W.E.Fairbairn. The“Godfather” of Modern Self-Defense

W.E.Fairbairn. The "Godfather" of modern Self-Defense.

W.E.Fairbairn. The“Godfather” of Modern Self-Defense

William E Fairbairn ( 1885 – 1960 ) is often called the godfather of modern “Combatives” Self-defense.

He developed a quickly learnable system that had to be tested as realistically as possible in the most dangerous of circumstances. Fairbairn also wrote several well-illustrated books on the subject.

As a British Royal Marine and police officer, he developed hand-to-hand combat methods for the Shanghai Police during the interwar period, as well as for the allied special forces during World War II.

In the introduction to “Get Tough”, Fairbairn says…

“The methods described in this book I have carefully worked out and developed over a period of many years. They owe something to the famous Japanese judo (jiu-jitsu), and something else to Chinese boxing. But, largely, they were developed from my own experience and observation of how most effectively to deal with the ruffians,thugs, bandits, and bullies of one of the roughest water-front areas in the world.”

His methods were quick to learn and instantly applicable, which was very useful in training the Shanghai police and the army. Time was limited.

So what did he do to make things so learnable?

As we often talk about here in this blog, he simplified things. He then made his students drill a small set of techniques until they were efficient at them, rather than a large amount that they wouldn’t eventually use.

“ Although every method described in the following pages is practicable – and so proved by the author and his students by years of experience, it is not essential to master them all. I suggest that at first, you select about ten which, for reasons of your height, weight, build, etc., seem most suitable, and specialize in mastering these thoroughly….”


He concentrated on open hand striking techniques, simple kicks and basic grappling. In his military program, a lot of techniques were designed to kill.

For instance.


1 Edge-of-the-Hand
2 Chin Jab
3 Boot (Side Kick)
3A Boot Defense
3B Boot (“Bronco Kick”)
4 Knee

Palm striking techniques
Palm striking techniques

Above is an example of open hand strikes to the chin with the palm. One of the reasons he worked on open hand techniques is the speed with which the student could get the technique. Closed fist punching and good boxing technique take a long time to master. That was the extra training hours they didn’t have.

Below is another illustration, showing a combination of a face-palm strike and a knee to the groin. All the illustrations show soldiers in full uniform. This is another important part of his fighting system. The clothes you would train in are the clothes you would fight in. It would have been of no use to find out suddenly, that the fancy sidekick you had been working on in the gym, didn’t function at all once you were fully clothed.

Combination of offensive fighting techniques
Combination of offensive fighting techniques

The Simplification of training

Given little time to develop something effective, Fairbairn simplified everything and concentrated on techniques that could be picked up by the student. He states…

“ No-one will dispute the effectiveness of a straight left or a right hook… but unfortunately it takes months of practice to develop a good punch. Quite a number of persons, after long and intensive training, have given up in despair. The edge of the hand blow and the chin jab, if applied as demonstrated in this manual, will quickly convince the student that in a matter of days he has developed a blow that is not only as effective as a good punch with the fist, but one which permits him to obtain a knock-out under conditions in which it would be almost impossible to punch effectively with the fist”

The last part is such a key point in any “modern” Self-Defense system. The student must train to deal with many different environments and circumstances that affect how, and with what you can respond.


Everything is designed to be simple and practical. There are no fancy martial arts roundhouses or reverse back kicks. It’s relatively easy to learn and extremely effective. This is the core idea behind modern “Combatives” or contemporary Self-Defense. Usable techniques, usually gross motor skills, that work under combat pressure.

This illustration shows a sequence of grappling and striking moves that seem pretty obvious as we have seen them many times over the years. You must remember that his books were quite exceptional at the time and opened up a world of self-defense to many people.

Combination of striking and grappling
Combination of striking and grappling

Have a look at this old film of Fairbairn teaching. You can see how simple and effective the skills are.

Here is an old film of W.E.Fairbairn himself showing some basic techniques

Modern Context

How does all of this relate to today and contemporary self-defense?
Because nothing really has changed very much, that is why.
The streets can be brutal and it’s easy to find yourself on the rough end of a situation that you weren’t expecting and didn’t deserve.

You have limited training time and you would need to spend time learning something as effective as possible in as short a time as possible.

So, in reality, Fairbairns methods are as relevant today as when he developed them. Through all the different modern systems, from Kelly McCann, Urban Combatives, Geoff Thompson,etc. you can see the ideas of Fairbairn filtering through.

If you plan on taking up training in contemporary Self-Defense, take time to learn about W.E. Fairbairn and his methods. Your precious time would be well spent.

Author: Andrew Johnson

I trained many years in Kung Fu, fought in full contact competitions and am a qualified instructor at The Combat Academy in the UK. The aim of this blog is to look at what modern self-defense training actually is and what it most probably should be.

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