Learn Something New: Read an Old Book

You think you're the first to think of that? Think again. People have been fighting hand-to-hand for a lot longer than you've been around.

The title of this article is a quote from Crucible Founder Kelly McCann, aka Jim Grover. Although it’s short in length, it’s huge in stature and makes a very valid point. It’s my sincere belief that when it comes to the art of unarmed fighting, the vast majority of viable techniques were “invented” long before anyone reading this was even born.

“What?! Are you saying that those new high-tech secrets of the warrior are really old?”

Yep. In fact, most “modern” police tactical training is nothing more than old concepts and tactics, rehashed and occasionally refined.

How can this be? Are you saying that my instructor really didn’t invent the omnipotent punch/kick/joint lock/or throw that he claims? It’s possible, but most likely he didn’t. Although it may be new to him, it’s probably not new to the world.

Think about how many thousands of years people fought without the benefit of firearms, and the subsequent fighting/martial art systems that were developed. Wrestling, boxing, karate, judo, aikido, ju-jitsu, capoeira, kung fu, silat, tae kwon do, savate, and muay thai just partially scratches the generic martial arts category list. If each category were broken down into all the different variations that evolved, the list would go on for far longer than you would be willing to read.

We haven’t even mentioned all the other fighting methodologies of the warrior societies such as: the Roman Gladiators, the Spartans, the Huns, the Celts, the Vikings and the medieval knights. Even the American Indians had developed their own favorite fighting techniques. Now add up the millions of warriors we’re counting, plus the thousands of years of training time that was spent in the art of unarmed combat. The total number of man-hours spent on the development and practice of unarmed combat would have to be well into the trillions, if not quadrillions.

Considering this, don’t you think that the chance of you or I, or any other living human actually “inventing” a practical and effective empty-hand fighting technique that no one has previously developed in one form or another is pretty darn slim?  

Here’s a prime example of old concepts being rehashed. Somewhere in the early 1980s, reaction time became a primary subject for officer survival training. Which was a good thing, because the understanding of the limitations of reaction time is crucial in law enforcement training. Now read the following and tell me if you haven’t read this paragraph before, sometimes almost word for word, in some of the “modern” police training books and articles:

Total reaction consists of three elements:

  1. The time required for the stimulus to reach the receivers (i.e.: audio, visual, tactile, etc.).
  2. Plus the time required for the brain to relay the impulse through the proper nerve fibers to the proper muscles.
  3. Plus the time required for the muscles to get into action after receiving the impulse.

The source? Page 60 of Bruce Lee’s Tao of Jeet Kune Do. Written in 1970, it’s hardly new information.

F.C. Donders, a Dutch Scientist, did experiments with reaction time that led to a similar conclusion. Although simpler in articulation, the context parallels Bruce Lee’s definition of reaction time. Donders definition was: “The time needed for a simple reaction time task consists of the time it takes to perceive the stimulus plus the time it takes to generate the response.”

So when did Donders conduct this experiment? Back in the 1860s, which would lead me to believe the concept and studies of reaction time have been ongoing long before any of us were born.

How about those “new” MMA techniques like the arm triangle choke, arm bar, knee bar, or paintbrush? I bet those are new. Well, not exactly. I’ve been collecting martial arts instructional books since 1972, martial arts videos and DVDs since their inventions and law enforcement training materials since 1983. Thus, I have amassed a library with hundreds of titles, some dating back to the late 1800s.

A 1935 book entitled 50 Simple Tricks of Self Defense, which was sold by the Johnson-Smith mail order catalogs for a whopping $0.35 originally has the latter three of those “modern” MMA techniques demonstrated. I’ve been able to trace the arm triangle choke as far back as a 1915 self-defense manual written by William Fairbairn & Anthony Sykes for the Shanghi, China police.

Although old, these books were by no means the origin of those techniques. To believe that these specific manuals from the 1900s were the actual beginning of these techniques you would have to ignore the trillions of aforementioned man-hours that humans have spent perfecting the art of fighting. The vast majority of fighting techniques and concepts have been passed down for generations, long before books even existed.

So, in what old books can I learn something new? The three best “old” books written on the subject of unarmed personal combat (i.e. hand-to-hand fighting for your life, not defensive tactics or subject control) that I’m aware of are:

  • Cold Steel by John Styers. Published in 1952 and primarily a USMC edged-weapons manual, the chapter on unarmed combat contains solid information that’s just as valid today as the day it was written.
  • Kill or Get Killed by US Army Lt. Colonel Rex Applegate, written in 1943.
  • Get Tough by British Major William Fairbairn, also written in 1943.

These three books contain the nuts and bolts of fighting for your life.

Are there other old books out there with top-notch information that I don’t have and have never seen? I’d be shocked if there weren’t.

The bottom line is simple. When it comes to empty hand fighting, do your research into the books of the old masters. Don’t be surprised when you find combat-oriented concepts/tactics/techniques (a lot that are not mentioned in this article) that you may have believed were fairly new, are actually far older than any of us.  And if you’re not really careful, you’ll also probably learn some solid, time-tested, effective information that may save your skin someday.


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