When you think about soldiers on the battlefield, you probably picture high-tech weaponry, drones, and strategic computer systems. But let’s rewind the tape and get back to basics – back to when soldiers primarily used their bodies as weapons. We’re talking about the historical evolution of hand-to-hand combat.

Unarmed combat is sophisticated warfare that requires just as much brain as brawn. It’s about strategy as much as it is about strength. 

A glimpse at the Marine Corps Martial Arts Program (Wikimedia Commons)

It’s not simply about throwing punches or wrestling the opponent to the ground. It involves a complex blend of techniques, disciplines, and tactical maneuvers honed and perfected over centuries of military history.

We often overlook this form of combat in our fast-paced, technology-driven world. But understanding how hand-to-hand combat has evolved over the centuries gives us valuable insight into military strategy, human nature, culture, and our ceaseless quest for survival and protection.

Hand-to-Hand Combat in Ancient Times

Let’s hop into our time machine and hit reverse, all the way back to the ancient civilizations, around 648 BC. We’re in the heart of an uproarious Roman Colosseum or amidst the rugged terrains of Sparta. It was where the early sparks of hand-to-hand combat flickered into existence.

Imagine being a soldier back then. You didn’t have guns or tanks. No, sir. Your primary weapons were fists, feet, and perhaps a simple sword or spear. 

The most famous of the martial techniques these warriors used was Pankration, which originated in ancient Greece. Think of it as an intense mashup of boxing and wrestling, an ancient edition of mixed martial arts.

The concept was simple but brutal. Two warriors would square off and use punches, kicks, throws, and holds to overpower their opponent. The only moves off the table were biting and gouging, and the fight continued until one warrior submitted or, occasionally, died. 

It wasn’t just about brute strength. These soldiers had to be mentally agile and quick-thinking to anticipate their opponent’s moves and react swiftly. They had to remain calm, cool, and collected under high-pressure situations.

Middle Ages: Rise of the Knights and Samurai

In Europe, the rise of the knights introduced a unique form of combat. Knights practiced wrestling and used their armored fists and daggers in close combat once disarmed or thrown off their horses.

Halfway across the world, the Samurai of Japan also wielded their skills in hand-to-hand combat. They practiced Jujutsu, a martial art that focuses on grappling, and Aikijutsu, which is all about blending and redirecting the force of an opponent’s attack. 

The Samurai weren’t just sword-swinging warriors but well-rounded fighters adept at close combat.

The Modernization of Hand-to-Hand Combat

This time, we’ll jump into the gritty trenches of the First and Second World Wars, where warfare took a dramatic leap into modernity.

In this high-octane environment, where warfare was evolving at a breakneck speed, the importance of hand-to-hand combat did seem to take a bit of a backseat. After all, when you’ve got guns and grenades, it’s easy to overlook the importance of a good right hook, right? 

But, like an old soldier, hand-to-hand combat refused to fade away into obscurity.

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Despite the surge in advanced weaponry, there were still instances where old-school techniques came in handy (pun intended). Trench raids often descended into brutal close-quarters battles, with soldiers using bayonets, shovels, and even their bare fists to fight off enemies. 

So, while the roar of machine guns might have drowned out the noise, hand-to-hand combat was still silently and efficiently doing its part.

Fast forward a bit more to the Second World War, and we find that surprise encounters – in jungles, urban settings, or even during covert missions – still required soldiers to be adept in hand-to-hand combat. 

Raw, visceral warfare proved an essential skill in a soldier’s arsenal, even in the shadow of the most destructive conflict in human history.

Hand-to-Hand Combat in Today’s Military

Today, hand-to-hand combat has regained significance in military training programs worldwide. Why? Because sometimes the most advanced technology can’t replace the value of direct, physical confrontation in a close-quarters battle.

Modern militaries have synthesized various martial arts and combat techniques to create systems like Krav Maga (used by the Israeli Defense Forces) and the Marine Corps Martial Arts Program (MCMAP) in the United States. 

These techniques aren’t just about fighting, though. They also teach soldiers discipline, control, and how to make rapid decisions under extreme pressure.

A Never-Ending Evolution

The history of hand-to-hand combat in the military is rich and diverse. It mirrors our progression as a society, reflecting our technological advances, cultural shifts, and the eternal human need to adapt and survive.


Hand-to-hand combat isn’t just a relic of the past. It’s a vibrant, evolving discipline that remains integral to military strategy. 

As we look ahead, we can only wonder how it will continue to adapt and evolve to meet future challenges.