Street Fighting Skills: How The Navy Seals Train

Image via Alexey Dushutin / CC BY 2.0

While the Navy Seals are one of the world’s most feared fighting forces, much of their training is kept hidden from the public eye. While it is impossible to know exactly what the Navy Seals of today are up to behind closed doors, we can look to Veterans and training programs of the past to help us figure out what methods and styles serve them well on the fields of battle.

In this article, we are going to look at the street fighting skills, philosophy, and methods that the Navy Seals employ in their training.

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Contents:

  1. Notes on Self-Defense and Why We Look to the Military
    1. Street Fighting Arts Versus Sport Fighting
    2. Finding What Works in ‘The Street’
  2. What the Navy Seals Train
    1. The R.A.T. System
      1. The 3 Steps of the RAT system
      2. Step 1. Entry/Pain
      3. Step 2. Pressure
      4. Step 3. Termination
  3. Where You Can Learn

Notes on Self-Defense and Why We Look to the Military

Before we can understand why the SEALS and other Special Forces train the way they do, there are a couple of concepts we need to understand:

Street Fighting Arts Versus Sport Fighting

One thing to reinforce before we move forward is that street fighting IS NOT sport fighting. This is something the SEALs take to heart. There is a lot of overlap, and they may look similar from the outside, but they are absolutely different beasts. Once people start poking eyes, biting, kicking the groin, etc. many tactics and methods used in the UFC or MMA are no longer nearly as effective.

At the same time, a fat guy thinking he is going to simply poke a super athlete in the eye and neutralize him in a life and death situation is lying to himself. It is about understanding what “no rules” really means and training your body and tactics appropriately.

Think about it this way: Many MMA fighters can take haymakers and kicks to the head for 5 rounds. However, a simple eye poke has more than once made the toughest fighters take a seat and discontinue fighting immediately. This is a simple case of just how much more effective “street” target areas can be.

Most ‘street’ or practical self-defense arts like those employed by the SEALs will use delivery systems like kickboxing or Wing Chun to quickly attack the eyes, throat, groin, etc. of an opponent repeatedly and effectively. The goal changes from trying to render an opponent unconscious with approved blows, to trying to disable and hurt them however possible.

Another aspect is blades and firearms. Most good street fighting arts will address blades and other weapons, something not found in sports but arguably the most relevant to saving your life.

I was at a seminar recently where Burton Richardson was speaking. This guy has spent decades doing everything from stick fighting in Africa to Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu with the Machado Brothers, to training top MMA fighters.

He made a very good demonstration about how some sports training is more likely to get you killed since many moves and methods don’t take into account the possibility of blades and dirty tactics. A grappler who pulls guard, or a muay Thai fighter who grabs a clinch only to find out his opponent has a knife is going to have a bad day.

Now don’t get it wrong; sports like Boxing and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) are ABSOLUTELY effective in a street fight but remember they are methods of fighting fair. They train you to have limitations. Spending some time training those skills for a true self-defense scenario can go a long way. A boxer who learned to use his skills to gouge your eyes and chop your throat, or a grappler effective at holding you down and using an impromptu weapon for a coup de grâce — now that is truly scary.

Jocko Willink (a former Navy Seal and now media personality) says that the first thing he would train with is a gun and concealed carry, then BJJ. He even talks about how he used BJJ to tap out another SEAL who was highly trained in another art.

While this actually is great advice, it can be misleading for some who think that Jiu-Jitsu must be all that the Seals learn. As stated before, Jiu-Jitsu is amazing and is necessary for anyone serious about self-defense, but it is much less useful against two people. Even more so if one of those two people has a pocket knife or a screwdriver.

Even Jocko would say (or he should) that the last thing you want to do in a chaotic and deadly environment is to start rolling around on the ground where you are immobile and can have your head stomped in or squashed (luckily, learning Jiu-Jitsu also gives you the tools to get back on your feet quickly).

What is important to note, however, is that if you don’t take the time to learn grappling, you will be completely at the mercy of someone who is proficient in it — and that is a very scary prospect for a warrior.

Finding What Works in ‘The Street’

The last ten years have seen an absolute explosion of different martial arts systems and methods appearing — some quite clearly better than others (and some completely nonsense). So it is impossible to provide a critique and an opinion on every art that is now out there — so how do we figure out which ones are legit and which ones are not?

Luckily, one of the richest, largest, and most expensive organizations in the world has spent quite a bit of time trying to figure that out. The U.S. Military.

For example, The military was incorporating Jiu-Jitsu into their training about 60 years before the average American had even seen an MMA bout.

Nobody has a better incentive to get the training right the first time than someone who may soon be fighting for their life. By seeing the methods they have employed, we can get an idea of what styles can really work to save our lives.

We should note that the standard hand-to-hand training given to your basic soldiers and marines is more or less just a quick overview of basic strikes, throws and grabs. (About a decade ago, I was certified as a lower-tier Marine Corps martial arts [MCMAP] instructor. It’s important to understand arts like that are designed to train large numbers of marines very quickly and lack the depth found in other arts past a certain point.)

Conversely, units like the Navy Seals have the funding and the training time to get more specialized and can really spend the time becoming proficient across the board. This allows them to both learn multiple arts and develop much more comprehensive skills.

So by looking at what the special forces — and in this, case the Navy Seals — choose to train, we can get a very good idea of what type of martial arts training is both practical and effective in a life or death struggle.

Note: Many people ask me about Krav Maga. It’s Great! But like MCMAP, it was made to be easy to understand, easy to teach, and simple to use, so it may not provide as much depth as a specialized art in any one domain.

What the Navy Seals Train

Navy Seals learn a wide variety of styles ranging from wrestling and boxing to Kali and Escrima. Like we talked about before, they also strongly believe in knowing your firearms (duh) and knowing how to fight on the ground.

So in addition to learning our firearms, being proficient in striking, and how to survive on the ground, what else can we glean from the experience of the Navy Seals?

While Navy SEALs are encouraged to learn as many different hand-to-hand combat styles as possible, there have been times where the units themselves have put together martial arts initiatives. Perhaps the most famous of these was the on-boarding of Paul Vunak and his R.A.T. system..

The R.A.T. System

Paul Vunak, who created the R.A.T. system, is a well known wild man in the martial arts world. He was a student of Dan Inosanto’s and trained with Rorion, Royce and Rickson Gracie. He is one of the guys best known for carrying on Jeet Kune Do through the last 30 years. But the wild man reputation stayed throughout.

It is said that this SEAL program was stopped because he and the guys he was training would hit the bars on the weekend to test out their fighting methods. The government didn’t like seeing all the money they invested in these assets being risked in bar scuffles.

Drama aside, the RAT system remains to this day one of the most effective and quickest-to-learn self-defense approaches available. Self-Defense schools, primarily Jeet Kune Do, have been teaching the RAT for almost twenty years now.

For this article, we asked Sifu Damon Evans to walk us through the basics of the RAT. Sifu Evans was certified as an instructor under Paul Vunak, has trained his own share of the military in the US and overseas, and has had students who’ve successfully use the RAT system in real self-defense scenarios.

Even if you already train a striking art, the RAT system gives you a combination of tactics designed to effectively and quickly end a hand-to-hand engagement.

The 3 Steps of the RAT system

Step 1. Entry/Pain

The secret of the RAT system and why it worked so well for Special Forces is that it breaks your response, and your opponent’s actions, down into segments. While you will need a partner, a teacher, and some practice time to pull this all off — knowing is half the battle.

The first step in the RAT is entry. The first thing you want to do is get into range and stun your opponent with a painful strike. Often this is taught as a groin strike, throat strike, eye poke, or limb destruction. Think of it like a sucker punch or kick to the most sensitive areas.

The point here is that while your opponent attempts to strike you with a powerful strike, or is preparing to strike, you intercept that intention with a faster quicker strike to an area that will cause them to react. This isn’t supposed to disable them, just cause them to hesitate or pause for a moment.

Step 2. Pressure

The next step is pressure. Once your foe’s intention has been stunned for a moment and you have gained the initiative, you hold onto it.

This is done by following up your stunning strike with a series of fast and quick punches to cause your opponent to become defensive or ‘shell up’. Most students are taught to use a “Straight Blast” which is a very quick succession of Wing Chun punches down the center into your opponent’s face.

Step 3. Termination

With enough practice, both the entry techniques and the following flurry of punches can end most untrained or weak combatants. The more resilient ones will require termination techniques. These are attacks like headbutts, knee strikes, and elbow strikes. If the opponent had shelled up to guard his face, it may be a sidekick to their knee. These are the techniques that with enough practice need only be done 1-3 times to disable most opponents.

In most training scenarios, once you have the opponent going backward with your quick punches, you grab control of their head and unleash with a series of headbutts and elbows. Striking the groin and knee if they are still turtled up over their head.

To effectively train through step 3, Paul Vunak would have one partner put on a motorcycle helmet while the other person would wear elbow pads and bag gloves. Then the motorcycle helmet wearer would begin to attack the other person with haymakers. Person number 2 would intercept the helmet wearer mid-punch then unleash a flurry of brutal strikes down on them.

The idea is that these steps fit and flow together in all confrontations. You attempt to disable and gain an advantage from the safest distance and then you violently close the distance to apply your disabling techniques. You go from “Entry” (far range) to “Pressure” (mid-range) to “Termination” (close range).

Where You Can Learn

Paul Vunak still has his website where he sells books and DVD’s of his systems, but your best bet is to find a local JKD school that is certified to teach. There is no substitute for a real-life partner.

Sifu Damon Evans teaches out of the Academy of Jeet Kune Do Sciences in Petaluma, California, which also has a digital classroom — but today there are many schools located all over the country.

If you don’t live near a JKD school, or it is one with a bad reputation or poor teacher, then you can always adopt the other philosophies of the SEALs. Seek out all sorts of hand to hand training and learn to put it together in an effective and straightforward process.

As stated before, arts like Krav Maga and Kali are also great places to begin your training. Even boxing or wrestling, with the right mindset and cross-training, can serve this purpose.

There is no ‘Best Art.’ It is about you applying yourself and learning how to effectively handle a wide array of scenarios, armed and unarmed.

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