US Marine Corps Martial Arts Program

military self defense

As many will know, the US Marine Corps has a long and proud history. Marines pride themselves on being ‘warriors’, so it is no surprise their Marine Corps Martial Arts Program (MCMAP) is an extremely robust and comprehensive program designed to provide Marines with combat-ready, armed and unarmed fighting skills.

It is a weapon-based system based on the principle that ‘every Marine is a rifleman’ regardless of specialty. In addition to the physical disciplines associated with other martial arts, this program places an equal emphasis on training in mental and character disciplines.

From as far back as World War II through the Vietnam War era to the present day, the USMC selected specific techniques from various martial arts to form the nucleus of their program. This included eastern martial arts systems such as judo and karate.

MCMAP evolved into its present form by combining the best combat-tested martial arts skills, proven close-combat training techniques, with Marine Corps core values and leadership training. It is interesting to note that one of the subject-matter experts consulted in the preparation of MCMAP is Jack Hoban, a former Marine captain and long-time Bujinkan Ninjutsu practitioner.

Many of the MCMAP techniques are essentially Bujinkan techniques with very minor modification. MCMAP makes liberal use of wrist locks (particularly in pistol retention and knife defense), judo throws, and grappling that would be familiar to many serious martial artists.

MCMAP today consists of three components; mental discipline, character discipline, and physical discipline. Each component is divided into blocks and presented systematically at each belt level. A belt ranking system with five basic levels is used; tan, grey, green, brown and black.

Progression through the belts includes passing the mental and character discipline requirements, and the physical techniques for each belt level. In addition, each Marine is required to show he has maintained proficiency in the physical disciplines of his current belt as well as the physical techniques of the next belt level.

marines martial arts training

This is monitored through the use of training logs. A very brief summary of techniques required to progress through the belts is as follows:

  • Tan – punches; falls; bayonet techniques; pugil strikes; upper- and lower-body strikes; chokes; throws, counters to strikes; armed manipulations; and, knife techniques.

  • Grey – advanced techniques for the above; and, weapons of opportunity and ground fighting.

  • Green – as above, with more advanced techniques.

  • Brown – any 15 techniques from any of the above techniques; throws; unarmed vs hand-held weapons; firearm retention; and, firearm disarmament.

  • Black – any 20 techniques, selected at random by the assessors, from any previously taught; and, more advanced techniques.

There are a total of approximately 250 techniques within the MCMAP, and the techniques build on each other as the Marine progresses through the colored belts. By the time a Marine qualifies for black belt, he is well trained in a range of lethal and non-lethal techniques, and is more than capable of overcoming any physical threat, either with or without weapons.

Aside from being tested on the physical techniques for each belt, Marines are examined on such topics as: explain the concept of the leader and the follower; leadership styles; mentoring; maneuver warfare; decision making; USMC values and beliefs; and ethical leadership.

One particular aspect that is emphasized throughout MCMAP is the mental development of a combative mindset. The aim of this is to develop and maintain mental focus (together with correct physical technique) when fatigued or under other physical and mental pressures.

Different mechanisms that affect combat mindset in the MCMAP are detailed and worth summarizing below:

Fight or Flight

For most people, the natural response to a combat situation is to flee. However, if you imagine yourself in a situation where an individual grievously threatens you or your loved ones, you will most likely find that your reaction will be to remove that threat by whatever means necessary – fight.

Unarmed combat, shooting and weapons skills are all aimed at developing the ability to close and enter, taking the fight to the opponent and eliminating them as a threat.

Predatory v Effective Behavior

Predatory behavior is usually associated with stalking prey. The predator experiences very little autonomic arousal and is usually extremely focused on his prey, making little to no noise, waiting to exploit the best opportunity. This non-emotive, almost detached state is the ultimate aim for any combatant, but very hard to achieve in practice.

Many martial artists spend years trying to cultivate this mindset, with mixed levels of success. Effective behavior, conversely, includes both overt physical and vocal displays. An individual demonstrating effective behavior experiences physiological changes such as rising arousal levels, adrenaline running through the body, sweating, heart rate increase, and labored breathing as the need for oxygen increases.

Effective behavior is difficult to sustain and is an extremely ineffective state to be in for a combative engagement. An excellent explanation of predatory behavior is in the Military Self Defense pamphlet.

To become a MCMAP instructor, a Marine must first complete a three-week instructors course. The instructor trains Marines at the small-unit level and is responsible for teaching up to the belt level he holds but cannot test to that same level.

He teaches the physical techniques, which are the basis of the physical discipline and develops the small unit with character and mental training, which aims to enhance the unit’s cohesion, esprit de corps, and readiness.

The minimum requirement for attending the course is to be a grey belt, be corporal or above, have their commander’s consent, obtain a first-class pass on their physical­ fitness test and be medically screened.

The next course, the instructor-trainer, is seven weeks and develops the instructors within a unit. They .can then run instructor courses at unit level, and train and test Marines up to black-belt instructor.

To conclude, MCMAP combines the physical disciplines of combat with the leadership and core-values training characteristic of the USMC. What makes this such a complete program is the blend of all three disciplines: all three components are inextricably linked to each other, and to the advancement process within the belt-ranking system.

This ensures that, as a Marine develops the physical skills to make him a formidable exponent, he also develops a commensurate level of maturity and self-discipline. Remember, how you practice is how you perform under pressure, and your mental attitude during such training will become your reality.

About the author: Iain Robertson is a major in the Australian Army who deployed to Afghanistan in 2012 with the US 82nd Airborne Division. An active Military Self Defence Instructor, he also holds black-belt ranks in Shotokan Karate and Bujinkan Ninjutsu. He also passed the examination for his MCMAP black belt while deployed.

Major Robertson would like to thank Corporal ‘Leo’ Lyons (RAAF ADG), Captain Dana Ogle (MCMAP black belt). Corporal Justin McGee (MCMAP black belt instructor) and Sergeant Lucas Eastman (MCMAP black belt), for assistance in preparing this article.

US Marine Corps Martial Arts Program
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US Marine Corps Martial Arts Program
The USMC are a hard hitting unit with the training to prove it. Forget the basic entry testing - once you are in their, that's where the challenge begins.
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