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Combatives Technique – Ax Hand


In Combatives, the Ax Hand is a particularly useful close-quarters tool. It is very easy to perform, especially under survival stress, and extremely versatile. We usually teach the Long and the Short Ax Hand. I like Kelly McCann’s description of how to form the Ax Hand. Extend the fingers and the thumb, which makes the hand very rigid. He explains that extending the thumb helps to keep the hand from cupping. In training, we have found that it works best to extend on the point of impact just as you would clench the fist when punching. This prevents the forearm from becoming too rigid so as not to hinder acceleration for the strike.

We usually use the Short Ax Hand to the trachea as part of an attack sequence. Simply project the edge of the hand forward in a straight line to the target (without cocking it). Though we do not normally teach this to new students, we often employ a simultaneous stomp of the foot that others call the “drop step” which generates more power with the strike. I have never been able to find an accurate source of information on how much pressure it takes to crush the trachea, but suffice it to say, you will certainly get someone’s attention with this strike and it will hurt.

We often use the Long Ax Hand within an attack sequence, as well. It usually works great to use it in conjunction with the Short Ax Hand. For this strike, the body is turned slightly, away from the target; the hips are engaged, as with punching, to generate power. With a chopping motion, we generally strike to the side of the neck (about halfway) to a bundle of nerve fibers called the Brachial Plexus Origin. This bundle splits to form the Radial, Ulnar and Median nerves of the arm. If you hit this nerve bundle hard enough, it can cause motor dysfunction. Assailants will commonly lose function of the arm and the ability to stand, temporarily. I think of it in terms of causing an electrical overload to the system. Using bony portions of the anatomy to the Brachial Plexus Origin can be fatal and is considered deadly force.

Kelly McCann applies the Ax Hand from two separate starting positions. The first is what he calls the subservient stance. The hands are folded together, resting against the body at the area of the groin, and the chin is tucked. From here, he loops the Ax Hand around in an arc towards the side of the neck. Though it may seem obvious, when you fold your hands, keep your striking hand on top! McCann also utilizes the aforementioned drop step (same leg as striking hand) here to add power to the strike. He emphasizes bringing the other hand up to a guard position to protect the head. The other starting position is one we also use: the Jack Benny Stance. As with our version of the Long Ax Hand, he torques the body a quarter turn, as if turning away from the opponent (the shoulder comes up here), and strikes in an arc towards the neck/Brachial Plexus region.

By the way, if you are too young to know what a Jack Benny Stance looks like, just do a Google search on the web for Jack Benny. There are many pictures to illustrate his classic pose, which is actually a very useful ready stance for fighting; it appears very unassuming, but the hands are ready for action.

Rex Applegate, in his book, Kill or Get Killed, describes the edge of the hand blow (i.e. the Ax Hand) as “valuable because it can be utilized at vulnerable spots of the body which would not be susceptible to blows from the fist or heel of the hand.” He keeps the fingers together and the wrist locked. Like McCann, Applegate also emphasizes keeping the fingers and thumb extended to avoid “clenching” the hand. In application, he states that the elbow should be bent and that the strike be a chopping motion, with a hit and retraction, in order to localize the force within a small area. This increases the efficacy of the strike (more pain!), which makes a lot of sense when you observe the targets: nerves of the forearm, windpipe, base of skull, under the nose, bridge of nose, base of spine, and of course, the side of the neck. Above all targets, Applegate prefers the testicles. As a final note, he recommends that the edge of hand blow be used with the strong side arm, and with the same side leg leading.

On Dennis Martin’s Combatives Forum, he has a quote by E.A. Sykes, describing the Ax Hand:

The most deadly blows without weapons are with the side of the hand. All the force is concentrated in one area. The effect of these blows is obtained by the speed with which they are delivered, rather than the weight behind them.

This is right in line with Applegate’s thoughts on the subject.

Dennis believes that the Ax Hand is highly underestimated (probably more so in recent times, I imagine). He also utilizes and highly recommends the Vertical Ax Hand: “like the Hammerfist, it can be used to a crouching assailant, targeting the neck, spine, kidneys.” Many practitioners complain that it hurts to train the Ax Hand until the meaty part of the hand is conditioned. It especially hurts training on a BOB; that dummy is most unforgiving! Dennis explains that hitting a person is a bit different from hitting training pads. He has devised a special cylindrical pad to train it, which better represents a human target. He does recommend training Ax Hands on focus mitts, as well. Thai pads, like BOB, are particularly unforgiving. I found a recommendation somewhere that one can condition the hand by striking a bag filled with beans. I have yet to try this myself, as I usually just grin and bear it. Nevertheless, it may be a boon to new practitioners who are not used to hard training.

We use the Vertical Ax Hand on a different target-the top of the shoulder, close to the neck. Think about Captain Kirk on Star Trek using this chop in fights. There is a nerve motor point here in the shoulder: the Suprascapular. I can attest to the fact that this strike hurts, but it can be a bit tricky to hit the nerve just right.

Well, there you have it–the Ax Hand from many different perspectives. As with any technique, train it in a multitude of ways, find what works for you and your body, and pressure test it. Though you are often aiming for nerve points, it is a fairly simple gross motor movement to execute. The Ax Hand is old school, and brutally effective. It is easy to acquire, comparatively speaking, because think about this: it takes a great deal of time and dedication to hone punching skills. Not so with many Combatives techniques. Keep this in mind: some of these strikes can distract with pain, some can cause temporary motor dysfunction, and some CAN CAUSE DEATH. Remember that even with empty-hand techniques, you are a deadly weapon, and you must accept full responsibility for that. Train safely and responsibly!


Applegate, Rex. (1943). Kill or Get Killed: A Manual of Hand-to-Hand Fighting. Boulder: Paladin Press.

Grover, Jim. (1999). Jim Grover’s Combatives Series: Power Strikes & Kicks, Vol. 1. [Videotape]. Paladin Press.

Martin, Dennis, et al. The Classic Strikes. Retrieved May 2009, from Dennis Martin’s Combatives Community Forum.


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