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- "There we were, the biggest Ork was coming straight towards us, killing everything in its path. Though we’d have been Emperor-cursed cowards for doing it, we were about to run. Suddenly, trooper Bjarki gave a snarl, jumped on the beast's back, and set himself to work, laying about with his knife and his teeth and his bare hands. By the time he passed out from fatigue, he’d broken half of the creature's teeth, put some bloody holes in its chest, ripped its arm clean off, and struck it a great blow with the severed limb. 'Course it's true -- I saw it all myself!"
- — Trooper Hjalti of the Gautlend 81st Rifle
A Brawler is a close combat specialist of the Imperial Guard, invariably tasked with leading the charge against the enemy and of engaging the largest, most unpleasant foe he can find. Many squads seem to have amongst their ranks one individual who is significantly bigger, tougher, or more foul-tempered than any of the other members of the unit. Often he is the one that starts fights with rival groups when off-duty. Sometimes, he is the one that breaks them up. He is invariably held in great esteem by his squad mates, not least because he is capable of banging heads together should the need arise. But aside from his effect on morale while away from the field of battle, the Brawler has a significant role to play when the laser bolts and Shoota rounds are flying thickest.
In warzones such as the volatile Spinward Front, this often means duking it out with the meanest Orks of WAAAGH! Grimtoof and so any brawler who has survived even one such encounter is likely to be a giant amongst men and to have very little capacity to feel pain or to accept when he is beaten. These Ork-like qualities serve the units fighting on the Spinward Front well, and so many have amongst their ranks individuals who could be considered brawlers by dint of surviving such conflicts through savage force of arms. Some regiments make specific use of troopers who prove to be especially gifted at melee combat with additional training and equipment and designate them as close combat specialists. In battle, such warriors might perform as line troopers for most of the time, but step to the fore when the time comes to fix bayonets and engage the enemy in the bloody maelstrom of hand-to-hand combat.
Other regiments frequently assign their particularly talented scrappers to certain roles, taking advantage of their particular skills as Rough Riders, scouts, or in other ways. Plenty of regiments do not designate specific individuals as melee specialists but field them nonetheless. This generally happens on an ad hoc basis, where the largest or most belligerent troopers find themselves at the head of the charge time and time again. With their continued survival these troopers become unofficial champions to their comrades, who follow their lead into the maelstrom of hand-to-hand combat. A squad with a trooper particularly talented at close combat can make substantial use of his abilities, as well. When confronted by a singular enemy against which the massed Lasguns of the Imperial Guard have little effect, it often falls to a unit's brawler to take up his trusty melee weapon and step boldly forward to accept the challenge.
While his fellows hold the bulk of the foe at bay, the brawler might go toe-to-toe with the largest and most horrific of abominations. The resulting combat might last seconds or hours, but two things are near-certain -- only one combatant can emerge victorious, and the loser’s comrades will be ground beneath the boots of the victor's allies if they rally around this victory and sweep forward to glory. Not all Brawlers rely upon raw muscle to defeat the foe. In fact, some of the most lethal are those who appear the most innocuous. These are perhaps amongst the most dangerous, vicious killers seemingly born with blood upon their hands.
Most Brawlers neither require nor receive training in hand-to-hand combat, and many are so naturally surly in disposition they would reject such teachings anyway. Such troopers tower over their comrades and while not always possessed of the brightest intellects, are more than capable of exerting themselves by way of their sheer physical presence. Many of these have grown up in the most destitute and desperate of living conditions, forced to dominate their peers or starve. This is especially true of those troopers native to the Imperium's numerous Hive Worlds, where countless millions exist between the cracks, fighting rivals for whatever scraps of food is discarded as waste from the towering hive city above. When the Departmento Munitorum tithes a regiment from the teeming multitudes of such cities, the vast majority of troops might be swept up from the ranks of those that tend the lathes and the processing plants, but invariably, some of the street vermin subsisting further down the food chain get caught in the nets. Such individuals often make ideal Brawlers, being predisposed, even enamoured, to a life of violence and hardship.
Not all Brawlers have such unfortunate origins, however. The worlds of the Imperium are steeped in death and war and so countless numbers of the Emperor's faithful exist at the edge of complete homicidal breakdown. It is only by the eternal vigilance of the local Enforcers that such individuals are kept from venting their madness on their workmates, but when tithed into the Imperial Guard they find an ideal outlet for their pent-up violent urges. Those who might have indulged their taste for blood without being caught are likely to be quite skilled in the arts of killing and to require little or no additional training. Those who are allowing their rage out for the first time might be overwhelmed by it and throw themselves headlong at the foe, falling with a bellow of rage unleashed upon blood-flecked lips.
Perhaps the most unusual are those with no particular predisposition towards violence but who, upon being tested by the regiment’s Provosts, discover some latent, untapped skill. Where possible, these are provided with the specialist tools of their trade and called upon when their skills are needed. In many ways, these individuals are more akin to assassins lurking unseen in the ranks of the Imperial Guard, silent killers able to fell an enemy with a single slash of a knife when the massed guns have failed to strike him down.
Like many specialists to be found within the ranks of the Imperial Guard, Brawlers are for the most part all but indistinguishable from their comrades. Some might be larger than the average line trooper, but that in itself means little. Some carry specialised weapons such as mauls, axes and Chainswords, while others deliberately conceal the tools of their bloody trade. Some Brawlers carry no specialised weapons at all, living up to the title by their expertise with their bare fists. In battle, there are many different ways a Brawler's skills might be employed. The most obvious is to fight at the leading edge of a bayonet charge, and it is certainly true that many Brawlers, whether designated as such by their regiment or not, do so on a regular basis. By singling out those enemies that present the greatest threat the Brawler serves at once to increase his unit's combat capacity and to bolster the morale of his comrades.
Another duty Brawlers often carry out is that of the silent killer. When a unit must infiltrate an area watched over by an enemy sentry, the Brawler is often called on to creep forward and kill him silently and without being seen. Such deeds defy the image of the Brawler as a meat-headed thug, for he must be quick-witted and stealthy to perform this duty.
Some Brawlers become something of a totem to their comrades and so come to act as champions on the field of battle. Whether ordered to or not, they seek out the enemy's champion so that the two might engage in a contest of arms for the greater glory of their own side. Depending on the nature of the foe, this tactic may or not have the desired effect. When fighting Orks, it works well, for the barbarous Greenskins are also keen to claim kills and to determine which of their number is the "fightiest." It may or may not work when fighting the servants of the Ruinous Powers, for some seek only glory while others are so insane they fight according to rules only madmen can comprehend. When fighting enemies of a more alien nature, the unit's champion is likely to find himself gunned down or overwhelmed before he can draw his blade, the foe refusing to acknowledge the martial codes by which he lives and, sadly, dies.
Most regiments have at least a few soldiers who are talented at hand-to-hand combat, though relatively few place them in specific roles to capitalise on this affinity. Instead, their knack for close-quarters bloodshed complements their usual duties as a trooper of the line, Sergeant, or other formal position, allowing them to unleash a violent surprise upon any who assume them to be vulnerable at melee range. In certain regiments, many of the officers are highly adept at melee combat, having trained far more extensively in close-quarters combat than the average trooper.
Many members of Rough Rider regiments like the Attilan Rough Riders might be considered Brawlers, as their role as lance cavalry means that they must hone their skills at close-combat. Though the Attilans would never be caught in the field without their mounts, few would deny that even afoot, many of these cavalry troopers are formidable melee combatants.
In the Catachan Jungle Fighters regiments, there are a great many individuals who, by dint of their great physical size, fearsome nature, and lethal close combat skills can deal terrible damage to opponents in melee. Most squads have in their ranks one trooper who fits the role best and who takes up the task of facing down the greatest dangers thrown at them hand-to-hand, a scream on his lips and a knife in his hand.
Many Tallarn Desert Raiders regiments are known to make use of skilled melee fighters. For the warriors from this Desert World, however, these close-combat killers tend to favour subtle precision over brute strength and agile cuts over hammering blows. Tallarn Brawlers often carry a wickedly curved knives with which to cut the throats of enemy sentries, ensuring the Desert Raiders force infiltrates unseen deep behind enemy lines.
- Only War: Hammer of the Emperor (RPG), pp. 54-57