Ask someone to name three deadly weapons, and they’ll probably say, “Guns, and knives, and , uh, … , uh, …”. Regardless of whether they can name a third, guns and knives come to mind first as the most dangerous, most deadly weapons an individual is likely to get his or her hands on.

Do knives come in a distant second place in the threat Olympics, or are they just as dangerous as guns? Do you need to be worried if your assailant has just a “little knife” ? If someone is coming at you with a knife, how close do they have to be before you can justifiably shoot them? Isn’t it over-reacting to use a gun for defense against an attacker who has a knife?

How Dangerous?

Why is it that some people think a knife is a lesser danger than a gun? Sure, a gun can injure or kill from a distance, while using a knife requires up-close-and-personal contact. (Throwing knives is a stunt for the movies, not a credible threat from the average knife-wielding punk.) But that doesn’t make knives any less dangerous.

Knives don’t need to be reloaded. An attacker with a 5 shot revolver will have to stop to reload after 5 shots; one with a 20 shot semi-auto will have to reload after 20 shots. But a knife is like the Energizer bunny — it just keeps going and going and going. It is not uncommon, in cases of murderous rage, for victims to be stabbed over a hundred times. Here’s a test you can do. Take a rubber knife or other soft object to simulate a knife. Have someone with a stopwatch time a 10-second interval while counting the number of times you can “stab” or “slash” someone in the back, arms, shoulders, and neck. Stab as fast as you can, while still being careful not to hurt the person who is helping you with this test. You will both be astonished at how many “wounds” you can inflict. It will be far more than the number of shots you could deliver from your gun in 10 seconds.

Knife wounds are very serious. Ask any surgeon which is easier to repair, a wound from a bullet that went clean through the abdomen, or a deep knife slash in the same anatomical area. Although the mortality rate from guns is higher than for knives, knives can cause devastating, lasting, crippling injury, just as guns can do.

Knives don’t take a lot of skill to operate successfully. Someone with no training in how to hold a handgun, acquire and maintain a sight picture, control the trigger, and operate any safety levers is actually not very likely to hit a vital area of their intended target on the first try. They might even miss entirely (not that I’d volunteer to stand in front of such a person as a demonstration). But if I were forced to choose between that and facing a novice (but absolutely determined) knife-wielder, I’d take my chances with the shooter.

Knives don’t miss very often. Sure, a knife attack can sometimes be thwarted, but if someone is close to you with a blade and determined to do you harm, they will probably succeed, particularly if they are stronger, faster, and have longer arms than you do.

Knives of all sizes can be lethal. I’ve seen autopsy and police photos of people killed with knives. A particularly memorable one showed a woman who had been killed with a pocket knife having a blade less than 2″ long, then completely dismembered with the same knife, and then packed into a box like a puzzle with the pieces in the wrong order. Several major arteries and veins are near the skin – the jugular at the side of the neck is about half an inch deep – and can be reached easily with a short blade.

If you are in a knife fight, you will probably get cut. Expert teachers of the art of knife-fighting and knife defense differ on exactly how high this probability is, but the most optimistic I’ve ever seen is an estimate that you have a 50% chance of getting cut, and that applies only if you are specifically trained in how to react. Yet many people survive their gunfights without being shot.

You are just as likely to be injured by a knife wielding attacker as a gun wielding attacker. For people who understand the realities of both weapons, the thought of being attacked with a knife is at least as terrifying as the thought be being attacked with a gun.

People who think of guns as far more fearsome than knives may be excessively influenced by unrealistic media portrayals of firearms, or they may be desensitized to knives because of their helpful, non-threatening presence in our daily lives.

Be aware that, although you may have an accurate and appropriate understanding of the lethality of knives, the prosecutor, jury members, and even police you deal with may not share that understanding. How, then, should you plan to defend yourself (on the street, at home, or in court) against a knife?

How Close is Too Close?

OK, so I hope by now we agree that it is reasonable to use a gun to defend against a knife. But surely not when the knife-wielder is a block or two away. Clearly, if you wait until he is within arms reach of you before drawing your gun, you aren’t likely to survive the encounter. At what point does he become an “immediate and unavoidable” threat that justifies the highest level of response?

You can find out for yourself with a little test called the Tueller Drill, named after Dennis Tueller, a law enforcement trainer who invented it to teach police at what distance an assailant with a knife becomes a lethal threat, justifying the use of a firearm in response.

This is easy and fun to do. It is best done with a group of people of varying ages, heights, weights, and physical conditions (though people who can’t run should not participate). The main requirement is a stopwatch and at least 30 feet of smooth, level ground that everyone can run on without falling. You are each going to simulate an enraged attacker with a contact weapon (such as a knife or club or fist) running all-out toward a hapless victim across a typical street or home-interior distance, and you are going to find out just how long it takes attackers to land the first blow.

Here’s how it goes. The “attacker” stands at one end of the course. The “victim” stands 21″ away, facing the attacker, takes a big step to the left, and holds out his/her right arm at shoulder height, palm facing the attacker. Whenever the attacker is ready, s/he starts to run as fast as possible toward the attacker’s outstretched hand. The timer starts the stopwatch when s/he sees the attacker move (thus simulating the reaction time of the victim as part of the timing process). The attacker runs at full speed past the victim, lightly slapping the victim’s outstretched palm in passing, to simulate the first contact with a weapon. (Be sure, before starting, that there is enough open area behind the victim for the attacker to slow down after passing the victim at full speed.) At the sound of the slap, the timer hits the stopwatch button. Give each person the chance to play the part of the attacker, and write down for each person their name, age, height, weight, physical condition, footgear, and the time it took them to close that 21′ gap.

Surprised at the results? Most people are. If your group is like the many I’ve seen do this drill, you will probably record an average time of around 1.5 seconds. One and a half seconds. My notes from one class at Lethal Force Institute show that ten people, average age 33, ran this drill with an average time of 1.33 seconds. For this short burst of energy and speed, age does not seem to be much of a handicap; in this class, the 60-year old had a time of 1.3; the 12 year old had a time of 1.28. Your drill will probably be closer to the 1.5 second average, so that’s what we’ll use for the rest of this article. One and a half seconds.

Now think back to your performance on the range (or, better yet, time yourself the next time you are there, drawing from concealment and shooting 2 rounds on a humanoid target at 7 yards. If you are very good, you can do this in about 1.5 seconds; if you are not so practiced (particularly at the “from concealment” part) it will take longer. But a good rule of thumb is that, in a defensive situation, it takes about 1.5 seconds to draw and fire.

Now put this fact together with the Tueller drill. If it takes one and a half seconds to draw and fire, and it takes the same amount of time for someone 7 yards away to run at you and stab you with a knife . . . then if you wait until that assailant is 7 yards away, it will already be too late for you to successfully defend yourself!

The concept of the reactionary gap is quite real. That is the distance that you must maintain from a threat in order to have enough time to react defensively if you have to. For contact weapons, the Tueller Drill proves that if your gun is holstered, you must maintain a reactionary gap of more than 21 feet, or else you will not be able to defend against an attack.

One way to use this information on the street (or in your home) is to take steps, literally, to widen the distance between you and the knife-waving thug. Distance is your friend, so do all you can to move away from the threat, or to a position that will slow him down when he attacks.

Another way to use this information is to realize that most of the 1.5 seconds that it takes you to draw and fire goes into the draw, not the firing. In fact, if you have a gun drawn and in your hand at the ready, it takes about half a second to react to a threat with the decision to pull the trigger, and to do so.

This means that if you are faced with a knife threat, even as far away as 7 yards, it is perfectly justifiable for you to draw your gun in response to that threat. You don’t have to fire yet. In fact, by drawing you’ve just made it easier for your assailant to decide to break off the attack (after all, everyone knows a gun trumps a knife in a fight, and if he sees your gun and your willingness to use it he is very unlikely to continue to the point where you have to shoot him).

Seven yards is a long way. Most rooms in most homes aren’t that long, so if someone with a knife is in the same room with you, that’s too close – you need your gun in your hand now, not snug in its holster waiting for a higher level of threat.

Protect Yourself in Court

You know how close is too close, but how can you prove this to a jury? One way to help is to take the paper with the Tueller Drill results, date it, and keep it. It can help your lawyer prove to the jury that you knew, because of that test, that the reactionary gap was longer than most people assume. Once the jury knows what you knew at the time of the attack, they will be forced to realize that it was not only reasonable but necessary to draw that gun sooner rather than later.

Knife attacks are vicious, highly dangerous, and extremely difficult to defend against with anything other than a gun. If you ever find yourself assaulted by a man with a blade, don’t waste a moment thinking that he isn’t as dangerous as if he had a gun. Just be glad you have your gun, and use it!

This article was reprinted from Women&Guns magazine, March 1997, Copyright © 1997, Lyn Bates