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W. E. Fairbairn and the Birth of Modern Gunfighting (Part 2)

In Part 2 of this series, we leave Shanghai and follow Farbairn into World War II!

W. E. Fairbairn and the Birth of Modern Gunfighting (Part 2)

After leaving Shanghai Fairbairn put his skills to work during World War II, this included training the British Home Guard in quick and dirty fighting. (Photo courtesy of Imperial War Museum)

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On 9 May 1940, W. E. Fairbairn and E. A. Sykes disembarked from Shanghai in the UK. By 21 May 1940, both had signed the Official Secrets Act. This would indicate they were already under consideration for jobs within the intelligence community, initially with Section D of SIS. There has been speculation by many, including Rex Applegate, that Sykes had functioned as an agent of the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), AKA MI6, in Shanghai. If that were the case, it would explain how the two men were so quickly recruited for secret work.

An early job assigned to Fairbairn and Sykes was preparing the Home Guard, especially the secret Auxiliary Units, that would serve as stay behind units operating behind the lines should Germany invade Great Britain. Some civilians also received at least minimal training in improvised weapons and hand-to-hand combat, with the idea they could augment guerrilla forces.

In July, 1940, Fairbairn and Sykes, now commissioned as captains, arrived at Lochailort, Scotland, where they would be training future Commandos or members of the Special Operations Executive (SOE) in use of pistol and Thompson SMG, as well as unarmed close combat and use of the blade. However, it appears they were teaching close combat even earlier to future SOE members at Aston House in Hertfordshire. Despite the fact Fairbairn was 55 and Sykes 57, they welcomed new recruits by rolling down the stairs, ending in a crouch armed with pistol in one hand and knife in the other. This famous entrance prepared recruits for the hardcore training they would receive. Fairbairn and Sykes soon gained the nickname “Terrible Twins” from trainees.

For the Commandos the primary handgun was the Colt 1911/1911A1 and they learned to use it and the Thompson in the same point shooting manner as had the SMP. Another firearms instructor at Lochailort who should be mentioned is “Wally” Walbridge, who taught use of the S.M.L.E. (Short Magazine Lee Enfield) rifle. The Walbridge method for firing the S.M.L.E. quickly in close combat was designed to allow trainees to fire 30 rounds in one minute. In close combat, he also taught point shooting with the Lee Enfield, as well as use of the bayonet, butt stroking, and other rifle close combat skills. Walbridge was considered such a skilled instructor that Fairbairn included his fast shooting method in his book All-In Fighting! Based on memories of trainees who underwent instruction at Lochailort, Fairbairn was often involved in giving the hand-to-hand and blade training, while Sykes and Walbridge handled the firearms training. However, Fairbairn remained heavily involved in the firearms training program and Sykes helped in close combat training.

Fairbairn used the .22 Colt ACE to help train in the use of the 1911A1. Shown is the Service Model Ace, which employed a floating chamber to simulate recoil firing a .45 ACP round. (Photo courtesy of Rock Island Auction Service)

Just as Fairbairn had been forced to run his training program in Shanghai with limited ammunition, at Lochailort, for initial training of personnel, Fairbairn was allotted 10 rounds each of .303, .22, and .45 ammunition. That was 30-rounds for live fire practice. Bear in mind that, initially, training was carried out shortly after Dunkirk when arms and ammunition were in short supply and were being hoarded to face an expected German invasion. But, it does show the need for making any live firing count. However, it should be noted that sources differ in the amount of ammunition used in training. This may be based on when they went through training and the availability of ammunition. Reportedly, some training for the Colt 1911 was using a Colt ACE, which may account for the allocation of .22 caliber ammunition. Although it would have been logical to train with the Service Model ACE to approximate the recoil of firing a .45 auto, a standard model ACE may have been what was available in the UK at the time.

As their basis for instruction was street experience in one of the toughest cities in the world, Fairbairn and Sykes did not mesh well with professional British military officers. The class issue came into effect especially with Fairbairn because of his humble beginnings. Rex Applegate once told me he felt that Sykes had fewer problems because of his better education and background. Though Sykes did not fit into the “old boy” network.

The Thompson SMG would be a primary weapon of the Commandos, and Fairbairn and Sykes taught its use with a Shanghai twist. As usual Fairbairn disliked safeties, but he also felt that firing single shots with the Thompson would be most effective. As a result, he taught the future Commandos to carry the weapon with the chamber empty and to chamber a round when bringing the SMG into action; to keep the selector set on full auto; but to learn trigger control so they could fire single shots. However, Fairbairn and Sykes did instruct that certain circumstances might indicate using the single shot setting; when taking a longer shot for example.

Based on memories of former Commandos, the instinctive firing training was as effective as it had been in Shanghai, trainees learning to put six out of six shots on moving targets in low light. It should be noted, though, that the training given the Commandos was different from SMP training in that SMP officers had been trained to shoot in defense of themselves or civilians. Fairbairn wanted to instill in the Commandos the ability and willingness to kill an enemy in combat without hesitation.

Fairbairn trained Commandos in the same techniques with their 1911A1 pistols as he did the SMP and later the OSS. The Colt 1911A1 was chosen for the Commandos because of its stopping power and because it used the same ammunition as their Thompson SMGs. (Photo courtesy of Imperial War Museum)

In Shanghai, Fairbairn had developed both an obstacle course and a “Fun House,” which was designed to train SMP officers in facing various threats as they moved through a typical Shanghai building. Fairbairn and Sykes built a similar building at Lochailort based on a small cottage that incorporated pop-up targets. As befits a building for training Commandos and SOE agents, entry was via the roof. Reportedly, it was sometimes known as, “Fairbairn’s Villa.” There was also an outdoor range with pop-up targets that appeared as the trainee moved along a zig-zag path. Such “killing houses” and tactical ranges would become standard throughout the world for training special operations personnel. Reportedly, bombed out sections of London or other cities were later incorporated into realistic urban combat training for the Commandos and other units. Though not necessarily directly under instruction by Fairbairn and Sykes, their influence on realistic training was there.

Though assigned to Lochailort, Fairbairn and Sykes periodically traveled to train military units around the country. Of course, most conventional units wanted nothing to do with Fairbairn’s and Sykes’s “radical” approach to use of the handgun. Most of the British Army was issued the Webley or Enfield MK IV service revolver and taught to fire it one-handed while standing upright. To be fair, however, the influence of Fairbairn’s methods is found in the British Army’s 1942 Small Arms Pamphlet. For example, the two-handed method illustrated shows grasping the wrist with the support hand as shown by Fairbairn and Sykes in Shooting to Live. Later a two-page supplement to the 1942 pamphlet was based heavily on Shooting to Live.

Fairbairn is seen here preparing to send a trainee through the “House of Horrors” by loading a 1911A1 pistol. (Photo courtesy of Dorothea Fairbairn)

The Commandos are probably most famous for their silent killing skills instilled by Fairbairn and Sykes. And, today the names “Fairbairn” and “Sykes” are recognized for the Commando knife they helped design: the Fairbairn-Sykes dagger. They had worked with Wilkinson Sword on the design of the knife late in 1940, with the first order for 50 knives going to Wilkinson on 14 January 1941. Production of this original type of F-S Dagger continued until August, 1941, when it was replaced by a version that was faster and cheaper to produce. The original elegant version with its “S” cross guard is usually known as the 1st Pattern F-S, while the replacement is designated the 2nd Pattern. An even simpler version known as the 3rd Pattern would be produced in the largest quantity. Only a few thousand of the 1St Pattern F-S Daggers were produced, and they are highly sought by collectors. The F-S Dagger proved very popular with the Commandos and other British and Allied Special Forces. It was well designed for Fairbairn’s quick and dirty killing techniques with the blade, but was stylish enough that it gave those to whom it was issued a sense they were true warriors. The F-S remains today the symbol of special operations units around the world and is still issued by many.


Because of the demand for training in irregular warfare techniques, Fairbairn and Sykes trained a group of instructors—the number is often give as 12—who could carry out the training at locations around the UK. I have also been told by reliable sources that at least a couple of ex-members of the SMP, whom he had trained, were recruited by Fairbairn. Reportedly, one of them used to do a demonstration in which he hung a heavy wool issue military overcoat from a line and shot it with a .45 ACP round, which would bounce off the coat. I’m not sure if the story was true nor what it would prove, but it would be the type of showmanship that Fairbairn liked. Fairbairn and Sykes were always secretive about those they trained so the names of many of their adjunct instructors are now lost.

The 1st Pattern Fairbairn-Sykes dagger, which became the symbol the Commandos and other allied Special Forces in World War II.

The most famous Fairbairn protégé from the SMP to play an important role in World War II was Dermot “Pat” O’Neill who was an inspector in the SMP assigned to the Reserve Unit. Along with Fairbairn he was a member of the Japanese Jiu Jitsu Club in Shanghai. O’Neill left Shanghai to become head of security at the British Embassy in Tokyo, but warned by Japanese friends to get out, left Tokyo before December 7, 1941. After coming to the USA O’Neill was recommended by Fairbairn for the OSS but instead become the chief close combat instructor for the US 1st Special Service Force, the forerunner of today’s Special Forces. O’Neill was legendary within the 1st SSF not just as an instructor in close combat but also as an operator, famously going out at night on the Anzio Beachhead to eliminate members of German patrols with the famous 1st SSF Stiletto, an excellent killing knife based on the F-S Dagger.

Lochailort was replaced by the more famous Commando Training center at Achnacarry, Scotland, by early 1942. Much of the training at Achnacarry was carried out by Sykes and other instructors who had trained under the “Terrible Twins.” In March, 1942, Fairbairn was detached for service at Camp X in Canada where SOE agents and others were receiving training. There had been a falling out between longtime friends Fairbairn and Sykes prior to Fairbairn leaving for Camp X. Various reasons have been suggested for the disagreement but space prevents a discussion here.

Sykes remained in charge of training all SOE personnel in the UK. At Achnacarry, many other special operations units would receive training in the Fairbairn and Sykes methods including the Special Air Service, various allied commando units, and the US Army Rangers. Among Sykes’s other duties were setting up a course of training for the Jedburgh teams that would be parachuted into occupied Europe ahead of the Allied invasion. Teams were composed of American, British, and French personnel to organize Resistance groups to carry out sabotage to slow German response to an invasion. Many future special operations soldiers in the USA, UK, and France learned the Fairbairn and Sykes methods of close combat and later taught them to their post-war units.

Fairbairn was a great fan of the US M1 Carbine, which was especially popular with special ops units in Asia. The Chindit at right carries his M1 Carbine. (IWM)

One technique mentioned by some former trainees that Sykes demonstrated was to drop to the floor as he entered a door and quickly shoot four “enemies” within the room. Remember, Sykes was often cited as more of a “gun guy” than Fairbairn, including to me by Rex Applegate. However, Fairbairn was more a showman and, hence, is better known. In fact, Fairbairn “starred” in films for the Home Guard/Commandos and the OSS, the latter with all of the players, including him, wearing “Beagle Boy” masks.

Many have stated that Fairbairn and Sykes would never reconcile, as Fairbairn was in North America for the remainder of the War, while Sykes stayed with SOE in the UK until he became ill and died in May, 1945. However, there are reports that Fairbairn returned from North America for a short time before Sykes’s death and they had a reconciliation of some sort.

Another SOE firearms instructor who had some association with Fairbairn and Sykes became well known on his own. Hector Grant-Taylor probably attended one of the training courses given by Sykes at Arisaig House, though this not certain; however, he was aware of Fairbairn’s methods. During the war, Grant-Taylor operated in an arena far from Fairbairn and Sykes. Grant-Taylor arrived in Cairo in October, 1941, with a 12-man team to teach at Special Training School (STS) 102, another SOE facility. Grant-Taylor ended up moving around the Middle East, at one point giving firearms training to the Arab Legion. In spring, 1942, Grant-Taylor was seconded to the Palestine Police Force, where he would gain much of his fame. His instruction was similar to that given by Fairbairn and Sykes, stressing the body’s ability to use its natural pointing sense to acquire a target. He also used his version of the House of Horrors, which he designated the “execution shed.” Unlike the early days of SOE and Commando training, Grant-Taylor did not face an ammunition shortage, students firing over 500 rounds during the training. Stress was on entering a room quickly and dominating it by shooting all hostiles.

Grant-Taylor was well known for his “Rule of Three” applied to room clearing:

1—Shoot the first man that moves

2—Next, shoot the man nearest to you who moves

3—Last, shoot anyone left that appears to be a threat.

A Palestine Police Close Combat Manual was later published that incorporates much of the “Grant-Taylor Method.”

Grant-Taylor’s reputation grew as he traveled the Middle East doing training for other military and police formations. Among the best-known units trained by Grant-Taylor at this time were the Special Air Service (SAS), Special Boat Service (SBS), and Special Raiding Squadron (SRS). Many of the elements of Fairbairn’s, Sykes’s, and Grant-Taylor’s training would continue with the SAS for decades after the end of World War II. By the summer of 1944, Grant-Taylor was in India to do training for US Army units there, reportedly, including a few teams of OSS Unit 101 that operated in Burma. He also trained officers in the Gurkha Rifles. After World War II, Grant-Taylor established a CQC (Close Quarter Combat) school at Quetta in Pakistan where training was given to British officers and their Pakistani troops. In 1948 the Shah of Iran visited the school and was impressed by the performance of Grant-Taylor’s protege Major Keith O’Kelly demonstrating room-clearing techniques.

In one of the OSS instructional films made by Fairbairn and Applegate, Fairbairn works with a trainee on his shooting position.

Grant Taylor died in Pakistan in 1950 but left a legacy that intersected that of Fairbairn and Sykes. His training of British Special Forces units such as the SAS would establish the basis, though improved upon over the years, especially during undercover operations in Aden, for the legendary skills shown in the Killing House and at Princes Gate. It is almost certain that the training given to the Palestine Police and the manual that ensued influenced later Israeli special forces units and the Mossad, as the Fairbairn technique of carrying the pistol without a round chambered and operating the slide while bringing the pistol into action using point shooting was standard with the Israelis for many years.

At Camp X (AKA STS 103), Fairbairn served as “Chief Instructor” and was granted “local rank” of major in June, 1942. Because Canadians and Americans were being trained at Camp X, as well as some British agents, Fairbairn’s method of instinctive shooting and close combat reached a new audience. Sergeant-Major de Relwyskow, a former Olympic wrestling medalist, assisted Fairbairn and replaced him when he left Camp X. As many of those being trained at Camp X had previous traditional training in use of the revolver, one of Fairbairn’s objectives was to teach that quickly killing an enemy in wartime required speed and aggressiveness. Reportedly some FBI agents were students at Camp X, but I have seen nothing about how they responded to the Fairbairn method. However, at least some of FBI training before World War II employed principles similar to those taught by Fairbairn.

When training the Commandos, Fairbairn had instructed in the use of the Thompson, which he had used in training and on the streets in Shanghai. While he still taught use of the Thompson at Camp X, he also taught use of the Sten. Fairbairn had taught hip firing with the Thompson to the Commandos, including the low hip and under arm positions for assault use, but at Camp X he seems to have given more emphasis to aimed fire from the shoulder with the SMG. Some of the SMG techniques were based on the likelihood that agents would be using the Sten, which was much handier and lighter than the Thompson.

The Welrod was a purpose-designed suppressed pistol used by SOE, OSS, and even the US Special Forces in Vietnam. (IWM)

With the pistol, at Camp X, Fairbairn taught his traditional instinctive pointing from the aggressive crouch. Fairbairn had always stressed an extremely strong grip on the pistol, which he still emphasized at Camp X. The basic technique of locking the arm and wrist, and pivoting the shoulder to bring the weapon on target remained the same as he had taught in Shanghai and to SOE and Commandos in the UK. One technique that I had not seen mentioned prior to Camp X was having trainees practice pointing at targets with their fingers prior to using their pistols to emphasize instinctual pointing of the pistol. Fairbairn always taught the usefulness of firing two shots into an enemy but he seems to have emphasized the “double tap” especially at Camp X. It is interesting to note that training instructions from Camp X state that pistol magazines are to be “charged with eight rounds—two rounds to be fired at each target.” This would seem to indicate that training was carried out with the Colt M1903 .32 acp pistol, which was used by both SOE and OSS. The use of the .32 caliber pistol would also explain extra emphasis on double taps.

As Fairbairn had access to a large facility at Camp X, he set up “Stalk Courses” that required the use of field craft in conjunction with firearms training. These were a variation of his SMP obstacle course tailored for future agents operating behind enemy lines. He also built a “House of Horrors” to train future agents to react quickly to situations in low light and close quarters. Emphasis was placed on room clearing in situations an agent might face when raiding an enemy headquarters or other facility. Another aspect of firearms training at Camp X was geared to agents operating behind enemy lines, as foreign weapons familiarization was included. To some extent foreign weapons training was geared to the likely AO (Area of Operations) of future agents. Elven and three-quarters hours were devoted to foreign weapons.

Despite the fact they were intended for clandestine use, many SOE and OSS Colt M1903 pistols had U.S. PROPERTY markings.

An interesting question that has always arisen about Fairbairn’s time at Camp X was his interaction with Ian Fleming. Fleming reportedly visited Camp X during his time in Naval Intelligence. Reportedly, he either observed Fairbairn’s training program or participated in it. As a result, Fairbairn is sometimes mentioned as one of the myriad possible prototypes for James Bond.

When Fairbairn left Camp X in April, 1942, to train members of the US Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the forerunner of both the CIA and the US Army Special Forces, he took up the challenge of turning a bunch of Ivy Leaguers, Spanish Civil War veterans, movie stars, and assorted others into killers. Virtually every memoir by a member of OSS mentions the training received from Fairbairn, with some crediting it for saving their lives. Always the showman, Fairbairn improved on his “Mystery House” (aka “House of Horrors”) by incorporating targets painted to resemble Tojo or Hitler. As he had in Shanghai, Fairbairn added stressors such as sounds of gunfire and other noise as well as popup targets. Fairbairn also stressed firing on the move, a standard tactic among current SOF such as US Navy SEALs or British SAS. As President Roosevelt’s retreat Shangri-La (later to become Camp David) was located near the OSS training area, Fairbairn even gave some training to members of the Secret Service. Assisting Fairbairn After February, 1943, was Hans Tofte, who had learned Fairbairn’s techniques in Shanghai.

Fairbairn moved among various OSS training facilities providing basic close combat training and instilling the will to survive by destroying the enemy. Indiana Jones would have concurred with Fairbairn’s advice to students: if someone comes at you with a knife, immediately shoot them! It would be interesting to know if he had his own version of the 21-foot rule.

Rex Applegate continued to promote his methods by writing, teaching, and interacting with people at major firearms events.

OSS operational groups were the special operations forerunners of today’s Special Forces. They were trained in guerrilla warfare at Area F, the former Congressional Country Club. Though Fairbairn may have been a visiting instructor, others who had received his training carried out much of the day-to-day close combat instruction. Many of the close combat techniques taught by Fairbairn to the OSS OGs continued to be taught when the U.S. Special Forces 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne) was formed in June, 1952, under Col Aaron Bank, an OSS veteran.

No doubt, the recipient of Fairbairn’s training best known to American shooters is Rex Applegate, who trained in North America under Fairbairn and the UK under Sykes, then became an instructor for the OSS and at the U.S. Military Intelligence School. As a lieutenant, Applegate was involved in March, 1942, in selecting the sites in Prince William Forest Park that would later become the principal OSS training camps.

The proposal for a post-WWII riot control unit prepared by Fairbairn for the OSS. It is organized much as the SMP Reserve Unit, but with M1 Carbines instead of Lee-Enfield rifles.

Applegate became an advocate for point shooting until his death in July, 1998. In fact, he called me a few weeks before his death to tell me he was sending me a copy of a recent article on point shooting and to discuss the advantages of having various colored lasers on weapons during building clearing. Applegate’s book Kill or Get Killed, written in 1943, would become as much a classic of close combat with the handgun as Shooting to Live. Applegate called his version of instinctive double-taps “Point-Shoot.” Applegate was closely involved with Fairbairn in making OSS training videos, directed by John Ford, showing hand-to-hand combat and shooting techniques. (NOTE: These are on YouTube and still worth watching today)

Elements of Fairbairn’s method were incorporated into US Marine Corps training by some of the Marine officers who had trained with him in Shanghai, including Sam Yeaton and Sam Moore who had helped fabricate the forerunner of the F-S dagger in the SMP Armoury. Yeaton would command the 3rd Marine Raider Battalion and, along with other Marines who had trained in Shanghai, provided inspiration for the Marine Raider stiletto patterned on the F-S dagger.

The author and Dorothea Fairbairn with W. E. Fairbairn’s Legion of Merit awarded for his service to the OSS.

In addition to training the OSS for field operations, Fairbairn also advised on elements that would be encountered in China and Shanghai when the allies re-occupied the area. Foreseeing the need for units similar to the Reserve Unit in occupied areas after World War II, he drew up plans for Riot Units modeled on the reserve unit, though instead of Sikhs armed with .303 rifles he foresaw troops armed with M1 Carbines. At the end of the war, Fairbairn, now a LTC, received the U.S. Legion of Merit specifically at the request of OSS commander Bill Donovan.

Fairbairn remained in demand to carry out training. He helped establish Singapore’s Riot Squad, which was based on the SMP Reserve Unit, and later trained troops on Cyprus in riot control and counterinsurgency. He continued to makes notes for upgrading his books based on later experience. Dorothea Fairbairn let me examine the copies of Shooting to Live and All-In Fighting with his notes. The changes were not extensive but they did show that he continued to think about his life’s work until his death in 1960. His legacy has been continued by Rex Applegate and myriad others.

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

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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