There’s no doubt about it, working as a law enforcement officer is one of the most difficult, dangerous, and thankless jobs on the planet. Recent incidents in the US have outlined just how dangerous a job it can be, with officers being targeted both on and off the job by the citizens they are sworn to protect. Unfortunately it doesn’t look like this trend is going to dissipate any time in the near future, and officers will continue to be targeted as people lash out against the system designed to keep them safe.

Risk and risk management have always been a part of the job. How well you mitigate these risks by far and large determines whether or not you and your partner go home at the end of your watch. Situational awareness and target hardening are paramount in ever officer’s personal safety arsenal and are never more important than when confronted with an edged weapon.

Unlike civilians, law enforcement officers don’t have the option to escape and evade an individual armed with a knife, sword, or axe. They are also frequently criticized when they are forced to engage the threat with lethal force. It’s this damned if you do, damned if you don’t paradigm that can cause officers to hesitate, second guess, and end up as a statistic. This article will examine some of the physical and psychological implications of edged weapon assaults and some of the tactical and strategic factors that impact survivability.

It’s important to note that should you face any assailant armed with an edged weapon there is a very real possibility that you will be cut or stabbed regardless of your level of training or experience. Open hand techniques are sub-optimal, and at best only marginally increase your chances of surviving. Opinions vary, but the reality is that open hand techniques should be used merely as a means to transition to your primary weapon, baton, or charged energy weapon. Only in the direst of circumstances should open hand techniques be considered a stand-alone option.

We are all human and the body more or less responds to the trauma inflicted on us in a similar and predictable fashion. True; conditioning, training, and experience can make the difference between life and death if confronted by an assailant armed with a knife. However none of these factors make you stab or slash proof and we all bleed out at the same rate dependent upon where we are injured and numerous variables that increase or decrease how quickly this occurs

Fairbairn’s famous bleed out chart aptly named the “Timetable of Death” gives a lot of information on the types of targets typically attacked with a blade, the depth of penetration needed to access them, and the time necessary to succumb to the wound. Unfortunately so many in the law enforcement community have used and continue to rely on this information to formulate their edged weapons defensive strategy. The major problem with the “Timetable of Death” is that it has been proven to be grossly inaccurate.

When we are dealing with something as important as officer safety, it behooves us to have accurate intelligence. I spoke with one of my combatives students who is also a trauma surgeon. His experience in the operating room has provided me with a realistic perspective on what edged weapons can do to the human body. His experience in the medical community has provided him with the chance to see and treat a lot of knife wounds.

Dr. Storms stated that “death from knife attacks is often the result of hemorrhagic shock due to a rapid decrease in blood pressure. This in turn leads to organ failure and death through decreased cardiovascular output (cardiogenic shock), or a decrease in intravascular volume (hypovolemic shock)”. Dr. Storms referred me to a study completed by Dr. Guillermo Gutierrez who is a professor of Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine at George Washington University.

Dr. Gutierrez states that in the average adult the estimated blood volume (EBV) represents 7% of their body weight, or (70ml/kg). In children the (EVB) is between 8%-9%. Thus a 70 kg adult would have roughly 5 Liters of blood. Dr. Gutierrez also notes that this figure varies with age and physiologic state. Based on calculations from Dr. Gutierrez work and variables such as age, sex and general health, a new and more accurate picture begins to emerge. (Dr. Guillermo Gutierrez Clinical Review: Hemorrhagic Shock 2004. Et al)


When confronted with edged weapons your primary goal should be maintain a safe standoff distance, and to utilize officer presence and communications to encourage the perpetrator to drop the weapon. Simultaneously you should be utilizing environmental barriers, positioning, and cover to set up a clear sight picture. If you are surprised or ambushed you may not be able to access your primary or secondary weapons. If you are forced to protect yourself and are unarmed, assume a retracted stance (chin to the chest, arms up and protecting the sides of the neck).

Traditional martial arts stances/techniques often don’t work very well when confronted with edged weapons as they provide easy targets for disabling strikes (arms, hands) which opens the door for a more committed attack on the vital areas of your body not protected by hard body armor As soon as opportunity presents itself close the gap and counter the attack with techniques targeting your attacker’s vital points. The goal is to render your assailant physically and psychologically incapable of committing to further attempts to attack you. A solid strategy when it comes to self-defense against edged weapons is to incapacitate or disable your assailant rather than attempting to disarm them. Attempting to disarm someone armed with an edged weapon while unarmed is akin to trying to trying to juggle chainsaws.

From a tactical perspective this makes a great deal of sense. First and foremost attempts to disarm place you at greater risk of injury or death as you seek to control or strip the weapon from your attacker, rather than utilizing pain compliance and putting them on the defensive. Secondly knife disarms as they are traditionally taught don’t work very well against small knives such as the folders that are commonly carried today. Attempt a wrist lock, disarm, or take down on someone armed with a small folding training knife and see if it doesn’t change your philosophy on how you deal with edged weapons.

All law enforcement officers are provided with some basic training for dealing with an individual armed with an edged weapon. My background in the combat arts and experience working on an Emergency Response Team has provided me with a unique opportunity. I’ve witnessed, and responded to literally hundreds of fights, assaults and ambushes over the years and it’s taught me some important lessons when it comes to dealing with edged weapons.

  1. Everyone is affected by Adrenal Stress. The Adrenal Stress Response is stimulated when;
  • When the threat is new or unfamiliar.
  • When you are startled or threatened with injury.
  • When response times are minimal.
  • When you lack the confidence or ability to mitigate the threat.

Adrenalin does some interesting things to our body when we are exposed to a potential threat such as a knife. Adrenal Stress activates our SNS (Sympathetic Nervous System), and has a dramatic effect on visual acuity, reaction time and our ability to perform fine motor and complex motor skills.

  1. Changes to visual acuity. Under Adrenal Stress our ability to use our primary sense is drastically altered. As our hear rate rises above 145 beats per minute our visual acuity changes. We begin to experience;
  • Loss of night vision.
  • Loss of depth perception.
  • Loss of monocular vision.
  • 30% loss of peripheral vision.
  • Loss of near vision under four feet.
  • Target fixation.
  • Inability to focus.

These changes to our ability to use our primary sense must be taken into account, particularly when we’re dealing with edged weapons. Perceptual narrowing and target fixation can occur and we end up ignoring our other senses including our tactile ability to feel slashes, and stabs. Many stabbing victims report thinking they’d been punched. Some things to keep in mind about edged weapons;

  • Attacks typically occur at short range.
  • 90% of the world is right handed. This means attacks will generally come to the left side of your body.
  • In committed attacks most knives are concealed until deployed. Don’t assume they’ll be brandished in a threat display.
  • Due to the Adrenal Stress Response attacks will utilize Gross Motor skills and multiple stabs and slashes (Pillar assaults).
  • Be aware the attacker’s free hand can be used to grab, hold and manipulate you. Neutralize it quickly.
  1. Changes to perception. There are three factors that influence our perception of the world around us. If any one of them is disrupted, it can have a dramatic impact on our ability to think and react tactically.
  • Sensory Perception (What we see)
  • Cognitive Perception (What we think)
  • Performance (What we do)

Our ability to react during an edged weapons attack is affected by four factors. Each of these factors occurs in sequence every time we face the threat. How quickly we react is determined by the amount of information available at each successive step. Interrupting any part of the process results in the brain re-starting at step one. The factors that impact our reaction times are;

  • Sensory perception.
  • Threat level analysis.
  • Formulation of response.
  • Initiation of action.

What it all comes down to is a re-thinking of how we train to deal with edged weapons. I’ve seen edged weapons deployed during altercations everywhere from on the dance floor in bars to targeted attacks inside prisons. Not every edged weapon you encounter is going to be a knife, and you can be seriously injured by a pencil just as quickly as a blade. Under Adrenal Stress, both you and your attacker will be operating at sub-par performance levels and your timing and ability to utilize any skill requiring fine motor or complex motor skills is severely compromised.

The goal is to take away your attackers will or ability to continue the attack. Targets that limit his ability to employ the weapon or pursue you are preferable to more lethal responses. Targets of opportunity are the flexor tendons on the inside of the wrist, the triceps and the large heads of the quadriceps. If they can’t hold the knife, extend the arm or walk towards you, then they cease to be a threat. Never underestimate an armed attacker, or their motivation/commitment. Create distance and transition to your primary weapon as soon as possible to. Use officer presence and communication to resolve the situation, and engage the attacker unarmed only as a last resort.