Critical Distance

Posted by: John W. Zimmer
Under: Self-defense
17 Sep 2007

11 Responses to “Critical Distance”

  1. Sly Says:

    I really like the information on critical distance.
    The story of your boy and the bully is a sad and typical story that also has a good ending. I’m glad he learned to fight back and used the critical distance properly.

  2. Kim Says:

    What is Critical Distance? The distance between you and an attacker. If the attacker has no weapon, then the “critical distance” would be if the attacker got within arms length of you. If they have a knife, bat, etc, then your critical distance is extended. Critical distance is the “safe zone” perimeter beteween you and a possible attack. If that critical distance is compromised, and you have no other means of escape, you must defend yourself. You dont wait to be bumped in the chest, you dont wait to try and talk your way out of it (that process should have already happened) and you dont wait for them to throw the first punch. Once your critical distance has been breached, you are under attack! You do not have time to try and evaluate the situation on whether or not this person is going to inflict bodily harm. You must respond quickly by becoming the attacker yourself. Leave nothing to chance when it comes to your safety. Unfortunatley, I learned this the hard way. Even though the first words my instructor said, at my first lesson, was “critical distance” I let my guard down one evening. The condensed version is I allowed this person to enter my critical distance. I didnt move away and I didnt respond the way I was trained. I was hit hard in the head. The blow to my head spun me around with my backside now facing my attacker. I reacted with a text-book rear kick. The kick knocked the attacker on his back and gasping for air. Two transit cops had witnessed the whole attack. They arrested the guy for assault. I had successfully defended myself, but I broke the number one rule. I allowed this guy to enter my critical distance and did nothing about it. Critical distance is the most important factor when it comes to hand-to-hand combat, no matter what discipline you train under. Mr. Zimmer is a very wise and experienced martial artist, and oh yea, he wasnt very pleased to find out one of his students got hit in the head because the rule of critical distance was disregaurded. It will NEVER happen again!!

  3. John W. Zimmer Says:

    Great post and very detailed Kim. Thanks for pointing out the obivous (I wish)! If people would just realize that the time for talking ends when an aggressor steps into your critical distance – bullys would not get the drop on anyone! To use boxing lingo.. you can stick or move… meaning you can attack or get out of the way if someone steps close enough to hit you.

    Thanks for the contribution Kim!

    John W. Zimmer

  4. Dave Says:

    Unfortunately Kim the”don’t wait to try and talk your way out of it” is a good way for most guys to end up in jail. Police will almost always arrest a male if he is the first to strike and especially if he struck first and is the victor.

  5. John W. Zimmer Says:

    Good point Dave. Cops have a tough job trying to discern who is actually as fault when they roll on a location but I’ve found that keeping the critical distance as the most important thing in any altercation.
    In this case a guy was getting aggressive while he was on a pay phone (with a few too many beers in him) and he responded aggressively verbally (while the guy was right next to him). Kim got blind sided and luckily came out ok with his spinning rear.
    The proper response would have been to keep the guy out of his distance by backing up or challenging him before he got too close. Either way if the guy came at him swinging – he is within his rights to defend himself – no matter who connected first.
    Nothing works right with no distance – the first one to attack generally wins unless they are incompetent.
    So the police might end up arresting the victor but I would argue that it is better to be safe and have some legal troubles then not reacting when someone is inside of your defensible space. At least in California – one is held to a reasonable man standard so if your logic (and attitude) makes sense either the cop or DA will understand before it gets too far.

  6. Zara Says:

    Very interesting article, while I come from an almost exclusively defensive art (we do not focus on attack) one of the most important things I was taught is the concept of maai or distance. Basically it’s the same as what John calls critical distance: before any attack can be made the attacker must first be able to reach you and this means moving towards you. If you change this distance he will be forced to step in closer and this usually means he’ll start reaching and thus extending too far. The most dangerous situations are those where the attacker is standing very close to you: if he attacks you there you’ll have little time or opportunity to react (covering up would be your best option at this point) and since action is faster than reaction your chances of a successful defense are slim at best. In unarmed combat this is dangerous, when there’s a weapon involved it can be lethal. I don’t care if you have 40 years worth of experience in the MA: if you don’t see it coming or you did not have time to react because he was too close you’re dead. That’s why cops are taught to immediately disengage when they see a knife in somebody’s hand and to defend any attack first before moving away and drawing their firearm (you need at least 8 to 9 meters distance between a knife-man and yourself before you can draw, aim and fire your weapon without getting stabbed in the process).

    I agree you should never take the chance letting a potentially hostile individual into your safety-zone, however I would move away first and try to avoid him, if he keeps persisting tell him to back off. If he refuses he initiated the violence (the moral, and hopefully legal, blame will be on him). However I would still let him punch first, both because it’s the way I was trained and because it’s easier to explain and defend if he decides to press charges. I don’t know what the exact laws are in the States but in my country the law puts severe restrictions on self-defense, especially when you’re a martial-artist. Basically in most cases you’re better off doing nothing since apparently the law assumes you’re some kind of superman who can take out anyone with some non-damaging pressure-point strike. I’ve heard of one example of a martial-artist (a thaiboxer) who was threatened with a knife: he kicked the guy in the ribs, breaking several and causing the assailant to drop his weapon. The guy pressed charges and the judge ruled the defender should pay damages and was to be put on probation: if in the next six months he was caught fighting again he would have to serve a short-term jail-sentence. Now I don’t know the guy personally and I’m assuming there’s more to this story than meets the eye (perhaps he was known to be aggressive) but still: to me he reacted with moderation and judgment, if it were me I doubt I’d be so composed and refrain from doing serious damage. Broken ribs heal and if you think you have the right to threaten someone with a deadly weapon you lose your right to legal protection and you shouldn’t go crying to a judge when you get your ass kicked.

    Ah well, I do have one personal story with regard to the matter: the details do not really matter but I was once confronted with a drunken guy who kept insulting me (using rather personal information to boot), I got pretty angry (I was tired and he just wouldn’t let it go) so after telling him to back off a few times I pushed him back to make it clear I wasn’t in the mood for his crap. If he would have backed down I was perfectly prepared to let things be but instead of stepping back he stepped forward. To make a long story short: I saw his hands rising (fists clenching) and purely on instinct I punched him a few times (the first few he blocked, the last hook landed on his jaw and knocked him down). After he was down I backed off, only to be confronted by him again later on. This time he had a knife in his hand (threatening to kill me): I retreated and managed to get an equalizer-weapon (an empty bottle), I crouched down into a fighting-stance and was quite prepared to defend myself (in my mind I pictured the most likely ways he would attack me and my responses to them). This was a pretty shitty situation (especially because I knew the guy, quite well actually) but I’m proud of the way I handled it: if I hadn’t done anything or hadn’t reacted fasted enough he might have knocked me out and who knows what might have happened then. I do know one thing: if I’m ever confronted with an armed adversary again and he does attack I will not hold back and if this means having to spend time in jail for it so be it. Nobody has the right to randomly attack another human-being and if he uses a weapon in the process (especially against an unarmed individual) he basically forfeits his life. Initiating violence is morally wrong and criminal behavior, consequently employing violence to protect oneself, one’s family and one’s livelihood can never be wrong or illegal.

    In any case this is a fine essay on one of the most important principles in the MA.



  7. Zara Says:

    It seems I forgot to mention how the story ends: at that point someone convinced him to put down the knife and that was that, no harm done. Luckily he didn’t attack (I’m assuming in part because I wasn’t an easy victim and he knew I had martial-arts training, at least some part of his brain was still working) and it’s impossible to see what could have happened but I do think I would have had a pretty high chance of coming out on top. Usually you’ll gain nothing by being fearful and submissive, chances are he’ll see this is weakness (people who threaten or attack others with weapons are cowards and they prey only on the weak) and press the attack anyway. I did experience fear though but odly this was only after the incident. It did give me a whole new perspective on the MA though (if I wasn’t trained I probably would have cowered and either gotten punched in the nose or ended up with a knife between my ribs) and spurred me to take my training to a new level. Hell, this is why I try to prepare our students to the best of my ability: if they ever get into a similar situation (not likely but still) I want them to be prepared and be a fearless warrior, defeating the enemy or at least go down fighting. Training in the MA is not a game, at least not to me and certainly not after that night.

  8. John W. Zimmer Says:

    Hi Zara,

    I may visit but I’ll never live in a place that takes a dim view on self-defense. While the laws differ in the States, all respect one’s right to defend himself.

    It is true that you should always try to avoid a fight and it is true even here that it may help the cops make the right call if they know you did everything possible to avoid a fight but in the final analysis – if someone attacks you – you can use even deadly force if you can reasonably show that you were in fear of your life.

    What you cannot do is fight beyond the point you are out of danger.

    Luckily the old days of registering a karate black belts hand as deadly weapons are long gone. That is what I heard as a kid but that has not been my experience as an adult.

    Thanks for sharing the fight story. It is always a tough call when to explode and the main reason I don’t hang out in bars anymore. :)

    Let me see – I’ve only been in two near fights in 29 years compared to countless fights in the two years I worked and hung out in bars.

    You are right about the distance. It always is always kind of hard for me to understand teaching a knife technique where the attacker tries to stab you and somehow you react correctly, in time, to parry the stab and take control the weapon – all while not getting attacked by any other punch or kick.

    I must say that the fact that someone with a weapon does not normally (unless martial arts trained) use kicks and punches while brandishing a weapon – a fact that makes it a little easier to fight someone with a weapon, you still cannot, as you pointed out, depend on your reaction speed inside the distance to keep you safe!

    My choice is to either make the guy swallow my rear kick – thrown hard to knock down anything in its path or allow the weapon attack to happen as I am stepping back out of range – and when it is over extended (in between fakes) counter when he cannot attack for a moment.

    Still favoring knees and hard rear kicks.

    You acted appropriately once you were in the beef. Only you can decide if there was anyway to diffuse the situation.

    Thanks again for sharing your experience Zara!

  9. Zara Says:

    Knife-defense is a subject that is fairly heavily emphasized in our dojo, not because it’s something that happens very often but because of the inherently deadly nature of such an encounter. Our techniques and tactics derive mostly from kali-escrima, krav-maga (360° defense) and ju-jutsu of course: what we’re taught is to always go towards the knife (at an angle), not away from it. Of course this doesn’t mean you should go and attack or put pressure on him but if he attacks you’ll have to move in to protect yourself and do damage. If you keep backing away from him or try to launch attacks from afar sooner or later he’ll get you or you will run out of space. It’s the same unarmed: if you get very close to him he won’t be able to punch you and since you decided to move there you’ll have the initiative to launch short-range attacks (locks, knees, elbows), preferably from his dead-side. Another aspect we emphasize is simultaneous defense and counterattack: for instance when you block outside (against a diagonal stab or slash to your neck) at the same time you’ll deliver a finger-thrust to his eyes with your other hand (most likely followed up by a kick to the knee), this will break his concentration allowing you to control the knife hand and disarm or take him down. If he stabs you must move of the line but always towards him (again with a simultaneous parry and fingerjab), if you don’t he’ll just try again or his attack will mutate from a stab to a slash (to your hand, throat or stomach). I guess it’s possible to defend against a knife using kicks (the same is taught in krav-maga as a long-range defense) but in kali it’s frowned upon (at least for middle to high kicks) since he can block with his weapon and cut you, leaving your defense seriously compromised. If it’s an inexperienced opponent it could work out pretty well (they have no knowledge on how to properly handle a knife, most likely they’ll be angry or drunk and as a consequence they’ll use big, wide motions and all-or-nothing committed attacks) but if he’s even semi-trained he’ll just back off or evade slightly and make a simple downward cut.

    Then again: if it’s an experienced knife-fighter there is very little you can do beside trying to get an equalizer-weapon, throw stuff at him (followed by a quick sprint in the opposite direction) or feint high and kick low (followed by the same procedure as before). I know a little about knife-fighting (I have some training in kali) and in all fairness: if he’s good and you’re unarmed you’ll almost certainly end up dead. A knife is an incredibly fast weapon, it doesn’t need space to be effective (just draw the blade over flesh and blood will flow) and it can change angles in mid-flight without losing speed or balance. Because of these characteristics a trained knife-man will completely cut you up in less than 3 seconds, no matter how trained or tough you may be. The only way you could actually defend against such a guy is to be in possession of your own blade (and be trained of course) or have a gun handy. Even then it’s still a matter of luck, skill and distance: most likely you won’t even see or notice the knife until it’s too late. This is why distance is so important, as well as zanshin or awareness. If you’re not mindful of your surroundings you’ll never see danger coming and you won’t be able to maintain proper distance, this is usually the beginning of a whole lot of grief.

    As to my story: even though I had to swallow a whole lot of nonsense from certain people afterward (you started the argument because you shoved him, you shouldn’t have punched him, blablabla) I’m fully convinced I did the right thing and I don’t give a damn about the opinion of somebody who’s never been in a similar situation. One person even had the guts to accuse me of somehow provoking him into drawing the blade (this is truly absurd, if this was a man I would have smacked him), this completely negates both the concept of self-defense and common-sense: by the same token one might very well say that murder-victims are the cause of their own death (they provoked the murderer) or raped women were responsible for the act and not the rapist (they provoked him by being beautiful, sexy, dressing well). The fact that he was drunk (somehow an excuse to some people) doesn’t change anything: in wine there is truth as the latin proverb goes (you do not tell people you want to see them dead unless you actually mean it, either way I do not want to find out) and I’m almost certain that if he had been able to summon the courage to attack and I had given him the opportunity to do so (by letting him close the distance) I would have been severely injured (it doesn’t take skill to do damage with a weapon) or ended up dead. Better not to take chances.

  10. John W. Zimmer Says:

    Hi Zara, Of course you are right. If an unarmed man fights an armed man and the armed man is worth his salt. It will probably go bad for the unarmed man.

    I’d like to point out two things:

    1. People with weapons tend to depend on them (use the weapon) to the determent of their whole fight game. I mean he will not kick or punch with when an opening presents itself but rather try and use the blade.

    2. Surprise, distance and fakes have to go along with any kicking because as you state, it would be relatively easy to change up the attack to slash the legs – given the opportunity.

    Having said that and perhaps to my determent, I’ve never been impressed when one picks up a weapon but in my mind I am trying to size up the situation and figure out how to come out on top.

    At times I’ve decided the best defense is a good talking game. The only important thing here to realize is if by feints, counter attacks, picking up a make-do weapon… there are ways that a motivated person can defend a weapons attack.

    As some people say, perhaps you will get cut. That is not my plan.

    I also agree that it is best to not face a skilled opponent with a weapon.

    In self-defense this is not really a choice and I choose not to negate my abilities by acquiescing to defeat in my mind.

    So here is what I believe, just as I did when I got into the ring with anyone in my youth. I believe I can and will win in a fight with anyone, with or without a weapon, anytime, anywhere (sick, drunk, or taken by surprise)!

    As a fighter – how can one think anything else and have a chance at victory?

    I always seek to keep my mind, body, and spirit unified so as to give me the best chance to achieve any goal.

    I only hope that my belief and training helps this happen for me if I have to face a trained knife fighter as an old man! :)

    Thanks for you comment Zara

  11. My Self-Defense Blog » Blog Archive » Kung Fu Fighting; Self-Defense? Says:

    […] first taught Joe Lewis direct angular attacks. I know many martial artists understood the value of critical distance, as did Bruce Lee. What I learned in sport fighting about critical distance and direct angular […]