The double ear slap has long been a staple of combatives training.
The official story, related by many self defense experts, is that if you slap both of your opponent’s ears at the same time then, no matter his size, his eardrums will explode and he’ll drop to the ground in a shrivelled heap.
Sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it?
Let’s take a look at the best data we can find on this topic to find out if this type of technique actually works.
First, here’s my answer in video form…
Let’s now take a more detailed look at the history of this ear slap idea, as well as the evidence for and against it actually working in real fights.
The Double Ear Slap in Combatives Literature
The double ear slap is a very common technique taught in self defense manuals and military combatives books.
As far as I can tell, this idea started with the self defense literature published by US and British hand to hand instructors like W.E. Fairbairn and Rex Applegate. These instructors were trying to get troops ready for combat before and during World War 2, disseminating their techniques to a large number of troops and influencing an entire generation of martial artists.
Much of what they taught is quite practical, but let’s focus just on this one area: the single or double slap to the ear.
Here are a couple of examples of what’s been published in self defense books in the last 80 years…
In All In Fighting, published in 1942, Royal Marine and policeman W.E. Fairbairn writes…
“Cup your hands, keeping the thumb and fingers bent, and close together. Strike your opponent simultaneously over both ears, using five to ten pounds force with both hands.
This will probably burst one of both ear-drums and at least give him a mild form of concussion, and make him what is known in boxing circles as punch-drunk. You will then have no difficulty in dealing with him in any way you wish.”
In Effective Unarmed Combat (1974) Malcom Harris expounded about this same technique…
“Each hand is held cupped, with the fingers tightly together and the thumb pressing hard against the sides of the index finger. Both hands are used to strike an opponent over his ears simultaneously, from close range. If these clouts are given with sufficient force, the sudden air-compression inside the opponent’s ear-canals may burst his ear-drums. At least, this double blow will stun your opponent and make him easy to deal with by other methods. In order to obtain the compression effect it is important that the fingers and thumb of each hand are held tight enough to prevent the air escaping.”
In Black Medicine, The Dark Art of Death (1978), N. Mashiro writes…
“The ear contains a high concentration of sensory nerves associated with hearing and balance. Striking the ear with a cupped hand sends a shock wave down the ear canal which ruptures the tympanum and shocks the delicate inner ear mechanisms, producing severe pain, dizziness, and unconsciousness.”
The ear slap, first taught in military circles, eventually made its way into general martial arts lore and, eventually, even into pop culture. For example, Captain Kirk used it to stun the lizard-like Gorn, in a 1967 Star Trek episode…
I could go on, but you get the point.
There’s a longstanding story in the martial arts community about how deadly effective these ear slaps are.
But does this move actually work? Do eardrums ever get ruptured? And are earslaps effective, reliable techniques?
Let’s look at these questions one at a time…
Yes, Eardrums Can Rupture…
Eardrums can undoubtedly get ruptured or perforated due to trauma, explosions, and pressure changes.
According to various sources, it takes somewhere between 2.5 psi to 14 psi (about 17 to 100 kilopascals) of pressure to rupture an eardrum. I’m guessing that some of the variation has to do with how quickly that wave of pressure rises and falls in different circumstances.
Anyway, eardrum perforation is a medical phenomenon and it doesn’t always take a big explosion. A physical impact can do it too…
Anecdotally I’ve heard of people rupturing their eardrums landing sideways in a pool after jumping sideways off a diving board.
And there are certainly boxers who have suffered ruptured eardrums in fights.
(Incidentally ruptured eardrums often heal on their own, although infection and hearing loss are serious problems and sometimes surgery is required.)
OK, so we’ve established that eardrums can get ruptured…
And there’s even some anecdotal evidence that this can happen in combat sports as a result of a punch to the head.
But what about the fabled ear slap? How effective and reliable is that as a technique?
Is a slap to the ear going to collapse the largest of attackers and instantly render them helpless?
Well, maybe not so much…
Pancrase and Open Handed Slaps to the Head
There are lots of anecdotes online about high school kids sneaking up behind each other and whacking each other on the ears. Sometimes they call this the ‘thunderclap’ and it often has dramatic results.
Or someone was once clapped on the ears by their sensei, and they pain they felt ‘proves’ that this technique works.
But ambushing an unsuspecting victim or demonstrating on an unresisting student doesn’t really prove much.
These are situations where the variables of movement and resistance have been taken out of the equation, making it much easier to land the shot. Furthermore the lack of adrenaline and rage means that any pain is amplified instead of dulled the way it would be in a real fight.
Almost anything works on a compliant or unsuspecting person.
Fortunately when it comes to testing the effectiveness of slaps to the ear under pressure and against resistance, well, that particular experiment has already been done.
It was done between 1993 and 1999 in Japanese Pancrase.
Pancrase was an early form of MMA in Japan. It was mixed in the sense that it involved kickboxing on the feet and submission grappling on the ground. Many early UFC fighters and champions like Ken Shamrock, Frank Shamrock, Guy Mezger and Bas Rutten fought in Pancrase before coming across to North America.
Now I’m not saying that Mixed Martial Arts are the be-all-and-end-all when it comes to self defense. Certainly there are some big differences between what will work in the ring and what will work on the street.
That being said, you’d be a fool to ignore the lessons taught by MMA. It’s a source of empty handed combat data the likes of which we’ve never had before!
Now one thing about Pancrase, especially early Pancrase (1993 to 1999), is that the rules were really weird by today’s standards.
For example, you had to wear weird knee-high boots, which made escaping submissions like heel hooks much more difficult…
And if you were caught in submission you could escape it by simply grabbing the ropes. You lost a point by doing this, but got to restart standing in the middle of the ring….
And, most importantly for today’s discussion, in Pancrase you weren’t allowed to punch to the head; only slaps were allowed.
There were a LOT of Pancrase events. Over 75 events and maybe 500 fights, all fought with slaps to the head.
And these are trained, strong, and highly motivated athletes. If winning a match and capturing the title was as simple as cuffing the other guy in the ear with a cupped hand don’t you think they would have done it?
Of course they would have! Fighters want to win, no matter what the sport!!
So was there an epidemic of ruptured eardrums?
Well, there were only a few that I’ve heard of. For example, Yuki Kondo (who later fought in the UFC and Pride) reportedly ruptured an eardrum in an early Pancrase fight.
And then I personally know of one other case where a Pancrase fighter had an eardrum ruptured in a match.
But that’s not a big number; there definitely wasn’t a parade of fighters heading to the ear, nose and throat specialist’s office after every Pancrase event.
The Reliability of Slaps Rupturing Eardrums as Deliberate Techniques?
So in Pancrase it seems that, despite the hundreds of fights and thousands of slaps thrown, there were only a few ruptured eardrums. The rarity of this injury in a sport where ear slapping was so common, is not a good sign for a move that is supposedly a magical fight-stopper and man-dropper
So while it is possible to rupture a man’s eardrum with a properly placed blow, the data suggests that this is NOT a common outcome.
It’s hard enough to land a clean left hook on someone in boxing, and the head is a BIG target!
The opening of the ear canal, by contrast, is a rather small target. To hit this small target at just the right angle on a moving head and with just the right hand configuration to seal it off is a very difficult task, so maybe it shouldn’t be surprising that this technique succeeding in a real fight is a rare thing.
Furthermore the fact that boxers have finished matches with ruptured eardrums also suggests that this isn’t necessarily the fight ending injury we’ve been led to believe, especially when you’re dealing with tough people, elevated adrenaline levels, and sky-high pain tolerances.
So is it a magical fight stoping technique?
NO, not at all.
But should you even aim for the ear in a fight?
The short answer is YES!
The Ear as a Target
The ear is a great target, and anytime you get a chance to club it with any part of your body you should go for it.
First of all, it’s right in the middle of the head and very close to two of the three big knockout points on the human head.
If your strike lands a little high it’ll hit him in the temple, which can definitely knock someone out…
And if your strike is a little low then it’s landing on the jaw, which is another proven knockout point.
And finally, if you aim for the ear then there’s always the chance that you’ll win the lottery.
You might just land on hit the side of the head exactly correctly, damage the eardrum and drop your opponent. I never said the ear slap induced eardrum rupture was impossible, just that it was unlikely and not to be relied upon!
Also when we’re talking about open handed slaps to the head it’s instructive to note that feared striker Bas Rutten didn’t really slap with an open hand per se in Pancrase.
Instead he bent his hand all the way back so that he impacted with the bones of his wrist rather than the palm of his hand, thus turning the arm into a bony club (I show you Bas Rutten’s ‘wrist club’ strike at about the 2:40 mark of the video at the top of this post).
So Bas’s deadly ‘slaps’ weren’t really slaps. They were clubbing blows to the head that had an impact like a punch from a wrapped fist.
But let’s go back to slapping for a sec…
Another great reason to aim a slap for the ear is that it generates a reaction from most people. It brings their attention UP, which then allows you to attack DOWN with a punch, kick, clinch or takedown.
Using a slap to the head as a set up to close the distance was taught to me by Erik Paulson who used it to take down and finish Jeff Ford in his last professional fight.
The ear slap to double leg (or clinch) is featured from about the 3:28 mark in the video below:
The Double Ear Slap – Fact or Fiction?
In the article above we’ve shown how yes, ear drums can rupture under certain circumstances.
And we’ve talked about a few examples of how that can happen in combat sports, either from an open handed slap or a well-placed shot of a boxing glove covered fist.
But data from hundreds and hundreds of open-handed matches shows that a slap resulting in an eardrum rupture is a relatively rare event, even when you’ve got highly trained and motivated professionals dishing out those slaps.
And those are all single handed slaps; there are virtually NO examples of double ear slaps working consistently under any kind of pressure-tested sportive setting, even when they’re perfectly legal.
And finally, even when eardrums do get ruptured in MMA or boxing it’s not a guarantee that that will end the fight. Boxers finish matches with missing teeth and ruptured eardrums fairly regularly
So can a slap to the ear rupture an eardrum as promised?
The answer is a weak ‘maybe’. Yes, it can happen, but it’s relatively rare and definitely unreliable
That being said there are still lots of good reasons to slap someone in the head during a scuffle. Just don’t expect it to be some sort of magic fight-ending voodoo.
Throw your slap to the ear if you want to, but don’t be shocked if nothing happens.
The slap might land but don’t stop, admire your handiwork, and wait for a big payday; instead keep going with your punches, elbows, knees, kicks, headbutts, clinching, chokes, takedowns and other attacks until you’ve neutralised the threat.
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