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"Native Warrior vs European Regular Hand to Hand" Topic

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Nick Stern Supporting Member of TMP02 Aug 2017 9:38 a.m. PST

In one of Douglas Porch's books, sorry I don't have it to hand at the moment, he says something like: The warriors had been practicing unequal combat, i.e. knife against spear, since childhood. My question is how bayonet armed Europeans were able fight on equal terms with the native warriors when it came to hand to hand, even besting them, in the case of the British against Zulus. Was it merely a matter of reach? After all, even the most veteran European soldiers could not claim to have practiced hand to hand fighting since childhood.

Ragbones Supporting Member of TMP02 Aug 2017 10:40 a.m. PST

I think the 19th century was more rough and tumble for many of the rankers of the Victorian British Army. I suspect many had a hard upbringing requiring the use of fists, knives, staves, etc. Trained and equipped for hand-to-combat using a bayonet-tipped rifle and I imagine the "Tommy" was quite an adversary for native forces. Interviews with Zulu veterans of Isandlwana after the AZW revealed the utmost regard for the individual fighting prowess of British soldiers.

Personal logo The Virtual Armchair General Sponsoring Member of TMP02 Aug 2017 10:44 a.m. PST

At the risk of some twit suggesting racist undertones, i would generally favor the "native" in close combat--if and when that actually ever occurs--over the "European."

To the extent that might be true, it would be entirely due to the comparative cultural practices/traditions of the combatants.

If raised in a "warrior" tradition, commonly with weapons that must be used at only the closest of quarters, there is really no alternative to the means and circumstances of combat. Getting in the face of an enemy is what it's all about. The advantages of prowess in battle are far greater in such societies than otherwise.

And, also generally speaking, but very demonstrably, a soldier with a firearm is more likely to become, and remain, a "long range hero." Why risk death on someone's blade when he can be blown over at a comfortable distance?

Indeed, even the best and blood thirstiest Redcoat knows that something has gone wrong if he's suddenly reduced to counting on his bayonet, whereas his warrior opponent just as profoundly feels that he's in his element when within sword/spear reach.

Being trained with the bayonet, and actually using it optimally in the terror of close combat, are two different things. And the warrior at it's other end probably has life long familiarity with his weapon, if not also more experience using it.

Having a long-reach weapon in close combat can be an advantage--until the other fellow steps inside it. The "lunger" bayonet associated with the Martini-Henry definitely gave "reach," but it was a far heavier combination than an Iklwa or other sword or spear. One good lunge that doesn't connect, and the bayonet armed man is off balance with his missed target now between him and the bayonet point.

Close combat is something the "civilized" soldier is trained to prevent, while his "native" foe lives for it.

The romance we all want to believe about unflappable Tommys being as deadly at close quarters as at long is just that.

In short, if close combat actually occurs--and it's rarer than most war gamers wish to accept--all other things being equal, the "native" warrior has the edge--literally.


M C MonkeyDew02 Aug 2017 11:11 a.m. PST

Men trained to fight in unison are a match for those raised on individual bravery and skill. Not unusual for forces with discipline to best those without even if those without are fanatical in their devotion.

John the Red Inactive Member02 Aug 2017 11:50 a.m. PST

Not all European regulars and indeed thier native troops were the same quality and 'natives' covers a wide range of combat styles. From the get stuck in Zulu style to others with a greater preference for skirmishing. For many more tribal fighters, getting yourself killed or mained was never high on the list when you had a family to support. A soldier is more constrained by the discipline of the army to stay put and take the consequences.

There is also the question of who did the more practising with their weapons – the professional soldier or a part time warrior? I would add several 'native' powers rellied upon thier own professionals eg zulus.

I also suspect most fighters relying on hand to hand weapons have always preferred their opponents to break and run before they arrive at the point of decision.


Cerdic Supporting Member of TMP02 Aug 2017 1:57 p.m. PST

I think Ragbones is spot on. A lot of the rank and file in the Victorian British army would have grown up in industrial slums. Life was hard and violent. These men had grown up fighting in the street with fists and knives. A bloke with a spear would not have been as intimidating as he would be to us.

My evidence? Well we know that casual violence was more common in the past. It was far more common even when I was growing up! Also, I have met their descendants! I have worked with blokes who grew up in 'inner city' areas of London. They are proper scary dudes. They have all got scars and stories of fights involving close quarter weaponry. Knives, clubs, broken bottles etc. One guy had his hand cut off with a samurai sword on the tube. Their attitude is that this sort of stuff is normal everyday survival.

Of course, not all Victorian redcoats would have had such a violent background. But quite a proportion did. The era of the "civilised" "long range hero" didn't really get into its stride until sometime later.

Nick Stern Supporting Member of TMP02 Aug 2017 2:16 p.m. PST

During the Indian Mutiny it was common for the mutineers to break and run to avoid contact with an Imperial bayonet charge. But I wouldn't put the mutineers into the same category as warrior societies like the Pathans, Hadendowa, Zulu or Maori

4D Jones Inactive Member02 Aug 2017 6:37 p.m. PST

Fighting with fists and knives is somewhat different to going through the evolutions of bayonet thrusts during infantry training. Probably the one similarity is being up close and personal.

Even at Rorke's Drift, it seems, most British casualties were caused by Zulu musket/rifle fire and not the assegi. And Cpl. Schiez (sic?) apparently went over the biscuit box wall and potted the Zulus that won him the VC.

oldjarhead1 Inactive Member02 Aug 2017 6:39 p.m. PST

my early years were spent in Glasgow, which was a very rough city, the Cameronians were recruited there, and had the nickname the poison dwarves. A common practice was to sew razor blades into the brim of their tam o' shanter and use the hat as a weapon. This was in the 50s

Henry Martini02 Aug 2017 8:04 p.m. PST

The ladies will always go for a 'sharp' dressed man… unless he's wearing a skirt?

4D Jones Inactive Member03 Aug 2017 1:29 a.m. PST

Jar head: you need a firm peak (like that of a flat cap) for the razor trick to work. Its use in Gateshead was known as 'the Bensham kiss'.

Cerdic Supporting Member of TMP03 Aug 2017 1:39 a.m. PST

When you are 'up close and personal' I don't think the type of weaponry matters all that much.

It is a mind game, a mental attitude. Your upbringing will generally affect how you react. The guy who fully commits is likely to beat the one who is hesitant. So you are likely to have an edge if you have grown up in a 'warrior' tribal culture or an industrial slum. Or maybe an English public school….

Mad Guru Supporting Member of TMP03 Aug 2017 2:14 a.m. PST

In "The Drums of The Fore and Aft" Kipling posits that the average Afghan Tribesman would usually beat the average British soldier -- despite his hardscrabble origin -- in individual hand-to-hand combat, but when the same hand-to-hand fight was engaged in by formed units, Tommy Atkins and his similarly organized Indian & Gurkha allies would usually be victorious -- except when they break and run, as in the case of the incident that earns the unfortunate British unit of the title that ignominious nickname.

advocate Supporting Member of TMP03 Aug 2017 5:10 a.m. PST

+1 4D Jones and the Mad Guru. You could add Zulu accounts of Isandlwhana, where the Zulus found it difficult to close with groups of bayonet-wielding British. And if closely formed a second rank with Martini-Henrys could be firing effectively while protected by the first rank.
The edge the native warriors general have if they manage to get to close combat is numbers.

mrinku Inactive Member04 Aug 2017 2:55 a.m. PST

Chris Peers' The African Wars pp47-8 mentions the rifle and bayonet being a match for the assegai in close combat, having much greater reach, weight (easily able to punch through cowhide shields) and power due to the two handed grip. It could also be clubbed at very close range.

It's not all about the shooting. Although that clearly helps a great deal!

Khusrau04 Aug 2017 6:11 a.m. PST

Speaking generally, in the type of close combat you are describing, if I can extrapolate from experiences of gang warfare, there were always the 'leaders' and the followers.

It takes a fair bit of courage to actually kick things off at close range, knowing you ARE going to get hurt, most people are extremely reluctant to fully commit.

That's when the nutcases matter, and that's what armies are designed to create; hard men whose entire creed is violence and who use it as casually as I would use bad language. For a good (but dated) description, 'No Mean City' about Glaswegian street gangs is not a bad intro.

The other thing is that many 'Warrior' societies are actually not that warlike, as much of the warrior expression is for show, and demonstration. Not unnaturally so, after all, if your young people are constantly maiming and murdering each other, it's kind of hard to develop.

Ramming04 Aug 2017 10:45 a.m. PST


Not exactly Lord Copper. The Cameronians were recruited mostly in Lanarkshire not Glasgow, the 'Poison Dwarves' was a soubriquet reserved for the men of the HLI which was the definitively Glasgow regiment. Hand to hand requires more than skill at arms but an acquaintance with, and no fear of, nasty, bloody, sharp weapon, nitty gritty murder. Hard men would have this in spades, ferocity often overcomes finesse.

sausagesca07 Aug 2017 9:15 a.m. PST

In designing Battles for Empire I gave this considerable thought and decided that there was no reason to advantage either side in the calculation of combat effects based on their weapons. What mattered more was the morale condition of the units going into the melee and how long one side or the other could sustain the fight.

marco56 Supporting Member of TMP08 Aug 2017 4:29 p.m. PST

The same over here in the states that the indians were better at individual combat but Americans usually won when unit cohesion held.There were exceptions of course.

Murvihill09 Aug 2017 9:39 a.m. PST

Wouldn't you expect European troops in close order with stabbing weapons would be more dense than natives with either swinging weapons or shields? Not dumber, just closer together.

GreenLeader11 Aug 2017 7:12 a.m. PST

Not sure one could ever really get a definitive answer on this. On a one-to-one basis, I think the answer is always going to be 'it depends': it would be like saying, 'who would win between a Para and a Royal Marine'?: you get big blokes, small blokes, fast blokes etc.

And I don't think there are enough examples in history of (eg) 100 Zulus engaging in hand-to-hand combat with 100 British redcoats to give us a representative sample.

I imagine that, if matters get to the hand-to-hand stage, the 'natives' will win most of the time, as their (probable) weight of numbers will quickly tell: no matter how plucky or tough any individual redcoat might be, it is never likely to be 100 vs 100, I imagine.

As an aside, did many 'native' armies engage in formal hand-to-hand training? I am thinking of the way that a medieval knight might learn / practice with various weapons, fight in tourneys etc?
Not exactly the same, but I remember reading the account of a British officer who served in Sierra Leone in the 1990s. He explained that, even though they had grown up around AK-47s since they were toddlers, carried them about all the time and were veterans of untold skirmishes, none of the guerrillas had ever actually been taught how to shoot properly. Your first impression would be that they would be experts with their weapons, but this was by no means the case.

Henry Martini11 Aug 2017 4:45 p.m. PST

A Zulu warrior would train in close combat tactics with the iklwa and shield. The central move involved hooking and pulling aside an opponent's shield with the edge of his own shield, and following up with a lunge of the assegai at the exposed torso. Naturally this technique was of little use when the warrior was confronted by a British infantryman.

GreenLeader11 Aug 2017 5:03 p.m. PST

Rather makes me think of the way a slightly revised bayonet drill defeated the equally fearsome Highlanders, and their terrifying claymore charges.

Father Grigori11 Aug 2017 7:49 p.m. PST

A slightly different take on this, re martial arts. In one bayonet charge in Peking durig the Boxer uprising, a squad of German marines (not sure of exact numbers, perhaps 20?) charged the Boxers opposing them, and left some 58 bodies in the street with no losses themselves. The incident is recounted in the Osprey volume, but I don't have the exact page number to hand. The Boxers were supposed to have had at least some martial arts training of the type beloved of modern movies, but Europeans felt that an average fencer could easily beat a Chinese swordsman, because of the amount of waving and slashing in the Chinese technique. Fencing tends to be much more concerned with results than form, and I suspect this might have been the same with bayonets.

GreenLeader12 Aug 2017 10:55 a.m. PST

Interesting anecdote.

I guess training and discipline will 'always' trump raw courage / street smarts. One can see it in the Boer War, when supposedly rough, tough (but outrageously individualistic) Boer frontiersmen fled in the face of pretty much any bayonet charge.
Equally today, a small number of a well drilled / motivated / disciplined riot policemen will take on and scatter numbers of protesters far greater than their own.

That is not to say the likes of the Zulu were not well disciplined, but perhaps fair to say other 'native' forces would have been more of an 'armed mob'.

Father Grigori12 Aug 2017 5:20 p.m. PST

I should clarify the reference. It was in the Men at Arms series title, not the Campaign book.

ITALWARS Inactive Member25 Aug 2017 3:29 p.m. PST

from what i read and comparing various sources, various nationalities, various native warriors type ecc…i made the impression that a native warrior either african or asiatic ecc…wat at real disatvantage vs a European bayonet or sabre armed regular..for quite a few reasons:
- better physical constitution of the European..due also to better food
- except few occasions like maybe some zulus, the moros and indonesians …a certain degree, from a native fighting frontally hand hand alone vs a European soldier, of cowardice…the European could'nt be coward or retiring/surrendering in order to save his life
- did you seen an African spear or a shield in a Museum or a Boxer improvised weapon…just toys inexpertly built if compared to European blades..i'm speaking about the mass of native tribesmen not leaders of élite warriors.
- Fear and awe of the white man…at least during first contacts not quick enough to place the first blow

Father Grigori26 Aug 2017 6:50 p.m. PST

ITALWARS: I think cowardice is too strong a word. Certainly there may have been less social censure in some native societies than in the West, but to accuse of cowardice is very strong.

ITALWARS Inactive Member27 Aug 2017 3:50 a.m. PST

Ok i should have sai ..fear? Maybe

Mad Guru Supporting Member of TMP28 Aug 2017 5:10 p.m. PST

Father Grigori, I may be wrong, but I thought ITALWARS was referring more to the fact that during 19th Century Imperial/Colonial wars, European troops were always operating in foreign lands, so if they chose to surrender or route, they generally had little or no chance of survival, making it less likely they would break and run -- not due to innate superiority, but due to the practical context in which they fought.

ITALWARS Inactive Member29 Aug 2017 1:22 a.m. PST

…about that i find very scanty references from European troops showing a sort of cowadice…and the result had been disatrous…Spanish troops at El Anual…they surendered or worts trow away weapons and wait to their fat ..and the Rifians slaughtered them like sheeps…Same about Italians ..there is a version that at Dogali in 1887 , contrary to the official eroic version, they panicked and were excuted.corpes were fnd i a single line with no evidence of fighting… a realiable source, a rare diary book from a survived officer at Adwa , it seems that the famous Bersaglieri (at least some) trow away their weapons ..threatned at gun point their officer and refused to charge the massess of Abssyssinians once they finished ammunition…the result was that majority of them were executed , many castrated and the lucky ones ended as servants or "gigolos" of high society abbyssinian Menelik Court ladies….on the other hand, at least from for example French sources dealing with fights in Western Africa, the tribesmen were no match for the European trained and armed Tirailleurs Sénégalais…after ritualic gestures and screaming they broke at first threats from French bayonets..

Father Grigori30 Aug 2017 7:06 a.m. PST

Mad Guru and ITALWARS: Point taken. European troops were not simply operating in foreign lands, but amongst cultures that did not have the same conventions regarding the treatment of prisoners. That fact alone could be enough to persuade troops to fight on in situations where they might surrender in europe.

ITALWARS Inactive Member01 Sep 2017 1:59 a.m. PST

Yes Father Grigori…i think that a kind of "last stand" atmosphere was the predominant/guiding thinking of Imperial Sodiers while facing with hand hand or very close cobat the natives…as Nick mentioned also Zulus in his posting ..which are, in my opinion, the most clear example among natives of valour in combat and expertice in the use of close quarter weapons …and among other thing my prefered native army and the only one toward which i have a great simpathy..well in one of Ian Knight books is reported an account from a Zulu source that even the very last red coats at Isandlwana , already out of ammunition, someno esorting to a last few shots from revolver..and facing the zulu hordes back to back..were not directly charged and engaged in hand to hand by the warriors who instead killwed them one one by one trowing assegais/spears at very short distance…also for that reason i think that at close quarter a native had no chance VS European soldier, desperate for saving his life but well trained in the use of his last resort..the rifle and bayonet

ITALWARS Inactive Member01 Sep 2017 2:10 a.m. PST

slightly out of topic but this modern example that amazed me when i read it could equally explian something:


Durando05 Dec 2017 5:14 a.m. PST

South East Asian warriors were very capable when engaged in close quarters against isolated groups, but if Europeans were attacking with bayonet in formation then the warriors usually came off worse, First Anglo Burmese war classic…would suggest melee favours Europeans except when taken heavy casualties then dice scores should favour the natives.

Siamese, Burmese, Lao and Vietnamese would if fighting against each other would be bloody and brutal

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