Firstly, I think we need to clarify what the actual point of discussion is. The question is not: “Can an unarmed combat specialist protect themselves effectively against an attacker wielding a knife?” The answer to this question has been clearly answered already. Yes, there have been many cases throughout history of people effectively defending themselves against armed assailants with their bare hands. In fact, when we talk about people fighting against the odds, one should also take a look at incidents in which average people have successfully fought off wild animals such as leopards, tigers and lions. In some cases even killing the animals with their bare hands or improvised weapons. It certainly is possible. But the question is: “Is an unarmed combat specialist as lethal as an average person with a knife?”
How do you define lethality? I would define it using simple science. It’s about effort and resultant effect. We train in the traditional methods of Kung Fu or Wushu to enhance and refine our body mechanics. These enhanced body mechanics allow us to strike much harder, move faster and use less energy doing so than someone who does not possess that training. With the required training, it is possible to kill or severely injure someone with your bare hands, but the amount of effort that you have to expend to do so will on average be far higher than the effort to accomplish a similar effect with a weapon. Despite the years and years of training, enhanced control, efficiency and optimisation. Let’s take a knife as an example. A knife is primarily a pressure amplifier. It channels the force of your arm into a very thin edge or point. This increases the force per unit area applied to the target which makes it much easier to damage the target. Try chopping an apple in half with the knife-edge of your hand. Not easy, is it? Now try the same with a knife. Far easier, isn’t it?
Although we may be capable of breaking bricks with our hands after years of training, the amount of effort that we have to put into the strike is always going to be higher than if we were using a hammer. That’s why tools were invented. They make things easier. And a weapon is a type of tool.
As a further example, let’s look at a hand-gun. The gun-wielder pulls a tiny trigger which releases a spring-loaded pin into a small cap of primer explosive which ignites the main explosive charge in the body of the shell casing. The explosive charge in the shell casing causes an attached projectile to be rapidly accelerated along the length of the gun barrel tube before leaving the gun travelling at speeds which can be in excess of the speed of sound. This projectile possesses immense kinetic energy in a very small package because of its velocity. It is very lethal and all the wielder had to do was pull a trigger. Hardly any effort at all to kill someone. The relative lethality of a gun-wielder is insanely high compared to an unarmed person. Regardless of the level of training of the unarmed person.
To answer the question: “Will you ever reach a stage in your training where you will be as lethal bare-handed as someone armed with a weapon?”. The answer is no, based on relative lethality. So it begs the question as to why we bother training how to fight bare-handed or even with simple hand-to-hand weapons at all? Why not skip all that and go straight into training with a fully-automatic assault rifle? Well, it depends on what you’re training for. If you’re training for self-defence, you should train for the absolute worst-case scenario. The worst-case scenario is a situation in which you are unarmed. Most of us do not get to walk around town with weapons for self-defence. In fact, this approach is not even legal in Australia. We’re not even allowed pepper-spray for self-defence here. Good thing that the god-like Australian government is omnipresent and able to intervene in each and every situation to ensure that we are protected (spot the sarcasm). So the odds are that you will be unarmed in a self-defence situation. Best to prepare for the event then, hey?
Remember that this article is not addressing whether or not it is possible to defend yourself against an armed opponent. This is not even a point of discussion. Of course it is possible to defend yourself against an armed opponent – do some reading of your own. You’ll find plenty of examples from real life which prove that it is possible. As mentioned before, there are also plenty of examples of people fighting off animals. Unlike humans, animals have natural weaponry such as big teeth, powerful jaws, insanely powerful muscles and great, big claws.
Look at this guy for instance:
Harry Wolhuter who killed a lion with his knife while in a semi-conscious state after it had seized him in its jaws and successfully dragged him off his horse. What is the relative lethality of an adult lion compared to a human with a knife?
Well, I couldn’t find accurate stats on the lion’s strength, but it would be comparable to that of a tiger which can carry double its body weight (over 500kg), can run at over 60km/hr and can smash a cow’s skull with a single swipe of its paw.
Let’s say that I’d be putting my money on the lion. And yet, Harry Wolhutter survived and overcame his superior adversary.
This is where combat training pays off. It increases your chances of survival significantly. But you will never be as lethal as the guy with the gun. Don’t fool yourself. It’s a dangerous fantasy notion to entertain. Stay vigilant and always respect your opponent as well as the situation. Never take anything for granted.
Written by SiFu Lester Walters, head of the Chinese Martial Arts and Health Centre Australia