Hand to Hand Combat with Pugil Sticks

Pvt. Joshua Dover, Platoon 1099, Company B, prepares for an upcoming bout, in which recruits wear football helmets and other protection.

With a helmet, some pads and a cushioned stick, recruits from B Company battled one another as they honed their skills to be named the victors of pugil sticks.

Every Marine in boot camp undergoes this exercise. During this event, which simulates fighting with an M-16A2 service rifle with fixed bayonets, recruits were shown proper techniques and execution with the weapon.

Though this combat simulation is a part of the Marine Corps Martial Arts Program, it serves a different purpose.

“It is a designed inoculation of violence,” said Sgt. Sergio Esquivel, martial arts instructor. “A lot of recruits have never been put in a situation where people try to attack them. This introduces them to a different spectrum of violence.”

Two Company B recruits stare each other down before a pugil stick bout.

Before the fight began, recruits were given safety gear to avoid injury. Their safety gear included a helmet with full face mask, groin protection and flak jacket with a neck roll. The stick they used was also padded around their hands to circumvent broken phalanges.

To ensure the recruits executed moves properly, a Martial Arts Instructor was present.

For the recruits to pass this intense training, they must demonstrate proficient skill in three stages, which takes place over the last three weeks of first phase.

During the first stage, B Company, drill instructors and Instructional Training Company instructors demonstrated fighting techniques and then had recruits practice it on a flat dirt surface near the depot’s war-fighting infiltration course, which is included in bayonet training. In the course, recruits low-crawl under barbed wire and through tunnels, jump walls and cross ropes in firing teams of four.

A Company B recruit scores a finishing blow during a Thunder Dome pugil stick match.

Once recruits showed instructors they knew what they were doing, they were given their first opportunity to fight.

“I liked it,” said Recruit Jeremy Jones, E Company. “The feel of fighting and having the other recruits screaming for you. Even if you are scared, the recruits around you make you want to win.”

The thought of defeating another recruit from a different platoon in a pugil stick bout intensified the combat, especially when the drill instructors watched and encouraged the fierce battles, according to Jones.

After the first fight, a third man was thrown into the mix. Between the three recruits, each took a turn defending against two recruits and then teaming up to attack one recruit.

Staff Sgt. Michael Bass, drill instructor, Company B, encourages his recruits to give full effort in the Thunder Dome.

The final stage of combat is fought in the Thunder Dome. Already fatigued from completing an infiltration course, recruits geared up and screamed down a path leading into a padded room. In this dome, recruits fought the final bout with drill instructors and company staff motivating them.

The purpose of this training went beyond bragging rights and platoon rivalry.

“It trains Marines to function when faced with stress and violence,” according to pugil Sticks training guide, MA’1.05. “It prepares Marines to deliver a blow and take a blow.”

Loud cheers and hard blows kept recruits fighting in the ring. Now experienced with their simulated rifle and bayonet, recruits are able to fight their enemies at a close range.

Drill instructor Staff Sgt. Elijah Buchanan lends some pre-bout motivation to Pvt. Tamir Zera, Platoon 1095, Company B, before his pugil stick match.

Pugil sticks teach close quarters combat

The sound of a whistle blow brings two Marine recruits charging into the middle of a dirt ring in one of the training areas of Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego. Other than the grunts and groans from the fighters, drill instructors can be heard yelling at the recruits to hit here, or slash there. The two men continue raining blows on each other waiting to hear the merciful whistle blow once again. The signal that their match is over.

The recruits of Company E performed their final pugil sticks training, Sept. 25, to hone their skills with bayonets before leaving the depot to conduct the crucible.

“Pugil sticks are a part of bayonet training,” said Sgt. Rudy Moctezuma, Marine Corps Martial Arts Instructor Trainer, Instructional Training Company, Recruit Training Regiment. “The sticks are marked to tell the difference between where the bayonet of the rifle would be, which is the red end. The butt of the rifle is the black end.”

The pugil sticks are padded on both ends, and have hockey gloves attached to the stick to protect the recruits’ hands, said Moctezuma.

The recruits completed their third pugil stick training evolution since setting foot on the depot. Pugil Sticks III is set in a bunker-like pit where two entrances lead into the middle of a dirt circle surrounded by padded walls.

Drill instructors and corpsmen watch over the competing recruits on a catwalk that looks over the pit.

“The recruits participate in pugil sticks three times while in boot camp,” said Sgt. Joseph Ferguson, drill instructor, Platoon 2102, Company E. “It helps build confidence in close quarters combat and lets them experience the adrenaline of it.”

According to Ferguson, pugil sticks training is comprised of three phases just like recruit training. Each one teaches the recruit something new and progressively more intricate, he added. “The first time they do pugil sticks is basically an introduction to getting struck,” said Staff Sgt. Gustavo Hernandez, MAIT, ITC. “The second time around they fight two-on-two so they can get a feel of what it’s like to work with the person next to them. The third is all out. They use everything they’ve learned – no holds barred.”

When the recruits came charging into the pit, they ran into each other with a resounding thud, then attempted to get a “killing blow” on their opponent.

“Pugil sticks are a good tool to break down barriers recruits have when they get here,” said Ferguson. “Some of the recruits are not used to being around people, so this helps them bond when they engage each other in combat.”

The recruits usually don’t know who they are fighting because they are paired by weight and the platoons are mixed, according to Moctezuma. A Marine can never tell the size of who they will fight against in combat, so we try to imitate that, he added.

“Being in pugil sticks puts you in a combat mindset to win against whomever it is you are fighting,” said recruit Shawn Stapleton, Platoon 2106.

Not only is pugil sticks a great way to learn how to use a combat mindset, it’s also a motivating activity for the recruits.

While they are busy fighting their peers the recruits are calming themselves down a little without knowing it.

“Pugil sticks are a great stress reliever,” said Sgt. Julian Orozco, drill instructor, Platoon 2101. “They get to take out a lot of anger. Sometimes they need a way to relieve a little stress.”

At the end of this training evolution, Co. E recruits go back to their squad bays, battered, bloodied and bruised, but more motivated. They also have some interesting stories about the fights they got into a boot camp to tell their families.

Pugil Bout before Crucible

Marines are trained to be ready for any situation. Part of being ready is having a back-up plan, as a bayonet attached to a rifle in case of weapons malfunctions or no ammunition. Recruits of Kilo Company, 3rd Recruit Training Battalion learned confidence and combat readiness during Pugil Sticks III at Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego, Aug. 26.

Prior to the Pugil Sticks event, recruits were briefed about and then ran through the Bayonet Assault Couse. The course was comprised of different obstacles ranging from shallow trenches to crawling under barbed wire.

“The recruits run through the Bayonet Assault Course because it gives them that combat mindset, and it makes them apply everything that they have learned under a more stressful situation,” said Sgt. Christopher S. Merrill, drill instructor, Platoon 3223.

Recruits ran events, such as Pugil Sticks I and II, through half of the Bayonet Assault Course. Each time through they would build on what they had learned.

“We are almost half way through Phase III right now, so everything the recruits have learned from Field Week, such as buddy rushes, will be reiterated here,” said Merrill, a native of Austin, Texas.

Tired and fatigued from the course, recruits then fought their pugil stick battle.

One end of the 5-foot pugil stick resembles a rifle with the bayonet attached and the other end represents the butt-stock, explained 23-year-old Merrill.

Each recruit was given protective gear such as as a helmet, groin protector, flak jacket and mouth piece, because once in the arena they use full force. Gear such was given to each recruit before entering.

According to Recruit Michael C. Solomon, Platoon 3221, during previous events, recruits were told which side, offense or defense, they would be on. This time recruits were given three 30 second bouts using the techniques they had learned throughout all of their classes and events to give the opponent a striking blow to head.

While pugil sticks is one of the more popular events in recruit training, it also serves a purpose beyond the physical training.

“The Pugil Sticks events build confidence and push them into the path of being more aggressive,” said Merrill. “Confidence and aggression are two main factors that could help you win or lose a battle.”

“I have learned a lot from pugil sticks,” said Solomon. “I hope to continue building off of what I learned here at recruit training when I become a Marine.”