Tom Sotis Knife Defense Class Review
This weekend I attended a knife fighting class taught by Tom Sotis. I've been wanting to attend a class like this for a while now for two reasons. First, while I've carried a knife ever since I stared carrying a firearm, I don't really have any training in how to use it. My knowledge of knife fighting is limited to, "the pointy end goes in the other man." Getting some training in how to use a knife seemed like a good idea.
The second reason I wanted to attend this class was to learn more about how to deal with knife attacks. A lot of shooters seem to have an attitude when it comes to the knife. This attitude of smug condescension is exemplified by the old saying, "don't bring a knife to a gunfight." My first bit of education in the dangers of a knife attack came in the form of the Tueller Drill. The fact that an individual armed with a knife could pose a threat to someone with a gun from that far away was a bit of an eye opener. The real eye opener came in Gabe Suarez's force-on-force class. Some of the exercises we did there made it very clear that an assailant within two yards is often more of a hand to hand problem than a gun problem. Since then I've been looking for good hand to hand and knife training to help me deal with attackers at these ranges.
The class led off with introductions. There were around fourteen people in the class. Most did not have previous knife fighting experience, but almost everyone there had some firearms skills. Some were local to Chattanooga, one flew in from Denver, and four of us were from South Carolina. There was one husband and wife team and a couple of father-son pairs.
We started off the class by pairing up. I paired up with a fellow about my size (6'5") (he goes by C-ShraD on this forum, I believe). He was one of the folks in the class with previous experience in Tom's classes, and I think having a more experienced partner definitely helped.
The first thing we did was to just alternately attack each other with the training blades. Having the students start out by trying to put the skills into practice without any training is an interesting choice. Tom does it so that students can get a feel for the problem without any preconceptions. It seems like a good idea, but I don't know if I'd want to try it with live fire handgun training. It might have some interesting applications in Force on Force classes with airsoft guns though.
After letting us beat on each other for a bit, Tom introduced the basic building block of all the defenses in the class, the Spread X. This is basically an X shaped block using your forearms. One arm (the one on the side the attack is coming from) blocks the strike near the assailant's wrist, while the other blocks just above the elbow. This seems to work really well as a reactive block. When someone tries to stab you with a knife, the instinct is to throw your arms out to keep the pointy thing away from you. This just teaches you to throw your arms out in a particular, more effective way. We started practicing this versus a low attack (basically someone trying to stick a knife in your gut), then moved on to parrying high forehand and backhand slashes.
One of the things Tom pointed out at this point is that these tend to work a lot better when your hips are facing the attack. This kind of contradicts the standard gun oriented advice to blade your body to the threat with your gun away from the assailant. When I do the 'Interview Stance' in addition to blading my body a bit, I also only have one hand up to fend off the assailant. The other is hooked on the hem of my cover garment ready to draw. In this class I found the techniques work a lot better with both hands up around neck level. When I had my hands down low, even low strikes were more difficult to block. High strikes I often didn't get to in time. I still like the interview stance for confronting threats at longer distances, but I think I need to reevaluate it for closer range confrontations (say, less than 3 yards).
After we'd gotten in some decent practice with the Spread X, Tom introduced the Alternate X. It's the same X shaped block, but rather than blocking with both hands simultaneously, you block with the arm on the side the attack is coming from and then bring the other in a moment later. This may be because your other arm was occupied, and you couldn't get it out in time (as a reactive response). However, it's also useful because the second arm can be used to knock the assailant's knife arm out of the way. Throw in a check to get him turned around or deal with his other arm and this can set up a good shove to get him away from you and create the time and distance necessary to flee or bring a weapon of your own into play.
Creating this time and distance is very important. If there's one thing to take away from this class it's that trying to fend off a knife attack with one hand while trying to draw your gun or knife with the other will get you cut up. Defending and drawing at the same time is not a good strategy. Even if you intend to get off the X away from the assailant, if he's already on you, you need to create enough distance to do it effectively.
Continuing with the building block approach, Tom had us throw in a parry before the block. By swinging the assailant's knife arm down and to the other side with a parry it becomes possible to set the assailant up to make a specific attack. If you parry a forehand strike and swing it around to the opposite side, he's probably going to come back at you with a backhand. It's much easier to do an Alt-X when you know what's probably coming.
What we'd done so far was empty hand, but the techniques work the same with a gun or knife in hand. If you've already got a weapon in hand, then rather than shoving an assailant away after doing an Alt-X, you can use it to strike. We worked on this a bit with both a knife and a handgun.
Tom taught some really interesting ways to use a handgun in a close quarters situation like this, very different from the pure retention shooting/speed rock type stuff you see in most handgun classes. He talked about using the handgun as an impact weapon, as well as shooting it in the middle of a hand to hand struggle.
After giving everyone a chance to shower and take some painkillers, we met at a rib restaurant called Sticky Fingers for dinner. In addition to being a great fighter and teacher, Tom also makes for some interesting dinner conversation. I also had a chance to get to know the other South Carolinians in the class a bit better.
The next morning, we reconvened and started off with a review of the techniques we learned the first day. After going through the existing techniques, Tom introduced the Strike X. This is basically an Alternate X, but instead of leaving the second hand hanging around waiting to get in on the action, you use it to attack the target. One important thing Tom pointed out is that you don't want the strike to interfere with the block. The strike is like a bonus hit, but you still want to get that arm in on the blocking action, even if the assailant tries to block or otherwise interfere. That means keeping the strikes on the side of the opponent's body near the knife (though stabbing at his neck or face works well too) and using slashes that put your arm in the right position to finish the X.
The Strike X is much more of a proactive technique than the Spread X, which is more reactive, or the Alternate X, which can be proactive or reactive. If you know an attack is coming, it's relatively easy to thrown in a little strike on your way to the block. If the attack is a surprise and you're behind the curve, just getting the hands out there is probably going to be hard enough.
All the work we'd done with a knife so far involved a conventional forward grip. Tom introduced the reverse grip to the exercises, and showed us some ways to use the reverse grip knife for hooking during the Alternate X and Strike X. It also opens up some very nasty strikes after you've got their blade out of the way. Clearing the blade and stabbing the leg as you move past them and get out of the area seems like an excellent way to deal with someone armed with a contact weapon.
The last big topic of the class was takedowns. This is a follow-up to the Alt X and Strike X maneuvers, taking the assailant down to the ground where they're less of a threat to you. Rather than some flashy sweep or throw, the ones Tom showed us were direct, and fairly brutal. Get the assailant turned around, grab the head or neck area, and pull down and back. He showed us some interesting (and painful) spots to use for the grab.
Tom teaches an entire class on takedowns, so what we did in an hour or so here clearly just scratches the surface. One of the real interesting things he showed us was how relatively small changes in body position could have a huge effect on how stable the body structure is. Just changing the angle of the foot by a few inches or moving the position of the arms can have a dramatic impact on how much resistance the body can put up.
Overall, this was a great class. It's been a good start at filling an important hole in my self-defense skill set.
One of the things that was emphasized before the class was the importance of bringing some sort of forearm protection. I brought a pair of neoprene thigh wraps, as recommended. These did a pretty good job of protecting my arm when practicing the blocks. My left arm, which was mostly used for blocking, came through pretty well. It was a bit sore, but wasn't bruised or really beat up. However, the thigh wraps didn't do quite so well when striking. My right arm, which was used for both blocking and striking, took a lot more punishment than the left one did. It was pretty swollen for a day or so after the class. I'd definitely recommend doubling up on protection for the right arm.
The NOK training blades we used were great. They really allow full strength attacks without posing a great risk of injury. Most folks used blue guns, but Randy Harris had an airsoft pistol (which he used sans pellets). I brought both, but given the way we were using them as impact weapons, I'm not sure how well my airsoft pistol would hold up. I went with the blue gun.
While Tom's material was really great, one of the best things about the class was a chance to meet some other folks from South Carolina. I only moved here a year ago, and I don't know that many folks interested in self defense around here. Despite being more than half a day's drive away, there were four folks from South Carolina at the class. We exchanged telephone numbers and e-mail addresses and hopefully there will be some opportunity to get together to shoot or do some hand to hand practice in the future.
I'd like to thank Randy Harris, who did a great job hosting the class. I've interacted with him over on Warrior Talk for a while now, but this was my first chance to meet him in person. I didn't get a chance to talk to him as much as I would have liked, but hopefully I'll have more opportunities to take some classes in Chattanooga in the future.
Finally, I'd like to thank Tom for coming out and training us. He's clearly got an immense amount of knowledge and he does a great job of teaching it to other people. He had a very step by step building block type approach that made this stuff easy to grasp, even for someone like me who has very little experience in this sort of area. I definitely want to continue to train with him in the future.