Martial Arts

Martial Arts And Hand-To-Hand Combat In The World’s Militaries

Martial Arts

Hand-to-hand combat might be a soldier's last resort but only perhaps when all other options and battle plans have been exhausted.

It might be an unlikely scenario, given the world's elite soldiers are professionally trained in battle tactics using their standard issue weapons - such as the SA80 rifle in Britain - but soldiers in theatre can face many unforeseen challenges, so if they did find themselves facing an unthinkable situation in which they were unarmed, that's when combat might become truly close quarters.

Today's soldiers can be trained in close-quarters combat but there is a stronger emphasis on more effective battle tactics in engaging the enemy at range with weapons.

Some of the world's Armed Forces learn more hand-to-hand combat than others, and it is countries' special forces that are more likely to include forms of unarmed combat in their training.

Soldiers have to be ready for anything, however, and sometimes that might mean getting their knuckles bruised.

The word “martial” means relating to fighting or war. Most martial arts around the world have had a military connection at some point in their histories, such as Chinese Sanda and Russian Sambo, which were specifically developed by the military and later became national sports.

Here is a look at a selection of the more prominent forms of martial arts that have been used, at varying times, by militaries around the world, including the UK's own venture into the use of martial arts in combat during the history of the British Armed Forces.



Sanda or as it was formally known as Sanshou which literally translates to ‘Free Hand’ was originally developed by the Chinese Military to be used by Chinese Elite Forces. The practice was designed by studying traditional Chinese Martial arts such as Chin Na, Kung Fu as well as Shuai Jiao, and combining them with modern combat fighting techniques.

In the 1960s, moving away from its military origins, the practice was adopted in wider society, becoming a popular sport. 

The Sanda world cup takes place every two years. Since 2002 it has taken place in China, with the exception of Indonesia hosting it in 2014 and Australia taking on official hosting duties last year.


Krav Maga

Developed by Israeli-Hungarian Martial Artist Imi Lichtenfeld, Krav Maga focuses on real-life situations. It was inspired by street fighting and combines techniques from street boxing, wrestling and karate. Lichenfeld developed the fighting style while defending the Jewish quarter from fascist thugs in 1930s Bratislava. In 1948 when the State of Israel was founded, Lichenfeld became Chief Instructor for Physical Fitness in for the Israeli Defense League. He served with the IDF for 20 years, during which he established Krav Maga as the official hand-to-hand combat of the Israeli Military.

The practice is rooted in outward aggression while focusing on self-defence and offensive manoeuvres. Krav Maga is taught military-wide, not only to the special forces units as might be the case with many other military martial arts around the world. From the beginning, the concept of it was to be able to be taught as quickly as possible and to have the most practical application out of any martial arts.

Krav Maga
Israeli Soldiers train with Krav Maga



The word Sambo is an acronym that translates from Russian as ‘self-defence without weapons.’ Similarly to Krav Maga, the combat fighting techniques were specifically developed by the military in the 1920s with efficiency and effectiveness as a top priority.

Today, a variation of Sambo is allegedly taught to Spetsnaz where they are taught to stay vigilant at all times and scan their environment for potential threats and weapons. In the eyes of a trained Spetsnaz operative, anything from a streetlamp to an opponent’s sunglasses can become a deadly weapon.

The wrestling aspect of Sambo became an internationally accredited combat sport in the 1960s.

It is recognised by United World Wrestling (UWW) and practised globally.


United States Of America

Marine Corps Martial Arts Program

MCMAP has a proud history dating back to 1954 when it was created by Gunnery Sergeant Bill Miller. The program teaches a specific combat style that combines elements of boxing, jujutsu, taekwondo, karate and judo. 

However, it also teaches marines how to screen their environment for weapons of opportunity. The program is all-encompassing and also focuses on bayonet, knife and firearm skills. 

Unlike other military hand-to-hand combat training, MCMAP has a belt system similar to more traditional forms of martial arts such as Karate. All marines graduate basic training with a white belt. Not all of the training is focused on achieving peak physical condition and learning how to apply it in a potentially deadly way. The mixed martial art teaches mental resilience and is designed to build character. 

Even though its creation dates back 67 years, MCMAP was only officially adopted by the Marines in 2002. However, Marine training and close-quarters combat have always gone hand-in-hand, dating all the way back to when the Marine Corps was first established in 1775. 


 Marine Corps Martial Arts Program student, Marine Corps Logistics Base Albany, performs a roundhouse kick
Marine Corps Martial Arts Program trainee performing a roundhouse kick

United Kingdom 


It can be said that this is a specifically developed British martial art, albeit incorporating elements of jiujitsu, as well as European boxing. It was developed by William E. Fairbairn who was a Royal Marine. It has been suggested, mainly through the influence of the television series Secrets of War, that he was one possible inspiration for Q branch in James Bond.

Along with soldier and fire-arms expert Eric A. Sykes, the pair created Defendu to train the Shanghai Municipal Police, during the interwar period when Britain was still a colonial power in the region. 

During the Second World War, Fairbairn was commissioned by the British Commandos to teach them the lethal close combat technique. The Royal Marine taught martial arts at a secret location in Scotland before going on a 'special assignment' to Canada to teach it there. The allies needed to imbue their soldiers and special forces with any advantage that they could get, and hand-to-hand combat was no exception 

Today, the British infantry teaches the basics of close-quarters combat, preferring to focus more on weapon training. British special forces such as the SAS do include weaponless fighting in their training, however, but the particular techniques and martial arts that they use are highly classified. 


Soldiers with 133rd Infantry Battalion



The Royal Thai Army trains its soldiers to fight using an ancient and traditional martial art that is similar to the famous Muay Thai style of boxing.

However, what sets Ledit apart from other military martial arts is that it uses open hands instead of fists.

Kicks and grappling techniques also feature prominently in this fighting style. The technique focuses on utilising the body's "natural weapons" such as hands, feet, knees, elbows and head. 

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