Since September 11th, 2001, NATO and allied militaries have been confronted with a new threat and have changed their training to confront this threat and the attendant operational realities. Using the example of the United States Armed Forces we can see an enormous change in the approach to everything from Close Quarters Combat to Tactical Medicine to Hand-to-Hand Combat. In another post I will address how the first two relate to our purpose, but in this post, I will address the latter.


Across the ever more technological battlefield, many things have changed in the last 100, 50, and even 20 years. One constant has been that hand-to-hand combat continues to happen in the battle space. The military hand-to-hand combat training was roughly the same during much of this time, based on the Fairbairn-Sykes training developed in the Second World War. However, the American campaigns of Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) and Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) brought about new thinking on hand-to-hand combat.

In 2014 the US Army released the results of post combat surveys of hand-to-hand combat engagements from OEF and OIF during the years 2004-2008. The results are useful for our purposes in understanding training for critical incidents, especially true if our trainees are in the military or law enforcement. The report is rather long and technical, but for our purposes I have condensed the study into some useful data points. The data has been used by the Army to develop their Modern Army Combatives Program which aligns the training methodology with the data presented in the combatives study (more on this later).

The results show that across all branches of service which have units operating on the ground in the battle space (infantry, engineer, artillery, special forces, etc.…) that roughly 19% of soldiers used hand-to-hand combat in at least one encounter during their period of deployment. The encounters fell into one of three categories “Grappling” (72.6%), Use of the “Weapon” as a cold weapon[i], (butt strike, muzzle strike, etc.… 21.9%), and “Striking” (punching and kicking: 5.5%). This is an enormous trove of data for those of us concerned with training for ‘reality’.
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The environment of encounter differs between: (1) No Environment Mentioned (2) Close Combat (3) Crowd and Riot Control (4) Detainee Handling (5) Security Checkpoint. Most of the encounters fall into sections 1, 2, & 3 However you wish to qualify it, the data remains one of the most comprehensive troves of information available to us.

The study goes on to break these numbers down by service area, rank, etc.… this stands outside our area of interest, however more useful data can be gleaned for our training purposes. We will now break down each of the general areas (“Grappling”, “Weapon”, “Striking”) into technical areas (which techniques were used).

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Inside of the “Grappling” category we see the primary techniques used. Although this is not an in-depth examination of the grappling techniques themselves, it is a layman’s insight into the use of grappling in the combat environment. The technique breakdown for “Weapon” is below:

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Our final category is “Striking”:

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What can we extrapolate about what a training regimen should look like? Well if the training regimen is for a combat soldier it’s technical instruction time should break down across the likelihood of the technique being used. Meaning that the time allotted to technical instruction (as opposed to technique validation training, which occurs after all technical instruction has been completed) should roughly follow the pattern in the initial pie chart. Meaning 75% of the time instruction would focus on grappling, 20% of the instruction should focus on use of the weapon as a “cold weapon”, and 5% of the time instruction should focus on striking. Inside each of these we can develop skills as they are relevant to their instinctual use, meaning that from the above data we can conclude that people are instinctually inclined to strike with a hand as opposed to a leg in the combat environment. Developing a training model, I would use the following as a rough breakdown on the amount of time dedicated to each topic in training:

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*The missing element in the striking segment is “Leg” as it occupies such a small subset of combat usage (1.1% of overall technique usage). The missing element in weapon is “Knife”.

The study provides us with more data however. Most of the grappling encounters that occurred (72.6% of overall encounters) occurred during a contest for the soldier’s weapon. Meaning that an enemy combatant attempted to grab the soldiers rifle or pistol and the entire event became a grappling contest from thereon.

With data like this we could begin to craft a serious combatives program that reflects the reality and threats of the current battle space. This combatives program would have the following characteristics:


  • Most time would be spent doing grappling and clinching training
  • Weapons would be integrated into this
  • The validation of the training would primarily be close quarters contests for the soldier’s weapon
  • Cold weapon striking would be an area of technical proficiency and it would need to integrate with the grappling/clinching element
  • Striking would be limited, but when instructed would focus on the use of the hands/arms as the striking tool
  • An edged weapons segment would be an important addition; however, it would be integrated into the context of a grappling based system which included implementation of the edged weapon in a contest for the soldier’s primary weapon during a validation test.
  • Validation testing would need to challenge the soldier’s performance in a few contexts, and these would need to be tested without a warning to the nature of the engagement, meaning the soldier would be surprised by nature of the attack.


It is important to note that this is a technical breakdown, the more important issue is the tactical element. What is the overarching goal? Let us turn to our study, what is the context for these hand to hand combat encounters?

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Context is important, in a close combat scenario we know that this is a deadly force incident and that the primary goal of all our techniques (Grappling, Cold Weapon, and Striking) is going to be to inflict lethal injuries. So, in this context most of our techniques should focus first on getting back to the soldier’s primary weapon, secondary weapon, or tertiary weapon (knife). However, in a detainee handling scenario, there may be a very different tactical scenario, one that does not emphasize deadly force. What we can extrapolate from this data is that not every unit will experience the same kinds of hand-to-hand combat contexts (although the technical contest may be similar) and their individual unit training should focus on the likely context as much as possible, while still maintaining an overall goal of lethality (it is the military after all).

Here is the graphic representation of the hand-to-hand combat encounters by unit type (who is doing the most hand-to-hand combat in sheer volume from 2004-2008):

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But how do the numbers look when we get into the specific type of combat. Meaning does detainee handling lead to more grappling or striking than close quarters combat. Let’s first look at CQC:
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Now what does this breakdown look like in Detainee Handling?
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What we see in these two examples is that when we look at soldiers operating in a Detainee Handling role (closer to law enforcement ROE[ii]’s) we see an increase in use of grappling and a decrease in the use of the Weapon. We may be able to safely conclude that this is due to different ROE’s and use of force guidelines as well as the degree of control that soldiers has when the combative encounter occurs.

To extrapolate still further, ALL training (civilian, military, law enforcement) should be conducted within the proper context. Taking a military combatives program and teaching it to civilians is pointless because either the military is training wrong, or the civilians are training wrong. Do we teach a 40-year-old accountant the best way to muzzle strike a person in the face with an M4, conduct a malfunction drill, then shoot the opponent in the face? Absolutely not, leaving aside the moral and legal elements, it is completely pointless. In fact, teaching the same combatives curriculum to two different military units who have different operational roles may in fact be a bad idea. The major conclusion from this study (and the one taken by the developers of the Modern Army Combatives Program) is that specific training is often less important than the contextual application of training. Would a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Practitioner fare better than a Sambo practitioner in a close quarters contest for a rifle against a Taliban fighter in a cave complex, is the demarcation even worth discussing? The US military emphasizes the need for soldiers to continue to pursue combatives and martial arts training outside of that in the standard training module, and to implement this training in the context of the combative needs of the solider him or herself.

Similar data exists for engagements in the civilian world, and the numbers are similar (minus the omnipresent primary weapon), this is a subject of a future post, but as a small spoiler the percentage of engagements that involved grappling is nearly identical (73% in the civilian context). As the data is collected we are beginning to see overarching patterns emerge. Simply packaging training and delivering it irrespective of end users, contexts of engagement, use of force guidelines, rules of engagement, availability of force multiplying weapons, etc.… is foolish, dishonest, and dangerous. We will be discussing the path forward in future posts, but the short answer is “self-defense” training needs to change immensely.

What should YOU be doing? If you are unclear, please contact us and we will be happy to help you develop a combatives training curriculum and program that is right for your needs. There is no need to fumble in the dark any longer, you need a tailored program, and we can make it happen.

[i] A “cold weapon” is a firearm which is used as the mechanism of injury which is not used by firing a round. Meaning the weapon is either empty, malfunctioned, or the operator has not pulled the trigger. Instead the weapon is used as an impact weapon.

[ii] ROE = Rules of Engagement, the military guidelines in when and how force can be used.


-Alex Trafton

Hand to Hand Combat Encounters: What Should You Be Training For?
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One thought on “Hand to Hand Combat Encounters: What Should You Be Training For?

  • September 30, 2018 at 1:55 am

    Wow. Great approach and details. Legal and Contextual. Much to ponder and add to Ones Training. Especially within Grappling. Thank-you.


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