Lately I’ve been considering the differences between how edged weapons are used in a duel as compared to a self-defense scenario, and the inherent differences in training for either of the two situations.
First, let’s define the two scenarios. Personally, I understand dueling as two individuals facing off with weapons and the duelists have them already in hand, and are preparing to attack each other. This scenario is common to a lot of knife training I’ve seen and in FMA it harks back to the age when disputes and challenges were settled through duels. Some would say that age has never actually left the Philippines, but that’s another discussion altogether. This kind of training – for duels - introduces the student to a good foundation of techniques and strategies for knife fighting. FMA knife training in general is well known for its effectiveness and the training is done mostly in the dueling scenario. The student learns how to use the weapon, how to avoid getting hit and how to use strategies such as feints to win the duel.
In such an engagement, the duelists may be aware of each others’ skill and will likely NOT initiate or completely commit to an attack. Usually in knife sparring – if done with an appreciation of the realities surrounding edged weapons - the dueling scenario is played out and very often the participants resort to “sniping” with quick cuts and jabs to the nearest target, which will be the arms or the weapon hand specifically.
In my opinion self-defense with edged weapons, in a modern context, has its unique requirements and thus self-defense-specific edged weapons training must address these needs. The training will be related to the more familiar FMA dueling scenario, in the sense that the weapon and how it will be used will remain the same. The differences in training will be on range, initial action and intent.
The defender in a paired self-defense edged weapon exercise must have his training knife either in a concealed sheath or folded, as he would in every day carry. In contrast with the dueling scenario which will have the two duelists standing out of range of jabs and slashes with weapons drawn, the defender in the self-defense training scenario must prepare to engage the attacker with empty handed tactics first, to allow him to create that reactive gap of time and space which plays a vital role in just about any self-defense situation. You need to create time and distance that will allow you to detect and “read” the attack, determine its type and direction and react to it. Creating the reactive gap is also meant to allow the defender to access his weapon.
In self-defense knife training the defender must accept that the attack might be initiated at closer range than dueling. He must then act quickly and decisively to create the reactive gap to allow for deploying the weapon. Single-mindedly going for a weapon in the face on an attack at close range without dealing with the initial attack first is extremely dangerous. My own personal strategy is to use my empty handed skills to allow me to go for my weapon. if I can end the fight empty handed and the situation doesn't warrant deadly force, then my weapons stays in my pocket. Which is why I consider empty handed skills just as important to the armed defender as the weapon itself.
In such a self-defense scenario, the defender has the odds already stacked against him, as compared to the relative “equality” granted to both parties in a duel. The attacker may or may not have his weapon drawn, but as anyone with good knife training experience knows, being within range of an edge weapon is not good at all. As I said, the odds are not in favor of the defender. The creation of that critical reactive gap of time and distance is very much a product of good training – and to some extent, favorable circumstances - which will include using the non-weapon hand to strike quickly and effectively, parry and deflect incoming strikes, footwork and body angling to protect the vital points and highly instinctive deployment of the weapon.
The third difference is intent and I feel this is the biggest difference between dueling and self-defense training. In dueling, the element of surprise is absent. The duelists are prepared to fight and are well aware of each others capability and are equally aware of the risk of engaging the opponent. Which is why knife sparring almost always starts with the cautious and probing sniping and slashing and will only progress to close range tactics once one of the duelists decides to initiate and remain within contact range. On the other hand I feel that an attack in a self-defense situation will be initiated in earnest. The attacker will probably not know of the defender’s skill or weapon so he’ll take the initiative and commit to the attack, whether it’s by accosting the defender and threatening him with the weapon, or worse, as a sudden slash to stab to kill or disable the defender right away. Although they can sometimes appear to be duels, prison stabbings are somewhat different because the weapons used, improvised knives called “shanks”, are often short and don’t have the effective edge or blade length to make dueling practical. To compensate, inmates often stab for the head and neck since these provide the most accessible vital points for their makeshift weapons. Thus a prison "shanking" is more of an ambush than a duel.
On the street, the attacker has likely already selected the victim based on his assessment of the situation and the victim’s self-defense capability. So if the attacker is initially robbing the victim and decides to escalate the situation to murder, the edged weapon attack will not be encumbered by any consideration of the possibility that the defender will have a weapon as well and the skill to use it. Thus any self-defense training must have the attacker promptly initiating the edged weapon assault on the defender, without the cautious regard that a duelist will have.
Depending on various circumstances, this full and committed attack can be both a blessing and a curse for the defender. A committed attack by the unskilled will most probably be slower and more telegraphic than what the defender is used to in practice, depending of course on the quality and quantity of the defender’s training. However, a committed attack will not be a simple stab or slash but rather a series of quick thrust, which the defender has to deal very quickly and decisively. At that point the choice of whether to be simply robbed or killed has already been made for the defender. The defender must use the sum total of his training in what will be a fight for his life. The response must be swift and violent, the skilled response of a trained fighter with the savage will to survive.