What Does the 21 Foot Rule for Defending Against a Knife Mean For Non Mil/LE?

Nathan over at TDA Training has asked me to contribute to a series of posts about a video he published on his site which showcases Dan Inosanto. I was only too happy to contribute! It is quite a famous video. In it, Dan shows how a Police officer with a weapon still in its holster, generally requires a surprise knife attacker to be 21 feet away in order to allow enough time and space to recognise what is happening (the person has pulled a knife and is charging), and then make the decision to act, and then draw the weapon and fire at the centre of the attacker. Any less than 21 feet and the officer is generally not able to draw the weapon and fire in time before the knife is inserted into the Police officer's body. I recommend going to watch the 21 foot rule video at Nathan's site before reading on.

This video is specifically aimed for Law Enforcement (LE). For non LE or Military personnel for that matter, what does this video teach us? What about purely from a self defence perspective? There are some things which are quite important in this video and some things that are not relavent.

TGace from The Things Worth Believing In has detailed some of the more pertinent cases against the video at TDA Training. This is a good read and I won't go into what TGace covers too much here. Also, Patrick Parker from Mokuren Dojo

highlights that the handgun is not always the supreme weapon. The knife can be more dangerous. This video shows some examples of this. Peter talks about this and more HERE.

Is the 21 Foot Rule Irrelevant?

From a self defence perspective, the video is largely irrelevant. We do not walk around with a pistol in a holster (except maybe some of the US readers and subscribers, but you guys are a minority). We do not need to fumble for a pistol. So that part is completely not of use to us. Or is it?

What type of movement is going to draw a pistol out of a holster? Yes. It is a fine motor skill. Straight away, regular readers will know what this means. It once again highlights that fine motor skills fail under pressure. Even when quite a lot of training has been done on just one fine motor skill movement. When an attacker with a knife chargers, that is the only move. The LE officer does not need to choose from a large number of possible techniques. There is just one. This makes things much easier to process under real intense stress. But still, we can see in the video that one simple fine motor skill fails (or is very slow and fumbly), under pressure.

This once again highlights that relying on fine motor skills is a very risky endeavor. Relying on gross motor skills is a much better tactic with a higher percentage chance of working under pressure. Unfortunately, the LE officer has little other option but to draw the weapon from the holster. Here a LOT of repetition is key. And this must include repetition in realistic scenarios such as the ones in the video.


One other interesting lesson from the video is that in many instances, Dan goes to draw the weapon soon after handing over ID or some other activity. This is another key point. The LE officer is distracted and focused on something other than what the suspect is doing. This is important. As I have said numerous times,

Beware the distracting question or action from someone you consider a possible threat!

This is very relavent for self defence purposes as well as LE. This requires us to ignore some questions for a few moments in case the person does something quickly. This also means not looking away to where the person may be pointing. It also means not looking down at our watch when asked the time. These are just some ways an attacker may seek to distract us. This is a very common tactic. And it works.

Expect a Knife to be Possible

In the UK, Australia and Canada (as well as likely many other similar countries), the knife or edged weapon is the most likely weapon used in attacks today. This statement has come from research I have done into real statistics from those countries. In the US, a handgun is the most likely, followed by a knife. In the lead up to any possible physical encounter we all need to be looking (not constantly), at the hands of the other person. The knife may not be there straight away. This does not mean we can tick it off the list. Throughout, we need to watch for the person going to draw a knife. This is another key lesson from the video from a self defence perspective.

A knife can be used even on the ground, so watch for a draw there as well. In many instances in the video, we can see the LE officer did not see Dan going for the weapon straight away. This was largely due to them being distracted.

Generally, a knife is secreted away in the waist area. Watch for them going for that area. This could be the front or the back. This is something that Wim mentioned in his comments about the same 21 foot rule video. As soon as a likely attacker goes for that area, assume a knife is being sought. Obviously, take the context of any discussion into account.

No Gun, So What Do We Do?

In the footage, the LE officer had a pistol. We will probably be unarmed. True, but the lessons from this video is not so much about technique, but about awareness. The earlier you can see a threat, the sooner you can react to it, thus shortening down that 21 foot distance. The only way you can see a threat early is by looking for it. The only way you can be looking for a threat action is if you are not distracted.

Be aware and maintain your awareness.

But what do we do? What technique can we do instead of the pistol draw? Obvious question. But this is not one that can be answered well purely online. That is not the point of this article. Seek out your own training providers in this regard. One good example of knife defence is STAB knife defence. Check it out. But technique requires hands on. Whatever it is you do, make it gross motor!

Image via sethfrantzman