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William E. Fairbairn

William E. Fairbairn
Born 28 February 1885
Rickmansworth, Hertfordshire, England, UK
Died 20 June 1960 (aged 75)
England, UK
Occupation Royal Marines, Shanghai Municipal Police, Combatives Instructor

William Ewart Fairbairn (; 28 February 1885 – 20 June 1960) was a British soldier and police officer. He developed hand-to-hand combat methods for the Shanghai Police during the interwar period, as well as for the allied special forces during World War II. He created his own fighting system known as Defendu. Notably, this included innovative pistol shooting techniques and the development of the Fairbairn-Sykes Fighting Knife.

The television series Secrets of War suggested him as a possible inspiration for Q branch in James Bond.


  • Military career 1
  • Martial arts 2
  • Weapons innovations 3
  • Publications 4
  • See also 5
  • References 6
  • Sources 7
  • External links 8

Military career

Fairbairn served with the bulletproof vest designed to stop high-velocity bullets from the 7.63x25mm Mauser pistol.[1]:p:191

During gentlemanly conduct or fighting fair: "Get tough, get down in the gutter, win at all costs... I teach what is called ‘Gutter Fighting.’ There’s no fair play, no rules except one: kill or be killed,” he declared.[1]:p:192 One of his pupils was Raymond Westerling, who fought behind enemy lines in Burma and Indonesia.

For his achievements in training OSS personnel, Fairbairn eventually rose to the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel by the end of the war, and received the U.S. Legion of Merit (Officer grade) at the specific request of OSS-founder "Wild Bill" Donovan.

Martial arts

After joining the SMP, he studied boxing, wrestling, savate, Shin no Shin do ryu jujutsu (Yoshin ryu), Kodokan judo in which he gained 2nd degrees black belt, and then Chinese martial arts. He developed his own fighting systemDefendu—and taught it to members of that police force in order to reduce officer fatalities. He described this system as primarily based on his personal experience, which according to police records included some 600 non-training fights, by his retirement at age 55 from the position of Assistant Commissioner in 1940.

In 1951, he went to Cyprus to train police and in 1952 (and 1956) Fairbairn provided training to the Singapore Police Force's Riot Squad unit, which is now Police Tactical Unit.[3]

Weapons innovations

Together with Eric A. Sykes, Fairbairn developed innovative pistol shooting techniques and handgun specifications for the SMP which were later disseminated through their book Shooting to Live With the One-Hand Gun (1942), along with various other police innovations such as riot batons, armoured vests, and other equipment.

He is perhaps best known for designing the famous Fairbairn-Sykes fighting knife, or 'Commando' knife, a stilletto-style fighting dagger used by British Special Forces in the Second World War, and featured in his textbook Scientific Self-Defence.[1]:p:191 Fairbairn also designed the lesser known Smatchet, and collaborated on the design of several other combat knife designs.


  • Defendu, first published in 1926 in Shanghai by the North China Daily News & Herald Ltd. Size 7” X 10”, hardcover, cloth bound with 171 pages.
  • Scientific Self-Defence, first published in 1931 by D. Appleton and Company (New York & London). Size 6 ½” X 9 ½”, in hardcover with 165 pages. A slightly modified/updated version of Defendu.
  • All-In Fighting, first published in 1942 by Faber and Faber Limited (London). Size 5 ½” X 8 ¼” in hardcover with 132 pages.
  • Get Tough, first published in 1942 by D. Appleton-Century Company (New York & London). Size 5 ½” X 7 ¾” in softcover with 121 pages. This is a modified version of All-In Fighting for the American market. Note the first edition has Fairbairn’s rank as ‘Captain’ all subsequent (1940's) editions as ‘Major’.
  • Self Defence for Women and Girls, first published in 1942 by Faber and Faber (London). Size 5 ½” X 8” softcover with 48 pages.
  • Hands Off!: Self-Defense for Women, first published in 1942 by D. Appleton-Century Company (New York & London). Size 5 ¼” X 8” in softcover with 41 pages. This is a modified version of Self Defence for Women and Girls for the American market.
  • Shooting to Live, co-authored by Eric Anthony Sykes, first published in 1942 by Oliver and Boyd (London). Size 4 ¾” X 7" in hardcover with 96 pages. ISBN 0-87364-027-6 (reprint).

See also


  1. ^ a b c d Chambers, John W. (2008). OSS Training in the National Parks and Service Abroad in World War II. Washington, D.C.: U.S. National Park Service. 
  2. ^ The London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 35040. p. 237. 10 January 1941.
  3. ^ Matthews, Phil. "W.E. Fairbairn: The Legendary Instructor". CQB Services. Archived from the original on 12 March 2012. 


  • The Legend of W. E. Fairbairn, Gentleman and Warrior: The Shanghai Years by Peter Robins, edited by Paul Child. 2005. ISBN 0-9549494-0-4. First biography on Fairbairn.
  • The First Commando Knives by Kelly Yeaton, Samuel S. Yeaton, and Rex Applegate. Phillips Publications, 1996. ISBN 0-93257-225-1
  • Empire Made Me: An Englishman Adrift in Shanghai by Robert Bickers. 2003. ISBN 0-231-13132-1, ISBN 0-14-101195-5. Life and times of a member of the Shanghai Municipal Police.
  • Contemporary Knife Targeting - Modern Science vs. W. E. Fairbairn's Timetable of Death by Christopher Grosz and Michael D. Janich - a thorough analysis of Fairbairn's work on human anatomy and knife fighting.
  • The Shanghai Fighting Knives, and many fakes!!!! (2010) by O. Janson. Summary of the Shanghai Fighting Knife and its evolution into the Fairbairn-Sykes Fighting Knife.

External links

  • Film archives about close-combat with lessons by Major Fairbairn himself (at YouTube)
  • The Source by Peter Robins (American Combatives)
  • Shanghai Municipal Police by Robert Bickers
  • W.E. Fairbairn The Legendary Instructor by Phil Matthews
  • , a book on close-quarters fighting written by FairbairnGet Tough!
  • What Is Defendu? by Carl Cestari
  • Badass of the Week: William E. Fairbairn
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