Tag Archives: knife combat

Q&A: There’s no such thing as an accidental stabbing

I have a taller, drunker, more experienced, overconfident person try to stab a shorter, sober, less experienced person (they have SOME experience, but knives/close combat isn’t their specialty so they’re better at Disengage-and-Get-the-Hell-out-of-Dodge than prolonged fighting). I’d like it to go Shorty: Yeep?! A knife? Both: Struggle over control of knife. Drunky: Loses control of the knife Shorty: Accidentally stabs Drunky in the chest/heart. I’d appreciate advice on how to have it go. Thanks!

Someone who is experienced with a knife knows precisely what it means when they draw one, even when they’re drunk.

They want to kill you.

If they’re drunk enough to be tipsy with their judgement impaired enough to commit murder in a public place but not drunk enough to be tripping over their own feet, then they’re going to be a very dangerous opponent. Knives are very good for killing at close ranges and drunken people can be very difficult to anticipate. Think about this, Drunken Fist is an entire martial art built around learning to move like you are drunk while being sober. This is because the way you move when you are drunk will throw experienced fighters off. A drunken person is looser, faster, and has their tells muted by the strange movements of their body. (Writing drunken characters is made easier if you yourself have ever been drunk, or been around people when they’re drunk.) You end up in a place where things will either go fantastically well while you’re on autopilot i.e. performing complex gymnastics you were too afraid to do before or driving yourself home without incident, or horribly. Drunk crashing, murder, falling to your death, and all other terrible to straight up weird things that can happen when your brain is not firing on all cylinders.

Just remember, when they’re drunk they have all the skills they possess when they’re sober. Their inhibitions are gone, which makes them more dangerous and not less. An angry drunk person is more likely to run you down with a car because they’re running on impulse and the concept of consequences is a distant third. Martial arts retrains your reflexes so you can function without thinking, react without thinking, and do what you want in the moment when you want to do it. Alcohol takes away the inhibitions that will stop you from doing what you want in the moment when you want to do it.

Now, here’s the worse news. Being able to anticipate your enemy’s movements in order to intercept their strikes before they reach extension is necessary when you’re looking at any kind of disarm, but especially with knives. You have less than a second to recognize what’s happening and react, which requires you see the draw coming from starting movements in their eyes, shoulder and chest muscles rather than when they actually pull the knife.

Knives are no game, they are deadly and you are much more likely to get stabbed while attempting any disarm than you are to take the knife away. Knife disarms are less dangerous than gun disarms, but that’s like saying your 99.9% chance of failure has been bumped down to 95%. You’ve got slightly better odds of survival, but they’re not great. You’ve got a better chance if you know what you’re doing than if you don’t, but the likelihood is that you’ll still get stabbed or accidentally impale yourself trying the disarm. If you’re not used to working with knives, you’ll lose track of the knife and its length. Your body’s reflexes won’t be trained to move completely out of the way, and you’re likely to get stabbed just trying to stop the blade from hitting you. It’s important to remember that knives are very dangerous even when you’re practiced, and in a scuffle it is easy to misjudge distance. If you fuck up, you’re getting stabbed, possibly multiple times in rapid succession. If you grab the blade, you’re getting cut or stabbed. If you fail to stop the arm before the attack gains inertia and don’t get out of the way, you’re getting stabbed. If you block the knife with your arm/forearm, you’re getting stabbed.

Knives are often portrayed as the smaller, less dangerous brother of the sword. That is not at all true. They are more dangerous, more flexible, more vicious in close quarters against unarmored/unarmed opponents, and do not require much skill to wield effectively. They are fast, they’re blink and you’ll miss it fast. This is zero to sixty in a fraction of a second with a bleed out following not long after.

Knives used in the hand range and are supplemental to fists. The fight begins in the range where the knife will have access to the entire body, and it is a weapon that can puncture your gut, sever tendons, and cut open muscles. Not only that, but you’re not going to get stabbed the one time. If they get the opportunity, you’ll most likely be stabbed six or seven in rapid succession.

Remember, if someone pulls a knife on you, they are threatening your life. The same is true for your characters. If they are in a situation where someone has pulled a knife on them, their life is being threatened. If they pull a knife on another character, they are threatening that character’s life. Regardless of the character’s intention when they draw their weapon, it is important to understand what the action means and what the threat is.

So, let’s talk about knife disarms.

Some Golden Rules of Knife Disarms

Don’t. Touch. The. Knife.

In knife combat, your target is the arm that holds the blade and not the blade itself. This is especially true if you are unarmed. So, don’t grab the blade. Grab the wrist. Grab the arm. Then, once the arm stops moving, you can take the knife by grabbing the handle and rolling it against your attacker’s thumb to forcibly release the grip.

Get Off The Vector!

You have to get away from the blade when that blade comes at at you. Your choices are to go forward, back, or to the side. Forward to stop the arm before the swing begins, backward to keep from getting stabbed while you go for the knife, sideways to get out of the way. You always want the knife off an attack vector on your body so that when you try to take the blade they can’t just lean into the attack a little harder and stab you.

They will do that, by the way. If you get a bad grip or they twist out of it, they can just roll over and finish what they started. Meanwhile, depending on which angle you stopped it, you risk getting cut/cutting yourself just moving the knife into position for the disarm.

Your combat reflexes are also a problem when dealing with knives, most of the traditional ways you’d move to block an attack will get you stabbed (albeit in a slightly different place than your aggressor intended.) One of the big issues with knife disarms is if you’re not worked to working with knives is that you’ll walk right into the strike even if you successfully “stopped” it.

Catch Before Extension or After. Do Not Try The Disarm During.

The rules of blocks and deflections are necessary to grasp if you want to write knife disarms. Against fists the difference is getting hit. With a knife, failure means you will be stabbed. Blocks and deflections are not about physical strength, they rely on disrupting the body’s mechanics.

In many martial arts, a punch or kick is broken down into stages.

Chamber. Extension. Recoil.

Chamber is when the arm or leg is bent before they extend into the strike. Stopping a punch or kick must be done before the arm or leg extends. If you want to stop a knife thrust, you need to catch that thrust in the moments before the arm fully extends i.e. while the elbow is still bent.

Extension is when the arm extends into motion, when it has gained momentum, and the moment before the elbow or knee locks into place.

Recoil is when the arm or leg withdraws after the strike, pulling back into the chambered position before returning to position.

The easy one to conceptualize is the overhead strike where the arm cycles into a downward arc to strike at the throat or shoulder. You catch the arm while it’s still behind the head before it reaches the zenith of the circle and begins to come down, i.e. while the elbow still points behind the head instead of facing you. This is the stage before the strike gains momentum. If you catch it too late, the strike will go through your block and hit you. With a knife strike, the stakes are higher. If you fail, you’re taking a blade to your shoulder, chest, or neck.

The second option with a knife is to catch the arm after it has extended, which means you must get out of the way of the strike first. The strike goes past you, and you catch the arm before it recoils for another strike.

Keep Track of the Knife.

You can deflect knife strikes, and that works under similar principles as a block. You redirect the arm somewhere else. The issue with this method is you need to have pinpoint precision for exactly how far the blade extends as part of their arm. In order to cut you, a knife just needs to connect. If any body part is within reach, it risks being cut. If your body is on line or on the same vector as the knife when you stop it, you risk your opponent pushing past the catch and stabbing you anyway. You need to track the extra reach of the blade at all times or risk being stabbed even when you do everything right. You always want your body off the knife’s vector, and the knife away from you.

When you’re writing knife combat this step is crucial to conveying tension and necessary to remember when you’re positioning your characters. In a fictional world, your characters will only be stabbed when you decide they will be. They only fail when you decide they will. This can lead to sloppy writing and negation of danger, which negates your tension if you’re not abiding by the rules. To convey that sense of danger, you need your audience aware of the knife; where it is, how close it is, what it’s doing, if your character let it stay on attack vector, tried to stop it, and didn’t get out of the way.

It’s All About The Thumb

Don’t fight four fingers when you can fight one. If you’re going to take a one handed weapon held in a forward facing grip away from someone, roll that weapon back against the thumb and twist. Focus on the weak points in the grip rather than attacking the whole grip.

Gotta Go Fast.

You don’t have time to play around with a knife, if you imagine a prolonged scuffle for the weapon or if your character gets into one then they significantly increased the likelihood they were getting stabbed. The closer that knife is to your body, the greater the chance of penetration, and even surface level nicks are deadly. They don’t need a single finishing blow, they can just cut away quick enough for you to bleed to death. This is the point of first blood, by the way. You take a wound to your body where you begin bleeding, no matter where that wound is, and you are at a serious disadvantage.

The longer this fight goes on, the more the advantage gets handed to the person with the weapon.

Onto some other problems.

The chest is not a good place to stab someone, you’re not getting to the heart unless you’re damn lucky. You’ve got an entire plate of bone called the sternum protecting it. The more necessary your body parts are, the more protection they get. You need a lot of force, and it’s just not worth the effort. Not when you have the stomach there and much readily available. Though, that’s not a quick death. You’re character can try but between their inexperience and the difficulty of the target, this drunk character isn’t going to die. The other major arteries are the same way, there’s not a lot of chance you’ll get them if you’re not experienced at finding them.

With a knife, you need to be skilled at using it in order to deliver sudden and immediate death otherwise you’re stuck with lingering, painful death from a slow bleed out after your major internal organs have been turned into chunky salsa.

Now, this fight is happening in a public place, so there’s a greater likelihood of this character receiving medical aid quick enough for them to survive or someone being close enough to intervene. More than that, where are their friends? And the other bystanders? And the bartender? I have a hard time imagining these two characters being the only ones duking it out in an empty bar.

A character used to disengagement isn’t going to take the option to fight a dangerous opponent against whom they’re outmatched if they can run away. That’s just… smart. A bar provides you with a lot of opportunities to do just that. There are a lot of options to get objects between yourself and the person attacking you in order to create the opening needed to get away. They’re also in the kind of tight quarters where they can’t control their own movement and could get forced into the knife by someone else in the environment or the environment itself. They’ve got no margin for error, and the bar is a situation where there’s a chance all the errors will occur.

You’re basically trying to engineer a situation where this character is forced to kill this other character. The goal is to use alcohol to force the situation and then level the playing field. The problem is you’ve got a character, by your own admission, where this kind of fight isn’t their forte and a situation where knife disarms need to be for them to be successful.

Taking a knife from someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing with it is difficult and you’re at high risk of getting stabbed. Taking a knife from someone who knows what they’re doing, even if they’re drunk, is almost impossible. They’ve trained their body and their reflexes to do this, even when they’re in no condition to be doing this. The drunken fencer accidentally killing another sober person is ironically more likely than the drunken fencer getting killed. Depending on how much they’ve drunk and what their tolerance is, the alcohol actually makes killing easier because it removes their inhibitions. They don’t have to second guess anything, they can just do. They call it liquid courage for a reason.

Now, that’s from a practical standpoint. From a narrative standpoint, this piece of violence will be trivial unless the death of this other character leads somewhere interesting with real, severe consequences for your protagonist. If the violence doesn’t go anywhere and just exists for cheap guilting or to prove the character can kill then it just isn’t interesting. Violence is a high risk tool with high risk consequences that you can use to create real stakes, but when violence is misused you also cheapen your entire narrative. You can destroy your stakes, wreck your tension, and end up boxed in by your own writing.

What’s the point?

Did this other character have a real reason to draw their knife on this other character and attempt to kill them? Or are they just a puppet sacrificed to establish the protagonist?

It better be a really good reason, let me tell you. Alcohol takes away inhibitions, but it doesn’t make you do anything you weren’t already prone to doing. The beef better be real, and based in the sort of emotional reaction you’d be willing to ruin your life over.

Where are the other characters?

Where is the bartender?

Who else is going to intervene?

When setting up a versus in your head, it is really easy to over focus on that and forget about everything surrounding your characters. A drawn weapon is a danger to everyone in the room, not just the character who is being threatened. Other people, whether they’re friends, allies, enemies, or strangers, will be inclined to jump in. A bar fight has stakes for the owner and employees of the establishment, they can’t stay in business if their bar isn’t safe. Drawing a weapon represents a direct threat to that safety for the social order.

These consequences and considerations are part of your world building. Ask yourself, is there someone close enough to stop this fight?

You may not see it that way, but you should be aware of the fact that the bar brawl scene is cliche. One countless other writers have already used for some cheap, consequence free violence to show how their protagonist is a badass. The violence in fictional bars rarely goes anywhere. Cheap violence damages your narrative.

So, don’t be cheap.

You don’t need a character behaving violently to show that the character is dangerous or knows what they’re doing. In fact, doing so runs counter to showing that.

Lastly, there’s no such thing as an accidental stabbing. This is especially true when you’ve killed the other person. Knives are like guns. They’re weapons used to kill the other person. Characters who have any experience with martial combat know that. They know what holding a knife means, the threat it represents, and how the combat is going to end. They or the other person will be seriously wounded or dead. Even when you’re wielding one in self-defense or fighting someone else with a knife, that is the outcome.

“Oh, but I didn’t mean to do that” is not a good justification, legally or narratively. “He was going to kill me so I killed him first” is better. “I killed him because I had to.” “I killed him to protect someone precious to me.” “I killed him because I wanted to.” “I killed him because he threatened my life.” “I killed him.” “I… yeah, I did.”

If you’re going to have your character kill another character, you need to put on your grown up pants and have them mean it. This is especially true when they’re trained. Accidents are not a get out of jail free card, or a great way to show your character knows what they’re doing but just couldn’t control it, or particularly meaningful way of raising the stakes.

Killing another person requires commitment. You don’t get there through half-measures. Humans are actually rather difficult to do in. We’re impressively good at killing each other, but it takes a fair amount of work. Besides, I mean, this character is drunk. He’s got a better than average chance of stabbing himself with the knife or falling on it and killing himself, or falling into a table and stabbing some innocent bystander long before this other character has time to take the knife from him.

You gotta commit. Whether in martial arts, or in your writing, or in life, you won’t get anywhere with half-measures. We cross the threshold by acting, by believing we’ll get there, and by committing to what we’re about to do. The same goes for your Shorty.

There aren’t clean endings to knife fights. Violence requires you be willing to hurt and even kill another person. The same is true whether or you’re on the giving or the receiving end. If they can’t commit, they’ll never stop that knife to begin with.

-Michi

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I’ve often heard that knife fights are mutual suicide, simply because it’s so hard to avoid getting hurt while disabling an opponent. Is that true? If so, could you give any tips on writing a realistic knife fight between two relatively equally skilled characters?

We did a post called “Knife Fighting Do’s and Don’t’s” which you might find helpful, it’s also full of links to other resources which may be helpful.

Knife fights are dangerous, in large part because every blow is potentially fatal due to cumulative bleed out/nicking something important or even seemingly unimportant, there is no time for error much less room as combat happens remarkably quickly with the high lethality causing a sudden end, and the fight itself often happens in a blitz.

Even in the hands of someone who has no idea what they’re doing, the knife is incredibly dangerous. Just bull rushing into someone and stabbing them repeatedly in the sides or gut often as many as ten to twenty times will kill them. This is often the case in muggings, for example, and why the knife is a very popular choice. You don’t need skill in order to kill someone with a bladed weapon. You don’t even really need it to be effective beyond understanding the concepts like slashing and thrusting, swinging wildly in the heat of the moment is remarkably effective in this case.

This is the first and perhaps most important tips to writing a character who is experienced and skilled, they understand the dangers inherent in the weapon they are wielding, they recognize it, respect it, and respond accordingly. One of the problems some writers get into when trying to convey skill is to go with the approach of, “it’s not a problem for me, but it will be for you”. This is valid, the problem is that they assume the danger is nullified rather than their character’s comprehension of that danger being the deciding factor. If I know the risks involved, I can take more or navigate more easily than someone with no experience at all. However, the danger itself never goes away. No matter how skilled you are every fight can end with you lying bloody on the ground.

That’s just the way it is.

If you write a character who fights, they and you should always carry the worry of them dying in the back of their minds. And if they don’t, then you should figure out why instead of assuming it’s natural because they have “skills”.

All right, let’s dig in: Knives

Remember, two hands.

When people who have never done martial arts (and even sometimes people who have) there’s often an over focus on the weapon or on the striking, the hitting. In knife fighting and just in general, the off hand or the second hand/hand without the blade is extremely important for both defense and control. All blocking, deflecting, and the openings created will be made with the off-hand. You stop the arm with one hand, cut it with the knife. This protects you and allows you to keep fighting. The off-hand may become a sacrificial body part as necessary to lock up the enemy blade, getting the knife lodged somewhere non-vital if perhaps unpleasant is sometimes necessary to opening the path to victory.

Defense is important.

The blades will not be clashing like a swordfight (which they shouldn’t be clashing in a swordfight anyway, but that’s a different kettle). All blocks, defenses, and redirects will happen with that other hand.

Keep It Tight

Tempting as it is to use words like “swinging” or others in a similar vein, try to keep your vocabulary to descriptors that imply tight, controlled motion. You don’t want a feel that’s wild and out of control but rather intentional, directed, and focused.

“He lunged forward, swinging wildly.”

Versus:

“He stepped back, off-hand catching the wrist and redirecting the incoming dagger. Slashing his blade across the back of the enemy’s hand, he dropped down. With a forward lunge, he cut up along the underside of the arm, tucked tight, and drove his weapon into their gut.”

Debilitate, Disable, Finish:

If you have the option to lunge for the kill then great, but the best way to keep your enemy from stabbing you on the way out is to get rid of their weapon first. Attacking the hand that holds the weapon on your way in ensures that you can get rid of it. The best way to avoid a double suicide is to not be so focused on killing your opponent that you forget about their weapon. The guy you just stabbed six times in the gut can still stab you before he collapses.

Prioritize your threats.

If you have the opportunity to remove the participant before the weapon then fine, but 9/10 you’re going to want to focus on ridding them of their ability to kill you on the way out before moving in.

Move, Move, Move

It can be difficult to think in multiple directions, especially if you have no experience with two bodies interacting. They aren’t going to stand there hacking at each other, they’re going to try to create openings. As any hit from the knife can be deadly due to cumulative bleed out, avoidance is the primary name of the game.

Understand Anatomy

While knife fighting is fast and vicious, it’s also very much about anatomy. You get get downright surgical with a knife if you want and when writing your fiction it’s best to brush up on all the tendons, ligaments, veins, and so forth that are close to the surface and up for grabs or slashes in this case.

Medical knowledge will help you with combat in general, but with knife fighting you really want to know what can get cut to make X stop working before moving in for the kill. It sounds simple in practice, difficult in execution.

Study Actual Knife Combat/Combatants

This may seem like a no brainer, but if you really want to understand what it looks like when someone experienced handles a blade then you want to spend some time looking at guys like Michael Janich, the bladed weapons practice in Silat, Krav Maga, Marines, etc. It’s best to get that experience in person, but YouTube will also be your friend here. There are a lot different martial styles which include knives as part of their disciplines.

Take everything with a grain of salt and remember that videos online won’t make you an expert. If you’re a US citizen, you can also track down most of the Department of Defense manuals for the military available for free online. Some of the information such as that from Rex Applegate is outdated but finding his books and reading through them may help you imagine.

Half of writing anything is studying, learning what it is, what it does, learning so you can imagine the techniques in different ways. Theory for a writer is just important, if not more so than technique. You may not be able to perform it in life, but if you can grasp the theory then you can start applying that to your characters and their approaches to different situations.

Remember Violence is Problem Solving, Think of Your Character’s Personality.

Learning that all combat is not universal, that different approaches exist will help you branch out when writing your characters and allow you to develop combat styles unique to them. A good example of a narrative which does this is Season 2 of Netflix’s Daredevil, wherein Matt, Elektra, Frank Castle, and Wilson Fisk all have different approaches to using violence as a means of solving problems, where the way they fight is also an expression of who they are as people. The kinds of violence your character engages and the way they choose to utilize violence as a means of problem solving is an expression of their personality, not just their skill level.

Two characters of similar skill level can have very different fighting styles, even if they’ve studied in the same style. Take into account who these characters are and let that dictate how they choose to use violence. Not all characters are going to be efficient killing machines. Some are going to be joyous free spirits bouncing their way from one enemy to another, leaping and bounding with a blood streaked grin across their face.

You may think you know nothing, but take what you learn and then apply that knowledge to your character. Let them decide what to do with it. They might use it, they might ignore it.

Don’t sweat the small stuff.

What is most important here is figuring out how to sell the scene to your audience in a variety of different forms.

-Michi

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Knife Fighting Do’s and Dont’s

Scott:What they gotcha teachin’ here, young sergeant?

Jackie Black:Edged weapons, sir. Knife fighting.

Scott:
Don’t you teach ‘em knife fighting. Teach ’em to kill. That way, they
meet some sonofabitch who studied knife fighting, they send his soul to
hell.

Spartan, 2004

There
really is no right answer to knife fighting, except, perhaps, the above
quote. When you’re setting out to write a scene, it’s best to assess
your priorities first and what your story needs. In the real world,
knife combat comes in many different forms and works as a supplemental
weapon in most military disciplines. It’s a common weapon in
self-defense situations, and can be used both by the aggressor and the
defender.

What is a knife?

Primarily, it’s a tool
and, like all tools, there are situations where it thrives and those
where it dies. It succeeds as an ambush weapon, as a builder on hand to
hand, and when fighting in very tight quarters. Combat with knives is
very quick and very deadly. As an ambush weapon, it is often used to
close the distance or rush a target. Allow the knife wielder to get
close to an opponent wielding a sword or a gun before either can be
drawn and they will have the clear advantage. However, take the knife
out of tight environments and it’s effectiveness will decrease
dramatically. This is why it’s unlikely to be the only weapon in a
character’s arsenal, especially not when you’re writing a professional
combatant.

What kind of fight are you writing?

The
knife is a deadly weapon in the hands of anyone, it doesn’t require any
specialized training to be able to wield it. It’s more user friendly to
killing than even a gun and can require less maintenance. Basic
understanding works fine. You pick it up, you stab, and then you stab
some more. The stabs may all go to one place, often the gut, but five or
six into one place will leave the other character bleeding out on the
sidewalk.

It’s up to you on whether or not you want to (or if
it’s even appropriate to your story) write a scene which is more
sophisticated. Remember, it doesn’t have to be. The basic principle of
the knife is incredibly simple: You’re gonna shank a dude.

So, don’t freak out.

When
it comes to a knife, anywhere on the body is a convenient target.
Anywhere. This is one of the few weapons where you really don’t need to
know much about it to write a scene. The knife is fairly intuitive.
Unless your character needs to get fancy with their martial combat, then
you do need to study. Even then, you still need to pick your martial
art and do your research. Plenty of martial styles have a knife
component, so it’s more a matter of searching through the different
styles to find the one which fits your character and story.

Below
the cut, I’ll discuss some basic theory and suggestions that hopefully
will be enough to get you a jumping off point into the fine art of
shanking. This is no means a comprehensive list, just basic beginner
tips.

Knife
fighting isn’t sword fighting with minis. This is the first, and most
important, lesson. They belong in separate categories. Knives are
supplementary weapons in hand to hand and when included significantly
raise the threat level to what that individual intends. When someone
whips out a knife in combat, they are raising the stakes from “someone
might die” to “I definitely want to kill somebody”.

Knife combat
is very fast and any received injury will be devastating. Someone with a
knife versus someone without one has a significant advantage. Knives
are very dangerous and, if your character isn’t careful, a fight can
easily end with a double suicide when both characters are bleeding their
guts out on the side of a highway.

There are a lot of
different kinds of “knife fighting” out there and many different
techniques available for you to look into for your character. The
question is what kind of knife fighting are they trained in/used to?
Many traditional martial arts all around the globe have their own set or
subset of combat tactics when wielding a knife. Military and Police H2H
do as well, though the techniques employed by Police will focus less on
using a knife and more on disarming/subduing an opponent who carries
one. The knife is a very common weapon for street level criminals and
it’s genuinely viewed as the most dangerous of the weapons one can
encounter in that environment. (Yes, even more dangerous than a gun and
also more common.) Some of the more “militant” or “practical”
self-defense subsets advocate using knives for self-defense.

Whatever
you choose to go with in your story, it’s best to remember this one
simple rule when it comes to knife combat: like all bladed weapons,
knives are for killing. If a character pulls a knife on another
character then they are making an active threat on their life. Their
intentions no longer matter, the threat is “if you don’t give me what I
want, I will kill you” or “I plan to kill you”.
Knives are best
suited to opportunistic combat and tight spaces. In a wide view for the
professional combatant, they are usually the fallback weapon or
situational weapon that gets pulled when the character needs to either
be stealthy/carry an easily concealable weapon, or give them an
advantage within tight/confined spaces where a sword, pole arm, or gun
aren’t practical. Knives are easily concealable, very dangerous in
unarmed/unarmored combat, and often end with someone dead or grievously
injured.

If your character specializes in knife combat, then they
need to be able to accurately assess the appropriate situations where
knife combat is viable and where it is not. Weapons are specialized for
different situations. Accept that bringing a knife to a gun fight or
sword fight is a losing proposition if they try to take them head on.
What makes a character “skilled” is not their ability to face all comers
or overcome the rules by virtue of being awesome, it’s in their ability
to accurately assess a situation and develop a plan of action which
plays to their strengths. While their plan may go sideways (no plans are
ever guaranteed success), it’s the thought that counts.

Do Hang onto Your Knife

This
seems like simple and obvious advice, but your character is not
guaranteed to hold onto their knife throughout the entire fight. The
character’s knife can be just as dangerous to them as their opponent’s
if they fail to keep a firm grip. Without properly applied pressure, the
blade can simply slip free, slide through the hand and cut it open, or
be dropped when filled with adrenaline. Cutting and stabbing another
individual relies on pressure, if the character’s grip is not secure
then they may simply lose the knife.
Characters with little to no
combat experience will be more subject to this law. Even so, mistakes
can happen to anyone regardless of experience level.

Do Avoid the Blade

Knives
are very dangerous weapons, any cut your character suffers during the
fight can potentially be lethal. The reason for this is blood loss. The
more active you are, the more blood your body pumps through your heart,
if there is a hole in your body then the more blood will escape during
the fight. The more holes you get, the more blood escapes and there is
nowhere on your body a knife can hit that won’t draw blood. Your veins
are everywhere. One single hit can lead to a chain of from bad to worse.

Knife
fights happen within very close proximity, even if your character is
armed that won’t protect them from getting cut. A character is going to
want to stay out of range of the knife until they are ready to commit.
Instead of grasping and grappling, you’re going to be looking at a fair
amount of ducking, dodging, and deflecting. It’s not like with basic
hand to hand where you’re characters can simply trade blows. The
fighters want to keep the knives as far from them as humanly possible.
Catch the blade either early in the swing (as the arm draws back) or
late in the swing (after they’ve fully extended) to initiate a counter
attack, or cut under as they swing. Whatever your character does, their
priority is going to be on keeping that knife away from them so the
other person cannot reverse and stab.

Use your characters
“free” (non-weapon carrying) hand for blocking, deflecting, and
controlling. Characters who use the Phillipino martial art escrima may
supplement their free hand with a short stick or a baton. Characters
wielding two knives give up their ability to deflect and control their
opponent. They are trading their defensive options for more stabbing
power.

Do Keep Track of the Blade

This is
more for when you the author are writing, but also a good plan for your
characters. When writing fight scenes, especially when both characters
are armed, there’s a bad habit of writers imagining the sequence like a
video game. The knife is important only so long as it’s there to
establish a threat, once one character gets the upper hand then it’s
immediately forgotten.

Don’t forget it’s there. Even if it
gets knocked free or knocked away in the fight. As the writer, always
know where the weapons are even if the other characters forget about
them. Anything can happen with a free weapon. Any other character can
pick it up, any other character can make off with it, and be waiting
when your victorious protagonist walks around the corner. If the
character still has the knife, then they can still stab your protagonist
even when they are winning. Sometimes, even when they are dying.
Keep track of all weapons in the scene.

Don’t Grab the Blade

Your
hand is full of nerves and important tendons necessary for maintaining a
grip. A blade will slice through all of them and cripple your
character, leaving them bleeding and unable to defend themselves. Your
hand is a mechanical marvel, it is incredibly delicate. When damaged, it
can take a long while to recover, assuming it ever does.

This is
why deflection is so important in knife fights, as well as more risky
blocks that expose lesser parts of the body to injury in exchange for
more important ones. These blocks include using the edge of the forearm,
where the bone is closest to the surface and there are few important
muscles, to attempt to catch or lockup the blade in the bone. This is,
however, incredibly risky. Alternate knife grips, such as a reverse
grip, can avoid this block by slashing under instead of the expected
over and sever the veins and tendons before following up with a stab to
the ribs or gut. If you really, really, really must have your character
do something with their hand then instead of grabbing the blade, ram
their hand through it. It is terrible advice and will do long term
damage to the hand, but if there’s no other way out go that route. Your
character will appear slightly smarter because they attempted to lock
the blade up in the bones inside the hand. Locking up the knife creates
an opening for them to attack. It’s definitely a sacrificial gesture,
but if it’s your hand or your life then go with the hand.

Deflect
at the hand, the wrist, the elbow, and upper arm. Make contact with the
opponent and not the blade itself. If your character must attempt a
disarm (very dangerous), catch the wrist or the hand. Take the hilt,
torque the blade against the thumb (not the fingers) to pop it free. The
other character won’t be able to hold onto the blade. Like with most
martial actions, taking the knife isn’t about strength. It’s about
attacking the weak link (the thumb), forcing the hilt into a position
where the attacker can no longer maintain a grip.

Disarms are
exceedingly dangerous to perform. So, when writing, always try ensure
that the necessary body parts are protected and the blade is redirected
somewhere else. Best if it’s in a position where it can no longer come
at you again.

Don’t Fuck Around

One general
problem many authors have is they assume when someone becomes “good”
then basic threats no longer apply. In game terms, they level past
certain dangers and when they do those dangers no longer apply. Now,
this is a common cliche in many martial arts movies. The trick is
understanding that it’s a failing on the part of the student and their
overconfidence inevitably brings them back down to earth.

It
doesn’t matter how good your character is, combat is always dangerous. A
character’s professionalism is defined by how seriously they take the
threats made on their life and the part where they recognize the
inherent danger present in any situation. What they know will not keep
them safe from danger. It gives them a better chance and that’s all.

You
never level past danger. Whether they’ve seen one battle or a hundred,
treat every threat seriously and end it quickly. The longer a fight goes
on, the greater the chance that something will go wrong.

Don’t Prolong Suffering

It’s
cruel. If your character is in a situation where they must kill, then
killing quickly is kindness. While this should probably go under “Don’t
Fuck Around”, this is deserving of its own topic.

In Dune,
when young Paul Atreides must duel Jamis to secure his position within
Stilgar’s Fremen tribe, he is initially condemned by the other members
of the tribe when he prolongs the fight. The issue for him is that while
he is an exceptionally skilled combatant, he’s never killed before and
is hesitant to take a life. However, his lifetime of training has left
him so skilled that the Fremen see his behavior as cruel. It’s obvious
to anyone with eyes that he is going to win. All his hesitance does is
tease his opponent with false hope and prolong his suffering. There is
no out for Paul, he must kill.

This was an important scene in
the novel because of the way it highlighted the difficulty in the act of
killing another human being even when one has been brought up their
life to do so. It also humanized the Fremen. While their laws are strict
and their culture brutal due to their harsh environment, they won’t
thank any protagonist for prolonging the suffering of someone they care
about.

Holding off doesn’t make your character look like a
decent human being. There is more to the conversation than killing bad,
living good. What Paul does to Jamis is a form of torture. It is
unintentional, but that doesn’t change the end result. When your
characters are in a situation where they are more skilled than their
opponent and you have placed them in a situation where they must kill
then mucking around, prolonging the scene, is cruel.

This
doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it. The scene I put forward from Dune is
powerful and informative, it serves a purpose. What you should do is
recognize the act for what it is, allow other characters to notice the
same, and condemn the character for it.

Don’t Give the Knife Back

If
someone tries to kill you, don’t give them their weapon back once the
fight is over. In novels, this is treated as “sportsmanlike” behavior. A
sign the character has defeated their enemy and are now proving they
are the bigger person. It’s stupid. There’s nothing stopping them from
burying that knife in your character’s back or their ribs the minute
they turn around. Just defeating someone doesn’t stop them from wanting
to kill you. It also won’t stop them from stabbing someone else.

Lots
of characters do this. If you have a character engaging in this
behavior, and they just might, think about it when you write the
consequences of the decision.

Do Lock Up the Hand (and other body parts)

Attack
the portions of the body they use to fight. Carve up the hand/arm first
to get it out of the way, then go for the main body. Author’s often get
too invested in “kill shots”, they sometimes forget that getting from
Point A to the killing blow has intervening steps, like getting through
their defenses. If the character has the option to go straight in to
take them out of the fight and the situation allows it, then all the
better.

However, sometimes a character is going to have to do a
little extra work than just rushing forward and stabbing the other
character. If the other character has a knife, then 9/10 they’ll just be
running into the other person’s knife. This advice goes hand in hand
with “Avoiding the Blade” and keeping track of the weapon. While the
knife can easily be switched between hands, it’s a good idea to create
openings in their defenses. This can be done using either the
“free”/defensive hand or the knife itself. Where the enemy knife is will
be important to targeting and response. Attacking the arm or wrist
holding the blade can be helpful to ending the knife’s threat.

After
all, if they can’t use the arm then they can’t use the knife. These
kinds of blows are, however, just openers to attack the other more
sensitive parts of the body.

You’re not just attacking veins.
Good slashes will also cut through or damage the muscles and ligaments
necessary for a person to keep fighting. In this respect, it’s best to
think of knife combat as surgical. While on the one hand, it can be
blunt. It can also be incredibly precise and ridiculously fast. This
kind of speed and precision you won’t get from a longer weapon.

Do Study Police Blotters and Medical Files

Knife
injuries will teach you more about knife combat than all the techniques
in the world. Learning what a weapon can do to somebody is part and
parcel to developing a healthy respect for the weapon. When we get right
down to it, knife combat is pretty gruesome.

Do Remember There Are Different Kinds of Knives

There’s the dagger.
Daggers typically possess two edges or are double-sided blades. They
are the traditional variant of the combat knife. Daggers, such as the
parrying dagger from fencing, can also be used as tools or secondary
defensive weapons instead of offensive.

And the knife.
Typically possess a single edge, primarily used for cutting, and are
tools. However, the term also applies to most modern combat knives.

The terms can be used interchangeably.

What
is your character carrying? A tactical knife? A switchblade? A kitchen
knife? These are different and one isn’t a weapon. I mean just look and those are just the modern ones. Also keep in mind that throwing knives are not the same as throwing a knife.
Throwing knives are made for throwing, if your character is throwing a
regular knife then they need to make some adjustments for weight and
balance.

Worth remembering: throwing a regular knife just means
your character has lost theirs. Knife throwing has become a narrative
fast hand for saying that “my character has impressive accuracy” and
often used in cases where it makes very little sense. Knife throwing is a
skill, as throwing anything is a skill. It’s a very nice party trick,
but means almost nothing in regards to combat viability. It’s a lot like
tossing around a baseball or a paper airplane. Anything you throw and
don’t want to lose, you still have to go out and retrieve.

Because
knives are also tools, be prepared to distinguish between the
improvised weapon (such as cutlery or any utility knife) and the actual
weapon such as a combat knife (a weapon designed around the idea of
stabbing another living person). For characters who use knives for
combat will not mix the two unless it’s absolutely necessary as it
damages the knife’s functionality both as a weapon and also as a tool.

Do Use Sensation Appropriate Verbs

Depicting combat in your writing is often about finding the right words that generate the appropriate feel of the motion you’re aiming for. In this case, hard sharp words like cut, thrust, slice, slash, stab, drove, instead of hard but round words implying crushing force like “hit”. “He hit him with the knife.” Does that sound right? When we use the word “hit“ we conjure images of kinetic force, a knockback, and a slight bounce. Words that imply blunt force trauma are out, unless it involves hitting someone with the butt of the knife hilt (though why would you do that? It’s not a sword pommel). Knives and bladed weapons go “in”, they impale. There is driving force behind the edged weapon, but also a sense of smoothness in the action.

Soft words also can work in certain situtations like : slip or slid, like “he slid the blade between his ribs”.

You can also use words like “caught” to convey what happens to the blade when it penetrates the body. “She tried to yank it back, but the blade had caught in Adam’s ribcage.”

I hope these have been helpful to you.

-Michi

Resources:

Stay Safe Media
– This self defense vlog run by edged weapon’s expert Michael Janich is
very helpful for those looking to get quick information about knives
and knife combat. Janich’s predominate focus is on self-defense, but he
puts a primary focus on framing the training through real life
situations. His videos have been very helpful to me and hopefully will
be to some of you as well.

Contemporary Knife TargetingContemporary Knife Targeting
by Michael Janich isn’t really about targeting per say, it’s mainly
about William Fairburn’s Timetable of Death, which is used by Police and
Military to determine how long someone has from resulting knife
injuries and why it’s flawed. This is pretty much why I recommend the
book because it spends a vast majority of it’s time going in depth into a
discussion of how quickly someone will die from which injury. If you
want to write about knife fights, this one is worth a look.

Dune – Frank Herbert’s Dune
has some very well written knife sequences, but also good world
building explanations for certain kinds of behavior. The Fremen culture
is very reactive to what Paul and Jessica do when they join. Paul
must convince them he is what he says. While stories in which the hero
isn’t given carte blanche to do what they like aren’t uncommon,
characters dealing with consequences other than the basic “death is bad”
or “I can’t believe you did that” are slightly more unusual. There are
more kinds of horror and emotional rollercoasters than just easily
grasped indignation.

Spartan
– I linked the above quote at the beginning and while Spartan doesn’t
talk about “knife fighting”, you do see another colder perspective in
the main character. It’s more about attitude than knives, but worth
considering.

U.S. Military, Systema, Israeli Military, Kali and
Escrima from the Philippines, and many other martial systems have a
knife component to their training. It’s up to you to decide what level
of knife combat your character is trained in and find a style which
corresponds accordingly.

As always, keep in mind that combat
constantly changes, evolves, and grows over time. All martial systems
are not created equal, they were developed to deal with specific
challenges faced by the culture in question. While they might not lose
cultural relevance, combat effectiveness changes with the times. A
character who spends his weekends practicing Kendo or Iaido is not the
same as a samurai from 1185. The modern special forces, or even just the
basic soldier, are a better comparison.

I have a character who grew up doing parkour and the like — they lost their left eye at seventeen. How would this affect their fighting skills — hand-to-hand and with a knife?

The problem here is a lack of depth perception. With one eye, it’s difficult to tell how far away something is whether that’s an incoming knife or the edge of a building. This could be very dangerous for them while just doing parkour really rely on being able to judge how far away something is. Even just a few centimeters could be the difference between a broken ankle, a broken arm, a broken leg or worse from a fall. There’s a good chance that when they lost their eye, they really lost the ability to do parkour the way they used to.

Parkour is not a fighting style. So, for an untrained fighter having lost an eye that could be really bad if the way they keep their skills sharp is through street fights. A fighter who trains regularly can adapt to it and may even be able to fight just as well as they used to in the long run, though their fighting style will have significantly changed in order to adapt to their injury. However, they’ll need time, a good work ethic, a solid instructor, and understanding training partners to help them get there.

Because of how fast knife fighting is and how quickly it ends, I can’t really answer that question. The lack of depth perception could lead to more mistakes and, when fighting with a knife, all you need is one to end your life. If they can’t tell how far away someone is then a miss could be fatal much in the same way it would be with parkour.

That’s all I’ve got.

-Michi

If you stab someone in the forearm with a knife could they bleed out?

Yes. There’s an artery in the wrist and when it gets nicked, then the person who was stabbed will bleed out and they will do so fairly quickly. You can do the same with the upper arm as well. It’s also worth noting that when nerves, tendons, and muscles get cut (slashing the hand, slashing the bicep, slashing the triceps), they have more difficulty working and could, potentially, stop working all together.

This is part of the reason why knives are bad news bears and why even if you have a knife, you want to run away from someone else wielding a knife. Knives are precision work, the shortness of the blade means that the fight happens in much tighter quarters, making the strikes difficult to block, and is over much more quickly.

It’s also worth noting that when one does get stabbed or fights with an open wound, they are increasing the likelihood of death. Your heart rate elevates during physical activity, the blood keeps pumping through the body, and spills right out of the hole. The closer you get to an artery, the faster that happens. This is why pulling an object out of your body in the middle of the fight is a bad idea. If someone buries a knife in your back, you want to leave it there until the fight is over. It’s not the best solution and may continue to do more harm, but it will also keep the blood you need to live from spilling out until you can find a better way to contain the wound.

-Michi

Speaking of knives and daggers, what about throwing them? Is there a difference? Can you explain?

The best knives for throwing are the ones that have been designed and properly weighted for it, you know, throwing knives. Knives that were created with the intention of being thrown. When throwing with a knife or dagger that is not for throwing, one must work to actively counter the uneven weight distribution to ensure that the pointy end goes into the target. Otherwise, it will harmlessly bounce off their chest. (It’ll hurt some, but hey, it’s their lucky day as you just gave them a knife!)

In the sub-spectrum of knives and daggers, it’s important to remember that there are many different kinds and each weapon has it’s own unique weight even ones that were forged to be identical or created by machines on an assembly line. So, every time a character throws a knife, they’re going to have to adjust to it’s weight and point of balance. If they are practiced at throwing, then they may do this automatically but it’s a good idea to give the nod anyway because it will lend a sense of realism.

Secondly and most importantly, despite it’s recent popularity as “the skill” in the YA genre, throwing a knife has very limited practical combat applicability. In the long run, the knife or dagger will be more useful to your character in their hand than it will be in some schmuck half-way across the room. The schmuck may be dead, but now your character has lost their knife. Depending on the setting they exist in, a well-crafted knife could be expensive and hard to come by. Even when using general throwing knives, every knife lost is one that they’ll have to replace and that can get expensive, fast. Most characters aren’t going to have time to go scouting through the bodies of the people they’ve killed looking to get their knives back and will view any knife they throw as an acceptable loss.

Unlike an arrow, which can’t really be used as a weapon (or makes a useful one) when not on a bowstring, a knife can be picked up by the enemy and used by that enemy against the knife’s previous owner. If you’re going to give your character knife throwing as a skill (but it’s weird when it’s knife throwing but not knife fighting), then this is an important concept to keep in mind.

Knife throwing can tell the reader that a character is comfortable with their knives, was possibly in a lot of situations where they were very bored with their knives, or they are living in a time period where they need to be able to conceal a ranged weapon and guns are not available. However, throwing knives is a tertiary skill, not primary one. You can’t really substitute archery for throwing knives and vice versa.

One of the qualities about the first Assassin’s Creed that I really liked was the mechanic of having to find new knives after I used up all the ones I was carrying. The game gave me two options: travel all the way back to the Assassin’s home base or pickpocket the local brigands. It was a nice nod to the fact that weapons do not self-replicate automatically and an important one to keep track of.

-Michi