Whither the Bayonet?

The bayonet had a long and interesting life, until its recent demise. But maybe its death has been announced a bit too soon.

The US Army, in a rebuke to its well-deserved reputation as “237 1/2 years of tradition untainted by progress,” in 2010 discontinued bayonet training in basic combat training, although combat units still issue the M-9 bayonet. The Marines have discontinued neither, as you might expect if you know anything about Marines (after all, they still fire a known-distance qualification not dissimilar to that in the 1913 Army Small Arms Firing Manual we’ve been plumbing for details lately).

Early history of bayonets

A British Square forms to repel Dervish attack, Sudan 1878.

A British Square forms to repel attack by the Mahdi’s Dervishes, Sudan 1878.

Before medieval troops began to carry firelocks, they were armed according to their social class. Knights had swords and lances, yeomen long- or cross-bows, and peasant levies pikes and halberds. Pikemen and halberdiers had their own formations and tactics, somewhat reminiscent of those of ancient spear-armed Greek or Roman infantry. Arming these levies with smoothbore muskets was a problem due to the long reloading time of these weapons, and the fact that reloading them required them to open formation somewhat, making the infantry element very vulnerable.

The answer was the bayonet — a spear point that could be stuck into a musket’s muzzle, converting slow-firing firearms into field-expedient pikes and restoring the bristly nature of the pike-era infantry square. The next modification of the bayonet took it off-axis from the gun and mounted it by a socket that fit around the barrel, making it possible to load and fire the rifle with bayonet fixed.

Chinese SKS bayonet imageThe socket bayonet survived into the 20th Century on the Russian Mosin-Nagant rifle, replaced only by a folding spike type when the rifle was shortened to the M44 carbine. The Chinese adapted this folding spike bayonet to itsType 56 versions of Russian SKS (after producing some SKSes with the Russian-style folding blade, see right) and AK rifles. But most of the world went to bayonets that did double duty as swords or knives, in the late 19th and early 20th Century.

A bayonet was also used as a field knife, fighting dagger, utility tool, and in the mid-20th Century, the German firm Eickhorn adapted the bayonet to be a wire cutter. The Eickhorn wire cutter never caught on, but the Russians copied the concept in the practical AKM knife-bayonet.

Other attempts to dump bayonets

There have been numerous attempts to get rid of the bayonet in history. It always keeps crawling back. The US eliminated it from the .30 M1 Carbine, or to be more precise, never designed a bayonet fixture in the first place. The light rifle was intended to be what’s called today a “personal defense weapon,” for soldiers whose main mission was something other than to close with and destroy the enemy by means of small arms fire. Weapons with that objective seldom have been fitted with bayonets. In the end, user demand required a carbine bayonet, which was retrofitted by the expedient means of a stamped barrel-band that added a bayonet lug, and a bayonet modified from the well-received M3 fighting knife. The M4 bayonet, as it was called, would be the father of all subsequent American bayonets until the M9. Versions were devised to attach to M1, M14, and M16 series weapons, and all remained a practical field knife and fighting dagger.

The British, who at one time even issued bayonets for the very short STEN gun with its nine inch barrel, also eliminated the bayonet from their L85 bullpup. The reason’s fairly obvious — a stubby gun makes a lousy bayonet handle. But no sooner had they committed to doing this, when after-action reports from the Falklands War (1982) dwelt at length on the combat effects of cold British steel, particularly on cold and distinctly non-suicidal Argentine draftees. Consequently, the L85 was redesigned to take a bayonet.

Who’s for and against bayonets?

Los Valerosos charge a Chinese position, 1951

Los Valerosos charge a Chinese position, 1951

The principal opponents of bayonets and bayonet training are defense intellectuals, and their principal point is the same one made by Army general Mark Hertling in 2010 when he eliminated bayonet training: according to Hertling, the last American bayonet charge was in Korea in 1951 (presumably Lew Millett’s MOH action).  Although the last bayonet attack of battalion size was taken by a battalion of the Puerto Rico National Guard “Los Valerosos”  in Korea in February, 1951, he’s mistaken; the Marines had several bayonet charges in Vietnam 1968, example here).

The advocates of the bayonet tend, conversely, to be combat-experienced or combat trainers. There’s no mystery why the Marines of all services have stayed closest to cold steel. The point of the bayonet is less its numerically-documented combat utility than its psychological impact. And that refers to its psychological impact both on the employers and the recipients. There is no doubt that a fixed bayonet signals intent to close with and destroy. It is a marker of resolve, and an unsubtle and direct threat. It often tips the psychological scales of an enemy vacillating between fight or flight, and opens his mind to a third notion: surrender. Absent surrender, of course, it’s still a viable killing weapon.

Bayonets today

Russian AKM bayonet -- early model with insulated medal sheath and round butt.

Russian AKM bayonet — early model with insulated medal sheath and round butt.

The Russians and those whose weapons owe much to Russian ideas continue to use bayonets. (At one point, the Chinese manufactured the AKM bayonet, but without the distinctive wire-cutter for some reason).

The first assault rifles were originally made without bayonet fixtures. While every Mauser had a bayonet lug, the MP-42 and its successors had none: rapid fire was meant to do what a bayonet had once done at close range. This is, in part, due to the earliest assault rifles’ submachine gun conceptual heritage.

A bayonet lug ws an afterthought on the original AR-10, placed there by customer demand. (AR-10 bayonets are rare and expensive collectors’ items today, but then again all AR-10 production was around six thousand units, so that’s hardly surprising). Colt learned the lesson and every Colt AR-15 had a bayonet lug integral to the front sight base, including all military M16, M16A1 and M16A2 rifles. Carbines, on the other hand, didn’t work well with the bayonet and often had the lug ground off in the factory. However, the M4 and M4A1 accept the bayonet.

M6 (M14), M7 and M9 bayonets.

M6 (M14), M7 and M9 bayonets.

The M7 bayonet in M8 sheath was standard for many years on M16 series weapons. It is the end of the line of the knife that began as the M3 fighting knife circa 1942. The M9 bayonet evolved from a monster stainless fighting knife made by former SEALS for their element. The knife was produced for a time by Buck as the Buckmaster; as much as it was loved by the SEALs, it was an object of derision among the rest of us in SOF for its size and hokey grappling points. But an adapted version of the Buckmaster, with bayonet attachments and a wirecutter arrangement copied from the Russian concept, became the M9 bayonet that is still used and issued today. The military still has stocks of M7 bayonets, and an injection-molded plastic M10 sheath has replaced the WWII-style fibergass M8.

There is another bayonet available from Colt for the M4. Like the M9, it only works on a full sized rifle or a 14.5″ barrel carbine. It i meant to be used as a field knife as well as a bayonet, and it is made under Colt license in China. We are not aware of any military element adopting these bayonets.



12 thoughts on “Whither the Bayonet?

    1. Hognose Post author

      Great links, Glenn. The Argyll & Sutherland charge seems to bear out my point about the psychological effect of the bayonet. The Mahdi Army are gung-ho to die for Allah, but squirming on the end of a bayonet wasn’t how they pictured it. On the other hand, Lieut. Adamson’s attack, on the other hand, was all physical: “He was alive when it went in – he wasn’t alive when it came out – it was that simple.”

      Lieut. Adamson MC looks like a teen singer who’d be on Btitain’s Got Talent, not the TV image of a mighty warrior. But they seldom do look like the Central Casting warrior — they come in all kinds of physical packages. The key was he decided he would have victory over death, and he used the weapon at hand to ensure that. He even shouted, “Have some of this!” as he did it, even though he didn’t remember it later (his troops did). Now that’s a soldier!

      Also, he too noted the psychological effect of the bayonet, in this case, on his own platoon of riflemen:

      “The undergrowth is so dense in the ‘Green zone’ that I often ordered bayonets fixed because you knew the distances between you and the Taliban could be very short. It is also good for morale.”

      Again, great links. Thanks, Glenn!

  1. JonMac

    The L85 bayonet is also technically a socket bayonet, as the grip is hollow and slips over the muzzle, leaving the blade offset. It’s also not very good by the standards of the past, being cast in one piece rather than forged.

    1. Hognose Post author

      Very good point, Jon. One type of FAL bayonet is like that also, we actually have one of those kicking around the gun room somewhere. This particular one was South African and the Springboks never took it too seriously. The inch pattern FALs took a decent knife bayonet with a blade a lot like the last Enfield bayonets, except (I think) a bit less deep from spine to edge. There have been rather a lot of different bayonet designs over the years.

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  3. Mike

    Sad to say but the Kaufman Bayonet Assault Course on Sand Hill, home of the Infantry Training Brigade, is overgrown with weeds and falling down from lack of maintenance. Most of the Drill Sergeants on duty now have no idea where it is. Infantrymen still have bayonets in the armsroom, but the younger generation has no clue on how to use it.

    The way that Congress is dick-dancing around with the budget(continuing resolutions, sequestration, etc) the bayonet might soon be the only weapon they have to train on!

    1. Hognose Post author

      The good news is that employment of the bayonet is more a matter of physical practice than classroom instruction. But roger that on the Congress.
      “What is the spirit of the bayonet?” “To economize on ammunition!” Lord love a duck.

  4. Smith

    The Mahdi began his revolt in 1881, and therefore was not fighting British troops in 1878 as the picture caption states. Regardless, I’m very pro-bayonet and enjoyed this article quite a bit.

    1. Hognose Post author

      Agh. I believe I’m right about the date of the picture, and therefore I’m wrong about who the Tommies are fighting in the picture. I “assumed” Sudan = Mahdi, Gordon and all that. Thanks for the correction.

  5. Smith

    No doubt you’re weary of my pedantic nit-picking, so I promise no more comments on the subject after this. After some research I was able to ascertain that the still of the British troops is from the 2002 film THE FOUR FEATHERS, which was based on the 1901 A.E.W. Mason novel of the same name. Most of the story’s action takes place in 1884-85 Sudan, and–I’m guessing here–the photo above depicts the January 1885 Battle of Abu Klea, where the British square was briefly but famously broken by a Dervish charge. Although your date is a bit off, you are correct that this is about Mahdi, Gordon, and all that.

    1. Hognose Post author

      Outstanding. I actually have that one on DVD, but like the earlier black and white version better. Keep the “pedantic nit-picking: coming!

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