Bringing a Gun to a Knife Fight

By John Gilstrap

Let’s get back to talking about how to kill people.  It is, after all, what our characters do, right?  This week, the topic is knife fighting.

That’s a pig carcass wrapped in a leather jacket (the one on the right).

Over the years, I’ve had the good fortune to train on guns and knives with Steve Tarani, whose martial arts skills are the stuff of legend.   My most recent training was about a year ago at Gunsite Academy in Paulden, Arizona, where I spent a week training with carbines, pistols and . . . wait for it . . . knives.  While I’ve done a lot of shooting in the past, this was my first exposure to knife fighting, and it was, frankly, terrifying.  As you might imagine, on the pistol and carbine courses, there’s no shooting at each other, but when it came to the knife sessions, there was sparring among the students, albeit with practice knives.  In part because Tarani and I are friends–and in part because my nickname was “Writer Boy”–I was frequently called out to be the victim during demonstrations.  The most embarrassing of those episodes was when Tarani disarmed me and “killed” me with my own knife before I even knew he’d moved.

The 21-Foot Rule

Same pig carcass but with an overhand thrust.

A long time ago someone did research to show that within 7 yards, and attacker with a knife can close the distance and kill a skilled shooter before the shooter can clear his gun from his holster.  Our class proved that to be a bogus number.  The real number is closer to 30 feet, and once the attacker with knife skills is within arm’s length, the shooter doesn’t have a chance.

Fair Warning: It gets a bit gruesome from here.  While there are no upsetting pictures, there are some toe-curling concepts.  Read on at your own risk.

Once you’re close enough to touch your gun-wielding opponent, slash the tendons of his wrist and the guy can no longer hold his weapon.  We were taught to next slash his eyes to blind him.  From there, it’s a matter of evaluating the threat.  If he’s done, then so are you, but if he’s still got fight in him, you go for the kill.

The (Other) Kill Zones

A knife fight is an exercise in exsanguination.  The last one to bleed out is the “winner”. Thus, knife fighting is geared toward severing major blood vessels.  Arteries produce a more crippling blood flow than veins, but they arteries lay buried significantly deeper in the body than veins.  To get to an artery, then, you’ve really got to want it.  To sever the carotids, for example, we were taught to start the strike with the fist of your knife hand in direct contact with the victim’s neck and push through.  Same thing with the femoral arteries, which made for some awkward posturing while sparring.

Best access to the subclavian arteries is via the arm pits.  Like the carotids, they branch directly off the aorta, but I found the armpit thrusts difficult to execute.  There’s also a belly thrust that will take you through the navel to the abdominal aorta, but it involved the assistance of a knee strike to get the blade deep enough, so we didn’t practice it.

Defensive Moves

While all of the above applies to defense against a lethal attack, we were taught potentially less lethal moves to be employed if we’re more interested in discouraging an attack than engaging in one.

The Windmill. Say you’re at the bus stop with your kid or your mom or with your significant other, and that skeezy guy who’s been eyeballing you approaches in an unsettling way.  You tell him forcefully to stay away, yet he keeps coming.  You want to break off the encounter, and you certainly don’t want to fight the guy.  This is where the move I call “the windmill” comes in (if Tarani gave it a real name, I don’t remember what it was).  You draw and open your locking blade folding knife–if you don’t carry one, I think you should–and hold it in a thumb-support or fencer’s grip (the blade on the thumb end of your fist, not the pinky end) and as you back away, you make slashing motions in the air.  Big figure X’s at face-to-shoulder level.  You tell him over and over to stay away.  No sane person would walk into that razor-sharp windmill.

Which brings us to The Filet.  So, Mr. Skeeze keeps coming and he gets a hand around your free arm or he gets a fistful of your clothing.  You bring the edge of your blade down perpendicular to his arm bone and dig deep.  Then, in one fast, continuous motion, you pivot your blade to be flat against the bone and you slice from wrist to elbow, separating the flesh and muscle tissue of his arm completely off the bone.  I’m told it’s not a fatal wound, but goodness gracious it would be an ugly one.

Zero Resistance

On the final day of classes, Steve Tarani brought in a bunch of pig carcasses and dressed them up in clothes from all seasons.  Pigs in T-shirts, pigs in leather jackets, that sort of thing.  The point was to employ the lessons of sparring with real blades on actual flesh and bone.

While I always carry a sharp knife, I’m not obsessive about the edge.  I certainly couldn’t shave with the blade.  So I was surprised–shocked, actually–by the ease with which I could slash through the heaviest clothing all the way through the carcass’s thoracic cavity.  On one of my slashes, in fact, I thought I had whiffed it, only to find out that I’d gone through to the bone.

Now I Need Input

I’m told sometimes that my filter for that-which-is-disgusting is out of sync with those of normal people.  If posts like this are a step too far into the violent side of reality, I can tone them back. All input is welcome.

And I have mentioned that I have a YouTube channel called A Writer’s View of Writing and Publishing.  Feel free to visit and subscribe!



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About John Gilstrap

John Gilstrap is the New York Times bestselling author of Total Mayhem, Scorpion Strike, Final Target, Friendly Fire, Nick of Time, Against All Enemies, End Game, Soft Targets, High Treason, Damage Control, Threat Warning, Hostage Zero, No Mercy, Nathan’s Run, At All Costs, Even Steven, Scott Free and Six Minutes to Freedom. Four of his books have been purchased or optioned for the Big Screen. In addition, John has written four screenplays for Hollywood, adapting the works of Nelson DeMille, Norman McLean and Thomas Harris. A frequent speaker at literary events, John also teaches seminars on suspense writing techniques at a wide variety of venues, from local libraries to The Smithsonian Institution. Outside of his writing life, John is a renowned safety expert with extensive knowledge of explosives, weapons systems, hazardous materials, and fire behavior. John lives in Fairfax, VA.

23 thoughts on “Bringing a Gun to a Knife Fight

  1. Dude~ the fillet made my toes curl~ but what an effective move it sounds like~ and no, I think your “filter” is set about right – it’s important to know what you may not show.

  2. John,

    The filet made me gasp, my toes are cramped from curling, and the chill up the back of my neck will take an hour to thaw out. But…what fascinating information you shared. This was the most detailed info I’ve read about knives. Thank you!

  3. Necessary discussion. Nothing over the top in my mind. I have fond memories of Gunsite. Although I’ve never been through a Gunsite class, I utilized their methods in training for small-scale practical pistol competitions when I lived in Arizona. Back in the 80’s I spent a couple of days photographing Col. Jeff Cooper at Gunsite and even received a tour of his gun room. Fond memories indeed.

  4. Horrifying, but fascinating, too! Being a tiny woman with zero upper body strength, I’m not sure if I could do any of those moves. But some of my characters could!

  5. I took notes for future stories, so thanks for the great explanations! The image of a windmill will stay with me for self-protection. Now if only I ever carried a knife anywhere but out to my vegetable garden, I’d be good to go.

  6. I’ve seen the aftermath of a knife fight. Sounds spot on to me. Bloody mess.

    I didn’t find it out of sync at all! Oh, wait, you said normal people… Never mind.

  7. John, as a retired physician, I didn’t get too queasy about the information you gave, although it might be a bit much for the general public. But then again, the people who read this are supposedly writers who include such stuff in their novels. I, for one, thank you for putting this out there.

  8. Some good info for future (writing) reference! I bookmarked this post under “Writing/Fight Scenes.”

    (And a bit depressing…as I’m in Portland, Oregon, where we lost of couple of good samaritans lately…).

  9. I’m good with it. Gave me some ideas, especially the filet. I’m going to remember that.

  10. I love talking about killing people! Thanks for the great article!

    And no, you didn’t go over the top for the topic. If we want to write knife fights realistically, we need to know what the results are of the use of our weapons. But then, I’m not a normal person. I’m a writer who likes writing violence.

    One thing I’ve read elsewhere about using knives is that knife fights cause damage on both sides. And that yes, it’s not difficult to lose your knife to the other guy, and get damage from your own knife.

    This whole article is fascinating, and I’ve bookmarked it for later reference. 🙂

    One note: carrying a jack knife – aka a folding knife – is illegal in Canada. It’s best to review your local laws before carrying any kind of weapon. It’s also illegal to carry pepper spray in Canada, because it can be used by the wrong side to incapacitate their victim.

    • In the USA, knives are legal in every state, but the specifics vary by state. First of all, most knives are classified as tools, not as weapons. I can’t imagine being without a knife, not for defense, but because I use it every day to do something. It’s just always there.

      That said, certain knives cross lines into what the various state legislatures call weapons. In Virginia, for example, a spring-loaded knife is illegal, but a spring-assist knife is fine. In other words, you have to do more than just push a button to deploy the blade. Across the board, a three-inch blade seems to be the tipping point, with three inches or less being okay in most jurisdictions. As blades get longer, there’s more state-by-state variation. I think.

      • Multi-function knives, like Swiss army knives, are legal. I’m not exactly sure at what point the law says a knife becomes a weapon – I haven’t looked that deeply into it. Maybe I should. There could be some good stories in there…

  11. Whoa, this post conjured up some vivid imagery in my head! I keep a Spyderco folding knife in my car (for…whatever comes up 😎), but I never set up a plan for how I might actually use it. This post gave me some specific ideas, thanks for that!!

  12. It’s late in the day to be replying. That’s because, after I read the article, I went back to bed, pulled the covers over my head and called the police for help every 15 minutes.

    (Thanks for the post. This is information I’ve been needing for years. I live in Phoenix, but I won’t be headed toward Paulden any time soon. I mean, what could Mr. Tarani teach a guy who covers his head with his arms and screams “No fair! No fair!” every time the opponent breathes or moves?)

  13. Couple points to add, if I may.
    1. Both parties are likely to get cut to some degree, especially if both have blades.
    2. You will get blood on you, if you cut them, you will get splashed.
    3. Even if you don’t think you got cut, check yourself anyway…adrenaline can cover a multitude of injuries, for a while.

    • One night at the firehouse–it was very late, maybe 1:30 a.m.–I was in the radio room and a car pulled up onto the front ramp and a lady jumped out. She ran up and pounded on the front door. All things considered, that’s fairly unsettling, as anything out of the ordinary is unsettling. I answered the door, and this distraught twenty-something told me that she thought her boyfriend might need medical attention. She wanted me to come to the car and look at him.

      This was some years ago, but even then, you get a sixth sense about shit that’s not right, and this felt like a setup to me. I beckoned for my buddy to join me (because who wants to die in an ambush alone?) and together we walked out to her car, and sure enough, there was her boyfriend, his complexion turning the corner from pallid to blue, with a loop of bowel spread out onto his lap. I said to myself, “Well, huh. I shouldn’t be able to see that.” (And the corollary, “When this is over, how am I going to UNsee that?”)

      “Yikes!” I said. (Or something like that.) “What happened?”

      “He got into an argument.”

      “Yeah, well, he definitely needs to go to the hospital.” I turned to my buddy and told him to call the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) and cut paper on a stabbing.

      The girlfriend got agitated. “You don’t need to call the police, do you?”

      “Well, yeah, I sorta do.”

      “Never mind,” she said, and she got back into the car and drove off.

      The cool thing about license plates is that there’s a light right over them. I called the cops, and about ten minutes later, we were dispatched to a stabbing. Go figure. But since we were already sitting in the ambulance with the engine running and the bay door up, we had a great response time.

      • Cool story. I just can’t figure out how someone could look at their significant other with their intestines hanging out of their belly, and say “Oh cops? Never mind.”

        Was she planning to stitch him up herself?

        “Sit still babe and stop your moanin’. I’m stuff this here noodle thing back in and use some gorilla glue to hold it shut.”
        “Stop yer squirmin’ ya big sissy! Oh damn…now look what you did, I’ve done glued my fingers to your intestines. I’m gonna call Bubba, he had that first aid badge in scouts, he’ll know what to do.”

      • This is a great stabbing story!

        Oddly enough, I was most grossed out by the idea of stabbing the pig carcass. Ew. The rest was all good to me.

  14. Fantastic article, John. Thanks for sharing your experience with that training; how I wish I could get in on some of that!
    I have carried a folding blade on my person since I was 13. (Folding because my wise father knew it was legal compared to the straight tanto-style I really wanted for that birthday.) State laws have recently changed to allow straight blades, but I still carry that old faithful folder.
    I was duly impressed with your statement about the cut (on the pig carcass) which you thought had been a miss, but which turned out to be to the bone. For a writer, that’s fascinating info for both victim and attacker!
    Also noteworthy are the facts stated by many other commenters: defensive wounds are a thing, and this is a messy engagement for either party. So true. If you’re going to write it, know the details!
    I would gladly read more of this level of research. Bring it to the table!

  15. John, this is extremely timely and very helpful. With my martial arts background, and training with weapons, a knife gives me way more pause than a gun.

  16. I’m late to this party, but I always appreciate your frank straight-forward discussions of weapons. It’s both useful in writing and real life. Didn’t bother me one bit. But, I’ve read several thousand police reports, crime scene photos, and doctor’s reports.

    Even in my small town, we had a case that ended up as manslaughter. Two guys fighting, one knife, one bisected liver, and one body in the gutter. On the flip side, two drunk guys flail at each other with their 1-inch fake Swiss Army knives. When the cops arrive, they are laying in the grass, covered in blood, and laughing their asses off. All wounds were superficial. However, both were charged with felony assault with a dangerous weapon.

    I’ve seen the results of the filet wound – no, it is not pretty.

    Keep up the good posts and thank you for the info – Terri

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