Disclaimer: The material present in this article is meant for academic study and writing only. It is not meant for instructional use in your everyday life. This information will not be useful without physical instruction from a qualified instructor. If you are interested in this information within the context of self-defense, please seek out a martial arts school or self-defense program in your area. We are not liable for the harm you do to yourself or others with this information. We are also not liable for the legal ramifications that come with those actions.
In this article, we’ll discuss the weak target points on the head in order to help your fight sequences become more detailed. The conventional martial arts advice is “where the head goes, the body follows”. The body has an instinctive desire to protect the head and face from attack, a clever fighter can trigger these instincts in a less (and even sometimes more) competent one by understanding how to use the body’s protective instincts against an opponent. A character can make these instincts work for them if they realize that they are there, they may learn to trigger them intentionally against someone else. They may not know on a conscious level or scientific level that they are doing it, they may simply be working off their combat experience or techniques that were taught to them by a more experienced instructor. They may not know how it works, just that it does. You, the author, need to know because you are the one who must relay these actions to the audience in your story. There is a vast difference between what an author must know and what a character may know, you are the deciding force behind the character’s actions and you must be able to communicate to the audience what happened in the scene. Fighting is, at its heart, a very sophisticated and scientific animal. To communicate it effectively requires a functional understanding of human behavior, bodily reactions, an understanding of the body’s physical form, and a good solid sense of physics.
So, today, we’re going to talk about the vulnerable places on the head and how they can be exploited in a multitude of different ways to distract a target and create openings in the guard that allow for finishing strikes. This won’t cover everything, but it should be enough to get you thinking.
The Skull: On the top of the forehead, there are dents in the skull where the plates are fused together. By placing pressure on these dents, one can effectively force the head to move in any direction (preferably backwards). The skull is made up of around eight different bone plates that are fused together. The places where they are structurally weak can be exploited. However, for the untrained or even general martial artist, these can be difficult to find in the confusion of combat.
The Hair: We covered a lot about the hair in a few articles, including Hair Pulling. The hair can in certain cases provide a good grip for fingers, be used to drag the head back or slam it forward. The hair follicles are all nerve endings which can cause pain (distraction) when pulled. If the brain is thinking about something else (ouch, ouch, it hurts!) it is less able to muster up the necessary concentration in order to fight back.
The Back of the Head: The bone in back of the head is actually much softer than the front. While it’s not a good striking point for hands, it is a common one for blunt force trauma using an object or by driving the head (when controlled using a control point, such as the hair) into something solid such as a wall or concrete. To abuse the back of the head in hand to hand, one must be facing their opponent. This usually only comes into play if they are close to a wall or on top of them when on the ground.
The Bottom of the Skull: The bottom of the skull, where the spine joins with the skull and the brain. It’s difficult to affect with hand to hand, but a strike from a knife, a sword, or a bullet can kill.
The Temple: The temple is an open gap and soft point that can provide direct access to the brain when struck. Pinpoint strikes may go here such as with the knuckles (in Taiji Chin Na), with the heel of the foot, or with a knife. Striking here will cause a loss of equilibrium and balance
The Forehead: The forehead is the densest and hardest point on the human body, which means that while a frontal assault is usually a pointless endeavor, bouncing the brain off it can get interesting. Much like the back of the head, the forehead can be a focus point for blunt trauma strikes (baseball bat, crowbar, tire iron, piece of wood) or be driven into a wall. Since the head must go back to go forward, someone driving the head into the wall or ground will have to be behind the individual. And in tips from Contemporary Knife Targeting by Michael Janich and Christopher Grosz: “Some traditional edged weapons systems such as Japanese iai-jutsu (sword drawing and cutting), purposefully target the forehead because it is highly vascular and, when cut, will bleed into the eyes, obstructing vision.” (20)
The Eyebrow: The eyebrow can be easily split or cut to bleed into the eyes, which is why it is such a popular one in professional boxing. Doing this with bare hands is not recommended because the forehead is so solid and one can cut their knuckles, which allows their opponent’s blood to mix with theirs, but it could be a priority target for someone wearing armor, brass knuckles, or using a knife.
The Eyes: The sense a human being relies on most is their sight, they cannot block what they cannot see. You know that instinctual reaction you have when you see something coming towards your face and know you can’t get out of the way; you squeeze your eyes shut? This is why. The body knows the eyes must be protected. Blind someone, temporarily or permanently, and they will have difficulty fighting back. This can be anything from blood in the eyes, to thrown dirt or sand, waving a knife blade near the eye, to faking out the peripheral vision by forcing someone to protect high when the attacker is actually going low. Moving towards the eyes will cause someone to flinch, while covering the eyes may cause them to panic. Strikes to the eye can be distraction based or lead to permanent injury, deep enough strikes to the optic nerve can cause unconsciousness, they can even kill by puncturing the brain (most commonly with a #2 pencil or a pen).
The Nose: We can go round and round about whether or not a palm strike to the nose can kill but, either way, the nose is a vulnerable target. Striking the nose, even if it doesn’t break, will cause swelling which can obstruct an individual’s vision, cause their eyes to water, and on impact to close. Placing the knuckle of the index finger directly under the nose and above the upper lip can be used to force the head back and the eyes up, creating openings for escape from grabs.
The Cheek: The cheek is a good control point because it can be used to drive the head sideways using the flat of the hand and create openings. A strike from an elbow coming in from the side can cause someone to bite their cheek hard enough to require stitches. Strikes to the cheekbone can lead to swelling and bruising, which can obscure vision.
The Mouth: We normally think of the mouth for biting, but the truth is getting knocked in the teeth really hurts. Knocking the head around can lead to someone biting through their tongue, biting their cheek, losing a tooth, all of which results in blood in the mouth. Enough blood in the mouth is a choking hazard and a hard enough bite can require a trip to a hospital, try to imagine how your characters would feel about spitting out their front tooth in the middle of a fight (or worse, a piece of their tongue).
The Jaw: The soft point at the back of the jaw where it connects to the skull is a vulnerable point that when struck can cause a knockout. However, the jaw has other uses too. Striking it specifically can lead to the jaw becoming unhinged or forcing it to clench (bite down), which means that it can chew into some of the mouth’s vulnerable places. This is why all sparring involves wearing mouth guards and why I side eye books that fail to mention mouth guards very hard. Most professional fighters will clench their teeth reflexively when they fight, those who spar will be practiced at breathing through their nose. They may or may not exhale through their mouth when fighting (mostly not).
Under the Jaw: Striking up under the jaw can cause the head to knock backwards, this is where some of the traditional palm strikes and uppercuts come in. However, a persona can also grasp under the jaw to control it (fingers should avoid the mouth or be bitten). The hand and forearm can also wrap around from behind and press up under the jaw to force head backwards, characters may do this when taking hostages or forcing someone else to look. A common way professionals will avoid taking a head butt from someone knocking their head backwards is to control the skull this way, allowing the neck no freedom of movement and pressing their cheek to their enemies’ ear.
The Ear: The ears, through sound, can control someone’s sense of equilibrium. Disrupt that and they may experience vertigo. The human being is very sensitive to sound and one of the best ways to screw with the brain is by hurting the ears. The ear is vulnerable to being boxed (two fists or palms come in on either side to strike inwards against the outside of the ears), they may be stabbed with a knife, or someone may scream into or use a blowhorn at close range (pressed up against the ear) to force a person to respond in a predictable manner (loss of balance, stumbling, falling over, etc).
Under the Ear: under the ear, there is a pressure point that when pressed can cause a substantial amount of pain. This pressure point is commonly taught in self-defense courses. A person who is familiar with this pressure point may also use it to stimulate response and keep themselves awake when tired.
This is by no means a comprehensive list and individual styles will all have their own methods and techniques of making use of these things.
If you have a strong stomach:
Contemporary Knife Targeting by Christopher Grosz and Michael Janich is an interesting read. However, because the discussion is knives, it’s gory.
Taiji Chin Na by Doctor Yang, Jwing-Ming discusses the seizing art of Tai’chi and could be useful for those of you looking to learn about joint locking systems outside of Japan.