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css1971's picture
The missing component when dealing with knife defence.

Knives are a bit of a obsession with me, I originate from what the U.N. called the "stabbing capital of the developed world". Stabbings were (probably still are) a weekly occurrence (Friday and Saturday nights) and several of my acquaintances in student days were disfigured through incidents with knives.
One of the main reasons I started karate in the first place was the prevalence of the casual use of knives. It turns out that none of the training I did in the early years was of any use at all for self defence, never mind that of knives, but we don't know these things as beginners. In more recent times as I train I've been looking for a good, proven knife defence and found really just speculation, dubious techniques and lots of dire warnings from professionals with graphic photos. It seems that there is no such thing. It really doesn't exist under our current context.

However the other day as I was pouring over the medieval treatises and wondering why on earth all of the daggers were being used point down, not up as is most common today, it struck me that they had solved the problem. Or at least dealt with it. They didn't have just knives to worry about, but arming swords and other still larger types of sword. They already knew how to deal with knives.

The solution to blades it seems is armour. The daggers are most commonly used point down in ice-pick grip because generating enough force to punch through armour when using them point up is rather difficult. That's silly I hear you, that doesn't help at all. We can't all wander around every day wearing chain mail or plate mail armour. No, obviously we can't, but historically only the wealthiest could have afforded those types of armour anyway, your average soldier would have made do with something far cheaper and men-at-arms would have spent more time fighting ordinary soldiers than they would other plate armoured knights. The attacks documented in the treatises would have been most commonly used against the most common armour of the day. The Gambeson (aka padded Jack, Aketon).

A Gambeson is a type of armour made of fabric, not leather, chain or plate and used both under other types like the chain or plate and also as stand alone as armour in it's own right. It was simply multiple layers of linen quilted together; up to 30 layers. It turns out that fabrics in fact make good armour against blades particularly when layered.

A slash or cut from a sharp knife against bare flesh will slice it open in a deep wound with little resistance. Add a single layer of fabric like denim and the damage done to the flesh will be reduced. If you put 2 or preferably more layers of the fabric in front of the flesh the damage can be reduced to superficial wounding or eliminated entirely even for strong slashes or cuts from a sharp blade. What a few layers fabric won't do is prevent stabs from penetrating. In order to prevent stabs you need many layers of fabric more like the 20 layers in a gambeson using conventional fibres like linen. However even a few layers of fabric almost eliminates an entire attack vector from a short blade leaving just the uncovered areas vulnerable.
When you start getting up to 30 layers of fabric even stabbing someone with a sharp point becomes difficult. Sewing machine type knife attacks don't generate enough power to penetrate and the attacker must make a committed attempt to stab with body weight behind it to go through all the layers of cloth. Hence all the daggers in ice-pick grip. This is what a typical medieval gambeson would have looked like BTW. A bit bulky but really not much more than an average outdoor jacket.


For all of Fiore's medieval knife defence techniques which I have no reason to believe they don't work, I think there is a basic assumption that can validly be made about them. The practitioners would have been wearing some type of armour. The same is likely true of techniques taken from Asian systems like ju-jutsu. In fact historically when bladed weapons were involved at all, those involved usually made sure that they had armour on.

And that, is a crucial missing component of all of today's knife defence systems. In the current unarmoured context If you attempt to disarm someone with a knife you are attempting an extremely high risk task, if anything goes wrong you are up close and personal with the blade.

Today we have more appropriate fibres than linen, cotton or wool. We can do in a single layer what they need 10 or 20 layers of fabric. This is what modern fabric armour looks like:

We can make completely normal looking jackets, t-shirts or even under garments which are armour against blades. Not perfect armour by any means, there is no such thing but the point of armour is to reduce the attacker's effectiveness and options. The only thing which works now against the armour are committed thrusts. The other attack vectors have been closed.

For convenience the most useful design would probably be some kind of jacket liner, like a zip-in liner for common outdoor jackets. As well as zip-in insulating fleeces you could zip-in armour. It's something I would definitely consider for myself and family for every day use.

[1] Example cutting and stabbing tests using swords of various types against gambeson material: http://www.myarmoury.com/talk/viewtopic.php?t=11131

[2] Promo video of anti-slash fabric: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WRPy06ppL-4

Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

This is an interesting post and I certainly think that protective clothing has a part to play in risk reduction. However, I think the reality of the risk needs to be assessed.

Modern protective clothing comes in a variety of different types:

Overt or Covert: i.e. worn discretely under clothing or worn over clothing

Spike Resistant: Primarily made to prevent being stabbed with used needles

Slash Resistant: Will stop a cutting motion

Stab Resistant: Will prevent the insertion of a blade

Ballistic Protection: Will prevent the passage of a bullet (various ratings are available depending on the type of bullet and weapon)

Blunt Force Trauma Protection: Will reduce blunt impact weapons (possibly including the inevitable impact of a bullet, even if it does not penetrate, for multi-function vests)

Fragmentation & blast protection: Preventing the penetration of shrapnel

All of the above have US and UK government standards and ratings. It is also important to know that clothing that offers Ballistic Protection is not automatically Stab or Spike resistant. The other things is the higher the protection rating the heavier (and more uncomfortable) the clothing. If this is something to be worn on a day to day basis, it needs to be practical and comfortable.

To give some examples, a vest that would be able to deal with a round from a rifle would be a must for someone serving in Iraq, Afghanistan, etc. However, such a vest cannot be worn covertly, and hence would be complete overkill for a VIP under protection (i.e. that individual could not go to meetings and meet the public wearing a vest over their clothing). However, a to standard (NIJ level 3a) covert vest would be wearable under normal clothing  and would able to stop a 9mm round (and stabbing if it is also designed for that risk) and hence would be a good choice for a high profile politician, celebrity etc.

A stab vest (which would be unable to stop a gunshot) may be more appropriate for UK door staff. A vest that will address the most likely threats (impact and knives) would be light and relatively comfortable.

In the USA – where guns are obviously much more available – then a stab vest may not be appropriate for security and door staff and you’d be wanting clothing that offered ballistic and stab protection.

Manufactures of protective clothing are very keen to point out that overkill with vests, etc. renders it more uncomfortable than need be, which often results in it not been worn, which in turn makes it pointless.

So when we get down to civilians, what is really needed? A lot will depend on the area where you live, but for most I would suggest slash resistant clothing would be overkill. Effective personal safety habits are way more effective and slash resistant clothing is still vulnerable to stabbing and “spiking”. To resist stabbing a higer / different level of pretection is required and the casual “slash resistant” clothing shown above will not meet that requirement (as is made clear when you read the specs).

A stab vest, is a different piece of kit and an example of it is shown in this video:

So we need to be clear that “slash resistant” is entirely different from “stab resistant”.

If someone worked in security, or in another profession where the risk of violence was elevated (A & E nurse, social worker, etc.) then there may be a case for such discrete additional “slash” protection. But for civilians living in the UK, I would suggest that the precaution would not be commensurate with the risk (which all precautions should always be in order to avoid being either ill-prepared or paranoid); especially when you factor in that such a garment would not offer protection against stabbing, blunt force, spiking, etc.

The CEO of PPSS certainly believes in his product though! Watch this demo of one of their ballistic protection vests! The shoot is 5 mins in for those who want to skip through the marketing:

All the best,


JWT's picture

Great posts!

Personally I would say that for most people the missing context in knife defence is information. 

In England and Wales knives feature in 5-6% of violent crime. That percentage has not varied in a statistically significant manner over the last decade. In the majority of incidents no injury is caused by the knife: it is a tool used to intimidate.

Obviously knives are also used to slash or stab and they can cause terrible injuries and fatalities. How knives are used varies from country to country and culture to culture. In most first world countries data can be accessed (via police, emergency department or government reports) that indicate how (and sometimes why) the knife is used. I think that information is crucial. It should shape our approaches and training weightings. I would be interested if the ED data (country dependent) suggests whether the upward or downward stab or slash is more likely. What kind of dynamics leading up to such events are noticeable in CCTV footage? What do the reports and crime statistics tell us about making ourselves a less-likely target? For the majority of us those elements rather than armour are the things we need to focus on, especially if the overall risk level is low.

css1971's picture

I take the points on threat awareness and avoidance as givens. In fact I moved away from the "stabbing capital of the developed world" and generally avoid dodgy areas and situations where possible and encourage others to do the same. I also don't really want to address security services or other professions potentially put into the line of fire, their needs being fairly specific; more, usage by the general public.

Ok, on the statistics. 5% may be the UK (england & wales?) average, but an average doesn't tell the whole story by any means. We all know there are good areas and bad areas. The chance of being stabbed during an altercation in a bad area is far, far higher than being stabbed in perhaps many other a good areas, giving you a low overall average. The devil is in the detail. The "stabbing capital of the developed world" is Glasgow, and there are specific areas within Glasgow which should probably be avoided by everyone who can possibly avoid it. This would tend to raise the Scottish numbers vs England and Wales numbers. I don't know what the Glasgow/Scottish numbers are.

On armour itself, I think whether it's worth it or not depends largely on the convenience. You can go from this at the cost of 200,000 quid equivalent in it's day, requiring 2 people 30 minutes to put on... an invulnerable tank, but highly inconvenient:

plate armour

To something looking approximately like this which is zipped into your daily jacket, you put on with it and forget all about it. Highly convenient but perhaps doesn't protect from everything. If it's convenient and low cost, why not?

zip in liner

One of the things that is clear about weapons and armour through history is that armour affects weapon design and weapon design affects armour design. In Europe, swords went from "slashy" with broad blades to "stabby" with sharp narrow points over time and it's the availability of armour which necessitated this change. So while fabric armour doesn't stop a stab, and it didn't in medieval times either with the later swords, it does stop the slashing and they did continue to wear it. It changes the behavior of the offender; reducing their effective attacks to a smaller number of perhaps more predictable offenses.

Somewhat off topic, but if you look at sword designs from all over the world, you can often see which ones come from hotter areas vs cooler areas by how "slashy" the design of the sword is. Scimitars for example are clearly from an area where slashing was very effective; the opponents were typically not wearing much armour or clothing - too hot. Long swords, being "stabby" come more from an area where armour was prevalent - cooler. This also bears out with popular? knife based martial arts like Kali. It seems to train fairly "slashy" techniques and be from a hotter country where people either don't wear much clothing or very light clothing (e.g. philippines). I was walking home today wearing an outer waterproof shell, heavy fleece liner, sweater and under shirt.

On information about common knife attacks. Yes absolutely. I'm ignorant of the stats and It's something I'd like to understand better. It's a general thing though not limited to knives. In general among the populace at large, knowledge of typical casual violence is low and it doesn't seem to be very much higher with martial artists. This is blindingly clear if you look at typical pre-Abernethy bunkai. If you have good sources of info or accessible book recommendations it'd be welcome. A non knife source which I've found useful but somewhat grotesque are the street fight videos which are uploaded to youtube. You can "roll your own" statistics, with the caveat that they come from a self-selected source.


JWT's picture

For a number of historical reasons we don't have UK stats. The BCS (British Crime Survey) used to report on English and Welsh Crime. It's now called the CSEW (Crime Survey England and Wales). Home Office reports tend to draw from this alongside other sources such as the Scottish Crime and Justice Survey and ED data (usually collated by the Cardiff Violence in Socirty Research Group.



I have orientated the majority of my bunkai and training towards HAOV for the last 16 years or so and have been downloading and studying the crime reports and tracking patterns for most of that time. I wrote a relatively concise brief summing up some elements of that in my first book, though the drills in that book (while HAOV orientated) were aimed more at mainstream karateka. In my latest books I decided to focus more on close quarter applications but decided not to write at length about HAOV.

I do understand your point vis a vis clothing. In my lifestyle and location the threat is so low that it doesn't factor highly in my choices (I'm a middle aged man living in a quiet town; the days of me living in built up areas with heavy nightlife and going to pubs and clubs several evenings a week (or generally being out and about in such areas) are over a decade behind me, the last time someone tried to stab me was 1996, the last time someone threatened to stab me 1999); my normal choices about wearing clothes are ones that I feel I can move in if I have to get involved in something. A lot of Ripstop, Gortex and Hyvent wet weather jackets are highly slash resistant unless the blade is very sharp and pressed directly onto the coat as it is slashing (as opposed to catching a target moving away from it) and leather also provides a good amount of protection compared to fabrics.

On the question of slash versus stab there are other factors in play, not least combat psychology. It is much easier (mentally) to slash a person than stab a person. This is something discussed by Dave Grossman in On Killing. Without wishing to digress too much, one of the many things that made the Romans so successful was not just their discipline and their relentless training but that they had a focus on penetrative weapons and they were trained to stab from the shield wall (incidentally many troops had good anti-stab armour which they wore in very hot climates such as Asia Minor and Britain (the North African troops complained about the heat in Britain, the climate was different then). While they did suffer in the heat for it, richer European soldiers did operate in heavy armour in the Crusades (and the Byzantines also employed heavy armour), but the ultimate causes of their failures were political and religious divisions and inadequate funding, supply lines and numbers rather than their armour per se. That's not to play down the fact that Seljuq and other eastern armies wore lighter armour, but they had very different fighting tactics at different times and these were linked more to weapons of choice, mobility needs, the nature of the forces they had fought so far, and the relative availability and cost of iron for armour (I used to teach Crusader history at the University of St Andrews).

Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

css1971 wrote:
To something looking approximately like this which is zipped into your daily jacket, you put on with it and forget all about it. Highly convenient but perhaps doesn't protect from everything. If it's convenient and low cost, why not?

I pretty much agree with the overall sentiment. If you can get additional low cost, convenient protection which is commensurate with the actual risk for your location / profession then it would make sense to adopt it.

It’s probably not something I’d advise for most people though. One consideration is cost. I do own one Kevlar slash proof long sleeved shirt (bought for research purposes). It cost just under £50; which is many times more than I’d normally pay for a long sleeved shirt (granted I’m not exactly the snappiest or most fashion conscious of dressers). You’d need a least three for consistent wear (one in the wash, one ready to wear, one being worn) which results in an expensive and bland wardrobe.

While a doorman, police officer, security guard, etc. may choose to wear such items on their shift – where the risk of attack would be increased – the civilian would need to have constant wear on the “off chance” they may be slashed. My worry there would be one of mental health and over exaggerated threat.

Level of risk = precautions taken” is both safe and healthy.

Level of risk > precautions taken” leaves the individual vulnerable.

Level of risk < precautions taken” suggests unnecessary fear and perhaps full blown paranoia; which is unhealthy and damaging it itself.

Personally, I think that for the vast majority of people wearing cut resistant clothing whenever you leave the house on the off chance of attack would be excessive and unhealthy.

We need to keep in mind that an unwarranted or grossly distorted fear of crime is damaging to the individual in and of itself. Away from this topic, it worries me when the less scrupulous “reality based self-protection” instructors attempt to instil a distorted fear of crime in order to promote what they do.

Yes, a health attitude to personal safety backed up by practical self-protection skills are valuable to have. However, we also want out students to be mentally healthy and therefore we should ensure that they know there is no need to damage their life, their relationships with others and the wider world through disproportionate fear.

The slash resistant shirt I owned looked just like a normal shirt, it was comfortable, and during my “destruction testing” it withstood slashes from very sharp knives (sharp enough to shave with). However, it did little to stop punctures. With a firm shove I was able to push a Swiss army pocket knife (i.e. a totally non-combative knife) through the material. It was certainly harder to do than it would be with normal cloth, but it left me in no doubt that if someone was wearing such a shirt it would do little to stop a committed knife thrust, a needle, a Philips screwdriver etc. And to be fair to the manufacturers of such items, they are clear they are “slash resistant” not “stab resistant” (nor "slash PROOF" for that matter).

So when you factor in cost, level of risk and actual risk reduction I would say it would be difficult to justify advising a civilian to wear slash-resistant clothing on a day to day basis. However, for those in the security field, or who are likely to experience violence in other ways, it would make sense to wear such items when working.

For a civilian who thought that on a specific occasion there could be an increased risk, then there may be a case for it, but I personally would advise avoiding such a situation in the first place i.e. if you think there is an increased risk you may be attacked, don’t go to that place or engage in that activity!

A case could be made for it as a “nice to have back up”, but then again I’d be encouraging people to look at the actual risk and see if a warped perception of danger may be a more pressing issue?

All that said, if people want to wear it, they do have a realistic appreciation of the actual danger, but nevertheless feel such clothing is a welcome part of their personal safety regimen then I’d say that’s fair enough … suits of armour may be too far though :-)

Any interesting thread this and I agree it’s an infrequently discussed issue.

All the best,


Paul_D's picture

I found this from the link JWT posted earlier (thanks) for Scotland for 2012/2013, but for the life of me cannot find a similar table for England/Wales, despite seemingly clicking every link imaginable and downloading numerous spreadsheet from the CSEW website.


Does anyone have a similar table for England/Wales please?  I am intereted in the age breakdowns for the victims of violent crime.

JWT's picture

Hi Paul

The table you're looking for is probably 02appendixtablesviolentcrimeandsexualoffences201314_tc

Download tables 1 to 4 (excel docs) here: http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/publications/re-reference-tables.html?edition=...

All the best

John Titchen