I am looking at joining the military in a few month and am somewhat overwhelmed by how many different martial arts gyms there are in my area. I am wondering which martial art would be able to best prepare me for the military environment and give me a headstart in hand to hand combat training? I have no prior martial arts experience.
As others have mentioned, hand-to-hand combat doesn't play a significant role in modern militaries. If you want to learn a fighting art in the build up to your term of service, I would suggest something like boxing and/or judo.
A lot of the training for boxing involves general athleticism and endurance, and if you want to go far in the military you need to not only meet the Physical Training (PT) requirement, but surpass it. Promotions can be very competitive in most militaries, and one easy way to pad your promotion packet is to receive maximum scores on your PT tests for record. Boxing teaches discipline and hard work, and it is a good primer for teaching you the depth to which you can push yourself. It is also an easy to learn but difficult to master means of self defense.
Judo, on the other hand, teaches flexibility and teamwork. These are also traits which are fundamental to military life. Literal flexibility is a great boon, it can help your overall athleticism a great deal, but the discipline of judo teaches you how to read a situation from moment-to-moment and then act in the correct manner at the correct time. A lot of military life revolves around improvisation to situations which are out of your control. One of our mantras when I was in the US Army was, "Do more, with less." There will be times when you don't have the right tools for a job, or you are asked to do the seemingly impossible, and the fluidity and flexibility which judo teaches can help you adapt your mind to a way of thinking which thrives in theses sorts of situations. Judo also teaches teamwork. Even in a competition, a judo bout is about teamwork and trust. Without these, serious injury is the result, and that is not the spirit of judo. Learning to trust your teammates/partners implicitly is also a fundamental aspect of military life. At some point, your life will literally be in the hands of your fellows, and their lives will be in your hands. It is one of the most profound aspects of military service, and it is one of the key ways that such service can change you. Practically speaking, judo teaches break-falls, and breakfalls are a skill every person should learn. There are hundreds of times you will trip or slip and lose balance, and knowing how to fall while minimizing risk of injury is far more useful than being able to hurt someone with your bare hands. Judo is also about controlling your opponent and their balance. If a rare situation ever arose where you had to fight unarmed against an armed attacker, the ability to neutralize an opponents weapon is of far more use than being able to deliver a roundhouse kick to their head.
Here is a bit of unsolicited general advice. Run. Run a lot. Early in the morning, and again before bed. Run and run and run. It is easy to do, the cost of entry is low, and it will prepare you for a fundamental aspect of every modern military force.
That depends on the country, but if it's a NATO country, even if you want to enlist as a specops (commando) you will mainly be evaluated on a single criteria : endurance.
So running and crossfit could be the the best return on investment to prepare your brand new life.
Once you complete the 6 or 9 weeks of basic training to deserve to become a commando (SEALs, SAS, airborne, etc.), then you'll be taught hand-to-hand arts. But this kind of art has nothing to do with sport martial arts such as judo, Karaté, or boxing. It's a no-rule fighting style.
Anyway, martial arts training will teach you values which are required to become a good soldier
"Martial: Of, or pertaining to war or soldiers" - Merriam-Webster
Most of us "martial artists" are not really practicing "martial arts". Perhaps, some of us are practicing CLASSICAL martial arts. But not real martial arts.
If you are throwing hand grenades, learning how to disassemble and reassemble your weapon, going onto bivuac, learning first aid, hygiene, and sanitary habits; then you might be learning a martial art.
If you are learning how to pin someone to the ground, or punch them into unconsciousness, you are definitely not learning a martial art.
So the best martial art to learn for the military would be that which the military already teaches.
When you go to boot camp, you learn the same things the samurai did when they trained for their battlefield wars: how to fight, how to live, how to get along. That also included cooking, first aid, survival (come to think of it, they were regular Boy Scouts! lol)
Now that I'm done being coy with the phrase "martial arts", you should know that a great many soldiers also practice what is commonly called "martial arts", and can include MMA, wrestling, boxing, taekwondo, karate, krav maga, aikido... it just depends on their available resources. For instance, many soldiers stationed in Korea learn Taekwondo. Those in Japan learn Karate or Judo. And so on. And some have instructors within their own ranks.
And yes, the Marines also have their own style - you generally learn that as a Marine, so no point going out to look for classes here. The Army also has their Combatives training, as does the Air Force. I'm sure other branches also have similar. I don't know about the other styles, but, in 2007, the Army mandated that all units make Modern Army Combatives available.
Therefore, you do NOT need to join a gym or learn a style. The military will teach you all that you need to learn. As to what you want to learn, that is a personal decision only you can make.
Should Soldiers Learn Hand to Hand Fighting?
To say unarmed combat has no place in the military is a misleading and dangerous thing to say. It is still very possible to end up in CQB with enemies, and soldiers do still end up using bayonets for that reason. The tactical axe, often used for breaching doors, has also gained a lot of popularity for its use as a hand-weapon in case of a sudden enemy. It is true that it's rare for troops to end up in hand to hand fighting, but it is also true that it's rare for troops to ever have to fire a shot at an enemy or be shot at--this is no reason to not practice marksmanship.
Your role and the conflict you take part in will determine how likely you are to see combat, and how likely to see hand to hand. If you're clearing urban buildings, you will want to know how to quickly identify and kill an attacker at close range.
Best Martial Art
The best martial art which I would recommend, that would be old army manuals. Namely those by Fairbairn, Sykes, Applegate, and Biddle. They wrote a number of books and manuals, on police use of force, impact weapons, knives, bayonets, unarmed combat, general combat. It can be hard to find the manuals online or in your local library, but they're out there (university library might be more help). Send me a message if you can't find any.
I can't think of a particular gym or martial art brand that practices their system, so to practice it you would need to get friends, or interested persons from a local gym/dojo to practice with you. Some martial arts clubs do have an interest in martial and military material, and may be very helpful if you show a strong interest in practicing it.
The main manual in particular would be Kill or Get Killed (1943) which covers unarmed combat, knife combat, impact weapon combat, fighting an armed opponent unarmed, and bayonet combat, etc.
Other examples would be GET TOUGH!: How To Win In Hand-To-Hand Fighting As Taught To The British Commandos And The U.S. Armed Forces. Which focuses almost exclusively on unarmed techniques, including details on disarming enemies, how to resist capture, how to take an unaware enemy, etc, some of which will be covered in Kill or Get Killed.
Do or Die (1944) is also good, and if I recall correctly got deeper into bayonet fencing than the others.
The USMC combat manual is also a great collection of some of this material, but don't get the MCRP 3-02B 1999 edition, as they made many... questionable changes. The old USMC manual had more about breaching urban areas and about group tactics, if I remember correctly.
If you are new to martial arts and interested in learning, just find a decent school that you find appealing. This is the standard advice on this site for all beginners.
In the United States, the Marine Corps Martial Arts Program (MCMAP) and Modern Army Combatives Program (MACP) programs are built from multiple distinct martial arts sources. MCMAP has(had?) a list of martial arts that are approved for meeting a higher rank requirement for civilian martial arts training:
Categories for civilian (MCMAP approved) martial arts are: grappling or throwing arts; striking arts; and weapons arts. The grappling or throwing arts are, but not limited to: Judo, Jujitsu, Sambo, Hap Ki Do, and Ai Ki Do. Striking arts are, but not limited to: Karate, Tae Kwon Do, Kickboxing, Muay Thai, Kung Fu, and Capoiera. Weapons arts are, but not limited to: Kabudo, Ascrema, Cali, Kendo, and Aiedo.
As you can see, this list has many martial arts, and is expressly not limited. Any decent martial arts school will teach at least one of grappling or throwing, striking, or weapons.
Modern warfare is based around weapons that kill at a distance, like cruise missiles, artillery, and firearms. It is overwhelmingly more important that soldiers learn to shoot and not get shot than fight hand-to-hand. Soldiers will learn hand-to-hand combat techniques in basic training, but hand-to-hand combat is a not a priority. The primary tactic (Option 1) in MACP is to make space so you can shoot with your standard-issue rifle (primary weapon). Civilians do not have standard-issue rifles that are carried at all times, so obviously martial arts training will differ between military and civilians. The US military does not expect you to know any of this before you show up.
There are good styles and bad styles, and those all have good instructors and bad instructors. I'm going with the other folks who say you should focus on strength and endurance. That is #1. Regardless of what you know, if you can't last in a fight, you are done.
Anyhow, besides that, the Israeli martial art Krav Maga is meant just for this purpose.
Krav Maga was made for the Israeli military to be able to give someone 4-6 weeks of training and come out of it with as much effectiveness as possible in that amount of time.
It's based a lot on brutality, attacking first, finishing the fight fast, weapon defenses (guns, knives, clubs and more) but also tries to go off of what your natural reactions are to situations, instead of trying to retrain your reactions, which takes a lot longer.
I would suggest doing anything that gives you the basics of punching, kicking, knees, blocks, weapon defenses, and like others have said, do a ton of PT. Ground fighting skills are not something you want to plan on needing (like Brazilian jiu-jitsu), but ground fighting is hard work, so is good for endurance.
For what it's worth, even martial arts masters just stick to the basic punches and kicks when in an actual confrontation. No kicks to the head, unless you take the guy down to the ground first. Just finish the fight as quickly as you can, as brutally as you can, and go home alive.
Physical Training is very important like some said above. But if you think about combat skills I will suggest you fighting systems (not martial arts) like Krav Maga/Kapap (used by Israel army), Systema (used by Russia army) or some specific martial arts like Goshin Jistu or Hakoryu Jutsu (I dont know if I've spelled right) that are japanese martial arts or Ninjutsu etc.
For military use, I think that a good combination of weapons-based martial arts like Arnis, Silat, Fencing, Kenjutsu and Kobudo; striking arts like Kyokushin Karate, Muay Thai, Wing Chun, Boxing and Kickboxing; grappling/wrestling arts like Jujutsu, Judo, Sambo, Wrestling and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, added to combat principles of Jeet Kune Do, Art of War by Sun Tzu, The Book of Five Rings by Miyamoto Musashi and others are a reallistic way to the warrior's mentality of survival.