Combative Anatomy: Using a knife for self defense

After writing the post about how to fight a dog, I got to thinking about how little information is freely available about using weapons in self defense against humans. Many people carry a pocket knife daily (I’ve carried one every day since I was nine years old), many of them with thoughts of using it as a defensive weapon if they needed to. But almost no one gives the actual how to use it part more than a passing thought. This is some basic information on how to use a knife as a defensive weapon.

Before I get started I need to get something out of the way.

  1. Using a knife against another human is considered use of deadly force (even showing a knife is a crime in most places if it is not a clear cut case of self defense). If you would not be justified in shooting and killing the other person, don’t pull out the knife.
  2. If you pull a knife in self defense, you need to be 110% committed to using it, quickly and violently. If you are not, do not pull out the knife.


This post is going to cover some very graphic information about causing massive trauma to another human with a sharp and pointy weapon. If you are at all squeamish, you probably don’t want to read any further.


I am not telling you to do anything here. This does not constitute legal advice. If you use any of this information in a situation other than self defense, you will go to prison.

Notice that the title of this post is “Using a knife for self defense”, not “How to fight with a knife”. Self defense is something you do when everything else has failed, and you are now in a fight for your life. Fighting with a knife is something you do just before going to prison. Even if you are 100% justified in using a knife as a defensive weapon, you are probably going to have legal troubles because of it, and you are definitely going to have psychological troubles because of it.

This is not a post about conflict resolution, or violence deterrence or avoidance. These are your first lines of defense. This post covers what to do when everything has failed, and you are in a fight for your life against another human (or multiple attackers). This is not going to be nice, it is going to be extremely graphic.

If you’re still reading, I hope this information can be used to save your life if you are ever in the unenviable situation of having to fight for your life, but the information in this post is not going to do it all by itself. Physical combat is something that must be trained and practiced if you want to perform any better than half-assed (at best). If you carry a knife for self defense, I highly urge you to get some training on how to use it properly. In the realm of knife use I think Tom Sotis’ AMOK! system is about the best training you can find.

If you carry a knife for self defense you need to ask yourself a very serious question; can I cut/stab another human, possibly resulting in their death?

Using a knife as a weapon is very intimate, you are going to be very close to the damage you cause. You are going to be traumatized by it.

You need to know that if you use a knife on a human, you are going to see a LOT of blood, and probably a good sliced open chunk of meat. If you want to know what a real knife wound looks like (this is really, really graphic) take a look at some of the images here.

Could you do that to another human if your life is on the line? Only you can answer that question, but you must answer that question if you are going to carry a knife as a defensive weapon.

It is rather easy to think that you could, but I know men who have shot people and tell me that they could never use a knife on another person.

The concept I am trying to convey is very difficult to communicate correctly. There is a lot of macho “I could totally cut that guy up” crap that you need to put aside, and really consider what the consequences of you actions (or potential actions) are. Marc MacYoung (who knows a thing or two about self defense) really sums it up well in this post on his website. I really urge you to read that and understand that there are rather steep costs to using a knife against another person.

Just something to think about.

Let’s get started with some basic anatomy:

Click to enlarge

Anyone who has taken anatomy in college (or in high school even) will be able to tell that this is not 100% accurate and to scale, but it is close enough for our purposes. If you really want to get a strong grasp of where vital targets are on a human, pick up a copy of Gray’s Anatomy (paperback is your best bet here).

Unlike when fighting a dog, humans have a deep and instinctive fear of knives. It is possible that simply brandishing a blade will cause your attacker to have a change of mind, and suddenly remember that he has something else that urgently requires his immediate attention, but I would not rely on that. I prefer that an attacker not know that I am armed until I am using whatever weapon it may be on them. Just be aware that brandishing, while it may effectively deter the attack, is generally also a crime.

If you decide to show the attacker that you are armed and they back off, you should do two things immediately:

  • Leave the area.
  • Call the police to report what just happened.

You need to leave because criminals have a funny way of deciding that your knife wasn’t quite so scary when they get somewhere where they can get reinforcements or other weapons, neither of which is usually far away from where they choose to commit their crimes.

You need to call the police and report the incident so that the attacker who you just scared off doesn’t have a stroke of “genius” and decide to call the police and report that you threatened him with a knife while he was helping an old lady to cross the street (which has happened more than once).

When using a knife for self defense you have two basic strikes; slash and stab.

Slashing targets

Figure 1 – Click to enlarge

Figure 2 – Click to enlarge

Figure 3

Since the human body is (more or less) symmetrical, the targets shown are in the same place (roughly) on either the left or right side of the body.

Point A in Figure 1 is the Superficial Temporal Artery which runs along the outside of the skull across the temple (shown better in Figure 2). If cut this will bleed profusely.

Point B in Figure 1 is the side of the neck and throat just about even with the adam’s apple. This area contains the Carotid Artery and Jugular Vein. If either is cut the attacker will bleed to death very rapidly. The Carotid is approximately 1.5″ below the surface of the skin, so a powerful slash will be needed to reach it, however if severed unconsciousness will result in approximately 5-15 seconds (assuming no chemical stimulation). Be wary, as drugged up attackers may continue to fight on for up to a full minute.

Point C in Figure 1 is the trapezius muscle. This muscle is responsible for much of the shoulder movement.

Point D in Figure 1 is a cut to the outer side of the pectoral muscle. This should be a powerful slash. If done horizontally and continued out to the arm it can potentially sever the cephalic vein which will bleed profusely.

Point E in Figure 1 is a cut across the front of the deltoid muscle. If done powerfully it may sever the cephalic vein.

Point F in Figure 1 is a slashing cut across the biceps. This muscle is responsible for much of the motion of the arm and contains multiple veins.

Point G in Figure 1 is a slashing cut across the inside of the elbow joint. In addition to the numerous veins (shown as point B in Figure 3), this area also contains the ligaments that enable motion in the forearm.

Point H in Figure 1 is a horizontal cut across the forehead. This area is dense with veins, and will bleed profusely when cut, potentially blinding your attacker.

Point I in Figure 1 is a vertical cut across the cheek and jaw. This area contains some of the major nerves in the face and will be extremely painful.

Point J in Figure 1 is a horizontal cut across the neck and throat. This area contains not only the Jugular Vein, but the trachea and ligaments that control movement of the head.

Point K in Figure 1 is the trapezius muscle closer to the neck.

Point L in Figure 1 is a powerful slash across the pectoral muscle. A deep cut here will destroy the attacker’s ability to throw punches with any power behind them.

Point M in Figure 1 is a powerful vertical slash to the abdomen. Successful penetration of the abdominal wall here will result in loss of motion, and possible disembowelment.

Point N in Figure 1 is a powerful horizontal slash to the abdomen. Successful penetration of the abdominal wall here will result in loss of motion, and possible disembowelment.

Point O in Figure 1 is a penetrating slash to the inside of the forearm between the radius and ulna bones. Penetration of more then one inch will sever a great deal of veins (shown as Point C in Figure 3)and result in rapid blood loss.

Point P in Figure 1 is a slash across the back of the head starting at the top rear of the ear and ending near the center of the skull. There is a group of minor arteries that run across the outside of the skull here (shown in Figure 2), and will bleed profusely if severed.

Point Q in Figure 1 is a slash across the outside edge of the shoulder blade, and will result in loss of motion in the shoulder.

Point R in Figure 1 is a vertical slash down the back between the spine and shoulder blade. This group of muscles is responsible for much of the motion of the upper torso.

Point S in Figure 1 is a vertical slash across the rib cage and kidney area. This will be extremely painful and result in loss of motion.

Point T in Figure 1 is a horizontal slash across the back of the neck. In addition to the numerous veins here, these muscles control much of the motion of the head.

Point U in Figure 1 is a slash to the rear of the trapezius muscle which will result in loss of motion in the shoulder.

Point V in Figure 1 is a slash through the muscles in the back between the lower edge of the shoulder blade and spine, curving to follow the shoulder blade. This will be extremely painful and result in loss of motion in the upper torso.

Point W in Figure 1 is a horizontal cut across the lower back. This area is highly dense with nerves and will result in massive pain and loss of motion in the upper torso.

Figure 2 gives a better view of arterial structure in the head and neck.

Point A in Figure 3 is the brachial artery that runs along the inside of the arm. This artery is deep, but severing it will result in unconsciousness in as little as 15 seconds, and death in as little as 90 seconds.

Point C in Figure 3 is the radial artery (this artery runs across the top of the radius bone 2-4 inches behind the base of your thumb). Severing the radial artery can result in unconsciousness in as little as 30 seconds, and death in as little as two minutes.

Stabbing targets

Figure 4 – Click to enlarge

Point A in Figure 4 is the side of the neck just behind the adams apple, approximately 2-2.5 inches from the front of the throat. This is ideally a thrust with the blade perpendicular to the spine, and cutting out the front of the neck. If done correctly this will sever the carotid and trachea, resulting in loss of consciousness in as little as 5 seconds and death in as little as 12 seconds.

Point B in Figure 4 is the inside of the right armpit, with the blade parallel to the ribs. If done correctly this will pass between the 3rd and 4th rib perforating the right lung. This is a risky target due to potential for the blade to bind in the ribcage.

Point C in Figure 4 is a thrust up and under the right side of the ribcage, done at a 45 degree angle into the liver. Depending on the severity of the damage to the liver this can result in unconsciousness in as little as 1 minute, and death in as little as 5 minutes.

Point D in Figure 4 is the subclavian artery located approximately 2.5 inches below the point shown, just behind the collar bone. Severing of the subclavian artery will result in unconsciousness in as little as 2 seconds, and death in as little as 3.5 seconds.

Point E in Figure 4 is the inside of the left armpit, with the blade parallel to the ribs. If done correctly the thrust will pass between the 3rd and 4th rib perforating the left lung and the heart if the blade is of sufficient length (documented cases of blades as small as 3.5 inches successfully piercing the heart exist). Piercing the heart can result in instant unconsciousness and death in as little as 3 seconds. This is a risky target due to potential for the blade to bind in the ribcage.

Point F in Figure 4 is the center of the abdomen, approximately 1 to 4 inches above the navel. Approximately 5 inches below the skin is the Descending Aorta (the largest artery in the body) and Inferior Vena Cava (the largest vein in the body). Severing either can result in unconsciousness in as little as 1-2 seconds and death in as little as 3-5 seconds.

Point G in Figure 4 is just behind the bottom of the ear. This hollow is the only point that an average person may be able to pierce the skull with a knife. Long narrow blades have the best chance of reaching the brain. A solid thrust here can result in instantaneous death. This is a risky target due to potential for the blade to bind in the skull (or jaw if done incorrectly).

Point H in Figure 4 is a thrust to either kidney. Puncturing a kidney can cause near instant unconsciousness, and death within as little as one minute. The Kidneys are connected to the body by the Suprarenal veins, which are rather large, so even if the kidney is not punctured, a thrust here may still sever one of these and result in rapid loss of consciousness.


Carrying a pocket knife, and carrying a pocket knife with the express intent to be able to use it as a self defense tool are two completely different things. Until I was about 15 I carried a swiss army type of knife in the bottom of one of my pockets. This is going to be almost useless in a situation where you will need a knife as a self defense tool. Chances are, if you need to use a knife in self defense, you are going to need to have the knife open and in your hand about 5 seconds ago.

Some things you’ll want to consider if you are carrying a knife for self defense:

  • How quick can you get the knife open and in your hand?
  • Can you open the knife with one hand?
  • Can you reach the knife with either hand?
  • Can you deploy the knife if someone grabs you from behind and pins both of your arms to your sides?

In another post I’ll cover the criteria that I use to select a knife that may be used as a defensive tool.

Combative Anatomy: How to fight a dog

Before I get into this I want to preface by saying I HAVE AND LOVE DOGS.

I am not anti dog, nor am I advocating abusing or beating them.

One of the realities of life however is that there are occasions when dogs attack humans. This video has been making the rounds on Facebook and twitter recently.

I know several people who have been attacked by dogs, I’ve been attacked by dogs

Unfortunately there are a lot of people who buy dogs for the express purpose of making them aggressive (this is especially the case in larger cities), and who then ignore the dogs, do not properly restrain them, or simply let them go when they cannot afford to feed them. The sad fact is that dog fighting is still widely prevalent in many parts of our country, and in some areas increasing in popularity (California’s San Joaquin Valley is one of the latter).

Most of the people who will read this will be of the “I’ll just shoot the dog until it’s dead” mentality. I recommend this fully, however there are times that it is either not possible (you are surprised, are a police officer in London, etc.), or it is simply not prudent (there are people around who may be hit by gunfire, whatever). It is important to remember that if the dog manages to bite you and you are able to shoot it, try not to shoot it in the head (a vet needs an intact cranium to test for rabies, and anti rabies shots suck).


In this post I am going to discuss violent and graphic methods of delivering massive trauma to canines. It was very difficult for me to write this post, because I love dogs. If you are squeamish, you may not want to read any further. I wrote this post because dog attacks do happen, and I couldn’t find any other good information on how to defend yourself against them.

There are three scenarios that I’m going to examine in this post; fighting a dog with a stick or other impact weapon, fighting a dog with a knife or edged weapon, and fighting a dog with your bare hands. I choose these three scenarios because I think these are most likely to be how people will be fighting dogs, and because I have had to fight dogs using all three methods (I’m not sure why but there have been five separate times when I have had occasion to fight a dog). I think for most people this is a scary thought, partly because we’ve all seen what an aggressive dog can do, and partly because most people don’t really know anything about the nuts and bolts of how to go about fighting a dog. You can’t just throw punches at it and win. You’ve got to understand how to disable your opponent. When faced with an aggressive dog attack you only have two options; immobilize or incapacitate the dog.

Basic dog anatomy 101

First lets take a look at the skeletal structure of your average dog, and how we can relate that to humans:

Figure 1 (Click to enlarge)

Figure 2 (Click to enlarge)

Canine Skeleton

Figure 3 (Click to enlarge)

You’ll notice that dogs are structurally… kinda similar to people. Understanding the similarities and differences can help you to develop a strategy that will help you handle an attacking dog.

Fighting a dog with a stick or impact weapon

Your basic tactics when fighting humans with a stick or impact weapon are to break bones, or cause pain. Dogs have a much higher pain threshold than your average human, so you will probably not be able to end a dog attack through use of pain. Again; immobilize or incapacitate are our only options.

There are basically two ways you can fight a dog with an impact weapon: you can attempt to keep them at distance with strikes from the impact weapon, or you can try to get them to focus on the impact weapon and use hand to hand tactics to inflict damage to the animal. If you’re using a shorter stick for example, you may want to try to get the dog occupied with trying to bite it so that you can avoid being bitten yourself while maneuvering into position to apply a choke hold.

Obviously you want something long and heavy if you have your choice of impact weapons, but the fight will be what it is, not what you want it to be. You have two primary targets on a dog with an impact weapon: the head and the legs.

Head strikes will likely be more to divert the dog from biting you, or to maneuver the dog into a position where you can better strike at it’s legs. Striking the dog in the muzzle or nose will be extremely painful for the dog and may result in the dog moving back and away from the strike, leaving the foreleg exposed for a powerful strike.

Your primary target should be the two slender bones of the front legs, between the shoulders and feet, marked as point 7 and 9 in Figure 3 above. These are high value targets as they are relatively thin and if broken will completely immobilize the dog (they will still be able to bite, so be wary). Most often, the dog will be coming at you head on, making strikes to the rear legs a very risky proposition, as it will expose you to bites from the dog. Do not over extend yourself to land a strike on a rear leg. Rear legs are low value targets because you must strike them in very specific ways to break them or dislocate the joints, and the leg bones are much thicker than the fore legs.

If your impact weapon has great heft (like a hammer, a large rock, or a baseball bat), you may want to try for a decisive head strike. Be wary of over extending yourself with a committed strike though, as dogs are generally very nimble and a missed strike at the cranium could easily lead to a counter attack from the dog that leaves you bleeding or knocks you to the ground.

Strikes to the ribs or spine may be effective, but will have to be extremely powerful to cause enough injury to immobilize or incapacitate the dog.

Fighting a dog with a knife or edged weapon

Humans have an instinctive and primal fear of knives when used as weapons. Dogs do not. You are not going to frighten a dog by pulling a knife on it. If you are facing an aggressive dog and have only a knife to defend yourself, you have only one objective: incapacitate the dog as quickly as possible through destroying the dog’s ability to move, breathe, or through massive blood loss.

Figure 4 shows a cut away of a dog, giving us several targets for attack with a knife.

Figure 4 (Click to enlarge)

Figure 5

Something to keep in mind is that dog’s muscles are extremely dense. Some of the target areas discussed here will require quite a bit of force to reach effectively, and the dog is not going to sit still while you saw at it.

When defending against the dog with a knife, it is highly likely that you will be bitten. It is imperative that you not allow the dog to bite the hand or arm that you are holding the knife in. If the dog gets its teeth in that arm it is very likely that you are going to lose the knife.

Point A in Figure 4 is a target area under the jaw, and between the bones of the mandible. This is a target of opportunity. If you can thrust up into the mouth with a knife here it is possible to then push back and down, possibly severing several arteries, and piercing or severing the windpipe. This will lead to rapid incapacitation.

Point B in Figure 4 is a target just forward of the dogs spinal column in the neck, preferably a thrust into the side of the neck, and pulling the blade back towards the front of the throat, resulting in a complete severing of the trachea, and several arteries. More muscular dogs (such as the pitbull, rottweiler, and shepards) will be more protected in this area, making this is very difficult target to attack effectively. If you are facing a dog that is extremely muscular in this area (see Figure 2 for a depiction of how canine muscles wrap the chest and neck), it is a better tactic to thrust into this area as deeply, rapidly, and as many times as you can, potentially severing one or more arteries.

Point C in Figure 4 is targeting a major artery cluster located to either side of the canine spine just about even with the leading edge of the rear leg. This is a thrusting target, once the knife is plunged into this area, it should be worked back and forth and side to side as rapidly and as violently as possible. Puncturing any of these arteries (or better, severing them) will result in rapid incapacitation of the animal.

Point D in Figure 4 is targeting the musculature and ligaments of the forelegs. This is a target of opportunity, and if successfully used can lead to immobilization of the dog.

Point E in Figure 4 is targeting the diaphragm and intestinal cavity of the dog. A thrust into this area from underneath starting just below the rib cage and pushing or pulling back towards the rear legs will likely disembowel the canine, while also possibly severing several arteries and major veins, or damaging several vital organs.

Point F in Figure 4 is targeting the large muscle groups and tendons on the front of the hind legs. This is a target of opportunity, successfully delivered powerful slashes to these areas can immobilize the dog, as well as potentially severing major veins.

Point G in Figure 4 is targeting the tendons and large muscle groups on the rear of the hind legs. This is a target of opportunity. Successfully delivered powerful slashes or thrusts pulled out to the rear can immobilize the dog, as well as potentially severing major veins.

You can see in Figure 5 that (as is the case with humans) dogs have several arteries that run under the jaw and around the skull. These arteries are relatively close to the surface of the tissue, and severing any of them will result in rapid blood loss. The chest area of most dogs is very heavily muscled (as shown in Figure 2 above), and can be rather difficult to penetrate effectively. If you have a large heavy fixed blade knife, the area where the arteries converge in the chest may be a viable target, but should probably be avoided with a folding knife.

These are not the only targets available, but are the targets that are most likely to result in rapid incapacitation.

Fighting a dog with your bare hands

This is a situation that almost guarantees that you will get bit. I’ve had to fight two dogs with my bare hands, and have been bitten both times. It’s almost unavoidable.

If it is going to happen, why not try to minimize the damage? In virtually every case, an attacking dog will bite the first thing that comes near its mouth.

In some cases this will be your groin (very bad), or your abdomen (not good either), but usually this is not a dog’s first choice for attack.

Dogs tend to attack by leaping into your chest with their front paws in an attempt to push you down, so frequently the first thing near their mouth is one of your hands or arms (there are plenty of videos available on the internet where you can see this behavior. Police dogs are trained specifically to attack like this, in large part because this is a natural attack for a dog against a taller opponent).

If you can get a piece of clothing in the dogs mouth rather than a piece of your body, great! Do it! If you have a few moments warning that the dog is going to attack you, wrap whatever you have around your ‘weak’ forearm (jacket, sweater, tee shirt, anything helps), and let the dog bite that rather than an unprotected limb.

If you have the gumption to follow through with it jam your hand in its mouth and either grab its tongue with a death grip, or try as hard as you can to shove your fist down its throat.

In 2005 a 73 year old man in Nairobi killed an attacking Leopard by pulling it’s tongue out. Dogs will not bite down if you have hold of their tongue for fear of severing their own tongue. If you are going to try this I highly recommend that you use the other hand to control the dog’s head so that it cannot shake you off.

Remember that except in very rare cases, you are larger than the dog (if you’re fighting an aggressive dog that is bigger than you are, you’d better give it everything you’ve got because you’re in serious trouble). Use your size to your advantage. If you can manage to mount the dog and stay on top of it, it is quite likely that you can hold the dog down until help can be called, or you can figure out how to incapacitate the dog.

Unless you are the fastest human on the planet, you are not going to be able to outrun the dog, so don’t even try. You do not want an aggressive dog falling on you from behind. The best thing you can do it is to face the dog squarely, do not look it directly in the eye (if you are wearing sunglasses take them off, as dogs see them as big, staring, unblinking eyes that are looking right at them), which is a sign that you are challenging the dog.

Yell at the dog, wave your arms, but do not back away. If you retreat, or show fear the dog will attack you. If you stand your ground, and do not directly challenge the dog by advancing on it, or retreating it may decide that it does not want to attack you.

If you are wearing a belt you can use as a weapon, do so! Belts have several combat uses; you can whip the dog with the buckle end, use it as an improvised garrote or muzzle, and in the case of thick leather belts you can jam it into the dog’s mouth sideways (you’ll need to jam it all the way back to the mandibular joint for this to be more than a very temporary restraint) which can effectively prevent the dog from biting you.

You can use a shirt or jacket as an improvised muzzle, if you can get it over the dog’s head. Anything that you can use to give yourself an edge will help. If you have nothing and it’s mano a canis, you must incapacitate the dog as rapidly as possible.

Dogs noses are extremely sensitive, and easy to damage because they are very soft tissue. Any blow to a dog’s nose is going to be very painful and may cause the dog to pull away from you. Use this to your advantage.

If the dog jumps at you and you can manage to get your hands on its forelegs, jerk them straight out to the sides as hard as you can. Dog’s forelegs do not naturally bend this way and you can easily break the legs or separate joints effectively immobilizing the dog.

If you can manage to get your hand on top of its muzzle and not get bit, you can clamp the dog’s mouth shut and pin it to it’s chest which is also an effective way to prevent bites.

I’ll reiterate, you are bigger than the dog; pick the dog up and slam it into the ground (or wall or a car), or throw it over a fence (I’ve actually done this).

Keep in mind that dogs generally have much looser skin than humans. You can use this in the same way you would use lose clothing on a human attacker, to direct their motion, or as a handhold for applying leverage.

Dogs are susceptible to joint locks and chokes just as humans are (though in the case of a joint lock, you’ll probably want to go ahead and break the joint so you don’t get bit too much while trying to hold the joint lock). A rear naked choke works just as well on a pitbull as it does on a human, with the benefit that the dog cannot use its hands to try to break the choke (I choked out a pitbull once, it took a lot longer than it does for a human but it works).

Aggression is your friend. If you manage to back the dog off, or it turns to run, chase it while screaming like a madman. You want to drive the fact that you are dangerous and will hurt the dog into its primitive brain. Dogs that turn to run may only travel a short distance to regroup before bringing the fight right back to you. Do not assume that the dog is in full retreat.

If you manage to drive the dog off, leave the area and seek shelter immediately. You cannot be sure that it will not return.

Group tactics

In the video from London that is linked at the beginning of this post, you’ll notice that the cops pretty much abandoned the one being set upon by the dog. They could easily have overpowered the animal and minimized the extent of his injuries, had they simply coordinated their efforts (rather than wait for the guys with the guns to show up).

If a dog is attacking someone else; run up behind it, grab its rear legs lifting them off the ground, and pull them apart like they were a wishbone. This destroys the stability of the dog’s attack platform (if you’re strong enough it can also dislocate the hip joints or break the legs, immobilizing the dog), and makes it nearly impossible for the dog to bite the person it was attacking. Be aware though that if the dog is smart (or lucky) it may roll over onto it’s side and try to bite you.

Similarly, if you get the dog’s rear legs up in the air and notice that it is a male dog, kick those testicles like you are trying to set a record for the longest field goal in history. I saw this done to a pitbull that had locked its jaws on another dog, and the kick took the dog right out of the fight.

If there are several of you, pile on the dog and hold it down until you can immobilize it or help can be summoned.