Self Defense on the Toughest Police Beat in the World

by Damian Ross
The Self Defense Company

Originally, martial arts were all about training soldiers, in the toughest conditions, for close-quarters battlefield combat. With the creation of firearms and as cultures collided, a new breed of warfare emerged; long-range combat. The "hand-to-hand" aspect of martial arts was left to tradition, finding no place in the modern, industrialized army. That is, until a young man in the wrong place at the right time literally changed the face of close combat and self defense.

The birth of modern close combat took place in a city on the coast of China called Shanghai. This once little fishing village quickly grew to be China's most valuable port. Along with the growth came the crime. In fact, the city became so infamous that it's name alone suggested crime and violence.

Today it is hard to say what is the toughest place for a police officer to patrol, but in Shanghai China during the early years of the twentieth century, things were about as bad they could get. A handful of dedicated police officers were tasked with keeping law and order in a city where murder was so common that it didn't even make the front page of the newspaper.

To understand how bad the situation was in Shanghai you have to understand the city and the times. The city had been divided into three districts with the Chinese controlling one, and the French and the British controlling the other two. Over a million people called the city home and many of the native Chinese saw the Europeans as the enemy.

In the early years of the twentieth century things were out of control. Inside the city the Chinese Green Gang, a secret society similar to the Italian mafia were involved in illegal drugs, gambling, prostitution, and weapons smuggling. They kept control through murder and had no problem killing police officers, and kidnapping for profit became its own industry.

The Japanese Black Dragon Society fought for their share of the criminal underworld, and assasinations were commonplace. If dealing with the hostile population in an overcrowded city wasn't enough, the territory around the city was filled with communist guerrillas and warlords.

How do you survive the toughest streets in the world? The answer is with the right tools and training. Unfortunately for the Shanghai Municipal Police in the early 1900's nothing existed when it came to dealing with this type of ruthless violence on a grand scale. Consequently a new method of close combat needed to be created, tested and implemented. The man who led the charge was William E. Fairbairn.

Fairbairn was already a skilled barroom brawler and a hand-to-hand combat instructor. But, after being badly beaten in a street fight while on patrol, the young sergeant realized that current police training was severely inadequate. He trained in several Asian martial arts and stripped away all the ritual and sport and produced a system that was simple and effective. As he climbed in rank he would make many changes to the Shanghai Municipal Police (SMP) that would give officers the edge in combat.


To keep law and order in a city that never stopped fighting, the SMP, which was never larger than 6,000 men, needed every advantage they could get. After studying various Chinese martial arts including Japanese Jujutsu and later Kodokan Judo, Fairbairn developed a system called "Defendu" in the 1920's for self defense and to help officers safely execute arrests. It was a combination of techniques from several martial arts, but it was practical in every way. The system was designed to restrain or disable a subject quickly, but if necessary it could become lethal. It was a martial arts style for the street brawler, not a competition martial artist.

Another project of Fairbairn's was the Reserve Unit which worked as a riot squad and the world's first SWAT team. Originally setup to deal with riots, the unit expanded to handle kidnappings, armed robberies, and barricaded criminals as well as terrorism. They were the first police force to employ body armor, chemical agents, grenades, forcible entry tools, and automatic weapons.

Anthony Sykes, a firearms sales representative and good friend of Fairbairn's would lead an attached sniper unit. Every member of the reserves would learn Fairbairn's system and trained for realistic close combat shooting situations. While all these tools are common to a big city police department today it was all because of Fairbairn's work.

It isn't easy to be a police officer anywhere, and if you walk a beat you know how quickly things can go from routine to chaos. The martial arts, urban warfare, and other techniques developed by Fairbairn and his peers weren't untested theories, but battle proven methods that worked under the toughest conditions. The British military and the United States Marines who worked along side the SMP would learn many valuable lessons that would serve them well in the next war. Also it should be noted that the SMP was a diverse force with many different cultures and religions, but they all learned to work together as a team to uphold law and order.

Fairbairn was responsible for many innovations that are still in use today, and have saved the lives of countless police officers. At the time he was just doing it to help better protect his men, but his efforts would go on to help many more. In addition to their work with law enforcement Fairbairn and Sykes would share what they knew to special operations forces during World War II. They would train British Home Guard volunteers in the simple and effect martial arts system, and they would train British and American commandos and secret agents in the same lethal style.

During his time as police officer Fairbairn would be involved over six hundred street fights; this will never be replicated again. This begs to question, are these modes outdated? Maybe in some military applications, where technology has reduced the need for this type of training, but when it comes to the police officer and the civilian, it's still guns, boots, knives and clubs.


Learn about the toughest guys in the world: Military Special Operations Forces.


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