Self-Defense Strategies: Using a Knife or Pistol With One Hand

posted on December 31, 2018

Since I have been employed in the professional-protection industry as an edged-weapons and firearms instructor for more than 30 years, I am often asked about self-defense with a knife versus self-defense with a handgun. Turns out there are more similarities than differences—especially when it comes to deploying either with one hand.

Most folks who carry a gun also carry a knife. Because there are certain places where you cannot carry a gun (such as government buildings, airports, posted businesses, etc.), an edged weapon is often your next-best defensive option. Like a gun, if you’re trained in the use of an edged weapon, it can be an effective life-saving tool.

The most-likely reasons you may be restricted to only one hand for defense is your other hand is needed elsewhere in exigent circumstances. Perhaps it’s opening a door, preventing you from falling or holding on to a loved one. Regardless of what it may be doing, you cannot always use both hands, because one hand may not be available.

Given that you may have already applied your situational awareness to avoid or mitigate an active threat and you were unable to extricate yourself from that nasty situation, your only remaining option may be to defend against a violent physical threat by employing a tool for self-defense.

During the process of a weapon-hand-only deployment, your other hand is otherwise committed and therefore cannot be used in support. In this situation, what’s the most effective way to wield either a handgun or edged weapon in self-defense using only one hand? Presentation, deployment grip, body position and control.

Drawing from concealment with one hand must be practiced. Your non-shooting hand might be otherwise occupied.

Whether it’s a firearm or a knife, the first thing that needs to happen, following your last-resort decision to deploy either, is to access and remove it from its carry position. The next step is to point the business end of the tool—muzzle for a gun, edge and tip for a knife—toward the immediate threat and utilize the tool for self-defense.

Presentation – Handgun
If it’s a pistol carried concealed, this means you need to first defeat any cover garment(s) to attain a positive grip on the firearm with your strong hand (access), disengage any holster retention devices in place, then present the muzzle in alignment with the threat.

Managing your cover garment with one hand can be done, but it can be challenging. Grip purchase on your handgun while it’s in the holster is a crucial step. It is the one and only chance you’ll be afforded to acquire a positive hand position, firmly seated, nearest the bore line all while increasing grip pressure as you reposition the muzzle from its carry position into alignment with your most-immediate threat.

Drawing a knife from concealment presents its own challenges, such as quickly and safely deploying the blade.

Presentation – Knife
As with the handgun, manipulating any cover garment(s) is no easy task, but with practice, it can be done in a timely manner. From your carry position (pocket, IWB, etc.), concealed or open, achieve a positive grip, clear the knife from its carry location, rapidly deploy the blade—by opening a folder or unsheathing a fixed-blade—and then present the edge and tip of the exposed blade in alignment with the immediate threat.

Regardless of what type of everyday carry (EDC) you may have on board, the most time-consuming part of the entire deployment process is access and presentation. To become proficient at this process you need practice. Lots of practice. Nothing other than multiple repetitions will allow you to gain the skill and confidence needed to rapidly deploy your defensive tool.

A grip where the thumb contacts the middle finger may be best for you.

Deployment Grip – Sympathetic Squeeze
At Gunsite Academy, where I have taught for 20 years, one of the mandatory lectures required of us to pass on to our students is the perils of a sympathetic squeeze—an involuntary inter-limb interaction of both hands. In plain speak, it is the simultaneous movement of opposite fingers or hands when you are under duress.

For example, if you grab something during a crisis, it is very likely your non-involved hand will likewise close. Sympathetic squeeze can occur with many actions: opening a door, flipping a light switch, grabbing a handhold or attempting to operate a firearm. The reason this is noteworthy is that if you suddenly and unexpectedly grasp something firmly with your non-weapon hand, odds are that you will do the same with your weapon hand. This is another reason why Col. Jeff Cooper created firearm-safety rule number three: keep your finger off the trigger until your sights are on the target.

Like fire—which can burn your house to the ground, but also be used to cook food and keep you warm—sympathetic squeeze, with your finger outside of the trigger guard, can gain you a stronger weapon-hand grip on your deployed EDC tool. You can use this to your advantage and allow your weapon hand to hold at the same amount of pressure as your opposite hand and vice versa.

Some shooters prefer angling the thumb upward for added stability.

Deployment Grip – Handgun
Once your handgun is presented, you have several deployment-grip options delineated by thumb position. The most common are: flagged thumb, straight thumb or wrapped thumb.

For the flagged thumb, your weapon-hand thumb is pointed straight up or on a slight forward angle and applies opposing pressure to the slide nearest the rear sight. Your opposing three gripping fingers are positioned under the trigger guard, providing a counterbalance.

With a straight thumb, your weapon-hand thumb presses firmly against the inside of your slide and points in the same direction as the muzzle, acting as both a counterbalance and an alignment guide.

A more-traditional thumbs-forward grip is also a single-hand option.

For the wrapped thumb, your weapon-hand thumb is wrapped completely around the grip, contacting your social finger to complete a “closed-circuit” grip behind the trigger guard, assisting in the stabilization of the handgun. If your thumb is not able to contact your finger, it’s best to try one of the other thumb positions.

Which is the best of these three options? The raw truth is that each of us has a completely different size and shape hand. Depending upon your genetics and what firearm you have your mitt wrapped around, it’s on you to figure out which of these (or something else) works best for you.

Regardless of thumb position, an unsupported grip demands a greater level of recoil control than if you were using both hands to rapidly deliver multiple rounds downrange.

(l.) Pointing the tip of a knife’s blade at the threat is a solid defensive option. (ctr.) With the blade below your hand and facing the threat, various striking maneuvers become possible, making this another good option for defensive purposes. (r.) Another potential blade position is down and to the rear, which also allows for solid defensive strikes.

Deployment Grip – Knife

Once your knife is presented, you have several deployment-grip options delineated by blade position. The most common are: tip pointing forward, blade tip pointing downward on a 90-degree angle, with the blade facing forward and blade tip pointing downward on a 90-degree angle with the blade facing backward.

Like the gun, the knife must be welded to your hand. Unlike the handgun, which can be used at any distance, a knife is a contact weapon and can only be used in self-defense at “bad-breath” ranges. Because you must be at arm’s length or closer to the physical threat, a knife can be more readily knocked out of your hand—another reason to keep a solid grip.

In Filipino Martial Arts (FMA), there are several sub-systems such as espada y daga (sword and knife style) or doble baston (double stick or double sword) where it’s imperative to utilize the sympathetic squeeze to your advantage, not only for the requisite firm grip, but also for balance and steady flow of movement.

Proper stance and body position are key elements in any form of combat.

Body Position – Handgun
The position of your body when utilizing the handgun with one hand can be versatile, yet still allow you the best tactical advantage given the circumstances. If you are wearing body armor, then you would square off to the threat in a defensive position, making optimal usage of your gear. Without armor, you may want to consider blading your body for the usage of cover or concealment. Regardless of defensive position—and because you don’t have use of your opposite hand—it is recommended to keep your weight shifted forward in an aggressive manner.

The advantage of an aggressive body posture (weight forward, upper body braced, arm and hand directly behind the gun, wrists and shoulders locked) is a stable platform resulting in a higher probability of effective combat round placement. The downside is that you’re locked into place. You’re the only one who can make that decision of when to do what based on the need to shoot-and-move or stay put and use cover. Either way, you must maintain a stable fighting platform in case you need to shoot again.

The firearm can be held in either the retention position (up high, wrist firmly pressed against your upper rib cage, elbow pointing straight back, slide canted outboard) in the event the threat is at contact distance, or at full extension to take advantage of sighted fire if needed for a more-technical shot.

Similar to one-handed defense with a firearm, a proper fighting stance is vital for success with a bladed tool.

Body Position – Knife
As with the body positions for a firearm, with a knife you can either be squared off to the threat or blade your body. If bladed, it is recommended to have your strong foot forward like a boxer or a fencer, as this puts your knife in closer proximity to the threat, affording you multiple defense options.

Paramount to utilizing a knife in self-defense is business-end alignment. With the blade-forward hold, the blade edge and your knuckles must both be facing in the same direction, placing a sharp piece of steel designed for cutting between you and the threat. If you choose to point the blade tip at the threat, it should be pointed like a spear directly at your attacker’s throat, which makes a formidable barrier to a single- or double-leg takedown.

Blade, weapon hand, body—get your body behind the blade facing the threat with a forward aggressive stance. Like with the gun, you want to keep your upper body braced for sudden impact.

Just like handgun recoil, after you strike with a knife, you need to bring the blade immediately back into a ready fighting position for your next defensive movement. Firearm or knife, you need to maintain the stability of your fighting platform.

Command of the Handgun
Everyone talks about the need for speed and accuracy. Yes, it’s true you want to make accurate round placement and be the first to do so. However, too many defensive shooters focus directly on speed (going fast) or accuracy (minus alacrity). Given three decades in the industry, it’s my observation that striving for speed and accuracy doesn’t result in speed and accuracy—control is the DNA of speed and accuracy.

When you have control of the gun—especially when using one weapon hand—you have control over speed and accuracy. Control is the mastery of the fundamentals of shooting: trigger control, muzzle control and delivery control. Trigger control is a study that could fill entire volumes, but for brevity it’s best defined as: “Rapidly moving the trigger using complete mechanical isolation of the trigger finger not exceeding the amount of pressure and direction needed to effectively break the round.” Muzzle control is executing good trigger control without knocking the muzzle out of alignment with your intended target. Delivery control is nothing more than maintaining physical stability after your last round and in anticipation of your next round.

How can you find that delicate balance between speed and accuracy? With control. The greater your control of the fundamentals, the more precise your round placement and the quicker your delivery will be.

Command of the Knife
With a knife, a balance of speed and accuracy is also king. Speed with a blade is rapid movement with precision placement. However, just flopping the exposed blade around in front of you like a fish out of water gains you no advantage. Remember your hand position—knuckles forward, blade tip toward throat, etc. When moving the blade to slash, thrust, hack or any combination thereof, maintain control of exactly where the edge and tip are pointed. For example, make sure you’re slashing with the sharp edge and that your knuckles are pointing in the same direction as that edge.

Accuracy with a knife is hitting your intended target. In the FMA, depending on the specific system, there are at least five basic striking angles for using a knife in self-defense. Slashing, for example, might be: from the upper-right-hand corner of your target (palm up) to the lower-left-hand corner (palm down); from the upper-left-hand corner (palm down) to the lower-right-hand corner (palm up); from the right-side middle (palm up); from the left-side middle (palm down) or a straight thrust to the middle of your target.

The balance of speed and accuracy with a blade is identical to that of a gun in that you cannot sacrifice one for the other. It’s yet again all about control—control of your blade edge and point position, control of your grip, control of your hand position, control of your body and maintaining a stable fighting platform.

In any given self-defense scenario, there are many similarities between using a knife and a gun with only one hand. The bottom line is to stay focused on doing what it takes to solve the tactical problem. When it comes to managing extreme physical violence, it is far better to have something in your free hand as opposed to nothing. However, the weapon is only a tool, and being proficient with it is on you. Should it ever come down to it, your fate could very well be determined by your skill with a defensive tool in one hand.


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