We tend to devote a lot of time to discussing firearms, in large part because we love them, but also because they’re an essential tool for the warfighter – and in some cases – for the defense of ourselves and others in a domestic setting.  I carry a full frame 1911 every day, not because I don’t like the Glock, but because something about how my brain is wired to my hands just makes me a bit more accurate and a bit quicker with the 1911, and like the debate between the iPhone and Android, I prefer what I’m most comfortable with.

So when I visited a friend who lives in a more urban setting recently and we got into a discussion about self-defense, he wasn’t surprised to learn that I was carrying, but lamented about his cultural environment and how it wouldn’t be socially acceptable for him to carry on a daily basis.  He punctuated his complaint with, “It seems stupid to worry about my friends’ feelings when someone could sneak up on me in the subway, I know, but I’ve got to work with these people.”

That’s when I produced my other every-day-carry, my trusty pocket knife.

We tend to think of pocket knives as a utilitarian necessity in the military, and most of us that lead lives outside the hustle and bustle of the city often find ourselves using them a few times a day for a variety of things – none of which are self-defense, so people from all walks of life might be surprised to know that in many dangerous situations, I might reach for my knife before choosing to draw my pistol.

I’ve got a decent selection of knives, from cheap pocket knives I picked up at Walmart, to expensive fixed blades I use when camping, and I tend to be picky about what knife I use for different things.  Some are small and light so I can clip them onto my sweat pants when I go for a jog, others are big and intimidating – and great for chopping wood in a pinch.  If you’re interested in some help in choosing your own every-day-carry knife, check out some of these great articles on SOFREP intended to help with just that.

Many of you already agree with my assessment that knives are often a better choice than your trusty 9mm or .45 when things get violent, but just in case you’re not on board, here are three things I try to take into account whenever I consider pulling any weapon from its spot on my hip.

My intentions are different with a firearm. I don’t live in Mosul or Aleppo – I live in a sleepy Georgia town that still hasn’t gotten cable internet (that’s right folks, I write to you every day via a phoneline). Chances are good that if I draw my pistol, it’s intended to de-escalate a situation.  That may seem like a contradiction of philosophies, but I genuinely mean it: if I point my firearm at you, my hope is that this situation will end without me having to pull the trigger.  I’m using the threat of force to command your obedience.  My best result involves you putting down your weapon, stopping whatever you were doing that forced me to draw, and waiting for law enforcement to arrive.

Those of us who train in martial arts place a different psychological weight on knives than we do firearms.  Whereas I may draw my pistol to ensure you see it and comply, if I draw my knife in a violent setting, it is with the intent to hurt you as much as I possibly can, to include killing you.  Often, I will intentionally conceal the knife with my arm to prevent an opponent from seeing it and adjusting their tactics to defend against the blade.  I don’t want to de-escalate a situation with my blade, I want to sever the ligaments in your arm that allow you to hold a weapon.

There isn’t a single knife technique I train in that ends after the blade makes first contact with your body.  Like a boxer learns combinations of punches, I train in combinations of slashes and stabs intended to target an opponent’s most important soft tissue surfaces, like the insides of your elbows, your neck, and groin.  If I ever need to use my knife in self-defense, I’m counting on muscle memory to leave my attacker looking like a filleted fish… which brings me to my next point.

A knife is still effective, even if you freak out. This is a touchy subject for most wannabe tough guys. “I wouldn’t ever freak out, man, I’m a stone cold bad-ass!”  The truth of the matter is, you might be just such a bad-ass, but I’m not, and most of the scariest dudes I’ve ever talked to also train for the possibility that their reasoning could be hindered by stress.  Even the most battle hardened of special operator may not be able to think clearly when his child is in danger – and there’s nothing wrong with that, provided we prepare for that possibility.

A gun is only dangerous if you can get your opponent within a very narrow trajectory, which can be really difficult under extreme stress or in a tussle.  Pistols, in particular, demand very specific sight picture in order to be accurate, as the short barrel allows for even the tiniest cant in your grip to translate into missing even a fairly close target.  Adrenaline, shock, and panic, can all make establishing that proper sight picture more difficult even for those with extensive training.  If you’re a recreational shooter who takes calm, practiced shots at a piece of paper a few times a year, the chances are even higher that you’ll be unable to replicate that accuracy under duress.

This knife is still dangerous. (Image courtesy of Movieclips.com)

A knife can be handled poorly, even flailed in panic, and retain its ability to injure or kill an opponent.  If adrenaline is making your hands shake, a pistol will become less accurate, but a knife doesn’t stop cutting.  We all have a great deal more practice with knives than we do guns because we use them constantly in our daily lives, and that familiarity may even help steady your nerves – but even if it doesn’t, the sharp end is always sharp.  It takes a great deal of training to be reliably deadly with a pistol, and even with all that training, you’ll often find the best gunfighters reach for their blades if the opponent is close by… which leads to my final point.

A gun is almost useless inside of “twenty-one feet.” Some of you are already familiar with what’s commonly referred to as the “twenty-one-foot rule” – and I can already sense some of the more experienced firearms handlers thinking to themselves that it doesn’t apply to them – which may be true. Twenty-one feet was a number made up by Lt. John Tueller, a firearms instructor for the Salt Lake City Police Department in the eighties.  He came up with the idea by placing an aggressor twenty-one feet from a police officer with his pistol holstered.  He then directed the aggressor to attack and the officer to defend himself.  From inside of twenty-one feet, most officers were unable to draw their weapons and fire at the aggressor accurately enough to subdue them before the aggressor was able to cover that distance and engage the officer with a blade or other short ranged weapon.

When it’s already too late. (Image courtesy of the SWAT Report)

When training with the LAPD SWAT team as a part of a counter-terrorism response force in Twentynine-Palms, California, we made our own attempts at beating the twenty-one-foot rule using airsoft pistols and “sharkies” (plastic knifes) with red lipstick on them to show when and where the blade was able to contact the officer.  Some of the Marines and police officers we trained with were able to beat the rule a few times, but none of us were able to do so consistently.

It’s worth noting that we were staring directly at our opponents, waiting for them to come running before we drew our weapons.  In a real-life scenario, you’ll rarely have that kind of advantage, placing the odds in the favor of the aggressor even further.

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Of course, every shooter is different, and an experienced firearms handler who trains for this could likely beat the clock (and the aggressor) from a shorter distance, whereas others may find that their skill sets, reflexes and accuracy demand a thirty-foot rule or further instead.  The exact number of feet will vary from shooter to shooter, but the basic premise remains the same: if you’re too close to draw and fire before you get stabbed, you’re better off pulling out a blade and utilizing knife defense techniques instead.

Over the years, I’ve had the opportunity to train with guys who have mastered all different kinds of fighting disciplines, from knife specialists to snipers, from BJJ to boxing, and the one thing that I can say I’ve truly learned is that martial arts and self-defense is all about what works for you.  Although I had to learn and demonstrate a mastery of a number of techniques to earn my black belt, I can tell you honestly that I’ve modified many of them to better suit how I roll, what my body can do, and what just feels right for me.  I’ve tried to incorporate things I’ve been taught by others into that amalgam of Alex-jitsu that has worked for me when I’ve called on it, and a large part of that is acknowledging the things I can’t control, and trying to adapt to overcome them.

So if you aren’t able to carry a firearm because of local laws or social stigma, or perhaps you’d just rather not carry one, that doesn’t mean you can’t defend yourself.  In fact, you may be better off in a lot of situations with nothing more than an old-fashioned pocket knife.


Feature image courtesy of Orion Pictures