Hard Lessons: Bring a Knife to a Gunfight

In this article we discuss when and how knives should be considered as an option on the self-protection spectrum. Ignore the clichés and study the short blade.

December 30, 2019
ISG Team


Everyones heard the expression "you don't bring a knife to a gunfight". It's one of those quips that is so often repeated that it's just accepted as true.

What doesn't happen is a solid, unbiased look at why it's not only not true, but it's a totally outdated way of thinking. Why?

Well, as we discuss frequently, there are different Spheres of Violence. If we accept that not all altercations are the same, we can extend that logic and say not all fights are the same. Advice like this oversimplifies the problem, and we're in the business of unpacking problems so we can really understand them.

Should you bring a knife to a rifle fight? How about a fistfight?

In modern, urban warfare and CQB, a rifle can be snatched, making the blade or handgun a handy tool to transition to. Should we say "never bring a handgun to a rifle fight?" knowing the limitations of the handgun compared to the rifle?

As with CQB, the conversational range altercation that turns into a lethal force encounter means that the handgun has to overcome some disadvantages. Let's get a list:

  1. They have mechanical stoppages
  2. They're not notorious for instantaneously stopping opponents, and;
  3. Careless or negligent discharges while in a clinch ranged gunfight can wound bystanders.

So why given all these issues with firearms in close range fights do we recite the mantra that you should "never bring a knife to a gunfight?"

Because gun culture is not thoughtful, experienced, or preoccupied with efficiency.

Knives, and a slice of reality

So when we talk knives, we instantly open a can of worms that gets murky, dogmatic, and downright weird. Like all things treated as hobbies, knife guys get just lit debating what's the best and how to use it. Here's the thing: very, very few people have any practical experience with knives. On our content team, we've got a few knife cuts from fights and some full-tilt force on force. We're going to look at these, couple them with some research about how knives are employed in reality, and knock some sacred cows between the horns so we can cook them up and eat them. So, borrowing from Mythbusting and Mindset, let's first talk about some of the ridiculous stuff that goes around the blade work.

The Blade Dance

One of the first things you'll see when you start talking knives with a student of knives is the technique they favor. You'll get discussions of earth and sky grip, pekiti tersia, retzev, bio-mechanical cutting, or the approach the SPETZNAZ uses in edged weapon Sistema.

Purge it from your mind.


Here's the real deal: Knife fights between two equally motivated, equally armed dudes rarely happen.

Fights don't follow a form and they're not a martial competition. When we *do* see a street level knife fight between two equally armed guys, it tends to be a "circle the wagon" effort until someone is caught slippin'. Once that happens, it's not some clean technique that finishes the other guy off; it's an exchange of slashes and stabs in which both guys end up either wounded and retreating, and sometimes one guy... well... I guess you'd call it "wins".

More likely what you will see is that a fight breaks out, a guys pulls a knife and uses a technique called "monkey with a screwdriver". He swings and swings and swings with the blade, and the other guy probably just thinks he's being punched until he collapses from blood loss, a punctured vital organ, or the fight ends.

If you dedicate all your time to blade dancing, you're not going to be well prepared for an untrained, hyper-aggressive attacker. Focus your efforts on wrestling and limb control, then work in disarms, and in-fight weapons access (thank you to Craig Douglas for this concept) of your own.

Some thoughts on Blade Geometry

The first thing to say on this topic is: most blades are gimmicky.

If we study nature a little, we can turn this into a quick, high-level discussion on physiology, predation, and efficacy.

Let's look at what are unarguably the two most efficient predatory creatures in the animal kingdom; large cats and raptors.

As the saying goes, form follows function, so let's see how nature's most successful predators take down their prey.


In the image to the right, each of these claws is of similar gemoetry: A curved, tapered edge that is broadest at the spine (posterior edge), narrowest (and therefore sharpest) at the anterior edge, and terminates in a sharp point. This allows the claws to work in conjunction using a point-driven approach that does a few things from a physiological perspective:

  1. It allows the predator to sink into tissue, while the curve increases the opportunity to snag a bone or sinew that will reduce the chances of prey getting away without causing further damage, and;
  2. It works against the prey's biological impulse to pull away from the source of insertion - the talon. When prey does this, the talon's sharp, anterior edge further tears at the tissue, increasing the odds that the prey animal will suffer further bleeding or a vital organ will be punctured.
  3. It allows the predatory decent odds that the prey won't escape while they puncture vital areas with teeth.
Function pt. 1: Animals

With an understanding of the predatory claw and tooth, we can say that animals use piercing (stabbing) as their main medium of killing prey. It's cool to understand this, but we don't have two clawed hands and teeth like a tiger, so we can't expect the same results as a predatory animal by copying some of their moves. What's important to understand is that the claw has a couple really effective functions:

  1. It hooks into the tissue and allows the predatory to move in closer using the stronger muscles of the limb.
  2. It disallows the prey from pulling away from the predator without risking much worse tissue damage.
  3. The predator is often able to kill prey much larger than itself.

We will return to this a little later.

Function pt. 2: Humans

Humans developed point driven methods as well - spears. The first hand cutting instruments we devised weren't for killing prey, but for cleaning it and removing the hide. Stemming from this, humans have two distinct categories of tools when it comes to pointy things; tools, and weapons. Unlike our animal counterparts, the ability to use tools gives us a lot more flex when it comes to deciding what to use for any given task. We know that cutting is the domain of the tool and stabbing is the domain of the weapon because the subject has been studied exhaustively... Be cautioned, that link is not safe for work and contains some very graphic images.

As well, Greg Ellifritz recently wrote an excellent article citing John of Active Self Protection on the reality of knife attacks. While their numbers came out a little different than ours, the trend remains, and it's excellent material.

Cutting is largely effective when used in conjunction with piercing (sentry removal, for example) or when a very sharp instrument is used (such as a barber's razor). It also has a 'sapping' effect - the more cuts there are, the less likely a person is to have the ability to properly defend themselves.

Without getting too into the weeds of technique, those who train for fighting with a knife typically recognize that there are two distinct, effective methods:

  1. The 'sewing machine' (rapid short jabs to vital areas at clinch range), and;
  2. Pulling the adversary towards the blade while minimizing your own arm movement, and driving the blade from the shoulders.

Bottom Line On Bottom: Blades that make use of point driven methods and allow you to use your lats, triceps and deltoids rather than your wrists and biceps work extremely well. We want to minimize articulation of the wrist and arms (which creates strength and disallows opportunities for grabs and disarms), so when you look at a blade design, think about how you'd employ it. That should be a useful guide when it comes to determining how much time is involved in reaching a passable level of skill.

Mortality in the Weapons Based Environment

There's an awful lot of statistic magic that goes into crime reporting, so it's difficult to make heads or tails of a lot of it. To date, the best study we've found seems to validates the "don't bring a knife to a gun fight" mantra; it's from Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, and at present, it's the only decent study we've found that truly compares mortality for gunshots and edged weapons objectively.

A quick summary of their findings:

Of these, 2,961 were transported by EMS and 1,161 by the police. The overall mortality rate was 27.4 percent. Just over three quarters (77.9 percent) of the victims suffered gunshot wounds, and just under a quarter (22.1 percent) suffered stab wounds. The majority of patients in both groups (84.1 percent) had signs of life on delivery to the hospital. A third of patients with gunshot wounds (33.0 percent) died compared with 7.7 percent of patients with stab wounds.

A quick note on statistics: Figures lie and liars figure. There are significant reasons that could play in to why gunshot victims are more likely to die, and the study acknowledges that police response times when responding to a shooting are substantially longer due to the risk to the officer. This means that a person could be bleeding for much longer if there's a shooter on the loose, and police close more quickly when they hear "suspect armed with a knife". We mention this for two reasons:

  1. Plan for no help.
  2. Have medical equipment.

I've known two people who were stabbed, one of whom died from the wounds after 8 hours in surgery... The other still has the blade of a kitchen knife lodged in his spine. Having been slashed myself, the psychological affects of having someone with a knife bearing down on you are difficult to understand if you haven't experienced it. If you can't easily overpower the person with the knife and disarm them, don't shy away from the "nike defense". For a graphic and educational look at the types of edged and pointed weapons injuries, check out this work by Dr. William Cox... Heads up though, definitely NSFW: sharp edged and pointed instrument injuries.

So why, given the  greater lethality of the gun would you want a knife?

Why would you want a knife?

There's a really common trope in the 'gun' world. I hear it pretty much any time a guy justifies why he carries a knife, and I've put it to practice in training. It doesn't work. They say:

"I use my knife to create space so I can get to my gun."

You might have been wondering "why are they talking about animals so much?" earlier. Well, here's where we connect the dots. The way predatory animals use their claws isn't to make space so they can get to their teeth.

It's so they can TAKE space so other animals can't get to theirs.

Further, when gun guys fixate on getting a gun in the fight, they usually backpedal (the most direct route to space creation). I tried that during my last ECQC - it doesn't work.

Working with a knife is about dominant posture, and in the very close interval, a knife can do a couple major things that give it an advantage over the gun:

  1. Operate without malfunctioning
  2. Inflict injury *while* taking dominant positioning
  3. Take up space that disallows an adversary to introduce a handgun

The video (above right) gives an example of how a blade can be both disorienting to manage, as well as force the adversary into focus on "damage control". This forces them in to a "reactive" mindset rather than proactive, which means they are not setting the tone and pace of the encounter. As we discussed in Fights, this is pretty important.

Proximity and Efficacy
This chart is a general guide given adequate training. Not to scale. Effectiveness is relative to the weapon in question's potential.
We often use clichés based on outdated logic as if they were true... for example:
"A pistol is just to fight your way to the rifle you never should have left", or "don't bring a knife to a gunfight".

Are they true? We say no.

They're spoiled leftovers from Cooperean-era gun dogma. There are plenty of occasions in which the handgun is not only sufficient, but ideal. Likewise, when we're discussing clinch range lethal force altercations, a knife has some advantages.

What people aren't expressing here is that there is a sort of band of efficiency based on distance and effectiveness.

First, let's define efficiency: Let's say simply it's the metric of how fast you accurately hit your target, regardless of the weapon.

Up close, at 0-3 meters, our position is a knife is every bit as dangerous as a handgun. Once you get past 3-5 meters or so, the handgun starts to shine as the knife armed person has to move more, which costs time and options...

At these same distances, rifles tend to have some minor drawbacks (over penetration, height over bore) that make it a little less user friendly.

By 25 meters, the handgun is at the end of its effective range for most shooters, and the rifle is coming into its own. At this range, the blade is functionally useless. The rifle remains the king from 50-150 meters or so and gradually becomes a bit more difficult to run after 200-250 meters.

So what does all this mean?

It means pick the right tool for the right distance, don't just accept clichés as gospel.

What the Blade Isn't

The blade isn't a less lethal option. It bears saying because if you get rolling up and need to break the stalemate in a defensive encounter, you can't just draw a knife and justify it legally. While we can't tell you from the comfort of our computer desk what the point is in which you *need* to introduce a lethal force option, what we can say is that the aggressor needs to fit three criteria before you turn up the noise:

If the following three criteria aren't met, you don't have a lethal force encounter.

  1. Motive to kill or maim
  2. Capability to kill or maim
  3. Opportunity to kill or maim

The worst part of this is that, as we always say, the citizen has no legal tailwind to help. We have to constantly reassess where we are at in a fight. What if a guy pulls a blade on you and then drops it? Is he still capable of killing you?

Keep this in mind as you study bladecraft. If you keep sticking a guy after he gives up, you'll need to explain that.

So, let's correct the quote above and say:

"We use our knife to take up space so our enemy can't access a deadly weapon when we fear for our life."


In extreme close range, in skilled hands, the blade is an effective tool. Like the handgun, it affords the user an option to elevate to match the threat if it becomes a lethal encounter, but doesn't rely on mechanical operation to function properly and can be used to take space from the enemy. In doing so, we can create small windows for positional dominance. That means we can get to our feet and out of the situation as soon as possible.

So, don't pull a knife on a guy with a gun across the room, but let's face it: that old "high noon" cliche stuff is dead and gone. It's the "cup and saucer grip" wisdom of by-gone eras, and the short blade absolutely has a place in the defensive profile of the modern day soldier, officer, or citizen.

Lastly, we will inevitably get questions about "which knife?" There are four general designs that make sense physiologically, technically, practically:

  1. The Push (or punch) Dagger.
  2. The 'stiletto' type blade, such as the SOCP
  3. Reverse edged blades such as the Clinch Pick, the Spyderco P'Kal
  4. Tanto blades, like those offered from Benchmade

A final word on all this: don't overlook hand to hand skills. Some wrestling, boxing, and jiu jitsu will go a long way in helping you control an enemy and disallowing them the chance to rob you of initiative in a fight.

The blade is the logical intermediary between hand to hand and firearm skills, so devote some time to train on how to both effectively use and counter the blade.

...And don't forget to bring your knife to the gunfight. If you can't avoid violence altogether, you may as well have options.



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