Hand-to-hand combat (sometimes abbreviated as HTH or H2H) is a lethal or nonlethal physical confrontation between two or more persons at very short range (grappling distance) that does not involve the use of firearms or other distance weapons. While the phrase “hand-to-hand” appears to refer to unarmed combat, the term is generic and may include use of striking weapons used at grappling distance such as knives, sticks, batons, or improvised weapons such as entrenching tools. While the term hand-to-hand combat originally referred principally to engagements by military personnel on the battlefield, it can also refer to any personal physical engagement by two or more combatants, including police officers and civilians.
Combat within close quarters (to a range just beyond grappling distance) is commonly termed close combat or close-quarters combat. It may include lethal and nonlethal weapons and methods depending upon the restrictions imposed by civilian law, military rules of engagement, or personal ethical codes. Close combat using firearms or other distance weapons by military combatants at the tactical level is modernly referred to as close quarter battle. The U.S. Army uses the term combatives to describe various military martial art combat systems used in hand-to-hand combat training, systems which may incorporate hybrid techniques from several different martial arts and combat sports.
Hand-to-hand combat is the most ancient form of fighting known. A majority of cultures have their own particular histories related to close combat, and their own methods of practice. There are many varieties within the martial arts, including boxing and wrestling. Other variations include the gladiator spectacles of ancient Rome and medieval tournament events such as jousting.
Military organizations have always taught some sort of unarmed combat for conditioning and as a supplement to armed combat. Soldiers in China were trained in unarmed combat as early as the Zhou Dynasty (1022 BC to 256 BC).
Despite major technological changes such as the use of gunpowder, the machine gun in the Russo-Japanese War and the trench warfare of World War I, hand-to-hand fighting methods such as bayonet remained common in modern military training, though the importance of formal training declined after 1918. During the Second World War, bayonet fighting was often not taught at all among the major combatants; by 1944 German rifles were even being produced without bayonet lugs.
Sometimes called close combat, Close Quarters Combat, or CQC, World War II-era American combatives were largely codified by William Ewart Fairbairn and Eric Anthony Sykes. Also known for their eponymous Fairbairn-Sykes fighting knife, Fairbairn and Sykes had worked in the Shanghai Municipal Police (SMP) and helped teach police officers as well as units of the U.S. Marine Corps and the Royal Marines a quick and effective and simple technique for fighting with or without weapons in melee situations. Similar training was provided to British Commandos, the Devil’s Brigade, OSS, U.S. Army Rangers and Marine Raiders. Fairbairn at one point called this system Defendu, and later publishing an instructional training manual on the system. Defendu was later revised into a method of “quick kill” hand-to-hand combat training for soldiers by Fairbairn which he called “gutter fighting”. The Fairbairn system was adopted and expanded by a U.S. military close combat instructor, Rex Applegate, for training U.S. military and paramilitary forces. Similar training was provided to British Commandos, the Devil’s Brigade, OSS, U.S. Army Rangers and the Marine Raiders. Applegate would later describe this method of training in his own book, Kill or Get Killed.
Other combat systems having their origins in military combat include European Unifight, Chinese Sanshou, Soviet/Russian sambo and Rukopaschnij Boj, Israeli Kapap and Krav Maga and Indian Bison System. The prevalence and style of hand-to-hand combat training often changes based on perceived need. Elite units such as special forces and commando units tend to place higher emphasis on hand-to-hand combat training.
Although hand-to-hand fighting was accorded less importance in major militaries after World War II, insurgency conflicts such as the Vietnam War, low intensity conflict and urban warfare have prompted many armies to pay more attention to this form of combat. When such fighting includes firearms designed for close-in fighting, it is often referred to as Close Quarters Battle (CQB) at the platoon or squad level, or Military Operations on Urban Terrain (MOUT) at higher tactical levels.
- In 2002, the U.S. Army adopted the Modern Army Combatives (MAC) hand-to-hand combat training program with the publishing of US Army field manual (FM 3-25.150, previously FM 21-150) and the establishment of the US Army Combatives School at Ft Benning, Georgia.
- The US Air Force adopted MAC as its hand-to-hand combat system in early 2008.
- In the U.S. Marine Corps, Marine Corps Martial Arts Program (MCMAP) replaced the Marine Corps LINE combat system in 2002. Each Marine keeps a record book that records their training, and a colored belt system (tan, gray, green, brown, and black in order of precedence) is used to denote experience and skill level, similar to many Asian martial arts.
Hand-to-hand historical battles
The Battle of Isandlwana, the first battle in the Anglo-Zulu War, turned into close combat when the British exhausted their ammunition and resulted in a decisive victory of Zulus over the modern British army.