train in the dojo. But the best we are able to transfer to the students is some tactic that is useful with the time they are willing to spend on the drills. That’s all we may reasonably expect. The closer you are to trouble, the more you need to train.

revolver and folding knife
The Buck SCAR-T is a first-class heavy-duty folder.

The Tueller Drill

Dennis Tueller’s work has been cited many times in professional journals and should be studied. His work was first published in SWAT magazine over 30 years ago. Tueller pioneered research in edged weapons defense and in the reactionary gap. At one time, police training was practically non-existent regarding edged weapons.

Today, the situation is different (at least in many agencies). Officers were cut and killed because trainers did not take the knife seriously enough. The Tueller research is an eye-opener. The Tueller Drill is built upon this research.

Officers were trained to draw, fire, and get a hit on a man-sized target at 21 feet with 1.5 seconds, which was considered good speed. The Tueller Drill begins with this speed and time as a baseline. With service-grade gear, this standard requires considerable effort in training to meet. Only the exceptional shot reaches 1.25 seconds.

The draw, shoot, and hit in one second is competition-grade, with much, much, time and practice in with a properly designed holster. Tueller set his drill up with the shooter at one end of 21 feet and an attacker armed with a knife at the other. (Use non-guns and rubber knives to demonstrate the drill.) Some shooters are faster than others and so are some attackers, but in the end, the average assailant could reach the gun-armed officer and stab him before he could draw and fire his weapon. Even overweight and out-of-shape assailants can move quickly over the 21-foot distance.

The Tueller Drill offers an excellent training reference. It also demonstrates and documents the danger zone. The drill should be practiced often and there are difficulties for even the most advanced shooter. While some of us may beat the drill on the range with reaction time figured in, on the street with the stress of a threat bearing down on you, your time to a first-shot hit — and the hope that it takes immediate effect — is not going to be as good as your range time.

An addition to the drill I teach as a practical matter includes redirection of force. I practice drawing, firing, and taking a step to one side to move out of the danger zone. 22 feet isn’t out of the danger zone and 20 feet impossible to handle, but the 21-foot drill is a good start. The point is, this drill shows plainly that the only answer to an edged weapon attack is to quickly draw and engage the target even, if they are out of contact range. There is much to be said for the person confronting a threat to draw and cover the assailant as they back away. If the threat proceeds to press the attack and close the distance, you must fire until they stop the attack.

When dealing with an edged weapon attack, always regard the knife in the same light as a cartridge weapon as far as lethality. There are advantages of the firearm. If you find cover and then cover the threat with your handgun, then the adversary armed with the edged weapon is at a great disadvantage. You are exposing yourself much more to the threat by covering an assailant who is armed with a firearm. Would you consider taking cover in the face of a threat from an edged weapon? If you are under attack, you will shoot, but if you’re able to quickly access cover, taking cover is a wise move.

man holding knife in reverse grip
The reverse grip is useful for some situations.

The Reverse Grip

If the person threatening your health with an edged weapon is holding the knife in a reverse grip, blade edge forward, he may be a skilled martial artist, or he may have seen too many cool-looking photographs in ads for edged-weapon classes. The reverse grip is an excellent slashing defensive grip. However, my son returned from Army training with a number of insights into the reverse grip.

A skilled combatant may step into the assault and quickly lock both hands on the reverse grip wrist and force the knife edge back into the assailant’s thigh. This defense against the reverse grip works best against those who are not skilled. It’s less difficult to turn a reverse grip against, and into, the user’s body than the saber grip. This is something to consider when you decide how you will carry and deploy the defensive knife. For most users most of the time, the saber grip is the preferred choice.

man holding knife in saber grip
The saber grip may be quite effective.

When you consider all of the aspects of the defensive knife, it behooves each of us to deploy an effective edged tool we have learned to use well. While some like to downplay the offensive uses of an edged tool, you need only check the local news for examples of criminal mayhem with edged tools. Increasingly, I’m seeing citizens use the defensive knife, sometimes against animals. The oldest tool is an important part of your defensive arsenal that must be studied to be deployed effectively.

Choices in Defensive Knives

Bear Ops Rescue Knife
The Bear Ops folder is a viable emergency knife.

Bear Ops Swipe IV Rescue knife

The Bear Ops Swipe IV is a 3.25-inch blade folder with assisted opening. The knife features a glass-breaker striker and a fold-out seat-belt cutting tool. This is a very well-done folder that, while light, has much utility as a rescue knife.

Kershaw Emerson CQC
The Kershaw illustrated features the wave-style opening notch.

Kershaw CQC Emerson

Designed by Ernest Emerson, these formidable folders are well worth their modest price. This series features a special flipper-type opening device called the “wave.” This hooks on the edge of your pocket and allows the knife to open naturally as you draw it. The key is practice. The Kershaw CQC series comes in several shapes and sizes for you to choose from.

CRKT Parascale folding knife and revolver
CRKT’s paracord-wrapped handle Parascale is among the author’s favorites.

CRKT Parascale

This is a T.J. Schwarz design. The DeadBolt lock is an important feature. Before using a folding knife for serious use, be certain to give the blade a hard rap on a desk or hard object. Rap the back of the blade — keep your fingers out of the way — and be certain the lock doesn’t fail. The Parascale passes this test. Paracord offers a unique gripping surface. This is a great pocket knife, light enough and sharp.

Buck/Tops folding knife
Stainless steel is an advantage for hard use. This is the Buck heavy-duty SCAR-T folder.

Buck/Tops CSAR-T

This is a heavy knife that few will carry on a daily basis. It’s also expensive. Just the same, if you need a formidable folder for emergency and survival use, this one stands alone in a production knife. The CSAR-T is a tank and will serve anyone well.

CRKT Siwi Fixed Blade and Sheath
The CRKT Siwi is a lightweight and sharp fixed-blade knife.


Many jurisdictions place a limit on blade length. Some also prohibit carrying a fixed-blade knife. Be certain before you carry. If you may carry a fixed blade, you have a much stronger design. When you eliminate the lock, you also have a knife that may be faster to get into action. The CRKT Siwi is among a very few purpose-designed defensive knives that is both affordable and formidable. Darren Sirois brings 25 years of military experience to this design.

Do you carry a knife for self-defense? What are your favorite blades for knife defense? Let us know in the comments.

Editor’s note: This post was originally published in November of 2021. It has been completely revamped and updated for accuracy and clarity.

  • pistol and revolver with three folding knives
  • Pistol and fixed blade knife
  • revolver and folding knife
  • man holding knife in reverse grip
  • man holding knife in saber grip
  • jeans pocket with folding knife clipped in
  • Bear Ops Rescue Knife
  • Kershaw Emerson CQC
  • CRKT Parascale folding knife and revolver
  • Buck/Tops folding knife
  • CRKT Siwi Fixed Blade and Sheath

About the Author:

Bob Campbell

Bob Campbell’s primary qualification is a lifelong love of firearms, writing, and scholarship. He holds a degree in Criminal Justice but is an autodidact in matters important to his readers. Campbell considers unarmed skills the first line of defense and the handgun the last resort. (He gets it honest- his uncle Jerry Campbell is in the Boxer’s Hall of Fame.)

Campbell has authored well over 6,000 articles columns and reviews and fourteen books for major publishers including Gun Digest, Skyhorse and Paladin Press. Campbell served as a peace officer and security professional and has made hundreds of arrests and been injured on the job more than once.

He has written curriculum on the university level, served as a lead missionary, and is desperately in love with Joyce. He is training his grandchildren not to be snowflakes. At an age when many are thinking of retirement, Bob is working a 60-hour week and awaits being taken up in a whirlwind many years in the future.

Published in
Black Belt Magazine
Combat Handguns
Rifle Magazine
Gun Digest
Gun World
Tactical World
SWAT Magazine
American Gunsmith
Gun Tests Magazine
Women and Guns
The Journal Voice of American Law Enforcement
Police Magazine
Law Enforcement Technology
The Firearms Instructor
Tactical World
Concealed Carry Magazine
Concealed Carry Handguns

Books published

Holsters for Combat and Concealed Carry
The 1911 Automatic Pistol
The Handgun in Personal Defense
The Illustrated Guide to Handgun Skills
The Hunter and the Hunted
The Gun Digest Book of Personal Defense
The Gun Digest Book of the 1911
The Gun Digest Book of the 1911 second edition
Dealing with the Great Ammunition Shortage
Commando Gunsmithing
The Ultimate Book of Gunfighting
Preppers Guide to Rifles
Preppers Guide to Shotguns
The Accurate Handgun
The Mission of Cheaper Than Dirt!'s blog, The Shooter's Log, is to provide information—not opinions—to our customers and the shooting community. We want you, our readers, to be able to make informed decisions. The information provided here does not represent the views of Cheaper Than Dirt!

Comments (15)

  1. I carry a Cold Steel Rajah III. The carry clip is easily reversible, so the deployment catch at the top of the blade works both from left and right pockets. 99% of the time it is used as a tool to support daily activities, like cutting a string off my wife’s dress, opening bottles or the mail, but for the 1% you need it as a deterrent or more the curved blade leave deep / long cuts.

    One last thing, if you are using it as a tool too, don’t forget to sharpen your blade regularly.

  2. I carry a SIG SAUER X5 HOGUE Spearpoint, it has a 3.5” blade and holds an edge like nobody’s business! Never had to use it but i practice drawing it from the clippoint on my dominant hand pocket, also carry a sig p238 ( 380) as my pocket pistol. My EDC is a Sig p 250 in 40 cal! I love this DAO. Im use to the weight and i practice fast draw from the waist daily because of the crime out there and at least i will have a chance to defend myself and loved ones more than if I didn’t carry. My knife is a definite back up weapon!

  3. I have carried an Ontario Knife Company XM1 for years. I have never had to use it for self defense, but with its sturdy nature, I’ve used it for everything else.

  4. I always carry a ZT0357 folder on my weak side. I have used it closed as a force multiplier with the closed knife as an impact weapon. A strike to the top of an attackers forearm caused a satisfactory level of pain compliance and dysfunction leading the attacker to shout that I had cut his hand off causing him to lose the ability to hold the short club he was armed with.

  5. Whenever the subject of using a knife as an EDC self-defense weapon comes up, I kind of wake up and start paying attention. Much of what I am going to say here is a rehash of previous comments I have made on the subject of using and carrying a knife as a potential self-defense weapon.

    Now, getting to the subject at hand. Going back fifty years or so ago to when I was in the Army, it was absolutely a normal thing for me to carry a weapon, frequently, more than one, actually, and a lot of other gear almost all the time. I was on a team that did Search and Rescue and Recon. The firearm I was issued and carried overseas was a very trustworthy, if not well-used, 1911. I also carried at least one knife. Because I was in the Army, Uncle Sam had provided me with no small amount of training in the use of said weapons.

    My attitude on knives goes back to the training we received concerning some of the weapons that have been mentioned in the article. We spent a significant amount of time learning Combatives, which is also called “Hand-To-Hand Combat”, “Close Quarter Combat” and probably has a few other terms that escape me at this moment. Our instructors were well versed in a number of improvised weapons and went into some detail about their use.

    We were told by those Army instructors, lo, those many years ago that if we were using a knife for self-defense, the first thing we needed to do is come to grips with the fact that, if it were really a life-and-death knife fight, we were going to get cut and it would be bad. We were told we needed to prepare ourselves for that eventuality long before the situation arose for the, not just, possibility of being cut, but the almost guarantee that we would be cut if we were using a knife in a life or death struggle.

    One instructor went on to say that most people who use a knife as a weapon and has not resigned himself to being cut badly, will probably lose the fight if they are cut first, because, well, being cut like that, hurts like hell and is traumatic, so it generally does not end well at all if one has not prepared himself for that eventuality. That is a nice way of saying, those people frequently end up dead.

    As far as weapons, a knife, more so than a gun, requires considerable training if it is used for self-defense. We were told, more than once, that a knife is a last ditch, there is nothing else to use, self-defense weapon, and a poor one, at that. This is what we were told as they taught us how to use a knife as a weapon. The irony was not lost on me.

    So, considering my background, from my standpoint, knives as a weapon are problematic in that many people carrying tactical knives today have never considered what will happen if they are the ones who have their blood drawn first. When I have asked some people about their knife and their expectations if they ever are called upon to use it as a weapon, I began to fear for their safety when they assume it is not a big deal to use a knife as a weapon. I have watched many get the deer in the headlights look when asked, “What if you get cut first? What will you do?” Most of the time, those people have never even considered that possibility. Too many assume the knife will do the work for them. Denial will get you dead.

  6. One aspect that the article did not cover is the practical utility of a knife. There are a million uses for a knife with self defense being just one, albeit potentially its most important use. Keep the blade sharpened and the workings clean if you carry everyday to ensure best performance (they do get dull and dirty in no time).

  7. Years ago (1968) when I went thru Army Ranger School, we spent some time on knife fighting. First step was to wrap your unarmed arm in something to parry the attacker – shirt, jacket, etc. Second, an untrained knife attacker will always show their knife like they are trying to scare you. Never do that. Hold your weapon behind you for a full swing into your attacker so he cannot see it coming. The only target is right under the rib close to the heart. If you hit bone, your hand will slip on to the blade, if your knife does not have a good bolster. Basically, little knives are only good for cleaning fingernails. Knives in the class of the Spiderco Police make a nice defensive weapon because of the shape of the blade, and when clipped to your pocket demonstrate that you are probably going to defend yourself. Stay safe!

  8. While taking out the trash one evening, I found myself in the middle of a fight between a woman who lived across the street and her husband who was in a divorce with her (really stupid but he kept coming over and beating her and choking her). I’m old, he was young, and I had left my pistol in the house. I DID have a Buck 110 (?) on my hip and finally had to pull it. I had no experience with knife fighting and he was too drunk to walk away. He kept advancing so I smiled and did a reverse grip. It did the trick and he walked away (well, he went and drank some more courage but by the time he returned I had my .357). You never know when a knife may make the difference (even carrying out the trash).

  9. The author forgot the most important rule of a knife fight: Draw and you are likely to get cut. A knife is better than nothing for defense, but let’s face it — if one is afraid enough to use one to defend himself/herself, he/she would likely have legal justification to use a firearm. In the heat of the moment, the only thing on a defender’s mind should be surviving the encounter. If that’s not the case, the defender will likely face serious legal problems regardless of weapon used.

  10. I am right handed and always carry concealed (gun).
    I carry a Ti-Lite 4″ folder on my left pocket.
    It had a flip out notch so it can be deployed as you pull it.

    I also have a dagger in an ankle sheath on my strong side.

  11. It is useful to belt/IWB carry a fixed blade on your weak side blade forward (left side carry of a right hand sheath). This allows you to draw and slash (or stab into a rear attack) while still gripping your firearm with your strong hand.
    Also, the more the merrier, multiple knives are easy to stash about your body

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