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Fairbairn Knife Fighting Methods

Updated March 21, 2017

Lieutenant Colonel William Ewart Fairbairn was a famous instructor of close quarters combat for the Shanghai Municipal Police Force, the British military, and numerous other law enforcement and military units. Fairbairn developed a system of fighting he called Defendu, based on his own training in martial arts and his experiences in Shanghai. He taught his methods to British commando units and other soldiers in the Second World War.

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Fairbairn-Sykes Knife

Fairbairn, and fellow instructor Eric Anthony Sykes, developed the Fairbairn-Sykes Fighting Knife, and the Fairbairn method of knife fighting was taught with the use of this knife in mind. The Fairbairn-Sykes knife was designed to have an extremely sharp tip, two sharp edges and excellent balance. Fairbairn's goal was to design a knife that could be used to quickly dispatch an enemy soldier.

Fairbairn's Fighting Method

Fairbairn's knife fighting method was specifically designed for fast removal of German sentry soldiers. The emphasis is on the use of the knife to kill the opponent as quickly as possible through a surprise attack. It is not a method of self defence.


The targets for attacks in Fairbairn's system of knife fighting are all designed to cause rapid unconsciousness and death. Fairbairn developed attacks to four arteries, the heart and the stomach, and provided a timetable for the likely time until the opponent is dead. No defensive techniques are discussed in the knife section of his fighting manual. This illustrates the intended military use of the system, which was primarily training for such purposes as commando raids behind enemy lines.

The COBRA Knife

After the end of the Second World War, Fairbairn was employed by the riot police in Singapore and Cyprus. Fairbairn designed a new knife to be used in riot suppression, and named it the COBRA knife. Fairbairn taught a modified version of his knife fighting system to the police in Cyprus. The COBRA system involved a different set of attacks from the earlier system for the Fairbairn-Sykes knife, including cuts in the form of Xs and figure eights.

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About the Author

Scott Thompson

Scott Thompson has been writing professionally since 1990, beginning with the "Pequawket Valley News." He is the author of nine published books on topics such as history, martial arts, poetry and fantasy fiction. His work has also appeared in "Talebones" magazine and the "Strange Pleasures" anthology.

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