As far back as the 3rd Century B.C. military men were ridiculing any concern with empty hand fighting as beneath them, James Lafond explains:
In an age when military men hacked each other to pieces at arm’s length, they could have cared less about unarmed fighting, as they knew it to be all but useless in a military context. Over the ages military establishments have either ignored the empty hand question, or have farmed it out to specialists, or made it the personal duty of officers.
For one example of the later let’s take the British military during the Zulu Wars of the late 1800s. The foot soldiers were recruited from a stunted and malnourished population living on starvation rations, and stood about 5-foot 6-inches and weighed around 140 pounds.
The Zulu warriors they fought were drawn from a well-nourished beef-eating population and stood about 6-foot and weighed in between 160 and 180 pounds, with some chiefs and famous warriors being of goliath proportions. The Zulus supplemented their thrusting spear and shield training with wrestling and stick fighting. These were formidable hand-to-hand warriors. As with most warrior cultures throughout history, the Zulus concerned themselves with weaponry and grappling; grappling being the way to obtain a weapon once one has lost his own, as well as a way to neutralize an enemy’s weapon once one has lost his. It is exceedingly rare to see any concern with empty hand striking as it is largely useless in armed combat.
The man in charge of the ‘physical education’ of the British soldier was his officer, a well-fed spoiled rich boy who stood 5-foot 10-inches and weighed in at about 170-pounds. This man would wrestle with pro wrestlers that he and his rich fellows would sponsor at home, as well as spar with famous prize-fighters. [Teddy Roosevelt did this in the white house when he was president!] This officer would then wrestle and box with his entire unit, lining them up and beating their emaciated asses, just like the prize-fighters had worked him and his rich friends over. The wrestling was intended to develop one’s ability to maintain his footing and his hold on his all-important rifle-bayonet, a fearsome weapon even when unloaded. The boxing was purely psychological conditioning, intended to fill the soldier with a tenacious confidence that he could endure the worst.
When the Brits were overrun in one battle, and their ammunition ran out, the Zulu’s suffered horrendous casualties in hand-to-hand combat. It was all about the bayonet. Even with empty guns, it was still the gun that mattered. We cannot forget, when writing unarmed combat scenes involving military combatants, that they are all indoctrinated — a most potent indoctrination, as it is built on a natural primate impulse to seek a weapon — to fight with empty hands only as a way to access a weapon or to deny enemy access to a weapon. There are patchy records of military men striking with fists when in desperate straits, though this is more an act of final defiance than a tactical option.