Death by Disarm: Lessons Learned

After a period of immersion in dagger training with some of the world’s finest knife technicians, Matsuoka Sensei and Josh Gold have begun to develop an instructional strategy and an initial set of techniques designed to improve our tanto-dori (knife control) training. These efforts are in their earliest stages and we expect our technical and instructional approach to evolve rapidly.

Instead of waiting until we have a mature and tested system in place, we’ve decided to share our process and thinking with the community as we go. We believe this will provide us with more feedback that can be used to iterate on our approach more rapidly and improve our performance in this endeavor.

We’ve already experimented with, and begun teaching a range of knife defenses and techniques. However, before sharing techniques, we first wanted to outline a strategic framework for approaching our tanto-dori efforts. If we’re going to develop a comprehensive tanto-dori instructional system, as we have for core aikido techniques, ukemi, randori, strike deflections, etc. we believe it’s important to have a well-defined strategic approach to our efforts. Below, we’ve outlined three strategic pillars of our tanto-dori approach.

1. Use Sword and Staff-Based Training Formats

One can find tanto-dori practice at almost every aikido dojo. However, one thing that’s conspicuously missing is the training progression strategy that’s followed in aikido-based sword and staff practice.  When training with the primary weapons of our art, we typically use three high-level training formats:

  • Suburi: Independent attack and movement practice. Sword cuts, sweeps, thrusts. and covers with the jo staff, practicing kata, etc.
  • Kumi-tachi / Kumi-jo: Sword vs. sword, staff vs. staff, and sword vs. staff.
  • Tachi-dori: Empty-handed defense and control of the sword or staff.

If tanto-dori is not a major area of focus for a dojo, it’s fine to limit practice to defenses against a basic knife thrust or cut if it’s being used as a training exercise to refine empty-handed positioning and timing basics. However, if tanto-dori is an area that a dojo wants to emphasize, we believe it’s essential to include suburi and weapon vs. weapon training with the knife.

If we want to develop effective knife defenses, we must learn how to attack with the weapon in an effective manner. We must also understand how the weapon moves and educate ourselves on the strongest offensive tactics that can be employed with the weapon. Without these kinds of skills and insights, we don’t believe we’ll ever be able to develop viable responses and defenses.

At Ikazuchi Dojo, as we begin building out an instructional system for tanto-dori, we’ve decided to use the same training progression format that’s been so successful in the aikido world for sword and staff training.  We’ve begun employing basic suburi exercises, teaching students 5 basic lines of attack, an expanded set of 12  lines of attack, and providing guidance on how to efficiently link a sequence of attacks together.   We’re also teaching knife vs. knife katas- some constrained to a response to a single attack and some with multiple attacks and responses.


2. Emphasize Free-form Flow Training

Much of our traditional aikido practice in regular classes takes place in a paired kata format. We know the attack that’s coming and the attacker knows the throw or defense we’re going to execute. We practice this way with sincere attacks and without using foreknowledge of a response to influence the nature of our attacks and reactions. This format is excellent for learning and polishing techniques, but we must use additional training methods to become effective at dealing with unexpected attacks from an unarmed or armed threat.

Matsuoka Sensei and Josh Gold: Knife vs. knife freestyle training

Through our research, it’s becoming increasingly clear how important it is to have unscripted, free-form flow practice as a key pillar of any tanto-dori training program. An empty hand grab or strike can happen quickly, but attacks with a knife create an entirely different challenge.

Without great short blade expertise, I’ve measured my attack speed with a knife to be approximately 200 milliseconds. I can deliver 5 attacks from five different angles in less than one second. Unlike an empty handed attack, each knife attack is a potentially lethal threat.

We’ve realized that one will never have time to consciously process a response to a series of knife attacks. Only a reflexive response that bypasses the conscious mind has a chance to succeed. We are building unscripted training drills into our suburi, knife vs. knife, and knife vs. empty-hand practice.  It’s imperative that the engagement parameters are set correctly for this type of training to maximize learning, but we’ve found this training method to be an essential and valuable tool.


3. Prioritize Redirects Over Disarms

Most aikido-based tanto-dori techniques involve grabbing the knife hand during or after the first attack, throwing the attacker, and then performing a disarm. After consultation with instructors at the Inosanto Academy (including Guro Dan Inosanto, Jeff Imada, and Mark Cheng) and through our own testing, we’ve come to believe that a disarm (especially attempted from an initial attack) has an extremely high probability of failure.

A response with much higher probability of success is a redirect – turning the business end of the knife back to face the attacker. Redirects leverage aikidokas’ proficiency with joint locks and our ability to reflect back the energy of an attack to produce a response with a much lower likelihood of failure. A successful redirect immediately changes the focus and priority of the attacker and increases the chance for a follow-on throw or disarm.

Matsuoka Sensei performing a redirect.

Based on this conclusion, we’ve made a strategic decision to prioritize instruction of redirects over disarms within our tanto-dori curriculum. Doing so raises a point to be explored in terms of aikido philosophy (the subject of a future post) since a redirect potentially increases danger and harm to an attacker in exchange for increasing the defender’s probability of survival.  We’ve discussed this matter with three martial arts veterans (each with over 40 years experience) and have gleaned great insights from those conversations. We look forward to sharing our thinking on this in the near future.

We’ll soon be asking select members of our extended community for help in reviewing and providing feedback on some of our early tanto-dori techniques and training methods. We are thankful to have the support of such a sincere and diverse tribe of martial artists.

Categories: Technique, The Lab

There are 14 comments

  1. Michael Partie

    Once again, thank you for sharing your explorations. It is exciting to see an aikido school exploring non-classical formats. Aikido is a wonderful art, but if we need it to save our lives, it must come into the 21st century. Ikazuchi is doing so in an extremely thoughtful and systematic way.

  2. Mark

    I love the exploration and journey. Perhaps something to consider for experimentation; explore the use of the live hand (non weapon hand) for ‘tapping’ either before if after a cut or stab. ‘Tapping’ has several connotations including redirection, but if with forward pressure think ‘pak sao’, ‘trapping’, ‘clearing’ or ‘jamming’. Tactically the tap/trap can both clear the opponents barrier (e.g. hands/fist) to enter and/or fill the 1/2 beat between cuts/stabs.

    Hope this is worthy of exploring.


    1. Josh Gold


      This is a fantastic idea. I’ve experienced this type of training with instructors and students at the Inosanto Academy and think it’a great training tool that adds realism to the practice. We’re still figuring out the right point to add this in to training. Do you start adding this dynamic in with beginners or do you wait until students have some baseline familiarity with the movements before adding in the tapping? Just curious how you’ve seen the training progressions work most effectively.

  3. Dominik

    Plain and simple if you want to study knife defense look into the indonesian maertial arts like silat or kali these art’s were made for knife fighting and knife defense.

    1. Angelo Schneider

      I agree, wasting precious Aikido training time on stuff like this is pretty pointless. It does not help you to advance in Aikido in any way.
      For real modern knife defense you want to look to other martial arts.
      I for my part do Aikido when I do Aikido and not something else. And when I do Silat/Kali I don’t wear Gi and Hakama.

      1. Josh Gold


        Thanks for the input. We agree that for the most practical knife defense, one can look to specialized reality based self defense systems, or even better, run or use pepper spray or a distance weapon if you’re lucky enough to see an actual attack coming. However, we disagree that this kind of exploration does not help us advance aikido in any way. Here are some of the ways we’ve already improved our empty handed aikido through our knife research:

        1. Learning to deal more effectively with follow up attacks. Most traditional aikido practice deals with a single attack (grab or strike) without follow up attacks. This is great way to learn the techniques, but misses a key dimension of martial practice. Dealing with multiple attacks and an actively countering opponent is something an empty handed aikido practitioner can always benefit from. Our knife training has allowed us to explore this area of training in a new way.

        2. Exploring closer range movements and responses. Empty handed aikido is usually practiced at medium range. The more knife training we get, the better we’ve become at modifying our empty handed movements for very close quarters applications.

        3. Improving our ability to break balance and apply techniques from a balanced attacker making a low commitment attack (like a jab, etc).

        So far, our research with tanto has allowed us to gain much better insights into how to modify and enhance our empty handed deflections and has shown us valuable new training methods that we’ve clearly seen to improve our students ability to move and execute their empty handed aikido.

        1. Angelo Schneider

          It does not look to me as if you are “researching” Aikido, but searching for something different.

          All the points you mention, I simply learned, and did not research, and I did not use a Tanto for it.

          But everyone to his own path 😀

    1. Josh Gold

      Doug – we’ve not yet experienced Systema, although we do know people that have exposure to that art. We will certainly check it out. Thank you for the guidance.

  4. Cesar Moran Cahusac

    This is great work I have also been doing my research. I have been looking into FMA and see that Aikido can blend easily the concept of redirection. I would like to see more of what you have developed.



    César Morán – Cahusac

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