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W. E. Fairbairn and the Birth of Modern Gunfighting

In Part 1 of this series, we'll travel to the early 20th Century for adventure on the streets of Shanghai.

W. E. Fairbairn and the Birth of Modern Gunfighting

Shanghai’s International Concession was a very congested city filled with people and various types of conveyance. Over a century later, the weapons and tactics of the Shanghai Municipal Police continue to exert an influence on the use of the handgun in combat.

On 1 January 1917, William Ewart Fairbairn was promoted to Sgt. Major/Drill Instructor with the Shanghai Municipal Police (SMP). He had served as Assistant Drill Instructor from 11 March 1912. Since joining on 7 January 1907, after being discharged from the Royal Marines, Fairbairn had risen through the ranks. Today over a century later, the weapons and tactics of the Shanghai Municipal Police continue to exert an influence on the use of the handgun in combat.

Fairbairn was one of the first to personally approach gunfighting scientifically. Over a period of 12½ years he analyzed around 2,000 gunfights and was personally present at over 200 of them. During these “affrays” 260 criminals were killed and 193 were wounded, at a cost of 43 police officers killed and 100 wounded. Fairbairn determined what worked and did not work on the streets, and chose weapons and techniques that maximized the survivability of SMP officers.

To replace an assortment of Webley revolvers and autos, as well as FN autos and other miscellaneous handguns, Fairbairn urged the adoption of the .45 ACP Colt 1911 for European officers, the Colt 1908 for smaller Chinese officers, and the .455 Webley MK VI revolver for Sikh officers, most of whom had served in the British Army and were familiar with this service weapon. Many of the Colt autos were shipped to E. A. Sykes, who was the Colt representative in Shanghai. Reportedly, he and Fairbairn then examined them and fired them for accuracy and reliability.

Based on his street experience with SMP officers forgetting to remove the safety during a gunfight, Fairbairn determined the safeties of the Colt 1911/1911A1 pistols and the Colt 1908 Pocket pistols should be pinned in the “off” position. As SMP officers were trained to carry their pistols without a round in the chamber and to chamber a round as they drew and prepared to engage, the inoperable safety was not deemed a safety issue. Fairbairn had also seen Webley break top revolvers that failed to function because the locking stirrup had not been fully engaged. As a result, a piston was developed in the SMP Armory that applied pressure to keep the stirrup closed. When malfunctions were encountered with the M1908 Colt, a leaf spring was attached to the slide to press a knob against the rear of the pistol’s barrel enhancing reliability. Colt experimented with extra parts for the Shanghai M1908 pistols, including a bridge to allow faster retraction of the slide when chambering a round.


Fairbairn-Shanghai
One of the first Colt 1911A1 pistols ordered by the SMP: note the markings and the rack number 12 on the frame, slide, and barrel.

When proceeding home to the UK on long leave in 1925, Fairbairn visited US and British police and military units to evaluate their firearms training while developing his own system, which was street oriented rather than bullseye shooting oriented. He had determined that it was five times easier to train an officer to proficiency with the auto than the revolver; hence his choice of Colt autos. He also found the auto leant itself better to instinctive pointing, an important element of his method.


The most important element in winning a gunfight according to Fairbairn was speed: the first shot must be fired within one-third second. That does not allow time to align the sights. Based on his analysis, most urban shootouts took place at 5 feet or less. Just as he did in hand-to-hand combat training and blade training, Fairbairn stressed the offensive spirit and the will to win.

When likely to face an armed opponent, Fairbairn trained his officers to carry their pistol at a downward 45-dgree angle, facing the target, with the arm straight and the pistol an extension of the arm. The wrist was twisted slightly toward the right hand side to align the sights by feel. The pistol was centered on the body to allow better instinctive pointing. When engaging, the officer was taught to raise the pistol keeping the arm straight until it cut the “line of sight,” at which point after a slight pause the trigger was pulled. After firing the shot, the pistol was returned to the ready position. Both eyes remained open throughout the process. Because Shanghai gunfights often took place in darkness, Fairbairn stressed aligning the body square to the target while bringing the pistol up to engage. This method worked well at close range at night.

As the pistol was carried in what would today be known as “Condition Three,” SMP officers were trained to load the pistol in the ready position by rotating it to the left, grasping the slide with the left hand, thrusting the receiver forward until the slide was fully retracted, then releasing it to load a round.

Fairbairn-Shanghai
A Shanghai Colt M1908 showing the screw to block the safety and the spring to enhance reliability. (Photo courtesy of Rock Island Auction Service)

Live fire training employed a man-sized target with rectangles of varying sizes superimposed. A black patch of 1 inch x 1.5 inches was pasted at the center of the inner rectangle. For each of the drills, 4 rounds were loaded into the magazine. At 3-4 yards, starting from the ready position, the trainee raised the pistol, firing two shots as soon as it cut the black mark. The drill was repeated a second time. Three of four hits were considered qualifying. Fairbairn then examined the trainees’ targets to note point of impact. As they were not using the sights, he adjusted their point of impact by adjusting their stance. Fairbairn found that many trainees performed better if they lunged forward with the left foot, which helped them square-up to the target. The technique had the additional advantage of making them a smaller target and countering the tendency to shoot high.




The second drill employed a 12x16 inch rectangle at 5 yards that would be exposed for one second. Two shots were to be fired as soon as the target was exposed. This drill was repeated twice with 3 out of 4 hits qualifying.

Additional training included engagement of a target moving at 3-4 miles an hour. Fairbairn emphasized that rather than leading the target, to look where the shots were intended to impact, the hips pivoting slightly to follow the target. Again two shots were fired, with the drill being repeated twice. One hit on each pass of the moving target was considered qualifying.

As the pistols were carried with an empty chamber, the fourth drill carried out at 3-5 yards was a load-and-engage exercise. Only two rounds were loaded initially. Staring from the ready position, the officer had to load the first round then engage the moving target with two rounds. Hits with both rounds were required to qualify. Next, two more rounds were loaded, and the pistol was placed in the crossdraw holster used by the SMP. The trainee then had to draw and engage the moving target with both rounds. NOTE: Since the chamber of the SMP pistol was unloaded until ready to engage, Fairbairn taught that the finger should be on the trigger as the pistol was brought onto target.


Fairbairn-Shanghai
Three European members of the SMP stand in front of an armored car of the Shanghai Volunteer Corps during one of the times of unrest. Note that the SMP officers remain ready to bring their weapons quickly into action, either by wearing them outside of their coats or leaving the coats unbuttoned.

In their book Shooting to Live, Fairbairn and Sykes show more advanced street techniques including use of cover and “half” or “quarter” hip shooting positions when an attacker is so close he could grab the weapon. Two-handed shooting it also taught, though the method illustrated is with the support hand grasping the wrist of the shooting hand. This was taught for firing from behind cover. Two-handed prone shooting was also illustrated.

Fairbairn believed that training did not require firing an excessive amount of ammunition. Only 16 rounds were required for the drills, which were practiced in initial training and periodic qualification. If necessary, however, a trainee could repeat the drills in order to qualify, thus using more ammunition.

Fairbairn was a great believer in realistic training so he developed an obstacle course that simulated many of the impediments a police officer would encounter when chasing an armed criminal through the alleys and over the rooftops of Shanghai. After completion of the obstacle course, the winded officer would have to successfully engage one or more targets.

Fairbairn-Shanghai
Firing Position taught by Fairbairn with Arm Fully Extended as shown in his book Shooting to Live.

Speaking of ammunition, the SMP had a problem that will sound familiar to contemporary police officers. Often, there ware accusations of a bystander being shot by police. As a result, Fairbairn ordered ammunition that was marked on the bullet and the case to that it would be possible to prove whether a shot had been fired by the police or not.

Police ammunition was carefully controlled. When an officer came on duty, he drew his pistol and two magazines, each loaded with six rounds. Chinese officers inserted their empty pistols in their holsters, and their sergeants then inserted the loaded magazine into the pistol. European officers were allowed to load their own weapons. For the Sikhs there was a drill for loading the Webley revolvers. Drills were reversed for unloading. To make sure that no ammunition was sold to bandits or fired without reporting an incident, SMP magazines had inspection holes in the magazine so that each round could be checked when police were going on or off duty. While weapons were being drawn by officers coming on shift, they were being turned in by officers going off shift. As a result, two pistols were required for each three officers.

Some officers were authorized to carry concealed weapons, including armed search parties and CID. At times when street crime was especially high, European officers were allowed to carry their weapons concealed off duty. Periodically, the duty ammunition was replaced, with the ammunition that had been removed from service to be used for training.

Fairbairn can also be credited with creating a forerunner of modern tactical teams with the SMP Reserve Unit. Established to deal with strikes, prison riots, barricade situations, transport of large sums of money, transport of dangerous prisoners, and countering armed robbers, among other duties, the Reserve Unit was established in December, 1925.

Fairbairn-Shanghai
SMP ammunition was marked, as shown by this Remington cartridge, so a recovered bullet or fired case could be identified as having come from a police officer or not. Note E. A. Sykes was the Remington rep in Shanghai. (Photo courtesy of Bill Wooden)

The Reserve Unit’s strength was 145 by 1929, consisting of European senior officers, European Sergeants, Chinese patrol officers, and Sikh rifleman. Chinese members carried a baton with their Colt auto concealed, while Sikhs used lathis (sticks) and carried a Lee Enfield .303 carbine without a bayonet mounted. From photos the carbine appears similar to the RIC Carbine. European officers carried their Colt pistols concealed. Also available if needed were Thompson SMGs, gas guns, and riot shotguns. When dealing with strikes or riots, a special squad was sometimes used to enter the crowd and extract agitators.

The Reserve Unit’s “Red Maria” was what would now be called a “SWAT van.” Everyone knew when the Red Maria was coming thanks to its three searchlights, four headlights, two sirens, and a fire bell! A 1921 Thompson SMG was mounted on a swivel atop the van where Fairbairn and another foreign officer could observe an operation. A system of lights was used to relay commands to the street formations in case the noise made verbal commands ineffective. If the crowd became violent, also available for deployment were banners in Chinese that warned if the crowd did not disperse they would be fired upon.

For barricade situations the SMP had a sniper unit commanded by E. A. Sykes who held a reserve SMP commission. The sniper unit was recruited from among Shanghai’s top competitive rifle shooters. Sykes used a Winchester manufactured P-14 Enfield in .303. Information available does not indicate whether any of the snipers used optical sights. Sykes’ rifle was equipped with, the Parker-Hale Twin Zero Model 14/35, considered by many the finest precision sight of its time. The eyepiece incorporates the very sophisticated Parker-Hale "Multipeep" eyepiece. Note that this sight was not introduced until 1935 so obviously Sykes had relied on something else prior to that time. As a firearms enthusiast, competitive shooter, and rep for various manufacturers in the firearms industry, Sykes would have followed the latest developments and upgraded as better sights became available.

Fairbairn-Shanghai
The Red Maria ready for a riot callout; W. E. Fairbairn is at left in the command position. Note the mounted Thompson SMG. (Photo courtesy Dorothea Fairbairn)

Fairbairn was known to have used the Thompson himself during some entries against barricaded felons. In fact, he was so fond of the Thompson that his daughter Dorothea remembers it leaning the corner of their living room in the house they occupied at the Reserve Unit’s HQ. She also remembered Fairbairn and Sykes sitting at the kitchen table drinking whiskey and talking tactics.

Fairbairn’s training was proven invaluable on the streets of Shanghai where SMP members prevailed in gunfights at a far greater rate than the criminals they faced. For example, in 1928, SMP officers were involved in 117 shooting affrays, in which they suffered 9 killed and 11 wounded, while killing 57 criminals, wounding 18, and arresting 135. Another case from 1926 gives an idea of the skills Fairbairn had given SMP officers. During an arrest of Chinese kidnappers and rescue of a wealthy Chinese merchant, Detective R. Moir engaged 7 Chinese, killing 3, fatally wounding 2, and capturing 2. In total 57 shots were fired, 17 from Moir using two pistols. He was also equipped with an SMP steel “bullet proof vest” and a “bullet proof shield”. Moir only received a slight wound in the shoulder. Officers who prevailed in gunfights such as this, including Moir, were normally awarded the SMP Distinguished Service Medal (DSM).

Fairbairn had been in the forefront of supplying “Bullet Proof Vests and Shields” for SMP officers carrying out raids or performing other dangerous duties. There were two types of vests: “standard” and “Mauser Proof,” the latter needed because so many Chinese criminals used C.96 “Broomhandle” Mausers firing the 7.63mm Mauser round. Fairbairn also insisted that the vests and shields be inspected periodically and any vest or shield that had taken a hit be refurbished. The shields were used frequently when moving up stairs, as Chinese bandits would often retreat upward and engage the raiding party downward with C.96s.

Fairbairn-Shanghai
E.A. Sykes’ .303 Winchester P-14 rifle used when he headed the SMP sniper unit. The sight is Parker-Hale Twin Zero Model 14/35. The eyepiece incorporates the very sophisticated Parker-Hale "Multipeep" eyepiece.

Fairbairn’s influence was felt elsewhere in Shanghai. The French Concession Police followed the SMP lead and ordered Colt 1911A1 pistols for their European officers and Colt 1908 pistols for Chinese officers. However, these pistols were not delivered until after the France fell to the Germans and had the Shanghai markings over-stamped and were sold elsewhere. Other British Chinese police forces adopted the Colt M1908 through contact with Fairbairn. For example, the British Municipal Council Police of Tientsen purchased 355 of the Colt M1908 Pockets Model.

Fairbairn’s influence was also felt within the US 4th Marines in Shanghai. Marine officers became friendly with Fairbairn and underwent training in the “Fairbairn method”. Later these officers would take that training to their World War II units. That will be discussed in more detail in the second part of this article. The Reserve Unit also influenced the Marines, who formed their Street Company as an adjunct to the Reserve Unit for riot duty.

Fairbairn-Shanghai
Front, side and rear view of one type of SMP bulletproof vest fabricated in the Armory. These were proof against common handgun rounds. (Photo courtesy of Dorothea Fairbairn)

Although this article focuses on Fairbairn’s firearms training and tactics, his influence on other aspects of close combat cannot be overemphasized, including Defundu, the martial art based on his system and the development of World War II fighting knives such as the famed Fairbairn-Sykes dagger and the Smatchet.

Fairbairn retired and returned to the UK in 1940 along with his friend E. A. Sykes. But the legacy of Fairbairn, Sykes, and Shanghai did not end there. The lessons learned on the streets of Shanghai would soon be applied to the battlefields of Europe and Asia.

For those interested in reading further on Fairbairn and Shanghai, I recommend the following books:

Leroy Thompson The World’s First SWAT Team: W. E. Fairbairn and the Shanghai Municipal Police Reserve Unit

W. E. Fairbairn & E.A. Sykes. Shooting to Live: With the One-Hand Gun

E. W. Peters. Shanghai Policeman


If you have any thoughts or comments on this article, we’d love to hear them. Email us at FirearmsNews@Outdoorsg.com.

About the Author:

Leroy Thompson was born in St. Louis, Missouri and has continued to use it as his base of operations, though he has lived overseas at times. He has an undergraduate degree in Business Administration and graduate degrees in English from St. Louis University and University College London. He has trained military and law enforcement personnel in various countries and has written 53 books and more than 3,000 magazine articles on military, law enforcement, and firearms topics.


This is a shortened version of the article which appeared in the printed edition of Firearms News.

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