MMA Origins Memorial Day Special: History of U.S. Military Hand-to-Hand Programs

When covering Mixed Martial Arts, certain terms get thrown around a lot. Fighters will often say they are "going to war" or we will…

By: T.P. Grant | 11 years ago
MMA Origins Memorial Day Special: History of U.S. Military Hand-to-Hand Programs
Bloody Elbow 2.0 | Anton Tabuena

When covering Mixed Martial Arts, certain terms get thrown around a lot. Fighters will often say they are “going to war” or we will refer to a particular fighter as a “Warrior” or a “Hero”. I have a rather dramatically named series that makes me guilty of this as well, but on Memorial Day it is important to put things back in perspective.

For non-American readers, Memorial Day is a holiday set aside for regular citizens to remember those men and women who gave their lives while in the service of the United States Armed Forces.

To the casual observer in the United States it can be easy to miss this solemnity of this holiday. The smell of charcoal grills will drift across backyard gatherings where guests will wear bright, spring colored outfits. Outdoor pools will open their gates for the first time that year, children will be playing in baseball tournaments, parades will be held and it will seem like a festival to welcome the coming summer.

But there is a far more serious side to this holiday. Quiet ceremonies will take place all across the country as families will visit grave sites of love ones who fell in battle. Over 400,00 graves of American soldiers are decorated at Arlington National Cemetery. And many Americans will travel to attend the Changing of the Guard of the Tomb of the Unknown Solider, home to unidentified remains of U.S. soldiers from the First World War, the Second World War, and the Korean War, and is a tribute to the willingness to risk everything, even one’s identity, in service to one’s nation.

So here at Bloody Elbow we will commemorate this Memorial Day by doing a history of hand-to-hand skills in the American military, to help connect our community’s love of martial arts with an appreciation of the challenges faced by Armed Forces solider not only in the United States, but around the world. I am a civilian, and have never served in the military. The sources for the information I have obtained for this article are listed below.

The hand-to-hand combat skill of an army hasn’t decided a war in over a century. In the Western military tradition, hand-to-hand fighting was indispensable to ancient combat. The Greeks under the leadership of Alexander and then the Romans under the guidance of their generals and later the Caesars carved out huge empires with superior close combat skills. As the heavy infantry combat in the valleys of the Mediterranean world gave way to the cavalry dominated fields of France hand-to-hand fighting remained the center piece of battles.

Close combat is war at its most brutal, and by all accounts it is one of the most terrifying occurrences in the human experience. While it is debated how exactly battles in the Ancient and Medieval worlds progressed, it is generally agreed that battles featured periods of skirmishing with ranged weapons and light forces, which was eventually followed by a clash of heavier forces in intense hand-to-hand fighting.

Warriors would battle to the point of exhaustion, and often beyond it, using a variety of techniques and arts, some of which have directly lead to some of the martial arts still practiced today. The physical output in mortal combat would be the maximum, and battles would occur in waves as fresh troops were cycled in to relieve the exhausted survivors, and armies would break apart to recover their strength and the skirmishing would resume before the armies came to grips again.

In the Middle Ages the invention of bows, crossbows and early firearms that could pierce even the finest armor changed warfare, though close combat remained the center of battles. But the evolution of firearms would eventually phase out hand-to-hand combat as the deciding factor in battles.

The Napoleonic Wars were the last great hurrah for hand-to-hand combat in western warfare. Troops armed with muskets would formation march through artillery fire into position where they could unload volleys of fire into the enemy, and then when the enemy wavered, charge with bayonets fixed to finish the battle.

This was around the same time of the French Indian Wars, the American Revolution, and the War of 1812, the first wars to feature organized bodies of American troops. While close combat was still an important part of battles close order discipline, formation marching and firing drills were the most important taught skills of soldiering and hand-to-hand training was limited to some basic bayonet drills and bayonet fencing. Competitions in bayonet fencing were held through out the armies all across the world, and it was a sport outside the army.

1916 French Bayonet Fencing Championships

By the American Civil War, the U.S. Army had adopted the French manual for bayonet fencing, translated by one of the rising stars in the U.S. Army, a young Captain named George McClellend would go on to become General-in-Chief of all Union forces in the Civil War for a brief time. But those bayonet fencing skills went largely unused in the Civil War as rifled barrels had increased the range and accuracy of firearms to the point where the massed fire of units was so effective and devastating that armies rarely had a chance to close the distance and still be in effective fighting condition.

Hand-to-hand fighting in the Civil War was far less frequent than in previous wars, and bayonet, sword, and other melee weapons accounted for a tiny percentage of causalities in the war. That said, the close combat that did occur in the Civil War was no less intense than that of previous wars.

The American Civil War presented a period in history in which the military technology had surpassed the dominant tactical and strategic wisdom of the day. Clever commanders adapted their plans, but ways of thinking change very slowly in the military.

This problem became compounded in World War I, when automatic weapons dramatically increased the firepower of units, but again the tactical and strategic thinking remained in the 1800’s. The results were horrific casualties in the early battles and as a result most militaries soon adopted the conservative approach of creating fortified trench lines to account for the huge increases in firepower possessed by soldiers.

The resulting style of warfare consisted of the attackers leaving their trenches and closing the distance to the enemy’s trenches, enduring artillery, machine gun, and other small arms fire. Casualties would be huge for the attacking force and the survivors of crossing “no-man’s land” would then engage the defenders of the enemy trench in hand-to-hand combat until one side broke and ran.

It was an extremely bloody and horrible method of fighting, and combat in the trenches was savage. The American military had begun to adapt new techniques into their training before the start of the war. Judo and traditional Jiu-Jitsu techniques had been known to the U.S for some time and President Theodore Roosevelt, a former military man, was a great fan of Judo. The former Rough Rider had trained Judo with Yamashita Yoshitsugu, one of the best students of Kano Jigoro the founder of Judo, and actually had a “judo room” at the White House.

These new additions, combined with the standard boxing and wrestling provide invaluable in the brutal and bloody fights in the trenches, but only to the select troops that received additional, specialized melee training.

U.S. Army’s Basic Hand To Hand Fighting of World War 1 (Silent film)

For more on this period I highly recommend John S. Nash’s The Martial Chronicles: In the Trenches.

During World War II, draftees in the U.S. Army would receive some basic bayonet drills, boxing, and wrestling, and would be shown a film about how war has no rules. Elite troops would receive more specialized training, but the relative emphasis on close combat was low for the average solider after basic training.

That said, close combat training is an important aspect of a soldiers training and can be the difference between life and death. After World War II during the occupation of several Eastern nations, U.S. soldiers became more exposed to martial arts like Judo and Karate and were instrumental in bringing them to the United States in larger numbers than ever before.

Then came the Vietnam War, and the realities of the modern insurgency warfare set in as the Vietnamese negated the American technological advantage by engaging in close combat with U.S. soldiers. A revamp of the U.S. hand-to-hand program was needed.

In the decades following Vietnam, the commanders in the U.S. military began to reevaluate close combat training. In the late 1980s, Marine Ron Donvito began developing what would become the LINE combat system. While LINE would evolve into different systems and disappear in the 1990s, Donvito laid down the basic principles of the modern Combatives programs. Donvito studied a verity of martial arts and adapted techniques that fit certain criteria.

The moves had to be able to be performed:

  • by a solider wearing full combat gear
  • on bad terrain
  • with extreme fatigue
  • must result in the death of the enemy.

Donvito also made grappling the first aspect of hand-to-hand combat soldiers would learn in their training. The resulting system was one that resembled the Jiu-Jitsu and Judo inspired program taught to elite forces in the early 1900’s.

Marine Corps L I N E Training

LINE training did have problems though. First the insistence that every technique be a “deadly” one meant that Marines were not sufficiently trained in techniques to capture or restrain. Also the training methods of large formations and formal training meant soldiers were less able to practice on their own. And finally the system was too passive, relying on reactions to an enemy’s aggression rather than the solider initiating an attack himself.

In 1994, the entire military began to design a new program and the name Rorion Gracie was brought to those in charge of examining the process. Many members of the elite military units had trained under Rorion and had raved about what they had learned, and that combined with Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu’s success in the UFC was enough for the Army brass. The Gracie family brought them a curriculum of 36 basic self defense moves to form the foundation of the new combatives program.

In 1995, the Commander of the 2nd Ranger Battalion ordered a general re-invigoration of Combatives training using what they had learned from Rorion and other martial arts. The Army Rangers were extremely happy with this new combat training and it began to be implemented to the Army as a whole.

The Marines at this time also began adapting LINE into the Marine Corps Martial Arts Program (MCMAP) which is an aggressive martial art that like the Army’s Combatives combined Jiu-Jitsu, Judo, striking arts, and weapons techniques.

Marines Demonstrate Martial Arts (MCMAP)

The first level of the Modern Army Combatives program is the basics of standing and ground grappling drawn from Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, teaching the basics of dominant position. In the higher levels of the program soldiers are taught striking, arresting holds, weapons fighting, and tactical skills as needed by their role in the army.

The creators and instructors of these systems have no illusions, and are the first to admit the winner of a hand-to-hand fight in a wartime scenario is often the solider whose comrades show up with guns first. The Combatives program has been tweaked and reworked as soldiers coming back from combat with insights on changes that should be made.

From a technical standpoint these systems are composed of bare bones standing grappling; a simple post on the chest, an underhook, a collar tie are used to maintain control so that knee and elbow strikes, or headbutts can be used to stun an enemy and then employ a primary (rifle) or secondary (pistol/knife) weapon.

If there is not enough space safely to do so then the solider would safely enter the clinch. Soldiers who are likely to face close combat are often issued or instructed to obtain specialized holsters for guns and knives that make it difficult for an enemy to draw while grappling.

Once in the clinch, the goal is to either strike or achieve a takedown and then use a dominant position to employ a weapon system or submission hold to pacify or kill the enemy. If a solider finds himself on his back, he is taught to use the guard to either create space to employ a weapon, sweep or apply a submission hold. Here is a link to a video that demonstrates the basics of the Modern Army Combatives program.

The emphasis is always on creating time and space to bring a weapon into play; submissions and strikes are considered secondary to that goal. It is a system of survival, not testing one’s skills or proving that you’re the better technician. And close combat isn’t the focus of a modern solider; far more important is their skill at shooting than their ability to defeat an enemy at close quarters.

There are additional benefits of Combatives training, it allows instructors to instill the mindset required to be successful in close combat, refered to as “a willingness to close with the enemy”. It also purges that initial fear and panic created by close-quarters fighting, that sudden bout of claustrophobic terror experienced by all novice grapplers.

An aspect of the grappling the instructors liked is the ability for soldiers fight at full speed and strength with nothing more than some cleared space on the ground; no gloves, no safety gear and no medical leave afterwards. At any point two during an exercise two soldiers can be told to fight, making combat at any moment and in any conditions a part of a soldier’s daily life that can be continued well after basic training.

The Army has embraced the sport aspect as well and has created the All-Army Combatives Tournament, a sporting event that slowly scales up from grappling matches to full scale MMA-style fights. While it helps solider’s sharpen their skills, it isn’t meant to be completely battlefield applicable, the sport aspect builds espirt de corps and give soldiers something fun and useful to do in their spare time.

Another benefit is that in the modern military, killing the enemy isn’t always the goal; capture and detain missions are becoming more and more common. Grappling training gives soldiers the ability to control an enemy without killing or damaging them but can also be scaled up to lethal levels when needed.

Level 3 Modern Army Combatives (MOUT)

The Army Combatives and MCMAP have their critics, but overall the response has been very positive. It has been adjusted over the last 20 years as soldiers returning from battlefields have given their feedback, much of it on making soldiers more aware on when then they could employ secondary or improvised weapons.

It isn’t pretty, and it isn’t flashy, but as the early days of MMA taught us, actual fighting rarely is that way. Soldiers free time is limited and the simplicity of the programs means that soldiers can become legitimately better fighters with limited training. Additionally soldiers often don’t have years to invest in consistent training, and again much of that time is better spent with their rifle.

Grappling, striking, takedowns, and weapons techniques, the military martial arts programs might be basic, but they possibly the truest form of mixed martial arts.


To share thoughts or your own experiences go to the comment line below, or go to T.P.’s Twitter or Facebook pages.


MACP Modules 1-10The United States Army | Fort Benning

Basic MACP StrategyThe United States Army | Fort Benning

The History of the Modern Army Combatives ProgramThe United States Army | Fort Benning

Ron Donvito and the L.I.N.E. System.” Fight Times Martial Arts Magazine & Martial Arts Supplies – Dunedin – New Zealand.

History of the Marine Corps Martial Art Program.” Fight Times Martial Arts Magazine & Martial Arts Supplies – Dunedin – New Zealand.

08 Marine Corps Martial Arts.Human Weapon. History Channel.

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