Since the dawn of warfare, man has sought the ability to subdue or kill his opponents with his bare hands. Weapons have changed, but not obviated, that search. Sticks 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 very close quarters.

Hunting and fighting were intrinsically linked in prehistoric times. Killing to eat, be it a mastodon or deer, and killing to protect, be it from a neanderthal or cave bear, drew on very similar skills and tactics: Put down the other before it puts you down.

Sports were originally intended to teach the young how to hunt and fight. Special skills evolved with such game-changers as the knife, the spear, and the arrow. The equivalent of special operators were those who could employ such weapons effectively, early innovators of specialized hand-to-hand systems.

At this point, it is key to note that special operations tactics, such as raids, ambushes, and surgical strikes by small bands of specially selected warriors, have probably been around since the dawn of man and warfare. But this article focuses on hand-to-hand fighting. So, when I use the term “special operator,” it refers to special Close Quarters Battle skills.

Civilization was born around 12,000 to 10,000 years ago, along with agriculture and religion. With the advent of organized settlements also came 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, it is reasonable that most soldiers possessed hand-to-hand skills gained at home, through sports and the rough play that has always been common amongst boys and young men.

Early Greek cultures placed a 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, both possessed dominant militaries, Sparta with her land forces and Athens with her naval forces. Martial skills were focused on the sword and shield, and other weapons such as the spear. 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 (Canadian Museum of History).

Hand-to-hand fighting always has always had 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, from mathematics to martial arts.

For centuries, wrestling continued to be taught. It evolved into including disarming techniques, reducing an opponent’s advantage of having a larger of longer weapon, and getting inside an opponent’s reach with a longer sword and then killing him with a short sword or dagger.

The Germans devised a system for such situations called Kampfringen, which translates to “battle grappling.” Surviving practitioners of these techniques were probably the special operators of that time. They were probably also the guys doing the recon and raids since 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, specifically selected for special tactics and missions. Hand-to-hand skills were, of course, very much a part of those cultures and training. China, and the rest of Asia, had similar martial evolutions.

Additionally, cavalry was, for centuries, the special troops of the battlefield throughout Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. They were the hardest to defend against, were able to appear out of nowhere on the battlefield or the battlespace, attack and overwhelm, and then disappear like an ex-wife. For several centuries, the Mongol cavalry was a force to be reckoned with. But their CQB skills were all from the saddle and involved sword and lance, bow, and bolt.

Roger’s Rangers, the progenitors of U.S. special operations, had special hand-to-hand training that was borrowed from various Native American tribes and then innovated and improved upon. Much of it involved hatchets and knives, but also rocks, clubs, fire, and anything else at hand. There was no formalized training in hand-to-hand combat, but it was nonetheless accomplished, probably by those older and more experienced Rangers teaching younger and less experienced ones the requisite skills. the Rangers had a formidable reputation.

In the Civil War, the cavalry was, again, along with scouts, the special troops. They were the ones who would move behind enemy lines, reconnoitering, harassing, and interdicting enemy supply and communication lines. But military hand-to-hand training did not exist, other than bayonet training. Those in blue or gray who, back home as boys, fought and wrestled most with their brothers and neighbors had the advantage in hand-to-hand combat with the enemy.

This article was originally published in 2015.