Since the dawn of warfare, so since the very beginning, man has sought the ability to subdue or kill his opponents with his bare hands. Weapons have changed, but not alleviated, that search. Bones and shafts break. Arrows and bullets run out. Swords and rifles get dropped and lost. Then, the warrior has only his wits and whatever barehand skills he possesses to prevail over his enemy, especially in close quarters, where he can smell him.

Hunting and fighting were intrinsically tied back in pre-history, before civilization, agriculture, religion, and armies. Indeed, fighting and hunting were probably the same skill sets. Killing to eat, be it mastodon or deer, and killing to protect, be it from neanderthal or cave bear, drew on the same or similar skills and tactics: Put down the other before he or it puts you down.

Sports were originally intended to teach the young how to hunt and fight—again, essentially the same skill sets. Special skills evolved with such game changers as the knife, the spear, and the arrow. Special operators were those who could employ such weapons effectively. There were probably early innovators of specialized hand-to-hand systems to deal with these game changers, but we have, so far, no record of that.

Civilization was born around 12,000 to 10,000 years ago, along with agriculture and religion. With the advent of these came also the advent of organized militaries. Armies quickly learned that things such as command and control, strategy and tactics, and martial skills for soldiers needed to be developed and taught. These skills were mostly focused on the sword and shield, the bow and lance, and likely little thought was given to hand-to-hand training. But, also likely, most soldiers possessed hand-to-hand skills gained at home, through sports and the rough play that is common, then and now, amongst boys and young men.

Early Greek cultures placed high value on games and sports, the purpose of which was to train and entertain youth in martial skills, and to develop athletic skills that would benefit the warrior. Sparta and Athens, the main city-states of the classic Greek era, both possessed dominant militaries, Sparta with her land forces and Athens with her naval forces. Martial skills taught were focused on the sword and shield, and other weapons such as the lance and the shield. But, it is safe to assume that all Spartan and Athenian soldiers and sailors possessed respectable hand-to-hand skills given the expectation that all Greek boys and young men learn and participate in Greek games, some of the most popular of which involved grappling and wrestling.

Segment of Akrotiri mural depicting two young boys boxing. Image courtesy of

Hand-to-hand fighting always has to contend with three key factors:

  1. Culture, of units and societies
  2. Trends in martial and combative arts
  3. The human need for control and predictable results, which is a factor and hurdle in all teaching and instructing, from mathematics to martial arts.

For centuries, throughout the European Medieval Period and forward, wrestling continued to be taught, but also evolved into disarming techniques, reducing an opponent’s advantage of having a larger of longer weapon, and of getting inside an opponent’s reach with a longer sword and killing him with a short sword or dagger.

The Germans devised a system called Kampfringen, which translates as “battle grappling,” for such situations. Surviving practitioners of these techniques, getting in close enough to a man armed with a long sword in order to kill him with a dagger, were probably the special operators of that time. They were probably also the guys doing the recon and raids. It is unlikely that heavy armor and mounts lent themselves well to reconnaissance. During the Japanese Medieval Period, Ninja clans appeared and flourished right alongside, but not really part of, Samurai culture. Both cultures had their special operators, specially selected for special tactics and missions, and hand-to-hand skills were, of course, very much a part of those cultures and training.