Originally this post was titled “Shooting to Live” to make sure that the classic text would be available.  It has been expanded (and may continue to be updated) to better serve as a reference for the men who were pioneers and innovators – but more importantly – men who actually used the techniques they taught.

William E Fairbairn

Fairbairn is one of the luminaries of modern martial arts.  He joined the Royal Marine Light Infantry in 1901 and six years later joined the Shanghai Police were he had to engage in numerous street fights during his twenty-year career.  While serving in Shanghai he studied a variety of traditional eastern and western martial arts, but he pared down the variations to his own ‘hybrid’ which (with a wry British humor) he called Defendu.

Flip through the book and it may seem simplistic.  Yes: simple works.  And unlike most modern practitioners Fairbairn’s skills were honed by conflicts to the death – no time for theory, just pragmatic, no-nonsense execution.

His talents were recognized and during WW2 he served in the army for the British Secret Service to train allied commandos (special forces) in close-combat, pistol, and knife, where he reminded his pupils to “Get tough, get down in the gutter, win at all costs…” And his most important lesson: “There’s no rules except one: kill or be killed.”  The inspiration for Appelgate’s title (below).

Fairbairn’s self defense and combat manuals are still in print and continue to influence modern experts.*

Eric A Sykes

Sykes met Fairbairn in Shanghai in 1919 and joined the department as a volunteer reserve officer in 1926.  An expert rifleman, Sykes trained snipers and during WW2 he joined the British Secret Intelligence Service where he worked as a trainer and reportedly ended each lesson with a concluding, “…and then kick him in the testicles.”

The Sykes-Fairbairn collaboration culminated with the publication of Shooting_to_Live – a classic work on high-stress, one-hand shooting.  It is worth adding to your library.

Their unarmed and knife methods are exemplified by their knife design that is elegantly deadly.  For a good oral history by someone who was there and did it, see Stan Scott’s interviews.  If you want to purchase a reproduction of the classic design start >here<

Rex Applegate

Rex Applegate , a native Oregonian, was sent to the OSS to learn all that he could from Fairbairn and Sykes in 1942.  The “point shooting” system they taught uses much of the skeletal alignment that good fencers and pugilists need maintain.  Principles are universal.  Applegate continued to promulgate the methods and published Kill or Get Killed in 1943.

The focus on efficient motion and brutal simplicity is exceedingly valuable in a high-stress environment.  Simplicity is mandatory when tasked with teaching cohorts that need to be trained to maximal efficiency with minimal time.  So while these men developed a highly efficient curriculum – the simplicity pares away master-plays and complex exchanges that will occur among higher-level practitioners.

But ignore the lessons within their works at your peril.  Their methods helped win WW2.  And these methods remain contemporary.  Both Michael Janich and James Keating trained with Applegate – continuing the lineage by teaching point shooting methods.




Fairbairn’s original table showed the target arteries, relative depths and the resulting damage when cut.


Although historically interesting, and innovative at the time, Fairbairn’s timetable is simplistic and not entirely accurate.  Michael Janich updated the table in a more scientific manner and published the results in his “Contemporary Knife Targeting.”

In all instances, however, the Timetable of Death reminds us why, it is said that the winner of a knife fight is the one who dies last.




2 thoughts on “FAIRBAIRN AND SYKES

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