Taking the Stab out of Stabbings

Corrections Forum, July/August 2000 | Go to article overview

Taking the Stab out of Stabbings


The safety of America's corrections officers is about to be augmented by efforts to keep British police officers safe while on duty.

One of the major hazards encountered by every corrections officer in the United States is an attack by an inmate armed with a sharp-edged or pointed object. In England, where criminal use of handguns is not prevalent, it is the police officer who also faces assaults by individuals wielding knives, ice picks, and the like.

Although the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) has led the way in establishing body armor standards relating to ballistics, for its work with stab-resistant body armor NIJ got a helping hand from he Police Scientific Development Branch (PSDB) of the Home ice in the United Kingdom.According to Kirk Rice, program manager of weapons and protective systems at the National Institute of Standards and Technology's Office of Law Enforcement Standards, NIJ became involved with PSDB through an initiative of the U.S. Secret Service, which also has a keen interest in standards for stab-resistant vests.

"NIJ is leveraging the research that has already been done by the PSDB," Rice says. "The United Kingdom has a strong program in the stab area. That's because handguns are not much of a threat there, but knives are. We needed their expertise in the knife area so we decided to work with them and supplied them with some equipment and information in the earlier stages of the testing."

PSDB looked at the actual mechanics of stabbing, Rice says. Researchers developed an "instrumented" knife blade-that is, a knife blade that could measure the thrust and energy of a stab. In the first series of tests, 500 young, healthy male recruits tried out the blade, stabbing from a variety of directions and using a number of techniques: roundhouse, overhead, jab, and double- and single-handed stab. Using information from the instrumented blade, researchers could determine the kind of energy a human being was capable of delivering.

To their surprise, PSDB researchers found that the energies delivered were higher than expected. They suspected the higher numbers could be due to the knife's' large built-In handguard, which was incorporated into the knife for safety reasons PSDB then conducted a second series of tests and took into account that any number of factors can affect the act of stabbing someone. "With a gun, it doesn't really matter who shoots it," Rice says. "What's delivered is always the same. A knife is different ... depending on the knife's design and a person's technique, strength, attitude, coordination, and body position."

By watching high-speed videotapes of the stabs and by examining data collected from the knife, PSDB found that, in the act of stabbing, each subject's hand slipped on the handle, toward the handguard. "In the act of stabbing, the human hand will slip a bit," Rice says. "And as you bear down on the target, you have even more slippage. The handguard the PSDB employed allowed more energy to be delivered. But, in reality, a knife is not going to have such a large handguard. …

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