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Playing with Sharp Objects: Things you really ought to know about weapons

Playing with Sharp Objects: Things you really ought to know about weapons

This article was written by US martial artist Lawrence Kane. Lawrence is the author of Martial Arts Instruction: Applying Educational Theory and Communication Techniques in the Dojo, Published by YMAA 2004 (Highly recommended! - IA) ISBN:1-59439-024-X. Over the last 30 or so years, he has participated in a broad range of martial arts, from traditional Asian sports such as judo, arnis, kobudo, and karate to recreating medieval European combat with real armor and rattan (wood) weapons. Lawrence has also completed seminars in modern gun safety, marksmanship, handgun retention and knife combat techniques, and he has participated in slow-fire pistol and pin shooting competitions.

Since 1985 Lawrence has supervised employees who provide security and oversee fan safety during college and professional football games at a Pac-10 stadium. This job has given him a unique opportunity to appreciate violence in a myriad of forms. Along with his crew, he has witnessed, interceded in, and stopped or prevented literally hundreds of fights, experiencing all manner of aggressive behaviors as well as the escalation process that invariably precedes them. He has also worked closely with the campus police and state patrol officers who are assigned to the stadium and has had ample opportunities to examine their crowd control tactics and procedures. Lawrence lives in Seattle, Washington.

This article is a very interesting piece on weapon-defense and I'm very grateful to Lawrence for offering to share it with members and visitors to this site - Enjoy!

All the best,


Important Note: All readers are encouraged to be aware of all appropriate local and national laws relating to self-defense, reasonable force, and the use of weaponry. All readers are also encouraged to act in accordance with those laws.

Playing with Sharp Objects

by Lawrence Kane

"Not to be the bearer of bad tidings, but the reason someone uses a weapon on another human being is to stack the deck in their favor. People don't use weapons to fight, they use weapons to win. The absolute last thing any attacker wants to do is to fight you with equal weapons. If he was looking for a fight he wouldn't have attacked you with a weapon in the first place. And if he knows you have a knife, he is going to attack you with a bigger and better weapon to keep you from winning. You pull a knife and he gets a club. You pull a club and he pulls a gun. There is no fighting involved, you use the superior weapon to disable your opponent. And you do it before he does it to you." - Marc "Animal" MacYoung

Weapons are ubiquitous. No one wants a fair fight, least of all a criminal who is looking to make a quick profit at your expense. It really does not take a whole lot of skill or special training to use most weapons effectively. That is why bad guys frequently use them to stack the deck in their favor. Although dealing with weapons is simply quite different than preventing an unarmed assault, many martial systems lack a comprehensive weapons familiarity program. I believe that this is a grave oversight.

If your self-defense training does not consider the very real possibility of an armed attack you are putting yourself at risk. I do not assert that all martial artists need to be experts in any particular weapons form nor do they even have to demonstrate a particular interest in such techniques, but I sincerely believe that it is remiss to suggest that we do not need to know about weapons at all. Bad guys simply do not hesitate to use them even in public places where you might not naturally expect them to do so. That's part of what classifies such individuals as "bad."

Every martial practitioner should be both mentally and physically prepared to deal with an armed assault, especially when they themselves are unarmed. Most violent encounters with a blade, for example, begin with a victim who is unaware of the fact that the aggressor is armed until he or she has already been injured, sometimes fatally. The best strategy I've found for dealing with such encounters is either to run like hell, respond with a bigger weapon, or both. Unfortunately that is not always a possibility.

Scuffle in the stadium

It was late in the third quarter of a nationally televised football game between two intrastate college rivals. The winner would receive not only bragging rights of a heroic victory in this annual event, but an invitation to the Rose Bowl as Pac 10 champion. Emotions amongst the 78,000+ attendees were naturally running hot, especially in the east end zone where students and alumni from both schools sat in close proximity hurtling insults and the occasional solid object at each other. And I was responsible for keeping them in line and, along with my crew, ensuring that no one got hurt.

Though alcohol was prohibited, many of the students applied ingenuity bordering on sheer genius to smuggling in and consuming mass quantities undetected. Anyone we'd already caught drinking had previously been ejected from the game, so we were dealing with primarily hard core fans and hard core party animals, two of which began a shoving match in the stands.

As I approached the scuffle I scanned the rest of the crowd. Most were uninterested, intently watching the game so I felt little concern that things would escalate too badly before I got there. After all, it was more pushing, shoving, and expletives than an outright fight. I also spotted two pairs of police officers, the closest 60 or 70 feet away. Like most of the fans, however, their attention was focused on the field yet they were close enough to react if I needed help.

I felt confident that I could handle the situation. Wanting to put a damper on things quickly before someone actually got hurt or other fans got involved I broke my own safety rule and decided not to bother bringing anyone else along to back me up.

Playing with pointy objects

As I approached the two rowdies, one saw me coming, had a change of heart and backed off. The other noticed my approach and turned to face me. As I prepared to speak to him he reached into his pocket, withdrew a four-inch switchblade knife, flicked open the blade and took a step toward me.

Now I have had more than a few occasions when irate fans took a poke at me with a fist and/or a foot, but that was the first time anyone had drawn an actual weapon. Not only was the switchblade illegal in its own right, but weapons of any kind were banned from the stadium (except for law enforcement personnel, of course). And, there were thousands of witnesses not to mention camera crews all around the incident. I just couldn't fathom the mentality of anyone who thought they could stab someone in such a public place and not get caught.

The first thing that flashed through my mind was not fear of getting cut. It was actually trepidation of being spotlighted on national television beating the tar out of somebody, even if I had a darn good reason for doing so. I should also point out that unlike the vast majority of my time away from the stadium I was not armed myself. Yet even if I had been there was no way I would discharge a firearm with a 100% certainty of hitting an innocent bystander should I miss my opponent or the bullet travel through my attacker.

Laughing out loud

In the second or two I had to figure out how to stop this guy from killing or maiming me without being accused of excessive force I was so struck by the absurdity of the situation that I broke out laughing. It was not an intentional tactic, but my unexpected reaction froze the guy in his tracks nevertheless. Sometimes laughter really is the best medicine.

When he gave me a puzzled look I pointed to the nearby officers and said, "Put that thing away before they shoot you!" It suddenly dawned on him that he'd pulled a knife in front of a huge crowd of witnesses including two cops (who still had not noticed) so he closed the knife, shoved it back into his pocket, and sat back down. I had him arrested a short while later.

Weapons, weapons everywhere

We must be prepared to face just about anything on the street. Beyond the obvious swords, knives, pepper spray canisters, stun guns, and good old fashioned firearms, you can potentially find sticks, stones, baseball bats, pool cues, boards, bottles, hammers, tire irons, wrenches, screwdrivers, ice picks, chop sticks, box cutters, belts, chains, rolled coins, and even laptop computers in an adversary's makeshift arsenal. Understanding how such implements work in actual combat is much more useful than one might imagine.

"Good guys" can use weapons too. I have personally blocked a punch with a clipboard and poked an opponent in the ribs with a radio antenna to great effect. I have also defended myself with a ski pole as well as an expandable baton and have even used a gun to convince an aggressor to find someone else to pick on. Fortunately I did not have to shoot him.

If your goals for learning a martial art include the ability to defend yourself from a real-life attacker, you absolutely must learn how to effectively contend with an armed attack. If you do not have at least a passing familiarity with how weapons work you are practically begging to get hurt by one.

Adapt or die

At the very minimum your tactics must adapt to the longer range and greater lethality of an armed aggressor. You should also consider the fact that untrained adversaries, many of whom employ weapons, often act in erratic and unpredictable ways. Further, some open-hand strategies are simply incompatible with armed attacks. When facing the prospect of an armed opponent you must understand where, how, and when you would need to adapt if you wish to survive.

Grappling range, for example, is just a bit too close to a knife for my comfort. Kelly Worden (the first American Datu and Senior Blademaster of modern arnis) agrees. He wrote, "In reality, whether in the streets of our inner cities or on the battlefield in a war zone, it takes nothing more than a simple boot knife or folding pocketknife to kill or maim a grappling strategist during a physical engagement."

Even if you do study a weapon form that does not automatically mean that you are prepared to deal with an armed assault. Kobudo practitioners learn how to turn common farm implements such as the bo (staff), tonfa (grist mill handle), kama (sickle), kuwa (hoe), and ueku (oar) into effective weapons yet they do not always consider other improvised devices they might confront on the street nor how to respond when the practitioner him/herself is unarmed. Training must be holistic, realistic, and adaptable.

Swords aren't just for history books

Sword attacks are truly not limited to the moldy dustbin of history. Even in modern times, thousands people are hacked to death each year by swords, machetes, and similarly pointy objects in countries like Rwanda, Sudan, Israel, Philippines, Ivory Coast, and even here in the United States.

As I write this article it took less than a minute on the internet to find several sword incidents that took place over just the last couple of weeks. Here is a brief sample:

On October 30th, 2004 [Name Withheld] allegedly used a sword that he fabricated at the Detroit metals plant where he worked to kill a co-worker. The victim, [Name Withheld], was struck in the neck and nearly decapitated by the sword the suspect had apparently been working on for several days without his coworkers or plant security doing anything to stop him.

On November 1st, 2004 police arrested [Name Withheld], a 22-year-old central Florida man, for allegedly stabbing his roommate 35 times with a sword. The 20-year old victim, [Name Withheld], recovered from his wounds.

On November 2nd, 2004 [Name Withheld] was arrested for entering a Wal-Mart store in Cape Girardeau Missouri and threatening employees and customers with a sword.

It is not just the bad guys who bring swords to a fight. On November 7th, 2004 a Snohomish County (WA) man used a machete to defend himself against three men with guns who tried to rob him. Neighbors armed with a baseball bat and a gun helped him fight off the intruders, two of which were later arrested at the hospital. Police were still looking for the third perpetrator a day later.

Knives are a villain's best friend

Knife attacks far more common than assaults with swords, at least in this country. In fact, the vast majority of armed assaults are perpetrated with edged weapons since they are much easier to obtain and conceal then handguns and are carried by far more people. Their near silent application is a definite plus for the criminally minded.

For example, even though knives are prohibited in the stadium and all fans must pass through a security checkpoint upon entry, only bags and backpacks are thoroughly inspected. I confiscate a half dozen or more knives at almost every game. Imagine how many you will find where they are actually legal to carry, something that an estimated 70 percent of adult males do in the United States .

A few recent examples of where knives are misused:

High school student [Name Withheld], 18, pled guilty in September to fist-degree murder for killing [Name Withheld] with a kitchen knife last year. He also agreed to testify against co-defendant Jenson Hankins whose trial began in October. The two allegedly killed [Name Withheld] by hitting him on the head with a hammer then stabbing him repeatedly because they believed he had raped one of their girlfriends, a claim she later recanted.

On October 22nd, 2004 [Name Withheld] allegedly murdered his wife and attempted to kill his 8-year-old son with a knife. [Name Withheld]'s heroic 911 call made headlines nation-wide. [Name Withheld] is currently being held on a $1M bond.

On October 25th, 2004 later [Name Withheld] used a knife to kill his wife and then himself at the Sushi restaurant they owned in North Bend, WA.

Furthermore, uninvited guests who crashed two different Halloween parties in the University District (of Seattle, WA) recently attacked the homeowners who tried to turn them away. During the scuffles, one victim was stabbed in the thigh while the other was wounded in his lower back. Knife assaults are so common, in fact, that many never even make it into the newspapers at all.

Spotting the knife; saving your life

Even though they must take place at very close range, knife attacks typically occur unexpectedly when assailants can use the element of surprise to ambush a victim. Many such attacks are made from behind. Consequently you must be aware of everything happening around you at all times. Constantly scan your environment, being sure to listen as well as look. Take special care near potential ambush areas such as building corners, doorways, and ornamental foliage. Stay out of bad neighborhoods and dangerous locations if at all possible.

If you can, keep sufficient distance between you and a potential assailant to give you time to react. Minimum distance is generally considered 21 feet. While that may seem rather long I remember reading an article about a knife defense course where even highly trained police officers were unable to draw their guns before being "cut" by a knife-wielding opponent moving toward them from distances as great as15 feet. The average martial artist is somewhat less prepared for such encounters than the typical law enforcement professional.

If you have an avenue of escape, your best course of action is almost always to run away. If not, be prepared to use any available weapon (e.g., a garbage can lid, rock, stick, your belt, a shoe) to even the odds. Unlike a gunfight where a bullet can miss or a fistfight where you can use your martial skills to avoid being hit, you can pretty much count on being injured in a knife fight.

Fancying footwork

Footwork is the most important fundamental of knife defense. Your ability to move quickly in any direction will not only help you avoid being cut, but will open windows of opportunity for counterattack. These types of encounters are extremely aerobic and typically brutal. If you have been cut and are bleeding, you will weaken rapidly and must end the fight as soon as possible.

At the simplest level there are two kinds of attacks with a knife-cuts and thrusts. Cuts generally produce more bleeding while thrusts can cause more serious damage. Cuts can include slashes, chops, hacks, snap cuts, and vertical whips. Thrusts can include rakes, jabs, hooks, fencing thrusts, hooks, and loops. Cuts and thrusts are often combined as an opponent can feint with a thrust then switch to a cut or vice versa with a simple flip of the wrist. In addition to the blade, it is important to realize that the pommel of a knife can be used for strikes, blocks and pressure point techniques.

Getting picky

Here is another example: One of my favorite weapons for home defense (other than a gun) is a rock pick, a short-hafted tool with a hammer on one side and a slightly curved spike on the other. This weapon is not only effective in close-quarters, but it also eliminates the worry of stray bullets traveling through sheetrock into an innocent victim. Used by rock hounds and lapidaries, it costs around $32 at most hardware stores. Little to no training is required to deliver crushing blows with the hammer head, while the tempered steel pick can punch through heavy clothing or even high-tech body armor much like a medieval war hammer could break through a knight's protective plate.

An important advantage of this tool is that should an opponent only block your arm or the haft of the rock pick they will get hit by the point anyway. I've seen training knives and guns in many dojos but never a rubber ax or rock pick. Do you know how you would defend yourself against such a weapon? If so, have you practiced the appropriate techniques?

Batting lessons

A few years ago I had a confrontation with an aggressive teenager who was breaking car headlights in my neighborhood using an aluminum baseball bat. Although I probably had a legal right to draw my gun and respond with countervailing force when he attacked me, he was much younger than I was and I felt that such a response would literally be overkill. For a martial arts instructor and firearms expert I'm a really non-violent guy. Besides, I had enough experience with weapons that I thought I had a pretty good idea of what to do.

In my sword training there is a tandem drill that teaches practitioners how to use range and angle to avoid a strike. As the blow comes in we shift slightly out of range to keep from getting hit then follow the weapon in to counterattack before it can be redirected. Although it is a sword-to-sword drill, I figured that the same principles applied to an unarmed confrontation.

Assuming I could use the same technique to disarm this kid without either of us getting seriously hurt I prepared to do so. Unfortunately he wasn't on the same lesson plan. As I shifted out of range he simply let go of the bat, something I had never seen done with a sword. It flew a short distance through the air and rapped me across the head and shoulder with stunning force.

Before I realized what had happened I was on the ground in dire straights. I still don't actually remember falling, yet once I hit the ground I had the presence of mind to scissor his legs, knocking him down before he could do anything worse. I followed-up by grabbing a hold of one of his feet, pulling him in, and simultaneously kicking him in the family jewels to end the fight. Not quite what I had planned yet effective nevertheless.

Broaden your training

Some martial styles begin with open-hand techniques then progress to weapons while others begin with weapons forms and work the other way around. Unfortunately not all styles cross-pollinate. If I had a less varied background I doubt I would have survived my close encounter with a baseball bat and come away with only a few bruises (yes, my ego was one of them).

If you do not regularly train with weapons yet have an opportunity to participate in a seminar or visit an instructor of such arts I highly encourage you to do so. The broader your understanding of weapons the greater your odds of reacting appropriately when you run into one on the street. Such encounters are, unfortunately, quite commonplace.

The aftermath of violence

Once you survive an armed conflict, there are a host of other consequences to address. This article isn't long enough to get into all of the legal and psychological implications of violent encounters but I would be remiss not to at least point out the medical considerations.

If you have been injured during a fight you may have to take care of yourself until professional help can arrive. First and foremost you need to make a mental commitment to live. Your attitude plays a large part of your ability to survive.

The next most immediate concern will likely be hemorrhage and/or traumatic shock caused by an attacker's weapon. It is a very good idea to carry a first aid kit in your vehicle. Be sure to include rubber gloves to protect yourself against blood borne pathogens (e.g., hepatitis, HIV) if you have to treat others.

Try to stay calm and rational when you are injured. Panic won't do anything but kill you faster as it raises your blood pressure increasing the impact of shock and hemorrhaging. If you are still in the grip of an adrenaline rush from your fight or flight reflex, the pain will be significantly dampened. Take advantage of this time to begin treating your wounds.

Controlling bleeding

Heavy bleeding is controlled first through direct, firm pressure on the injury site. If it is a limb, it will bleed less if it is elevated so that the wound is above the heart. If hemorrhage persists, use pressure points. Only in the worst cases should you consider use of a tourniquet, which if improperly used could cause gangrene or death. One of the most street-proven trauma dressings is a sanitary napkin or a box of Kleenex, something that ought to be in your first aid kit.

If you think you might pass out, especially if you are bleeding heavily or it is very cold, you have to get help-if you do not, it will most likely prove fatal. Take a moment to gather your wits and locate the nearest cell phone, payphone, or source of friendly human beings. If you are alone and bleeding badly you need to decide whether to stay or attempt to go for help. Physical activity will make your heart race faster, increasing blood loss. You are likely to get dizzy and collapse, thereby losing your pressure hold on the wound and causing even more blood flow. Uncontrolled hemorrhage will cause you to exsanguinate (bleed to death).

If there is a reasonable chance that a rescuer will happen along soon, you may be better off to put yourself in "shock position" and wait for assistance. This is done by lying on your back with your legs elevated on something or with your legs bent sharply and your toes locked against a wall or similar object to keep them in position if you pass out. Wrap some garment around you to help keep yourself warm. This position helps ensure that as much blood as possible will remain available to your vital organs.

Nine rules to live by

While the tactics you might employ to defend yourself from the various pointy objects and blunt implements you might be facing will vary, certain principles remain the same:

1 - Rule number one is "Don't get hit"

The first person to be forcefully struck is at a severe disadvantage in any fight. This is especially true in armed confrontations. If possible, withdraw before the first blow is thrown. Never start a fight and always do your best to avoid situations that are likely to lead to violence. If things do go bad and weapons are involved, your best tactic may simply be to run away. If you do have to engage an armed aggressor in combat, ruthlessly end the fight as quickly as possible to increase your chance of survival.

2 - Pain is your friend

OK, so you've blown rule number one. The next most important thing to remember is: if it hurts you are still alive. According to Massad Ayoob (Director of the Lethal Force Institute), a seasoned street fighter will usually beat a karate expert who has never been in a real fight. In order to survive, a practitioner must be prepared to ignore the pain while mercilessly counterattacking their assailant. Embrace your pain and fear to urge you on. Refuse to give up. Think about who you are fighting for beyond yourself-your family and friends. What will happen to them if you don't survive? If I can get clocked in the head with a bat and continue to fight so can you.

3 - Weapons are ubiquitous

The vast majority of aggressors carry weapons because it takes very little skill or special training to use one effectively. Be prepared for an armed confrontation. If someone is willing to pull a knife at a stadium in front of 78,000 witnesses imagine what he would be willing do in a smoky bar or a dark alley. Expect to face an armed attacker.

4 - Always assume they are armed

Awareness is your first line of defense. Scan everyone that approaches you, especially if their hands are not in plain sight or you sense a potential confrontation. Look everywhere, but pay particular attention to the hands and waistline. A man wearing a fanny pack is frequently concealing a firearm within it, especially when there is a cord or tab sticking out from between the zippers. Almost anyone can conceal a weapon beneath a loose t-shirt. Real knife fighters never show their blade until they have already cut you with it. Even if you do not see a weapon in an adversary's hands never assume that he or she does not have access to one.

5 - Bad guys cheat to win, so should you

No one wants a fair fight, least of all criminals who are looking to make a quick profit at your expense. Armed assaults are assassination attempts. Since weapons tend to tilt the odds in the bad guy's favor, your training should prepare you to even things back up. Do anything you have to in order to survive. Unlike a tournament competition, there are no rules in a street fight. Do not stop until your attacker has been disabled and/or you can safely get away.

6 - Understand how weapons work

Just like open-hand techniques, every weapon has strengths and weaknesses. Understand how they work and use this knowledge to your advantage. Mass weapons, projectile weapons, and edged weapons all have different and unique properties. Even within a single weapon family, for example, single edged blades are typically used differently than double-edged ones. Strive to learn techniques that can stop a person from drawing their weapon or otherwise putting it into play effectively.

7 - Expect the unexpected

Anyone who is attacking you has probably ambushed someone successfully before. He or she will use that experience in an attempt to injure or kill you. Actual combat is almost never resembles drills in the dojo. Remember the kid who threw a bat at me? Remain flexible letting the unique characteristics of a fight determine your reaction. Because every confrontation is different it is important to ensure that your bag of tricks is deep enough to pull out a proper response.

8 - Check for bleeding

If a weapon is involved you may be seriously injured without even knowing it. As soon as a fight is concluded check yourself over and attend to any medical needs before doing anything else. To protect yourself legally it is often a good idea to attend to your attacker's injuries too. Twirling a sword at a demo a while ago I felt a slight tug on my pant leg but thought nothing of it until one of the kids yelled, "Ooh, you're bleeding." I still have a scar from where the tip of my sword passed through two layers of my canvas gi to leave a 1½" long gash in my leg, yet I felt no pain until much later. You do not always immediately feel pain from a razor-sharp weapon. Imagine how badly you could get sliced-up while under the analgesic effects of an adrenaline rush. Under such circumstances exsanguination is a very real possibility.

9 - Yell for help

The word "help" is overused and often ignored, yet you really do need to get people's attention if you are attacked by an armed assailant. Screaming something along the lines of, "Oh my god, don't kill me with that knife" has two benefits when confronting an armed attacker. Not only may this have a better chance of attracting the attention of a possible rescuer than generally yelling for help, but it also demonstrates for potential witnesses that you are, indeed, in reasonable fear for your life should you end up killing your attacker in self-defense.

If your interest in martial arts is driven by a desire to keep yourself safe, you must learn about weapons in order to do so. Further, your exposure must be comprehensive enough to account for the plethora of pointy objects and blunt instruments that may someday be used against you.

Copyright © Lawrence Kane 2004

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