The knife is one of the most accessible self-defense tools available. Knives are lightweight, relatively inexpensive, and highly versatile, making them a smart addition to your everyday carry (EDC) equipment. They can fulfill many tasks outside of self-defense, from survival to tactical tasks, and come in various designs with multiple functionalities to meet your needs.
General Legal Principles Regarding Knife Use in Self-Defense Scenarios
Before learning how to use a knife for self-defense, review all applicable local laws for owning a knife, knife carry, and self-defense with a knife. If you’re considering an OTF for self defense, check out our State Laws on OTF Knives article. This ensures responsible knife ownership and can help you understand the legal consequences of using your knife for self-defense.
What is Deadly Force?
All knives, regardless of type, blade length, or opening mechanism, generally meet the legal concept of a deadly weapon. A knife is legally considered a deadly weapon because it is likely to cause death or grievous harm when used against another person, regardless of intent or manner of use.
The Code of Federal Regulations (10 CFR 1047.7) legally defines deadly force and the situations in which its use is justifiable for law enforcement officers. The same principles generally apply to civilian usage. Defending yourself with a knife in the United States is legal if your use of deadly force is legitimate and justifiable in a court of law.
State and Local Laws
You must ensure the specific self-defense scenarios you prepare for are legal at the state and local levels. For instance, while all 50 states allow civilians to use deadly force in self-protection against an imminent lethal threat to some degree, state legislation may vary.
When researching local knife laws, look for the following legal considerations:
- Does your state or local area impose a duty to retreat when facing a potential threat? For home defense situations, verify if your state or local area has a castle doctrine, which says you do not have to retreat if an imminent threat occurs in your home.
- Your state or local area may prohibit the ownership of specific knife types. Examples of commonly restricted knives include switchblades, daggers, or dirks.
- If your knife is legal to own, verify that it is legal to use or carry in public.
- Some legislations may restrict knives by blade length, type, or both. For example, California state law (CA penal code 21510) prohibits individuals from carrying switchblades with a blade length of 2” or more.
- Specific areas allow businesses and establishments to install signage prohibiting customers or visitors from bringing knives or weapons, such as A 46.03 sign in Texas prohibiting weapons on the premises.
What Type of Knife Should I Use for Self-Defense?
Traditionally, fixed-blade knives are preferred by experts and self-defense specialists for combat or self-defense tasks. However, there are many practical reasons to consider choosing a folding knife instead.
Although non-self-defense knives, such as kitchen knives, meet the definition of a fixed-blade knife, you should select a model specifically designed and made with materials intended for heavy-duty use to ensure durability.
A typical self-defense or combat knife with a fixed blade typically features a blade length ranging between 3” and 6”. High-quality fighting knives feature a blade with a full tang, meaning the blade’s rear portion extends the length of the knife handle.
Full-tang blades are preferable to lighter tang types, such as push tangs, ¾ tangs, or stick tangs. Full tangs allow more force to be applied to the knife without risking the blade snapping at the bolster. This provides more stability and strength for stabbing, cutting, and slicing motions.
A fixed-blade knife doesn’t have any moving parts. This makes them more durable and easier to maintain than any other knife type. Fixed-blade designs lack internal mechanisms or small nooks and crannies, making cleaning easier.
Fixed-blade knives can also resist more abuse and absorb more force from impacts than folding knives, helping prevent blade damage in a self-defense scenario.
- Fixed-blade knife pros: Larger, heavier blades, easier to maintain, more durable
- Fixed-blade knife cons: Not as concealable, heavier, requires a sheath to carry safely
Folding knives, or folding-blade knives, encompass multiple types of convenient, easily portable knives. These include traditional side-folding, butterfly, and out-the-front (OTF) knives. All folding knives feature moving parts allowing the user to retract or fold the blade into the handle for easy carry.
While they are more complex than fixed-blade knives, they are lighter and easier to carry. The handle of a folding knife functions as the blade’s sheath, eliminating the need to use a separate sheath for carrying. A folded knife is much harder to detect than a fixed-blade equivalent for more effective concealed carry.
The folding knife’s extra mechanical complexity means you’ll need to clean and maintain the knife more often. It also introduces more potential failure points into the knife design. For example, the folding mechanisms may not withstand the same heavy use as a fixed blade.
Another potential drawback of using a folding knife is the blade length. The blade cannot exceed the grip’s length, as the grips must be capable of safely housing the blade when folded. Most folding knives feature blades between 2” and 4” long.
- Folding blade knife pros: Lighter, smaller, easier to carry, easier to conceal
- Folding blade knife cons: Blade length is limited, not as durable, requires more maintenance
How to Hold the Knife for Combat and Self-Defense
A fundamental aspect of knife self-defense is knowing how to grip your knife. Most knife grips belong to one of three categories: hammer grips, reverse grips, and palm-reinforced grips.
Each type of grip is suitable for different moves and techniques. Consider learning and practicing multiple knife grips to prepare for various situations and practice drawing and transitioning from your draw to your preferred grip. The faster you can draw your knife, the more likely you can use your knife efficiently in a self-defense scenario.
The hammer grip, also known as the forward grip, is the most common and natural choice. Individuals with no experience in knife fighting or martial arts often use the hammer grip, as it most closely resembles how you hold a kitchen knife.
To use the hammer grip, hold the knife by the handle with your fingers balled up to form a fist and keep the edge pointed forward toward the threat. From your vantage point, this grip should resemble holding a hammer.
The hammer grip gives you excellent control over the blade and allows you to apply the greatest force when protecting yourself. It is suitable for side-to-side or diagonal chopping motions. With practice, a hammer grip is also a good natural starting point for blocking a bad guy’s fists, arms, or weapons of their own.
The biggest disadvantage of the hammer grip is lower flexibility than other grip types. It isn’t suitable for stabbing motions and should not be paired with a blade primarily designed for this purpose, such as a knife with a spear-point, stiletto, dagger, or needle-point blade.
Despite the potential disadvantages, beginners should practice the hammer grip, as it is versatile, easy to learn, and practical for most self-defense scenarios.
Hammer Grip Variant: Filipino Grip
The Filipino grip is a variant of the classic hammer. The name comes from being the primary form taught in Kali, a Filipino martial art emphasizing knives and bladed weapons. The Filipino grip is the same as the standard hammer grip, with the difference being that the user’s thumb rests on the blade’s spine, letting the user apply extra force.
If you plan to learn how to use a pocket knife for self-defense using the Filipino grip, ensure your blade isn’t double-edged. Otherwise, you won’t be able to apply the thumb to the blade safely. Try using this grip with a clip-point or drop-point knife.
The reverse grip, also called the icepick grip, is identical to the hammer grip but with the blade’s direction reversed. When holding a knife in a reverse grip, the blade will point down, and the user’s thumb will rest on the butt.
The reverse grip has two variants: blade in, facing the user, or blade out, facing forward.
● Reverse Grip Variant: Edge Out
The standard version of the reverse grip is with the blade out, facing forward, also called reverse grip edge out (RGEO). Some knife styles, such as karambit knives, are specifically designed for this grip.
In the RGEO position, you can deliver side-to-side and diagonal slashes with upward motions. With the hand held up high, the reverse grip is also better suited for stabbing motions, making it more versatile and letting you perform a broader range of moves than a hammer grip.
Although applying about the same amount of force as a hammer grip is possible, the reverse grip offers a lower range, making it more suitable for close-quarters combat scenarios.
● Reverse Grip Variant: Edge In
The variant version orients the blade inward, forming the reverse grip edge in (RGEI). With this grip, the user’s hand is ideally positioned to deliver powerful stabbing motions at the cost of being able to slash or cut.
While the RGEI position potentially allows for the most lethal stabs, the edge constantly faces toward you, putting you at risk against a determined assailant. It is not recommended for individuals just starting to learn how to use a folding knife for self-defense.
While the palm-reinforced grip is unusual, it offers unique benefits that can help you efficiently defend yourself with a knife.
To hold a knife in the palm-reinforced grip, place the butt against your palm, wrapping your pinky and ring fingers around the grip. Rest the side of your middle finger under the handle, push against the spine with your index finger, and push on the handle with your thumb. If you are right-handed, your thumb should press on the left side of the knife handle, with your middle finger looping around the right side.
The advantage of this unusual grip is the potential for delivering powerful stabs with punch-like motions. By pressing forward and into the target, with your palm applying pressure on the knife’s butt, you can apply as much force as you can with your arm.
A disadvantage of this grip is that it forces the user to use an awkward hold on the knife. You may not be able to grasp the knife as firmly with this grip as you can with a more traditional hammer or reverse grip, presenting the risk of losing control of the blade.
Some specialized knives, like the push knife and push dagger, are designed for this grip and let the user retain better control. However, their unique shape requires special accommodations to carry or conceal them effectively, such as push knife holsters.
How to Draw a Knife in Self-Defense
In a self-defense scenario, the most critical moment is the time it takes for you to recognize the threat and draw your weapon.
Most close-quarters confrontations start within six feet of the victim. Unless you already carry your knife in hand at that point, you will most likely be empty-handed. One of the safest solutions is to maintain distance between yourself and the attacker by pushing back with your off-hand and reaching for your knife using the dominant hand. Choose a knife that lets you safely carry and draw it one-handed, such as an OTF knife.
Once your hand is on the grip of your knife, pull it out and deploy it. Then, depending on the knife you use, you can do the following:
- If you carry a fixed-blade knife, clear it from the sheath and transition to your preferred grip.
- If you carry a folding knife, you may need an additional step to deploy the blade safely before transitioning to your grip. OTF knives are the easiest to use one-handed because you can deploy and retract the blade instantly using the button. If you have a side-folding knife, use a model featuring a large thumb stud that you can operate with one hand.
How to Fight Using a Knife for Self-Defense
Whether you are defending yourself against one or multiple assailants, self-defense with a knife means entering a knife fight. Unlike self-defense with weapons such as firearms, where most fights can be stopped by aiming and shooting at the assailant’s center mass, using a knife requires precise movements and careful aim.
Excluding psychological stops, such as deterring the assailant simply by drawing a knife, knives can only reliably physically stop an assailant when aimed at major arteries or vital organs. Four areas on the opponent’s body are among the most effective targets when armed with a knife: the arms, the groin, the thighs, and the neck.
Arms and Hands
In most self-defense confrontations not involving firearms, assailants will attempt to strike, strangle, or assault their victims with fists, blunt weapons, or knives.
Defending yourself against an assailant in close quarters means you will likely face your opponent’s arms and hands first. Aiming for these body parts is the most natural option in this situation. They are also a better choice than aiming for the chest or the vital organs in the upper thorax, as the arms and hands will likely naturally guard these body parts and make clean hits difficult.
Delivering cuts to the assailant’s hands, lower arms, and elbows can reduce their ability to grasp weapons or ball their hands into a fist. This can potentially stop further attacks, ending the fight. Filipino martial arts such as Kali refer to this method as “defanging the snake,” particularly when the assailant has a knife.
Groin and Pelvic Area
It can be challenging to deliberately aim the blade toward an assailant’s groin or pelvic area. However, successfully cutting or stabbing into this region can be both physically and psychologically effective, regardless of sex, age, or fitness.
The groin has numerous nerve endings and major arteries, such as the iliac artery. A successful strike to these parts of your opponent’s body can reduce their mobility, cause blood loss, and potentially bring them to the ground. This makes the move an intelligent choice to end the confrontation quickly.
However, aiming for the groin or pelvis requires you to move closer, as they are low on your opponent’s body and easier to keep protected than the upper body and arms.
Like the arms, thighs are relatively large and easy targets to aim for when defending yourself with a knife. Unlike the pelvis, keeping the thighs and legs guarded against potential strikes is harder, making them easier to hit.
A well-placed cut or stab into an opponent’s thigh can damage muscles and reduce their mobility. This may be all you need to get away safely. A cut to the thigh can cause intense bleeding or damage to the quadriceps muscles, making it more difficult for them to come after you.
The thighs house the femoral arteries, which deliver blood to the legs at high pressure. A laceration to one of these arteries can result in rapid blood loss and can immobilize your opponent within seconds.
Although the neck is a small body part that may be hard to reach, it is a high-risk, high-reward target. It is like the knife-fighting equivalent of aiming for the head with a firearm.
The neck is a vital and highly vulnerable body part. It houses critical organs and major arteries such as the trachea (windpipe), the esophagus, the carotid artery supplying blood to the brain, and the cervical spine.
Cutting or stabbing the neck can inflict severe damage to any of these critical organs, often causing major blood loss and breathing issues. Even receiving minor cuts to the neck can deter your assailant.
Find Quality Self-Defense Knives at Uppercut Tactical
At Uppercut Tactical, we carry a wide range of knives suitable for everyday carry (EDC) and self-defense applications. The knives in our collection empower you with an effective tool for your personal safety and protection in any situation and are made with functionality, durability, and longevity in mind.