Pre-WW1, WW1, WW2

Straight to the Point: The History of the Bayonet

The bayonet is an iconic weapon with a lengthy and fascinating history. Despite its somewhat murky origins, the bayonet has gone on to become one of the most influential and decisive weapons of the 17-20th centuries and is still widely used today.

However, there are multiple, conflicting theories regarding the origins of the bayonet.

One popularly-held belief, deriving from Furetière’s dictionary, is that the bayonet was originally used by revolting peasants in the Bayonne, who resorted to inserting hunting knives into the ends of their firearms when they had run out of munitions.

However, the entry in Furetière’s dictionary alleges that this practice began in the 1660s; almost 20 years after the bayonet was first officially documented as appearing in military contexts.

A British infantryman with a 1907 pattern bayonet attached to his SMLE rifle in 1941

In fact, the earliest known records of a bayonet being used in combination with a firearm was in China, as evidenced by Binglu, a Chinese military document, all the way back in 1606.

In any case, it’s clear that the bayonet was initially used in Europe as a hunting dagger throughout the 16th century. Less clear is how this knife was eventually adopted into military applications, though it’s evident that the need for the bayonet as a defensive weapon arose on the battlefield, likely from the musketeer’s need to defend themselves while reloading their weapons (or after having depleted their munitions), a lengthy and laborious process that left them vulnerable to enemy attack.

Early Military Use of the Bayonet

Once it had been adopted into military usage, the bayonet effectively transformed the role of the musket, as well as that of musketeers. Previously, the musket was a weapon that could only be used effectively at considerable distance from the enemy, and, while being reloaded, left its operator vulnerable to counterattack from infantrymen or other units capable of attacking at closer range.

French Bayonet
French infantry soldiers carry out a bayonet charge during training in 1913. The bayonet would later epitomise WW1

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Naturally, using the bayonet in conjunction with the musket enabled its user to effectively defend themselves at close range, even when they weren’t firing their weapon. While this was something of an imperfect science when the plug bayonet was first adopted into the French and British Armies, the subsequent development of the socket bayonet made musketeers lethal at close range and led simultaneously to the rapid obsolescence of the pikeman.

The Thirty Years’ War

The first documented military use of the bayonet is in 1640, during the Thirty Years’ War between France and Britain. While this was, no doubt, a significant development at the time, it wasn’t until 1671 that the bayonet was officially adopted into the French Army, when King Louis XIV of France introduced it into his Fusiliers Regiment.

This was the first use of the bayonet in a major army, and it wouldn’t go unnoticed. Not long after, in 1672, King Charles II created a regiment of Dragoons that, similarly, would use bayonets, thereby making the weapon an official part of the British Army, too.

The Baïonnette à manche.

The bayonet that first appeared in the French and British Armies was the baïonnette à manche, known in English as the ‘plug bayonet.’ While the plug bayonet was a great innovation in the field of military technology, it was far from being the perfect defensive weapon.

While self defence with a bayonet was far more efficient than self defence with a musket – muskets in the 17th century could only fire a single round at a time and took a minute to reload – the plug bayonet needed to be inserted into the barrel of the user’s musket before they could attack with it.

Plug Bayonet
An early plug bayonet from 1670. They damaged the musket whilst inserting in the barrel and often snapped.

This meant that, once inserted into the musket barrel, the musket could no longer be fired until the bayonet that was inserted into it had been removed. Additionally, plug bayonets had a tendency to damage the interior of the musket barrel during insertion, and, when used against enemies, would sometimes even break, rendering them almost impossible to remove from the musket barrel.

While a promising notion, the difficulties surrounding the use of the plug bayonet meant that pikemen were still needed to defend musketeers from enemies at close-range. At this time, pikemen served a crucial role in protecting musketeers while they reloaded their weapons, keeping foes at bay with their four metre-long pikes.

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Indeed, musketeers were often left very vulnerable in this period; at the Battle of Killcrankie in 1689, the Scottish Major General Hugh Mackay lost 2,000 or so of his men to a Highlander charge due to their failing to remove their plug bayonets quickly enough from their muskets in order to be able to fire.

However, the subsequent development of the socket bayonet by the Marquis de Vauban would change all of this.

Sébastien Le Prestre’s (Marquis de Vauban’s) Baïonnette à douille

Ironically enough, the Marquis de Vauban had been working on developing a more practical alternative to the plug bayonet in 1687, long before Major General Mackay’s catastrophic blunder at Killcrankie. Vauban was aware of the issues surrounding the use of the plug bayonet and intended to come up with a system that would allow the user to be able to fire freely while still wielding a blade on their gun.

The French bayonet assembly of the Chassepot. A revolutionary invention.

Eventually, Vauban devised the socket bayonet. The weapon’s name derives from its design, which consists of a straight blade attached to a cylindrical socket. This would allow the bayonet to be attached to the weapon without blocking its line of fire, allowing infantrymen to effectively defend themselves without the need for pikemen to back them up.

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Combined with the increasing prominence of the rifle – a weapon that could fire far more rapidly than the musket – and, as time rolled on, the bayonet became an absolute force to be reckoned with on the battlefields of Europe and beyond. Eventually, further innovations to the design, including the sword and multipurpose bayonets, would also become game changers.

The Socket Bayonet’s Usage in Infantry Battles and the Bayonet Charge

By 1689, all French infantrymen were to be armed with a bayonet and all foot soldiers and cavalrymen were equipped with firearms. This was the final nail in the coffin of the pikeman; by 1703, pikemen were officially dropped from the French military regulations altogether as the class was phased out by other units adopting more effective forms of attacking and defending.

Socket Bayonet
A bayonet charge during the Battle of Großbeeren , Germany in 1813. The socket bayonet changed warfare.

Previously, the bayonet had largely been used as a means of defence on the battlefield. However, the socket bayonet changed this; now, infantrymen could not only protect themselves with the use of the bayonet, but it enabled them to attack more effectively. As the bayonet became increasingly prominent on the battlefield, various combat systems were devised and infantrymen were given specialised training to help them use the weapon effectively.

One advantage of the bayonet at this stage was its effectiveness in melee combat. Additionally, skilled users of the bayonet were able to use it as a means of taking out their foes, making it a viable way of conserving munitions while still winning battles. Or… this was the case in theory.

The Bayonet Charge

In fact, bayonets were not predominantly used in direct combat. Rather, as bayonets became increasingly common on the battlefield, the bayonet charge as a tactic became used more and more widely. This was effectively a means of intimidation first and foremost and typically occurred after exchanges of gunfire.

In fact, the bayonet charge was a key infantry tactic from the mid-17th to the 20th centuries. Military historians in the 19th century noted how infrequently bayonet charges actually resulted in close combat. Rather, the losing side would usually flee the battlefield when faced by a bayonet charge.

British troops carried out a bayonet charge as late as 2011 in Afghanistan. (UK troops in Southern Iraq U.S. Army photo)

Statistics from different military campaigns where bayonets were commonplace support this notion. During the Napoleonic Wars, less than 2% of military casualties (including those that were non-fatal) were caused by bayonets. The American Civil War produced similar figures, with less than 1% of casualties having been caused by bayonets.

The Bayonet in the Modern Era and the Knife Bayonet

The combination of advancements made in firearm technology with the use of bayonets during the First World War led to a shift in the discourse surrounding the weapon and how best to apply it.

Close-quarters combat was especially common during the First World War, leading theorists to realise that the traditional bayonet was, frankly, less than practical for such applications. Bayonets at this time were typically fairly long and fixed to a firearm, which limited their versatility, especially in close quarters.

WW2 Bayonets.
US military bayonets. They are M1905, the M1, M1905E1 Bowie Point Bayonet and the M4 Bayonet for the M1 Carbine.

Ultimately, the knife bayonet, which was far more versatile, became increasingly used instead. Knife bayonets are typically designed to be able to be detached from the user’s firearm when necessary, in such a way that they can double as a standard knife, utility tool, and so on.

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The development of the knife bayonet actually extends back to the 19th century, when the Seitengewehr 1871/84 became the standard bayonet of the Germany infantry at the time. Its blade was 25.4 cm long, and the Seitengewehr was the first ever knife bayonet to be utilised across an entire military in this way.

Though perhaps not exactly cutting edge in the modern era, the bayonet is still used in military applications across the world, with the British Army conducting bayonet charges in Afghanistan as recently as 2011. It seems that when it comes to modern technology, some armies just don’t see the point!