I am revisiting an old theme here but I think it’s important to do so because someone has asked me the following:

My martial arts teacher told me that in a real self defence situation, if you feel threatened you should throw the first punch. Is that right? Is that true?

It is a good question because what this person is asking, whether they are aware of it or not, is a question self-defence law, something most martial artists and martial arts instructors spend far too little time thinking about.

Striking first might well be an effective self-defence strategy but what about the legal consequences of doing so?  Imagine your encounter is captured on video – very possible in these days of CCTV and smart phone ubiquity – and you are caught throwing the first punch in “self defence”.  What will the police make of the video? What about the prosecutor or judge? Might you now not look like the aggressor? How will you justify your actions?

Remember, using a legal defence of self defence is what lawyer’s call an affirmative defence. In essence, you are not denying what you did. You are arguing that you were justified in doing it.

The law in most jurisdictions does allow you to defend yourself from attack and when you believe you are about to be attacked. So far, so good, but how will you demonstrate that you believed you were about to be attacked?

There are many elements to this. If you are bigger, taller and stronger than your opponent you will have a harder time arguing you felt he was an imminent threat than if your opponent is larger than you. An aggressor’s verbal threats might be relevant here but will anyone be able to hear them on CCTV footage? And what about if you have been drinking or taken some other mind altering substance?  Might that impair your ability to assess a threat accurately? And might a good prosecutor make that very point in court?

Self defence situations are highly idiosyncratic so it is helpful to approach them with a set of principles rather than any absolutes. I’ve posted these before but it is always worth reviewing them:

Can you demonstrate that you feel threatened? It is not enough to say you felt threatened. You must be able to demonstrate that you felt threatened or that you had good reason to feel threatened.

Is the aggressor capable of hurting you? This helps inform the validity of the threat. A small women threatening an average man is different to a large man threatening a small woman because one’s ability to hurt the other very different. Weapons can affect this equation.

Did you have any other options other than using force? Could you have walked away and, if so, did you try to? Did you have a chance to talk your way out of trouble and, if so, did you try to? Can you showthat you had no choice but to use force?

Did you use only the amount of force necessary and no more? You may use force to defend yourself but only as much needed to remove the threat and get to safety. Knocking someone to the ground is one thing but kicking them repeatedly once they are on the ground is another. What is a reasonable amount of force is extremely circumstantial. Your training needs to explore different circumstances.

So, returning to the original question as to whether you should strike first when threatened, the answer is that in some circumstances it might be and in others it might not, depending on the four principles above.

Welcome to the nuance of the real world.

Train hard and stay safe.


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