Open Hand Versus Closed Fist – Practical Application For Public Safety

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Many operational safety training programs still teach closed fist strategies to officers for resolution of violence and subject control. However, with the increased incidence of severe and sometimes lethal consequence of closed hand attacks, there is little logic in officers using closed hands for control when open hands are far safer and more versatile.

With regard to the open hand versus closed hand striking debate, open hands are a highly effective strategy when used correctly and in appropriate circumstances, having more positives and fewer negatives than closed fist strategies. To express this logically, the rationale will be broken into several categories.

Physiological

The hand is comprised of many small bones positioned end to end, designed for dexterous manipulation, not blunt force trauma. Closed fist strikes (that is, punch) require extensive training to be effective in actual combat, something which most officers do no receive nor do they dedicate the time to learn. Open hand strikes are more instinctive and require less training time to become effective in an operational context.

The risk of closed fist strikes to the user in terms of self-trauma is quite high, as evidenced by the number of instances of people breaking their hands when punching (including ‘professional’ fighters such as boxers and mixed martial arts practitioners). This is usually the result of unpredictable body dynamics during actual confrontation (such as a moving target) and the fact that, in the emotion of a fight, people tend to ‘lose it’ and simply flay away at the target in general, usually the head.

A hard ‘weapon’ (fist) against a hard ‘target’ (skull) creates a high risk/high success situation (high success = effect on target, high risk = effect on user). Ideally, what the user wants is low risk/high success, such that trauma is caused to the recipient without any undue trauma to the user. Open hand strikes facilitate this latter best case option. In addition to breaking the hand during the impact of striking with a closed fist, there is also the possibility of cutting the knuckles on the teeth of the recipient, a highly likely possibility if punching to the head. This situation can result in an infection in the hand of the user, analogous to gangrene if not treated properly.

The use of open hands also allows the arms/hands to stay relatively relaxed, which facilitates greater speed and power, and better reactive use. Closing the hands to punch tends to tighten up the arms, which creates tension and slows things down, both of which lessen impact potential. Additionally, closing the hands limits options; the user can only really punch. Opening the hands, in addition to relaxing the arms, also allows for numerous options for use of the hands/arms. In addition to slaps, which is instinctive when using open hands, the hands are ready to (as required) grab, push, poke/claw/apply pressure (fingers), or with training, use different aspects of the hands (palm, fingers, edge of hand, thumb and so on). Therefore, open hands are far more versatile.

In terms of the physical result from use, open hand slaps can certainly cause as much, if not more, trauma than closed fist punches. By keeping the arms relaxed, power generation through the limbs is greatly enhanced, allowing not only faster strikes, but also the ability to apply ‘heaviness’ through the strikes. This aspect not only can cause trauma to the target, but can also have an effect on the psychology of the attacker by ‘shocking’ their psyche.

Open hands can also be used to great effect against the central nervous system (CNS) by creating overload trauma to the nerves from broad contact with the whole palm. CNS aspects work especially well around the head and shoulder areas, which can create shocking effects to the receiver and cause systemic disruption and shutdown (that is, unconsciousness).

For the user, open hands are easier as they require far less training and are more naturally instinctive due to a person’s sense of touch through his hands.

Psychological

Open hand strikes have interesting psychological aspects associated with them. For the user, closed fist strikes tend to promote aggression, being that a closed fist and punch are an almost instinctive by-product of emotion, especially anger. Submitting to this impulse, therefore, and allowing free use of punches, can further fuel aggression and rage. On the other hand, open hands tend to be associated more with calming and pacifying, both to the receiver and also for the user. However, used properly, there is no reduction in trauma capability from open hand strikes.

Also, again from the point of view of onlookers, open hand strategies tend to demonstrate a more defensive mindset on the part of the user, or at least show that they do not wish to cause the attacker any undue harm. Closed fists, and punches, are commonly associated with aggression and an obvious intent to cause harm.

Tactical

For people who have to use weapons (such as public safety personnel), damaging their own hands during a confrontation is not advisable as it then limits their ability to escalate to a higher force option should the situation suddenly require that strategy for control; that is, escalating from empty hand to a higher force option with a weapon (spray, baton, taser, firearm and so on). If the user has damaged his hand then he will not be able to use his hand effectively, or at all, depending on the trauma.

Open hand strategies allow for effective control through striking with minimum trauma potential for the user, protecting the hands for possible use with tools (as required), and offer versatility to the user as the situation demands.

Legal

As far as use of force options go, both open and closed hand strategies are classified at ‘empty hand’ or ‘unarmed’ level. This level lies above communication, but below use of ‘tools’ to gain control.

Lawfully, a person may use force that is deemed reasonably necessary and in proportion to the user’s objective in using force in the first place (for example, self-defence). However, even though both options sit in the same category of force response, a closed hand strike (punch) is generally seen as a higher (harsher) option than an open hand one. In short, punching is (generally) deemed a greater use of force than slapping, and may therefore require greater explanation from the user to justify.

Another factor that may also be relevant is witness perception. In relation to the force response logic outlined above, it may also be that closed hand strikes are seen by onlookers as more violent in the context of a confrontation. This can have an effect on the post-incident analysis, especially in legal terms and court process.

In summary, there is really no need to train officers in closed hand control strategies. Open hands offer more options, pose less risk to the officer using them, integrate easily with weapons and force escalation, and are easier to justify after the fact. Both instructors and officers should train and use strategies that comply with both natural biomechanics and lawful parameters of modern society. The aim is to train officers to ‘win’, but in a sensible, practical and safe manner.

Richard Kay is an internationally certified tactical instructor-trainer, director and senior trainer of Modern Combatives, a provider of operational safety training for the public safety sector. Visit www.moderncombatives.com.au for more information.

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