History of Modern Reality Self-Defense and Close-Quarter Combat Systems

by Kevin Brett

Reality Self-Defense is a term thrown around these days as something "new."  The actual "reality" is these systems can be traced back to the close-quarters combat systems of yesteryear.

During World War II, the Allied Forces developed the most lethal fighting force in history.  With or without weapons, these forces were highly effective in lethal combat and feared by their opponents.  Yet virtually none of these soldiers or Marines were black belt martial artists, nor had they spent years honing these combat skills.  How did they accomplish this level of effectiveness, instilling fear in their enemies?  In most cases these young warriors learned the ins and outs of being a soldier or Marine and spent somewhere between a few hours and a few days of training in basic hand-to-hand combat techniques.  But the secret of their lethality lay in the simplicity of the techniques.  Nearly infallible, designed to kill with minimal skill or effort, the Allies utilized a carefully synthesized and thoroughly tested fighting system developed over several decades by combining effective bits and pieces of various martial arts systems.  The Allied forces literally possessed a secret weapon.

In the early part of the twentieth century, the British port city of Shanghai was considered one of the most dangerous and violent cities in the world, with its heavy opium trade, and Chinese Triad gangsters. Large numbers of Shanghai Municipal Police officers were killed in the line of duty. To combat the significant threats faced on a daily basis, the Shanghai Police, under the direction of former British Royal Marine and then Assistant Commissioner William E. Fairbairn from 1907 to 1940, developed, refined and tested a close quarters combat system that became informally known by some as The Shanghai Method. Fairbairn, identified by some sources as the inspiration for James Bond, named his system Defendu (also known as Fairbairn’s Gutter Fighting) in the 1926 book of the same title.  Defendu was reprinted as Scientific Self Defence in 1931.

This method of self-defense and close quarters combat incorporated simple, but effective movements from Savate, Judo, Jutitsu, knife fighting and various Chinese martial arts.  Also included were point shooting, police batons and other weapons and tactics.  This method gave the Shanghai Police department a fast and reliable means of training their officers to combat local gangsters and violent criminals. In effect, these were the first SWAT teams. TheShanghai method was used and documented in some 2000 real life encounters by the police, with approximately 700 encounters involving the use of lethal force.  

After retiring from the Shanghai Municipal Police, Fairbairn approached the British War Office, shortly after the stunning British defeat during World War II in the battle of Dunkirk. National morale was at a dangerous low and the threat of Nazi invasion of England was very real.  Fairbairn offered his services to the War Office and after a dramatic demonstration to top British military brass highlighting the absolute effectiveness of his techniques and experience, Fairbairn was recruited by the British Secret Service as an Army officer. He was ordered to teach this method at the British Commando school in Scotland. Fairbairn’s Shanghai Method was expanded into the Silent Killing Close Quarters Combat method for military application and became the standard of combat training for all British forces and Special Operations personnel.  Fairbairn also developed the Fairbairn-Sykes fighting knife, which was used by British Special Forces.

Prior to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, considerable media attention had been given to the lethality of the Japanese fighting men.  Even when pitted against larger Russian opponents in the Russo- Japanese war several decades before, the Japanese, with their strong martial arts backgrounds and training typically defeated their Russian opponents.  The U.S. military and other allied forces took note and began to devote considerable attention to improving the self-defense and close quarters combat capabilities of U.S. troops.

Many dozens of fighting methods were developed by civilian practitioners with expertise in a wide variety of martial arts and fighting styles including boxing, wrestling, judo, jiu-jitsu and others.  The problem was that the training and styles were too closely tied to the experience and personal preferences of the individual instructors who developed them.  A fighting method was needed that was universal and not based on any particular system of martial art.

On December 8, 1941 a top-secret commando training facility, known informally as Camp “X” was established on the shores of Lake Ontario in Canada. It’s purpose was to train agents from the FBI, the Office of Strategic Services, OSS, (the forerunner of the CIA) Canadian Commando forces, U.S. Army Ranger candidates and the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) a branch of the British Intelligence Service MI6 – the home of the fictional James Bond.

U.S. Army officers Rex Applegate and Anthony Biddle learned the Fairbairn method from Fairbairn at the Commando school in Scotland.  Applegate and Fairbairn were later transferred to Camp “X” to train U.S. and Allied forces.  In 1942, Fairbairn published “Get Tough” which was the textbook for close quarters combat training.

As World War II progressed, thousands of “after action” reports documented the effectiveness of many of these styles, however, the key factor in fine-tuning and choosing the shaping the fundamentals of close-combat was based on those tactics that could be taught the fastest and retained most easily.  The methods that were the most applicable to all trainees across a wide and varied spectrum of physical attributes and skill were chosen and perfected with literally tens of thousands of real-world battlefield testimonials to back them up. Time was of the essence in training new troops for combat.  These training systems for combat were the mixed martial arts systems of the day.

Now a Major, Rex Applegate refined and expanded the Defendu method in his training manual, “Kill or Get Killed”, published in 1943 and later republished in 1976 by the U.S. Marine Corps.  This manual was used to train U.S. commandos, U.S. Army Rangers, Marines, secret agents who were part of the OSS, and other U.S. Special Forces.  Applegate later developed the Applegate-Fairbairn fighting knife, which improved on the Fairbairn-Sykes knife used during WW II.

Defendu continued to be taught after World War II and was adopted by many police agencies in the U.S. and Canada including the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP). Later self-defense fighting systems were developed such as the Israeli system of Krav Maga (contact combat). This system was developed by Imi Lichtenfeld in the 1930s in Czechoslovakia to help protect the local Jewish community from the Nazis. After World War II, Imi began teaching Kapap to the Haganah, the Jewish underground army. He later became the Chief Instructor of Physical Fitness and Krav Maga at the IDF School of Combat fitness. Later versions of Krav Maga borrowed its gun takeaway techniques and others from Fairbairn’s system. Numerous variations of Krav Maga have been developed for both civilian and military use and it has been adopted by the Mossad (Israeli Secret Service), Israeli Police, Israeli Intelligence, Swedish Army, FBI and NYPD SWAT Teams and U.S. Special Operations Forces.

The U.S. Marine Corps LINE system (known as Linear Infighting Neural Override Engagement) was developed as a hybrid of various martial arts and close quarters combat and was used from 1989 to 1998. This system was also known as the Seven Deadly Moves of Combat. The U.S. Marine Corps implemented the Marine Corps Close Combat training Program from 1997–1999. This program was replaced by the Marine Corps Martial Arts Program (MCMAP) introduced in 2002.  MCMAP incorporates a full spectrum of non-lethal controlling moves as well as lethal techniques into a true martial arts system emphasizing the responsible use of force, citizenship and character and leadership development.  The LINE system was adopted by U.S. Army Special Forces and later replaced by the Modern Army Combatives Program (MACP) in 2007.

This is just a brief history of a few of the major players in the development of military close-quarters combat systems and reality self-defense.  So remember, the "new" reality based systems, my Core Self-Defense included, have their origins in the fighting systems, methods, and tactics taught by some of the leaders in this area mentioned above.  We should thank those men who studied, trained, and used the methods in war time, for passing down their knowledge for us to use and expand upon for modern times.