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The Father of Modern Combatatives

Many people have been referred to as the father of modern combatives. And combatives are the most exciting thing—especially world-war-two combatives. However, the most deserving of this title would likely be “Dangerous Dan” or “The Shanghai Buster”. The story of this “old English Schoolmaster” look-alike has rarely captured the superb epiphany that he was or recognised the impact he left behind. This is the story of William Ewart Fairbairn.

Epiphany is probably ill-used within these lines, yet I lack a better term. His sheer number of contributions to police and military work, weapons development, and close-quarters combat defy any other term or capture.  Each development is a unique product of an exceptional convergence of persons, nations, circumstances, and times.

The recounting of William Ewart Fairbairn is, by all means, the recounting of a crucial man. He was a man who found himself uniquely positioned at the crossroads of rare world events and the changing of eras. An age marked by revelations. Much of these revelations can be sourced back to this man, this legend, this father of modern combatives”.

Acting alone or in association with other historical greats such as Anthony Eric Sykes, Rex Applegate, and Dermot “Pat” O’Neill, Fairbairn, more than any one person, is responsible for devising some of the most successful methods of close-quarter-combat that the world has ever witnessed.

The Fairbairn Method

Much of this accreditation revolves around his highly touted system of hand-to-hand combat, “The Fairbairn Method”, titled by himself as “gutter fighting”.

The fighting method he developed ranks among the select few that can rightfully claim the title of being a “full-spectrum-combat-systems”. Further validating this statement, his system bore groundbreaking developments in unarmed combat, stick fighting, Spring Cosh (a type of sap), knife use, and pistols and sub-machine guns (particularly the Thompson sub-machine-gun).

William Fairbairn

Renowned for their simplicity and ease of acquisition, Fairbairn’s gutter-fighting combative proved practical and absolute. His “small-tool-box” repertoire emphasised devastating blows made with the edge of the hand, brain-stunning chin jabs using the blunt heel of the hand, blinding tiger claw finger strikes and destabilising pneumatic percussion strikes to the ears. Vicious kicks delivered with the tip, heel and edges of the boot, aggressive joint articulations, takedowns, throws, and lethal chokes further sealed an opponent’s fate.

Fairbairn’s gutter fighting also included edged weapons. Whether it was the use of the globally famous Fairbairn-Sykes Fighting Knife, his “Smatchet”, “the Fairsword”, or his later “Cobra knife” design, his inclusion of an edged weapon was equally unique and devastating.

The firearms component of Fairbairn’s methods fielded a shooting method he called “Point Shooting”. This “sightless” method of shooting pistols and sub-guns enabled the fighter to effectively engage an enemy regardless of the environment or light conditions.

Killing houses

Among other developments, Fairbairn was recognised for the breakthrough development and employment of concepts such as bullet-proof riot shields, quick-reaction-forces and the first-ever SWAT teams, the idea of the killing house training facility, and the use of pop-up-targets. During the Vietnam era, training with pop-up targets drastically changed the killing ratio of modern warfare.

In World-War-Two his methods were held in a particular reverence within the Allied elite forces, commandos, and the legendary S.O.E. / O.S.S. Special Training Center (STC’s) such as the legendary Lochailort Training Center. Within a few short years from their introduction, the armed forces of almost every Allied country showed (in some form or another) Fairbairn’s methods. His methods fostered fear into the heart of Adolf Hitler himself, resulting in their inclusion in the infamous Commando order.

In some manner, his developments can be found in active use today! The FS knife is found globally, an enduring trademark of elite forces.

Bullet point history

Consider the following dot-point accounting as viable determinants of such a unique blend of convergence and consequence:

  • At 15 years and ten months old, Fairbairn convinces a military recruiter to falsify his age and enlists as a recruit in Britain’s Royal Marines. This gave him a military foundation and initial personal experience.
  • In 1907, he arrived in Shanghai, a dangerous and corrupt city.
  • Fairbairn leaves the Royal Marines in Shanghai to join the Shanghai Municipal Police (SMP).
  • Fairbairn was influenced by the teachings of a jujutsu instructor named Jigoro Kano, whose certificate bears Kano’s mark. This is Kano, the same famous Jujitsu master who created judo, who taught a young Vasilii Oshchepkov (who returned home to Russia to create Sambo), who taught Esai Maeda (who later moved to Brazil and taught a man named Gracie).
  • While on police patrol, Fairbairn is ambushed by gang members and savagely beaten. He was left for dead. He required months to recover. This is what psychologists call a life-altering experience.
  • From here, he returns to the police force where he works with the likes of Dermot “Pat” O’Neill (hand-to-hand combat instructor for the FSSF “Devil’s Brigade) and Anthony Eric Sykes, as well as other people of other nationalities and their cultural inputs.
  • He rises within the Shanghai Municipal Police Force to Assistant Commissioner. He also becomes the man behind the SMP’s training and tactics development. This provides him with a live-fire laboratory to develop, test, and fine-tune his theories.
  • During his time with the SMP, documents record that he was personally involved in some 200 to 600 (depending on the source) reported violent armed and unarmed conflicts, often involving various scenarios of multiple combatants.
  • Then, in 1942, with a world at war, Fairbairn and Sykes returned to England, where they joined the SOE. They are charged with training Britain’s commandos, “Special Operatives”, and the older men who made up the Home Guard.
  • Hidden away, they were first and primarily stationed at Inverailort House, the first STC (Special Training School), and later at other centres throughout Scotland and the UK. Here, Fairbairn is free to implement and further develop the Fairbairn Method, while Sykes teaches his own but similar methods. Fairbairn develops gutter fighting.
  • The effect of Fairbairn’s gutter fighting upon the average Nazi trooper is fear and lack of motivation. Facing an elevating fear of Britain’s commandos, after much deliberation with German High Command lawyers, officers and staff, Hitler issued his infamous “Commando Order”, the “Kommandobefehl”. Included in this letter is the order that any captured British commando or operative is to be immediately executed, thus proving to the Nazi rank and file that the Gutter Fighters were just men, not demons, devils, or ghosts.
  • Fairbairn spends a short time on special order to Oshawa, Canada, STS-103, “Camp X”, where he teaches spies and resistance operators.
  • On loan from the British, at the OSS’ secret Training Area-B facility in Catoctin Mountain Park in Maryland, Fairbairn meets US Colonel Rex Applegate, who works with Fairbairn to teach the Fairbairn gutter fighting methods to elite elements of the American Armed Forces. This includes time training the famous Jedburgh Teams.
  • All the while in the field, Fairbairn’s gutter fighting is being battle-tested against whatever the German and Japanese combatants had to offer. Subsequently, gutter fighting is refined by soldiers reporting back from the battlefield.
  • At the war’s end, at the specific request of “Wild Bill” Donovan, founder of the O.S.S. (the predecessor of today’s CIA.) Fairbairn receives the United States Legion of Merit. It is only awarded for exceptionally meritorious conduct in the performance of outstanding services and achievements.
  • After the war, he continued to be engaged by various governments to teach the Fairbairn System.
  • Even though Fairbairn continues to train and review other martial arts, he does not modify his method published or publicised.
  • Fairbairn continued teaching the gutter fighting method until he retired and passed away in 1960.

If we review these events retrospectively, is this history not milestones suggestive of a unique person forged in an exceptionally rare convergence of nations, persons, and times? If not, then I most certainly do not know what it is! I am most certain that there has never been any person to deserve such notoriety.

The totality of these notable developments has repeatedly been allowed to drift back into the quilt work of unremembered time. Now, more often than not, the name Fairbairn needs to be recognised in the ears of modern martial artists. Today, the martial arts world focuses on the melodramatic sensationalism of Hollywood’s martial illusions and artistic fantasies.

Regardless of how often his name is evoked or how consistently his developments, methods, and teachings experience rebirth, only a few can carry forth his methods and name. Today, globally, we can still find the ruminants of his work. Scattered piecemeal, part and parcel of some unrelated program, they survive and carry on; lost is the story behind the father of modern combatives.

Barry Drennan

Barry Drennan is an instructor of the Fairbairn Protocol.

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