Striking First in a Street Fight

Self-Defense practitoners are always looking to improve their odds of surviving a self-defense situation. We will spend hundreds of dollars on equipment, travel all over the world seeking expert instruction and train their bodies until the point of exhaustion. However, one of the most important and often neglected aspects of street survival is mastery of CFA's First Strike principle.

CFA's First Strike Principle

CFA's First Strike principle states the following: Whenever you are squared off with a dangerous adversary and there is no way to safely escape, you must strike first, strike fast, strike with authority, and keep the pressure on. This offensive strategy is essential to the process of neutralizing a formidable adversary in a street fight. A first strike is defined as the strategic application of proactive force designed to interrupt the initial stages of an assault before it becomes a self-defense situation.

One inescapable fact about street combat is the longer the fight lasts, the greater your chances of serious injury or even death. Common sense suggests that you must end the street fight as quickly as possible. Striking first is the best method of achieving this combat objective because it permits you to neutralize your adversary swiftly while at the same time precluding his ability to effectively retaliate. No time is wasted and no unnecessary risks are taken.

The element of surprise is invaluable. Launching the first strike gives you the upper hand because it allows you to attack the adversary suddenly and unexpectedly. As a result, you demolish his defenses and ultimately take him out of the fight.

Don't Get Confused

Do not confuse the first strike principle with the single attack methodology. The single attack (AKA "simple attack") is one of the five conventional methods of fighting conceived by Bruce Lee whereby the fighter delivers a solitary offensive strike or it may involve a series of discrete probes or one swift and powerful strike aimed at terminating the fight. Whatever the strategy, the single attack is clearly unsuitable for street self-defense.

First, in a volatile street fight, what sense does it make to remain uncommitted to the adversary? I can assure you that you cannot neutralize an opponent by lingering at the perimeter of the encounter. Rather than toying around with single probes and other "feelers", you must commit yourself 100 percent with the most effective flurry of blows appropriate to the ranges, angles and use of force justification that presents itself.

Second, you cannot afford to gamble that one perfectly executed kick, punch or strike will end the street fight. Do not get me wrong - it is not that it cannot be accomplished. I know for a fact that a powerful and accurately placed blow can end a street fight. However, single strike victories are few and far between.

The first strike principle, however, is much different from the single attack because it is a constituent of your overall compound attack. It is not predicated upon one isolated strike. Your pre-emptive strike is just one of the many offensive blows that shower your opponent.

BEWARE! Do not be a defensive fighter in a street fight

A defensive fighter is one who permits his adversary to seize and maintain offensive control in a fight. Beware! this defensive mindset can get you killed in street combat. Simply put, allowing your antagonist the opportunity to deliver the first strike is tactical suicide. It is like allowing a gunslinger to draw his pistol first. Never forget that in unarmed combat, if you permit the adversary to strike first, he might injure or possibly kill you, and he will most certainly force you into an irreversible defensive flow that can preclude you from issuing an effective counter attack.

Employing the first strike principle requires an offensive mentality that compels you to act rather than react. You must be aggressive and take affirmative and absolute control of the situation by making all the decisions and acting immediately without apprehension or trepidation.

Unfortunately, some martial art instructors teach their students to wait for their opponent to make the first move. This can be a BIG MISTAKE! In the mean streets of America, this reactive type of approach will get you a one way trip to the city morgue.

There are also self-defense practitioners who are simply too timid to take the initiative and attack first. Many will not strike first because they simply do not know how to successfully execute a preemptive strike. While others are uncertain about the legal requirements and justifications. As a result, they second guess their instincts, hesitate, and end up kissing the pavement. Therefore, it is imperative that you have a basic understanding of the legal requirements of launching a preemptive strike in a self-defense situation.

First Strike Justifications

The most difficult aspects of the first strike principle is exactly when can a martial artist strike first. Well, since every self-defense situation is going to be different, there is no simple answer to this question. However, there are some fundamental elements that must be present if you are going to launch a preemptive strike.

First, you must never use force against another person unless it is absolutely justified. Force is broken down into two levels: lethal and non-lethal. Lethal force is defined as the amount of force that can cause serious bodily injury or death. While non-lethal force is defined as an amount of force that does not cause serious bodily injury or death.

Keep in mind that any time you use physical force against another person, you run the risk of having a civil suit filed against you. Anyone can hire a lawyer and file a suit for damages. Likewise, anyone can file a criminal complaint against you. Whether criminal charges will be brought against you depends upon the prosecutor or grand jury's views of the facts. Nevertheless, I can tell you that if you are trained in the martial arts, a jury of your peers will hold you to a much higher standard of behavior.

Second, the first strike principle should only be used as an act of protection from unlawful injury or the immediate risk of unlawful injury. If you decide to launch a preemptive strike against your adversary, you had better be certain that a reasonable threat exists and that it is absolutely necessary to protect yourself from immediate danger. Remember, the decision to launch a preemptive strike must always be a last resort where all other means of avoiding and defusing violence have been exhausted.

Does A Reasonable Threat Exist?
To determine if a reasonable threat exists, you must accurately assess your situation. Assessment is the process of rapidly gathering and analyzing information and then accurately evaluating it in terms of threat and danger. In general, there are two factors to assess before launching a first strike: the environment and the adversary. Let us start with the environment and its related elements.


Since a street fight can occur anywhere, you must quickly evaluate the strategic implications of your environment, which is made up of your immediate surroundings, such as a street corner, parking lot, football stadium, golf course, grocery store, gas station, the beach, etc. There are six essential factors to consider when assessing your environment. They are: escape routes, barriers, makeshift weapons, terrain, positions of cover, and positions of concealment. Let us take a look at each one:

1. Escape routes. These are the various avenues or exits that allow you to flee from the threatening situation safely. Some possible escape routes are windows, fire escapes, doors, gates, escalators, fences, walls, bridges, and staircases.

2. Barriers. A barrier is any object that obstructs the assailant's path of attack. At the very least, barriers give you some distance and some time, and they may give you some safety - at least temporarily. A barrier, however, must have the structural integrity to perform the particular function that you have assigned it. Barriers are everywhere and include such things as large desks, doors, automobiles, dumpsters, large trees, fences, walls, heavy machinery, and large vending machines.

3. Makeshift weapons. These are common, everyday objects that can be converted into offensive and defensive weapons. Like a barrier, a makeshift weapon must be appropriate to the function you have assigned to it. You will not be able to knock your assailant out with a car antenna, but you could whip it across his eyes and temporarily blind him. While you could knock your assailant unconscious with a good, heavy flashlight, you could not use it to shield yourself from a knife attack. Makeshift weapons can be broken down into the following four types: a) striking, b) distracting, c) shielding, and d) cutting.

4. Terrain. This is a critical environmental factor. What are the strategic implications of the terrain you are standing on? Will the surface area interfere with your ability to fight your adversary? Terrain falls into one of these two possible categories: a) stable terrain- principally characterized as stationary, compact, dense, hard, flat, dry, or solid ground, and b) unstable terrain - principally characterized as mobile, uneven, flexible, slippery, wet, or rocky ground.

5. Positions of cover. A position of cover is any object or location that temporarily protects you from the assailant's gunfire. Some examples include large concrete utility poles, large rocks, thick trees, an engine block, the corner of a building, concrete steps, and so on. Positions of cover are important not only because they protect you from gunfire but because they buy you some time and allow you to assess the situation from a position of safety. When choosing a position of cover, avoid selecting the following objects because bullets can penetrate them: a) internal doors, b) small trees, c) car doors, d) all glass windows, e) dry wall, f) tall grass, g) trunk of your car, h) overturned tables, i) trash cans, j) shrubbery, and k) fences.

6. Positions of concealment. These are various locations or objects that allow you to hide from your adversary temporarily. Positions of concealment are most commonly used to evade engagement with your assailant(s), and they permit you to attack with the element of surprise. Positions of concealment include trees, shrubbery, doors, the dark, walls, stairwells, cars, and other large and tall objects. WARNING: Do not forget that positions of concealment will not protect you from an assailant's gunfire.


Before launching your first strike, you must assess the source of danger. Who is posing the reasonable threat? Is it someone you know, or is he a complete stranger? Is it one person or two or more? What are his intentions in confronting you? Pay very close attention to all available clues, especially nonverbal indicators. Your answers to these important questions will shape your overall tactical response. There are five essential factors to consider when assessing a threatening adversary: demeanor, intent, range, positioning, and weapon capability.

1. Demeanor. What is the adversary's outward behavior? Watch for both verbal and nonverbal clues. For example, is he shaking, or is he calm and collected? Are his shoulders hunched or relaxed? Are his hands clenched? Is his neck taut? Is he clenching his teeth? Is he breathing hard? Does he seem angry, frustrated, or confused? Does he seem high on drugs? Is he mentally ill or simply intoxicated? What is he saying? How is he saying it? Is he making sense? Is his speech slurred? What is his tone of voice? Is he talking rapidly or methodically? Is he cursing and angry? Remember that all of these verbal and nonverbal cues are essential in accurately assessing the assailant's overall demeanor and adjusting your tactical response accordingly.

2. Intent. Once you have assessed the adversary's demeanor, you're in a much better position to assess his intent. In other words, why is this person confronting you? Does he intend to rob or kill you? Is he trying to harass you? Is he seeking vengeance for something you have done? Or is he a troublemaker looking to pick a fight with you? Determining the assailant's intent is perhaps the most important assessment factors, but it also can be the most difficult.

3. Range. Range is the spatial relationship between you and your adversary in terms of distance. In unarmed combat, for example, there are three possible ranges from which your adversary can launch his attack- kicking, punching, and grappling ranges. When assessing your adversary, you'll need to recognize the strategic implications and advantages of his range immediately. For example, is he close enough to land a punch effectively? Is he at a distance from which he could kick you? Is he in a range that would allow him to grab hold of you and take you down to the ground? Is he within range to slash you with a knife or strike you with a bludgeon? Is the assailant moving closer to you? If so, how fast? Does the threatening assailant continue to move forward when you step back?

4. Positioning. This is the spatial relationship between you and the adversary in terms of threat, tactical escape, and target selection. In street combat, it's important to understand the strategic implications of the assailant's positioning before and during the fight. For example, is he standing squarely or sideways? Is he mounted on top of you in a ground fight? Or is he inside your leg guard? What anatomical targets does the adversary present you with? Is he blocking a door or any other escape route? Is his back to a light source? Is he close to your only possible makeshift weapon? Are multiple assailants closing in on you? Is your assailant firing his gun from a position of cover or concealment?

5. Weapon capability. Always try to determine whether your adversary is armed or unarmed. If he is carrying a weapon, what type is it? Does he have an effective delivery method for the particular weapon? Is he armed with more than one weapon? If so, where are they located? There are four general points of concern when assessing the assailant's weapon capability, including hand/fingers, general behavior, clothing, and location.

a. Hands/fingers. When strategically scanning your adversary for weapons, quickly glance at his hands and all his fingertips. Can you see them? Is one hand behind him or in his pockets? If you cannot see his fingers, he could be palming a knife or some other edged weapon. Remember to be extremely cautious when the assailant's arms are crossed in front of his body or when he keeps his hands in his pockets.
b. General behavior. How is the assailant behaving? For example, does he pat his chest frequently (as a weapon security check)? Does he act apprehensive, nervous, or uneasy? Or does he seem to be reaching for something? Is your assailant's body language incongruous with his verbal statements?
c. Clothing. What the assailant is wearing can also clue you in on what he may be concealing. For example, is the assailant wearing a knife sheath on his belt? Could there be a knife concealed in his boots? At other times you may have to be a bit more analytical. For example, is your assailant wearing a jacket when it is too hot for one? Could it be to conceal a gun at his waist or shoulder? Could he be concealing a gun or edged weapon.
d. Location. Does the assailant seem suspiciously rooted to a particular spot? Or is he running back to his car, possibly to get his gun? Is he close enough to grab that beer bottle on top of the bar? How far is the assailant from a makeshift weapon?

Don't Stereotype Your Adversary

It is important to consider that the person you must strike first may not fit your stereotype of a dangerous adversary. I know of several people, for example, who erroneously imagine that they will be confronted by a "typical scumbag" - a loathsome, contemptuous, male of another race. But what if your adversary turns out to be a clean-cut, business executive of your own ethnic background who menacingly waves his fist in your face? Will you be able launch a first strike without trepidation?

Resolve Moral Issues Now

Before you decide to execute a first strike in a street fight, it is very important that you raise and resolve moral issues concerning the use of a pre-emptive force in defense of yourself and others. Do your religious or philosophical beliefs permit you to launch a preemptive strike? Could you take the life of another in defense of yourself or a loved one? As a law-abiding citizen, the law clearly gives you the right to defend yourself under certain circumstances. Can you accept that, or does the possibility of a justified first strike induce moral doubts in your mind? If you have any apprehension or your conscious precludes you from initiating a preemptive strike then do not attempt to do it. Let me remind you that executing a first strike requires a particular type of psychological and emotional makeup - it is not for everyone! If you would like to lern more about striking first in a street fight, see my first strike book and first strike dvd program.

Good luck and train hard!

- Sammy Franco (CFA Founder)

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