Are Knife Disarms Really Possible?

Dan Inosanto and Richard Bustillo
Guru Dan Inosanto and Richard Bustillo training Kali in what looks like a cornfield - year unknown.

Teaching Kali class today, I demonstrated a knife disarm in which you control the opponent’s knife hand and send the knife flying by striking the flat of the blade with your forearm. We were using training blades, but – and this always happens with new students – someone says skeptically, “Won’t you get cut doing that?” So I turn to Matt, who makes knives and is always loaded for bear, and ask for a live blade. I demo the technique with him, knocking the live blade out of his hand. “See?” I say. “I’m not cut.”

“But I am,” Matt says. Oops! Indeed, the blade nicked his forearm and he’s bleeding. “No big deal,” he says, and wipes the blood with his t-shirt, so now it looks like he’s been stabbed, ha ha.

Meanwhile we’re training in a public park with people all around, and we’re really getting some looks. I was actually afraid someone would call the cops, but I guess they were too busy getting to the football game at the other end of the park.

At least no one asked me anymore if the technique really works.

Seriously though, are the knife disarms that are commonly taught in Silat, Kali, Eskrima and related Southeast Asian arts realistic?

First let me say that many of the knife defenses taught in arts like Karate, Hapkido and Jujitsu – arts that do not specialize in knife fighting and do not approach knife defense in a modern, realistic way – will get you killed. Sorry friends – an x-block or standard Karate middle block will not save you from an experienced knife fighter.

I ended up throwing out most of the knife defenses I learned in Hapkido and Jujutsu, and upgraded based on my Silat and Kali experience.

If anyone knows what they’re doing when it comes to knife techniques and knife disarms, it’s the Silat and Kali masters of Southeast Asia. These countries (Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, southern Thailand) are blade fighting cultures. Knives and short swords have always been the primary weapons of combat. These weapons have been used in national self defense for thousands of years and as recently as World War II, and are still used today in tribal warfare and personal combat. Techniques are based not on theory but on observed reality.

Guru Maul Mornie says that the tribes would traditionally not share techniques (since they were rivals) but during the wars against the Japanese that changed. Tribes would get together to launch an attack, and afterward would compare notes. Someone might say, “I tried this thing and it worked.” So everyone would adopt that technique. That’s how these arts were developed – on the battlefield.

So the short answer to the question posed is yes, the techniques work if they are practiced relentlessly and realistically. It’s easy to get caught up in flow drills and elegant form, and forget that to make these techniques work you have to close the distance, unbalance the attacker, hit hard, and don’t screw around. You have to practice variations where the attacker comes at you with the free hand or with a kick, or draws a second blade, or generally behaves in aggressive and unrealistic ways.

And you have to train, train train. Knife defense is an extremely tricky proposition. Even if you’re fully trained, it’s a gamble. But you can stack the odds in your favor by training often and right.

Wael Abdelgawad, Founder
Hammerhead Hapkido

(Photo at top: Guru Dan Inosanto and Richard Bustillo training Kali in what looks like a cornfield – year unknown).

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