ON THE ART OF HAND TO HAND
An Interview with Col. A. J. Drexel Biddle, USMCR

BY JAMES N. WRIGHT

 

BAYONET fighting, the grim, deadly, hand-to-hand fighting, has become a paramount requisite due to the trend of modern warfare towards mechanisation and fortification. The tendency today to utilise cover and spread out more and more in the attack, in order to escape the devastating fire of the defender, has forced the infantryman to rely primarily on his own personal skill, agility, and courage to get forward and close with the enemy.

Members of the Marine Corps are fortunate in having, in Colonel A. J. Drexel Biddle, USMCR, the foremost bayonet and knife authority in our country. Teaching a new, different technique, Colonel Biddle has brought the art of bayonet fighting to a science, and men equipped and trained with his methods have a distinct advantage in the field.

Basing his system on fencing, and making a game of the instruction, Colonel Biddle has introduced the hand-cut to the art of bayonet fighting. The sessions of a Biddle Class are noted for the laughter and enjoyment of the pupil, and the leader is the Colonel himself. Stocky, bald, beyond middle age, Colonel Biddle is as youthful as the youngest man of his class, and more agile than any under his instruction. "Kill with a smile" is the byword of the class, and the men enter into the instruction with a verve that belies the usual drudgery of such classes.

In the Biddle system, bayonet fencing is a refinement in the use of the bayonet, more scientific and effective than bayonet fighting. The bayonet fencer does not look upon his piece as a combination pike and mace, but as a blade of which the bayonet is the point. The men are taught to keep the rifle clean and in perfect condition for shooting at all times. The bayonet fencer should come through a bayonet charge with blood on the blade, but with the rifle unsullied and unharmed.

In bayonet fencing the blade is curried flat and the edge directly to the right. A blade attack from this lateral position is much more deceptive and almost impossible to parry, and it is the more powerful thrust. The blade enters flatly between the ribs and can readily he withdrawn. In bayonet fencing, if the left arm is injured or otherwise incapacitated, the rifle's position is still maintained by its secure hold of the supporting right forearm and grasped right hand.

The chief movements prescribed for the bayonet and for the knife fencer are patterned from the sword, and are identical. It is for this reason that Colonel Biddle employs the hand-cut. After a parry, the bayonet fencer instantly turns the edge of his own blade downward as he takes a step. As he steps he cuts the forward hand of his opponent. From the hand-cut, the blade is best turned flat again and immediately whipped to the throat, in one continuous movement. The flat blade insures wider throat coverage. The leaping thrust of the skilled bayonet fencer is warranted to terrorise the enemy. The leap is taken from the "gain," or again from the rear step forward of the "advance," but best from the right step forward of the "front pass."

During the past twenty-four years Colonel Biddle has pursued an intensive study and training in the use of the fencing blades. In the course of these studies he has sought every opportunity to secure instruction and personal training under the most eminent authorities and experts in the United States and abroad. His system is, therefore, composed of the finest points taken from the various masters under whom he has studied, and incorporated into bayonet fencing. Devotees of the Biddle class are taught to eschew the rifle head guard against clubbed rifle, since such a guard tends to reduce one's rifle to kindling wood. The bayonet fencer is taught to meet such an attack by delivering point at the opponent's throat. Thus it will be seen that a bayonet fencer is more definitely instructed in marksmanship than the bayonet fighter.

As a professor on the faculty of the Bureau of Investigation, US Department of Justice, the Colonel Instructs In individual combat under the supervision of the Hon, J. Edgar Hoover, head of the FBI. A master of Jiu-Jitsu and defendu, the Colonel has made an extensive study of the art of disarming and disabling an armed opponent. The Jiu-Jitsu movements taught by Colonel Biddle to his bayonet fencing classes are not the complete movements he teaches to the famous G-men. They are movements that require little or no strength, but only the quickness of thought and motion that are incorporated in bayonet fencing. All Jiu-Jitsu movements that require particular science in trying for complicated holds or grasps are eschewed.

According to Colonel Biddle, the left hand is the particular one for assault in Jiu-Jitsu. This leaves the right arm free to wield, or grasp a weapon. A gentle grasp should always be taken with the left hand, and the opponent's attention, meanwhile, is distracted by the movements of the right hand. In addition to the ability to disarm an opponent, Jiu-Jitsu, as taught by Colonel Biddle, stresses the quickness of movement and thought that are so essential in bayonet fencing.

Considerable time and attention is given by Colonel Biddle to knife fighting, because Marines serve in many knife-fighting countries, and are frequently called upon to capture or fight against the dagger, machete, or bolo. There are countries in Asia, Europe, Central America, Africa, and South America where the knife is the chief fighting weapon. While the military police in such countries, if they be Marines as is sometimes the case, can hardly attempt to match skill in the use of the bolo, machete, dagger or other type knives of the native, they can draw the bayonet and apply the hand-cut which is an unknown art to the native knifeman. When time does not permit the attachment of the bayonet to the rifle, or when the bayonet is worn in the belt and no rifle is carried, it is prescribed by Colonel Biddle to use the bayonet as a disarming weapon against the armed adversary. In fact, with a quick cut to the opponent's knife-holding hand, it is possible for the bayonet thus used to disarm several in a group of attacking knife men.

The Colonel has followed the course of instruction as prescribed by Colonel James Bowie, inventor of the Bowie knife. Bowie, a famed swordsman of his day, adopted the Bowie knife in lieu of the sword and, adapting the same principles to the smaller knife, added to his already great fame as a duellist.

The blade in bayonet-knife fighting is held strictly level on the opponent's middle, flat side up and below, and the cutting edge to the right, so that no opening is presented for a hand-cut or thrust from the opponent's knife. The left hand is extended to the side for balance and used as a grab hand. The position of the blade as a detached knife or as a bayonet on the rifle is identical with the position of the blade of the French broadsword guard position. As the hand, or wrist-cut or thrust is the basic plan of attack in both bayonet and dagger, so it is the basic attack of the swordsman. In point of fact it is the particularly scientific attack known to best swordsmen and rarely known to bayonet fighters or knife men. The ordinary bayonet fighting course does not teach the hand-cut, and the usual stab and slash dagger man knows nothing of this scientific play. The natural skill and celerity of the bolo or machete in native hands is definitely off-set by the hand-cut which is a swordsman's science.

Many graduates from the Biddle courses in bayonet fencing and knife-fighting at the Basic School continue their study and practice in individual combat. The Colonel enjoys telling the story of a prominent Marine aviator who had taken his course at the Basic School. The aviator said he and a fellow officer had continued their individual fighting practice, and that each had always carried a bayonet in his belt. In Nicaragua the two drew their bayonets against an attack of the enemy and successfully hand-cut their way to safety through this force of some twenty machete fighters. Their knowledge of knife-fighting saved their lives.

Modest to a degree, Colonel Biddle credits Major William J. Herrmann, PMTC, a former American Fencing Champion, who conducts the Salle Herrmann in Philadelphia, and Colonel O. J. Miller, USMC, with much of his knowledge of bayonet fencing. Both these men, according to Colonel Biddle, were farsighted to a degree, and stood staunchly behind the changes advocated by the Biddle system.

 Source: "Leatherneck" April 1940