Badass of the Week: William E. Fairbairn

Badass of the Week

William Ewart Fairbairn is one of the most badass martial arts masters the world has ever seen. In addition to developing the basis for the martials arts systems used by cops and special forces across the globe, he also invented the SWAT Team, came up with the idea of riot police, invented the police officer’s tactical bullet-proof vest, and created the knife that was used by the SAS, Army Rangers, and Marine Raiders in World War II. He also survived over 600 non-training street fights in his lifetime as a police officer and was allegedly covered from face to ankle in scars from knife wounds he received in life-or-death battles with dirtbag criminal scumbags on the streets of Shanghai.  

Fairbarn was born in 1885 in Hertfordshire, England. As a young man he spent his spare time reading newspapers to his blind neighbor, at fifteen he took a job as a leather worker, and the day he turned sixteen he saw a recruitement poster for the Royal Marines and decided, fuck it, I’m going to enlist. Unfortunately for Fairbairn, the enlistment age was eighteen in England at this time, but apparently his recruitment officer didn’t give a shit – he forged the documents to allow Fairbairn to enlist, the young teenager went through one of the most brutal basic training courses offered by any military in the world in 1901, and was immediately shipped out to a British Marines station in Korea.

You might not think this is a man who could have killed you five hundred different ways at the same time.
You’d be wrong.

Fairbairn was stationed in Japanese-occupied Korea from 1903 to 1907, and he spent the majority of those four years learning everything be possibly could about the long-lost art of epically kicking the fiery rainbow-living shitfire out of every living thing on the planet until the only thing left inhabiting earth are multi-colored protoplasmic bags of liquefied organs and bone shards. Fairbairn spend his days drilling with the Royal Marines (no small feat of badassitude in itself), his nights studying martial arts with the toughest badasses Japan and Korea had to offer, and then went out on the weekends and engaged in organized-yet-overly-aggressive bayonet fighting drills with Japanese Army regulars.

A twenty-four hour cycle of non-stop shanking, stabbing, and face-kicking was pretty damn awesome for Fairbairn, but when his tour ended in 1907 he opted to transfer out of Korea and accept a post as a patrolman with the Shanghai Municipal Police Department.

Four months later he was stabbed a dozen times by members of a Chinese separatist gang and left for dead, bleeding out in a dark alleyway in the back streets of Shanghai.

But William Fairbairn didn’t die.

He got pissed.


In the early 20th century, the British-controlled Chinese municipality of Shanghai was one of the toughest beats any cop in the world could possibly pull. An almost-lawless, dangerous city that served as a haven for gangsters and criminals from across Asia (not to mention the opportunistic Europeans who routinely passed through on their quests to screw over every person they could possibly find), the mean streets of Shanghai were almost completely overrun by heavily-armed, deadly organized crime syndicates, separatist rebel groups, pimps, drug dealers, kidnappers, and all other sundry manner of characters who are just as likely to shank your face with a pork sword then cap you in the brain as they are to ask you if they could bum a light off you.

All that stood between an almost endless army of gangsters, revolutionaries, criminals, and other violent anti-authority types were a few hundred overworked, underpaid, unappreciated Chinese, Sikh, and British police officers who spent roughly as much time avoiding bullets as they did filling out paperwork.

William Ewart Fairbairn decided he was going to even up the odds. And since his department didn’t have the resources to hire new officers or purchase better equipment, he decided the only way to level the playing field was by turning himself into a badass one-man army of human destruction capable of rendering everyone in his general vicinity into BFG9000-style red giblets with a whirlwind of spinning knife attacks, then teach his badass techniques of rib-stabbing devastation to every single member of the Shanghai Police until the entire force started looking like the cast of the Expendables.

Shanghai Municipal Police, 1930.
Protip: Don’t f#@k with these guys

Fairbairn’s first step was to learn every single thing about every martial art he could possibly get his hands on. He took up boxing. He studied kung fu from the personal bodyguard to the Empress of China. He became the first Westerner to receive black belts in Judo and Jujitsu from a Japanese grandmaster.

And he got into no-holds-barred street fights with dangerous criminals. A lot.

Walking the streets armed only with a combat knife and a Colt 1911 trying to smash organized crime anywhere he could find it, Fairbairn was routinely jumped by gangs of men that far outnumbered him, and just as routinely reduced his assailants to crippled heaps of failure handcuffed together in the back of his paddy wagon. During his 32-year career leading the Shanghai Police’s The Raid: Redemption-style violent crackdown on dangerous organized criminals, Fairbairn allegedly survived over 600 non-training street fights, receiving so many cuts and gunshots in the process that he was reportedly covered in scars across his arms, legs, chest, and abdomen.

Fairbairn demonstrates how to transition from a simple handshake
to a perfectly-executed rectum-shank.

A lifetime of knifefighting underworld enforcers will give a man a special perspective on life, and by 1910 Fairbairn was assigned the task of training the Shanghai Municipal Police in hand-to-hand combat, knife-fighting, and combat handgunning. He threw himself into the task, combining his military training, his time mastering at least four Eastern martial arts, and his own personal experience and creating a new style of fighting known as “Defendu” that he began to teach to his fellow officers.

Basically speaking, Defendu (referred to by Fairbairn as “Gutter Fighting”) was like the predecessor of Krav Maga. The principle is simple – kick the shit out of this guy as quickly as possible, cripple and/or otherwise incapacitate him, then slap the cuffs on him. Nothing is off limits – boots, knees, elbows… hell, there was an entire section on biting and eye-gouging. The rule was simple – survive and destroy. No mercy. No holds barred.

Not only did this training help enable the Shanghai Cops to bust out a bunch of badass Jet Li asskicking shit, but Fairbairn further improved the force by implementing some of the first SWAT-style police tactics the world had ever seen. Combining combat pistol training and knife-fighting with small-unit room clearing techniques he devised himself, Fairbairn developed a special squad capable of breaking into criminal dens and taking down every asshole inside. In 1925, when riots broke out across Shanghai, Fairbairn developed the first Riot Police Squad ever formed, developed tactics to contain rioting and limit looting while minimizing civilian injuries. His tactics are still used today.

In addition to innovating tactics still used by cops and special forces ops today, Fairbairn also developed published several books on shooting and self-defense, and created homemade bulletproof vests by stitching a metal plate inside a leather casing (using his old leatherworking skills) – it was heavy and kind of crude, but it could stop a point-blank round from a Mauser pistol, so who gives a shit what it looked like?

Fairbairn’s most famous invention however, was the combat knife he developed with his friend Eric Sykes, a weapon creatively known as the Fairbairn-Sykes Knife. Developed just prior to World War II, this narrow, 6.5-inch blade was designed specificially for stabbing between the ribs and into the soft tender parts of whoever is currently trying to kill you. Sharp enough to pierce and kill through the thickest clothing worn by any army in the world – a Soviet greatcoat (remember, the Soviets weren’t even Britain’s enemies at this point) – this weapon also featured a tapered handle that allowed it to be comfortably held and effectively wielded from a number of different hand grip positions.

The weapon was so revolutionary that it was immediately assimilated into the British Army. It became the standard-issue combat knife of the SAS, the Royal Commandos, and the United States Marine Corps Raiders during World War II.

“In close-quarters fighting there is no more deadly weapon than the knife. In choosing a knife there are two important factors to bear in mind: balance and keenness. The hilt should fit easily in your hand, and the blade should not be so heavy that it tends to drag the hilt from your fingers in a loose grip. It is essential that the blade have a sharp stabbing point and good cutting edges, because an artery torn through (as against a clean cut) tends to contract and stop the bleeding. If a main artery is cleanly severed, the wounded man will quickly lose consciousness and die.”

Fairbairn’s job changed pretty dramatically as things inched closer to World War II. It started getting weird in 1937, when the Japanese Empire attacked and overran almost all of China, and suddenly Shanghai was the only place on mainland China not currently occupied by the rampaging Japanese Army. In addition to dealing with a huge influx of refugees that almost doubled the population of the city, Fairbairn’s cops also had to deal with breaking up raging street fights between Japanese troops and Chinese citizens, stopping a Communist uprising in the city, and otherwise keeping the peace in the middle of a warzone like they were the friggin’ UN.

The 55-year old Fairbairn was called out of service in 1940, when he resigned his post with the Shanghai P.D. and took a job working with British Secret Service. Under the badass code name “Dangerous Dan”, Fairbairn went to work training some of the most hardcore warriors the world had to offer, training U.S. Army Rangers, British and Canadian Commandos, OSS Spy Operatives, U.S. Marine Raiders, and Special Air Service troopers in hand-to-hand combat, knife-fighting and pistol techniques. The guy’s shit was so hardcore that there was allegedly a six-week “Silent Killing” course that, in addition to other things, included a section on how to kill a sentry with an ordinary stick.

After World War II, William Fairbairn went to Singapore, set up the city’s special riot squad, then moved to Cyprus and trained SWAT teams on counter-insurgency tactics.

He died peacefully in his home in 1960 at the age of 75. He had never drank, swore, or bragged about his near-limitless fighting abilities once in his life. (I tried to avoid swearing in this article out of respect, but I think I lasted about one paragraph.)


Father of Hand-to-Hand Combat

W.E. Fairbairn.

Get Tough!


Green, Thomas A. and Joseph R. Svinth. Martial Arts of the World. ABC-CLIO, 2010.

Robins, Peter and Nicholas Tyler. Gentleman and Warrior. CQB, 2011.

Stevens, Ben. From Lee to Li. Harpercollins, 2009.

Todd, Tank. Military Combative Masters of the 20th Century. Lulu, 2006.

5 thoughts on “Badass of the Week: William E. Fairbairn

  1. Undoubtedly the bad-ass of much more than just a week, but I would expect nothing less from anyone who devoted their entire life to being a bad-ass.

    I guess it’s nice to be able to kill anyone who comes near you, but there are other things in life worth enjoying.

  2. He sounds like an incredibly strong, talented and single minded man.
    Unfortunately, the credit for inventing SWAT teams and modern “riot control” doesn’t seem like such a great thing living under our current tyrannical government.
    Hey, he was British enforcing the “law” in Shanghai. I suspect there were more than a few Chinese who had a legitimate beef with the British Imperial presence.
    Just sayin’.

  3. It doesn’t matter how ‘badass’ one is in hand to hand combat when competing with the correct tool(s) for the job.

  4. Knee caps and throats. Everybody’s got em.

    Can’t stand or breathe? Can’t fight. Guy had to walk with eyes in the back of his head 24/7 with a target like that on his back and that’s not possible. Gonna have to go with propaganda/urban legend on him.

    No one is invincible and he would carry a high value in street cred. Most bangers would base-skull him for points with that reputation.

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