Combatives: Military and Police Martial Art Training (Martial Arts)

Combatives is the collective term used to describe military or paramilitary training in hand-to-hand fighting. For police, the emphasis is usually on restraining the opponent, while for armies the emphasis is usually on increasing soldiers’ self-confidence and physical aggressiveness. During such training, the virtues of “national” martial arts frequently are extolled, often at the expense of actual tactical advantage.

Police and militaries also have displayed considerable interest in non-lethal combatives. This term refers to methods and techniques (manual, mechanical, or chemical) that are designed and used to physically control or restrain people but, unless used with deliberate malicious intent, are unlikely to cause crippling injury or death to healthy teens or adults. Most unarmed martial art techniques fall into this category.

Perhaps the first systematic attempt to use Asian martial art techniques by a modern military came in 1561, when the Ming general Qi Jiguang included moves from a Northern Shaolin sword form in his text called Ji Xiao Xin Shu (New Text of Practical Tactics). Shaolin Boxing also was mentioned, apparently because Qi believed that recruits handled their weapons more confidently if first taught to wrestle and box.

During the 1590s, peasant infantry of southern Japan’s Satsuma clan were observed practicing firearm kata (forms), and in 1609 the Satsuma conquest of Okinawa owed much to the Japanese bringing 700 muskets and 30,000 bullets to what the Ryukyuans, the native inhabitants of the island, expected to be a battle of arrows and pikes. Meanwhile in Europe the Republican Dutch began developing military musket drills. Mostly a form of industrial safety (accidental discharges pose a serious risk in closed ranks), the Dutch taught their methods using rote patterns like the Japanese kata (forms).


To counter the Dutch, the French and Spanish began developing bayonets. Firearms were slow to reload in those days, and not accurate much past fifty meters. So if one could close quickly enough, then one could be inside the enemy ranks before they could reload. Originally companies of pikemen made the charge, but with the development of socket bayonets in 1678, European infantrymen became musketeers.

Throughout the eighteenth century, European professional soldiers concentrated mostly on developing close-order drills designed to move troops en masse, and bayonet practice consisted of little more than troops sticking straw topic. Following the Napoleonic Wars, however, interest developed in using sword and bayonet drills as a form of physical exercise.

The first such proposals came from amateurs. In 1817, for instance, the English fencing master Henry Angelo published a topic that showed cavalry fencing side by side on horseback; his inspirations included the Continental equestrian techniques performed at Philip Astley’s London circus. Real cavalrymen were of course dismayed. “I, myself, as an ex-cavalryman who participated in cavalry charges during the First World War,” sputtered Vladimir Littauer, “can assure you that the success of an attack does not depend on refinements of equitation but rather on the moment being rightly chosen” (Littauer 1991, 100-101).

Of more interest to military professionals was the program that Pehr Ling developed in Sweden. A graduate of Franz Nachtigal’s academy, Ling believed that schoolchildren and soldiers needed to do exercises that made them respond quickly to their superiors. Furthermore, they needed to be graded in everything they did, and performances needed to show measurable improvement over time. Finally, physical training was something that both children and soldiers did for the nation, not for fun. So, with the support of the French general who was the Swedish crown prince, Ling established a Royal Central Institute of Gymnastics in Stockholm in 1813. Swedish military officers were required to attend this school, and in 1836 Ling, a noted fencer, published a manual on bayonet fencing for the Swedish Army.

For Ling, sticking the target with the point of the bayonet was especially important. If the opponent also has no bullets and the fighting is one-on-one, then his reasoning is sound, as thrusting provides the soldier with a better defensive posture and also protects the firearm’s mechanism. However, in practice, the soldiers most likely to use bayonets were infantrymen suddenly ambushed by horsemen. Here, Richard Francis Burton explained in his 1853 Complete System of Bayonet Exercise, the bayonet was not used by one man working alone or even by a mass of men in a charge, but instead by four men working together in what was called a rallying square. Furthermore, the bayonet was not rammed deep, but instead used to slash. First, the victim was inconvenienced similarly either way, and more importantly, the slashing motion did not cause the bayonet to become stuck in the target. But this approach assumed that the bayonet was being used for combat rather than to teach aggressiveness, which was not always the case.

Of equal (and more enduring) interest to nineteenth-century military reformers were Ling’s “Swedish gymnastics.” Essentially modern calisthenics, Swedish gymnastics differed from German gymnastics mainly because they did not require bars, rings, and other equipment. Thus they were cheaper and easier to organize. Plus they had the advantage, at least to the Lutheran mind, that they were not much fun to do. Fun, after all, was the work of the devil. Hardship, on the other hand, built character.

Similar exercises became part of Swiss military training during the 1840s (a Swiss physical culturalist coined the word calisthenics) and British and German military training during the 1850s. The French followed suit during the 1870s, as did the Japanese during the 1880s and the Americans during the 1890s. In all cases, the reforms coincided with the establishment of centralized training depots. Perhaps more than physical fitness, a key learning objective was conditioning recruits to respond instantly and appropriately to shouted commands.

Although nationalism played a part in choosing the exercises used (thus Germans and Japanese wrestled while Americans and British boxed), other arguments were also given. One was the nineteenth-century belief that physical training in boxing and similar sports built character, which in those days typically translated into reduced male sexual desire. (Sexually transmitted diseases were a serious problem in nineteenth-century militaries, causing 37 percent of hospital admissions in the British Army in India in 1888 [Hayton-Keeva 1987, 76-80].) Another was that such sports provided commanders with a tool with which they could demonstrate superiority over other commanders. And as always victories could be orchestrated for political purposes; as early as 1929 the Nazis staged a boxing tournament between French Algerians and German “Aryans” for the express purpose of inciting race hatred.

During the late nineteenth century, swords and bayonets fell into disfavor with most professional soldiers. The reason was that cavalrymen came to prefer revolvers and shotguns and infantry came to prefer breech-loaded firearms. Unfortunately, Japanese successes during the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905 convinced some politicians that the spirit of the bayonet was a key to victory. So when ammunition stocks fell low at the beginning of World War I, Allied conscripts were trained to attack with bayonets rather than shoot. Ammunition expenditure was reduced, but casualties were enormous.

As early as 1908 Colonel Sir Malcolm Fox of the British military gymnastics department claimed to see correlation between boxing and bayonet fighting, so throughout the 1910s the British, Canadians, and Americans recruited professional boxers as combatives instructors. Privately, the boxers were appalled, as most had enough experience in rough parts of town to know that anyone who brought a bayonet to a gunfight was going to end up dead. Still, the methods were easily taught to huge numbers of men, and the bayonets were effectively used by Allied military police to quell the British, French, and Italian mutinies of 1917.

For their part, the Germans and Austrians never devoted much effort to teaching bayonet fighting; as a German officer named Erwin Rommel put it, “The winner in a bayonet fight is he who has one more bullet in his magazine” (Rommel 1979, 59-60). Instead, at mass levels the focus was on squad and team development, while at the individual level the focus was on teaching picked sharpshooters to use cover, concealment, and bolt-action rifles mounted with telescopic sights. The pedagogy seems to have been sound, too, as, unlike the Allies, the German and Austrian armies did not suffer mutinies until the collapse of the Western Front in 1918.

Sven J. Jorgensen teaches Seattle police officers jujutsu disarming tricks, November 23, 1927.

Sven J. Jorgensen teaches Seattle police officers jujutsu disarming tricks, November 23, 1927.

Following the Armistice in 1918, training budgets shrank. Of course that didn’t stop professionals from conducting quiet experiments during colonial and civil wars, and as early as the Spanish Civil War the Germans had begun replacing bayonets with light machine guns supported by tanks, artillery, and dive-bombers. In other words, they replaced banzai with blitzkrieg, a method that the U.S. Marines perfected against the Japanese in the Pacific and the Chinese in Korea.

In China, budgets were also slim. So in 1912, Feng Yuxiang, “the Christian general,” ordered his officers and men to run obstacle courses, lift weights, do forced marches with packs, and practice quanfa (Chinese boxing). In 1917, a Communist student leader named Mao Zedong also encouraged his followers to practice taijiquan. But in both cases, this was because they viewed the boxing as a gymnastic that took little space and no special equipment rather than as a practical battlefield combative. (As recently as 1976, Red Army generals asked about the value of quanfa said, “Amidst heavy gunfire, who would want to enjoy the dance posture of swordplay?”

But outside military academies, fantasy ruled. Thus, during the 1920s and 1930s, comic topics and movies featured lantern-jawed heroes knocking out hordes of enemies using weapons no more powerful than a single right cross to the jaw. Heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey literally made a million dollars starring in a series of forgettable Hollywood films featuring exactly this technique.

Around the same time, police departments began providing officers with professional instruction. In New York City, Theodore Roosevelt authorized firearm instruction for police officers as early as 1895, and in Berlin, Erich Rahn began teaching jujutsu to detectives in 1910. During the 1930s the Gestapo became interested in Japanese close-quarter methods; in 1938 a German policeman named Helmut Lehmann was sent to Japan specifically to learn judo, and upon his return to the Reich the following year, he was ranked fourth dan (fourth-degree black belt).

In Britain and Canada, policemen boxed or wrestled. (During the 1930s, a surprising number of Canadian amateur wrestling champions were police officers.) During the 1920s several London Metropolitan policemen also took judo instruction at the Budokai, and in Vancouver, British Columbia, eleven Royal Canadian Mounted Police constables achieved shodan (judo first-degree black belt ranking) by 1934.

In the United States, officer S. J. Jorgensen started a jujutsu program for the Seattle Police Department in 1927. Police in Minnesota, Michigan, New Jersey, and California also started jujutsu programs, and by 1940 such programs were nationwide. A British show wrestler named Leopold MacLaglan was often involved in establishing these programs, and the quality of instruction was not always the best.

J. Edgar Hoover’s G-men had their own system of applied mayhem. The Bureau of Investigation’s primary close-combat instructor was Major Anthony J. Drexel Biddle, U.S. Marine Corps, Retired. Biddle had done some boxing and fencing, and he enjoyed telling old ladies and little children Bible stories illustrated by homilies about how turning a bayonet-equipped rifle sideways would keep the bayonet from sticking to the opponent’s ribs (McEvoy 1942, 538-539). During the late 1920s, Biddle taught some grip releases and disarming techniques to the Philadelphia police, and after Franklin Roosevelt made Biddle’s cousin Francis the attorney general of the United States, the FBI hired him to teach close-combat techniques to agents. Since FBI training took place at a Marine base in Virginia, Biddle also got to show his tricks to Marine officers during summer encampments, and as a result the Marine Corps Association published Bid-dle’s Do or Die: Military Manual of Advanced Science in Individual Combat in 1937. Cold Steel, a 1952 text written by a former student named John Styer, is an improved version of Do or Die.

The Soviet method of unarmed combat was called sambo, short for samooborona bez oruzhiya (Russian; self-defense without weapons). Sambo started life as Kodokan Judo. From Sakhalin Island, 14-year-old Vasilij Sergevich Oshchepkov was sent to Tokyo in 1906. Admitted to the Kodokan in 1911, he earned his judo shodan ranking in about six months and his second-degree grade in about two years. In 1914 he moved to Vladivostok, where he taught judo and did translations. In 1921 he went to work for the Red Army, and in 1929 he introduced judo to Moscow. In 1936 the Leningrad Sport Committee prohibited a competition between the Moscow and Leningrad teams; Oshchepkov complained, was arrested on a charge of being a Japanese spy, and subsequently died from what the Soviet police termed a “fit of angina.” His students took the hint, and in November 1938 Anatolij Arcadievich Kharlampiev announced the invention of “Soviet freestyle wrestling,” which coincidentally looked a lot like Russian-rules judo.

Following World War II, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin decided that the Soviets would compete in the Olympics. The Olympics already had international freestyle wrestling, so in 1946 Soviet freestyle wrestling was renamed sambo. (The acronym itself was the creation of Vladimir Spiridonov, but as he had been an officer in the Tsarist army, of course the Soviets downplayed his contributions, too.) Over time sambo and judo diverged, with the biggest difference perhaps being that sambo’s philosophy emphasizes competition and self-defense rather than mutual benefit and welfare.

Colonies were not exempt from these nationalistic tendencies. For example, during the 1910s British policemen introduced boxing into Southern Rhodesia and the Union of South Africa. The idea was partly to wean black Africans from fencing with sticks and Afrikaners from practicing big-bore rifle shooting, and mostly to have fun. The Rhodesian and South African whites were never happy about the black boxers, however. Put crudely, settlers feared that black boxers would get uppity, while district officers feared the development of pan-tribal networks of any kind, including the ones required to organize a boxing tournament. Therefore competitions were mostly all-white affairs.

Racist attitudes also applied in India. As the British extended their control into the Punjab during the 1840s and 1850s, British wrestlers began meeting Muslim and Sikh wrestlers. Wrote Richard Francis Burton, “Not a few natives in my Company had at first the advantage of me, and this induced a trial of Indian training” (Letter from Paul Nurse, August 28, 1996). As in Africa, Europeans were not happy about seeing white men lose, so the Indian government prohibited mixed-race matches in 1874. Deterring rajahs from wrestling with Europeans was harder, though. “My great-grandfather Shivaji Rao . . . was a keen wrestler who loved to call people off the streets to come into the old city palace to wrestle with him,” Richard Shivaji Rao Holkar told Charles Allen during the 1980s. “In 1903 he beat up the British Resident. They said, ‘This will never do, so out you go,’ and he had to abdicate in favour of my grandfather Tukoji Rao III” (Allen and Dwivedi 1985, 248).

In 1910, the Bengali millionaire Sharat Kumar Mishra sent the Indian champions Great Gama, Ahmed Bux, Imam Bux, and Gulam Mohiuddin to Europe to prove that they could best Europeans, and after they did, the British Foreign Office prohibited them from having any further matches in London. And, following Japanese military successes in Burma in 1942, the British also prohibited all Indian professional wrestling, ostensibly to reduce the risk of factional violence between Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims.

U.S. servicemen introduced boxing into the Philippines as early as 1899, but Filipinos did not appear in the ring until around 1914. The reason for the American support was that the YMCA and the Knights of Columbus hoped that boxers would lead clean lives (the VD admissions rate in the Philippines for U.S. soldiers averaged around 17 percent [Stur-devant and Stolzfus 1992, 312-313]). Meanwhile the Filipinos wanted a gambling game with which to replace the banned cockfighting. Filipino collegiate athletes took up boxing after it was legalized in 1921, and this led to several medals during Far Eastern Championship Games. During the 1930s, the Filipino Constabulary also started encouraging members to practice freestyle wrestling. Here, however, the idea was less the improvement of skill in close-quarter battle than the desire to collect more medals during Far Eastern Championship Games.

A partial exception to this rule of nationalism being the driving force in the spread and development of twentieth-century military combatives appeared in China during the 1920s. In 1909, Shanghai police began receiving instruction in quanfa for the usual combination of nationalist and practical purposes. But by the 1920s the Shanghai police had come under the control of Europeans, and at the insistence of the British police captain William E. Fairbairn, officers began learning a combination of Japanese throws, British punches, Chinese kicks, Sikh wrestling, and American quick-draw pistol drills. The result was easy to teach, reasonably practical, and impressive in demonstration. During World War II the U.S., British, and Canadian governments hired Fairbairn, Dermot O’Neill, and other former Shanghai policemen to teach close-combat skills to commandos. Once again the demonstrations were impressive—and influential, too, as James Bond’s superhuman skills in applied mayhem apparently date to a demonstration put on outside Ottawa in 1943.

But Fairbairn’s pragmatism was an aberration, and during the late 1930s and early 1940s the establishment of Home Guard and Hitler Youth organizations created quite a market for jingoistic topics. Examples include Unarmed Combat by Britain’s James Hipkiss, Combat without Weapons by Canada’s E. Hartley Leather, and How to Fight Tough by America’s Jack Dempsey and Frank G. Menke. Inuring readers to violence and dehumanizing the enemy were important leitmotifs in all these topics. As for the methods shown, well, let’s just say that they worked better on willing partners than armed SS Panzergrenadiers. For instance, consider the training in mayhem illustrated in Life Magazine on February 9, 1942, pages 70-75. Two of the men shown in the pictures are Frank Shibukawa and Robert Mestemaker. Private Shibukawa had learned his judo in Japan and was a prewar Pacific Northwest judo champion. Corporal Mestemaker, meanwhile, had started studying jujutsu while in high school and had kept at it during the years he worked as a corrections officer at the Michigan state penitentiary. So both men entered the army already possessing a considerable base of knowledge. Furthermore, what they showed was not something taught everyone, but instead rehearsed tricks specially developed to impress Groucho Marx and other visiting dignitaries (Svinth, forthcoming) So too much should not be made of their expertise.

In Japan, sports, calisthenics, and military drill were widely used to prepare the adolescent male population for military service. This was not because the Japanese generals really expected soldiers to wrestle or box on the battlefield, but because they believed that such training instilled Yam-ato damashii (the Japanese spirit) into shopkeepers’ sons. So, under pressure from Diet, in 1911 Japan’s Ministry of Education decided to require schoolboys to learn jujutsu and shinai kyogi (flexible stick competition), as judo and kendo were known until 1926. The idea, said the ministry, was to ensure that male students should be trained to be soldiers with patriotic conformity, martial spirit, obedience, and toughness of mind and body. During the 1920s, Japanese high school girls also began to be required to study halberd fencing (naginata-do). In 1945, the girls were told to drive their halberds into the groins of descending American paratroops, but of course the atomic bomb put an end to that plan.

Following Hiroshima and Nagasaki, most Americans believed that the bomb had rendered hand-to-hand combat obsolete. Therefore the U.S. military quickly abandoned all training in close-quarter battle, which is unfortunate, since the U.S. Navy’s wartime V-5 program of hand-to-hand fighting was practical. Freedom fighters and terrorists, on the other hand, lapped it up. For example, Indonesian Muslims attributed nearly magical power to silat, Israelis developed krav maga for use by commandos, and the Koreans developed a version of karate called taekwondo. (“Through Taekwondo, the soldiers’ moral armament is strengthened, gallantry to protect the weak enhanced, courage against injustice fostered, and patriotism firmly planted,” boasted the Korean general Chae Myung Shin in 1969 [Letters to the Editor, Black Belt, May 1969, 4-5].)

And, with decolonization on the horizon, imperial masters began encouraging “native” soldiers to box and wrestle. In Uganda, for example, Idi Amin became a boxing champion in the King’s African Rifles, while in Malaya, silat was taught to Malaysians opposing Chinese Communist insurgency.

The fear of Communism also inspired the Americans to rethink their attitudes toward combatives training. For example, labor unrest in Japan caused the Americans to reintroduce kendo and judo into Japanese police training programs as early as 1947, and in 1949 fear of Communist saboteurs encouraged General Curtis LeMay to introduce judo into U.S. Air Force physical fitness programs. The U.S. Air Force program also had a profound effect on the modern Japanese martial arts. Said future Japan Karate Association leader Nakayama Masatoshi: “The Americans simply were not satisfied with following blindly like the Japanese. So, under Master Funakoshi [Gichin]‘s guidance, I began an intense study of kinetics, physiology, anatomy, and hygienics” (Singleton 1989, 83-84). Equally importantly, discharged servicemen returned home to open judo and karate schools, which in turn introduced Asian martial arts to Middle America.

During the Vietnam War, military psychologists decided that the best way to create killers was to replace time spent sticking bayonets into straw bales with time spent chanting phrases such as “Blood makes the grass grow; kill, kill.” Although these methods reportedly increased firing rates (U.S. Army studies of debatable reliability report firing rates of 25 percent in 1944, 55 percent in 1951, and 90 percent in 1971), they also increased individual soldiers’ risk of post-traumatic stress disorders such as alcoholism, drug abuse, and suicide (Grossman 1995, 35, 181, 249-261). The new methods didn’t do much for accuracy, either—another Vietnam-era study found that while soldiers could put 300 rounds in the air per minute, at 50 meters they still only hit a paper target one time per minute (Davis 2000, 10).

So following Vietnam there was renewed interest, at least in the United States, in teaching hand-to-hand combatives to prospective combat infantry. The Marines experimented with various systems based on boxing and karate, while the army went New Age.

The base document for the army’s program was a position paper called “First Earth Battalion,” and among the latter document’s recommendations was the suggestion that soldiers practice “battle tuning,” which was described, in so many words, as a combination of yogic stretches, karate kata, paced primal rock, and Belgian waffles (Channon 1979). Although “battle tuning” was a bit esoteric for many old soldiers, in 1985 the army hired former Marines Jack Cirie and Richard Strozzi Heckler to provide a couple of dozen Special Forces soldiers with training in biofeedback, aikido, and “mind-body psychology.” After six months, the soldiers were not aikido masters but were on average 75 percent fitter than when they started (Heckler 1992, 1-2, 77, 91-92, 153, 263-264). Navy SEALs received an abbreviated version of this course in 1988, as did a company of U.S. Marines in 2000. Army Rangers, on the other hand, adopted Gracie Jiu-jitsu in 1994. In all cases, the idea was not to create great hand-to-hand fighters, but instead to instill the warrior ethos.

During the 1980s the United States decided to allocate significant resources to developing nonlethal technologies for use in what were euphemistically termed “operations other than war.” Developments included chemical sprays, electronic stun guns, sticky foam, net guns, rope sprays, blinding lasers, and acoustic weapons. As suggested by the list, most of the new developments were technological rather than physical in nature. Police forces also began training officers in the use of pepper sprays. However, whether these changes were substantive or cosmetic remains to be seen, as by the mid-1990s the U.S. military had announced the initiation of research into robotic devices designed to replace human infantry altogether.

Next post:

Previous post: