Combatives is a term popularized by the US Army for hand-to-hand combat training. It now encompasses various hybrid martial arts, which incorporate techniques from several different martial arts and combat sports. Unlike combat sports, such systems usually have limited sport application and often focus on simple techniques for use in self-defense or combat.

There are a couple of basic tenants of Modern Combatives that are important to understand. The first one is that the winner of the hand-to-hand fight in combat is the one whose buddy shows up first with a gun. This is important thing to remember because it puts combative training in perspective.  If you drop an enemy dead at your feet with the Vulcan death touch, and his buddy comes in with a gun, you still lose.

As Rex Applegate said in his book Kill or get Killed “Unarmed combat is just what the name implies- a system of fighting intended for use when weapons are not available or when their use is not advisable” Where then does combatives training fit?It must be an integral part of the close quarters fight. Too often “hand-to-hand” is treated as if it were a side note to the actual training. When your weapon malfunctions three feet from the bad guy is no time to start integrating your techniques. Noted Firearms instructor and author Massad Ayoob said it best, “At close range it’s not a shooting contest; it’s a fight.”

Staff Sgt. Christopher Davidson, a military training instructor, demonstrates proper grappling procedures with an officer trainee Feb. 8 during the new Air Force Combative Program field exercise at the Officer Training School at Maxwell Air Force Base, Montgomery, Ala. All officer accession students are being given 11 hours of combative-skills training. Trainees learn ground fighting and basic jujitsu-style grappling moves to provide them with the confidence they need to defend themselves in combat situations.

With that in mind, the second tenant is that the defining characteristic of a warrior is the willingness to close with the enemy. We do not win wars because we are better at hand-to-hand combat than the enemy, we do however win wars because of the things it takes to be a good hand-to-hand fighter.

Any training plan that does not serve to build this fundamental aggressiveness is actually counter productive. Confidence comes from competence. It is not enough to simply tell soldiers to be aggressive; they must have a faith in their abilities built through hard and arduous training and know that they are going to win; so that when that weapon does malfunction three feet from the bad guy, they will instinctively attack.

As defined by US Army FM 21-150 Combatives: Hand to hand combat is an engagement between two or more persons in an empty-handed struggle or with handheld weapons such as knives, sticks, and rifles with bayonets. These fighting arts are essential military skills. Projectile weapons may be lost or broken, or they may fail to fire. When friendly and enemy forces become so intermingled that firearms and grenades are not practical, hand-to-hand combat skills become vital assets.”

Military history: Military organizations have always taught some sort of unarmed combat for conditioning and as a supplement to armed combat.

Among the samurai of Japan, such combatives were known as Bujutsu (jujutsu, tantojutsu, bojutsu and so on). Like weapon arts such as kenjutsu, yarijutsu and naginatajutsu, these often were adapted in later stages to cultural or sport forms such as kyūdō, judo, aikido or kendo.

Even through major technological changes such as the use of gunpowder in the Napoleonic wars, 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 central to modern military training.

Sometimes called close combat, Close Quarters Combat, or CQC, World War II era American combatives were largely codified by Britons William Ewart Fairbairn and Eric Anthony Sykes. Also known for their eponymous Fairbairn-Sykes fighting knife, Fairbairn and Sykes had worked in the British armed forces and helped teach the Shanghai Municipal Police (SMP) a quick, effective, and simple technique for fighting with or without weapons in melee situations.

Similar training was provided to British Commandos, the First Special Service Force, OSS, U.S. Army Rangers and Marine Raiders. Fairbairn at one point called this system Defendu and published on it, as did their American colleague Rex Applegate. Fairbairn often referred to the technique as “gutter fighting,” a term which Applegate used, along with “the Fairbairn system.” In practice, such military systems are the fruit of dozens and even hundreds of dedicated instructors and personnel, known and unknown.

Other combatives systems having their origins in the modern military include Chinese San Shou, Soviet Bojewoje(Combat) Sambo (martial art), Israeli Krav Maga and Modern Army Combatives.

The prevalence and style of combatives training often changes based on perceived need, and even in times of peace, special forces and commando units tend to have a much higher emphasis on close combat than most personnel, as may embassy guards or paramilitary units such as police SWAT teams.

De-emphasized in the United States after World War II, insurgency conflicts such as the Vietnam War, low intensity conflict and urban warfare tend to encourage more attention to combatives. The general discipline of close-proximity fighting with weapons is often called Close Quarters Battle (CQB) at the platoon or squad level, or Military Operations on Urban Terrain (MOUT) at higher tactical levels. The current Marine Corps Martial Arts Program (MCMAP) replaced the Marine Corps LINE combat system in 2002.

The US Army adopted the Modern Army Combatives (MAC) program with the publishing of the 2002 field manual (FM 3-25.150), written by Matt Larsen. MAC draws from systems such as Brazilian Jiujitsu, Muay Thai and Kali which could be trained “live” and can be fully integrated into current Close Quarters Battle tactics and training methods.

The story of Modern Combatives really begins in 1995. The Commander of the 2nd Ranger Battalion ordered a reinvigoration of martial arts training within the battalion. Although there have been many excellent and innovative combatives teachers in the Army over the years, none of them had never been successful at spreading effective combatives training to the average soldier.  As the leaders of the battalion began training, it didn’t take long for serious problems with the existing program to surface. There was the feeling among the men that the techniques would not work and that it was a waste of valuable training time.

A committee was formed, headed by Matt Larsen, to develop a program that was more effective. The first step was to examine successful programs from around the world.  What was found is that most of them had one thing in common, one underlying reason that the program was successful.  Countries with an indigenous national program, Korean Tae-Kwon Do, Japanese Judo, Muay Thai in Thailand, would have much easier time developing an effective combatives program. One exception to this rule is Russia. They are one of the few who take an essentially untrained population, and yet have good success in training their soldiers.

The Russian system of SOMBO was developed specifically for the Russian Military by, among others, Vasilii Oshchepkov who studied Judo at the Kodokan.  SOMBO combines the techniques of Judo and native Russian martial arts as its foundation.  Although technically similar to what had been taught to the U.S. Army during the same time period, it was much more successfully spread throughout the soviet army. The feeling was that the success of SOMBO was linked in its competitive component which provides motivation for soldiers to train.

If you can be the best in your platoon, company, battalion, or the Army, there is a reason to strive for excellence. However, the very thing that was the strength of the system also has some distinct problems, not the least of which was that the competitive form has, in the opinion of some, changed the techniques that were emphasized. None the less the Ranger committee tentatively decided that the new system would follow a similar approach.

Realizing that there were not enough SOMBO instructors available the Rangers began looking for a similar system as a base for their program.  Head coach J. Robinson, of the University of Minnesota wrestling program, himself a former Vietnam Era Ranger came out to evaluate the emerging program and gave some valuable advise. Finally, after looking at many different systems, the Rangers sent several men to train at the Gracie Jiu-Jitsu Academy in Torrance California.

The Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu as taught at the Gracie Academy fit almost every aspect of the Military’s needs perfectly. It was easy to learn, had a competitive form, and was proven effective within the arena of hand-to-hand fighting. It did however have some problems. One aspect of Jiu-Jitsu was principally designed for one on one arena fighting, and the other, sportive Jiu-Jitsu, had great potential to change the art into something not oriented toward fighting at all.

It was decided that by refocusing on combat, these weaknesses could be overcome, and with forethought and by learning the lessons that various complementary systems had to teach, they could actually improve on the base systems.

With actual combat experience as a guide, Larsen designed a system with Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu as the technical base that was oriented to the needs of the Rangers. A systematic approach to training emerged, which detailed the techniques that would be taught, and in what order. Rangers would start with the basics of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu ground fighting, and progress into the throws and takedowns of Judo and Wrestling, and the strikes of Boxing and Muay Thai.

All of this could combine with marksmanship and contact weapons training from Kali and the western martial arts into a totally integrated system of Close Quarters Combat.  Henceforth, yielding Rangers who could transition smoothly between ranges of combat, with or without weapons, individually or as a group.

As the Rangers who were trained in this new system spread throughout the Army, the system spread with them. Larsen transfered to the Ranger Training Brigade, at the time the proponency for Army Combatives, to rerwite the Field Manual. The result was the publication, in 2002, of FM 3-25.150 (Combatives) and the programs adoption as official Army doctrine.

When the system was Integrated it into the POIs of Officer Candidate School, the Infantry Officer Basic Course, and the Infantry Captains Career Course, Larsen was re-assigned to the 11th Infantry Regiment to desighn a train-the-trainer course for the cadre which was  the foundation for the Army’s train the trainer program.

The program continues to grow. From the beginnings at the 11th Regiment, the train the trainer course grew to four levels of instructor certification and the official creation of the United States Army Combatives School in 2005. The Chief of Staff of the Army has recognized Combatives as one the building blocks of the modern Soldier.

Formal instruction in the program is included in all Non-Commisioned Officer Education System and Officer Education System courses as well as being a requirment for graduationg Initial Entry Training and being included in the Warrior Tasks List which is required knowledge for every Soldier. Current Army Regulation AR 350-1 requires training in the program to be on every platoon and company training schedule across the Army.

Modern Army Combatives program (MAC): In 2001, Matt Larsen, then a sergeant first class, started the US Army Combatives School, located on Fort Benning. Students are taught techniques from the 2002 version of Field Manual 3-25.150 (Combatives), also written by Matt Larsen. The regimen focused on small, easily repeatable drills, in which practitioners could learn multiple related techniques rapidly.

For example, Drill one teaches several techniques: escaping blows, maintaining the mount, escaping the mount, maintaining the guard, passing the guard, assuming side control, maintaining side control, preventing and assuming the mount. The drill can be completed in less than a minute and can be done repeatedly with varying levels of resistance to maximize training benefits.

The Combatives School teaches four instructor certification courses. Students of the first course are not expected to have any knowledge of combatives upon arrival. They are taught fundamental techniques in a series of grappling drills. The basic techniques form a framework upon which the rest of the program can build and are taught as a series of drills, which can be performed as a part of daily physical training.

While the course is heavy on grappling, it does not lose sight of the fact that it is a course designed for soldiers going into combat. It is made clear that while combatives can be used to kill or disable, the man that typically wins a hand-to-hand fight in combat is the one whose allies arrive with guns first.

Subsequent courses build upon the framework by adding throws and takedowns from wrestling and Judo, striking skills from boxing and Muay Thai, weapons fighting from Eskrima and the western martial arts, all of that combined with how to conduct scenario training, refereeing the various levels of Combatives competitions.

There are several reasons that the combatives course is taught:

  • To educate soldiers on how to protect themselves against threats without using their firearms
  • To provide a non-lethal response to situations on the battlefield
  • To instill the ‘warrior instinct’ to provide the necessary aggression to meet the enemy unflinchingly

Combatives in Academia: Combatives courses have been taught by the United States Military Academy for its entire history. In 2005 the Modern Army Combatives Program began to spread to academia with its adoption at Kansas State University, where there are courses specifically tailored to military personnel (active-duty and ROTC) and university athletes, in addition to those available to the general student body.