Monday, December 23, 2013

Stick Them With the Pointy End - A History of the Bayonet


At the Range, there are many tools of history, among those tools that are new. Some are for daily use, some are for battle.

I like the things of the past.  Though my life is made up of a future I can dream of,  it's housed within a past that looks at me from light glinting off forged hardness. Hardness that's seen battle, if not blood.
A bayonet on the M1 Garand.

What would it have been like to fight up close and personal with such a weapon as the bayonet? A battlefield rising in dark silhouette, a small stream that once sustained peaceful cattle, alight with mirrored fire. Around a black arch of formed earth a man moves around and in towards you. Friend, foe? Creeping between flares, fox hole to crude trench, looking for a light that would lead to a gap in the wire, the straining, determined gleam of wire, strung between remnants of fence. A fence once holding in prosperity and freedom, now nicked with bullets, fragmentary ammo removing rust and mud to where only a small sentient soldier of wood is left. Seeing that darkness advance, holding in your breath, you have no choice but to defend, to leap bayonet-first into yet another trench full of groaning shouts, hammering blows against your body.
Someone is there, too close to get a shot off, an exclamation in foreign tongue, sung under a rocket glare that lights up the sky, smoky death. The enemy, caught in the act of creeping into your line, no time to think, only a visceral reaction of base survival, your bayonet goes into his throat. Death up as close as it can be, the body shaking, the bayonet advancing seemingly on its own, a thrust, a cry, he falls back. Time stops in that moment, your blade embedded in his crumbling body, pulling you forward as you cling to the only thing keeping you alive, pulling on it, wresting it free, as if shaking a sausage from a fork

That night, while a man lays open eyed, throat torn, a stray poppy blooming blood red in churned cabbage fields, you write a letter home. A letter written by candles light to your wife, asking her to hold the baby you have yet to see, asking about the farm and telling her things are fine, words in a letter she may never get, or may take four months to arrive. You write after you wipe the blood from your blade.
Warfare of old. Warfare with a bayonet - a thing of historical significance, formed into an instrument of killing. A last resort weapon, for close quarter battle. A weapon as old as firearm warfare.

The term bayonet came from the French baïonnette - a knife, dagger, sword or spike shaped weapon that fits over the muzzle of a rifle barrel. Typically they are "custom" in that they are made to fit a specific firearm, not much different than the accessories we buy for our modern weapons.

The origins of the bayonet are, like most battlefields, a bit smokey. The Chinese were believed to have first used them in the 13th century, when the developer of the musket found they were ineffective in killing at close range. They then introduced two types of firearm, one with an attached knife and the other a spear. Owning more than one Mauser as well as other historical old pieces, there are a few bayonets at the Range.
The term 'Bayonette' popped up in the later 16th century though its origins are still obscure. It might have first referred to just a simple knife and not for a military weapon. Cotgrave's 1611 Dictionarie describes the Bayonet as 'a kind of small flat pocket dagger, furnished with knives; or a great knife to hang at the girdle' while a Baionier is given as an old word for "crossbow man". Perhaps the first "bayonette" as described by the French was a contrivance of a hunter who, after having fired his last round at dangerous game such as a wild boar or having missed, shoved his knife into the muzzle of his piece to bring the animal down. That is plausible in that firearms of that day were fairly inaccurate and took a long time to reload. The makeshift bayonet then allowed the hunter further defense or a killing instrument if needed.

It is also rumored that during the mid-17th century irregular military conflicts in rural France, the Basque peasants of Bayonne, depleted of powder and shot, shoved their long-bladed hunting knives into the muzzles of their primitive muskets to form a spear and whether by luck or design, created an ancillary weapon. In any case, the first mentioned use of the bayonet as an instrument of war that I could find was in the memoirs of General Maréchal de Puységure, the weapon being introduced into the French Army in 1647 and becoming common in most European armies by the 1660s.
The benefits of this little "add on" were soon apparent, as that early hunter of the wild bore may have found out. The early muskets fired at a slow rate (no more than 3–4 rounds per minute using paper cartridges and down to a slovenly single round per minute when loading with loose power and ball), making them both inaccurate and unreliable. Bayonets provided a useful addition to the weapons system when an enemy charging towards you could advance across the musket's killing field (a range of about 100 yards for even the most wildly optimistic) at the risk of perhaps only one or two volleys from their waiting opponents. Rushing through two volleys only to meet a pointy exclamation likely reduced that urge to "charge" in some folks.

The bayonet was originally a defensive instrument. A good long bayonet, extending to a regulation 17 inches during the Napoleonic period, on a 5 foot tall musket ending up with a reach comparable to an infantry spear. Steady infantry, standing two or three men deep, could adopt a defense "square" formation, an defence to a sudden rush of cavalry with a reach that could defend against a man mounted upon a horse, though the combination was much heavier than a polearm of the same length and would take some real strength, not just skill.
You see the problem here. You plug it, you can't fire it. During the act of fitting the soldier was virtually unarmed. It's like having your 1911 in the bottom of your briefcase when the robber/murderer says howdy. Not a good place to be. Even more annoying, you plug it in too tightly, you won't be able to get it out short of damaging the weapon (anyone got any WD40??. . and. . uh. . duct tape)? Yet, in 1671, plug bayonets were happily issued to the French regiment of fusiliers and later to part of an English dragoon regiment that disbanded in 1674, and to the Royal Fusiliers in 1685.

The outcome of the Battle of Killiecrankiein 1689 was due, in some part, to the use of the plug bayonet; as a sudden rush of Scottish Highlanders overwhelmed them as they were fixing bayonets. Shortly afterwards, the defeated leader, Hugh Mackay, is said to have introduced a ring-bayonet of his own design. These "socket" bayonets offset the blade from the musket barrel's muzzle with a bayonet that attached over the outside of the barrel with a ring-shaped socket, secured on later models by a spring-loaded catch on the muzzle of the musket barrel. With the socket bayonet the blade would lay below the axis of the barrel, leaving sufficient clearance to permit the weapon to be loaded and fired while the bayonet was fixed.
Many of the socket bayonets were triangular in cross-section. It was said in some history books that this was designed so they'd wield wounds "that were difficult to stitch when attended to by a medic, as it is more difficult to stitch a three-sided wound than a two-sided one thus making the wound more likely to become infected". This is more of an urban legend than reality, for surgeons have sewn up jagged wounds using more stitches when needed, since field surgery began. Instead, three sided bayonets were designed to provide flexing strength in the blade without much increase in weight in case a bayonet struck a hard object. For in that event it's better to have it bend and be repairable then to have it be so stiff it shatters on impact.

Shortly after the Peace of Ryswick in 1697 the English and Germans both abolished the pike and introduced these bayonets, but owing to a military cabal they were not issued to the French infantry until 1703. Thereafter, the bayonet became, with the musket or other firearm, the typical weapon of infantry.
The long type of bayonets for early rifles were designed with the same intent as the medieval pike, the rifle and bayonet becoming a long pole with a lethal spear on the business end. As warfare evolved, so did the bayonet. Mass collisions of troops were less frequent, and the blades became shorter, becoming secondary to fighting knifes.

 The idea of using a short sword as a bayonet was tried on occasion, but the first regular users of the sword-type blade appear to have been the British rifle regiments in the early 1800s. But, with the onset of breech-loading, and then magazine arms providing infantry with a firepower capable of beating off cavalry, the bayonet evolved even further, from a primarily defensive weapon to one of offense.
For this, a knife-like blade was of more use than a spike blade, and so from the middle of the 19th century, the use of knife or sword blade increased, though a few armies still hung on to spike blades.

All nations boast of their prowess with the bayonet, but few men really enjoy a hand-to-hand fight with the bayonet. English and French both talk much of the bayonet but in Egypt in 1801 they threw stones at each other when their ammunition was exhausted and one English sergeant was killed by a stone.

At Inkerman again the British threw stones at the Russians, not without effect; and one military historian stated that the Russians and Japanese, both of whom profess to love the bayonet, "threw stones at each other rather than close, even in this twentieth-century."

18th and 19th century military tactics included various massed bayonet charges and defenses. The Russian Army used the bayonet the most frequently in any Napoleonic conflict. Their motto was "The Bullet is foolish, the Bayonet wise." Given that the bullet of the smoothbore musket of the time had Dick Cheney-like accuracy, almost unpredictable beyond 50 yards, they believed that in a bayonet fight you were less likely to miss, though in actuality, many soldiers reverted to using bayonet-mounted rifles as clubs, primitive fighting at its best.
The experimentation of bayonets continued through much of the 18th and 19th centuries. Prior to the Civil War, the U.S. Navy tried their hand at affixing bayonet blades to single-shot pistols, which soon proved useless for anything but making dinner. Cutlasses remained the preferred flat edged weapon for the navies of the time, though Queen Victoria's Royal Navy gave up the pikes once used to repel attacks by my ancestors in favor of the cutlass bayonet.

The 19th century gave us the sword bayonet, a long-bladed weapon with a single- or double-edged blade that could also double as a shortsword. Its initial purpose was to make sure that the riflemen, while holding ranks with musketmen (whose weapons were longer), could form square properly to stave off cavalry attacks, when sword bayonets were fitted. Though the sword bayonet on the Infantry Rifle needed to be removed before firing, as the weight at the end of the barrel affected balance and stability (and you all know what that does to accuracy, it was a decent combat side arm when dismounted. When attached to the musket or rifle, it would turn almost any long arm into an effective spear, useful for not just thrusting but for slashing.
The inherent problems of fixing bayonets in the middle of a heated battle led some armies to adopt permanently-attached bayonets. These folded above or below the barrel of the weapon and could be released and locked into place very quickly when required. A singularity of the Imperial Russian Army, which carried over into the Soviet Army, was the permanently fixed bayonet; no scabbards were issued, and the bayonet remained on the rifle muzzle at all times. The Soviet blades, now made of steel, were stiffened with a small cross-section in the form of a cross, in order to make them more compact in form and fold better onto the sides of their rifles, such as the 1944 Mosin Nagant. It was said that self-inflicted wounds made by soldiers to get themselves out of the line of battle would be recognized as such and bring them greater disciplinary punishment.
In All Quiet on the Western Front, author Eric Maria Remarque stated that in WWI, French Soldiers killed German prisoners who had serrated blade bayonets, as they assumed they were for cutting off the limbs of Allied soldiers. Whether this was true or not, World War I did see the bayonet being shortened even further into knifed weapons useful for some very bloody hand to hand fighting or as trench knives, so the majority of modern bayonets you will find are knife bayonets. In any case, it was not a weapon you hoped ever to have to use.

Despite the support of military leaders, the practical use of the bayonet was somewhat rare. At Inkerman during the Crimean War in 1854, only 6% of casualties were attributed to the bayonet. In World War I, the ‘Spirit of the Bayonet’ was a mantra of combat instructors, but not popular in its actuality. Of the 13,691 men of the American Expeditionary Force killed in the war, only 5 died from bayonet wounds. Still for military strategists, the morale that interfaced with the fixing of bayonets was generally considered to outweigh their drawbacks, which included restriction of movement and lack of real utility. Modern bayonets are normally knife-shaped with either a socket or a handle, or are permanently attached to the rifle as with the"SKS". Depending on where and when a specific SKS was manufactured, it may have a permanently attached bayonet with a knife-shaped blade (early Chinese, Russian, Yogoslavian or Romanian)or a cruciform (late Chinese) or triangular (Albanian) spike type, or no bayonet at all.
The development of repeating firearms greatly reduced the combat value of the bayonet though they were still retained through World Wars I and II.

With the adoption of modern short assault rifles, the utility of the old style bayonet as a weapon was doubtful, the combination being simply not suited to fighting, yet modern versions of bayonets are still in use. The British Army performed bayonet charges during the Falklands War and the second Gulf War. United States Marine trainees at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego still get their first instruction in using the bayonet as a lethal weapon on their 10th day.
In a modern concept of warfare, bayonets are used for controlling prisoners or as a "last resort" weapon for close quarters combat, such as when a soldier is out of ammo or has a weapon jam. However they are not normally fitted to most weapons, as the bayonet impairs long range accuracy even more so in modern weapons.

Bayonets, whether you consider them a hindrance or a lethal fighting tool, many of them are rapidly becoming collectors items. I've just a few, as the bayonets for some of these weapons cost more than the weapon itself. But I still like to hold on to them.

Pieces of history that point to freedoms still threatened


  1. Well done, thanks for the research!

  2. The poor
    Enfields deserve a better bayonet than that silly spike/screwdriver. My personal favorite bayonet is the one from the Swedish Mausers...

  3. I knew a couple growing up. His nickname for her was 'Pokey'. I don't know if this was after the Claymation character, or what?


  4. Nicely put, the biggest problem is training the soldier to fight with a bayonet - drill and practice, when they go to pugil sticks, it is lost. The English soldiers noted the Boxers using spears were very successful against the Tommy with his bayonet, but then they had trained much more, and a spear is good for close quarters but bad for over a 50 feet against a rifle.

  5. My SKS has a long screwdriver looking thing attached to it, not nearly as imposing as the long one that fits my M1903. Stonewall Jackson once ordered his troops to sweep the field with the bayonet and they did. Nothing like thousands of rebel yells with bayonets pointing the direction in which to run.

  6. I belong to A Rev war Re-enacting group and my weapon is a First Pattern Long Land Brown Bess Musket. I can tell you from experience that while it can be fired with a 17 inch bayonet fitted it is damn near impossible to load as it interferes with the ram rod. The bayonet also adds enough weight to the end to throw off the balance making a difficult weapon to point even worse. It was rarely used in field battles but more as intimidation in crowd control.

  7. Thank you for this. I have a bayonet on both my Enfield and on my Mosin-Nagant. Now, I have a greater understanding and appreciation.

  8. More bayonet history:

    Can't let that one fade away into the past...
    The internets never forget!

  9. Out of curiosity is someone a "Game of Thrones" fan? :D one of my favorite lines...."Stick them with the Pointy End" :D

  10. Quite the reminder to resume my search for the proper bayonet for my Schmidt-Rubin Infanteriegewehr Modell 1911.


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