7 Best Systems for Knife Fighting and Knife Defense

I’ve already written about how knives are terrible weapons to carry for self-defense here, but there will always be people who insist on carrying a knife for self-defense.  If you’re going to do it against all good advice, then you should at least know how to handle yourself.  Unlike pepper spray, a knife is useless in the hands of an untrained practitioner.

Moreover, even if you (smartly) decide not to carry a knife for self-defense, that’s not to say that you won’t ever be ambushed by someone wielding a knife, and the cops don’t have to protect you.  Just look at the tale of Joseph Lozito!

Mr. Lozito was incredibly lucky that without any training at all, he managed to survive this encounter.  Most people wouldn’t be so lucky, and given that he was the final victim in this nutjob’s stabbing spree, there were far more people who really weren’t fortunate.

Therefore, I’m going to give my recommendations for the best knife fighting and best knife defense systems in the world today, focusing on martial arts.  I’ll also give you resources for other training that isn’t part of a complete martial arts system (there’s a lot of good information out there for knife fights and knife defense) and let you know what didn’t make the cut and why.

First Up: My Credentials

I’ve been fascinated with martial arts since I was young, but many of them just teach ‘bullshido’ when it comes to knife defense.  I’ve trained in multiple martial arts, and hold blackbelts in several.  Most of them are very unpractical when it comes to knife defense because most of them teach you to deflect knife attacks that seldom happen in real life, or sometimes will teach you some trick to try and lock the attacker’s arms with a move that likely won’t work against someone frenzied enough to start stabbing you and that will likely get you killed because you have no backup plan.

No one charges at you with a fully-extended arm and knife pointed straight out, for example.

Disclaimer: There is no amazing system when it comes to knife fighting and knife defense.  Sorry, but most of what’s out there is either based on misconceptions or only really works in a controlled environment where fear and unpredictability don’t factor in.  That said, some systems are better prepared than others, and that’s what we’re looking at.

Table of Contents

Criteria for Selection

The criteria I used for selecting the best knife fighting and best knife defense systems is straightforward.

  1. It has to be combat-tested, whether in the military or in the streets.
  2. It has to condition you for the fact that you WILL get stabbed; there’s no fancy footwork or special block to keep you unscathed.

Simple, right?  You won’t believe how many systems won’t pass this test, including Krav Maga, which is usually excellent as a self-defense system.  But before we dive in, I’d like to share with you some information about knife attacks that will hopefully dispell some of the myths you may be harboring.

Busting the Myths About Knife Attacks

More Than 70% of Knife Attacks Begin with an Empty Hand

More than 70% of knife attacks lead with an empty hand with the knife being kept close to their side, not being held out in front of them (sorry, Aikido).  This allows an attacker to accomplish three things: hide their blade behind the free hand, distract their victim so they focus on the hand, and latch onto the victim before starting to stab.

This fact alone renders most of the rehearsed martial arts scenarios useless.

Most Attacks are Launched Within Three Feet of the Victim

Let’s pretend for a second that you’re an assassin sent by the government on some cloak-and-dagger operation (it’s fanciful, I know, but bear with me) to take someone out, armed only with a knife, what would you do?  Would you stand in front of the guy, brandish your knife, and charge?

No, you’d get as close as you can first.  Knives are short-range weapons, and the less time the victim has to prepare, the better.  For that reason, most attacks begin within arm’s length of the victim.  When combining that mental image with the fact that most attacks begin with an open hand, you can see how most people wouldn’t have time to react to the start of an attack.

Moreover, that free, grabbing hand means that you’re likely to get stabbed in the neck or chest.

This is why, instead of closing the gap, you should try and stay as far out of reach as possible if you see something coming.  Maintain your distance and look for an escape instead of trying to confront the guy.  I mean, at this point you’ve likely already been stabbed once in the initial ambush.

Their Knives are Often Concealed

Someone on a mission to stab another person will typically NOT brandish that knife and make threats first.  Knives are easy to conceal, and someone up to no good will typically keep it concealed until the ambush begins, and, as already discussed, you won’t see that initial ambush coming; you can only hope to survive it.

If you check CCTV footage of knife attacks, you’ll notice that the knife is almost always kept hidden away until the last moment.  These people aren’t looking for a fight, they’re looking for a quick kill, so they have no problem waiting for a good opportunity to strike.  Often, they’ll even try to distract the victim so they can attack from behind.

Victims who survived a violent confrontation against a knife-wielding assailant consistently reported that they were completely unaware of the existence of the weapon until after they had suffered stab or slash wounds. In essence, these survivors of edged weapon attacks state that they believed they were engaged in some sort of fist fight; only later, after sustaining injuries, did they realize that the assailant was armed.

There's Usually Only One Opponent

Luckily, knife-wielders usually don’t have buddies to come help them stab you.  Most of the time, they work alone.  In fact, only about 11% of knife attacks feature multiple opponents.

Knife Assaults are Quick and Chaotic

Knife attacks are aggressive.  That initial ambush likely won’t end in just one stab, the assailant is likely going to be able to get about 5-10 stabs in before you have time to react.  In the meantime, the attacker won’t back down.

This is common sense, but the more you get cut, sliced, or stabbed, the more chances there are that something vital will be hit.  This is why actually fighting back in an altercation can be such a bad idea.  Just one blow in the right spot will end your life, so you need to ask yourself if you’re willing to risk that.

This is why so many martial arts fail to properly teach students the mental conditioning needed to survive a knife attack.  Knife fighting prominently features a series of short, repetitive stabs, all coming from different angles.  They’ll stab low, then high.  They’ll go for your chest, then your neck.  Martial arts usually teach that a knife will come from just one or two angles, and that’s what you’re taught to deflect.

The actual term for this is ‘shanking’, which I’m sure you’ve heard of.  It’s way difficult to employ any meaningful knife defense against this kind of attack and your deflect-and-redirect methods of knife defense won’t do much good in such a scenario.

With that said, these are, in my opinion, the best systems out there for learning knife fighting and knife defending.

1. The Marine Corps Martial Arts Program (MCMAP)

MCMAP

First up is America’s own Marine Corps Martial Arts Program (MCMAP).  As with most systems on this list, the MCMAP covers more ground than just knife fighting and knife defense, but it dedicates a substantial portion of its training to it.  In the spirit of Bruce Lee’s assistance in branching out to different schools to take what works and discard what doesn’t, MCMAP’s program is a mix of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ), boxing, Muay Thai, wrestling, and more.

A lot of emphasis is put into developing the proper mindset to survive brutal hand-to-hand combat, and to that end, they take inspiration from warrior cultures in the past, including the Zulu, Apache, and Spartans.

Pros

The Marines take everything into account when they train for an altercation.  This includes where they store and hold their blade, how far back do they need to keep it to prevent it from being wrestled from them, and even preparing for the dreaded prison yard rush style of attack.

The prison yard rush, sometimes called bull-dogging, is when the attacker rushes their victim with a hand to his face or chest, followed by quick swipes to the neck, similar to what we discussed before with the open hand.  As such, this is a very effective means of learning how to survive a knife attack.

The MCMAP follows a belt system (I know, some people think this is a con), meaning you have an easy way to measure your training progress.  Moreover, these techniques work for women, too, as women are allowed to join the marines and enter the MCMAP program.

Cons

Much of the training is focused on mindset and conditioning the body for the fundamentals of absorbing enemy strikes and ground fighting.  This means that if you’re looking for techniques to help you defend yourself against an attack, you may find this program lacking.  The Marines know that there are no sure-fire techniques to overpower someone with a knife, but that you can increase your chances of survival if you train your mind and body in the correct way.

The worst con, however, is that the training is only available to the Marines.  That sucks.  The closest you can get to it is through books, but I don’t ever like to sneeze at books.  It takes more practice, drills, and sparring to really get it down without an instructor (and there will be no one to grant you a belt), but with dedication, you can make it work.

2. Systema Spetsnaz/Russian Systema

Systema Spetsnaz

Systema Spetnaz, sometimes called Russian Systema, is a very comprehensive combat system used by the Russian Special Forces and is largely based on more traditional self-defense methods.  Originally developed in the 10th century, it was developed in response to very real threats on the battlefield.  Because of this, Systema Spetnaz is entirely about hand-to-hand combat, similar to the MCMAP program utilized by the US Marines.

This system utilizes four pillars: relaxation, breathing, position, and movement.  Much like MCMAP, instead of emphasizing on technique, it focuses on adaptability.

That being said, they spend a lot of time training with knives.  Knife fighting and knife defense are a huge part of the system, as they train people to end their opponent as fast as possible, so you won’t find special blocks or fancy moves.  Instead, reactions are drilled so you don’t have to think about them or analyze a situation too closely when it actually arises.

Pros

There are a lot of pros when it comes to Russian Systema.  First of all, it’s very realistic. In fact, it’s one of my favorite systems. Much like MCMAP, Systema Spetsnaz draws inspiration from multiple disciplines, including Russian, Japanese, Chinese, Korean, and Filipino arts.  It conditions both the mind and muscle memory, employing a lot of drills, including sensitivity drills.  By drilling both quickly and in slow motion, you become conscious of every movement you make without focusing on moves in the same way that traditional martial arts do.

Systema also develops an almost mechanical knowledge and understanding of how to stop your opponent, whether that means rendering him incapable of attack or applying lethal force.  It fosters this understanding by giving the practitioner multiple tools they can use and configure in a way that allows them to remain flexible.  As Bruce Lee once said, “Be water, my friend,” and that’s exactly what Systema Spetsnaz aims for.

It also goes above and beyond knives to teach you how to utilize your entire body as a weapon that can debilitate your opponent, who may be focused only on his knife hand.  This means there’s a lot of body awareness employed in this art.

Even better, unlike MCMAP, anyone can train in Russian Systema.  Granted, you need to find a good trainer who really knows what he or she is doing, as there’s nothing to ruin a system’s reputation and effectiveness quite like a good system being taught poorly.

Cons

There are no belts in Systema, which I consider to be a con.  The reason for this is that this system of knife fighting and knife defense doesn’t focus on moves.  There is no kata like in many Japanese martial arts or any ‘moves’ you need to demonstrate in order to convince your Sifu or Sensei that you’re ready for the next belt.

What does that mean?  It means that teaching quality can vary.  Instructors are certified at headquarters, and because of the lack of move sets, it means it’s largely up to an instructor to decide what they think works best in a given situation.  Now, some of this is mitigated by the fact that a centralized body is doing the certifying, but, really, belts do good things.  They demonstrate that you have specific areas of knowledge.

3. Tantojutsu / Tanto Jutsu

Want to know one of the best knives for self-defense?  The tanto.  This art isn’t so much about defending yourself in a fight as it is about actually engaging in a fight with your own knife.  Specifically, through wielding the knife most favored by the Samurai: tanto.

These long, curved blades inflict serious damage and were forged because, although it’s a strong weapon, the katana isn’t all that great for close combat.  The tanto can strike through armor in close quarters, and its use was eventually taken up by female Samurai, called Onna-Bugeisha, making this an effective knife-fighting art for women.

There’s a lot of footwork in this style, which teaches practitioners to target the body parts that will inflict the most damage.  You must be fast and agile in this art.

Pros

If you’re curious about knife fighting (or you insist on disregarding all of my good advice and can legally carry a tanto or tanto-like knife in your state), then tantojutsu is a very effective way to learn how to wield a knife in a fight.  It’s also a fighting style that works well for females, seeing as how female Samurai employed it.

It’s also a joy for anyone interested in ancient Japan and historical ways of fighting, although that’s not very applicable to this article.

This style is quick and deadly, teaching you how to strike lethal blows quickly, so if you find yourself ambushed by a knife-wielding assailant, you can strike back in a way to kill.  Legally speaking, you could be on shaky ground if you actually kill, as distribution of force comes into play more than intent in many courts.  However, if you find yourself in an ambush like the ones described above (which is most knife attacks), then you will be well-equipped to end your attacker’s life without prolonging the fight through multiple stabs and slashes.

Cons

Because this is about fighting on an ancient battlefield, this system doesn’t take into account just how chaotic and fast a modern ambush can be.  When you’re on the battlefield, you’re expecting to be attacked, but when you’re just trying to go about your business, attacks come out of nowhere.

There’s also the problem that tantojutus is usually a subdivision of other Japanese martial arts, so it can be a huge pain to find a school and instructor who really knows what they’re talking about and won’t water it down due to its inherently deadly nature.

4. Pencak Silat

Pencak Silat

Pencak Silat hails from Indonesia, where, in ye olden times, the people had to protect themselves from not just their fellow man but from wild animals, too.  By mimicking predators, they created a savage and effective form of combat.  Granted, it’s more movement-based now than it was in the past, but it still makes my list for effective knife defense.

This form of fighting is very versatile, allowing fighters and defenders to use not just every part of their body as a weapon but also improvisational weapons, too.  Think Jackie Chan movies.

Like many of the more effective systems, the goal of Pencak Silat is to eliminate your opponent as quickly as possible without fancy moves or flourishes.  It’s also effective against larger, stronger opponents than yourself, giving it an edge over many other effective knife defense systems.

Pros

Pencak Silat is effective and designed more for streetfighting than military combat, making it good for people looking for practical self-defense.  It works for large and small people and male and female people alike, too.

Cons

The biggest problem is that it’s hard to find a good teacher and dojo that teaches Pencak Silat.  You want to find an instructor who doesn’t mind being challenged, as this will give him or her an opportunity to show that his or her methods work.  Many martial art Senseis will only demonstrate against students who are already drilled to attack, respond, and fall certain ways in response to the instructor’s techniques.  This isn’t unique to Silat, but you want to make sure the instructor isn’t afraid of a challenge.

5. Paranza Corta / Sicilian Knife Fighitng

sicilian knife fighting

Paranza Corta, also called Sicilian knife-fighting, is kind of an underground thing, which means that there aren’t any belts or other forms of grading.  Much like tantojutsu, it specializes in the use of a single blade, the stiletto (illegal to carry in some states), which has a sharp, needle-like point that was originally designed to be able to pierce chainmail.  As such, it’s similar to tanojutsu in that this system isn’t just about defending yourself if attacked, it’s about being able to attack.

The stiletto was the weapon of assassins back in ye olden days, and it involves constant movement of the blade to keep your opponent guessing.  That is, unless you’re aiming for a stealth kill, in which case the blades were sometimes coated with soap to keep the wound from healing properly if the victim survived.

Pros

This is a very brutal way of fighting, and it’s mostly designed for stealth.  If you find yourself under attack and have a stiletto on your person, you will be able to respond in an effective way.  And while instructors are hard to find, those who know this art are extremely lethal and effective.

Cons

Good luck finding someone willing to teach you.  Your best bet is to search for workshops to attend, as that’s usually when the best instructors raise their heads above ground and spread awareness of this deadly skill.

The only other con is that stilettos are prohibited in many areas, and concealed carrying of stilettos isn’t exactly uncommon.  If a cop stops you and asks why you’ve got a stiletto and you answer “self-defense” that’ll just register in the cop’s mind as, “I’m looking for trouble and aim to kill someone!”

6. Kali Eskrima

Kali Eskrima

Kali Eskrima is all about the weapons, and they’ll use anything as a weapon.  Born in the Philippines, Eskrima has its roots (partially) in the Philippine-American War, which saw U.S. soldiers mercilessly attacked by blade-wielding Moros soldiers.  Even their revolvers were ineffective against the onslaught.

This system focuses heavily on footwork, utilizing triangles heavily.  It also focuses on attack angles instead of specific moves, the idea being that you avoid enemy attacks by not getting too caught up in specific stabs or slashes.

Pros

Kali Eskrima excels in its fast-paced, explosive manner.  It focuses on movement patterns in order to close the distance between your attacker and yourself while managing to stay as safe as possible from the weapon.

In general, its knife techniques are regarded as some of the best, and Filipino martial arts are usually considered among the best when it comes to streetfighting.  It’s a very practical art.

Cons

If you’re looking for a good instructor in the US, you’ll have a heck of a time finding one that isn’t watering down the martial art.  This is because many styles and systems are open to all ages, and parents aren’t too thrilled about the kiddos learning knife fighting or even knife defense.  As such, there are a lot of sinawali (stick-on-stick, no intention to try and hit the opponent) drills.  That being said, if you’re diligent, you can still find classes that practice with full-on contact and need protective equipment.

7. Kali Sikaran

Kali-Sikaran

Comparable to Kali Eskrima, Kali Sikaran (don’t confuse them) is a modern Filipino martial art that has managed to develop knife defense training methods that are being taught to police and military around the globe.  Some of the top knife experts in the world are Kali Sikaran instructors (lots of knives in the Philippines), making this a fantastic system for learning how to defend against knife attacks.  They are realistic in their approach to knife attacks (then again, everything on this list is) and won’t fill your head with delusions that you’ll just lock your attacker’s joints after gracefully spinning out of the way and then force him to drop the knife.

Pros

Kali Sikaran has a strong focus on knives (called Daga) and attracts quite a few knife experts to this art.  It features in a lot of military and police training as well, so there’s a strong practical side to it.

Cons

Compared to its cousin, Kali Eskrima, it can be hard to find schools and instructors teaching Kali Sikaran.  In fact, there’s only one resource I can point to regarding its teachings, but it helps that it’s an online school.

What Was Left Out?

There are many different systems for knife defense out there, but some just didn’t make the cut.  These are the honorable mentions.

  • Krav Maga – Krav Maga is a solid self-defense system, but the instructors I’ve seen when it comes to stopping a knife attack just don’t teach the most effective techniques.  Sure, holding an opponent’s arms down while you come in with your shoulder to block further movement is great in theory, but I’ve never seen it used practically in real sparring.  Maybe if the attacker isn’t too serious (and if you’re coming at someone with a knife, you know it’s serious) or is much weaker than yourself it would work, but knife attacks are too frenzied to make it work most of the time.
  • Aikido – The first problem with Aikido is that 99% of dojos follow O sensei’s pacifist philosophy.  Aikido is more about cultivating a Gandhi-like mindset than effectively fighting.  Now, Aikido worked in the past, and there are still dojos and practitioners out there that teach a more effective form of Aikido that hasn’t removed all the strikes and moves that can cause injury, but it’s hard to find them.  Police in Tokyo are trained in this form, Steven Seagal’s (as much criticism as he gets) version of Aikido is far more aggressive, and, judging solely by YouTube videos (which isn’t always a good idea) Aikido Flow manages to make this style work.  However, you’re not likely to find one of these dojos near you and I can’t find any good online courses for it, either.  Great for philosophy (I’ve practiced it myself), but not practical in most knife situations.
  • Karate – I know ‘karate’ is an umbrella term, but I’m going to throw it out there because I haven’t seen a form with really good knife defense.  Goju-Ryu is a brutal form of karate, the kind where you show up to your dojo in Okinawa and come home with busted-up digits and broken limbs.  Why isn’t it on here?  Unfortunately, no amount of “wax on, wax off” is going to prepare you for such a frantic, sudden ambush.  I’ve only ever seen karate instructors teach how to use kata to block attacks where the knife wielder is standing in front of you and coming at you with a knife initially out of arm’s reach and with no empty hand leading.
  • Target Focus Training – This didn’t make the list because it’s already listed on the combat resources page.  This is because it’s a system taught by just one man, Tim Larkin, so you can’t become a certified instructor to my knowledge.  It’s amazing training, but not for this particular page.

Do You Disagree?

Am I full of it?  Do you have a system I missed or an instructor to recommend?  Sound off in the comments.  Try to keep it civil, though.

Interested in Knife Fighting Books and DVDs?

Full systems are nice, but sometimes you just want a good book or DVD on a subject. Check out these resources.
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