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Scientific Self Defence

Scientific Self Defence by W.E. Fairbairn
(D. Appleton and Co. 1931; Paladin Press 2006)

This is a most interesting book. To begin with, as a manual first published in 1931, it has an important historical value. Secondly, the author is W.E. Fairbairn, a man whose reputation in the world of unarmed combat is legendary. Thirdly, the intended audience is vague. Referring to the third point, we read on the inside page that the work is “The official textbook for the Shanghai municipal police and Hong Kong police”. In the Foreword written by Fairbairn, the author writes: “...I am convinced that no methods that I have put into book form meet the requirements of the average man...”. He further writes: “The methods of defense explained and illustrated in this book have been specially selected for the man who requires quick knowledge of the best and easiest means of defending himself against almost every form of attack”. These statements seem to be contradictory. Is the work for the officer, or the average man needing quick self-defense?

The blurb of the Paladin Press volume speaks of Fairbairn’s “...immense impact on generations of fighting men – from an elite cadre of instructors in realistic hand-to-hand combat during World War II to today’s practitioners of hard-core self defense...” When one views the plethora of “combat self-defense” courses offered by countless dojos, the publisher’s statements seems to ring true. The reprint goes on to state that this work is a “...slightly modify reprint of Defendu...”. Defendu was Fairbairn’s 1926 work which is one of the grandfathers of the self-defense course books. A myriad of courses using the name “Defendu” (or variations/modifications of it) exist to this day, some insisting they are the true heir to Fairbairn’s original course.

The book itself is divided into eight sections. In the order presented, they are: Defense Against Various Holds; Dealing With An Armed Assailant; Holds That Are Effective; How To Throw An Assailant; Use Of Baton, “Night Stick” Or Club; How To Use A Walking Stick; How To Make An Effective Knot; Miscellaneous Advice. The work has 216 photos, the majority of which are clear. The instructions correspond to the photos, and at times, there are notes following the explanation of the techniques themselves. There are four pages of translations of pictured Japanese certificates received by the author from the Kodokan, with Fairbairn’s highest rank listed as Nidan.

This reviewer is familiar with manuals published for World War I and World War II military, and the techniques included in this work are typical representations of these techniques. Although the author denies that the techniques are from any one form of self-defense, e.g., “jui- jitsu, Chinese boxing”, they nevertheless closely resemble early jujutsu.


The techniques in and of themselves have merit, but there are problems. The large majority of them show the attacker in an almost statuesque position, allowing the defender to utilize whatever technique he chooses. The modern approach to teaching techniques, even in book form, is to portray the attacker attacking. From a taiho-jutsu perspective, where the general approach is evade/block, counter/weaken, and take down/restrain, it would be foolhardy to attempt to defend in the manner shown. In fairness, there are some defenses which display taisabaki, although it is not referred to by that name. Again, from the taiho-jutsu perspective, the specific defenses are not the high-percentage defenses, affording the defender, whether military, police, or civilian, the maximum odds of safety and effectiveness. Nor are some of the techniques practical, since they do, in contrast to the authors claim, require a great deal of training to use effectively.

The armed techniques begin with the short club. To this author, they do not appear to provide adequate safety to the defender in any of the sequences shown. Some of the walking stick techniques are effective, but they lose some “credibility” since they again show the attacker in a staid position, allowing the defender to employ the techniques with ease. Under the Miscellaneous Advice section, techniques as “To Lift A Man on to His Feet From the Ground” assume there’ll be no active resistance from the one on the ground. The advice given under “The Handkerchief or Glove” speaks of using these items as a distraction prior to a technique by having the officer throw the item into a person’s face before ejecting him from a building. Falling ways are included in this section, representing the style taught in the early days of judo, with one leg crossed over the other rather than side-by-side. Techniques involving the tying of knots seem to be taken from the jujutsu systems which utilized hojo-jutsu.

What is the overall value and effectiveness of this book? This reviewer began his martial arts career approximately 45 years ago with a basic self-defense course. Despite any and all advanced training and rank held, I am a strong believer in the value of the type of course Fairbairn presents in his book. However, given the shortcomings of some of the presented techniques, coupled with the lack of high-percentage, safe method spoken of earlier, I have difficulty in recommending this work as a practical self-defense instruction manual. The techniques contained in the book are indeed still taught by many, and with proper personal instruction, one may well be able to utilize them with some effectiveness. Unless they are taught under these conditions, the reader is advised to be most cautious.


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