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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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 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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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