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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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62 thoughts on “Open Quarters VS. Closed Quarters”

  1. I absolutely agree. Being vigilant is key. It’s rather the same principal as never letting yourself be taken away from public awareness. Never let them get you into the car. Always be aware of your surroundings and what may be coming down the road. It is much more comforting to keep it at the perimeter and be able to assess the situation without the surprise.

  2. I loved (yes, I’m indeed female, and a very fit and able one for 75, but never hand to hand able,) flight was always to my advantage, having been a trained and successful competitive swimmer, and an equine rider, my mindset was quite different. My newly honed disgust of guns, disallows owning one. My house had four green roofs, so boiling oil is a possibility. My hands and wrists have undergone four serious surgeries, my shoulders are soon to face complete reverse replacement, so opioids might be a tempting offer for disablement. Our four 40’s aged sons are well trained and classic fencers, meaning very able with almost any knife to large swords, and more than able with hands, should they be home, or I in theirs and they would take such a situation as practice. However, it’s more than likely my husband and I would head to the underground food cellars. We’re both used to settlement through words. Etc. Silly, no!? In general, I’ve not a chance, except our woods, but I’d probably do nothing, or use a fire extinguisher, and die laughing after spraying one with either. As for the methods of historical ships and crews, I did enjoy that as it seemed pretty accurate. I’m partial to Viking vessels and tactics, and more educated as to medieval tactics. The hand to hand tactics of the “long ago”used many less combative means, many poisons and fires, even strangles and disablement. I can only imagine that. Much can be learned from old paintings and arts.
    I have thought this through, and would do nothing, I learned how little I could actually accomplish long ago, when a man I refused to date broke into my apartment and raped me. Two days before, I had stopped into a local bakery where two local “officers of safety” were chatting over coffee, and were talking about young women in the early mid sixties and claimed they “asked for whatever ….” and I realized there was no safety anywhere. I replaced my locks and had my phone reconnected, and poured something in his gas tank when parked where he worked, and ruined his car. Your articles bring out the chatty worst in me. I’m figuring I’ll live til I’m 100 as there’s a bit of that in my family, and my amazing and creative mechanical and thermal engineer husband’s as well. I’m a fine arts historian and artist, and there are materials that can be dangerous, flammable even fatal, but my nature is adverse to adversity at this point.

  3. I always find these articles enlightening from a historical perspective, and also as a reflection on the needs and requirements in our modern and personal world for constant vigilance and self preservation. Thank you.

  4. Was not aware of the origin of those terms – thank you for that history.

    Initially, I was wondering why you were using “closed quarter battle” instead of the expected “close quarter combat” we typically use today – Now I know what you were doing.

    Always good to learn something new.

  5. It be harder to fight and have a higher chance of getting kill because you are fighting in close corners. But I am not an expert but hand to hand combat is less close and more safer because you can do more. how ever both you still can die. super good advice. keep it up you are protecting more people each day.

  6. Thank you for the information, as was pointed out, very few of us know the history behind the terms that we use.

  7. I appreciate all the info, and agree 100%. One thing most people don’t give any thought too, restraint. Police use this quickly, before perp has time to think. I carry a 357 magnum. I also carry cuffs and know how to quickly use them. I had a situation where home invader gave up while looking down barrel. 2 seconds later he was cuffed while call was being made. You also have to be ready to contain perp if they give up. If given time and opportunity, you will get your head beat while trying to make call. Never give perp time to think. P S, large zip ties work if you don’t have cuffs.

  8. Totally agree with the blog. I learned from an early age, due to an older sibling who had an uncanny knack of attracting trouble and mayhem to my parents house, that scouting everyday social situations and interactions with other people would be invaluable to progress safely in life, and apart from a couple of small incidents that were dealt with in the appropriate manner. I have used the skill for most of my life now and I taught my kids the theory to keep them safe as they grew up and I’m now trying to teach my grandkids the same thing, I also coach them in some martial art techniques but in all honesty I would rather they didn’t have to resort to violence to keep themselves safe and used their heads first before they use their hands.

  9. Thank you for the history lesson and another tool for maintaining our situtational awareness for the environment in which we now live.

    Be safe and locked and loaded.

    Barry B

  10. I love your close quarter instructions I already have the KravMaca, of course I love the free offerings, a lot of your self defense I can’t afford right now, some day though. Thanks