Few Blades Are As Historic As The Bayonet. The Knife Has Evolved Into An All-Rounder Still Issued By The Marines.
Oddly enough, the history of the bayonet likely began in the hunting field, not the battlefield. By at least one account, the edged weapon was a tool of the French boar hunter in the 1500s. Tusks and a bad attitude, it’s understandable why these gents strapped their hunting knives to the muzzles of their muskets.
Soon after some enterprising soldier figured the invention–in original French baïonnette–might prove useful in warfare, and the iconic edged weapon was off to the races for the next four centuries. Presently, bayonets have essentially become military relics, if employed generally only as a training tool to acclimate soldiers to close-quarters combat.
Despite this, these fairly antiquated edged weapons still stir the imagination of military heroics of yore. Not to mention, in nearly all their versions, bayonets remain one of the coolest and most accessible historic edged weapons to collect.
In the article, we’ll look at some of the major styles of these modified edged tools, how the implement has evolved and who actually continues to make them. So gird your loins, we’re charging forward on bayonets.
Major Bayonet Styles
A bayonet is so much more than just that. There were, and still are, several different designs of the implement, most mirroring the technology and ethos of war fighting of its particular era.
The plug bayonet is the earliest known bayonet and dates back to the 1500s or 1600s. The idea is rather simple. if you couldn’t use your gun to shoot or simply don’t have time to reload you turned to the knife. In this case, typically a double-edged dagger with a rounded handle that affixed the implatment directly in the muzzle of a musket barrel.
These earliest bayonets were really fully-fledged daggers in their own right. They lacked a proper pommel as can be imagined, but they could be used exactly like any other dagger. Most in this era were used in a manner of last resort. If a soldier found himself out of ammunition or facing a fast-moving enemy, he would likely want to put in his bayonet and hope for the best.
The bayonet at this time was the product of changing warfare. While firearms were becoming more prevalent on the battlefield, they were slow to load. Additionally, the close-quarters combat of the medieval era still reigned supreme. In turn, soldiers required an option to hold off infantry and cavalry charges once their one shot was spent.
Offset (Socket) Bayonet
While it may surprise some, the classic socket bayonet most think of during the flintlock era of warfare was not in full use by 1700. Attempts had been made prior to developing an offset bayonet allowing the soldier to load and fire with it attached. But it wasn’t until several critical battles in the late 1600s that evolution took hold. In particular, the battle of Killiecrankie in 1689. HereScottish Protestant forces were thoroughly defeated by Jacobite Scottish Highlanders, who charged and destroyed their enemy with broadswords and targes.
This defeat came in part due to the plug bayonets the Protestants utilized. In what would be a rather ironic turn, the Scottish Jacobites would eventually meet their end and the end of their cause at the tip of the bayonet. Outfitted with socket bayonets at the Battle of Culloden in 1746, the British were able to let loose a point-blank volley on the charging Highlanders, then finish the rest with their bayonets. The British had even devised tactical doctrine for the use of the weapon, training to a charging man to their side, instead of in front to strike beneath his raised sword arm.
History Of The American Bayonet
Americans were somewhat slow to adopt the bayonet in warfare, giving the British somewhat an edge in the early days of the Revolutionary War. Of course deadly in charges, attached to the British Pattern 1769 Short Land musket–or Brown Bess–the implement also was somewhat a psychological weapon. Said to be the most feared weapon of the British arsenal, the Red Coats mass assaults with a long, gleaming triangular knife at the end of their muskets made all but the most disciplined break.
The Continental Army proved a quick study once trained with the bayonet by Maj. Gen. Baron von Steuben at Valley Forge in 1773. By the end of the war, there were even strokes of genius with the American use of the bayonet, such as when American Lt. Col. Alexander Hamilton (also the first Secretary of the Treasury) led a bayonet-only assault on redoubt 10 during the last days of the Battle of Yorktown.
Early on, the Continental Army utilized a triangular socket bayonet similar to the British, however on the French Charleville Musket. But its use spread and the wicked device was eventually found on the Brown Bess–the most used arm of the Continental Army.
The bayonets in American service were standard European-style socket-mounted with triangular blades. This remains so through several iterations, including the Harper’s Ferry 1801 pattern, 1807 and 1810 Springfield patterns, M1816, and M1855.
The M1855 served through the Civil War, where it saw extensive use on the Springfield rifle muskets. The .58 caliber rifle muskets loaded the same way as old muskets and could fire quickly and were very accurate and had substantial range. The bullets used in these guns had a hollow base that expanded into the rifling when it was fired, thus imparting spin. The war was devastating, and there were many bayonet charges, most with mixed results and high casualties.
More accurate firearms and the introduction of repeating arms mitigated the effectiveness of the bayonet during the Civil War. It is estimated, only around 1 percent of all casualties were a result of bayonet wounds.
Despite the effectiveness of “cold steel” assaults waning in the face of technological advancement, the bayonet persisted, though evolved to remain relevant.
A more interesting detour around the time of the American Civil War, was the multi-purpose sword bayonet used by the British. The British Infantry Rifle of 1800–1840–later known as the Baker Rifle–utilized this style. The idea, essentially, was to give soldiers the ability to stave off cavalry charges when used as a bayonet, but also outfit them with a side arm–a short sword–for close-quarters combat. These sword bayonets had knife handles mated to exceedingly long blades, sometimes over 20 inches.
Surprisingly, this style of bayonet was used all the way into World War I, despite little evidence the elongated blade provided any advantage. Perhaps the most famous final rendition was the Pattern 1907 Sword Bayonet, found on the British Short Magazine Lee Enfield rifle in the Great War.
The American bayonets of the pre-WW1 era were a bit more well-designed. The bayonet designed for the American Krag rifle (the M1892), for example, had an 11.7-inch blade and could serve as a camp tool as well for daily chores. The Americans ended up following the Europeans’ lead in World War I a bit with the M1905 bayonet, which sported a 16-inch blade. Additionally, there were 17-inch versions used on the trench shotguns and backup rifles like the M1917 Enfield.
After WWI, most militaries of the world focused on making the bayonet in the form of a camp knife, something that was worth it to carry for general use that had more than one regular use. The time leading to WW2 produced the highly functional and realistically-sized M1 bayonet for the M1 rifle. The M1 carbine was also set up to use one, and it had its own small setup in the M4 bayonet knife. These knife-style bayonets eventually ran through several iterations leading up to the M7 bayonet for the M16 rifle in the late 1950s.
As a regular tool, the knife bayonet is great and doesn’t remove any of the function in either role. It can be used for all sorts of tasks and also be mounted on the gun. The later M9 became a full-on utility and fighting knife for the M16 series. It is a large, Bowie-style knife that closely resembles the Ka-Bar. It added some additional utility features like serrations for cutting straps and rope and a wire cutter. Later on, the OKC-3S knife bayonet was adopted by the USMC. These remain standard today.
The reality of the bayonet is that it is not a principle fighting weapon. Today we are seeing most rifles fitted with a mountain of accessories, from variable power optics, lasers, suppressors, and bipods.
The bayonet has, for most of its history, been a weapon of intimidation. Very few times did any two armies charge each other with bayonets, usually one side fled first. Even in our modern era there have been bayonet charges, but again to no effect other than to scatter the enemy.
Edged weapons do have a role in modern warfare; everyone needs a good knife at minimum. If your rifle has no provision to attach one or you’re using a suppressor, there is no real need to carry a bayonet specifically as opposed to a dedicated knife that serves your purposes.
Bayonets will always be a curiosity not because of how they were used, but rather why they were used well beyond their abilities. While it is certainly a dangerous thing and absolutely lethal, getting that close to your enemies means you’re having an exceedingly bad day. But, as history has shown, a man with a sharp stick and nothing to lose can sometimes win the day.