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How to train to survive a shank attack

One of the most dangerous and feared homemade weapons in corrections is the shank or shiv; here’s how to defend against an attack


Correctional officers can be attacked by inmates using a variety of weapons.

Improvised weapons consist of weapons of opportunity (any item lying around) that are used to strike, swing or throw at staff, or weapons manufactured by an inmate for the sole purpose of injuring or killing.

One of the most dangerous and feared is the “shank” or “shiv,” typically defined as any homemade prison knife.

This March 5, 2015 photo provided by the New York City Department of Correction shows homemade weapons confiscated from Rikers Island jails in New York during sweeps on March 3 and March 4. (New York City Department of Correction via AP)
This March 5, 2015 photo provided by the New York City Department of Correction shows homemade weapons confiscated from Rikers Island jails in New York during sweeps on March 3 and March 4. (New York City Department of Correction via AP)

Prison shanks are generally made to puncture versus slice skin. A puncture wound is a more effective and efficient killing mechanism than slicing. Plus inmates can more easily fashion a point on most items that, with enough force, can penetrate the human body.

Knife attack defense techniques

Martial arts and defensive tactics training offer numerous techniques for confronting knife attackers.

Some disciplines stress striking to incapacitate the attacker as the primary means of defense. Others emphasize trapping the weapon and disarming the attacker, or incapacitating the limb. Most of these have some merit in their application, although they are also limited by their assumptions. These assumptions include:

  • Assuming an attacker is going to attempt to slice;
  • Assuming the victim has the time and opportunity to prepare a defense;
  • Assuming the fighting style being taught provides the best opportunity for a defense.

Inmates frequently use puncturing weapons and utilize the element of surprise in attacks. In addition, not all potential victims are the same. The size, strength or even skill level of the intended target can influence the type of response they utilize. Consider all these factors when determining how to respond to a knife attack.

Types of inmate knife attacks

The three most popular methods of attack used by inmates are:

  • Overhand
  • Underhand
  • Slicing or swinging

While researching this article and reviewing 50 online videos depicting knife attacks, the overhand attack was used 65 percent of the time. This is likely due to the fact that attacks are generally emotional in nature. During emotional responses, the body frequently resorts to gross motor or strength-based movements. Similarly, fist fights often start with a haymaker style punch. The overhand knife attack is also an emotional style of response and is very similar to the image depicted in the movie “Psycho” where the killer uses an overhand throwing motion to plunge the knife into the victim.

The underhand attack was used in 29 percent of the attacks. Nearly three quarters of these assaults were calculated surprise attacks. The attacks either resembled an underhand style softball throw or a thrusting motion directed at the mid-section of the victim.

In both the overhand and underhand attack, a pattern emerged. The attacks were often a surprise in nature and the attackers frequently used a frenzy of stabs during the attack. The frenzy was part of an initial cluster of strikes to start the assault or continued until the victim appeared incapacitated. Most edged-weapons classes do not address this level of ferocity of attack, which is extremely difficult to defend against.

The slicing or swinging style occurred in 6 percent of the assaults. In each of these attacks, a larger knife or machete style instrument was used. Of the three types of attacks, this type appeared to give the best chance for the victim to defend or escape.

How do I defend against an edged-weapon assault?

This is a difficult question for which there is no simple answer. Stylistically there is no one style that will enable all people to defend against all knife attacks. Furthermore, an in-depth dissemination of training practices and techniques cannot be captured in a single article or without practical hands on practice.

Common techniques taught in most defensive tactics classes provide the tools that, if properly applied, can be used to confront knife attacks. Jabs, punches, front kicks and lateral movements can enable victims to create or maintain distance.

Ground fighting and close distance stand-up fighting “trapping” techniques can aid you in establishing a good position when in close with your attacker. Various techniques enable weapon disarming or incapacitation of the limb that holds the knife. These are all viable options when the situation and circumstances dictate.

Other unconventional tactics not usually taught can aid in survival. In a review of 50 knife attacks several people were able to survive, or at least limit further damage, by putting objects as well as distance between them and their attacker. Items such as beds, chairs, tables, desks, pillars or walls can be used to create and maintain an adequate yet temporary safe zone. In other words, “Buy yourself some time.”

How to develop a survival mindset

When training to respond to a knife attack, accept that you may be injured. Plan and prepare for this as part of your training. Know that you can fight back even when you are hurt.

More important than any technique, you must adopt the mindset that you can and will survive. If you’ve never been placed in a life-threatening situation you may not know how you will actually respond. This fight or flight reaction is a natural human response to life-threatening encounters.

In reviewing knife attack footage, you can identify different mindsets. Some people fall to the ground and crouch helplessly in the fetal position while the attack continues, while others are determined to survive by fighting back or creating distance and buying time.

Visualization exercises are a great way to condition your mind to respond to life-threatening incidents, while maintaining a constant state of situational awareness is one of your best tools of defense against any attack.

As with other inmate attacks, knife or “shank” attacks are usually done in an ambush style. While you can’t always control this, you can control the manner in which you respond. Make yourself a hard target by being constantly vigilant and always expecting the unexpected.

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