Training Combatives: The How, What and Why of Acquiring Hand-to-Hand Skills

Disclaimer: the opinion presented below is garnered from my personal experience. I make no claims of omnipotence or omniscience. As with all things, analyze this information and use your judgment to make an informed decision on how to integrate the following material into your personal preparations. When it comes down to it, learning how to avoid a fight and effectively negotiate a resolution is as (or more) important than combatives training. However, I will leave the topic of practical negotiation to others who can espouse the finer points better than I.

I was motivated to write this article after gritting my teeth for the past few evenings while reading some related postings on survivalblog. There is a lot of ego tied up with certain martial arts doctrines (as with weapons, calibers etc.), especially when people have been practicing something for many years. Brand myopia generally afflicts people who have such a vested emotional interest in whatever they’re doing that they refuse to consider alternatives. My fear is that well intentioned people are recommending disciplines that are not necessarily the most efficient way to train hand-to-hand combatives. Unseasoned readers and general “noobies” to the whole self-defense/preparedness culture may be easily overwhelmed with useless information and misdirected. With all things in life, truth is found in the middle way. As a result, I’m offering my opinion, which can be best summarized as “Honor truth wherever it is found, and use what works.”

We all know that “preppers” take their physical self defense seriously. It is an essential part of being prepared and being an American. Many of us reading this have spent major time, money and effort acquiring the necessary rifles, handguns, and training to be able to competently defend ourselves and our families over a variety of distances. Many of us have learned that alertness and proper combat mindset are essential to self-defense when the need arises (alertness can help to avoid a potentially nasty confrontation in the first place, which is a good thing), and that training reflexively under pressure helps prepare our bodies and minds to fight effectively.

However, when you made the commitment to being armed and willing to kill to defend yourself and your loved ones, you shouldered a responsibility that does NOT end when the ammo runs out, parts breakages occur or you are separated from your weapons for whatever reason. If you’ve already made the commitment to self-defense to the point of being willing to do whatever is necessary, then you’ve probably realized that your rifle and handgun are simply efficient means to an end. It doesn’t matter what rifle or pistol you carry; they are simply tools that make you a more efficient fighter over longer distances. Regardless of caliber and model, the fact should remain that you are a well-regulated, moral, and dangerous person, with and without weapons.

Sadly, in my limited observations and experience in talking with other “preppers”, many people’s self-defense skills (and mindset) start with how much ammo they’ve got and ends with “…from my cold dead hands.” Unfortunately, few people consider the unpredictable nature of violence, or train the ability of being able to draw and fire a pair of hits in under two seconds with a sidearm—CCW permit holders are familiar with the additional time imposed by concealing garments on their draw-stroke, and should seriously evaluate their ability to defend against a trained aggressor with lethal hands (or lethal objects in their hands) at conversational distance. To be fair, law enforcement, vigilant citizens and concealed carry permit holders avert or stop many crimes from happening with their weapons daily in this country. However, the gray world of dispute escalation often places people in positions where yelling and arguing transforms in the blink of an eye into a wrestling match, the immediacy of which affords neither time or space for the deployment of concealed weapons. Ignoring the capabilities of a determined attacker at close range is foolish—and in my opinion, not enough emphasis in personal preparation plans is placed on responding to threats at close range.

Generally speaking, there are two types of close-range threats: armed and unarmed. Instantly assessing your opponents’ capabilities, the nature of their armament, and their intent is a valuable skill*. Though this is beyond the scope of this article, many of you have already been exposed to the “ability, opportunity, jeopardy” threat assessment process in shooting schools—in close combat, the rules still apply and the assessment process is the same. Your adversary’s physical condition, emotional state and body language should all shape your response. Having a certain amount of depth and flexibility in your hand-to-hand techniques will help you if your assessment is correct and certainly not hurt if your assessment is wrong. In short, a well-rounded close-range combatives skill set will possess the following:

  1. The ability to fight standing up
  2. The ability to throw and execute take-downs, as well as defend against the same
  3. The ability to fight on the ground


Broadly speaking, fights have two phases: the standing phase and the ground phase. Almost all fights start standing, but they usually end on the ground. The reason for this is that someone usually gets caught off balance and is tripped, stumbles or is thrown/taken down by their opponent. It is during the transition between the standing phase and the ground phase that the outcome of the fight is usually determined. The person who ends up on top has the advantage of gravity aiding their blows, while the person on the bottom usually cannot maneuver to avoid them, nor effectively strike back. Unless the person on the bottom has well developed grappling skills (jiu-jitsu, judo, wrestling), it is almost impossible for them to turn the tide.

In any type of practical, real-world conflict, time will be your enemy. Your opponent may be younger and better conditioned than you, which favors them the longer the fight continues. They may have friends nearby who will help them. They may have a hidden weapon to deploy if given enough time. For this reason, the quicker you can end the fight, the better. This requires taking an aggressive, offensive role immediately.

The goal of any fight training you undertake should be to quickly push an opponent off-balance, kick or throw them to the ground, and disable them. Obviously, the first opportunity that presents itself for escape should be taken. It is difficult to deliver fight ending blows in the standing phase unless you are a trained striker with knockout power and your opponent is untrained and gives you the space to strike effectively. It is also difficult to end a fight by throwing someone or taking them to the ground, unless they land on something sharp or hard that knocks them out or breaks something. Various jui-jitsu ground grappling techniques for maiming limbs or choking someone unconscious can be very effective and quick if they are trained extensively. However, for most people, it is in the transition period between standing and being on the ground, the brief period of time when your adversary is falling, that a dominant position can be established with which to end the fight. Several crushing blows to the throat may be all it takes. Alternatively, the several seconds that it takes an opponent to recover from being thrown could afford you the time to draw and fire your concealed weapon, deploy a knife etc.

For these reasons, a practical martial arts program that spends time addressing each of these “fight phases” is a good starting point for someone looking to broaden the spectrum of their self defense responses. I can give general recommendations on what to look for and what to avoid:

Look for:
A clean, well organized gym/dojo with clear and up front fee payment schedules.
A curriculum that emphasizes practical techniques and instructors with a “use what works” attitude.
A curriculum that comprehensively addresses ground fighting and grappling.
An environment that fosters the personal testing and evaluation of techniques through sparring and open-roll grappling sessions (not only among students, but instructors as well—do they talk about and evaluate techniques outside of class?)
A supportive and fun learning environment.

Someone’s garage with dubious credentials.
Chaotic “we all teach each other” peer instruction type groups.
Gyms/dojos that are dirty and not well taken care of (seriously, MRSA and ringworm abound on dirty mats).
A one-dimensional curriculum that focuses exclusively on stand up striking, ignoring grappling and take-downs or vice-versa.
Instructors that seem manic, macho, aggressive/defensive, have various ego issues, are unwilling to entertain questions that challenge the utility or execution of particular techniques, or that you get a “funny feeling” from.

Generally speaking, a well-rounded mixed martial arts (MMA) gym should be able to provide a good solid foundation in all of the these fight phases. However, you should focus your training as much as possible on real-world type conflicts and be aware that stand-up striking, throws, and ground grappling are not ends in themselves. Your practice of these techniques should always focus on the transitions between these fight phases with the goal of disabling your adversary as quickly as possible while maintaining a dominant position. Muay-thai boxing with emphasis on knees and elbows, coupled with judo-style throws and wrestling take-downs, and finished off with Brazilian jiu-jitsu ground grappling would provide a solid combatives foundation for anyone seeking to improve their defensive capabilities. Further areas of specialty instruction relating to weapons disarmament (Krav-Maga) and knife fighting may have to be pursued in other venues, but the foundation you receive in MMA will carry over into any other martial arts program you pursue.

I recommend MMA for beginners because I have found it is the fastest, most efficient and economical way to train someone to lethal ability and give them an all-around combative flexibility that any single discipline cannot provide. Six months of going 2-3 times per week to an MMA gym should give you a good depth of standup striking, the effective use of several different throws and takedowns, a variety of ground grappling submissions and the ability to handle almost any conflict you may run into. Additionally, an MMA curriculum will allow you to understand the contributions made by many different disciplines to the art of fighting without succumbing to the narrow-mindedness of brand myopia. This should allow you to continue your journey into the world of martial arts with an open mind and allow you to rapidly develop effective ability in self defense.

On a personal note, I would highly recommend Brazilian jiu-jitsu and/or judo to women and children who may have doubts about the training the striking components of fighting. It’s fun to roll around and use leverage and technique to negate strength and weight disparities and has practical real-world application in situations when women and children are almost always outclassed by stronger, larger opponents. However, sooner or later, striking should be integrated into their defensive array, as it has its place in ground fighting as well.

A pleasant side effect of MMA training (especially the open roll and sparring sessions which you should avail yourself of at every opportunity) is the physical conditioning, the increased self-confidence, the comraderie with your training partners, but perhaps most importantly, the aggressive “fight instinct” which inherently develops as a result of repeated close physical struggle against trained opponents.

I hope this article has been informative and will help to set people on the right path. Only so much can be written and hypothecated—the proof is in the doing. Get out there and train.

All the best,

*Talk to an experienced peace officer or body language expert if you feel you could use more training in threat assessment. Ask your local law enforcement department about citizen tag-alongs with one of their patrol units. This is a valuable opportunity to gain insight into the types of threats that police officers face daily on the streets in your area, how they assess and respond to these threats, as well as your local department’s policies and attitudes when interacting with the citizenry.