Knife Stopping Power – Key Facts You Need To Know!

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For those of you that regularly read the blog, you know that 99% of all posts are written by me.  I plan to keep it that way with a few rare exceptions, and my co-host on The Best Defense (the Outdoor channels leading self-defense show) is that

Mike and I roleplaying while filming a scenario for The Best Defense.

Mike and I roleplaying while filming a scenario for The Best Defense.

exception.  The blunt truth is that while I am very comfortable writing about and teaching most self-defense related subjects, I know my place when it comes to edged weapons.   I am not the subject matter expert that you deserve, and that is where Michael (Mike) Janich comes in.  He is the owner and founder of Martial Blade Concepts and a regular contributor to numerous magazines.   Truthfully, his bio is much too impressive to list in it’s entirety here, but here is a sampling:

“Michael Janich has been studying and teaching self-defense and the martial arts for more than 35 years. He has earned instructor’s credentials in American Self-Protection (ASP – an eclectic art that includes elements of judo, aikido, boxing, fencing and French Savate), the Filipino art of Serrada Eskrima, and Joseph Simonet’s Silat Concepts and is a member of the elite International Close-Combat Instructors’ Association. He has also trained extensively in wing chun gung fu, tae kwon do, wu ying tao, Thai boxing, arnis de mano and military combatives. Janich is also one of the foremost modern authorities on handgun point shooting and is one of the few contemporary instructors to have been personally trained by the late close-combat legend Colonel Rex Applegate.”

To see more:  Michael Janich full bio

The following article addresses some of the keys you need to understand if you carry an edged weapon and plan to use it for self-defense.   I can attest to Mike’s skill and knowledge, I have attended his yearly camp (I highly recommend it), and have been fortunate enough to train with him while no the set of The Best Defense.   If you want high quality, practical instruction on real self-defense related edged weapons application, I strongly recommend training with Mike.

Understanding Knife Stopping Power, By Michael Janich 

Any serious student of personal-defense skills knows that the ultimate goal in self-defense is to stop the attacker. The longer he is able to continue his violent assault, the greater the danger to you and the higher the odds that you will suffer serious, potentially life-threatening injury.

Disabling the arm with the bicep tendon/muscle cut.  Real stopping power might include limiting the attackers ability to swing a weapon such as this wrench.

Disabling the arm with the bicep tendon/muscle cut. Real stopping power might include limiting the attackers ability to swing a weapon such as this wrench.

To shooters, “stopping power” is a familiar term that is generally defined as the likelihood of a particular caliber or bullet configuration to incapacitate an opponent when he’s struck with it. It is also heavily dependent upon shot placement and the probability of shutting down an attacker by targeting specific areas of his body. For example, high-center-mass hits are generally more reliable “stops” than shots low in the abdomen, and shots to the head are even better.

Although typically associated with firearms, stopping power is actually the objective of all weapons and tactics used in personal defense. In any critical incident, incapacitating your attacker is what eliminates the threat and keeps you safe. Lethality, while a potential by-product of the application of a weapon, is not synonymous with stopping power. If you inflict a mortal wound on your attacker, but he lives long enough to kill you or cause you serious injury, you haven’t accomplished your real goal.

As logical as all this may sound, this concept is often lost when it is translated to knives and edged-weapon tactics. If you carry a knife as part of your personal-defense strategy, you owe it to yourself to take a fresh, objective look at knife stopping power and the tactics you practice to achieve it. And the best place to start this process is with actual knife attacks and those who have seen them or experienced them firsthand. A quick search for “knife attack” on YouTube, LiveLeak, or any of the other online video sites will reveal dramatic footage of real-world knife attacks. Although these videos demonstrate the use of the knife as an offensive weapon, not a defensive one, they are still extremely useful in understanding the resiliency of the human body to knife attacks. In simple terms, most people who are attacked with knives are stabbed—often repeatedly—but are not immediately incapacitated. Even after suffering multiple stab wounds, they often remain upright, mobile, and very active.

Similarly, if you talk to most law enforcement officers, corrections officers, paramedics, and trauma doctors, you will hear stories of people who have been stabbed numerous times and not only survived, but remained mobile and active after they received their wounds. In fact, recipients of stab wounds often do not even realize that they have been stabbed and can be totally oblivious to their injuries.

If we accept this as a common, if not typical, occurrence, it would seem that the tactic of blindly stabbing to the torso and expecting instant incapacitation would be ludicrous. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. Most of the knife systems taught today still advocate thrusts to the torso as an effective means of stopping someone with a knife. This belief is also regularly regurgitated by the all-knowing “experts” that pontificate on Internet forums. Reality, however, still dictates otherwise.

The turning point in my approach to knife tactics came about 20 years ago—after I had written a book on the topic based on what I thought I knew about knife tactics and stopping power. That book, Knife Fighting: A Practical Course, basically distilled the information that I had gleaned from the Filipino martial arts and various military combatives systems and presented it in a logical, organized manner. However, it still advocated the traditional targeting strategies, which included cuts to the neck and stabs to the torso.

One day I received a call from a guy who had been attacked by his boss with a large, fixed-blade knife. In the struggle, he was able to cause his boss to drop the knife; but that wasn’t the end of the incident. The boss knocked the employee down and began strangling him with his bare hands. The employee, in fear for his life, grabbed the knife and began stabbing. Nearly 50 stab wounds and almost five minutes later, the boss finally bled to unconsciousness. Although the coroner’s report confirmed that several of the wounds would, by themselves, have ultimately been mortal, the boss still didn’t “stop.”

My analysis of the incident ultimately helped the employee earn an acquittal on first-degree murder charges. It also marked a major turning point in my approach to defensive knife tactics—one that focused on real stopping power.

The bottom line is that stabbing someone in the torso—even multiple times—will not make him burst into flames and immediately cease all hostile action. Cutting a person’s carotid artery won’t do it either. So how do you stop someone with a knife? There are a number of ways that it can happen, but only a couple of ways that you can reliably and predictably make it happen. Based on my research, I have identified five primary types of knife stopping power. Specifically, they include:

  • Psychological
  • Blood Loss (Exsanguination and hypovolemic shock)
  • Damage to major life-supporting organs
  • Damage to the nervous system
  • Structural stops

Psychological stopping power is a “stop” that results from either the fear of the knife itself or the fear and shock that result from a wound of any type. Basically, the attacker shuts down mentally, even though the physical damage he suffered, if any, isn’t debilitating. Unfortunately, an attacker’s psychological reactions are highly unpredictable and therefore totally unreliable.

Most knife systems advocate stopping an attacker by causing massive blood loss. Misguided historical references such as W.E. Fairbairn’s famous “Timetable of Death” fueled this misconception to the point that it has become legend. While exsanguination (“bleeding out”) can stop an attacker and can often be fatal, in most cases, it takes far longer than you might think and is nowhere near as rapid as Fairbairn claimed.

For example, Fairbairn claimed that severing a person’s carotid artery (one of the major arteries of the neck) would produce unconsciousness in 5 seconds and death in 12. Modern medical science, however, provides quite a different scenario. Even at an elevated heart rate of 220 beats per minute (a factor that Fairbairn neglected to address in his statistics), it actually takes an average of 68 seconds to bleed to unconsciousness with a severed carotid artery and 89 seconds to bleed to death. Sixty-eight seconds is an eternity when fighting with deadly weapons at contact distance and hardly qualifies as an effective “stop” in my book. (Note: For a complete analysis of the fallacy of Fairbairn’s Timetable, read the book Contemporary Knife Targeting, which I co-authored with Christopher Grosz.)

Many people also believe that puncturing a major life-supporting organ will cause an attacker to shut down immediately. Again, if we consider the number of people who have successfully survived stabbing attacks to the torso, it’s clear that such an approach is not as reliable as we might hope. Also, physical stature and blade length both have a very dynamic effect on the reliability of this approach. A 3-inch blade (the kind you’d probably be carrying) has a markedly different effect than a 7-inch blade, especially when thrust into a 300-pound biker instead of a 125-pound crackhead.

Assuming that you were able to successfully target your attacker’s vital organs, there’s still no guarantee that he’ll go down immediately. Talk to deer hunters and you’ll hear plenty of stories about perfect shots that punched through both the deer’s lungs and his heart—right before the deer bolted and ran several hundred yards before dropping. Well, give that deer an opposable thumb, a lethal weapon, and a few tattoos for color and you’ve got a hell of a fight on your hands even after you’ve hit him with a killing blow.

As with firearms, targeting the central nervous system—the brain and spinal cord—with a knife, is a highly effective and virtually instantaneous method of incapacitating an attacker. The problem is that hitting such targets in the midst of a stand-up fight is very difficult. Typically, the spinal cord is facing away from you and access to the brain must involve going through the orbital sockets or under the chin.

The peripheral nerves, however, are excellent knife targets. The nerves in the arms are not only shallow but very accessible because an attacker will be extending them toward you when he attacks. Peripheral nerves allow the brain to control and direct the actions of the hand and arm. Severing them instantly disables or at least debilitates that limb and can often cause an attacker to drop his weapon. That type of stopping power is reliable and predictable—exactly what we want.

The final—and most practical—form of edged-weapon stopping power is structural stopping. In simple terms, this tactic consists of cutting strategic muscles and tendons to destroy specific motor functions. To move a body part, your brain tells muscles to contract. That contraction pulls on tendons—which are like cables—that pull on bones to produce movement. If a muscle is cut deeply enough, it cannot contract properly and the body part will not move. If a tendon is cut, the muscle and the bone are disconnected and, again, the body part will not move. Once again, this approach produces instantaneous results that provide immediate safety to you.

My system of Martial Blade Concepts (MBC) is based on in-depth analysis of human anatomy. MBC’s targets are

Martial Blade Camp 2013.  If you want several days of immersion training in a scenic area that will enhance the experience, I strongly recommend Mike's MBC Camp!

Martial Blade Camp 2013. If you want several days of immersion training in a scenic area that will enhance the experience, I strongly recommend Mike’s MBC Camp!

designed to “stack” structural, neurological, and arterial targets to maximize stopping power. For example, one of our preferred targets is the inside of the upper arm, where a cut can sever the biceps muscle (destroying mobility of the elbow joint), sever the brachial nerve plexus (disrupting coordinated motion of the arm and the hand’s grip on the weapon), and sever the brachial artery (10% of the body’s blood flow—more than the carotid artery of the neck).

MBC’s approach to knife stopping power isn’t just theoretical. I have taught MBC methods at the International School of Tactical Medicine (a leading institutional authority on tactical medicine) and they have overwhelmingly endorsed the validity and predictive efficiency of its approach to stopping power.

To sum it all up, the most effective way to employ a knife in self-defense is to focus on stopping power. And the best way to do that is to quickly and efficiently disable your assailant rather than relying on a comparatively slow and uncertain death to stop the threat.

For more information, please visit

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Until Then – Train Hard!

Mike S.

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