Journal of Non-lethal Combatives, Dec 2001

Anthony J. Drexel Biddle, USMC CQB Pioneer

By Joseph R. Svinth

Copyright © EJMAS 2001. All rights reserved.

Anthony Joseph Drexel Biddle (1874-1948) was a pioneer of bayonet and hand-to-hand combat training in the US Marine Corps, and reading the New York Times (February 15, 1942), one learns that:

When the first World War started, Colonel Biddle opened a military training camp near Lansdowne [Pennsylvania], where he trained 4,000 young Philadelphians in military manoeuvres. His system then, as now, was based on long hours of callisthenics and gymnastics to harden young bodies for the rigors of the advanced training.

When he judged his charges ready for the more arduous training Colonel Biddle taught them the use of the machete, saber, dagger, bayonet, and hand grenade. He taught them also the techniques of jiu-jitsu and the French punch-and-kick man-killing attack known as savat [sic].

He was the first to give Gene Tunney, later to become heavyweight champion of the world, boxing lessons at Quantico [a US Marine base in Virginia].

That said, it is my opinion that Biddle was primarily an enthusiastic promoter. As I wrote in Kronos (1900-1939):
Biddle was a Philadelphia socialite who fancied himself a boxer, and in 1906 he began taking a first-rate professional boxer named "Philadelphia" Jack O’Brien on visits to Sunday School classes at Philadelphia’s Holy Trinity Church. Founder of a movement called Athletic Christianity that eventually boasted 300,000 members, Biddle loved telling the children how Christ had been an athlete who "had gone into the jungle [sic] for forty days to train for a match with the Devil."

Biddle also hosted boxing teas at his home. His guests included many of the best white pugilists in the country. (Although Biddle was not averse to sparring with black men, he was a man of his times, and would not invite one to eat at his table. So, when Biddle sparred with Jack Johnson in Merchantville, New Jersey in 1909, he did so incognito, using the pseudonym "Tim O’Biddle." According to his daughter’s account, Biddle came out fast, causing Johnson to tell him, "‘Now, you boy, there; don’t get yourself stirred up.’ But Father was always stirred up, and Johnson finally had to fetch him a smart whack on the side of the head to settle him.")

At Biddle’s teas, guests first sparred a few fast rounds with the host, then ate dinner with the family. ("May the good God ‘elp us to eat all wot’s on the tyble," is how Cordelia Drexel Biddle recalled Bob Fitzsimmons’s prayer.) Most guests behaved appropriately, and only the California heavyweight Al Kaufmann ever took Biddle’s boxing seriously. (Kaufman knocked Biddle out with his first punch.)

These boxing teas started "Philadelphia" Jack O’Brien to thinking about how to teach middle-aged businessmen to box without pain, a program he established in New York City during the 1920s. (You can’t learn boxing without pain, O’Brien later told A.J. Liebling, but he could teach it without pain.)

Biddle, meanwhile, joined the Marine Corps in 1917 as a 41-year old captain. He toured British and French training camps in 1918, and then convinced Headquarters Marine Corps to make boxing part of Marine Corps recruit training. The style taught was essentially English amateur boxing. Although said to closely resemble rifle-bayonet fighting methods, the boxing was useful mostly for increasing recruits’ physical self-confidence.

After the war, Biddle stayed in the Marine Corps Reserve. In 1919 he exhibited rifle-bayonet fencing before the Willard-Dempsey prizefight, thereby delaying the main event because after the Marines scuffed up the canvas, it was no longer usable for fighting. Biddle also supported the legalization of boxing in New York, and during a 1922 court case charging Tex Rickard with sexually assaulting teenaged prostitutes, Biddle said, "Rickard is the finest and noblest sportsman I ever knew." During the 1930s, Biddle taught close combat to FBI agents, a job he owed in part to a relative who was Franklin Roosevelt’s Attorney General.

In 1937, the Marine Corps Association published Biddle’s book, Do or Die, Military Manual of Advanced Science in Individual Combat. While the boxing tips from Bob Fitzsimmons were good and the self-defense techniques cribbed from W.E. Fairbairn were passable, the rest of the book showed considerable ignorance of the realities of a mid-twentieth century battlefield. (If nothing else, during World War II the Western Allies, Germans, and Russians preferred to conduct their trench warfare with tanks and flamethrowers rather than bayonets and entrenching tools.)

Recalled to active duty during World War II as a close combat instructor for the Marine Corps, Biddle died in 1948 at the age of 73.

Whether you view Biddle as an important pioneer or just a wealthy enthusiast, Cold Steel, by his student John Styers, remains a classic of the genre. Furthermore, his personal history is both colorful and well documented. As a result, I believe it would reward a detailed study. The following are some suggestions about where that project might begin.


Biddle’s obituary appeared in the New York Times on May 28, 1948. See also Who Was Who in America, 2, (1943-1950), 1971, 61-62.

Columnist Westbrook Pegler apparently wrote about Biddle in 1947. Unfortunately I have not seen the material, so do not know what it says. See

Biddle’s Boxing

An enthusiastic amateur boxer, Biddle boxed a 2-round public exhibition with Bob Fitzsimmons in 1893 and a 4-round public exhibition with "Philadelphia" Jack O’Brien in 1908. See and As noted above, O’Brien specialized in training celebrities, and his comment to Liebling, which originally appeared in New Yorker, was reprinted in Liebling’s A Neutral Corner, edited by Fred Warner and James Barbour (New York: Fireside Books, 1990). However, in fairness, it must be noted that Biddle did have a punch, and during a public altercation with a streetcar conductor in Atlantic City, it was Biddle in one. See John McPhee’s essay "In the Search for Marvin Gardens," which appeared in his book Pieces of the Frame (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1975).

In A Flame of Pure Fire: Jack Dempsey and the Roaring ‘20s (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1999), Roger Kahn discussed Biddle’s influence on the legalization of boxing in New York following World War I. Personally, I believe that this was Biddle’s most enduring contribution to American combatives.

During the 1920s, Biddle’s favorite heavyweight boxer was Gene Tunney, and during the 1920s Biddle was often seen in the corner of "The Fighting Marine." See, for example,

Biddle’s Influence on WWI Combatives

In June 1917, Biddle was a captain assigned to the Marine Barracks at Port Royal, South Carolina. (The post wasn’t renamed Paris Island until later that month, nor the spelling changed to two R’s until May 1919.) For a brief mention of Captain Biddle and Marine recruit training, see Joe Rendinell’s diary at For a post history, see Elmore A. Champie, A Brief History of the Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, South Carolina, 1891-1962 (Washington, DC: US Marine Corps, 1962), reprinted at

In 1918, Biddle trained a USMC bayonet demonstration at Lansdowne, Pennsylvania. Lansdowne is a Philadelphia suburb located about ten miles west of downtown on the Main Line, and Drexel Hill, where the Biddle family lived, is nearby. There is a brief mention of the Lansdowne site in The United States in the World War by Major Edwin N. McClellan (Washington, DC: Headquarters Marine Corps, 1920). This book appears online at

For a description of US bayonet training program of the era, see William J. Jacomb, Boxing for Beginners with Chapter Showing Its Relationship to Bayonet Fighting (Philadelphia: Lea & Febiger, 1918). For a photograph showing the boxing instruction that accompanied US military bayonet training, see This is actually the center panel of a panorama; for the complete photo, see The title is "337th Infantry, ‘World’s Largest Boxing Class,’ conducted by Billy Armstrong, 27 Jun 1918," and the location is Camp Custer, Michigan.

Biddle’s Influence on WWII Combatives

A discussion of Biddle’s influence on WWII combatives appears at Blade Forums, It is a very long thread, so some borrowings follow:

  1. "Biddle’s Do or Die is really quite vague, so it would be hard to say what he actually taught and what he didn’t."
  2. "From the biography of Biddle in the book, his techniques, and what I have read about him from other authors, it would appear that he was a very skilled fencer with sabre type weapons. His techniques are very viable in the dueling range as long as you have a ‘big’ knife, but anything shorter than 9" or so on the blade length probably won’t be compatible with all of his techniques."
  3. Attributed to Rex Applegate. "I met both Biddle and Styers at Quantico and witnessed demonstrations with bayonets. Biddle was a dilettante and a showman. Both used a duelist approach that was bull**** and not based on practical experience like that of the British." (To which another contributor added that Applegate was teaching an unrelated system of his own, and so had a bias.)
  4. "When I was learning about knife fighting there were 3 basic ‘schools’-- the Fencing method (Styers, Biddle); the Shanghai method (Fairbairn, Applegate); and the Modernist method. See Modern American Fighting Knives by Robert S. McKay for more info about this."
  5. "Biddle’s knifework is often deemed impractical when people try it with folders or modern ‘fighting’ knives. I suspect it worked much better with that long bayonet he uses in Do or Die."
From William L. Cassidy, The Complete Book of Knife Fighting (Boulder, CO: Paladin Press, 1993), ISBN 0 87364 029 2: So strong was Biddle’s indoctrination into the use of the sword, that his entire method of [knife combat] instruction is built around such maneuvers as In-quartata, Passata Sotto, and other, similar movements well known to the duellist. In spite of his introductory remarks, nowhere does Biddle acknowledge that the users of ‘dagger, machete or bolo’ may not have been gentlemen, well-schooled in the tenets of swordsmanship and fair play. This was Biddle’s greatest weakness. He was a gentleman instructing gentlemen in the ritual of knife fighting. As such, many of the methods he advocated come down to us as nothing more than quaint reminders of an earlier (and perhaps better) age of conflict… See also the reviews of various knife-related books at

Biddle’s Books

Biddle wrote several books. Drexel University has four titles.

Duke University adds a fifth: The Library of Congress adds several others.

Magazine Appearances

There should be photos of Biddle’s methods in WWII-era Leatherneck magazines. The editor of Marine Corps Gazette, however, reports that neither Gazette nor Leatherneck published any articles by the man. Therefore Philadelphia publications will likely prove a better source of detailed information.

Drexel Biddle Publishing Company

Among other things, the publishing company of Drexel Biddle published:

Possible Influences on Biddle’s Combatives-related Postings

Major General William Biddle was Commandant of the Marine Corps from 1911-1914. This relationship undoubtedly helped the 41-year old A.J. Drexel Biddle obtain a posting to the US Marine Corps Reserve during 1917.

Francis Biddle was the Attorney General of the United States from 1941-1945. See, for example, This relationship probably helped Biddle’s recall to active duty during World War II.

Family History

For an introduction to the Biddle family, see

In 1955, Biddle’s daughter Cordelia published a book with Kyle Crichton called My Philadelphia Father; a paperback version also exists under the title The Happiest Millionaire. Many years earlier, Cordelia Drexel Biddle married Angier Duke, and his biography appears at A search at Duke University Libraries turns up 807 hits for the word Biddle (they even have history teachers with that name), and Cordelia Duke’s scrapbooks are in the university archives. Penn State also has material, and there are letters to relatives at archives throughout the United States.

Biddle’s son Anthony (1896-1961) was a prominent mid-20th century diplomat. For some background, see There is an error there -- it was his father, the author of The Froggy Fairy and the hand-to-hand book, who was the founder of Athletic Christianity. On October 4, 1943, the son made the cover of LIFE; at the time, he was the US ambassador to governments-in-exile in London. Later, Anthony Jr.’s archives formed the basis of a diplomatic history called Poland and the coming of the Second World War: the diplomatic papers of A. J. Drexel Biddle, Jr., United States Ambassador to Poland, 1937-1939, edited with an introduction by Philip V. Cannistraro, Edward D. Wynot, Jr., Theodore P. Kovaleff (Columbus, OH: Ohio State University, 1976). A grandson, Angier Biddle Duke, was also a diplomat; he died in 1995, at the age of 79, after being struck by a car while roller-blading.

Although most of the Biddle family was Episcopalian, the Roman Catholic Church recently beatified a Biddle relative, St. Katherine Drexel. See Another well-known Biddle of the recent era was the Mayflower Madam, Sydney Biddle Barrows.

The Happiest Millionaire

In the 1967 Walt Disney movie called The Happiest Millionaire Fred MacMurray played Biddle. This film is noteworthy for several things. One was the debut of John Davidson; another is that this was probably the last movie whose production Walt Disney personally oversaw. Lesley Ann Warren played the daughter on whose book the story was loosely based. For some details, see Despite the film being a musical, apparently Biddle had an awful singing voice: Both the film and the companion comic strip featured jujitsu, which was something "The whole Biddle Bible Class must learn," as Biddle was made to say in a panel published in October 1967.

Naval Vessels called Biddle

Officially, three US naval vessels have carried the name "Biddle" -- a 1901 torpedo boat, a 1919 4-pipe destroyer turned WWII transport, and a Vietnam-era destroyer leader later converted into a missile cruiser. However, there were actually four ships of the name if you count an Adams-class destroyer later renamed Claude V. Ricketts. For details, see and All these vessels are named after a Revolutionary War hero named Nicholas Biddle. As an aside, Nicholas Biddle’s brother Thomas died as the result of injuries received during an August 1830 duel in St. Louis. The fatal result is hardly surprising – because Biddle was shortsighted, the range was fixed at five paces. See

JNC Dec 2001