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Old navy self-defense tactics


This is a synopsis of the text of the classic 1942 training film, Defensive Hand-to-Hand Combat, a three-part United States Navy Bureau of Aeronautics training film. It is a live-action version of the U.S. Naval Institute’s Hand-to-Hand Combat manual. 

The film presenter is Lt. Commander Wesley Brown Jr. who authored the manual and another book, Self-Defense. Lt. Commander Brown's civilian career included:
  • Police Officer in Evanston, IL.
  • Wrestling coach at Northwestern University.
  • Assistant Director of Training at Northwestern University Traffic Institute where he taught advanced physical fitness and self-defense courses for police.
  • Assistant Professor of Public Administration at the University of Southern California.
  • Chief of Police in Redlands, California.
Whereas ground forces and specialty fighting groups, such as Seals, are on the ground and facing the enemy in combat situations daily, pilots are usually flying combat missions high off the ground and performing administrative duties while on the ground. They are not normally facing the enemy in combat. However, when shot down, naval pilots are on their own in enemy territory and must fend for themselves. They must depend on their training and abilities to survive, evade the enemy, fight the enemy, escape from capture, and make their way back to friendly territory. Whereas ground forces face the enemy daily, they are usually a part of a large group with support. A downed pilot has nothing but his or her wits upon which to rely.

Film preface

Deeply ingrained in American youth is the depth and aptitude for good athletics. On the playing fields and in gymnasiums teamwork and individual exploits have all helped them develop attributes of body and mind. This film presents honed skills and techniques that have helped to make Americans outstanding in man-to-man competitions. Long trained and inspired to excel in all fields of sports and games, we have always played to win, without pulling any punches but always in strict accordance with the rules of sportsmanship and gentlemanly conduct. Today, as we face enemies who recognize no fair play, the techniques of man-to-man competition must be drastically revised to fit the tactics of war. Suspended for the duration is the code of sportsmanship. Now there is only one rule, to win. 


Hand-to-hand combat is not a sport; it is designed for emergencies when your life may depend on the ability to outwit or overcome an armed enemy, perhaps with only your two hands. These tactics of defense and counterattack combine the essential elements of jiu-jitsu, savate, American wrestling, and plain rough and tumble fighting.

Basic body stance

The basic body stance is one of easy balance, deceptively relaxed yet always ready for quick counterattacks. The arms are held lightly across the chest or spread with hands on the hips. From either position, they are easily shifted to meet the assailant's lead. Feet are slightly spread and firmly balanced. They must never be crossed but always ready to shift or pivot according to the character of the maneuver.

Hand attacks

Blows are delivered with the knife-edge of the hand to the points of greatest vulnerability. These primary vital points include:
  • The side of the neck, midway between chin and ear, just under the jawbone.
  • The larynx or Adam's apple.
  • Bridge of the nose.
  • The upper lip, just below the nose.
  • Back of the neck at the junction of the neck and spine.
  • The kidneys at the lower edge of the ribs.
  • The solar plexus.
  • The groin.

Attack strategy using the feet

Stamp on the opponent's arch. Deliver a sharp blow to the shin or groin. The knee is also a weapon of counterattack for striking into the groin, to the face when the opponent is bent over, or into the solar plexus. (Notice that no kicks are mentioned.)

Basic handholds and leverages

Basic handholds and leverages are designed to take the greatest advantage of leverage on joints and bones.
  • Wristlock. Holding the opponent's wrist in both hands, the thumbs exert pressure on the back of the hands. This forces the wrist joint backward and upward at the same time.
  • Reverse wrist lock. The opponent's hand is twisted inward. As the elbow rises, additional leverage is applied at the elbow. Any resistance on the part of the opponent only increases the pain and the effectiveness of the hold. Twisting the hand inward imposes terrific leverage on the wrist. Pressure against the wrist also locks the elbow.
  • Hammerlock. With additional downward pressure for forcing the wrist joint.
  • Basic headlock. One arm is placed around the opponent's neck and locked onto the other arm. The other hand is used to control the opponent's head. Any attempt to escape only tightens the hold.
  • Back leverage. With one hand holding the opponent's belt, the other hand applies pressure to the throat. As an alternative, use one arm around the waist and exert leverage at the chin.

Breaking grips/handholds

Holds applied by an opponent are easily broken, regardless of the opponent’s physical strength. This is achieved by simply forcing the hand against the opponent’s thumbs, either inward or outward.
  • Breaking a rear stranglehold with a body twist. When a stranglehold is applied, it is possible to escape using a sudden body twist with a lowered hip. Hunching the shoulders and twisting breaks the hold while the hands are held in a position of defense against kicks or knee blows.
  • Breaking a rear stranglehold with a thumb lock. When a rear stranglehold is applied at arm's length, the breaking hold may be applied to the thumbs. With this leverage, the assailant's grip is easily broken. Because of its acute twisting force locking the elbow, the opponent's power of resistance is minimized. The opponent's face is brought down into an effective range of a knee lift.
  • Breaking a rear stranglehold with a flying mare. When a stranglehold is applied from the rear, do not attempt instantly to break the hold. Instead, use both of your hands to pull the assailant's arms to get a breath and loosen the strangle. Then strike the opponent in the groin with the open hand or fist. As the opponent's reaction throws him or her out of position, drop to the knee corresponding to the side of the opponent's approach and throw the opponent over your shoulder with a flying mare. As the opponent lands, the natural position of the opponent's arms and body makes it easy to apply an elbow lock.
  • Breaking a rear body lock with a leg lift. When your hands are resting on your hips, the natural inclination of the assailant is to clamp his hold inside your arms. Before he can complete this hold, lean over, and seize his nearest ankle, drawing his leg up between your own. Having thus gained the initiative, follow it up by throwing him and landing on him with your full weight on either his chest or abdomen.
  • Breaking a rear body lock with a standing switch. In this counter, the first move is to seize the opponent’s arm with your hand. Then lock your left foot inside and behind his. Clinch your position by getting a grip on his leg or groin with your left hand then fall backward. With your assailant on the deck, you can choose between breaking his arm, or continuing the counterattack to the back of his neck while he is immobilized by using a leg spread clamp on his feet or legs.
  • Breaking a rear body lock with a hip lock. As the assailant clamps on the body lock, turn into him, seize his arm just above the elbow, and bring your other arm around, up to a point just below his shoulder. Stepping across in front and leaning outward, you can apply the hip lock. Land with your full weight on his chest or abdomen and with both his arms still secured and continue with counterattacks.
  • Breaking a front stranglehold with an arm wedge. Clasp the hands firmly together without intertwining the fingers. Lunge upwards, striking with the full power of the arms and shoulders to break the assailant's grip. In the same continuous movement, bring down the clasped hands on the bridge of the opponent's nose.
  • Breaking a front body lock with a knee lift or foot kicks. The first objective in the front body lock counter is to force the assailant's body far enough away to maneuver. Then he may be forced off balance by stamping on his arch, kicking the shin, striking the groin with the knee, or a combination of all these. Approach the fallen man from the rear to keep out of range of his feet and continue the counterattack.
  • Breaking a front body lock with a hip lock. In this body lock counter, the assailant’s arm is seized and clamped at the elbow. Your other arm is passed under and around his opposite arm at the chest. With both his arms secured and by extending the hip and bending to the side, you are set to throw him with a hip lock. Land with your full weight on the assailant’s chest or stomach and stay in position to continue with counterattacks.

Grappling skills and throws

  • Backward flip with a foot to the stomach. As your assailant attacks you, reach over his arms and grasp his clothing firmly. Place your foot in his stomach as he continues with his forward motion. Fall back, kicking the assailant overhead where he drops to the deck on his back. You may retain the clothing grip for a stranglehold and control him for further attacks.
  • Chancery lock against a low frontal attack. As your adversary comes to you, ward him off with a stiff arm to the head, and throw one arm under his shoulder. Place your other arm across the side of his face and lock his head on the inside of your opposite elbow. Pressure upward will break the neck. A knee lift to the solar plexus may be used with a throw to the deck for further counterattacks.
  • Arm drag. As your opponent rushes, reach straight over and grab your opponent’s wrist, and at the same time secure the upper arm on the underside with your other hand. Simultaneously throw a foot across the assailant’s instep or shin. Then pull him back to fall over your leg or hip. Carry out further counterattacks from the rear.
  • Leg pick up. As your opponent rushes you, knock his arm out to the side, step in with one knee to the deck, and grasp him firmly above the knees. With your shoulder, hit him in the stomach to raise him off the deck. Place one hand in his back, keeping the other around his legs, and drop him to the deck on his head or neck. Conclude with a knee drop, a kick to ribs, or any other attack.
  • Hip lock. Draw the arms of your opponent under your own. Lock his right arm with a grapevine, which places your hand between his chest and yours. Grasp his left elbow with your right hand. Cross your left leg in front of him. Bend, and using your hip as a fulcrum, heave him over.
  • Reverse hip lock. In this maneuver, the right arm slips under the left shoulder and the left arm secures the elbow of your opponent. You step across him with the right foot. Use the right hip as a fulcrum and throw him over.
  • Offensive wrist lock. A highly versatile offensive tactic. In this example, it develops from an attempted one hand strangle. The hold is broken by palming the opponent’s hand and forcing forward. The wrist lock is then applied. Fingers over the wrist and thumbs forcing the hand back. The assailant must follow the lead of the hand or suffer a broken wrist. With this lead, the opponent is easily thrown and subject to various forms of counterattack. Such as breaking the wrist or elbow, or a kick to the ribs, solar plexus, or the groin. The opponent is also held in a helpless position without the use of the hands.
  • Reverse wrist lock. When an assailant seizes your clothing or pushes, he is completely vulnerable to counterattacks. Reach over and grab the little fingers of your opponent’s hand. Place the other hand on his elbow for leverage and roll his arm. As his head is forced down, clamp your elbow over his shoulder. Any resistance on his part can result in broken bones or forced joints. You may use your foot or knee in the face if necessary.
  • Double wrist lock. In this instance, a leg tackle is applied by the opponent. Seize his wrist straight over with your hand. Slide your other hand over his arm above the elbow and clasp your wrist, thereby completing a double wristlock. From this position, a natural development is a twisting hammerlock up the back, with a throw backward.

Defenses against kicks

  • Standing defense against kicks from a front with leg lift and kick. In defending against kicks from the front, hold your position until the opponent starts delivery, then quickly turn, and clamp the leg with one hand over the calf and the other hand under the heel. In this position, the opponent is completely off balance and helpless. Follow through by kicking his standing leg from under him, at the same time lifting his kicking leg. The resulting fall will stop the ordinary opponent, but in any case, you are able to conclude the counterattack with hands or knees.
  • Kneeling defenses against kicks from the side. From the prone position, time the approach of your assailant so that when he starts to deliver his kick, rise to your hands and knees, fall sharply against his upright leg, and clamp it with your arm. The momentum of his approach thus helps to throw him off balance. Pulling his leg under you throws him to the deck. Using a toehold, turn him over; slip one leg behind his knee, and clamp it with a bar toe hold. In this position, little pressure is necessary to break the leg or dislocate the knee. You may use either one or both hands to conclude the counterattack. This is because your body pressure against the foot is sufficient to hold the opponent down.
  • Prone defense against kicks. As the assailant advances, determine which leg will deliver the kick and start to apply knee lock to the opponents standing leg. Hook one foot behind his heel, striking sharply with the other foot against his knee. Usually, the power of his momentum will force the knee joint. Otherwise, throw him by following through. In advancing to conclude the attack, use the knees to prevent him from rolling over and grabbing you. Hook one foot behind his heel and strike sharply at the knees with your other foot.
  • Prone defense against kicks from the side. As the opponent advances from the side, keep the upper leg cocked for action. As he starts to deliver the kick, swing your leg around behind his knees, thereby blocking his offense. Strike downward with the top leg and upward with the under leg in a scissors action so that his momentum will throw him. From this position, roll up on the assailant, holding his leg, locked in your own. The application of pressure will break the leg or dislocate the knee. In any case, the assailant is completely at your disposal.

Defenses against clubs

In defense against clubs, cross the arms and step in to meet the blow. This close defense affords the greatest certainty of meeting and arresting the assailant’s arm. Turn your body, grasp his arm at the forearm and shoulder, and follow through with a flying mare. To execute a flying mare, footwork is important. On the deck, go into an elbow lock, breaking the arm at the elbow, or attack with counterattacks using the knees, feet, or hands.

Defense against a knife attack

  • Downward thrust. The first objective is to stop the knife's blow by seizing the assailant's wrist with the outstretched hand, thumb downward. Then cross the other hand under and around his arm in a reverse double wrist lock. Using your shoulders as a fulcrum, apply leverage until he drops the knife, or his arm is broken. Force him to the deck and conclude the counterattack.
  • Upward thrust. In countering the upward thrust with a knife, both hands form a "V" and are used to seize the wrist and arrest the blow. While forcing the wrist back, throw the assailant off balance with a sharp knee lift to the groin. Swing under his arm and apply a hammerlock. To force the release of the knife, apply pressure downward against the wrist. Then maintain the hold for either control or leading.
  • Side thrust. To block this maneuver with a knife, both hands are used in a "V" to seize the opponent’s wrist. Then the right hand is slipped around the assailant's arm to apply a double wristlock. Stepping back, this hold develops into a twisting hammerlock, exerting leverage that will tear the opponent's shoulder should he resist. When the knife grip is broken, the hammerlock can be retained with one hand while the knife can be recovered with the other hand to complete the counterattack.
  • Club defense against a knife. If armed with a strong stick, wait for the thrust to expose the assailant's arm, and then strike the forearm. One blow should either break or paralyze the arm. If not, jab sharply to the solar plexus and continue the counterattack with both stick and knife.

Firearm defense

Disarming assailant armed with a rifle

  • Bayoneted rifle in a frontal approach. First, move in to deflect the bayonet with a quick inside blow. Then seize the rifle with one hand under the barrel and the other hand at the breach. Twist the rifle overhead, then as the assailant resists, reverse the twist. Wrest the rifle from his hands.
  • Bayoneted rifle in a rear approach. In a counter against a rifle or bayonet at your back, the first sweep knocks the barrel out of the line of fire or thrust. The hands are then shifted to the breech and barrel and the rifle twisted to the left. In a quick reverse twist, step across the front of the assailant, throw him off balance, while crossing his arms to break the grip. The leg actions are important in this maneuver.

Defense against an assailant with a handgun

  • Gun in a shoulder holster. As the assailant starts to reach for the shoulder holster, knock his elbow up and outward with your hand. This action does not prevent the draw, but it will throw him off balance and position his arm for you to slip your arms through and under to apply a reverse wristlock. Pulling down and swinging backward with twisting pressure on the wrist forces the elbow and shoulder joints and keeps the gun pointed constantly away from you. Inward pressure on the gun wrist breaks the hold and makes disarming easy. By maintaining the wrist lock, the assailant can be disposed of with the captured weapon or taken prisoner.
  • Gun in a side holster. When the assailant attempts to draw a gun from a side holster, your initial move is to block this movement by seizing the gun arm at the bend in the elbow. Step to the side of the assailant and slightly to the rear. Then force the assailant's arm up and over into a twisting hammerlock. Your other hand applies additional force, pressing the shoulder downward. Your elbow and body lock the assailant’s gun arm. Your right hand is free to twist the gun from the opponent's grip.
  • Gun in the back (using outside turn). Preparing the counter gives your assailant the impression of surrender. However, by raising your arms and turning your head enough to see which of the assailant’s hands holds the gun. Strike with the corresponding arm, deflecting the gun and turning out of the line of fire. Follow through to apply a bar hammerlock from which the opponent can neither escape nor use the gun against you. Reaching over, immediately twist the gun from his hand and step out of reach.
  • Gun in the back (using inside turn). By turning into your assailant, you are again turning out of the line of fire and it allows you to clamp the gun hand under your arm with an elbow lock. From this position, counterattack with hands to face and knees to the groin, forcing him back and causing him to lose his grip on the gun.
  • Gun at the head. In this surprise counterattack, it is important not to betray your intentions. Notice that the eyes should be steady ahead, even though the counterattack has already started. The upward throw of the arm breaks the gun grip and places you in a position to deliver a punishing kick to the groin.

Handling prisoners

  • Elbow lock with half nelson. Grasp the inside of the prisoner's wrist with your hand, slipping your free hand under his arm, across the shoulder, and anchoring your hold on the neck. Resistance is countered by the application of pressure to the elbow. A variation of this is obtained with the anchor hand grasping the prisoners' clothing across the chest.
  • Finger lead. Another effective arm lead is obtained by grasping the fingers, elevating the elbow, and bending the fingers against the joints.
  • Finger lock. An effective and inconspicuous lead is obtained by placing one hand on the elbow to keep it from bending while the other hand secures two fingers and the thumb exerts pressure on the back of the hand.
  • Gooseneck. Keep the prisoner's elbow and bent wrist locked within your arm and hand.
  • Searching prisoners. A primary objective in preparing prisoners for search is to arrange them so that they are incapable of counterattacks. Line them against a wall with feet extended backward. They are now at such an angle so that only by placing both hands in firm contact with the wall can they maintain position. After completing the search of one man, step back and order the second man into the outside position. Thus, you keep all prisoners within your range of vision, and you are never exposed to simultaneous attacks from both sides. When searching a man, always keep one foot inside of his and keep your weapon side away from him. At the first sign of resistance, jerking your foot will throw him.
  • Kneeling prisoners. Another effective position for search is one in which the prisoner kneels with both hands drawn up behind his back. This position not only prevents any sudden resistance, but it is so awkward that any attempt to gain balance is readily apparent.
  • Prone prisoners. In approaching a prone enemy, always assume that his helplessness is pretense. Failure to observe this precaution may result in a surprise attack on you. For your self-protection, first, clamp his leg in a bar toe hold to counter any resistance and search him thoroughly for any concealed weapons. Clamp one of his ankles in the back of your other knees, apply pressure with your body and search for concealed weapons.


These are old tactics, but they worked then, and they work now; although we have developed defensive techniques that lessen their effectiveness. In this analysis of hand-to-hand combat tactics, basic maneuvers were illustrated as applied to certain specific combat situations. However, there can be no predetermined procedures to fit all circumstances. You must master the basic techniques so thoroughly as to be able to improvise the best counterattack as required. But such flexibility of adaptation requires practice, practice, and more practice.

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