Hand-to-hand combat (sometimes abbreviated as HTH or H2H) is a lethal or non-lethal 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 combatants on the battlefield, it can also refer to any personal physical engagement by two or more people, including law enforcement officers, civilians, and criminals.
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 non-lethal weapons and methods depending upon the restrictions imposed by civilian law, military rules of engagement, or 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 United States Army uses the term combatives to describe various military fighting systems used in hand-to-hand combat training, systems which may incorporate eclectic 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 BCE to 256 BCE).
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. By 1944 some German rifles were being produced without bayonet lugs.
Close Quarters Combat, or World War II combatives, was 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 of the International Settlement (1854–1943) of Shanghai in the 1920s, widely acknowledged as the most dangerous port city in the world due to a heavy opium trade run by organised crime (the Chinese Triads).
After the May Thirtieth Movement riots, which resulted in a police massacre, Fairbairn was charged with developing an auxiliary squad for riot control and aggressive policing. After absorbing the most appropriate elements from a variety of martial-arts experts, from China, Japan and elsewhere, he condensed these arts into a practical combat system he called Defendu. He and his police team went on to field-test these skills on the streets of Shanghai; Fairbairn himself used his combat system effectively in over 2000 documented encounters, including over 600 lethal-force engagements. The aim of his combat system was simply to be as brutally effective as possible. It was also a system that, unlike traditional Eastern martial-arts that required years of intensive training, could be digested by recruits relatively quickly. The method incorporated training in point shooting and gun combat techniques, as well as the effective use of more ad hoc weapons such as chairs or table legs.
During the Second World War, Fairbairn was brought back to Britain, and, after demonstrating the effectiveness of his techniques, was recruited to train the British commandos in his combat method. During this period, he expanded his 'Shanghai Method' into the 'Silent Killing Close Quarters Combat method' for military application. This became standard combat training for all British Special Operations personnel. He also designed the pioneering Fairbairn-Sykes fighting knife, which was adopted for use by British and American Special Forces. In 1942, he published a textbook for close quarters combat training called Get Tough.
U.S. Army officers Rex Applegate and Anthony Biddle were taught Fairbairn's methods at a training facility in Scotland, and adopted the program for the training of OSS operatives at a newly opened camp near Lake Ontario in Canada. Applegate published his work in 1943, called Kill or Get Killed. During the war, training was provided to British Commandos, the Devil's Brigade, OSS, U.S. Army Rangers and Marine Raiders.
Other combat systems designed for military combat were introduced elsewhere, including European Unifight, Soviet/Russian Sambo, Army hand-to-hand fight and Systema, Chinese military Sanshou/Sanda, Israeli Kapap and Krav Maga. 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 U.S. Army field manual (FM 3-25.150) and the establishment of the U.S. Army Combatives School at Ft Benning, Georgia.
The U.S. 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.
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 for the Zulus over the modern British army.
On October 22, 1986, during the Pudu Prison siege, the Special Actions Unit (special ops unit of the Royal Malaysia Police) turned to hand-to-hand combat, using batons and rattan canes, after the Malaysian Prime Minister ordered the resolution of the hostage crisis without the use of firearms. The result was a victory for the police, and the five prisoners holding hostages in Pudu Prison were arrested. This was a successful hostage rescue mission with the assault team resolving the crisis without firearms, using hand-to-hand combat to subdue the prisoners and rescue the hostages.