In the early days of the war in Afghanistan, a Green Beret on a night raid suddenly found himself in a fight in which no weapon or technology mattered: a hand-to-hand fight to the death.
On Jan. 23, 2002, Master Sgt. Anthony Pryor’s special forces team raided a suspected al Qaeda compound. As the team spread out, Pryor and one teammate became separated from the larger group. Together, they approached a room and suddenly found themselves in a fight for their lives. As Pryor’s teammate fought in the hallway, Pryor entered the room alone and found himself facing four enemy combatants.
Pryor shot and killed three, but the fourth struck him in the back with a blunt object, dislocating his shoulder and breaking his clavicle. The Green Beret’s night vision goggles were ripped from his head as the two scuffled and fell to the ground. The impact knocked Pryor’s shoulder back into place and allowed him to gain the upper hand, eventually killing the man. He was later awarded the Silver Star for his actions during that mission.
While today’s warfighters are predominantly trained to fight with weapons and as a part of teams, moments like Pryor’s mortal struggle with an enemy fighter remain at the core of all war.
Here are five military martial arts methods today’s militaries use.
Marine Corps Martial Arts Program
They say “every Marine is a rifleman,” but every Marine is also trained in hand-to-hand combat, in case it’s ever needed. The Marine Corps Martial Arts Program, or MCMAP, is a military martial arts system developed by the United States Marine Corps specifically for Marines. The system strongly resembles modern MMA and is an amalgamation of 17 different martial arts systems, including Brazilian jiujitsu, Muay Thai, and even traditional wrestling. MCMAP features a ranking system of five belts and an additional category of belts for instructors. MCMAP also instructs Marines on methods of fighting with knives and other weapons of opportunity they may find in their environment.
During the mid-to-late 1930s, antisemitic rioters in Slovakia (then Czechoslovakia) threatened the lives of Jews in the city of Bratislava. A local martial artist named Emrich “Imi” Lichtenfeld gathered up a group of boxers and wrestlers and defended the locals from the thugs. This experience made Lichtenfeld realize the importance of self-defense and the impracticality of “sport” fighting in real-life situations. Over the next several years, he developed a “realistic” combat system known as Krav Maga that he would later teach to the Israeli army. The skill became the nation’s primary method of hand-to-hand combat.
Krav Maga features a slew of techniques from various martial arts that have been altered and adapted to be effective in “street fights” and life-or-death situations. Krav Maga as a system focuses on fighting quickly with high degrees of aggression and violence. Emphasis is placed on rapidly attacking vulnerable spots on the opponent’s body to maim and potentially kill if necessary.
Russia has developed many of its own fighting systems over the years. The most recognizable of the Russian-born martial arts is a relatively modern system called Sambo. The word is an acronym for samozashchita bez oruzhiya, which literally translates to “self-defense without weapons.” Sambo was developed in the early 1920s and is taught in both sport and combative forms; the latter is used by the Russian military.
Combat Sambo is a relatively simple but highly effective system that centers around strikes, joint locks, chokes, throws, ground fighting, and weapons. The martial art itself is constantly evolving and improving, thanks to its wide use and practice today. Sambo tournaments are a popular occurrence in Russia, and notable UFC fighter Khabib Nurmagomedov demonstrates the efficiency of the art.
Lerdrit, also known as Muay Leert Rit, is a military martial arts system predominantly used by the Royal Thai Army. Lerdrit can be simply described as Muay Thai kickboxing without rules or protections with some military-specific weapons training thrown in for good measure. The art is centered around close-range striking and emphasizes aggressively attacking the opponent’s weak spots with the body’s “nine natural weapons,” including the hands, feet, knees, elbows, and head. This military martial art also includes specific conditioning techniques to increase overall physical fitness and bone density.
Kali, also known as Arnis or Eskrima, is one of the most popular military martial arts around today. Originating in the Philippines and used by military and police units the world over, Kali is centered around knife and stick fighting and incorporates some striking and grappling techniques. While the exact origins of this art are subject to debate, it is known that this fighting system has existed for hundreds of years and is relatively complex and intricate. Kali methodology focuses on controlling distance and using angles for both effective attacking and defense. A primary principle of Kali is to not kill your opponent but to destroy his ability to cause you further harm — this leads to many strikes or stabs directed against the opponent’s arms and hands, for example.
Most military martial arts fighting styles are fast and aggressive, with emphasis on attacking hard with a high degree of violence. Kali is performed with knives, and as the consequences for mistakes are severe, it’s typically more reactionary and defensive than other military martial arts systems.
Editor’s note: The headline of this story has been changed to reflect that these martial arts are taught and practiced by armed forces of many countries around the world.