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With the possible exception of Tameshiwari (breaking) devotees, most people using closed fists during a fight run significant risk of hand/knuckle damage. Even when striking the body, it is very common for fists to land upon the opponent's limbs at awkward, mechanically unsound angles, and to sustain debilitating injury.

Open palm techniques, whilst still prone to injury, are recommended by some close-quarters schools as a means of minimising such injury and therefore prolonging combat capacity.

The use of open palms usually either decreases range (vertical palm), increases delivery time (circular, horizontal or vertical knife-hand movements), or reduces impact resilience (horizontal thrusts, fingers extended).

The distance from knuckle position in a forward-pointing fist to the heel of the palm - if the fist is opened - represents a range difference of roughly three inches (on a 6'3", or 186cm frame).

Is the increased range provided by the fist sufficient to outweigh the risk of damage when striking to the head?

On a related theme: One of the major impediments to many trained fighters in real-life combat threats/situations is the fear of causing serious damage to an opponent. With this in mind, is the risk of reducing range justified by a desire to reduce harm to an opponent? Is it ever possible to reliably gauge an opponent's ability accurately enough to warrant a 'harm minimisation' approach?

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I'm going to rebut some things that you mention. This rebuttal might seem subtle or pedantic, but that subtlety is hugely important.

most people using closed fists during a fight run significant risk of hand/knuckle damage

It depends on what you mean by most people. If you include untrained people in that group then yes, they do run a risk of injury - but that injury could be anywhere from slight (i.e. skinned knuckles) to major (i.e. broken wrist). But if you are only talking about trained people then I would dispute the claim of significant risk. Two of the reasons why we train are to reduce risk to ourselves, and to reduce risk to our opponents through using the appropriate level of force.

it is very common for fists to land upon the opponent's limbs at awkward, mechanically unsound angles

Once again, if you are talking about untrained people then I would agree - your assertion is correct for undirected or uncontrolled strikes. But as martial artists we train to hit selectively and appropriately. I am very unlikely to hit an opponent in the head in such a way that I would injure myself because I will be aiming for specific targets; if I miss my shot and hit somewhere unexpected it is because my opponent moved unexpectedly, but even so my chances of incurring a significant injury are low.

One of the major impediments to many trained fighters in real-life combat threats/situations is the fear of causing serious damage to an opponent. With this in mind, is the risk of reducing range justified by a desire to reduce harm to an opponent?

Would I replace a punch with a palm strike simply to reduce force? Absolutely not - I would simply reduce the force of the punch.

Would I replace a punch with a palm strike because of the range? No I wouldn't - I use a technique appropriate for what I want to achieve. If I want to use a palm strike then I would simply close the range a little.

As for fear of causing damage, it reduces over time as a result of training. When you're new you absolutely do run the risk of using excessive force, but years of training and sparring reduce that fear and replace it with certainty.

Is it ever possible to reliably gauge an opponent's ability accurately enough to warrant a 'harm minimisation' approach?

If you are in a position where you need to inflict harm (i.e. self defense) then you should always adopt a harm minimisation approach, irrespective of the perceived ability of your opponent. The ideal outcome is to use minimum force necessary to be able to end the situation with minimal harm to yourself and your opponent - self defense related laws are often structured with that outcome in mind.

Is the increased range provided by the fist sufficient to outweigh the risk of damage when striking to the head?

Yes, because the risk of damage isn't as great as you might perceive, especially when you are using the appropriate strike with the appropriate force.

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    I think barehand injuries are a very serious concern for some populations of trained fighters, for example, boxers who train exclusively with substantial hand protection.
    – mattm
    Aug 15 at 14:57
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    Good point @mattm, I didn't consider boxers in my answer, and I think that indeed they could be at significant risk without their usual protection.
    – slugster
    Aug 16 at 10:50
  • 1
    @ slugster | I completely agree. Also, considering the size and thickness of boxing gloves, boxers could miss by a centimeter or two in street fights (that's a big deal if you accidentally punched someone on the forehead. Broken knuckles guaranteed). Aug 17 at 3:37
  • I might add that if you punch with a looser grip you gain more power in your punch. I learned this in Wing Chun. (Its a type of Kung Fu)
    – Firestryke
    Aug 20 at 18:01
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Your claims in the question are quite correct, and none of the contents below intend to refute your statements.

There are a few aspects that should be considered when answering this question:

  1. What is your primary target? If your target is below chest-level, it would be virtually impossible to use an palm strike without hurting the wrist. I used to be a big fan of palm strikes when I was a newbie, untill I learned this the hard way doing bag work. Additionally, punches to the solar plexus / ribs were substantially more penetrating than palm stikes (not to mention the decreased risk of broken knuckles).

  2. Angle of impact. As far as I know, there is only one angle the palm strike could make contact with your opponent, which is at the front (strikes thrown from the side against targets like the temple could easily be replaced by hammer fists), but punches come in a variety of different angles (reverse, uppercut, etc.). Therefore sometimes punches would come in handy for different points of impact. By the way, strikes that come diagonally were generally harder to track for the brain, considering the acceleration from a different angle, and harder to block.

  3. Force vs. Pressure Experiments have been done about the force of punches vs palm strikes (from the same angle). Palm strikes generally did better. But the tricky thing here is the area of impact that plays an important role in determining the pressure of punches and palm strikes. Since when we punch we do so with the upper knuckles, it is safe to assume that the punch has a smaller area of impact, therefore higher pressure than the palm strike. This quality of penetration could be utilized according to need.

BUT, WAIT!

From a realistic approach, punches to the chin and face could be replaced by palm strikes according to your personal preference. It does minimize risk and increases force (in this case the area of impace is determined my the physical structures of your opponent, and that means more pressure for the palm strike). Additionally, knife hands (e.g. brachial stun) delivers more force than punches if used correctly.

I've barely scratched the surface, and I believe that the true answer sould be obtained from experience and sparring, and you will find out what works best combined to your style.

Hope this helps ;-D

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  • There are lots of ways you can palm strike in addition to straight on with the fingers facing up. For example, you can swing the palm like a hammer, either straight down or to the side. You can turn the fingers to the side to strike the floating ribs.
    – mattm
    Aug 15 at 15:21
  • @ mattm Thanks for this addition :) Aug 16 at 13:22
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Considering the viability of short-range grappling techniques, the loss of three inches of range should not be a major concern. The basic grappling strategy is to quickly close distance when entering striking distance, and this strategy works for striking as well. You already have to do this to hit someone in the head because you must move through kicking distance.

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