Combat Martial Arts: The Difference

by William Durbin, Soke of Kiyojute Ryu

It was a reality. War was brewing in the Middle East. Iraq had invaded Kuwait, and the United Nations had given a deadline as to withdrawal. In one Dojo, a student, who belonged to the United States military forces, walked up to his instructor and said, "You have taught us self defense. You have told us we have to defend ourselves within the laws of the state, in order not to go to jail. Most of all you have taught us how to defend ourselves without killing. But if we go to war, and if it involves hand-to-hand combat, how do we change our techniques into killing skills? What is the difference?"

          This question was valid just before the First Gulf War and is more valid today, with fighting happening in Iraq, Afghanistan, and in other places on a clandestine level, and unfortunately with other areas of conflict being predicted.  Sadly what is currently being taught, as army combatives is a far cry from what is needed for real combat.

The Difference

          Hidden within the technical training of many of the martial arts, is the killing side. While most instructors hope that their students never have to enter a killing situation, or can handle it without killing, war changes all the rules. In war, the object is to kill an enemy as quickly as possible. Thus the restraint that is encouraged in a normal street self defense situation, to keep a martial artist from going to prison for murder or manslaughter, is canceled.

          Three main targets are encouraged when changing basic self defense techniques into killing techniques applicable for combat. These are the trachea, the neck, and the solar plexus region. The trachea and the neck are taken separately in that they involve completely different methods and concepts, which will be covered later. Note also that what is being dealt with here is strictly empty hand combat, not weapon fighting. When there is a knife involved, there are many other optional targets.


          It is obvious that the trachea is a main target, due to the fact that if a person cannot breath, they cannot live. Technically, the trachea begins at the larynx, and in regard to combat the larynx should be considered part of the target area dealt with in the trachea. Strikes, which can crush the larynx or collapse the trachea, are excellent in actual combat. Knife hands, spear hands, and specialized fists may be used to accomplish these goals. In regard to the specialized fists, Choki Motobu the great Okinawan Shorei Ryu Kempo Karate master, used the one knuckle fist to great advantage, and was greatly feared because of his power with it. It is said that he could punch a Makiwara full power with the one knuckle fist.

          Damage to the larynx or trachea can cause death. If the damage is severe enough, the person will die from strangulation or asphyxiation, caused by blockage of the air passage or blood vessels.  An opponent can also drown in their own blood passing into the lungs. An added advantage, from a combat point of view, is that with the vocal cords damaged or air unable to pass through them, keeps the enemy from calling for help.


          The neck can be easily damaged in many different ways. The important point here is that the person must be loosened up through other strikes, so that they cannot resist the pressure placed on the neck itself. The soldiers one would face in actual war, will probably have been through some type of military training and young, thus their necks will be fairly strong, so that if they are prepared, they can resist quite a bit of pressure. However, once weakened, a person's neck can be easily broken.

          One of the main ways of attacking the neck is by grabbing the hair with one hand, or any helmet or headdress they may be wearing, and pushing against the chin with the other hand, as you pull. Done quickly, the neck will break, usually doing severe damage to the spinal cord causing death, or paralyses. This is the main goal of any of the neck attacks used in combat, since even if death does not occur the person is absolutely helpless, with a broken neck.

          Another way of damaging or breaking the neck is by hyperextension through grabs and pulls. This is particularly effective when the head is pulled to the rear. This causes the vertebrae to act as fulcrums against one another, allowing for breakage and dislocation.

          A severe strike, especially with a knife hand to the base of the skull will also cause the separation of the spinal cord. Any blow to the neck itself, from the rear, which is strong enough, can cause a vertebra to dislocate, resulting in spinal damage or death. Any type of blow, which can cause a whiplash effect, has potentially lethal or debilitating effect. A whiplash can cause breaks in the vertebra and damage to the spinal cord. Strikes should be angled to create the greatest potential stress on the vertebrae in the back of the neck. A hard, driving uppercut or heel of hand to the chin, has the potential to be fatal, on a previously weakened or unprepared enemy.

Solar Plexus

          The final area, which is targeted when trying to kill someone in actual combat, is the solar plexus. This is the nerve nexus at the base of the sternum. When this area is struck much internal damage can be done. Various internal organs can be damaged, according to the angle of penetration, with the usual one being the spleen. Once an organ has been ruptured, surgery is a must or the victim will die. This blow also had a tendency to drop an opponent making them relatively helpless until medical assistance is received.

          It should be noted that strikes to the solar plexus are affected by the clothing worn. If the enemy has sufficient clothing on, the area will be too well protected for a hand strike to be effective. However, a well focused kick can penetrate a great deal of padding and still deliver enough force to be lethal.

Setting Up Lethal Responses

          There are many severe techniques that can be used in combat to set the enemy up for lethal responses, when silence is not a consideration. The knees and the elbows are primary targets, in that if one is broken it renders the opponent relatively helpless and easily dispatched. an enemy with a broken leg may be left, as long as they do not have access to a gun.

          Anytime a person's sensory ability is damaged, they are made more helpless in a combat situation, therefore striking to the eyes and ears should be thoroughly studied. Eyes may be raked or compressed. If the eyes are compressed enough they will be damaged beyond repair, so that the person is relatively helpless. If the damage is severe enough, without medical aid, death can result. Cupping the ears, causing the air pressure to rupture the ear drums, can cause a great deal of pain and disorientation. It should not be relied upon as an ending technique, since the other senses are operating and the person is still capable of fighting, especially if they can secure a weapon. But the ear attack does loosen up a person, preparing them for a finishing technique.

          Chokes, which attack the carotid arteries are excellent combat techniques, in that unconsciousness can occur in only five seconds. Held in place longer and brain damage or death will result. Certain chokes, which attack the trachea, can be lethal when applied with force, which will damage the inner lining of the trachea, leading to death. Damage to the larynx can also cause death and is a prime area attacked in combat chokes. And there are some chokes which when applied with force can break the neck.


          What has been described in this article are the skills to be used only on a battlefield. These types of techniques were never intended for peacetime situations on the home front streets. While many see our streets as a battlefield between criminals and innocent people, and while it may be necessary for very severe techniques to be resorted to, there is a grave difference between a person stealing you belonging committing a crime, and the enemy in a war whose only purpose is to end your life. Talk to any of Americans veterans of actual war, and they will help you understand the difference.

          This is why the grappling based Army Combatives are dangerous to our own soldiers. Learning to roll around on the ground and playing aggressive games may build aggression in our soldiers but it does not prepare them to fight full out against opponents who are not engaging in competition, but trying to take their lives. Having watched the Army Combatives DVD I was appalled when the instructor said, ‘the winner is the man whose buddy shows up with a gun’.

          This is not the hand to hand combat my Dad taught me, that he learned as a soldier during World War II. This is not the deadliness of the soldiers who trained during our wars to be behind enemy lines and survive. I have studied every military combatives manual I can get from the 1940s to the 1970s. The techniques were always sound combat effective skills, which could save a soldiers life, until modern times.

Combat for Today

          I have had students, and students of my students, fight in both Iraq and Afghanistan. They have reported that the skills they learned in Kiyojute Ryu Kempo Bugei have stood them in good stead. Some of them, being in the Special Forces, are particularly appalled by what is currently being taught to our military. There needs to be a return to the effective fighting skills that have served our soldiers well from World War II, through Korea and Vietnam. It is a shame to see the watered down skills that are little more than aggressive wrestling that the soldiers are learning today.

          One air force manual noted that an airman down behind enemy lines needed to know how to combat and kill, with his bare hands if he were to survive. The military today needs to take note of this. If the winner is the man whose buddy shows up with a gun, then he’s dead already. A soldier needs to know how to kill with his bare hands when it is necessary. He should have confidence, not in his ability to compete with an enemy combatant, but how to persevere against extreme opposition.  This is the real nature of the American soldier, those who have been called the greatest warrior of the modern era.

          While the Gulf War is long over, we have seen a new field of battle with the war on terrorism creating battles in Afghanistan and Iraq, and there are other areas of stress in the world that have the potential to turn into open conflict which will draw more young men and women back onto the battlefield. They will need to know how to survive. And yet, right now on the streets, people need to remember the difference between self defense and combat. If a person were to use the above described techniques in a regular street situation, it is almost assured that they would be punished by the law for excessive force. Strikes must be tempered, and non-lethal techniques used, if a person expects to be able to plead self defense in a court of law, during peace time and in civilian settings.

Good Martial Arts Instructors should know Self Defense and Combat

          All good martial arts instructors should know the peacetime and wartime application of their arts. It is wrong to teach war techniques for the city streets, just as it is wrong to teach street techniques to people going to war. All the martial arts are based on appropriate response to each situation. War techniques must never be taken into the city streets, but reserved for an enemy where the situation is kill or be killed.

          It is hoped that this will be a reminder of just how gruesome war and killing techniques really are. When one must enter combat, one must be ready to do what needs to be done. It is sad, but true, that in a war, people who might have been friends, were circumstances different, will try to kill one another. And it is even sadder to think that some people find the practice of war somehow exciting. All people should hate war, and strive to see an end to it. Until that time people who train in the armed forces must have the skill to survive and terminate the enemy. But let us hope that mankind will someday mature enough so that there will be war no more. Then the techniques mentioned in this article will never be needed again.

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