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Gunfighting: The American Martial Art

No lesser mind than Ken Hackathorn has referred to the art of gunfighting, specifically with a handgun as “America's Martial Art.” It's a claim that's been repeated by many people inside the firearms and training industries, and it's one that stands up to scrutiny.

When most people think of the phrase “martial art” they think of little kids doing Taekwondo, or perhaps if they're a fan of combat sports they think of Brazilian jujitsu, Muay Thai kickboxing, and mixed martial arts competition. Traditional martial arts have always included weapons as a part of their training, and some martial arts are specific to one weapon. An example of a weapon specific martial art would be kendo, or Japanese fencing. Western fencing as practiced in the Olympics is certainly a martial art as well, although it may not be commonly thought of as such. The defining characteristic of a martial art is that it's a codified system or tradition of combat. Based on that criteria, fighting with a handgun certainly qualifies as a martial art.

Colt SAA clone

Colt SAA clone

Handguns certainly existed before America, and people fought each other and shot other people with handguns long before 1776. However, the development of fighting with a handgun has been primarily in the United States, a phenomenon which is part cultural and part practical. Culturally, the use of firearms has been embedded in our nation since before its founding, as early settlers came to this country, firearms were always a part of life on the frontier. While the Kentucky rifle holds a special place in history, the gun that best represents the drive west and also demonstrates the cultural roots of gunfighting as a martial art is a handgun: the legendary Colt Single Action Army. The Gun that Won the West was a true staple of American life, and even lives on to this day in reproductions from numerous manufacturers.

The American West is also where you see the beginnings of gunfighting as a martial art. While the Hollywood representation of the gunslinger may be somewhat embellished, it was during the Western period that you saw the first strictly American imprints on the idea of fighting with a handgun. Wild Bill Cody espoused the idea of consistent marksmanship practice, and years later Wyatt Earp would say “you must learn to be slow, in a hurry” – laying the foundation for the concept of focused practice.

The West also produced the first handgun representation of kata – the twirling and spinning of guns as showmanship. Kata has been used in traditional martial arts to demonstrate the practitioner's knowledge and skill without endangering anyone, much in the same way casual displays of dexterity with firearms would be used. Most importantly, the Colt SAA and its use by the cavalry drove American military thinking about handguns for the next hundred years. While European militaries were moving to smaller handguns for officers, the Colt SAA would begin a 100-year-long love affair with large caliber handguns for individual soldiers that still lingers to this day.

1911 dirty

Just as the Brazilians took the Japanese art of jujitsu and made it their own, Americans took the idea of fighting with a handgun and made it our own. Through the years, the understanding of how to best fight with a pistol expanded through two World Wars, until in the 1950s Jeff Cooper first developed the Modern Technique as a teachable system of handgun fighting. The Modern Technique and Gunsite, the school it was primarily taught from, dramatically changed the state of gunfighting as a martial art, for the first time creating a system that could be easily replicated and taught to large numbers of students. The Modern Technique was so successful that it still has its adherents to this day.

Ray Chapman, Elden Carl, Thell Reed, Jeff Cooper, and Jack Weaver

Ray Chapman, Elden Carl, Thell Reed, Jeff Cooper, and Jack Weaver

Like all martial arts, handgun fighting has evolved. In the early 90s, the Ultimate Fighting Championship changed the face of the martial arts community, by taking it down and repeatedly punching it in the face. Or choking it out, whichever you like. What the UFC and mixed martial arts did was provide an area where traditional martial arts skills could be pressure tested against an opponent that was just as invested in winning. This changed everything.

The art of gunfighting saw a similar effect due to the rising popularity of practical shooting. In the 80s, two young competition gunslingers named Brian Enos and Rob Leatham were experimenting with the most rapid way to get rounds on target. This created what many people refer to as the Modern Isosceles stance, eschewing the push/pull tension of Weaver in favor of isometric tension on the handgun. The modern isosceles system of shooting, best described by Brian Enos in his 1990 book Practical Shooting: Beyond Fundamentals, dominated the competition shooting community. Handgun shooting hasn't stagnated since then, as 18 years of constant warfare and a better understanding of human kinetics have continued to evolve techniques and create better shooters than have ever existed before.

The last comment on handgun fighting as a martial art examines pop culture, and could stand as an article by itself. Other countries lionize their national arts in film and theater, and rightfully so. Fighting is an incredibly important part of culture and national identity. It makes sense that the best kung fu movies come from China. What martial art is most represented in American cinema? Gunfighting. Whether it's John Wayne or John Wick, the gunfighter is the quintessential American Martial Artist.

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