The Limits of Unarmed Combat

20120924-221150.jpgI was having a conversation with a family member the other day, and she said something that got me thinking.

“I don’t need to carry a weapon”, she basically said, “because martial art X was developed by Israeli commandos and is designed to use against a stronger attacker, so it’ll keep me safe. And anyway, weapons are yucky and evil.” Those weren’t her exact words, but you get the drift. I won’t name the martial art she mentioned because it really isn’t important – my response to her comment applies equally well to just about any system of combat.

There are three huge problems I see with my family member’s viewpoint, and I’d like to talk about them. Not in the spirit of criticizing her decision – to the contrary, I told her that I was glad she was thinking about her personal safety and I hoped that the choices she’d made about what she was and wasn’t willing to do to safeguard it would work out for her. Rather, I’d like to talk about them because I think they offer some good reasons to have other tools besides unarmed hand-to-hand marital arts in your tool belt.

The first problem I see with putting your trust solely in an unarmed martial art is that real rights don’t always match what happens in the training hall, and those disconnects can be hugely dangerous. For example, few of the marital arts systems I’ve seen would work well against a group of attackers that swarmed you at the same time. It seems a lot of systems require you to maneuver such that you’re really only engaging one attacker at a time – but both my own experience and research suggests this is not how most attacks happen.

As Rory Miller says in his excellent book, “Meditations on Violence“, the martial arts any instructor teaches – and any student seeks out – will tend to match those people’s mental images of what combat looks like. And the truth is, even if we’ve been in a bunch of fights, our mental image rarely matches the reality of what the next fight looks like. The lovely chain of locks and twists and throws and kicks that you learn in the dojo or the gym does not do you any good at all if, while you’re trying to maneuver the bad guy into the right place to execute it, his accomplice hits you in the head with a length of 2×4. Fights in real life are dirty, messy, ugly affairs, and they rarely if ever play by the rules of the “system” you studied. In fact, if your opponent has the knowledge to figure out what you studied, odds are he’ll use that knowledge against you by deliberately breaking those “rules”.

The second problem I see with martial arts is a general problem with the training a lot of people seem to get: It doesn’t prepare you to fight through the “freeze” at the start of your OODA loop. Real violent encounters are saturated with adrenaline and other stress hormones, and this will effect your ability to recognize what is happening, to orient yourself to it, and to make moment-by-moment decisions about how to react. Unless you’ve done a LOT of training, odds are you’ll freeze in that moment, trying to remember the moves you learned in the gym – and by the time your mind works them out, you’ll be too far behind the curve to recover.

But the third problem with unarmed combat is, to me, the most serious: Unarmed hand-to-hand combat, by definition, requires you to allow (either deliberately or otherwise) an attacker to close to within arms-length of you before you can act. I’ve done the Tueller drill, and I know how quickly a bad guy can close 20 feet and hurt or kill me. I have no interest in letting him get three feet away before I act – by that point, I’ve lost the ability to escape, and if my initial response to his assault fails to completely neutralize the threat, I’ve given up the distance and time I’d need to get another chance.

There’s no question one can learn to defend oneself, or even to offensively kill people, without weapons. But weapons serve two important purposes: They reduce the amount of physical strength needed to protect oneself, and just as important, they increase the effective distance at which a threat can be engaged. And distance equals safety.

Consider this: The reason a Marine Corps scout sniper team is more deadly than a guy with a Glock isn’t so much because a .223 or 7.62mm rifle is intrinsically that much more deadly than the handgun. At close ranges, either will kill you just about as well, with the main difference being in how far the blood flies. The reason a scout-sniper team is such a fearsome weapon is because they can acquire and track a target from 1,000 yards or more away and eliminate the threat before it even knows they’re there.

I’m not saying unarmed combat has no place in one’s self-defense tool belt. But I think it’s role is limited to two places: Fighting an attacker when you’re in an environment where you have no other more effective weapons available to you is the most obvious. The other? When you’re in an ambush/surprise attack situation, unarmed combat techniques might enable you to create the space and time you need to access a weapon. This is what trainers mean when they talk about “fighting to the gun” and it’s a place I think hand-to-hand combat can be of definite value.

As for those crack military commandos who developed this super whizbang martial arts system? Well, consider two facts: your average soldier, much less a spec ops troop, has a lot more physical conditioning and ongoing training than most laypeople can manage, and the fact that they learned these great hand-to-hand combat skills doesn’t mean they leave their carbines and pistols at home. If you know a spec ops guy who’d prefer to leave his M-4 carbine or AK or MP-5 or whatever at home and fight bare-handed, let me know, but I doubt you’ll find many who would.

Unarmed self-defense definitely is a skill worth having. It can be very useful in creating time and space to access a weapon if you have one. If you don’t have another weapon, it certainly beats throwing your hands up in the air and surrendering. But all else being equal, I’d rather avoid trouble whenever I can. For me, combat is always the option of last resort. But when I cannot avoid the threat or escape the situation, I’d much rather engage it with a weapon from as far away as I can manage rather than letting the bad guy get within lethal range before trying to take him on bare-handed.

What do you think? What role does unarmed combat skill play in your self-defense plans? What importance do you place on it in training, and what kinds of scenarios do you practice? If you have military experience, I’d especially love to hear your thoughts.

Photo credit: stock.xchng, by ZoofyTheJi


  1. there are other considerations for me….

    1. back in the day i studied a mixed martial art self defense form, and found it useless because it PRESUMED upper body strength was your strong point, which it is for men…
    i later took a women’s self defense course that emphasized kicks.. but the typical “developed by the military” styles are meant for men.
    this doesnt mean they are useless, but consider carefully if a style was developed FOR The military… then it almost certainly assumes male body structure.

    2. i later became disabled. i can no longer run, turn quickly, or balance well.. this makes my ability to defend myself in hand to hand combat .. well lets just say “minimal”. while i have learned a few nasty tricks with a cane…
    somehow disabled woman with a cane is just not as intimidating as woman who walks well because i took a lot of martial arts so i don’t walk like a victim….

    (btw… in my personal opinion, one of the most valuable things i got from my martial arts classes was the posture and balance. THAT acts as a deterrent since most criminals want an insecure and “victim profile” target.. its not 100% but it helps)

    • Thank you for your comment, Kirsten! You’re absolutely right about the challenges of self-defense for those with physical limitations – another good argument for armed self-defense is that a weapon somewhat levels that part of the playing field. I understand there ARE forms of unarmed combat that don’t depend on upper body strength so much, but I confess to not being an expert in this area.

      Thanks for reading and commenting – I appreciate your feedback!

  2. What Kirsten said. 🙂 Even now, most gun training available was developed and is taught by men. More women need to figure out how to train women to use both body and weapons to the greatest advantage. My sons have taught me gun retention using martial arts moves, but if they can get close enough to me they easily disarm me – since I don’t shoot, obviously!. The disparity of strength/force is just too great. If I have a gun and can bring it to bear on an actual attacker, I have a chance. Unarmed, I’d be totally helpless.

    I’m 66 years old, and have some serious physical inconveniences, to put it mildly. I cannot run, kick, twist or jump… I’m mostly deaf, and spent most of my life extremely near sighted, so I’ve developed a high level of situational awareness and, just as with driving, walk and interact with people defensively. Not looking for or even actually expecting trouble, but aware that it is possible and ever vigilant for the signs. That takes clear thinking and plenty of practice.

    That awareness is vital before any weapon will be effective, because those few second warning may be the difference between being able to get to it/ use it, or to avoid the fight altogether – which is always preferable.

    And yes indeed… the confident posture and walk is vital. Criminals want weak, helpless and unresisting victims. They don’t want to take chances or get hurt themselves.

    • Thank you for this comment! I want to highlight one thing I totally agree with: Whatever other tools you choose to carry or use, awareness is key. Winning a fight is good, but avoiding trouble in the first place is much, much better.

  3. Mark Cronenwett says:

    Depending on how you feel, training with a knife for those close in situations could be a benefit. A lot of martial arts could be classified as sport, so remember to take it as such. I do take a martial art, as a sport, mostly for the stretching and balance aspect (my balance sucks).

    I also agree, posture and awareness will buy you a lot when out in the world.

    • Thanks for this, Mark. I think a knife is a good tool (and carry one) as well, but I try to have as many tools as possible in my arsenal. This is especially vital for me because I spend a fair chunk of each week in a higher-than-usual threat environment where weapons are prohibited. The more tools we have to choose from, the more likely we’ll have one we can use in a crisis.

  4. Mrs. Groundhog says:

    I have a good friend who is an officer in the Army and has seen combat in Iraq. He has a black belt in 5 different martial arts and yet still has his concealed carry permit. He says that there is a time and place for the use of martial arts but does not want to depend in it when a pistol would work better.

    • This squares with what my military friends tell me. And, in fact, more than one has said that a pistol is just a tool used to fight your way to your M-16. 🙂 I think there may be times you HAVE to depend on unarmed combat skills because they’re all you have available, which is why the military teaches them, but I can’t think of any soldier I know who would want that to be the only weapon in their arsenal.

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

  5. Booger Eater says:

    IMHO, it boils down to using the right tool for the right job. No martial arts or hand-to-hand combat training will help if the guy is some 5m away pointing a gun at you. On the other hand, if your attacker is grabbing you, it might be hard for you to effectively use a gun.

    A tool is a tool; it is only useful for what it is designed for. If you can only pick one single tool, pick the one that will give you the best odds. For a lot of people a gun will be this tool.

    • “If you can only pick one single tool, pick the one that will give you the best odds.” Exactly so – and if you’re only going to pick one tool, it seems to me that a realistic assessment of the strengths and limitations of that tool would be very important. When people rule out certain tools for philosophical reasons without considering what might actually keep them alive, that just seems an unwise choice to me.

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