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Hand Scalping by Mark Hatmaker

Let’s Talk About Hair-Pulling

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 even 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…

A Quick Aside

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.

The History of Hair-Pulling

In Ancient Greece

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 Pausanias 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.

In 1700s England

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.

In the Early United States

Let’s cross the pond that was the Atlantic Ocean to the young United States. Fighting, both sportive and unsportive, was the 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 about 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 unsportsmanlike. Perhaps in an era where scalp-taking was practiced by Native Americans and European interlopers alike, mere hair-pulling seemed like a walk in the park.

Additional Reading & Information


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 here’s a brief overview of hair-pulling mechanics.

Hair pulling can be used:

  • As a handle, but it is better as a “guide.” Note: By “guide” I mean using the hair to twist/manipulate the head into a better striking position.
  • To force the opponent’s head/neck into an 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. This means that:

  • 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.

Wrapping Up

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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23 thoughts on “Hand Scalping by Mark Hatmaker”

  1. I have to admit to having used hair pulling a couple of times in my youkger year’s . It is very effective and painful I had also had it done to me

  2. My hair and beard are normally kept short enough to not be a handle. There are alternatives. Ears, cheeks, throat and eye sockets all need to be looked out for.

  3. Thanks Mark.
    I have always figured that in an “anything goes” scrap, EVERYTHING from the hair to the arch in the foot & EVERYTHING in between was “fair game”.

  4. That sounds very painful but effective in a fight. Add that to the Trident and the fight would be over before it started

  5. With human history being what it is, “no holds barred” is the only way to deal with life vs. death situations. Any punch, grab, poke, gouge, kick, mental tactic, etc. that defends oneself enough to stay alive is survival. When my grandfather finally told us grandchildren about WW2 experiences (he didn’t tell anybody for 35 years because it was so horribly inhuman), I was surprised to hear about how many U.S. lieutenants (mostly fresh out of ROTC) were shot in the back of the head by U.S. guns because of giving suicidal or otherwise idiotic orders. Just saying, like Grandpa did — war is hell. Bad and unGodly people deserve to lose the blessing of life (and some of them act like they are our leaders).

  6. I’ve NEVER Been in a Serious Fight
    in which I Would NOT HAVE Taken
    the God-Given Opportunity to Grab
    and Pull And/Or Tear an Opponent’s
    Hair completely OUT !

    Does ANYONE Seriously suggest
    that in a Live OR Die situation THEY
    WOULD NOT Do So ?

  7. Dear Mr Hatmaker,

    All your articles present such a rich knowledge of martial history, if the powers that be could teach history like this, it would be a far more widely studied subject!

    Keep up the good work!

  8. Well researched Mark. Interesting how prevalent hair pulling was and very few high school fights in 60’s had it! In fact, we wannabe boxers used gloves. Now it’s knives & guns.

  9. I grew up in the 60s and 70s and was always told that hair pulling and kicking were the way girls fought and not men, later found out that, as you put in your article, hair grabbing and some kicks had been the practice in some fights! Thanks for the clarification.

  10. Have had to use this technique on my 6’ 4” 260lb step son who is mentally ill. Considering that at the time I was in a wheelchair recovering from a total hip replacement; he tried to attack his mom and with his long hair he had just enough extra length for me to be able to grab from my chair and put him down.

    Once down you can just about impose your will on that attacker and keep them under control. This was paramount for myself at the time avoiding me an injury from someone almost twice my weight and out of any self control.

  11. Rule 1. There are no “play nice” rules in life or death situations.
    Rule 2. See rule 1.

    As always sir thanks for your articles. Very insightful, and reminders that anything is fair game when it comes down to it.

  12. Notice that even in the NFL, if there’s a ponytail hanging out from under the helmet, it’s fair game to grab it and yank to tackle the player sporting said appendage. Completely legal!

  13. Nothing wrong with biting an assailant. Have done so in the past when I needed to escape the bear hug of a schoolyard bully. Unexpected and very effective! He screamed and let go, I slapped his cohones HARD, he bent over and I ran. He didn’t touch me again.

  14. Someone yanked me to the floor by pulling straight down on my ponytail. As someone who normally didn’t fall to maneuvers (I’m much weaker now – gotta work on that,) I can tell you it’s painfully effective.