Under the Blade Revisited

Rocky R

The knife came up again this past week in conversation with some colleagues. Some of them think of me as a “knife guy,” though I don’t think of myself as such, and don’t think the “knife community” of martial artists and makers would consider me one, either.

Not that I am uninterested – blades are a critical piece of gear for several reasons, and I take personal and professional interest in them – I carry one every day next to my pistol. Two or more when working, fixed and folder, depending on assignment. I believe that edged weapons demand particular attention from a defensive standpoint, especially in these times.

And it’s not that I haven’t trained the knife: over the past three decades I’ve done some Chinese stuff, a smidgen of Filipino stuff – with Ray Floro for a bit (he gave me an instructor cert, but less for my skill and more honorary for other reasons, I think); then a bit more time with short blades in early Japanese traditions. Of course the requisite “police knife” and some knife combatives classes from several other sources over the years.

I own one book on fighting with a knife. Though it suffers from its own tough-guy bravado, that one book says really all that needs said. All the other videos and books ended up sold or traded, because the writers didn’t know what they didn’t know, and in a few cases – with some well known names – are simply selling outright fetishistic fantasy.

Now I’ve never been cut or stabbed, though I’ve handled many edged weapons incidents over the years in law enforcement – seen people cut up, seen people bleeding like stuck pigs, handled folks with knives, and taken edged weapons away from a few. I’m privy to first-hand accounts from many others who have been cut or stabbed. I don’t need to read about it in books.

And in terms of the practical, tactical, legal and likely use of the knife, I have come to depart quite a bit from the knife community at large.

You won’t find me doing much in the way of sparring with a knife, or promoting the use of the knife in a pugilistic or duelish “knife fighting” manner. That kind of thing misses the point, if you’ll pardon the pun; It just doesn’t go down like that from a defensive or counter-offensive standpoint, and I believe training like that encourages some unsafe habits and patterns in students.

Some make the argument that “if you want to know how to defeat a knife, learn how to use one.” I don’t disagree. But it’s in how we learn to use the knife – and sparring, dueling, knife-fighting etc. is not that way. Knife dueling to learn practical use of the knife is the equivalent to sparring taekwondo to learn how to wrestle, or doing paintball to learn how to gunfight…some shared attributes but not in the same applications.

You’ll not find me advocating the use of a knife in any way as a “less lethal” tool – an incredibly misguided idea that had some popularity a while back, but has hopefully been put to bed.

And you won’t be repeatedly slashing and stabbing an unarmed attacker when training with me, unless far more situational factors justifying lethal use of force can be articulated.

Those might be present: An attacker attempting to take your firearm that is clearly capable of doing so; An attacker overwhelming your ability to handle him physically, or reasonably perceived as capable of such due to an asymmetry in attributes, and there is threat of serious bodily injury or death under the specific circumstances; Or you are beset by multiple attackers that intend to cause you serious injury.

That’s about it, situation dependent.

The use of knives can be justifiable for defensive purposes, and the answers above are perfectly reasonable. I’ve had one instance where I almost, just about, coulda used a knife due to factors above: but things hadn’t quite got there yet and then they changed and the knife ceased to be an option.

But few people seem to ever ask these questions when training, or they are dealt with only perfunctorily so that the “fun stuff” can begin… …and that fun stuff is usually “knife fighting.”

We don’t train with firearms that way – at least I hope not. So why completely disregard the sober reality of the lethal tool when the weapon is a knife?

If someone asks me “how, then, should we train knife?” I’d say:

If you are learning to grapple properly, standing and on the ground, in a sense you are already training to use the knife.

If you are training how to hit hard with a few basic strikes, to a few basic places on the body, to create space to get away, you are training the practical use of the knife.

You  will be doing some things in grappling and clinching and striking that you shouldn’t do when a knife is involved, but that can be addressed by…training  with a knife involved.

If you are training so that a fight often goes on, even after multiple cuts and stabs, you are training properly with the knife.  The opposite: that cuts and stabs are always “disabling,” or that they are “fight stoppers,” and people that will stop at those things? Be aware many people won’t. 

How’s that? …the reader might ask. Are you seriously advocating grappling with a person armed with a knife?

Of course not. The appropriate way to deal with a person armed with a knife is with a lot of backup, lethal cover, containment, and less lethal options. Absent those things? Create distance, maybe with your own weapon or maybe not, and flee.

But the reality is, time and time and time again, you won’t even be aware the knife is in play until after its begun, or after it’s over. If it’s not already too late.

Or you just might pick up on the fact that the guy has a blade when you’ve already been hit, or grabbed, or he’s already on top of you, which he has to be to stab you. And then your goal may no longer be “don’t get stabbed” but “don’t get stabbed again.” Or even “don’t get stabbed a lot.”

And then – yes, I do advocate learning how to grapple when a knife is involved.

When it is real, the way it is far more likely to happen than the notional knifely-dance-of-death – the grab-n-stab, close up, bloody minded struggle  – you’ll find that the hand control, and body control, pressure and off balancing and toppling that comes with a good close-in fighting discipline is a much more realistic way to go.

And what are you really interested in training for?


“We learn from mistakes in training so that we don’t make them when it’s real.”

This is a common refrain heard in training classes. Highly expert instructors share this.

And I don’t think this is correct.

Also there’s “Experts don’t train ’til they get it right, they train ’til they can’t get it wrong...”

Once again…don’t think so.

There is no such thing as infallibility in humans. Add stress, add friction, add the “fog of war” and the fallibility rate of course goes up…

More to the point, the goal of training is one of making fewer mistakes, to be sure.

And smaller mistakes, yes. Less consequential mistakes… that is, fewer mistakes we cannot recover from.

It’s  recognizing the mistakes we make as we go, so as to better adapt and recover from them.

And then it’s being able to recover from mistakes in the moment or in their aftermath so that we do not let the fact that we screwed up, or concern for the consequences of the screw up  – which in some realms can be severe – override and overwhelm our ability to continue to think and act – in other words our ability to adapt and recover from mistakes.

Once, I knew a man who was everything you would expect a tactical guy to be – big, strong, muscled, buzz cut, oozing tactosterone. He had a major flaw – he could not make a mistake…

Not that he was perfect; I mean that he could not accept that he could err – screw up, make a mistake, fail to do something required in a tactical or training event. He did fine most of the time, and was actually capable of leadership, and even reasonable critique – of others. But the cracks eventually grew. A minor flub on the range, understandable, if not ideal based on the circumstances, and he melted down and literally ran and hid. He “could not screw up like that” in front of others…

Then an unacceptable and embarrassing public incident during a competition…he couldn’t do something and just gave up. Refused the helping hands of even his teammates.

Finally, after a shooting incident – totally justifiable, but events leading up to it being questioned – he gradually spiralled down and away.

When we do not acknowledge that we can make mistakes “in real life,” we do not prepare for their possibility. If we “can’t screw up,” we end up in one of two places – hesitant and doing little or nothing to avoid the possibility of messing up, or flustered and self-hating when we err, or fail. With this kind of thinking, we did not screw up – we are screw ups.

Years ago some trainers posited the idea that they would rather train to “win” than to survive. Training to survive was a lesser goal, a lesser reality, was even lesser training. At least that was the implication.

So likewise, the “winning mindset” is all well and good when one is winning. But when one is behind the 8-Ball, injured, hurt, beaten, overwhelmed, etc. – that is when one not winning – what may be found lacking is the survival mindset – that of not losing.

And that can be dangerous indeed.





So deeply honored that I got to shake the (prosthetic) hand of a Medal of Honor recipient today…



In a day and age when people know the names of their idol-entertainers: singers, actors, rappers, athletes….many with criminal records, or that abuse women and drugs, and play-up pissant thuggery or refuse to accept responsibility for truly anti-social violence…

I bet few know this man’s name…

Personal “Red Teaming”

Red Teaming, as explained at the Red Team Journal, is “the practice of viewing a problem from an adversary or competitor’s perspective.” Apropos individual preparation, consider as well viewing a problem from a personally adverse perspective.

There is a precursor in the Stoic discipline of praemeditatio malorum, or “preparing the mind in advance to cope with adversity,” which the RTJ addresses succinctly here. It’s not limited to the Stoics, or even Western traditions, as I have seen similar approaches treated in Zen and in East Asian combative disciplines.

There is much to be said for the pre-exercising (pre-exorcising?) of evils… Whether you meditate on facing various adverse conditions (from the death of a loved one to your own death), climbing a ladder of sword blades, on charging through a hail of flaming arrows (or bullets…), or you picture a sword suspended by a string hanging over your head while you sleep, you are preparing the mind to deal with hardships on the edge of life and death. The great samurai general Takeda Shingen supposedly said:

“Zen has no other secret than meditating seriously on life and death.”

Absent actually facing death as your practice, this is probably quite true.

I am often asked about how to prepare to face a critical incident, especially when our life may be on the line, and we don’t have any experience to draw upon. I must say, before I was ever aware of praemeditatio malorum I was practicing it. And I found that it worked, even when literally millimeters away from death.

Earlier in my martial practice I learned a method of meditating specifically intended to fire up the nerves and heart rate. The goal was to maintain a certain level of detachment while getting to the point that the heart was pounding, sweat pouring, and the limbs shaking simply through the exercise of visualization, then bringing oneself back down.

After getting into law enforcement, I learned “tactical breathing” and “visualization” of a different sort, and then decided to combine the two. This has been a beneficial practice, one which I truly believe has helped save my life.

As a “visual aid,” I would take the accounts of officer involved shootings, and incident debriefs, and picture myself involved. With practice, such visualization can get very realistic, approaching the levels of heart pounding, limb shaking exertion described above.

But I went a step further. I would often envision myself on the losing end: being stabbed, being shot, being physically overwhelmed by one or more attackers, my gun being taken, etc. Some trainers will teach that you should never do this, as it could be “bad” for the students. I could not disagree more.

While I envisioned being on the losing end, the unbreakable rule was that I never visualized actually losing. I never gave up the fight, I never succumbed to injury, no matter how bad, I never lost I ALWAYS WIN in that visualization.

And then when I consider situations such as the Marcus Young Incident, I used that to aid my praemeditatio… make it more realistic.

This is different from, and should be contrasted with, the idea of tactical visualization in which one always thinks of themselves as dominating a situation. Rather than inculcating a “will to win,” I think that it is setting one up for potential failure, for when things don’t end up that way, or aren’t even given the chance to start out like that, someone who has programmed a false sense of security in the idea that they will be invincible may be sorely tested when the adversary, or adverse conditions, aren’t cooperating.

It has worked, at least for me. It has had other benefits: more than one officer has written of, and others told me, of a recurring dream in which, when faced with a deadly force encounter and they attempt to return fire, the bullets just drop uselessly out the end of their muzzle. Odd that it would affect multiple officers independently, coming from very different backgrounds.

I have never had a dream or thought like this and I think it’s because of this mental training.

Clearly, the Stoics went far beyond tactical considerations. Imagining a child dying, or our life in a shambles, is a hard path to take. But in the end, it builds a certain brand of mental toughness, and more important, resilience, that can carry us throughthings far more common, and perhaps more debilitating, than a gunfight or violent encounter.