Introduction: There are three categories of Pekiti-Tirsia Hand vs Knife training. Each has its pros and cons, depending on the needs of the student.

1. Pekiti-Tirsia Basic Empty Hand vs Knife is focused on developing skills to survive the first few seconds of a sudden knife attack. Therefore, the foundational training is in timing drills that have you avoid the attack through evasive footwork, combined with a parry to redirect the opponent’s knife. The main goal here is to buy you enough time to draw your own weapon, or get to an escape route. I consider the techniques here a “training wheels phase” and try to get my students out of this phase as soon as reasonably possible for each individual. For more on this subject, read my essay “Pekiti-Tirsa Empty Hand vs Knife Overview.” (See links at the bottom of this essay).

2. Pekiti-Tirsia Advanced Hand vs Knife comes from its Knife vs Knife principles and is therefore much more aggressive. Instead of parries, you will see hard strikes to the weapon arm or direct attacks to targets on the head. However, to develop the skills to do these things effectively, (have the speed, power, timing and accuracy to succeed during the stress of a fight) takes time to develop for the majority of people. We spent a long period between the basic and advanced hand vs knife in full contact sparring with minimal armor and using wooden knives. I can’t emphasize enough how important this period of full contact knife sparring was to our ability to make the advanced hand vs knife material work. You will find more details on this training in Part 2 of this series. (See links at the bottom of this essay).

3. Police/Military training: How can you shorten the process to gain the needed attributes when you simply don’t have the time for ‘classical” training? Here you are teaching principles and showing a few samples of how these principles can be used. This can be enough for those who, through nature and nurture, already have some foundational talents when they walk in the door to respond well to this type of training, (a type which law enforcement and the military are likely to attract in the first place): but those without this foundation may feel that they have been thrown into the deep end of the pool during their first swim lesson and not do as well as the better prepared “naturals”. The problem you have as an instructor is that you will have all types in your classes, but have only a limited time to train them. For more on this subject, read my essay “Five teaching methods for the martial arts instructor.” (See links at the bottom of this essay).



Pekiti-Tirsia Empty Hand vs Knife technique is based on the following principles:

  1. Train as if your attacker has been trained in knife work: The Philippines is a blade culture and blade attacks are common. Pekiti-Tirsia empty hand vs knife techniques were developed by those trained in blade work, based on how a trained fighter may attack.
  2. Train as if you may be attacked by more than one person: Techniques that take some time to accomplish (such as locks, throws and grappling moves) should have a built-in “escape hatch” you can use if bad guy number 2 comes at you in the middle of dealing with bad guy number 1.
  3. Your empty hand vs knife technique should buy you time to get to something better: When it comes to defending against a knife attack something in your hand that can be used as a weapon is better than nothing. A goal of your empty hand vs knife technique should be to make it a weapon vs weapon fight as soon as you can and therefore, your own weapon draw should be built into your technique.
  4. Train to counter the whole attack, not just the knife part: This means learning body language clues to “switch on” during the attacker’s approach and not waiting for the knife to show itself before you begin your counter.  Train as if the attacker might use his empty hand before, during or after his knife attack.
  5. Many of Pekiti-Tirsia’s advanced empty hand vs knife techniques share gross motions with our knife vs knife techniques.This gives you a commonality of training across weapons platforms and helps ingrain the movements into your nervous system.*

(*I will let you in on a little secret. Much of Pekiti-Tirsia empty hand vs knife technique is linked to our small knife vs knife technique. And once you learn one, you automatically learn a lot about the other.)

When Grandmaster Leo Gaje began training us in Pekiti-Tirsia hand vs knife technique he followed a very specific structure that I often liken to the manufacturing of a car; as in several subassemblies are built and tested before these subassemblies are brought together to form a complete whole.

Each level of empty hand vs knife was divided into three sections: each taught, practiced and tested before assembly into a whole unit.

1. Parrying skills: This is the classic “knife tapping” drill of primary, secondary and tertiary parries. The purpose of this drill is twofold:
    • A: To learn to deflect the force of a knife attack instead of trying to stop it with a block (which is a difficult thing to do against something as fast and as flexible as a knife attack).
    • B: As an exercise specifically designed to improve your hand speed  and reaction time.

    2. Striking skills: These are the “Third Hand” strikes of Pekiti-Tirsia. These are comprised of slaps, eye jabs and gouges, forearm hacks and elbow strikes and fit into a countermove for each knife attack angle.

    3. Grappling skills: Blade reversals & disarms. Joint breaks. Takedowns. Ground control.

      A demonstration of classic Pekiti-Tirsia Hand vs. Knife can be seen here:


      Grandmaster Gaje’s training progression was as follows:

      1. Basic empty hand vs knife. This was comprised of defenses against three basic attacks with the opponent’s knife held in hammer grip: a low center-line thrust, a backhand high thrust and a forehand high hook thrust (5, 8, 9 in the basic Solo Abcedario).
      2. Solo Knife vs Knife.
      3. Advanced empty hand vs knife. This was comprised of defenses against an opponent using his knife in ice pick grip thrusts and slashes as well as defenses against an opponent’s hammer grip slashes, (taught in the advanced level since the gross motions of a hammer grip slash are often the same as ice pick grip thrusts.) This section included defenses against an attack he called the “In-between thrust.” This thrust is the high center-line thrust common to those who have learned their knife work in prison.

      Set between the two levels of empty hand vs knife was a long period of knife vs knife training, including a good amount of full contact knife to knife sparring (using wooden dowels, lightweight gloves and fencing masks). I can’t emphasize enough how important this knife to knife sparring was to our empty hand vs knife training. It gives you the ability to “read” an opponent’s body language for his next intended attack and gives you the timing to be able to counter it. Notice that we went into this sparring only after a good, strong foundation was laid. We already had several years of stick sparring experience prior to knife sparring and, even in this, we had years of training in stick drills before going into stick sparring.

      You can find a detailed breakdown of this classic Pekiti-Tirsia teaching structure on my YouTube channel: tuhonbillmcg
      Pekiti-Tirsia Hand vs Knife parts 1 through 4.

      PART 1.

      PART 2

       PART 3

      PART 4


      You will find my take on the pros and cons of different knife grips and some nomenclature you can use for the rest of this article here:



      The way I teach Pekiti-Tirsia Advanced Hand vs Knife today grew out of my experience teaching law enforcement officers (LEOs).

      I began my law enforcement career in 1986 and began teaching at my department’s academy and doing in-service training of our officers in 1987. It soon became apparent to me that the way I had learned Pekiti-Tirsia empty hand vs knife was designed for someone who had the luxury of spending several years in training, practice and sparring before they would be called upon to use this training in real life.

      I soon began to look for a way to compress the time it takes to learn the main points of empty hand vs knife skills and give the law enforcement officers I worked with the tools they were capable of learning in the short time I got to spend with them.

      “How can this possibly be done?” you ask. Here are a few principles that I believe will help:

      1. It has been shown that seeing a situation, even once, will improve your reaction time over someone who has never seen that situation before.
      2. Integrate the empty hand vs knife movements into your empty hand self defense techniques. Just as you treat every firearm as if it was loaded, you can counter most empty hand attacks as if that hand had a knife in it. This means that you can treat a straight right cross with the same countering hand motion as the knife attack sharing the same gross motion  (i.e. The prison shank attack). However, this does not mean the reverse: you don’t treat a knife attack the same way a boxer treats a punch, as the knife defense has a much smaller window of what works. In real life it is fairly common for those attacked with a knife not see the knife in the attacker’s hand until they have been stabbed a few times. This means you treat a stranger’s hands on the street as “guilty until proven innocent.”  Note: It does NOT mean you can use deadly force on every empty hand attack. (I felt the need to include that disclaimer after working with lawyers for the last 30 years).
      3. The miracle of review videos! I think I could have cut the time it took me to learn and get proficient at the Pekiti-Tirsia system in half if I had access to the review videos we have today.

      My structure for teaching advanced empty hand vs knife. First, I rearrange the order of training and what is included in each area.

      1. Striking skills: Palm strike. Eye attacks. Elbow strikes. Forearm strikes. Knee strikes. I’ve chosen just the strikes that are easy to learn for the non-martial artist. (Note: I may include punches in the striking program if the person has enough boxing experience and either; has a thick enough bone structure so they are not likely to break their hand punching in a street fight, or are likely to be wearing armored tactical gloves during a fight.)
      2. Parry skills (integrated with previously learned strikes). In this class, you use a parry and the right footwork to avoid the knife attack while striking with the free hand.
      3. Grappling skills. Blade reversals & disarms. Pushes. Joint breaks. Takedowns. Ground control & handcuffing.

      Striking training:

      The easiest way to teach someone how to strike is to have them strike something. Therefore, bag work comes first, but you start slow and easy. Since many of places I taught had a limited number of focus mitts and heavy bags available, I have the students use each other as the target. Before you get all bent out of shape, there is a method here.

      I start with the palm strike (AKA “The Slap”) because it is the easiest to learn. Start with the students wearing thick leather work gloves. For a body-part specific warm up, I have them clap their hands repeatedly. What I am looking for is that the bones of the palm stay parallel with the bones of the forearm. This helps prevent injury to the wrist, both in training and in combat. The hands should be relaxed, but slightly cupped on impact. Most people will be able to do the palm strike position correctly if you start them off by clapping with their hands slightly cupped.

      We next move onto two-man pad drills, where their leather glove covered palms becomes the focus mitts; with the officer holding the “mitt” (receiving the strike) playing the part of the boxing coach and the striking student as the boxer. In these drills we start at 10% power and end their striking reps at 50% when hitting their partner’s hand. (it really helps to pair up training partners in this drill based on matching upper body strength).

      We then practice these warm up drills for the other strikes in the system, using either the leather covered palm as a pad (for slap and eye jab), or having the “coach” apply the parry techniques for that strike.

      You can watch the drills for elbow strikes here:

       I teach the full variety of strikes in an instructor's class, but try to match the right strike to a person's strengths, if a student does not want to learn the whole system. So "evade and strike" in my class may be an eye jab for one person, a low kick for another, a slap to the ear for one guy, or an elbow strike for a different student. If I was teaching Mike Tyson to defend against a knife attack, a hook punch to the body would be a viable option for him that I would not teach for most students.

      Once the basic strikes are practiced, we move onto what I call “chain drills”. These are mini-scenarios in which an attacker’s approach and attack moves are met by the officer’s counter and control moves.

      An example of a chain drill can be seen here:

      The first principle I teach in these scenarios is distance control, especially when the attacker is approaching the defender.

      Here are two videos that show this training in action:

      Against a knife draw and low line thrust:


      Against the lead hand grab that often proceeds the prison shank attack:


      Two things to remember from these videos:

      1. It’s important that students are trained to begin countering the attack at the earliest possible moment. This means you train them to spot and react to a bad guy approaching with bad intent and not train them to wait for the actual sight of a blade before they start defending themselves. They also need to learn how to spot “ambush points.” These can be bottle necks in terrain, but also distance and approach angles.
      2. Teach how to coach. Good pad work is a skill.

      During both the knife draw and the chain drill videos, did you notice that the man who was feeding the knife attack also guarded the area that I was about to strike? That’s how I run these scenario chain drills. The “attacker” will cut or thrust with the training knife, while he guards the area the student will strike next in that drill. This way the students receive practice in several areas at once: the gross motion of the technique, accuracy in their counterattacks, as well as the correct timing and distance for the technique. (That is an important point. My safety factor in these drills is to have the students do the drills slowly, but at the correct distance; rather than have them do the hits full speed, but at a safe distance. During the stress of a fight they will naturally speed up, but they will be working at the correct distance to their target. If they train “fast, but far” then they will have a hard time correcting their distance when they are under stress. “Slow is smooth, smooth is accurate, and accurate is fast.”)

      I teach these chain drills two ways, based on whether I am teaching a LEO group or a seminar of martial artists.

      For the LEO group, I teach to defend against a limited number of the most likely knife attacks in their order of occurrence in street attacks, which is:

      1. Hammer grip high straight stab (prison shank)
      2. Hammer grip low straight stab
      3. Icepick grip vertical stab
      4. Hammer grip forehand slash
      5. Hammer grip back hand slash

      It should takes between 2 to 4 hours in a LEO class to teach this material depending on several factors (mainly how much time the bosses give me).

      At a martial arts seminar, I teach the counter drills to these attacks in a sequence based on knife grip.

      1. Hammer grip high straight stab (prison shank)
      2. Hammer grip low straight stab
      3. Hammer grip forehand hook thrust
      4. Hammer grip backhand thrust
      5. Icepick grip diagonal forehand thrust & slash
      6. Icepick grip diagonal backhand thrust & slash
      7. Icepick grip vertical thrust
      8. Icepick grip jab

      The martial arts group will also train in the “knife tapping” parry drill for both hammer and icepick grips, since this is so important for reaction time.

      Once this core material is covered, we can play with “what if” drills.
      For example, the preferred footwork against a left hand attack form a left lead would be to move in 45 degrees to your to your right to try and get behind the opponent. But what if bad guy number two is already standing there. Maybe moving to your left is a better idea. How do you modify the technique to do this and not get tagged by the right hand of bad guy number one? What is his reach? What targets are available to you and when are they available at different stages of his attack? Which of your weapons should you choose during each stage?

      I tell my students that the chain drills are samples of how to apply the individual pieces of the technique and that these pieces should be considered as modular units (like Legos, but even more painful). They just have to learn the base rules of how to make the pieces fit together. If you have the time, these “What if” drills can really help give the students the mental flexibility they will need in the chaos of a real fight.


      Train Smart,
      Tuhon Bill McGrath
      Pekiti-Tirsia International

      For info on upcoming classes, seminars and camps, visit:

      LINKS: For more on this subject, see the following essays:



      Five teaching methods for the martial arts instructor.