Bayonets have long had their enemies – and friends

We recently discussed the future, if any, of the bayonet, a circa-15th-Century invention that turned a primitive musket into an even more primitive weapon, a pike. The death of the bayonet keeps being pronounced, and somehow the thing rises up as predictably as the bitten bit actor in a summer zombie flick.

Here’s a blast from the past. See if you can date this epitaph for the bayonet:

The present service rifle has met with great approval from the Army at large…. The … bayonet with which it is equipped is considered by the Chief of Ordnance as imperfect and antiquated. it is heavy, and with its scabbard, a costly part of the soldier’s equipment, and is a needless impediment to his freedom of action and comfort on the march, and as an entrenching tool, it is a poor substitute. The bayonet has now only a very rare use and may well be dispensed with, relieving the soldier of considerable weight and inconvenience, and saving the very considerable cost.

The bayonet-basher? The US Army Chief of Ordnance, and the occasion was his annual report for fiscal year 01 — 1901, that is. (We found it on p.5 of Brophy’s The Springfield 1903 Rifles, a book that’s bringing us to a new appreciation of these 20th-Century warhorses). The “present service rifle” was the homely Krag-Jorgensen in the second-string .30-40 caliber, and as much as he praised it — he probably had to, having promulgated the thing — the Chief was knee deep in prototypes for a new rifle of Mauser pattern, to which the most recent versions also used a Mauser-type magazine. (This would, in due course, become the U.S. Rifle M1903 “Springfield.”)

rod bayonet springfieldWhile the report hints that the new Springfield would come to troops innocent of any bayonet, that’s not what actually happened. Instead of the Krag’s “antiquated, heavy” sword bayonet, early 1903s had a rod bayonet that was carried under the barrel. It was good for a rather limited manual of arms — fine for spearing, lunging, stabbing, but no good for slashing, and rather flimsy to mix it up with a traditional blade bayonet. Indeed, a previous Army flirtation with rod bayonets, which were installed on three versions of the long-serving trapdoor Springfield (models 1880, 1884 and 1888), came to an end with the issuance of the Krag in the nineties. The European powers used knife bayonets, and so would we. (We’re indebted to p. 335 et seq. in Brophy, op. cit., for all this information and that which is about to follow).

03roddetailNonetheless, the Model 1901 prototypes of the new Springfield rifle had a 29.5″ rod bayonet, of which 15″ protruded beyond the muzzle in the “fixed” position. It could also serve as a cleaning rod, which of course limited its diameter to less than .30″. The troops who tested the rifle loved the rifle, but hated the rod bayonet. The final Model 1903 shortened both the barrel and bayonet relative to the 1901, but it was still the rod. The Chief of Ordnance insisted this would solve multiple problems with scabbard noise, lost bayonets, etc.

The rod bayonet remained controversial. The following letter ended the controversy:

The Secretary of War

Sir,

I must say that I think the ramrod bayonet about as poor an invention as I ever saw. As you observed, it broke short off as soon as hit with even moderate violence. It would have no moral effect and mighty little physical effect….

I wish our officers could carry rifles. If they carry any sword, they ought to carry a sword that they can cut or thrust with…. [I]t ought to be a sword that can do damage.

… This ramrod bayonet business does not make me feel that we can afford to trust too much to theory of the closest variety. I would like to have the opinon of Captain March, and then the opinion of the other military attaches who saw the fighting between the Russians and Japanese, about both the bayonet and the sword. I would also like to have the opinions of any of our officers in the Philippines who have seen the bayonet actually used.

That letter shook things up a bit — production of the rod bayonet rifle crashed to a halt within a week — and the agitation flowed downhill until a commission examined a handful of different bayonets and recommended what would become the M1905 bayonet.

1905BayonetIt was exactly like the “imperfect, antiquated and heavy” Krag bayonet — except it was six inches longer and proportionately heavier.

Who was the bayonet booster who wrote the letter that led to the beefy knife bayonet in place of the rickety rod? You may have heard of him: Theodore Roosevelt, President of the United States, a combat veteran himself and a man who took a keen interest in arms and in military affairs.

2 thoughts on “Bayonets have long had their enemies – and friends

  1. Jon F

    The (plug) bayonet was invented in the early C17th, not the 15th, and was not adopted by most militaries until the 1650s.

    1. Hognose Post author

      Appears you’re right, although there are some earlier references to “bayonettes” as some kind of edged thing made in Bayonne (France, not New Jersey) nobody seems to know what they were. In fact, a quick attempt to search up what is the earliest confirmed, documented bayonet came up dry. Looks like a good angle for more research.

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