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Open Quarters VS. Closed Quarters

Today a wee bit of history from the days of Fighting Sail and then we wade into how we might learn a thing or two from these 18th & 19th century sailors.

Picture if you will a wooden sea vessel, make it a swift sailing sloop or a heavily armed man-of-war or whatever vessel floats your boat. Conjure up images of the ships seen in any of the Pirates of the Caribbean flicks or, better yet, Master and Commander.

Ok, got those images in mind?

Now picture the superstructures on the main deck. For the landlubbers, a superstructure is any structure/cabin rising above the main deck. On larger ships there were typically two superstructures the forecastle and the aftercastle.

Got that?

When any such ship was engaged in maritime battle with another they would often draw themselves broadsides to allow cannons loaded with a variety of mayhem to do damage to the ship itself (below decks firing to sink the ship and above decks firing if you intended on capturing the vessel). At this point of the battle the ships are engaging in open quarters fighting.

If/when a boarding by an enemy vessel seemed inevitable, the vessel that feared boarding would close a series of doors/shutters that ran along beams or supports bridging the superstructures—the crew would retreat behind these barriers which were called, yeah, you guessed it—closed quarters.

Now, just because the quarters have been closed we are not at actual hand-to-hand closed quarter fighting yet as we commonly envision it. There are a series of loopholes (small openings) for musket and small arms fire.

If/when the marauding vessel’s crew is finally able to board and breech the closed quarters barrier the one-on-one melee began with combatants wielding boarding axes, pistols, cutlasses, dirks, and perhaps here and there a musket or blunderbuss.

The point of today’s little historical aside is twofold—

One-To illuminate the origins of the phrase closed quarters and…

Two—Most importantly to allow the historical use of the closed quarters strategy to inform our modern self-protection thinking.

99.9% of the time (fake but representative number all the same) when talk is made of real-world self-protection or street-defense we move directly to an assumption that the predator has breached our closed quarters status.

Yes, I am aware that we do not walk along this earth with doors and shutters ready to be closed when we first spot trouble on the horizon but…we do, more often than not, spot a bit of trouble before it actually reaches us where we must engage in what we now call closed quarters battle.

This earlier awareness can be thought of as the beginning of our open quarters status. It is at open quarters that we must assess whether the enemy is too heavily gunned to engage and thus we must set sail, or whether to pull broadsides and begin firing with cannonade. This is the nautical equivalent of fight or flight.

Open quarters weaponry, in the modern sense should always err on the side of flight, but…but we must never assume flight is always an option. There are times when flight is simply not possible and engagement must be made. But even in these circumstances modern self-protection trainees must alter how we think of our open quarters weaponry.

We cannot and do not have the option (in most cases) of leaping immediately to our own personal cannonade (in my case a .357 Magnum) nor should this be our first thoughts in what is still an open quarters situation.

We must defer to our prevention, our awareness, our decision to remain vigilant no matter how calm the personal seas may seem. In most situations this persistent scouting for an enemy flag on the horizon will serve us with all the self-protection skills we’ll ever need.

If our vigilance does lag, if we are blind-sided, if even after spotting a threat we may sometimes find our initial flight options sparse to none we then begin open quarters tactics, this can be your own personal cannonade (if warranted of course) whether this be personal firearm, blade, designated weapon or X-Weapon use as defined in our X-Weapon Self-Protection Unit.

We do not, absolutely do not if at all possible want to get to a closed quarters fight from the word go. Closed quarters battle assumes that we may have been less than vigilant in our scouting, less than diligent in our open quarters preparation. Closed quarters battle in the days of fighting sail was the last ditch effort (to mix military metaphors) at survival, the tactical fall back for when our earlier strategies and tactics have failed.

It seems to me that we spend more time in this modern era pondering and training closed quarters tactics than we do open quarters work. We use No Second Chance Book of Drills to rectify this strategic inversion and return the primacy of open quarters battle to the top of the self-protection food chain where it should be.

By Mark Hatmaker


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49 thoughts on “Open Quarters VS. Closed Quarters”

  1. I’m a firm believer of open quarter. I prefer to be defensive as it’s safer to be in a defensive mode (behind brick wall or solid material) than actually doing the attacking. Having a clear view of fire and a plan to deter any attacker is important. Keeping cool and not getting excited so your aim is still steady and not being afraid to take that leap of faith if a closed quarter is unavoidable. having superior weaponry and the skill set to know that no one can hurt you. It’s a mental aspect that my dad (a sergeant in the USMC during WWII) taught me since i was first able to hunt with him. Being a good shot and being unafraid of anyone , anything,anytime or place. I’m good to go and I really feel I can and will do what is needed to protect my family & I. I pity the fools who want a challenge to me in either quarter and they will face full and extreme reprisal.
    Spiritus Invistus ( Unconquerable Spirit)
    F. Allen Smith

  2. Very sound advice. Another very wise statement is: Live by the sword, Die by the sword. Not to be confused with a lack of self preservation and preparedness. Thanks

  3. It’s about different ranges. Like a cutlass was actually a short-bladed slashing weapon, needed for fighting in the restricted headroom below decks. Pre First World War sailors still used short swords, which had developed into slender spiky things like fencing foils. But on the street it’s more about knowing how to kick somebody who threatens you with a knife. Because as Fairbairn said you need a longer-range weapon than his arm’s length.

  4. Very well written and thought out, as if you had read “the art of war” by sun Tzu and condensed it and put it in maritime lingo, sort of. You know what I mean.

  5. I LOVE what you’re doing My Friend!!!! Outstanding information!!!! I can add to your knowledge and instruction!!! I would be happy to help!!! Right NOW I have limited time and coverage!!! I will get back with you soon!! A LOT OF GREAT INFORMATION AND RESEARCH YOU’VE DONE!!! GREAT JOB!!! I’m HONORED TO BE AN E-HOTLIST MEMBER!! Thank you!!! This is my first “BLOG??” Usually more Private!!! Under the Radar!!! This is JUST FOR YOU, Right!!??? Keep up the Great work!!!! BE HAPPY!!! BE SAFE!!! STAY STRONG!!!! Your Friend Jeff!! My Friends call me Jeffer, or Respectfully and Affectionately, “THE LITTLE GUY!!”, because it’s Funny to them, that EVERYONE WANTS TO TRY, The Little Guy!!!! Unfortunately for THEM!!! I tell people, DON’T TALK ABOUT ME!!! It creates Problems for ME!!!! If I go somewhere and someone thinks THEY ARE IT, and they here, That guy is Supposed to be Tougher than Hell!!! He has to Prove to his Cronies, THAT HE’S TOUGHEST!!!!! I don’t look or talk like a Fighter!!!!! Which encourages them, that No Way, IS THAT GUY TOUGH!!!! Which I OBVIOUSLY USE TO MY ADVANTAGE!!!!! But, Needless Confrontations, NON the less, and I’m the ONE WHO HAS TO GO THROUGH IT!!!!! I’ve been Lucky!!!! Fortunately, the HARDER I TRAIN, THE LUCKIER I GET!!! Lol. I ALWAYS TELL PEOPLE MY FAVORITE SELF DEFENSE TECHNIQUE, IS RUN!!!!! Be ALERT AND AVOID!!!! I’ll try to get back to you, hopefully sooner than later!!! Good Work!! Take Care!!! Your Friend, Jeffer!! 👍 Open Quarters Combat is Great, IF YOU KNOW WHAT YOU’RE DOING!!!!! Otherwise, you are just exposing and opening targets on yourself!!! Open Quarters, if you DON’T put them Down!!! Should just be a Method of Closing the gap to Close Quarters, where your Attacks should be Brutal, Quick, and if Possible, Run like heck, from their Friends, the Police coming, ALL THE ABOVE!!!!! I ALWAYS tell people!!! DON’T STAND AROUND ADMIRING YOUR WORK!!!!! GET GOING!!! If you’re going to be in with the SHARKS, YOU NEED TO BE A SHARK!!!!!!! Or you’re Toast!!! In a crowded place, and you KNOW IT’S ON, yell “DON’T HURT ME”, Then START FIRING YOUR DEFENSE!!!! Now you have a Bunch of Unknown Witnesses, that Don’t KNOW what was going on!!!! But, THEY HEARD “That Guy” yell “Don’t Hurt Me!!!!! Helps with Self Defense validation, if Police show up!!! RIGHT!!!! KNOW THE RULES LEGALLY!!! BE A SHARK!!!! Good Luck!!! Stay Safe!!!! AVOID AVOID AVOID!!!! When POSSIBLE!!!!

  6. I am naturally paranoid so this gives me advantage in open quarters and looking for things which are not right. Make eye contact with people and nod. You can tell a lot about a person by observing whether they are respecful or polite and nod back. Never trust a person wearing sunglasses out of place. Be aware of your personal space at all times especially when handleing your wallet. Follow your gut. It will always tell you who not to trust. Simply be aware of your senses and surroundings at all time and in fact you can avoid most hairy situations altogether.

  7. Nice article! Eyes and ears will help you stay in open quarters most of the time. In todays dangerous world avoidance is usually the best fight.. My grandmother used to say “Keep your eyes and ears open and your mouth shut will usually keep you out of harm’s way!”

  8. thats a very good way to look at the scenario in any cases we are always looking into hand to hand methods so we are prepaired for that but we really dont have a wide look out at it before it actually does happen this article really opens your eyes to what else we should be training for

  9. I liked the arm bar take down. As a rookie corrections officer beginning this career at 56, I need the help that I can get. This helps me to understand more on taking an inmate down when necessary. Thanks.

  10. I agree. One must be aware of,if not the situation of the moment, the possibility of a situation at any moment. The bad guys have infiltrated most everywhere.

    Thanks for the continued heads up and keep up the good work.

  11. Indeed you have hit the nail on the head, as it were. Most possible fighting situations start out with lots of red flags that we either choose to ignore thinking this will rectify itself any minute now and continue to stay in close proximity of the situation or believe someone will surely stop this insanity. Both of those options are unrealistic expectations. Get the hell away from this situation if possible and leave it to other “heros” of the day.

  12. Very interesting thoughts. Years ago, while training for Force Protection, I took Duane Dieter’s Close Quarters Defense (Combat) in Maryland. Learned many good techniques for defense and fighting.

  13. Having spent years living in some hot spots with no back up . ( central America , Israel , North , South Africa ) and unable to carry any weapon I can only agree 100 % .
    The only true way to survive is to develop a sharp mind , buy a fast pair of trainers and be prepared to turn on the mayhem in an instant . 90% of fights are avoidable 100% of the time .

  14. While close quarters combat can’t, for the most part, be avoided by trying to stay away from the most dangerous criminals and thugs, it’s always safe to learn what to do in that situation when it arises

  15. Today and going back to when it was developed in WWII the most brutal and effective hand to hand fighting was call “Close Quarters Combat” and as Paul Vnak discovered as well as many others it is very easy to learn and very effective. Find the book Kill or Get Killed.
    Stay safe avoid battle if you can, but if you must fight be brutal then leave.

  16. Live in yellow alert with your head out of your ass-your cellphone or any other worthless distraction.
    You might just realize a problem before it becomes one. simple to say but look at those around you and. ..

  17. This makes a very good point that I think is too often overlooked. The easiest way to avoid a potential attack is by staying aware of your surroundings, and avoiding areas where you can be attacked without any forewarning. This blog makes an enlightenment of the evolution of defense strategies and defensive weapons that are used today. This is an excellent article.

  18. I agree with the message that we should be vigilant to danger before we are backed into a corner. However, in my own life, it is somewhat difficult to discern the long-distance threats. I certainly appreciate the food for thought.

  19. Thanks for the history lesson.
    I never thought about it.
    But you make a valid point.
    Always remember to fully access your options.
    You maybe better to leave and fight another day.

  20. At my age, turning 75 next week, most of what I do is open quarter defense. One day riding my bike, I saw a group of young men coming towards me. I carry a knife and pepper spray when riding. My pistol just wouldn’t be practical. Situation just didn’t seem right, so I turned and rode in the other direction. Lucky. When I came back an hour later yellow police tape was up. The person that had been behind me going south had been knocked from his bike and beaten. No robbery. Left his bike, etc. They should have taken his cell phone. The police already had the 4 young men in custody. That could have been me being patched up by the EMT.

  21. You have to be vigilant in your surroundings and focused on the things that don’t look right or feel right. “Open quarters”.

  22. Hi , since receiving your your emails , I have gained loads more confidence , and are now a lot happier when out and about , sadly I’m not in a position to make any purchase’s at the moment .

  23. We do y’all about closed quarters battle more often I think because that seems to be were it ends up in the streets. Even now in the military they are focusing more on closed quarters because tonthe door to door and street by street manuvers.
    We can’t forget the distance fight though. Had a situation where we had some people moved in acrossed the street and down a couple of doors. Every thing that they did yelled terrorist so I kept up surveillance. After a eek or so of this I watched them walk in the house so I knew at least the original two were in there. I called the police. They came and knocked on the door of course no one answered so Officer left. Know I have to work on my strategy for defense. Of coursebit was long range But still could not leave out the closed quarters in case they figured it was me. Got lucky within four days they moved on. Unfortunately they are some where else. Just hope someone else sees their behsvior.

  24. The history lesson is well-taken, Mark, and well-spoken with the written words of metaphoric analogy.
    Vigilance and open awareness of the present moment using fully the sensory apparatus that we have as humans, listening and observing as we go about our day-to-day affairs is most critical and perhaps the best code of conduct. Non-interference within a social environment that presents no threat other than the perspective that would impose upon that environment an imaginary enemy, is an interior condition that also demands the utmost vigilance. Being prepared does not require anticipation, and being aware can present the best kind of liberation.

  25. I was talking with my wife and daughters just the other day about being aware of their surroundings when they were out and about. I explained again the dangers in looking down at their phones while walking, or not parking in a lighted area. The way I read your article these are the type of things you are talking about, staying in an open area/quarter. I purchased all three of them the defensive pens and showed them how to use them and my wife also has her ccw.

  26. While all this may be true, I’m not completely convinced that this is where we get the term close quarters battle. I think cqb is named for the close range it takes place. It’s NOT called closed door. Still interesting.

  27. Don’t quite understand;but can never never forget the words one dark ass night in Nam;when were heavily engaged and the word was passed TO FIX BAYONETTS;had M-14’s
    and we were in Shit………..Did Exactly that and I am Still Here………..
    Nam 65/66 I Corps.Hue/Phu Bai area Semper Fi/God Bless America…………..

  28. You are absolutely right. Most people never train to avoid a confrontation. this does not mean to quit the training you have been doing, it means to increase your training so you don’t have to come to close quarters fighting. I spent 17 years in the army,including 18 months in and around Viet Nam. I was a sniper and was with several different A teams. the guy’s who were all gung ho, and charged into a fight quite often didn’t make it back.

  29. I have only a limited amount of combat training, but from what I have been exposed to, I believe that at some point during an open quarters confrontation, an opportunity to flee will arise, particularly when dealing with a relatively untrained attacker or group of attackers. I know that opportunity will not ALWAYS present itself, but if a person is sufficiently prepared and keenly alert, he/she will spot that opportunity and take it. It is almost always the safest option unless especially if you do not outnumber your opponent and/or if you are not armed with more and better weaponry. The moral of this is to be like a good Boy Scout: be prepared.

  30. After 20 years of active duty with some the Best Warriors on earth, in some of the HOTTEST places available, I find information that is supportive of some of my training ! ! !

  31. Nice history lesson. Situational awareness plan of action fallback position and exit strategy. Should be common sense to anyone who goes out in public. Don’t be a victim!

  32. Thoroughly enjoyed the history provided, took my understanding to a more in depth & detailed knowledge.
    I whole-heartedly agree with the primary premise of the article . . .
    1st line of defense is, and always will be, situational awareness !!
    Many ‘opportunistic’ punks will leave well enough alone simply due to your obvious awareness and attention to your surroundings, perhaps them specifically, and your choice of actions – even simple departure of sorts, includes the obvious maintained awareness.
    Be Safe All ~