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"Hand Scalping" A Digression on Combat Hair-Pulling by Mark Hatmaker


There is a surprisingly long history of hair-pulling in combat history, both sportive and on the battlefield. Today we’ll confine ourselves to sportive instances of what we now perceive to be unsportsmanlike behavior.

Combat hair-pulling, or pugna capillos trahens, if you’d like to gussy it up a bit with Latin, or get a bit more primal with the Comanche tso’ya naraut’u [literally “hair fight”] was permitted in more than a few organized endeavors, and in some cases, out and out encouraged.

Before we continue, if anyone doubts the efficacy of hair-pulling in sportive combat, please stretch the memory back to UFC 3 with the iconic match between the up to that point mighty dominant Royce Gracie and the pony-tailed behemoth that was Kimo Leopold. Royce gamely takes the “W” in that match, but if anyone thinks that would have been the outcome had not that handy pony-tail been available, I suggest a second look and re-evaluation of opportunistic handles.

It seems the early Greeks prohibited hair-pulling from pankration, except when it was permitted. That is, just as early boxing and wrestling went through negotiations for ad hoc rules, “This is in, but that ain’t” et cetera, pankration seemed subject to rule-bending and compromises. We’re told by Pausanius that the rules drifted a bit between regions, and Lucian refers to pankrationists being called “lions” by the fans, not because of their leonine fighting nature but because of their propensity to bite, which was also prohibited.

There are various mentions of hair-pulling in combative accounts throughout history, but it is not until the 16th to 17th century that we begin to see more and more mentions made of it.

Now whether this is because the practice increased, or simply because cheap printing and rising literacy made available more accounts of combat clashes we can’t say for sure. My guess is that it’s the latter. More scribblers to document a practice that was already in full bloom.

Many English boxers in the 1700s sported shaved heads not for fashion’s sake but to remove the follicle handle. Jack Broughton, the “Father” of the English school of boxing drew up a set of rules in 1743, no handles below the waist were permitted, but no specific mention is made of hair-pulling and we continue to see shaved pates, so we can surmise that it was still a tactic in play.

We know for a fact that it continued as a kosher gambit for as late as 1795 Gentleman Jackson used a bit of hair control to gain the English championship from the formidable Daniel Mendoza.

Let’s cross the pond that was the Atlantic Ocean to the young United States. Fighting, both sportive and unsportive, was coin of the realm. What is astonishing is just how vicious even the sportive aspects were.

Organized matches of rough and tumble play, or all-in fighting held few rules—hence the name “all-in.” No holds barred refers to just that in the wrestling aspect, if you can grab it you can have it. All-in, means anything goes in all respects. We are talking an era when sporting a single-eye because you lost the other to an eye-scoop was a badge of honor. A time when suffering from “Lumberjack’s Smallpox”, that is bearing facial scars from being stomped by caulked boots, marked you as a man.

References to hair-pulling are frequent, vicious and never an eye is batted as if the tactic were un-sportsmanlike. Perhaps in an era where scalp-taking was practiced by American Indians and the European interlopers alike, mere hair-pulling seemed like a walk in the park.

We’ve discussed and demonstrated rough & tumble informed hair-pulling tactics in our book No Second Chance and in our 3-volume street-defense series but to give a brief overview as to hair-pulling mechanics read on.

·        Hair pulling can be used as a handle, but it is better as a “guide.”

·        By “guide” I mean using the hair to twist/manipulate the head into better striking position or…

·        Force the opponent’s head/neck into unnatural alignment to shut-down their offense.

·        Hair grows “in a grain.” The hair from our crown forward grows towards our forehead, the hair from the crown downward grows towards the nape of the neck.

·        Pulling/guiding the hair against the grain fires more pain receptors permitting better control.

·        Working against the grain also makes for easier tearing for “hand scalping” i.e., hand-administered scalping.

Human combat has a long history with hair-pulling, but nowhere but in rough and tumble will you find such an “unsportsmanlike” tactic embraced with such gusto.

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