Hand-to-hand combat techniques

There will be a time in everyone’s life where the only option is to fight.

People have dedicated their entire lives to mastering fighting techniques and the various disciplines of self-defense. Entire books are devoted to this subject.

And with the massive popularity of MMA (mixed martial arts) there are more than a few highly skilled people out there.

My intent with this is not to make you an expert in hand-to-hand combat. My intention is to give some very basic and effective techniques that can be used if you have to fight to stay alive.

As with medical training, I highly suggest you take some form of self-defense training. It will not only help you should you find yourself in a life-threatening situation. It will increase your confidence, physical fitness, and discipline.

In SEAL Teams we dedicate a lot of time training in hand-to-hand combat because it was a blast and, along with a healthy, protein-rich diet, kept us in tip-top shape.

But at the end of the day if you find yourself in a combat situation engaged in hand-to-hand then you can pretty much assume that everything is totally messed up. Why? Where is your air support, your team, your rifle, pistol, knife?


The act of fighting is quite obviously a very violent physical battle. That said, before contact is made or the first strike lands, fighting is 100% mental. Once again enforcing the concept that the entire foundation of survival is a mindset.

Confidence and posture are two things that will mean the difference between walking away undeterred, or taking a life-threatening beating. Attackers tend to prey on the weak; don’t present yourself as a target..

The look of someone approaching with their chest out, shoulders back, and a confident facial expression will not be nearly as alluring to an attacker as someone hunched over staring at the ground.

Situational awareness is your best friend in pre-fight or even preventing a fight. Stay away from danger areas like alleys, dark parking lots or garages, high-crime sections of the city, and groups of people loitering.

Use situational awareness in your immediate area when you find yourself confronted by one or more individuals:

1. Know how many there are and how they are positioning themselves.
2. What is their condition: sick, under the influence, crazed.
3. Do they have a weapon? Always look at the hands – this is where it will be.

Distance is key when it comes to avoiding a fight. Distance from dangerous areas; distance from potential attackers. It will give you options and the ability to see things unfold.

You can create distance through your movement, or create distance with an object like a pole, broom, large stick, or even an extended arm (use caution not to get grabbed).

The Fight

Violence of Action: the unrestricted use of speed, strength, surprise, and aggression to achieve total dominance against my enemy.

Techniques in this section will be useless unless you first totally commit to violence of action. Don’t be afraid to hit first and when you do, hit hard.

As with most areas of survival, fighting is a set of priorities that need to take effect at lightning speed.

1. Protect your face
2. Stay on your feet & Keep moving
3. Hit hard
4. Haul a** (aka – Get off the X)

#1 – Protect your face

On the human body the greatest number of vulnerable points in the smallest area are from the clavicle or collarbones – up.

This will be discussed more thoroughly later but it is important to convey that you must protect these vulnerabilities, before you attack them.

1. Make fists by curling the fingers tight to the palm with thumbs outside of the index fingers, gripping in.
2. Bring arms up so that elbows are against your chest and fists are close to face with thumbs a few inches forward from outer eye sockets.

This is the ideal position to protect much of your upper torso while creating a barrier around your neck, face, and head. This will also allow you to strike and immediately return to this defensive/protective position.

#2 – Stay on your feet & Keep moving

Unless you are very good at wrestling or Jiu Jitsu, the best place to be in a fight is upright and on your feet.

This is especially important if you are fighting more than one attacker because it will give you the ability to move around during the attack.

A moving target is much harder to hit than a static one, so stay mobile. Circle often and keep your attacker(s) in front of you. Don’t allow them to surround you.

1. Keep your feet shoulder width apart.
2. Lower your center of gravity by crouching slightly.
3. Shuffle your feet; never cross them.

If you should fall to the ground curl up on your side and cover your head while delivering kicks to your attacker’s legs and knees. As soon as possible get back to your feet.

#3 – Hit Hard

Again, back to violence of action. Make every blow count and you could walk away; or be carried away.

Punch, kick, elbow, gouge, bite, stab, rip, crush – you name it you should do it because this person is trying to take your life. The only rule in fighting is to live.

Vulnerable points exist all over the body but the greatest numbers of these are from the clavicle or collarbones – up.

Within this relatively small area of the neck you have:

  • 2 carotid arteries that feed blood to the brain.
  • The windpipe that is the airway for breathing.
  • The spinal cord the controls all motor skills for the body.

Your attacker may be three times your size but if you take away even one of these functions the fight is OVER. Even a 300 lb man will stop fighting if he can’t breathe, which is why you must concentrate the full force of your attack on the neck area.

Hands will be your most effective tools in a fight. Make a fist as described above and deliver a punch so you are ideally striking with the knuckles of the index and middle finger.

Then immediately return the hand to the defensive position by the face. You will increase the power of a punch by twisting your mid-section in conjunction with the punch being thrown. Here are some various types of punches:

  • Jab – straight in from lead leg side, not as powerful but great for maintaining distance.
  • Cross – straight in from opposite lead leg – very powerful.
  • Hook – outward arcing punch delivered by either fist – great for targeting ear hole.
  • Upper cut – upward arcing punch delivered by either fist – great for targeting chin = good night.

In addition to the above punches your hands can also be very effective when clawing, jabbing with fingers, and an open palm strike can be devastating.

Feet can be used in a variety of ways during a fight. There are numerous kicking techniques that can stop a fight before it even starts. But for the purposes of this article I would strongly recommend that you use your feet to stay upright and move.

Save the spinning back round house kick to the ear hole for the professionals.

Elbows are very effective and can be used when tight against your attacker. If performed properly not only will you strike when slashing in, but can deliver a second and equally devastating blow by back slashing (returning the elbow to original position).

Knees. As with elbows can inflict great damage while tight against an attacker. The very best method to employ knee strikes is to grab the back of your attacker’s neck with both hands, drawing them toward you each time you deliver a knee strike.

Be aware that using this technique may cause you to sacrifice some stability because you will only have one foot planted on the ground during each strike.

Chokehold (aka – sleeper) is a compression grip applied to the throat to disrupt circulation (carotid arteries) and breathing (windpipe) which ultimately causes the person to lose consciousness.

1. It is best applied from behind the attacker by wrapping an arm around the throat with the person’s windpipe in the crook of the arm with bicep and forearm on each side of neck. The positioning of this arm is the key to this technique so remember the deeper the better.
2. With the other arm behind the neck grab the opposite shoulder.
3. Then with the forward arm, grab the rear arm bicep and squeeze.

#4 – Haul A**

Although this is the last step in fighting it needs to be your first priority. Get off the “X”. You may have struck first, hardest, and potentially be winning the fight.

Don’t stay engaged if you can escape. The moment you have an opening – take it and leave the scene because fights can change instantly and drastically.

Final note

As I have aged (matured) I have learned many valuable lessons. One of which is when big kids get in fights three things can happen:

1. Go to hospital
2. Go to morgue
3. Go to jail

I would NEVER tell someone not to defend themselves. I do however adhere to the following policies:

1. Don’t start a fight; finish a fight.
2. If you see a guy with ears that look like chewed up bubble gum; keep walking.

Stay safe, stay strong, and stay educated.

Be a survivor, not a statistic,

Cade Courtley
Former Navy SEAL / 4Patriots Contributor

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