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Why you need empty hands and knife skills

By Ralph Mroz
Training Director: Police Officers Safety Association

Why You Need Empty Hands Skills

1. The foundation of ALL self defense skills is empty hands skills.

2. No matter what weapons(s) you carry and are trained with, you are still most likely going to have to depend on empty hands skills for any attack.

The first statement comes as a shock to many officers who feel that since they carry a gun, pepper spray, a baton ot Taser, that they are adequately prepared to defend themselves in a likely encounter. The second statement may seem counter-intuitive in that we are saying that even lethal force attacks are likely to have to be met with your bare hands.

Neither statement is comfortable.

Both are true.

Statement one is true in that all weapons skills are physical in their nature. They all depend on your ability to move surely, and with balance and coordination, and even possibly with power. These attributes come from developing empty hand skills—martial arts or defensive tactics or combatives—call them what you will—like no other method can.

Further, no matter what the weapon you are attempting to access in response to a threat, you will probably be starting from behind the power curve—that is your attacker has probably surprised you and you are reacting to his movements. Therefore you will probably need to ward off the attack with your empty hands at the same time you are accessing your weapon.

The second statement is true in that you are reacting to your attacker’s initiation of the assault. Your weapon cannot be brought to bear until you have crossed the time frames of your reaction time and your weapon presentation time. Reaction times vary from 0.25 seconds for a highly trained athlete who is alert to an imminent cue, to more than a second for other people in other states of awareness. Then you have to add your draw and presentation time to that if you are accessing a handgun.

The time frames we are talking about here total about one to two seconds…for a person who is expecting an assault cue. The way this is measured is in one of the classic training exercises for handguns: the shooter stands facing an 8-inch steel plate (about the size of the area you need to hit on an attacker to have a good chance of stopping him), waiting for a buzzer to sound.

At the buzzer, the shooter draws and fires on the plate. Extremely good times (from a speed holster, and not drawing from concealment or a security holster) are in the sub-second range. Typical times for good shooters are in the second to 1.5 seconds range. If you are not practiced in this exercise, or if you are drawing from concealment, or you are drawing from anything but an open-top holster (a so-called “speed scabbard”), then add time.

If you are surprised by the attack, or you are trying to perform another action in addition to the draw (like get the heck out of there or ward off the attack), then add more time.

Now consider how much time it takes to strike you, knife you, or shoot you. Only a fraction of a second.

The bottom line is that you simply don’t have time to access your handgun before you are injured, in a typical attack. Your only hope is to deal with the attack—whatever its nature—with your empty hands. It’s simply a matter of physics – you won’t have time.

We have been taught that lethal force attacks are to be countered with our lethal force option—our firearm. But too many people have been injured or killed by programming that response in. In the desperate, time-consuming attempt to get to their gun, they have presented a non-defending target to their attacker. Rather than program ourselves to respond to a threat based on the severity of the threat, we should be training ourselves to respond based on the time available to us.

Facing a lethal threat, if we have time to seek cover and/or draw our firearm, great. If we don’t, the we respond with our hands. The way we train for this reality is, as always, with realistic force-on-force scenarios, using firing but non-lethal weapons such as Airsoft guns. If all of our firearms training consists of shooting at targets, the we aren’t training to engage in a fight, but simply honing our gun firing skill.

But it’s a fight you will be in! If you don’t practice in simulated fights, you’ll never acquire the skills you need to prevail in one.

Why You Need Knife Skills

We get a lot of requests for knife skills training at the association I train for. That makes sense to us, but it seems to puzzle some of the command and administrative staff. Let’s go through the logic of the situation as we see it.

1. POs will probably NOT need a knife as any kind of defensive weapon on duty. A knife is a deadly force weapon, and our sidearms are usually a better choice when deadly force is required...let alone a better tool to use from a public relations standpoint.

Some POs are under the impression that they can use a knife to disable an attacker attempting to disarm their handgun, but in our knife skills class we disprove that notion; it just isn’t really possible in the dynamic chaos of such an encounter. (Try accessing your knife while you are protecting your handgun and fighting off your attacker at full force and full speed if you don’t believe this.)

2. However, POs do definitely need to have a good utility knife on their person as a cutting tool. Lots of things need cutting on the job—from the mundane (donut boxes) to the dramatic (hangers.) Even the occasional seat belt.

Therefore we recommend that a good patrol or detective knife be a quality utility folder with a 3- to 4-inch half-serrated utility blade from one of the major manufacturers. It can be carried easily in the trauma plate pocket of a vest. (But see point 6 below.)

3. POs will face a knife as a threat, though. Over the last decade we have all become much more aware of the threat that edged weapons constitute, and it’s a rare officer in a mid-sized or large community who doesn’t encounter one as such on a regular basis. Yet it’s hard to appreciate just how dangerous knives can be unless you are trained with one.

Such training will not only make an officer safer because of their increased danger awareness, it will allow him/her to respond more effectively to a knife threat, and will allow him/her to more clearly articulate the reasons for the steps they took to deal with the situation.

4. A knife does make a very convenient off-duty weapon for officers who choose to go unarmed or who cannot be legally armed with a firearm in some jurisdictions.

5. A knife is an ideal weapon for undercover officers, who often must go in without a firearm on their person. No one gives the common pocket-clipped knife a second glance…yet it can be a formidable life-saving tool if the situation goes bad.

6. The preferred knife for uniformed officers in our opinion is a rescue tool. These are knives with a carbide tip on them for breaking windows. We have direct experience in my department of an officer needing to break a car window in order to save an attempted suicide victim, but being unable to do so with the tools immediately at hand, and having the window punch that was supposed to be in the cruiser missing (big surprise, huh?) (Fortunately, a hatchet borrowed from a passing DPW truck allowed the window to be broken and the victim’s life to be saved.)

What knives do we recommend? There are so many good ones out there! We are in the golden age of knife manufacturing, and every major manufacturer makes many excellent models that are suited to law enforcement work.

You don’t need to spend a lot of money—pick one of the good quality, moderately priced, 3-4 inch folding models with half-serrated blades from several of the major, widely distributed manufacturers.

Rescue-type knives are also made by several manufacturers. A “rescue knife” can really be any knife, but usually it denotes a knife with a blunt or semi-blunt tip, an at least partially serrated blade, often a recessed webbing slicer, and—critically—a carbide tip for window breaking.

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