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Is it practical to target arteries or tendons in a knife fight? For instance the brachial artery, the carotid artery and the femoral artery are all listed as targets in the MCMAP Manual (MCRP 3-02B). And some sources mention that you can slit the tendons in the wrist to render the hand ineffective. Will this work in a real fight? What should the main targets be if you are in a knife fight facing an unarmed opponent?

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    In a knife fight facing an unarmed opponent? Well, what? This is illegal in most countries in most cases in the first place. Apr 4 at 9:03
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    Well, as illegal as any fight in that, if you are the aggressor with the weapon, you're almost certainly in the wrong, and even if you defend yourself too vigorously after having the upper hand, you're probably in hot water, but there will sometimes be situations where it's legal to defend yourself with a weapon against someone without, such as when there's a major size or numbers disparity. Apr 4 at 12:24
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    @PhilipKlöcking Depends on local laws. I have included the way this works int he UK in my answer. Can't speak for other countries of course.
    – Huw Evans
    Apr 4 at 15:21
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    It's not practical given wildly flailing moves or coming in close and stabbing you 6 times before you know they have a knife. Your time would be 10,000 times better spent practicing avoidance, non-confrontational speaking, de-escalation, and immediate friendly compliance with rude requests to begone. Being a leet knife-fighter is a fantasy, and training to win but survive a knife fight and avoiding going to jail and having PTSD is 98% fantasy. If you're in the US and you insist on being in knifey situations, get a gun instead, although you'll also be stabbed before you can draw it. Apr 4 at 18:37
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    "Weird and worrying questions from the SE Inbox" ... Apr 5 at 17:23

5 Answers 5

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Just to add to the discussion, I trained in escrima back in college from a student of Danny Inosanto's and someone who went to Dog Brothers gatherings. We did a very simple exercise to show how knife fights would turn out. You get two people together. Give them each two magic markers, one for each hand. These represent knives. Then have them attack and defend for a total of 15 to 30 seconds. After the bout, stop the fight, and have them both look at each other.

What we saw was that each person came out of this with dozens of slash marks across their hands, wrists, arms, torso, face, neck, etc. When we compared the location of the slash marks with major arteries, almost invariably each person had slashes to about 3 or more arteries.

We concluded from this that even the best trained kali / escrima fighter would likely end up dead from loss of blood without quick medical intervention if they ever fought against another kali / escrima fighter who was armed with knives.

The thing about our escrima training, and perhaps all escrima training, is that it has built-into it slashes that directly target these major arteries. You don't even have to think about it or focus on those locations. Just keep slashing. Your knife will find them all on its own.

We had many sparring sessions, each with a different strategy. No strategy seemed to be completely successful at eliminating the risk of a slash to a major artery. You would think that by grabbing a hold of the attacker's arms, that might prevent the slashes, but that usually results in getting your arms and body knifed even more as you go in.

As they said in that old classic movie, "War Games", the only winning move is not to play.

Hope that helps.

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  • As a side note to this, while I agree that the marker method does show a clear indication of how often you're going to get tagged in a knife fight, even light clothing does a surprising amount to reduce the damage from a knife slash, at the least turning deep slashes into superficial cuts. Apr 8 at 13:48
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    @MacacoBranco Yes, that's a good point about clothing. But even if you do have clothing getting in the way, you'll still get one or two arteries cut, in all likelihood. Those would be on the wrist and neck. There's also knife stabs instead of slashes, which become available in close range. And chances are that a good knife or machete can slash right through clothes with some reliability. So I'll agree there's something to the idea that clothing makes the damage less, but you're probably still going to bleed to death without immediate medical attention. Either way, don't test that idea. Haha. Apr 8 at 15:46
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If you are in a 'knife fight' the first thing to realise is that this is an extremely high stakes fight. One or both of you are probably going to die.

Unlike unarmed combat it doesn't really matter to a large degree what you hit. Almost anywhere is a target and potentially lethal. When training with plastic practice knifes I tend to go for the veins on the inside of the wrist for example.

As for fighting an unarmed opponent... even if you don't know what you are doing, even if they are trained even if the knife is small you have an enormous advantage. Just stab and stab and chances are you will probably win.

A note on Legality

As others have brought this up: I can't speak for other countries but I did take a course from a practising lawyer on the legalities of self defence including the use of weapons in the UK.

It is illegal to carry a weapon here (that is anything made to be a weapon, anything adapted to be a weapon or anything carried with the intention of use as a weapon). Without a lawful reason (and self defence is not a lawful reason).

However it is not illegal to use a weapon or any other object for self defence purposes in the UK. Your response still has to be 'reasonable given the circumstances as you believed them to be'.

This is quite a complicated notion but basically

  1. if you walk around with a knife for self defence you are breaking the law.
  2. if you have a knife with you because you (for example) also have a picnic and are going to eat you are not breaking the law.

In either case 1 or 2 you can use the knife if you are attacked and still make a 'self defence' defence against anyone prosecuting for assault. But in case 1 you may face separate charges for having an 'offensive weapon'.

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  • Great to see the legal side of it.
    – Reno
    Apr 13 at 7:35
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With the caveat that I never did any substantial knife training, and most of it in traditional martial arts like Escrima, you are unlikely to have the opportunity to really target anything because it goes fast. The exception might be during grappling (which some would argue that you're already failed at keeping your opponent at knifepoint in the fight) where one of the ways to counter people trying to grab hands and wrists is to turn the knife enough to cut at the arms and wrists. Additionally, the light weight of a knife means that most slashes are not very effective against even a lightly clothed area. You'll open some small cuts, and you might get lucky, but it's much less likely that you're going to cut into a tendon or artery.

Against an unarmed opponent (as I noted above, this might be defensible if you're using a weapon due to a large size or numbers disparity), again you're not going to really have the opportunity to really target anything, but the principle remains about the same. Don't keep your knife extended in front of you, use the other arm to judge distance, to distract your opponent, and to fend them off. Slash at anything that comes into range. Most cuts are likely to be superficial, and it's not uncommon for it too take a long time for people to fall to slash or stab wounds, but time will be on your side due to gradual blood loss. Most importantly, if you get a chance to run, take it. Because you're carrying a weapon, the onus is on you to not continue the fight once you have the upper hand. Frankly, if it comes down to a life or death situation, a trial may be better than a funeral, but juries don't tend to look well on "self defense" involving stabbing someone when they're bleeding to heavily to pursue you.

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My... quick notes for some off-the-point points raised:

  1. The videos you see of a knife-wielder overcoming a man with a gun ALL presuppose one thing: the knife-wielder acts before the man with a gun does. Not unreasonable if within 21 feet of him the first really famous point-maker used to give. IF and ONLY IF... there's the rub... you have the skill to achieve your goal (not necessarily a high bar, depending upon that goal) and if you are not frozen or buying into gun situation always wins over knife situation... then you have the pre-reqs to succeed, but the actual key to doing so is you act RIGHT NOW, the moment you realize the situation. Let the man with a gun chill and settle the situation and you're dead, or otherwise the loser.

    The point is you take advantage of his not knowing you are about to burst into a direct attack upon him and the moments that gives you to close the distance and damage him to the point of losing before he realizes he just has to shoot you. On your side: 1) He, like most, thinks he has an overwhelming edge and that you likely won't even try anything because you know it too, 2) He doesn't realize the ground one can cover during his reaction time, 3) He is so sure of his supremacy that he is not bothered by the knife (same fellow mentioned above also made a good point, that most people seem more terrified by a knife than by a gun, strange as that seems), 4) Since he thinks he has you well in hand, and that you do too, he will be slightly slower yet in reacting as it is almost completely unexpected that you will, 5) He might expect some reaction, but not an aggressive, launch-into-him, reaction so that might slow him as he gets a grip on it and reacts back.

    The essence being that you know what you are doing and it is a shock to him that you are doing anything at all.

    And that he might just shoot you dead before you move three feet anyway.

  2. Arteries? Organs? Paper trail showing you researched and planned about such things? The jury, and there WILL BE a jury (if you live) may not consider those things the actions of a man who bought into the Boy Scout motto, but rather the actions of a man who maybe went looking for a chance to kill or maim someone stupid. Like putting out signs saying "Trespassers will be shot" on your property.

  3. Do you have the training to know where interesting arteries and organs are? How something a half-inch wide at best can be not where you expect in a given body? Is the aorta on the left side of the fellow's face or is that the jugular? One's not an artery. How much does thinking about these things slow you down since you are not a skilled knife-fighter? Usually in a fight of any kind, "thinking" is "overthinking." Most thinking is best done before the fight, and then you follow your plan to happiness for one of you.

What size knife do each of you have? One edge or two? Cross-bar? I'll link a couple videos soon, that you'll hopefully watch. If you do, the first uses pig-stickers, rather long knives. Bayonet long. Because it's Army and antagonists aren't so likely to have short knives. You'll notice a lot of blocking the blade... one thing with two long blades, another altogether if one or both of you have short blades. Like 3-4 inch street-legal (maybe) blades. Little things matter. Differences matter. Like in boxing, some styles/situations will beat some others kinda no matter what.

In the video here the Marine Corp. is teaching the general marine drawn from the general population basics for using a knife to deal with an opponent with a knife. Their direction is clearly "keep it simple" for the new men who have no experience with any nasty business. They mostly figure "block his blade with yours, try to immediately damage his hand while you're so close to it, move immediately into at least one, better though two body attacks, disengage before he gets a grip on things and attacks again." At no point do they bother about arteries or organs, or even details like avoid the chest (the entire rib cage). Nor even trying to get the marines to drive frontal penetrations up into it behind the ribs. No niceties like that at all. Just "stop him from sticking you." "Try to hurt the thing that's right there, and incidentally, holds the thing that can kill you." "Take advantage of his knife being out of place to stop a body attack to get one or two strikes he cannot block except with body parts." "Repeat."

In other words, "Stop him. Quick try to make him lose the knife. Aggressiveness: stick him NOW while you're past his knife. Nothing lasts forever, so break off if not immediately successful."

You'll see, in particular, that they show several things bearing right on your interest:

  1. One attack would result in the enemy being knifed in the back, around the kidney. They don't mention the kidney as a TARGET at all, or actually ever mention anything except the straightforward idea of driving the knife into his back.
  2. Later, a position shown shows the instructor sticking his knife into the front of the enemy, into soft tissue (liver area here), and he has it angled up so it would drive up into a lung. Not a word is mentioned about anything at all past sticking him in the body.
  3. They mention the neck as a target several times and demonstrate. Never once do they mention arteries, veins, or spinal chords. Just "neck." And even though the video covers club fighting as well in which driving the end of the club into the enemy's throat is shown, they never really give that as a target for a knife. One rather thinks they figure it risky, maybe just because of the effort and time to aim, and not necessary to risk when you have a knife, but important to have in your arsenal if "all you have" is a club.

In short, as a question of interest to someone with no experience with the jitters and terror of a fight, and overcoming such, as well as someone with no particular skill at locating such targets, no, do not aim for such things. Simply stick the other guy as much as you can. At most, give cutting into his hand so he loses his weapon a try, but not aiming at things like tendons. Just aim at slicing flesh and getting lucky with anything sliced under it. Be aggressive, after getting past his knife, so as to succeed in sticking him and to generate jitters and terrors in him.

Folks mentioning things like tendons in the wrist are almost surely doing so in the vein of "if you cut him on the underside of the wrist, you might cut a tendon or two that makes the hand useless." Not as a goal, but rather to convince you that striking at such a target is worthwhile because it isn't like nipping a bit of ear off him while he then guts you.

And hopefully they mean after you get past his knife, not that you should somehow dance your blade around his swiftly moving blade to nip inside and cut his wrist tendons.

Lastly, stabbing would seem to be the moneymaker. The next link shows a competition (of some kind, I didn't look into it in particular, but you might find the whole series interesting) featuring professionals. Stabs get two points, slashes one point. Professionals. 'Nuff said.

Think of sticking the knife in, not slashing. But please don't think of things like mugging for the camera while it watches you wiggle the blade around after stabbing... and then take six stabs into your lower back and kidneys from the not-actually-subdued enemy. If you DO have the time to do something extra, make it continued movement to throw off his possibility of such a surprise and include a second stabbing now on his backside, then break off so a wild swing won't take you. Let nature then drop him without re-engaging.

You know, or dial 911 on speakerphone so he can hear the operator sending the police.

Then get ready to spend all your savings, mortgage or second-mortgage (or both) your house, and maybe be convicted by a jury, then lose your job 'cause CoVid or not, they don't allow remote working from prison.

A loser (his nickname was actually "Waste") in my hometown got angry at a hotel and started a fire in a linen closet. 12 people died. His parents triple-mortgaged their home and all their retirement savings and he still went to prison for life. Your case might be less slamdunk than his was, but... prison. Anal rape. Bad food. Never work outside the homeless man pushing a cart selling socks when he can industry. So I hope this is all theoretical for you, or that you're an author doing research.

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    This is a lot. I'm sure there are probably some good points, but it's getting lost among all of the fluff. Apr 5 at 14:10
  • As Maraco said, there's a lot of roundabout informatio in your answer. Try a more direct approach, people tend to get lost in this type of chaotic reading.
    – Sjana
    Apr 16 at 18:04
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Targets for an unarmed target.... I would say the tendons behind the knees, but it depends on the length of your blade. The only time I've been stabbed I didn't feel it and it wasn't until after the fight that I found out and started going through shock. That said, you might want to think about how you can trigger a flight response and shock in your enemy as soon as possible while creating distance (slash at their wrist so they see the blood).

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