Special Operations: Legacy of the Master Street Fighter


May 6, 2024: Continued fighting in Ukraine and Middle East, plus the worldwide persistence of Islamic terrorism and urban violence, has revived interest in William Fairbairn, the developer of close combat methods used by police and the military, especially special operations or commando type troops.

Fairbairn died in 1960, having developed close combat fighting methods and taught them to soldiers and police personnel starting in the 1920s, continuing through World War II and for over a decade after the war. Fairbairn specialized in what he called gutter fighting, a ruthless, no holds barred form of combat referred to as The Fairbairn Method, which were developed in Shanghai, China, during the 1930’s when Fairbairn was an officer of its Chinese police force.

Fairbairn also developed various forms of hand-to-hand combat as well as innovations like the Kill House and bullet-proof transparent shields for police, the commando knife, and pop-up targets. Fairbairn trained allied commandos during World War II and these special operations were so feared by the Germans that Hitler ordered that any who were captured were to be immediately executed. The Germans believed, with some justification, that these commandos could be dangerous even when handcuffed or otherwise restrained. Authors of espionage and special operations publications found, and still find Fairbairn’s books excellent sources of material and details of close combat.

While Fairbairn’s methods are still taught, it takes time and effort to become truly proficient. That means the best practitioners are career soldiers serving in commando-type units. These men, and some women, often operate in plain clothes for missions where stealth is required. Undercover operatives depend on stealth and not being recognized. They use close combat methods to accomplish their missions quietly and defend themselves if they have to.

These operatives often undergo considerable Kill House training. A Kill House consists of a building containing numerous hallways, rooms, and stairs. All areas of the Kill House usually have video cameras to record operations and enable the training controller to activate pop-up targets and other surprises for trainees. Those using a Kill House use modified weapons that fire Simunitions. These are low velocity paintball bullets containing paint. As a result, the training for non-combat troops and infantry is much more effective than what troops received decades earlier.

The Kill House and Simunitions are based on 1980s laser-tag systems. The more expensive Simunitions bring an even greater degree of realism. These are low powered paintball bullets. Users often refer to them as Soap Bullets. To use Simunitions, troops take apart their M-16 and replace the barrel with a Simunitions barrel and receiver that can handle the Simunitions rounds. These special barrels and receivers cost under a thousand dollars. When fired, Simunitions bullets make a loud click sound, rather than the crack of a regular bullet. Simunitions will sting if they hit you and leave a dye mark. With seven different dye colors available, it's possible to find out who shot who, and how much friendly fire there was.

Actually, the Simunitions hurt a lot more than paintball ammo, and those participating in Simunitions exercises have to wear goggles, groin protectors and special vests. The protective vest will take the sting out of a Simunitions hit, but for arms, legs, and other exposed parts you will have a nice bruise to remind you that more care should be taken to find cover on the battlefield.

Simunitions rounds contain less propellant than regular rounds and leave the barrel at about 177 meters per second, about a fifth that of an M-16 round. A major problem with Simunitions is that they are expensive, costing three times more than real ammunition. But for realistic and effective training, it's worth the cost. The U.S. Army has recognized that since 2003. The Simunitions bullets have the same accuracy as a real M-16 up to about eight meters, and a maximum range of about 70 meters. Thus, the Simunitions are most useful for training for fighting in urban areas. But this is the most difficult and nerve wracking form of combat, and giving troops the most realistic training for this would be a real lifesaver down the line.

The success of Simunitions has made troops aware of the fact that many other weapons are not accurately represented in training. This is especially true of grenades, RPGs, and AT-4 rockets. In Iraq, it was a jarring experience for troops who had practiced with Simunitions to find that, in real combat, there were all these other weapons they had to contend with. In training, the use of PRGs, roadside bombs and hand grenades is improvised with smaller explosives and umpires, who tell troops who has been hit with what, and hurt to what extent.

Developed in the 1990s, Simunitions were initially used by commandos and police SWAT teams. These groups are still heavy users, but now even non-combat troops get to use Simunitions and learn how to stay alive in a firefight.


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