A famous man (no, whoops, that was me) once wrote in an article for a British police magazine (Police Review, Vol.95, November 13, 1987) that the key to defending against a knife was to remember your mother's good advice when she caught you playing with the kitchen cutlery: "Don't play with that, you'll get cut!" In fact, the hardest aspect of defending against a knife is realising that you probably will get cut in some way, and you may have to give up a piece of yourself to get the knife wielder.
I don't often go into the specifics of defending against such weapons with my students because it is relatively useless to learn knife or club defences until you already have considerable physical skill in all the basics and have absorbed Erle Montaigue's excellent advice, or that of someone who really knows something about defending against such cutlery. It is also important to remember that you have to learn how to handle these weapons offensively with some ability to learn how to defend against them.
Incidentally, this holds true of unarmed techniques as well. You can't learn to defend properly if you have no idea of how to defend, and vice versa. You could call it another aspect of Yin and Yang being balanced!
To summarise Erle's approach to knife defence (and I do recommend his videos on the topic): evade (get out of the way), bump (strike the arm holding the knife in the joints, or where the nerve endings come close to the surface, away from you—to cause pain and, hopefully, knock the weapon loose from the attacker's grip), and attack vital points (eyes, throat).
The latter may seem harsh, but a cut to an artery can cause you to go into shock or bleed to death in a very short period of time. The point of a knife is often so small and sharp that only a relatively light amount of force is required for deep penetration that can lead to severe infection and death.
In unarmed self-defence you might be able to accept a blow from the fist to the gut in order to strike a more vital area, but this cannot work with a knife, as even a small cut to an artery can cause death in minutes from bleeding or shock. Similarly, an experienced knife fighter will expect you to block or grab the hand holding the weapon, and many are prepared to fold at the elbow, pull or twist the blade back to sever your fingers as you try to hold their attacking arm, etc.
More important, most techniques in unarmed martial arts require great skill to have any success of working, but the attacker's knife hand will often move in very small circles and erratically, as very little body force is necessary to inflict deep cuts with a sharp knife, and it takes little practice to be able to attack successfully with a knife—especially compared to how long it takes to learn how to defend against such attacks.
Without losing sight of the fact that any edged weapon can cause cuts to arteries that could kill you in minutes by causing shock or blood loss, it is essential to remember in all aspects of such training that the person holding the weapon—not the weapon itself-—is your real concern. Quite often the sudden appearance of a weapon will prove distracting to the point where the attacker can kick or strike you with his free limbs and then use his weapon at his leisure.
Being clubbed is similar to being attacked with a knife, although it is marginally easier to defend against someone using a blunt impact weapon if you have any skill at all. A broken arm can be survived if it means you take out the attacker, but a cut throat to cripple your attacker is a very poor trade indeed! In addition, you may be able roll with the impact of a blunt weapon if it is hitting a muscular portion of your body in order to counter-attack, but it is still risky business.
As with any aspect of self-defence, you need to have excellent martial skills and practise against the common ways of swinging and wielding a knife or club to have any hope of being able to do so on the street.
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