A Brief Study of the evolution of Combatives, Hand to Hand Combat, Self Defense and Mixed Martial Arts.
The root word COMBAT – “to fight in direct contact,” “active fighting between enemies,” “any fight or struggle”.
There are no specific country origins or techniques to define Close Combat, Self Defense, and Hand to Hand maneuvers. Based on historical fact and my 30 plus years experience in research, training, teaching, and understanding self defense, I present the following.
“The Roots of Close Combat, Self Defense, and Mixed Martial Arts”
There are comprehensive surveys and presentations of armed and unarmed combat. You will find a vast array of skills that deploy a diverse mix of “techniques” and through them all, one truth remains; where people exist, there is a need for defense against aggression. Every culture has its own form of close combat, both traditional and unconventional, and they all have striking similarities.
In Ancient Greece, Pankration was a combined system of “all powers” combat, the equivalent of what is globally known today as Mixed Martial Arts.
The same held true for the Samurai original fighting systems referred to as Koryu Bujutsu. These included a comprehensive catalog of both armed and unarmed skills. The unarmed combatives of the Japanese Bushi (elite warriors) also didn’t limit scope or method. This “all in” system of fighting advocated grappling, striking, joint-locking, kicking, biting and any other means necessary to gain tactical superiority over your adversary.
Furthermore, the western world was not without it’s all-in fighting methods. Before the use of London Prize Ring rules and the Marquis of Queensbury (predecessor of modern day boxing rules) “pugilists” (the premiere boxers) used and relied on a great number of different grappling, striking, kicking, and gouging methods.
And of course the Chinese have always maintained fully robust systems of “all-in” methods of combat. Shaolin monks employed such techniques to protect the communities that surrounded them.
Even in original Okinawan Te (pronounced “Ti”), a system of karate that included percussion methods as well as “tegumi” (grappling) and “tuite” (joint lock) systems. The idea being “Punch his lungs out if that did the job best, or grapple into a spine lock and use a neck break if you had to, just get the job done.”
In the 19th century the West saw many methods of “combined” self defense systems begin to develop. The French combined elements of Chausson/Savate (French Foot Fighting) with Boxe Anglaise (Boxing), Parisian Lutte (stick fighting) and even the “newly discovered” Japanese Jiu-Jitsu.
The British did the same. The “Bartitsu” of Barton-Wright (famous self defense writer) is a classic example. In the United States a number of self defense methods became available to the public that combined methods from Boxing and Wrestling. Even before any organized mixed martial arts systems were presented, men who fought even for sport used virtually any method they could to insure victory. Just read Elliot J. Gorn.
The Twentieth century saw even more “mixed” martial art combat systems. Any and all manner of grappling, throttling, kicking, kneeing, butting, biting, punching, gouging, stomping, and whatever other methods of mayhem could be employed were all “FAIR” when “fair” meant the difference between life or death, and it certainly didn’t just end at “unarmed” fighting!
Only in the arena of sporting combat did this division of method, pitting one against another, become a somewhat popular past time. Matching wrestlers against boxers, either of the two against jiu-jitsu men or Savate Fighters against boxers was common place in any fairground or public spectacle.
In Japan, the founder of Judo, Jigoro Kano’s nephew got involved in promoting these types of matches between western boxers and native Japanese Judoka. They were called “JU-KENTO,” as in Judo, Jujutsu and “Kento” (fist-fighting). During this period, judo players interested in these JU-KENTO bouts sought out specific instruction in just how to make Judo work against boxing. An entire book on this subject was published in Japan in the early 30’s. Remember that all of these bouts had strict rules and regulations of engagement. Few if any of these mandates would have had much bearing on what one could do in a real back alley brawl. As an example: Judoka (Judo practitioners) were almost always forbidden to use any methods of atemi waza (striking, punching, kicking, butting, and smashing). However, Judo experts of the time have advocated that striking would be the most preferable method of attack and defense in a serious engagement.
Karate legend Choki Motobu, when asked if his Kempo-Karate was “superior” to boxing after his Knock Out of a western style pugilist, said that in order for his method to be used against a boxer specialized training specific for that type of match would have to be undertaken. These “mixed matches” were done under a constantly varying set of rules, so that it became virtually impossible to ever really determine what method or martial art was superior. Even then, as some sportswriters of the time pointed out, “What did any of this have to do with real fighting when no rules applied?”
The foregoing should satisfy and fulfill anyone’s definition of mixed martial arts tactics and techniques (even though Muay Thai or more accurately Siamese boxing and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu were not included). But to be fair, there are English language books circa the late 1920’s and 30’s that detail Siamese boxing quite well. One manual details the favorite attacks of Siamese style boxers as being directed at the liver with brutal kicks and at the throat while grasping the hair with one hand and smashing the throat with the other fist (gloves were not worn at this time). One should note: the liver attack was lethal in many cases because of the widespread epidemic of malaria which left the liver swollen and distended. Deaths occurred frequently in these matches and were considered just a routine hazard of the “trade”.
The bottom line is this: for use in a real violent assault no one, but an utter fool, would suggest an attitude or method approaching less than that of an all-in doctrine. In regards to deciding which martial art is best: nothing was ever, or could ever be, conclusively proven to be superior to anything else. At one time or another any of these various “methods” had both big and impressive wins and equally impressive failures.
What is the best Self Defense system?
No matter what culture or style, when it comes to real fighting, the best system whatever got the job at hand accomplished in the fastest, most efficient way possible. The purpose comes first, the training came second!
You run into problems when you start to try and “fit” your style to any situation.
This is why martial arts fail when you try to teach someone with ZERO experience in that particular art. In an effort to promote their systems to the masses, martial arts are constantly trying to adapt sporting systems to non-sporting applications.
Judo was the first to do this with “Goshin-jutsu”, a series of techniques developed to demonstrate how judo would be applied to self defense situations. Most in fact all other methods followed suit and adapted this same model to “self defense”. The problem with this is obvious, when you limit your scope of tactics to a particular style, you eliminate all of the other possibilities. Like the old saying goes, “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”
Self Defense to the Present Day
The advent of World War I brought warfare into a new and foreboding era of man to man killing and slaughter. Air power, mechanized warfare, chemical warfare, and the general widespread use of machine guns changed the face of battle almost completely.
The static and stagnant lines created by entrenched warfare demanded new and innovative tactics and strategies. Among these was the advent of “raiding” parties: small groups of lightly armed men venturing behind enemy lines for the purpose of recon, probing, intelligence, prisoner grabs, and psychological demoralization missions.
The nature of fighting under these conditions became popularized as trench warfare. This was close-in, knife to belly, hand to hand combat. For this manner of fighting, expedient methods of killing ones enemy, improvised close-combat weaponry were developed and deployed.
While technological advances were being made in all other forms of warfare, this particularly nasty and vicious man to man fighting reverted to the most barbaric, primitive, and bloody “methods” imaginable.
Despite changes in technology, one solitary fact remained, in the end it was still man against man in a desperate, brutal, and deadly struggle for survival.
As a result unarmed hand to hand methods were drawn from every source of man-to-man combat. Boxing, wrestling, savate, jiujitsu, and any number of rough and tumble, gouge and kick back alley tactics were employed. Those charged with the task of developing such training programs were well aware of the fact that no one single approach to combat was sufficient in kill or be killed battle!
Punching, kicking, striking, butting, stomping, biting, gouging, throwing, tripping, choking, strangling, bone breaking, and the use of any and all weapons of close combat expediency were stressed. Fostered by this fact, most military forces researched, developed, and implemented comprehensive and rigorous training methods specific to close-combat and trench fighting. The bayonet, the knife (especially the trench knife), and hand to hand combat became prime training doctrines along with advancements in general physical conditioning and battle preparation. William E. Fairbairn is one of the credited pioneers of this study during his tenure as head of the Shanghai Municipal Police.
The years after WWI saw an increase in self defense “systems” designed for and marketed to the average citizen. Law enforcement organizations began to pay more attention to this area of training. This was part of a movement to increase the professionalism of law enforcement personnel in general. Virtually all of these systems advocated a well-balanced approach to personal combat.
Elements of boxing, wrestling, foot-fighting, and jiu-jitsu were put together in a toolbox of personal self defense tactics. The mixing of different martial art styles became quite popular. Even methods that relied primarily on western boxing and wrestling maneuvers acknowledged that a well rounded combatant must be able to both strike effectively as well as grapple.
Other methods of self defense touted “jiu-jitsu” as the singular answer to personal attack and defense. The reason for this is because most Japanese methods for self defense already included a comprehensive system of blows, strikes, kicks, and grappling methods.
You should also note that it’s difficult to pin down a particular style of jiu-jitsu because during this period any method of Japanese self defense was given this moniker. Combine with an influx of Japanese immigrants and emissaries promoting judo, their culture and the individual’s personal training and experience, it is impossible to determine a specific style or “ryu.” Add to that the Japanese effort to promote Judo above all of these methods that most of the older systems became outdated or lost. The result is from the early 1900’s forward most English manuals and books refer to any Japanese system of self defense as “jiu-jitsu”, “jujutsu”, or “judo”.
There was virtually no “authority” or “expert” in the self defense field at this time who did not advocate the “all-in” doctrine of striking, kicking, joint locking, grappling, biting and gouging to survive hand to hand combat.
Allied Forces “Industrialize” Self Defense: The Evolution of the Modern Training System
The Battle of Britain began in early July, 1940. England was isolated in a war against the axis of evil. The miracle retreat from Dunkirk and the German “Blitzkrieg” across Europe, including the crushing tactical defeat of the famed French “Maginot Line” proved the Third Reich war machine to be virtually unstoppable. Hitler’s plan for the invasion of England, named “Operation Sea Lion” was a daily focal point of danger and concern for the British.
Dunkirk had decimated the British forces and moral was at an all time low. Two recently returned veterans of British colonial rule in Shanghai, China approached the War Office and offered their services at this desperate time. William Ewart Fairbairn, retired as a ranking officer of the Shanghai Municipal Police and his partner Eric Anthony Sykes, a private arms dealer who served as a volunteer in the Shanghai Municipal Police and headed the sniper unit of the famed Shanghai Riot Squad, promised the War Office that their training and methods could in short order, make “any one man the equal of ten.”
After the debacle at Dunkirk this was a most important and dramatic statement. Initially dismissed, these two men went on to prove the veracity of their words and convinced the brass as to the absolute effectiveness of their methods. Even if that meant that an over middle aged W.E. Fairbairn had to place several young bucks in the hospital to prove his point in an impromptu, but extremely realistic “demonstration”, so be it. Those who “tested” Sykes faired no better. So the methods that these men had developed during decades of very dangerous work in Shanghai now became the standard of training for all British forces and Special Operations personnel.
In the United States, the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, coupled with the Imperial Japanese military’s coordinated assault on all American and British forces across the Pacific Rim pulled the United States firmly in this world wide conflict. The United States was now fully at war with the Axis of Evil forces. Fairbairn, who was now in Canada, assigned to the infamous “Camp X”, along with “unarmed combat” expert George de Relwyskow, a Brazilian Judo/Jujutsu expert, and Colonel Carl Eifler who was already undergoing training here, were ordered to assist the U.S. government agency known as “The Office of the Coordinator of Intelligence”, the precursor of the OSS (Office of Strategic Services).
Eric Anthony Sykes remained in England and found the need for his services in great demand. He also found himself working under the auspice of the British covert force known as the Special Operations Executive.
The legend of Fairbairn and Sykes from the early days of Shanghai, up to and through the war years is an entire story unto itself and beyond the scope of this article. However it must be clearly understood that the contribution of these men had a profound effect and influence on all close-combat methods, tactics, and techniques for decades after the war (despite the often heard “argument” that we have somehow “evolved” beyond these methods). However, they were certainly not the only experts involved in this field. One of many examples would be A.J. Drexel-Biddle who studied and trained extensively in boxing, savate, jiu-jitsu, swordplay, knife-fighting and various bayonet methods.
As the United States geared up for war, a major factor began to be publicized both here and in Australia. The press made a great deal about the superiority of the Japanese fighting man. Part of this was, to be sure, rooted in fact. The Battle of Port Arthur, the turning point in the Russo-Japanese war, several decades earlier, had shown the world the tenacity and ferocity of the Japanese soldier, particularly in the area of close-in, man-to-man combat. Much was made of the large Russian soldier finding abject defeat at the hands of his smaller Japanese adversary when engaged in hand to hand combat (hence a very obvious need for the creation of Sambo). It was here that Japanese Jiu-jitsu was given world-wide attention and notoriety in this regard. The Japanese conduct and performance of the war in China also demonstrated to the world a seemingly invincible and unstoppable force. Japan was a force that was brutal and deadly in the extreme.
As a result, much attention was given over to the training of United States and Allied Forces in methods of personal self defense that would enable the average soldier to meet the Japanese fighting man on a somewhat equal footing. Every branch of the Armed Services began an intensive physical training program designed to meet these needs. Much of the expert instruction needed, particularly in the arena of close-quarters man to man combat, came from the civilian quarter as it still does today.
Men with tremendous and varied life-long experience in all forms of martial arts and self defense were tapped to create training programs that would give the Allied soldier sufficient means by which to engage their enemies at close-quarters. The Axis of Evil did the same of course. Japan being the obvious factor in this regard, but even Adolf Hitler proclaimed the absolute need for boxing and jiu-jitsu in German military training as it imparted courage and daring the average soldier to close the distance with his enemy. There were even manuals published and courses taught to “defend” against the methods developed by the Allied Forces.
In the United States there were a plethora of varied methods and training systems. Any attempt to narrowly define the methods from this era demonstrates complete ignorance and foolishness. Though the contribution of Lt. Colonel Fairbairn is great, as is the influence of Colonel Rex Applegate, there were dozens upon dozens of different close-quarters battle systems developed. From wrestling, boxing, savate, judo, jiu-jitsu, Chinese boxing, and even football and rugby methods were not only drawn upon, but entire self defense systems were advocated based on these individual methods. It may come as a surprise to many, but here in the Unites States, even Japanese Karate was used and found to be effective.
The problem they faced with creating a universal form of defense is that the experts often tasked with their development typically relied on their expertise too much. This made many unarmed combat courses too complex and technical. Wrestlers tended to rely on that method, Judo and Brazilian Jujitsu men on that system, Boxers on their expertise and so on and so on. You should note that each method can claim stunning success in actual combat. “After Action” reports showed that all of these methods had merit and could be used effectively in the rigors and stress of real battle. However, as the war progressed two major factors began to influence and change these training protocols. One was the fact that more and more men from all sorts of varied backgrounds were drafted into military service. The other was that as demands for more and more replacement troops began to rise, the amount of training time became reduced.
The approach that seemed most feasible and useful was one that combined the best or the most effective, efficient and quickly learned methods. These methods as it so happens, were the easiest to retain. The rudiment basics of boxing and wrestling were made part of an overall general physical conditioning program and unarmed combat became a specialized block of instruction. These courses in unarmed combat, hand to hand combat, combat judo and so forth again sought to combine the most advantageous holds, throws, trips, locks, strangles, blows, strikes and kicks from all the varied methods available. The only truly limiting factor here was the time element.
Other considerations were also important. The O’Neill (another Shanghai veteran and ranking Judo Black Belt) method is a classic example of a system specifically tailored for both the training environment available, as well as the nature of the combat engagement expected. There were even attempts made to instruct the military in actual Koryu (old school) Jujutsu systems here in the United States, however the most effective systems still sought to mix all the varied martial arts and focus on the most efficient and effect methods.
As the war progressed, more and more “After Action” intelligence gathered from the reality of battle helped shape and determine training priorities. Many methods of close-combat began to be trimmed down to only those fundamentals that proved most effective overall and most applicable to all trainees across a wide and varied spectrum of physical attributes and skill.
American Col. Rex Applegate was perhaps the most vocal of these advocates owing to his exposure in the INFANTRY JOURNAL and the publishing of the book “KILL or GET KILLED” was not without his critics from other martial arts experts, as was Fairbairn, due to the simplicity of the methods and tactics they advocated.
In fact, some courses were so short in duration that they involved only several hours of instruction, while others were quite involved and very complete in their syllabus content. Many are familiar with the Navy V-5 programs and the training at Fort Benning, but lesser known is the very extensive training at places like Fort Meade and at the Hawaii Jungle Warfare Complex. These locations conducted a very complete and mixed program of martial arts. From the CIC training center in Chicago to the Army training camps in Colorado, from Parris Island to the Ranger/Commando schools in the Hawaiian Islands, from the training bases in England prior to D-Day to the “Killing” school in Palestine, the methods taught ran the full gamut of man-to-man, tooth and nail close quarters combat. From the complex to the “instinctive kill” (a method designed to take full advantage of so-called natural “animal” killing instinct), these methods fall under the definition of combatives, self defense, close combat, etc.
Even the OSS personnel training at Area B were shown the methods of Siamese boxing (read Muay Thai), western boxing, wrestling/grappling, French “foot-fighting”(including Assaut Vite savate), Indian Varma-adi/Varmannie, Chinese boxing, “Roman” boxing, Japanese Judo/Jujutsu and Karate, Siamese boxing, Burmese boxing-Bando, western fencing, Filipino edged weapons and any and all systems (including almost every weapon known to man) deemed effective in dispatching one’s enemies to the hereafter were studied, researched, implemented and trained. One WWII era United States hand to hand combat manual even makes reference to Indonesian methods.
So from a historical perspective, “What is combatives?” Combatives is a purpose driven method of defeating one’s enemy by whatever means necessary. It focuses on the fastest and most efficient means to accomplish the task at hand and includes all manner of weaponry. It is void of ethics, culture and country, it is a tool for man on man conflict.
Damian Ross is CEO of the Self Defense Company and developer of The Self Defense Training System, the most lethal and effective self defense system in the world, The Guardian Defensive Tactics Police Combatives Program, 60 minute Self Defense and the Family Safe Program. Mr. Ross also founded the Self Defense Instructor Program that helps people develop their self defense careers from the ground up. Mr. Ross is originally from Ridgewood, NJ where he was a High School Hall of Fame Athlete in football and wrestling as well as a varsity wrestling coach. He then went on to Lehigh University where he was a varsity wrestler and football player. Mr. Ross has 3 black belts, 4th Degree in Tekkenryu Jujutsu and Military Combatives, 2nd Degree in Judo, 2nd Degree in Tae Kwon Do. In addition to his martial arts experience, Mr. Ross spent a decade in the professional security and personal protection business. He is internationally recognized as one of the foremost authorities in reality based self defense.