Self-Defence for Beginners
Updated: Jan 8
An article that explains just how difficult self-defence and practical use of the martial arts really is. This explains why you should always avoid physical confrontation - and what to do if this is absolutely impossible.
The very title of this article is alas an oxymoron, because the way you learn to fight and to defend yourself is through lots of experience of violent situations. A person not exposed to repeated violence has neither learned the skills of combat needed to defend oneself, nor undergone the set of experiences that enable one to react without adrenalin to violence. That is in fact the most important quality to survive a violent situation: to be able to assess rationally a situation in the absence of a "fight or flight" neurophysiological reaction. The reason why is that an experienced aggressor has already made those calculations for himself, and by reason of his experience he will get the judgments right better than you. Hence he will know that if you fight he will win; and if you flee he will be able to catch you. That is what experience of fighting teaches.
There are two environments which provide regular experience of hand-to-hand combat - because this is what we are really talking about. One is the military; the other is a prison. These are environments in which physical violence may be a daily reality. This author hesitates to assert which of these two environments better teaches one to defend oneself. Just bear in mind that in prison the goal is to defuse a confrontation; whereas on the battlefield the goal may be to kill. This article is not about teaching people to kill each other. Rather it is about escaping violent confrontation with minimal damage done to any party. Unless you like explaining things to juries, you do not want to be in a position that the conclusion of a violent conflict is injury to your aggressor. Whatever the motives for his or her aggression, you simply want to get away.
Avoid the conflict
This leads to the first rule of self-defence: don't place yourself in a position where you wish you had read this article more carefully. If a city is advertised as dangerous, or dangerous at night, then take those advertisements seriously. Local people may have a different threshold for what they consider safe. Do not automatically listen to their opinions. The citizens of Caracas, that most lovely city, think nothing of walking around at all times of the day and night in the face of one of the highest homicide rates in the world. For them it's just a part of daily life. But they know the routines and activities of potential aggressors far better than a visitor ever will. You must assume your own ignorance when in a place unfamiliar to you but with a reputation for violence.
All sorts of places can be dangerous. The backs of taxis can be dangerous. Public buses can be dangerous. Bars and nightclubs can be dangerous. Empty streets can be dangerous. Busy streets can be dangerous. This author has been mugged in broad daylight on a number of occasions, and that is generally because he ignored available travel advice.
Consider also the motives of the attacker. If they are drunk, then the motives are probably emotional. Try apologising and admitting you were in the wrong. "Take it like a pussy", as the movie The Man from UNCLE famously puts it. Lie on the floor, apologising and weeping. Nobody's going to think the less of you; it is a rational self defence strategy. In inherently dangerous environments - like an English pub close to a major football match shortly to start - then avoid eye contact or bumping into people. And keep apologising. If the motives are to steal from you, then consider giving them what they want. Or give them something that looks like what they want. In cities known for street robbery, carry a second wallet with a lot of small bills and some useless pieces of plastic that might be credit cards, just for the purposes of giving to an assailant who (say) pulls a knife on you - this, I regret to observe, is a very Latin American phenomenon but not exclusively so.
If the purpose is sexual - i.e. this is a sexual assault or rape situation - it may be difficult to avoid confrontation. If in a public place, try to make light of it and slide away from that person, and then inform a person undertaking a security role: a doorman, security guard, police officer or similar. If in private, and you judge that you simply cannot get away, then play along until there is an erection, and snap the penis. No jury will convict you for inflicting such a disfigurement; and it will give you time to get away as the pain is colossal.
In a situation of melée (i.e. a room or space full of people starting to fight as though in a riot), take off your watch and jewellery and stuff them in your pocket; then get down onto your hands and knees and crawl persistently until you reach the exit. If it is a bar and there is broken glass everywhere, use two ashtrays or something else hard to cover your hands as you proceed along the floor. Otherwise you may emerge with your hands cut to shreds. They will recover; but better they are not cut at all. The same precautions are not necessary for your knees, that will follow the clear route created by your hands; and you won't have time to apply protections to your knees. In all cases, get down as soon as possible; then crawl out.
Where the situation is one of domestic violence (i.e. violent confrontations between people who know one-another and may live together), calm the person down as their motives are likely emotional. You might suggest that this is not a good way to resolve our problems, and suggest another method for resolving the problem (such as talking tomorrow morning after everybody has had a good night's sleep). Never escalate domestic violence disputes with more violence and confrontation. It is better to curl up in a ball and to lie prone; it is far less likely for there to be a violent outcome.
Where the motives for the attack are not clear, ask the person what they want; and consider doing what they want you to do instead of having the violent confrontation. At the very least, it may give that person cause to reconsider whether they really want to use violence with all the legal consequences that entails.
Grab a weapon
Let us suppose that all of these things fail; and you have no choice but to resist violent attack. The first rule of fighting is that the person with the better weapon prevails. An enormous man may be threatening violence against me; but with the right weapon, the balance of power changes and a small person can casually defeat a large one. However weapons carry the risk of causing serious injury or death, which takes you back to that jury you didn't want to explain things to. With that in mind, here is the list of the most preferred weapons:
If in an open space - a staff. There is nothing better than a five- to six-foot staff. It keeps your assailant at bay for sufficient time that they consider whether they really want to continue with the violent attack. It can deliver knock-out blows if necessary. Its use in keeping people at a distance defends against knives - one of the very few things that do.
If in a closed space - a small can of mace spray (also known as pepper spray; in some jurisdictions mace spray is strictly illegal but some small cans of marking paint can be purchased instead which have a very similar effect). In order to understand how effective mace is, spray some in an outdoor environment and then inhale it. It is agonising. When using mace against an attacker, do not by shy; empty the entire bottle, in a cloud if desired so that people move away from the attack zone (everyone will be affected in a small environment, including you) and you can safely make your way to the exit.
Club. By this is meant any object of two to four feet long that inflicts blunt trauma rather than cuts or wounds. It includes things like policemen's extendable batons. The idea is simply to beat your assailant until they stop being violent. As with most weapons, do not pull a club without a willingness to use it - or a smart counterparty will simply snatch it off you. The difference between a staff and a club is that a staff's power derives from its ability to keep an opponent at a distance; whereas a club's power derives from its ability to deliver a knockout below. Clubs can kill, particularly where the blow is aimed to the head. If a very violent person is attacking you and you have a club to hand and you use it, then a jury is probably going to forgive you but it may be touch and go. The more violent and dangerous a weapon becomes, the greater the legal jeopardy you may find yourself in if you serious injure an assailant with it, particularly if they are not carrying a weapon or if your weapon is unlawful in your jurisdiction.
Gun. The main problem with carrying a gun is that you probably shouldn't be, so you will find yourself in some sort of legal jeopardy after you have successfully defended yourself with it. The first rule with any firearm is this: do not draw it unless you intend to fire it. Do not assume your assailant will think again just because you have drawn a gun. They may be used to people drawing guns on them. (The standard protocol in such circumstances is to plead, beg and apologise, while edging nearer to the firearm and then snatching it out of the person's hands. To defeat this sort of strategy, which is truly catastrophic for your legal position if it succeeds, you have to fire immediately once you've drawn the firearm.) If you fire a gun at someone, aim at the legs because then you won't kill them.
Knuckleduster. This includes anything that makes a blow from your hand stronger, e.g. a heavy ashtray. If you have to hit somebody, you want it to be a knockout blow. A beer bottle or beer glass is another example. The good news is that in bars and similar such places, there are lots of objects that might serve as knuckledusters; hence you won't have to explain to the Police why you were carrying a specialist lethal weapon. When you saw the situation of violence arise, you just picked up the first thing you could find as a defensive reaction. Try to not hit more than once; knuckledusters can break jaws and skulls, and they can kill. If you are being attacked, one blow will probably be forgiven by the Police; two may not be. Having said that it is very difficult. in violent situations to get a difficult judgment like this right. Most Police Officers will have sympathy about a margin or error if you were the unprovoked victim of an attack.
Knife. Knives are extremely dangerous just because people who carry them are not predictable. The Police will not be sympathetic if you were intentionally carrying a knife in public; it is a crime to do so in many jurisdictions. If you must attack with a knife, slash rather than puncture. Sliced-open skin can be mended; a puncture is more likely to kill. Remember always that the aim is to escape the violent situation with a minimum of harm caused to either you or your assailant.
Zappers. Illegal in some countries, these are small plastic batteries that create a crackle of electricity between two nodes. These may frighten casual aggressors; but they are mostly useless because a high-adrenalin aggressor can take the pain which isn't that high. Before you pull one of these on an aggressor, try it on yourself, both with and without clothing. Although it's not very pleasant, you will be disappointed.
Here are some weapons you should never use:
Bar stool (far too large - you'll be on the floor before you've even picked it up).
Chains (incredibly dangerous; you may end up permanently injuring half a dozen people's lives, and no jury is going to be impressed with that; moreover you are likely to hurt yourself unless you are very highly trained).
Whips (there is no plausible reason why you can be carrying a dangerous whip).
Long blades (by which I mean things like swords). These are incredibly dangerous and you will almost certainly end up hurting more people than just the assailant. Leave them for the movies.
What if you have no weapon?
Unless you live in some jurisdictions in which carrying deadly weapons is authorised (for example many parts of the United States), you're most likely to find yourself in a situation in which you have no weapon. In these circumstances, the larger, more skilled and stronger person is highly likely to prevail. Nevertheless there are things you can do, if you have tried apologising, walking away, begging, giving them what they want, "taking it like a pussy", etcetera; and the person is still determined to use violence against you. Here are some basic techniques.
If an aggressor is up to 120% of your bodyweight, grab them by their lapels, pull them towards you, wait for them to pull back, slip a leg behind their leg; and push them. They trip backwards over your leg. You follow them onto the floor, with your elbow either landing on their stomach or their ribs. (You use the letter if they are extremely violent and you think they might get up - so something more than shock is required). Then stand up and run away. This is a classic simple judo throw; but it doesn't work unless you've had some experience. of it. There are several other version of similar throws; a short class in judo will assist.
If an aggressor is larger than that, you might try jumping up, grabbing his lapels, pushing him away, and as he comes back you dip your head down and head-but his nose. This is extremely painful for both you and for him. However it is a lot more painful for him. There will be blood everywhere; then run away.
If you have hard shoes on (for example steel toe capped boots - any person anticipating routine violent confrontation should buy such a pair of boots), simply kick the shins as hard as you can. It is incredibly painful. The person will likely double down in agony, during which point you can run away.
If you attack the genitals, grab, twist them, squeeze them and don't let go! It is possible to resist an attack to the genitals, particularly for a fat man. Make sure you've got hold of them and don't stop until you are forced to.
Do not push people away unless you are substantially bigger than them. It is better to smile and pretend to be friendly with them, then gently to unpeel yourself from them. Pushing people away can escalate a violent situation.
An assailant can take a blow to the eyes with your fingers, if they are high on adrenalin; and then they might then do it back to you. Nevertheless it may give you a few seconds.
Hard blows to the face and stomach do not work unless you have a sportsman's or military person's physique; in which case you are unlikely to find yourself in a violent attack without weapons anyway. People high on adrenalin can resist such blows.
Some skills you probably don't have
Here are some of the things that a skilled street-fighter knows how to do, and you don't. The value of the list is simply in alerting you to dirty tactics.
How to snatch a pair of spectacles from a person's face
How to get your face so close to that of your adversary's face that they are de facto disabled from attack
How to look for the most immediate improvised weapon
How to kick someone in the shins without anybody else noticing
How to spit into a person's mouth from a close distance (this is extraordinarily effective, because the recipient recoils in disgust virtually as an automatic reaction)
How to grapple a person's legs from a close range
How to slip inconvenient materials into others' pockets without their noticing (this will make a huge difference when it comes to the subsequent Police investigation)
If there is any third person to ask to intervene, such as security guards, police officers, bar owners or anybody similar, then ask them. It doesn't matter what they say. The point is that you have a third party intervention and once you have one of those you can safely run away.
Finally, never forget the most obvious tactic - walk backwards, away from the assailant, keeping your eye on him; and then at the appropriate moment, run. If you can run faster than your assailant, then in 99% of cases you will not be injured. The best self-defence technique is learned with the routine of the early morning jog.
Good luck; and whatever the circumstances that typically occupy your daily life, avoid fighting. Self-defence is an art mastered by people that have spent time in abnormally violent situations. If you are reading, you are probably not one of those people.
All comments are welcome! This page just relates the author's particular experiences. Others may have different ones. Self-defence is a skill based upon repeated experience and not much else.