Saturday, February 9, 2019


In ancient times, men fought with clubs, spears, rocks and stones (thrown by hand or by sling). Eventually edged weapons like the sword were developed along with shields for protection. Armor in the form of helmets, to protect the head, and greaves, to protect the legs, were developed to protect the parts of the body not covered by the shield.

Up until gunpowder weapons were invented, men killed and wounded each other by stabbing, slashing, and by blunt force trauma. In olden times, warriors had to be very tough, those that weren't became extinct (their tribes were destroyed by those with the better warriors) or became slaves (rather than slaughter the defeated enemy, put them to work). Sometimes they were chased off to live in less desirable lands. Ancient times could be, as Hobbes said (in describing the natural state humankind would be in, were it not for political community):
In such condition, there is no place for industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving, and removing, such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. (Source)
Eventually gunpowder weapons came along, the troops didn't have to close with the enemy anymore,  the men could stand off and pot them over a distance, admittedly a very short distance. But the early firearms took a long time to reload, cavalry could then charge home and cut the musketeers to red ribbons. So there were still men with long pointy things (pikes) who were still the main component of the infantry.

Until the plug bayonet came along. Essentially a blade attached to something which could be shoved into the barrel of the musket so that the musketeer could defend himself from cavalry. (Horses are very reluctant to charge into a hedge of sharp pointy things. Oh, you can get the horse to run at them, then the horse will stop short often flinging the rider onto the sharp pointy things.)

17th-century plug bayonet
Trouble was, you couldn't load or fire your musket with that plug bayonet in it.
The major problem with plug bayonets was that when attached they made it impossible to fire the musket, requiring soldiers to wait until the last possible moment before a melee to fixing bayonets. The defeat of forces loyal to William of Orange by Jacobite Highlanders at the Battle of Killiecrankie in 1689 was due (among other things) to the use of the plug bayonet. The Highlanders closed to 50 meters, fired a single volley, dropped their muskets, and using axes and swords quickly overwhelmed the loyalists before they had time to fix bayonets. Shortly thereafter, the defeated leader, Hugh Mackay, is believed to have introduced a socket bayonet of his own invention. Soon "socket" bayonets would incorporate both socket mounts and an offset blade that fit around the musket's barrel, which allowed the musket to be fired and reloaded while the bayonet was attached. (Source)
Socket Bayonet
As infantry became better drilled, and more and more armies adopted the bayonet, the numbers of infantrymen swelled while the cavalry dwindled. Especially when you factor artillery into the equation. Lots of men on horses make a large target, which artillerymen played havoc with. (Artillery was getting lighter and thus more mobile. During the Thirty Years War the guns would be emplaced before the battle and pretty much stayed put throughout. Gustavus Adolphus, King of Sweden, experimented with lighter cannon which could keep pace with the infantry, but they didn't pack enough of a punch to make them that useful.)

The infantryman with his bayonet-tipped musket began to dominate the battlefield. Some armies, like the Russian, swore by the bayonet.

The bullet is a fool, the bayonet is a fine chap.
General Alexander Suvorov
However, an examination of the causes of casualties from the Napoleonic Wars indicated that wounds due to the bayonet constituted a very small proportion of the wounds suffered by men in battle, less than 5%. Quite often the inexorable advance of a steady body of infantry, bayonets at the charge advancing on a position, was often enough to cause the enemy to flee. Normally, an advance with the bayonet would only occur if the two sides had traded volleys. Blasting away at each other over shorter and shorter distances.

That was usually enough to rattle normal infantry. If your own men still had the stomach for it, advancing with cold steel would cause the enemy to run. Hand to hand combat in major battles was rare. Often hand to hand fighting would only occur would two units blundered into each other.

Or, if one side had no bayonets, as was the case early in our own Revolution. Militia would scatter upon spying British infantry coming at them with fixed bayonets. As they had few or none at all themselves. Not to mention not being trained in their use. Baron von Steuben was the remedy for that, not to mention acquiring a stock of bayonets and the muskets which could mount them. Which the French were more than willing to supply.

When some years ago, there were those in the U.S. Army advocating getting rid of the bayonet, traditionalists were aghast. The thought being that bayonets seemed less than useful on the modern battlefield.
US troops hadn’t launched a bayonet charge since 1951* during the Korean War. And new soldiers preparing for an increasingly violent war in Afghanistan already need to learn far more skills than the 10 weeks of basic training allows, says Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling, head of initial entry training and the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command.
So he made a change, substituting skills drill sergeants reported that they wanted to teach new recruits in favor of dropping the time-honored practice of the bayonet charge. (Source)
“Traditionally in the 20th century – certainly after World War I – bayonet training was basically designed to develop in soldiers aggressiveness, courage, and preparation for close combat,” says Richard Kohn, professor of military history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. (Ibid)
In 2004, with ammunition running low, a British unit launched a bayonet charge toward a trench outside of Basra, Iraq, where some 100 members of the Mahdi Army militia were staging an attack. The British soldiers later said that though some of the insurgents were wounded in the bayonet charge itself, others were simply terrified into surrender. (Ibid)
When do you need the bayonet? When the ammo has run low, the enemy is closing in, and the only thing between you and eternity is a trusty blade affixed to the muzzle of your rifle. At the very least you might scare the crap out of the guy on the other side.

Nothing like the sound of this command -

And  yes, there's always that one guy...

Screen capture

* See yesterday's post.


  1. A post that contains ANY scene from ZULU is much stronk post Sarge. The opening score from the movie still sends chills down the spine when I hear it. Learned a little bit more about the edge of battle so to speak. Thumbs up! Ah......... minus ten F. Going snow shovel shopping, wore out the resin holding the metal wear strip and several rivets holding the two together..... the METAL is ground down..... how depressing.

  2. The scene from the movie "Battle of the Bulge" towards the end when the guys in the foxholes are putting their bayonets on, looking at each other as they attached them, that says "down to it" so well....

  3. A very pointed series of posts.

    Thanks for the post.
    Paul L. Quandt

  4. I read an article written by a British soldier on the Battle of Mount Tumbledown. He seemed to be a very tenderhearted person as I remember. When they pushed their bayonet charge thru the Argentinians, he described the sensations he felt in his hands and arms of having another person wriggling on the bayonet on his rifle. He was still trying to wrap his head around what he'd done, you could tell he was struggling with killing an enemy with such a 'personal' weapon.

    Then I think of the man from a few days ago, Red, storming up the hill.... Or Eugene Sledge describing his DI saying by the end of the war about 50% of the guys there would have killed an enemy with their K-Bar....

    In all my reading, and visiting with soldiers, I believe there are men that can mentally "handle" the brutality of what they have to do.... And others that can't. And I've never been able to put my finger on which is which by just looking. Even by talking to someone, it's not that obvious.

    I bought an old shotgun years and years ago. It had a bayo mount, and I found one that fit it. I snapped it on, and as I was walking out with it, and old vet in a wheel chair asked to look at it. He said, "if they are close enough to put that on, they are too close!"

    1. You can't dwell on it, that way lies madness.

  5. The singing of Men of Harlech towards the end of Zulu still makes my spine tingle.

    I can't remember the exact wording, but I remember that Lt. Col. Grossman wrote about using the bayonet in his book, "On Killing," and I think he said the bayonet is rarely used for its intended purpose.

    A good and thought provoking post. (as usual!)

    1. All of the singing in Zulu is spine tingling.

  6. Chandler's "The Art of War in the Age of Marlborough" is a fascinating read about this transitional period of warfare, when European armies were going from pike/shot to the flintlock musket. One of the many things I learned was that the bayonet was still considered a purely defensive weapon. Cavalry was sill the shock arm, comprising a third to a half of armies at the time (increasing logistical problems for armies of the era). Infantry was supposed to blow the enemy off the battlefiel with sheer firepower, a theory which the grotesque nunber of casualties at the battle of Malplaquet (1709) forced them to rethink.


  8. On the mechanical end of the subject (as opposed to psychological), there has been considerable attention given to the concept of "reach" when adopting new rifles and bayonets. As in how far you can reach out and touch someone. The pikemen were the the ancestors of the musketeer with a bayonet who became little more than pikemen after firing. Having a longer "reach" was good, especially against cavalry whose reach was arm's length plus the length of a sword.

    During the Civil War, a helpful citizen, or maybe it was some brilliant staff officer, suggested that the Union forces use bayonets 2 inches longer than before, thereby ensuring their ability to defeat the Rebels, but this was ignored. However, in 1864 when 3,000 breechloading Joslyn rifles were made, with overall length 2 inches shorter than the million plus .58 caliber rifle muskets used by both sides, they actually made Joslyn bayonets 2 inches longer, so as to maintain parity with the older arms.

    When the M1903 Springfield was adopted with a 24 inch barrel, its knife bayonet blade was 16 inches long. These replaced the M1898 Krag rifles with 30 inch barrel and 10 inch bayonet blades. Do the math. (Between 1903 and 1905 the M1903 was made with a "rod bayonet" which President Teddy Roosevelt informed the Army was "as poor an invention as I ever saw", prompting the immediate shift to the 16 inch knife bayonet. Rod bayonets were one of those recurring "good ideas" that emerged periodically starting in 1833 until Teddy squelched the foolish idea permanently.)

    During WW2 the 16 inch bayonets made for M1903 rifles and carried over for use with the M1 Garand became annoying when other web gear changes (and increased truck transport) shifted them from being carried on the old doughboy backpack to being carried on the cartridge belt. Thus the 10 inch blade of the "Bayonet, M1" was adopted and many of the old 16 inch blades cut to the shorter length. Of course, by this time the Germans were using a rifle and bayonet about the same length as our rifles with the shorter bayonets, so there was parity in "reach" even if we sacrificed our theoretical advantage.

    And the final trivia bonus is that West Point used the 10 inch Krag bayonets (albeit chromed for show) with their M1903 and M1 Garand rifles, never adopting the longer M1905 bayonets.
    John Blackshoe

  9. Yes, bayonets are a fearful weapon, but one full of fearful promise. "If you run, you won't get stuck."

    What OldAFSarge failed to mention is one of the main reasons why the bayonet was so feared. You could survive a gunshot, possibly. Bayonet, especially the triangular cross-section style like those in use during the American Civ War between the States of Northern Aggression, would cause horrible wounds, generally in the guts or kidneys, that were nigh impossible to close, thus a death sentence. Better to run or surrender before the bayonets get to you.

    After the civilized world got rid of spike-style bayonets (think of the bayonet on an SKS) the bayonet drill for the blade bayonet was 'Stab midsection, Twist, Withdraw, Redo or Move On.' Thus creating the same style of horrible un-treatable hole in the gut. Actually even a worse hole. So much for civilized progress.

    And in many armies, the bayonet also was part of the infantryman's tool kit. From big arsed bladed used for field work, to the more modern utility knife/wire cutter features you see especially in various AK pattern bayonets.

    During WWI, it was common for Allied forces to kill Germans who had saw-backed bayonets, because the Allies thought the saw was for them. Not so, it was for camp work, but it also kinda worked on humans, too.

    Overall, an inelegant solution for a nasty reason. But one we should always have as backup as long as we have long rifles. Or some way of having pointy-object on stick.

    Interestingly enough, as we've (the USA) have gone away from bayonets, a plethora of tomahawks, knives, 'machetes' and other pointy-cutty things have popped up as additions to the modern soldiers' kit. And there's also the everpopular sharpened entrenching tool, first popularized, as far as I know, by the Germans in WWI, but really taken to a high place by Soviet Spetnaz troops with their throwing E-tool (and gas-fired shooting knife. Boys and their toys. (And the US's answer? MOAR suppressed weapons!!!! "Ooooh, you just didn't shoot your knife at me, well, have a facefull of John Moses Browning.." Pfttt, Pftttt, Pftttt, Pftttt. "Like that? I can RELOAD, Schmuck!"))

    1. Even an unsharpened German entrenching tool is a nasty weapon. I have one, it's made for cracking heads. Oh yes, and digging.

  10. There is a huge six volume set “The Medical and Surgical history of the War of the Rebellion,” an exhaustive study of the types of wounds, and diseases, and their treatment, and the outcomes. It is loaded with statistical information, as well as loads of illustrations for the medical professional, but not for the squeamish. It provides information on the source of the wounds, often surprising.

    While there were a fair number of puncture wounds from bayonets in battle, there were also a huge number incurred in fights over card games in camp, accidents, prisoners stuck by guards, etc.

    You can read on line or download a .pdf copy from by entering the book title there.
    John Blackshoe
    Of course, the vast majority of Civil War deaths were not combat related but from disease and sanitation.

    1. The ACW bayonet was mostly used as an improvised tent peg, a coffee grinder and a candle-holder.

    2. John - I'll have to check that out.

    3. Captain O - After fhe Battle of the Pyramids, Napoleon's troops used their bayonets to fish dead Mamelukes out of the Nile. They would bend them like fish hooks. And yes, ACW bayonets make great candle holders. DAMHIK

    4. Yep, I know that one, it's noted in Anthony Burgess's "Napoleon Symphony." And in Chandler.

    5. That Burgess book looks interesting. Is it worth a read?

  11. Sir Michael Caine talks about his time in Korea--

  12. Retreating this day and the next,
    We wonder'd when's our battle, vext;
    The veterans talk'd upset:
    "What then? we're off to winter dorms?
    Go the commanders by new norms;
    Daren't they rip foreign uniforms
    On Russian bayonet?"

    - Mikhail Lermontov, "Borodino"

    Yup, they sure liked the bayonet.

  13. Another thing about the fearsome bayonet is the unspoked agreement by all soldiers that once it gets to hand-to-hand, there are no holds barred and no quarter given. One can still stop the shooting from a distance, stop the artillery, stop the planes. One can't stop a bayonet charge, it just doesn't happen.

    Thus, the fear of 'Fix Bayonets' is a real one. It means literally 'Victory or Death.' 'Balls to the Wall.' And so forth.

  14. To your Suvorov quote let me add Sir Hugh Gough. At the battle of Sobraon, when told that his troops were running out of ammo, he exclaimed, "Thank God! Then I'll be at them with the bayonet!"

  15. I think OldAFSarge wins the Loquacious Commenter award, stripping it from PLQ's hands...

    1. Well, in my defense I was answering comments on my cellphone as midnight approached on Saturday. Tiny keyboard, fat fingers, not a good mix.

      The defense rests...


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