The Nelson System Revisited By Lee Morrison
I arrived in New York City on the 24/2/04 this was my third time over in the U.S with the purpose of furthering my studies in the Charles Nelson system of Self-defense. On my last visit I was fortunate enough to meet the great man himself Mr Charles Nelson on his 88th birthday in Arkansas where he lived with his family up until his recent passing this year. Charles Nelson taught his system of Self-defense in NYC for fifty years, Charlie was one of the last remaining links to authentic WW2 Combatives. Here is a brief background history of Charlie's entry and contributions into the martial arts and the world of Close Combat.
Charles Nelson USMC

Charles. C. Nelson was born in the Bay Ridge section of Brooklyn, New York on the 1st of March 1915. At the age of three Charlie's parents separated and he was placed in an orphanage under the care of Catholic Nuns. By the age of eight he was sent to another home, run by Christian Brothers. It was here that Charlie planted the early roots of his Close Combat career when he was taught how to box. If the kids in the home ever got into a dispute, the Brothers would have them put on the boxing gloves and settle it.

By the age of fourteen Charlie was sent to a farm in upstate New York, he lived on several farms, running away a few times. Then in 1934 at the age of nineteen he joined the U.S. Marine Corps and served his term through boot camp at the Parris Island depot in South Carolina. During the initial eleven-week training period Charlie was given his first introduction into the U.S.M.C method of Close Quarter Combat. This was based on Ju-jitsu and what was referred to as 'dirty fighting' and Hand-to-hand methods. Charlie was transferred to Quantico in Virginia for further training.

It was here that Charlie met and had the opportunity to train with Colonel. A.J. Drexel Biddle, a teacher of Close Combat in the Marine Corps and also to the F.B.I. Biddle was and still is to this day, considered to have been a major authority of the Combative methods taught from WW1 right through to WW2. Author of the now out of print classic text 'Do or Die' which was first published in 1937. Col. Biddle's instruction was based on his extensive knowledge and experience of various fighting systems throughout the world, including Western boxing, fencing, Ju-jitsu and the Defendu system that was developed in Shanghai by the legendary W.E. Fairbairn.

Charlie discovered that he had a natural talent for all methods relating to Close Combat and was before long, coming up with his own variations. Charlie went on to study and train in various other systems including Chinese and Western boxing, becoming one of the Corps light weight boxing squad in the latter, at a body weight of around 135lbs and at a height of 5'9''.

Charlie was eventually appointed the position of an instructor to his fellow Marines. It was around this time that he met his bunkmate, yet another Close Combat legend, John Styers who was also a student of Drexel Biddle and author of the classic text 'Cold steel'. Another pivotal figure toward the development of what was to become the Nelson system some years later was Sgt Kelly who taught Charlie various aspects of Mongolian wrestling, the point of which was to kill or cripple. Sgt Kelly had done much of his training with a certain Dermot ''Pat'' O'Neill who was a former Detective Inspector with the Shanghai Municipal Police (SMP) and a protégé of W.E. Fairbain. Charlie was still an active part of the Marine Corp when the United States entered into WW2.

He saw action in the Pacific when he landed with the 1st Marine Division in the first amphibious assault for the Americans. Their target was Guadalcanal, a small Island that was part of the Solomon Islands only ninety miles long and twenty five miles across, Guadalcanal saw some of the bitterest fighting of the Pacific theatre, taking some six months to remove all Japanese occupancy. Here is a Marine Corps verse written after the assault on Guadalcanal:

''And when he gets to heaven to St. Peter he will tell: ''one more Marine reporting sir, I've served my time in Hell!''

''Hell", Nelson exclaims,
''I was with the 1st Marine Division on Guadalcanal and do you know what? None of us ever saw any Ninjas.''

When the war was over Charlie received a medical discharge after having acquired malaria, an eye infection and an ulcer after which he returned to New York retiring on a disability pension. Charlie soon became restless and took various jobs such as selling doll's carriages and music boxes and later a job as a cook at the hotel Biltmore. Around this time Charlie decided to start teaching. He started with just a few people teaching out of his living room from a small studio at 1509 First Avenue this was around 1946.

Around this time there were only two other martial arts schools in operation, one was for Judo and the other for Ju-jitsu. Before long People started to hear about Charlie's expertise as an instructor and larger premises were required in order to accommodate his accumulating students. In 1949 Charlie found suitable premises at 151 West 72nd Street where he continued to teach until his retirement in 1996 when a real estate company bought the building and terminated his lease. Charlie then moved to Jacksonville in Arkansas so he and his wife could be closer to their daughter Carol.

During some five decades teaching Self-defense in NYC Charlie taught literally hundreds of people from all walks of life including martial artists, boxers, wrestlers, police officers, bouncers, stunt men, Government agents, body guards and movie stars to name just a few. In that time Charlie accumulated an abundance of real world experience from challenge matches at his school to side walk brawls in the street.

Charlie would collect a library of news paper cuttings that he would post all over the walls of his school, incidents of muggings, murders and the victims who should and could have survived if they had a little knowledge of workable Self-defense. Charlie would quote:

''The best defense of all is to avoid trouble whenever possible. But an increasing number of people are discovering that trouble finds them.''

''If these people had taken my course, they would be alive today''

''Ok. So it's dirty fighting, but when a guy has your head to a wall and a gun to your neck, you're not gonna start no fancy stepping karate. You're gonna defend yourself the best you can.''

Charlie's goal was to teach ordinary everyday people how to defend themselves from the violent element that plagued the streets of New York City. Charlie had a knack of taking a scenario, say from a newspaper cutting or from an example that may have happened to someone else, and finding a practical solution to the situation right there and then on the spot. His training course consisted of fifteen lessons and cost anything from $200 or more.

He would only train a maximum of six students or less at one time this way he could give them his complete attention. The students would work together in pairs. There were no uniforms, belts or rituals. He believed in teaching only that which worked well and worked quickly. Charlie would teach from example of a real scenario, he emphasised the point of reacting or moving from a natural position and not from any particular stance that would indicate that you had any knowledge of combat. In fact he could hit with deceptive power and speed from any position or angle. He would also emphasise the point of not showing any aggression but rather luring the attacker into a false sense of security by acting innocent and curious before attacking him with full intention until the threat was dealt with or no longer interested in continuing with his original intention.

Charlie also offered his services to Mayor Kock in teaching the NYPD but was politely declined as his system was deemed too brutal for the boys in blue to use on the street. Over the years Charlie collected many letters of gratitude and written testimonials stating how effectively Charlie's methods had worked for some of his students. These are letters of gratitude and commendation for the very useful knowledge that Charlie had passed on to people of all ages, sex and levels of experience.

Here are a few examples:

A middle aged man who had just returned home from his first free lesson with Charlie was threatened by a man with a knife on a stairway the attacker was quickly knocked down a flight of stairs resulting in a complete adjustment of attitude.

In 1982 a nineteen-year-old girl, who had taken a course of lessons with Charlie Nelson when she was ten years old, found herself some nine years later, confronted with a six-foot tall attacker who had grabbed her in her motel room. The young woman broke free of his grip as she stepped back and elbowed him in the solar plexus and stomped on his foot allowing her to make her escape and call for help. What makes this incident interesting is the fact that after her course of lessons with Charlie at the age of ten, the girl had had no further training from that point to the incident in the motel room. She had simply retained what she had learned from Charlie and used it effectively.

A sixty year old man was attacked in a rest room by two young men whilst out at the cinema. The man knocked both of his aggressor's unconscious and returned to his seat to watch the rest of the film.

Charlie was well known for telling it like it is. He always spoke in terms that were frank and to the point. His countless stories contained gems of real-world information everyone who had studied with him would agree that Charlie was a gifted man who gave so much to so many.

Charles .C. Nelson U.S Marine Corp Instructor 1915 to 2004 May he rest in peace.
My visit continued :
I have been studying the Nelson system for the last two years and I have integrated various aspects of it into the Combatives that I teach at home in England. My experience as a student and an instructor is based on 24 years of training in various combative systems and martial arts as well as 12 years working on the doors as a night club bouncer. I have always had an interest in the Western methods of Close Combat from the 1930's Shanghai period through to the methods taught during WW2 right up to the modern day influences of great people like Kelly MacCann, Carl Cestari, Bob Kasper and John Kary to name just a few. For the last five years I have ate slept and drunk within the world of Western Combatives.

I had the pleasure of training during those years with the late great Pete Robins who was without doubt one of the most knowledgeable people within this field that our generation has seen. It was Pete who introduced me to Charlie Nelson and his senior student Bob Spiegel, who was made the main successor to the Nelson System after Charlie retired in the Nineties.

Since that time I have studied Charlie's work with a relentless ambition hence the purpose of my latest trip to New York to train with Bob. Unbeknown to me I was being tested with the view of becoming a potential certified instructor in the Nelson system from the moment I stepped off the plane.

Apparently this had been discussed with Charlie and his daughter Carol after my last visit to the point where Charlie himself actually signed a certificate which was to be given to me once I was deemed worthy of it. I spent every day of the following week training and studying for the majority of the day. The rest of our time was spent photographing the entire curriculum for a future book project to be named "The Full Nelson" that will provide as complete a history of Charlie's life and methods of Self-defense that he taught over five decades.

The book will bring the entire curriculum up to date and will show how it was adapted to the point it is at now as the current Nelson system. This book is being prepared with full permission from Charlie's family and will be written with the aim of honouring Charles Nelson and as a means to help preserve his life time's work. Whilst in the big apple myself and Bob took a visit to Charlie's old school on West 72nd street the original building was still completely intact. We even went to the local coffee shop a few doors down where all the patrons remembered Charlie with great fondness. It was here that I obtained a photo that depicted Charlie's school of Self-defense as it was back then, complete with the original sign on the wall of this multi story apartment building :

Here is a Picture of Charlie Nelson's School of Self-defense located at 151 West 72 St New York City. Note the original sign on the second floor of this apartment building.
Here I am outside the same apartment building in 2004.
This the Mongoose and the Cobra sign used to advertise Charlie's school of Self-defense.
 

On one of the days Bob Spiegel held a seminar at his Green St School where I had the opportunity to train with a State police officer who was formerly a member of the Special Forces. This guy had trained with Charlie himself back in the days of Charlie's old school. He remembered the effectiveness of some of what Charlie had taught him back then and was now eager to continue his training. His son accompanied him who was a young Army recruit, who was getting prepared to go over to Afghanistan. Both of these guys felt slightly better equipped for their duty with a little effective combative knowledge under their belts.

After five days of intense training my trip was nearing its end and I was very pleased to learn that I had passed the level one Tier of instruction in the Nelson System. This was to make me the only Instructor in this system outside of the U.S. Needless to say I was very proud to accept and made a decision right there and then that I would do all that I could to uphold Charlie's good name and help in any way that I can to help preserve Charlie's work. Although I am considered a U.K based Combatives and Self-Protection instructor back home, I will certainly integrate elements of the Nelson System into my own teaching method and will also offer bonifide instruction in the Nelson system as is was taught to me should anyone suitable come to me for that purpose.

Basic principles:
The Nelson system contains a small variety of strikes within its current curriculum; the entire system incorporates the use of a small number of attacking tools that can be applied to a multitude of situations. These include chops with the edge of the hand, punches with the vertical fist and second knuckle joints as well as open hand palm strikes and finger tip strikes to the eyes. The rest is made up of various arm-bars and sharp low kicks to the knees and shins. Over the years Charlie adapted and updated his system.

Some of his students from say the 60's and 70's have said that the curriculum during that time was often more striking orientated as compared to say the early 80's where Charlie was starting to adapt his system slightly incorporating more of the arm-bar kind of subject control, which incidentally was always, always preceded by striking or distraction. An example of this was the elimination of the groin kick in favour of the even lower kicks to the knees, shins and ankles.

Charlie would always say ''its all about the angles.'' He was a firm believer of the ''give way'' principle which he slightly modified by calling it the ''revolving door'' instead of just going with the force, Charlie added a slight body spin which causes him to glance off his attacker, much like a rock thrown at a revolving door would. Charlie advised against exerting strength against strength being small himself, Charlie was well aware of the outcome of such a contest. He preferred instead, to remain just outside of his opponent's reach, but close enough to strike out at targets of opportunity. He would say ''ever see a mongoose fight a cobra?'' ''The mongoose evades just far enough to avoid being bitten, then while the snake is off balance, the mongoose rushes in for the kill.''

 
Footwork is the basis for evasion and Charlie made evasion a bedrock principle of his system. He incorporated the slipping and footwork from Western boxing along with his lightning fast side step to confuse his attacker. He always preferred to step or duck out of harms way, then either use his opponent's momentum against him with a foot trip or immediately launch as many hand and foot blows as was necessary to end the situation. Charlie was an intelligent man so of course he had a back up plan, should he have found himself backed up to a wall or cornered and denied of his evasive footwork, unable to avoid close contact here was his answer;
''move in on the guy with everything, including the kitchen sink,'' ''when on the offensive you're harder to hit. The other guy doesn't have a chance to put power into his punches, or even think about hurting you, as General Pattern used to say, ''to hell with protecting your flanks. Let the enemy worry about protecting his flanks.''

 

Gun threat from behind

Assuming that your aggressor has not just walked up and shot you but is instead, holding a gun to your back in a threatening manner you therefore have a chance at going for the disarm.
Make a fast turn off the firing line of the weapon towards the inside of the weapon bearing limb. The arm is wrapped quickly and held firmly in place under your armpit until the situation is over.
Using the momentum gained from the turn go to immediate strikes to vital targets; in this case a hard knuckle punch to the throat or a chin-jab could be used following up with a knee to the groin.

 

Straight arm-bar

A straight arm-bar can be taken from a variety of positions; examples include as a reaction to wrist grab by reversing the hold to your dominant grip and striking the back of (the ulna nerve situated just behind your assailant's straightened elbow joint with your opposite arm. Or the straight arm-bar could be used as part of a counter to a lapel grab and also works nicely as an initial pre-emptive action. Remember any hold is always preceded by a strike or a distraction.

As an example lets say you are going to apply a straight arm-bar on someone's right arm using your left. Charlie would throw a short, fast chop to the throat with his left hand whilst simultaneously grabbing his aggressor's right arm at the hand and wrist. The place you are aiming to grasp is on the back of the hand just above the big knuckles. From here the arm is turned in order to expose the back of the now semi straight arm at the elbow joint. This will allow you to smash down hard onto the said target with your left forearm, making use of the sharp radial edge of your own forearm and wrist bone.

The foot work should place you in a side on position to your aggressor taking one step back as you apply the arm-bar and if necessary one further step back to place the aggressor face-down on the ground. From here you can finish with your feet, escape or take the aggressor into another hold to bring him back up on his feet. The following sequence of photos illustrates this :

 

Lee Morrison receiving certification in the Nelson System from Robert Spiegel on the 29th Feb/04