Using a knife on another human being is a brutal business, on attack or defense. It isn’t like using a gun, with its brute mechanical efficiency: align sights, pull trigger, bang, hole is punched in target.
While some gunfights happen at bad breath distance, and they sure are fights, they still lack the primal viciousness of knife fighting. But just like guns, a civilian using a knife for self defense must know where best to strike in order to ensure effectiveness.
The only place knife fights look like tidy duels is in the movies, not on the street, not for real. Believe me now when I say that your knife fight will look nothing like what you’re imagining.
But even so, you must direct your cuts and thrusts to the right areas of your opponent’s body to even begin to guarantee you’ll have a good outcome. it might be hard for some of us to imagine, but driving a knife into someone’s belly or cutting their chest may not be the showstopper you think.
Chances are the people we will have to fight using lethal force will be much better acquainted with violence than we are. That means we must use our knives to mechanically and mentally dismantle them, piece by piece, reducing or even eliminating their ability to fight.
In this article, I’ll tell you about five targets you should direct your blade at if you need to use it in a fight.
Considering the Typical Knife Attack
I made mention of a knife fight in the title of this article, but chances are what you’ll be facing is a knife attack, meaning one person in the fight using a knife on defense or offense. Even among already rare civilian self-defense encounters that require lethal force, a knife on knife fight is exceedingly rare.
We are talking moonshot rare, here, so if for whatever reason you find yourself in an actual knife fight with an attacker you have probably done absolutely everything wrong that day since the time you opened your eyes in bed that morning.
If you have not had the opportunity to see what an actual knife attack looks like, Mosey on over to YouTube or some other video hosting site and look them up.
Active Self Protection’s channel has a great archive of such videos. I warn you now, a lot of them are extremely hard to watch and very grisly. But self-defense is a grisly proposition, and even more grisly when you use a knife. Steel yourself and march on.
Common Elements of Knife Attacks
If you have watched a few of these videos, you’ll probably notice a few common threads.
First and foremost, you don’t see any highfalutin fancy maneuvers like you do in the movies or in martial arts dojos across the country. That’s because, frankly, that stuff just does not work well enough, reliably enough to bet our lives on.
The second thing you’ll probably notice is how fast and brutal knife attacks are: from a ready, or “chambered”, position the knife is extended, cuts or stabs are made, and the knife comes back ready to attack again. This happens over and over again with alarmingly high frequency.
Skilled knife fighters do not leave their knives extended thereby putting their weapon arms at risk of injury. An injury to your weapon wielding arm will severely degrade your ability to keep fighting.
On offense, the less “time on target” you present the better. These rapid-fire slashes or thrusts continue until the attacker manages to grab a hold of or latch onto the victim, essentially immobilizing them, meaning they cannot get away from the knife.
You’ll notice most fights follow on to another predictable outcome: once attached to the target the knife wielder commences a series of rapid-fire thrusts, either low line or high line on the target.
This is what’s colloquially known as a “sewing machine” style attack and can pile up fatal wounds extremely quickly and is very difficult to defend against.
this is not necessarily how we’re going to employ our own techniques but this is what you will be up against should you find yourself in a knife on knife fight.
Taking What You Can Get
Your short-term goal using a knife for self-defense is to start piling up substantial wounds on the bad guy as quickly as possible with as little risk incurred by yourself as possible. Sounds like a conspicuously nebulous goal, eh?
Think of it this way: say your attacker’s armed with a club, perhaps a heavy pipe, and he has it in his hand and chambered, meaning he has it pulled back ready to swing or raised over his head in order to bring it crashing down on yours.
If one of my targets is his weapon hand and lower arm (and it is, by the way) that means I should just go all in and try to get blows on that hand and arm regardless, right?
No! A clumsy attempt to pile in and strike his weapon arm will likely just see you get bashed in the head. You have to move too deeply into his space to attempt a cut or stab with your short knife and the risk versus reward ratio is just not worth it.
In this instance, you should take the first and best available targets, meaning ones you can reach easily and quickly get back on defense in a safer posture.
This will make more sense in just a moment when we get to the list of viable targets, but in this case it could be his front leg, an outstretched support hand looking to grab you or even a lightning-quick and vicious cut to the face or neck.
Which one should you go after? The answer is, as always, “It depends.” Reader, it is excruciatingly difficult to relate this in a usable, practical way via text.
Learning how to fight with a knife require substantial hands-on practice and tons of near full-power sparring. In an actual fight, you have to make choices in milliseconds. They are actually much closer to instinct than thought once you have trained enough.
Here, on the safety of the internet, within the confines of this article, I can explain at leisure what move you should pick and why to enact the “perfect” defense. It won’t work that way on the street.
He’ll be moving fast and furious, and so will you if you want to survive. In short, you’ll need to take what you can get regarding targets on your attacker.
If I can’t get his weapon hand or arm, I’ll settle for a cut to his face. If he is protecting his face, I’ll go for his groin. If he’s bladed away from me too far or leaning in too deeply for me to reach his groin easily, I’ll go for major muscle groups in the upper leg.
When he drops down to protect his leg I’ll go for his neck. And on and on the cycle continues until I have reduced the threat entirely. Note the distinction here: I’m not merely cutting or stabbing wherever I can reach- I’m constantly trying to get work in on the most valuable target that I can reach with minimal risk.
Keep that in mind as you read the following list. That’s enough preamble, let’s get to it!
The 5 Best Places to Strike in a Knife Fight
This list is presented in general order of effectiveness, though the effectiveness of knife cuts or thrusts to these locations will always vary person to person, and you should keep in mind that a “lesser” target, struck well, could be the one that handily stops the fight for the bad guy and opens up your opportunity to escape. In the end, as a civilian, that is all you are after.
Remember! Take the best target you can get!
1. The Neck
No one should need any introduction about just how vital the neck is as an anatomical location on the body. Housing the windpipe, a quartet of major veins and arteries, and the spine as well as supporting the head (the body’s command center) the importance of the neck cannot be overstated.
Most people have a visceral reaction to even imagining their neck sliced or their throat cut wide open. This is with good reason: we are primally conditioned to protect our necks from harm at all cost.
It is unfortunate that the neck is also an extremely vulnerable target, being very soft, thinly shielded by muscle or bone, and flexible. One good cut or solid thrust of the neck is likely to inflict show-stopping damage, and if that does not immediately deter the attacker he is likely to become incapacitated in very short order due to blood loss or difficulty breathing.
This assumes of course that the pain or shock of a severe wound being inflicted on their neck does not cause him to mentally or emotionally check out of the fight.
Even comparatively minor wounds to the neck have a disproportionate mental impact, as they will bleed like a nightmare horror show. Furthermore many people’s hands go immediately to the site of a neck injury in an autonomous reflex. We’ll take it.
Whichever happens first, both can provide ample opportunity for you to disengage and get out of the fight. But be warned: even with a solid blow you cannot assume it will be immediately fight-ending.
You must continue and put up a strong defense until you know for certain that you can disengage safely. If he hasn’t turned to move away from you or fallen to the ground burbling you must keep fighting. Nothing else will do!
2. The Face
Compared to the neck, the face may seem like a poor choice of target. Sure, it contains many important structures for the continuation of life but the only big-ticket targets are the eyes.
That is exactly what we should aim for. the most minor injury to an eye is exorbitantly distracting and definitely debilitating. Most people go half blind with a speck of dust or dirt in their eye.
Imagine how bad a scratch or actual cut can and will be, to say nothing of total destruction rendered by ramming a knife into someone’s eye socket.
The pain from such an injury is beyond breathtaking and may very well see the attacker collapse in transcendent agony. That is definitely your cue to exit.
But the eye is a small target, and is much harder to hit considering it is installed on its own larger moving target, the head itself, and heavily armored to boot being surrounded by the hard, bony orbit of the eye socket and is directly damageable only from the frontal facing.
If that sounds like a tough shot to make, it is, especially considering that most people are disproportionately protective of their faces. The good news for us is we don’t have to score a direct hit to the eye to help ourselves win the fight.
Any serious injury to the face is mentally jarring and very painful. You can imagine the shock of the average bad guy believing he has you right where he wants you only to feel a sharp pain before half of his vision goes red with his own blood, and right after he feels half of his face start to peel off. That is the terrible power of a surprise cut to the face.
Even if you are dealing with a very tough hombre, getting blood in your eye is no joke. Reducing an attacker’s vision is always good for you, and will help make the rest of the fight go in your favor assuming they press on.
There’s also the chance of mechanically reducing an attacker’s vision by cutting muscles in the face and scalp that help hold the eyes open. Also do not underestimate how fast swelling from an injury can begin to degrade vision.
Humans are so dependent on our sight that losing it or having to make do with impaired vision in something as stressful as a lethal force fight may very well convince your attacker the discretion is the better part of valor.
3. Hand / Lower Arm
No matter how wild and crazy he looks your attacker will never kill you with a mean glare alone. One way or the other he’s going to have to use his hands: beating you, strangling you, or using them to grip a weapon he will use against you.
Attacking the attacker’s hands and lower arm will degrade or even eliminate his ability to use them effectively. This in turn will go a long way towards keeping you safe in the fight.
Yes, yes, I guess technically he could headbutt you, kick you or stomp you to death but most folks combative capability is reduced significantly when they cannot use one or both arms or hands, especially if they are using a weapon.
In traditional Filipino martial arts, this is known as “defanging the snake”: an attack on the attacker’s hand or weapon arm with the intention of getting them to drop their weapon, specifically another knife.
But for our purposes it could be anything they’re holding or even an empty hand, as an empty hand can be used in an attempt to grab you, or disarm you. Armed or not, targeting the bad guy’s hand and lower arms is a great move.
Luckily for us it is also a pretty easy target most times. While the dominant hand, which is usually the one clutching a weapon, is often bladed away from us and held near the torso the opposite hand and arm is usually up in a ready position and much easier to attack.
While you should be cautious about chasing a “red herring” that may open you up to damage a quick, conservative attack can be delivered with little risk to yourself and if successful will definitely put the bad guy on the back foot.
Any significant damage to a hand will have good effect, specifically making it difficult or impossible to hang on to something and inflicting terrible pain.
The hand is disproportionately chock-full of small, delicate bones, tendons and sweet, succulent nerve endings which are extraordinarily sensitive to pain.
Also don’t discount just how slippery blood is; a small slice that otherwise has little effect except inflicting pain will have the secondary effect of literally greasing the attacker’s palm with blood which will make it harder for him to hang on to you or hold on to a tool.
Any wounds we can deliver to the lower arm will similarly make use of the hand difficult. Severing the muscles of the forearm will make it difficult or impossible to open or close the hand depending on which muscle groups are destroyed.
The forearm is an easier target to hit compared to the hand and especially vulnerable if an attacker reaches out to grab you or strike. If you are beginning the fight with the attacker latched onto you you can hardly do better than a powerful and lacerating cut to the forearm.
One quick note with regards to targeting the lower arm: The underside, or chunky part of the forearm is not nearly as well protected by the two long bones within compared to the upper side. If you are able, always target this larger, more vulnerable mass of muscles.
4. Below the Beltline: Groin and Pelvic Girdle
I don’t know about you, but the thought of being cut anywhere makes me wince. What makes me feel queasy is the idea of being cut near my groin. Man or woman, as humans we are predisposed to protect our reproductive organs.
One needs no more evidence of this when they consider the preponderance of the nerve endings in that area which are exquisitely sensitive to pain of all kinds.
Nearly all men in particular know the sickening, crumpling agony that accompanies taking a hard shot to the private anatomy down there. Leave it to your imagination, but don’t wonder too hard, about how much worse it will be suffering a wound as grievous as a cut or thrust from a knife.
Visceral terror aside, there are very practical reasons to target the groin, or as I like to call it the below-the-belt area. In the groin and pelvic girdle region, you’ll find bundles of major arteries, blood vessels and major muscle groups responsible for macro motor control of the legs.
Striking any of them will produce either phenomenal blood loss or a drastic reduction in mobility which may enable escape and will further hamper your attacker’s ability to hurt you.
If you can get the guy on the ground permanently or semi-permanently, you’ve gone a long way towards winning the fight.
One good show-stopping technique you might try is a thrust into the high groin area before dropping your weight and using it to make a power cut towards the tailbone.
This is phenomenally destructive and will get you a two-for-one of major blood vessel damage and the severing of important muscle groups.
One thing you should keep in mind, however: in a typical fighting stance the groin and pelvic region will be better protected than you might think by the bad guy’s posture
This means you’ll need to move in closer in order to strike it. Don’t commit unless you think you can score a good hit without over exposing yourself.
Compared to the other targets on our list, the thigh is a pretty easy one and also densely muscled. Severing any or most of these muscles will severely degrade mobility and structural support provided by the accompanying leg.
The band of muscles directly above the knee at the bottom of the thigh on the front are particularly vulnerable to damage and are a low-risk, high-reward target.
The thighs are a particularly good area to target because of ease of access, generally poor defense compared to torso and head locations and its importance for general mobility.
One good, solid slash or thrust may be all that is needed to enable your escape. It is very difficult to give chase with a major knife wound to your thigh, after all!
Aside from those easily damaged major muscle groups, way down deep in the core of the thigh, next to the femur bone, is the femoral artery.
If severed or severely lacerated, the femoral artery can dump enough blood quickly enough to immobilize most people from loss of blood pressure and volume in about 30 seconds.
Some people go down a lot quicker than that. For a knife, this is going to be a tough target compared to a gun but it is entirely possible to reach if you commit to a major strike.
There’s no good reason to not strike the thigh if you are locked in close combat with someone and you have a knife, but especially for civilians this is a great target.
If the bad guys are armed with a close combat weapon, and not a gun, immobilizing him may be just as good as incapacitating him. So long as his weapon has limited range, if you cannot reach you and contact you with it he cannot harm you.
In essence, that’s a win. If you’re able to fillet the attackers thigh so he can scarcely move and then get away from him, you win. That’s it. You can let emergency services and the police clean up the mess and deal with him; you just need to get away. A thigh shot can make that possible.
There are some anatomical targets on the human body that are definitely worth getting after with a knife, but did not make the Big 5 list for one reason or another.
Not because they aren’t effective, and not because they are inaccessible but because they may entail more risk or be statistically harder to significantly damage compared to the targets above.
The Chest / Upper Thorax
This is priority target number one when using a gun as bullets are hardly hampered by the rib cage and sternum. Unfortunately, knives might be.
Probably not as much as you are thinking, so long as your blade lacks excessive hooks, saw teeth, recurves, serrations and other protuberances which are likely to snag on the withdrawal, but it is still common enough but it is still common enough you probably don’t want to risk it.
To be sure, any damage to the heart or lungs is going to cause major problems for an attacker. Concerning the lungs in particular though it may not cause effect as quickly as we would like.
Also anything short of catastrophic damage to the heart may not reduce its efficacy enough to keep the bad guy from killing us in the meantime. Also keep in mind the thorax is typically protected my clothing.
Now, clothing may not seem like much protection against a sharp knife, and in the grand scheme of things isn’t, but layers of clothing and heavy materials like leather or denim jackets and woven nylon shells can provide a surprising amount of deterrence even to a sharpened knife.
At the same time, they drastically increase the risk of snagging the blade.
When you consider clothing atop the large muscles of the chest and beneath the muscles the substantial amount of bone armor protecting these most vital organs the chest is not my favorite target if I’m using a knife.
Yes, wounds to the chest will more commonly produce a truly fatal end, but we should not be preoccupied by that: as civilian defenders we are concerned only with escape and we’ll use only the minimum amount of necessary force to ensure that.
I don’t doubt that some of you yay-hoos have fantasized about using your tactical knives to literally disembowel some scumbag attacker right there in the street with just one devastating stroke.
It can happen, but you are far more likely to score a thrust into an attacker’s belly than a deeply penetrating slash. A stab to the gut is absolutely no joke and certainly can be life-threatening, but statistically they also show little effect compared to other targets struck on our list.
Even a solid stab from a knife may be interpreted as nothing more than a punch to the gut when adrenalized. It seems counterintuitive, but the intestines are simply less sensitive to pain and trauma at the instant than other organs and targets.
Furthermore, the intestines are only necessary for life in the long-term, not in the short-term. You could disappear someone’s intestines out of them with a magic spell and they would go right on living for a time.
You would have surely killed them, but you would not have stopped them right then and there, and that’s why attacks to the belly are non-starters.
Aside from its considerably reduced effectiveness the abdomen is also likely to be better protected by clothing as with the chest. Consider those two things together and you should only go for a belly shot if you have literally no other option.
If you must ever rely on your knife to defend yourself from a lethal threat you still need to do more than just wildly swing and stab at your attacker to disable him.
Knowing where to strike, and why, is crucial to surviving the kind of close-quarters mayhem you’ll be dealing with in a street fight. Read over this guide, understand what you need to achieve with your knife, and then pick your targets accordingly.