A Brief History of the Bayonet

January 04, 2017 Posted by: Rebecca Walton
The bayonet transformed the musket from a medium to long range weapon into one effective at close range as well.  There was no longer a need for pikemen to defend musketeers in battle because one soldier could defend himself against an enemy less than 100 yards away.  The bayonet was primarily used during cavalry charges and in close range combat.  The weight, shape and attachment of bayonets have changed throughout history in order to increase the effectiveness of the musket and the bayonet.

The first use of bayonets was simply a knife stuck on the end of a musket barrel used by French hunters catching wild boar.  This combination was then used in warfare, and became known as a plug bayonet. Though an effective weapon, a downside of the plug bayonet was that the musketeer could not shoot after affixing it.  The plug bayonet was succeeded by the socket bayonet, which fit over the muzzle of the barrel.  A zig-zag motion around the bayonet lug allowed the musketeer to easily affix or remove the bayonet while still securing it in place.  The major advantage to the socket bayonet was that the musket could still be fired while the bayonet was attached.  To overcome the fact that not all soldiers used the same weapon, or weapons with the same barrel sizes, the socket bayonet was modified to have a split down the side.  An intentional slit running the entire length of the socket allowed for an adjustable fit of the socket to the size of the barrel.  Unlike the plug bayonet, the socket and split-socket bayonets had three edges, giving them the name “triangular bayonets”.  Given forging processes at the time, a triangular blade was easier to create, and offered increased stability from a two sided or knife blade bayonet without much additional weight. During the War of 1812, bayonets for the British Brown Bess, French Charleville, and United States Springfield muskets were between 12 and 15 inches in length, and continued to have the triangular shape.

Socket bayonets were used through the middle of the 20th century; however the triangular shape became obsolete after the late 1800’s.  Though many claim that the triangular bayonet was outlawed in the Geneva Convention in 1949, this is actually not the case.  The Geneva Convention set many of the rules of war, and in response to bayonets it prohibits “bayonets with a serrated edge” (International Committee of the Red Cross).  Triangle bayonets are not explicitly mentioned in the Convention. Since the wound inflicted by triangular bayonets is difficult to repair, and causes more initial bleeding than that of a two sided bayonet, one could classify triangular bayonets under a clause which prohibits weapons causing undue suffering after the conflict has ended.  Indeed, the wounds caused by a triangular bayonet were recorded to last for years after a battle, or to never heal at all.  However this would be a stretch.  Prior to the mid-1900’s, this also meant that the wound was especially prone to becoming infected, the main cause of deaths in the War of 1812.
         Musket with a plug bayonet mounted
Example of a plug bayonet showing the end of a knife inserted into the muzzle of a musket.
Steel triangular socket bayonet
A socket bayonet, complete with retaining band for added security.
In 19th Century warfare, including the War of 1812, bayonets were primarily used to drive the enemy from the field.  The victor of a battle was the one controlling the land when all was said and done. Though the wounds from bayonet stabbings were brutal, less than 3% of casualties during the war were actually from bayonets (CITE).  This is because the opposing side often dispersed as they were being charged. 
Today bayonets are not used commonly in the United States Military; the Marines are the only branch of the US Military who still include bayonet assault training in their basic training course.   Around the world bayonets are used as a close range weapon and as a utility tool.  However because of technology changes, many of our conflicts are now fought at further distances, and bayonets are becoming obsolete.

Forsyth, Justin. “Triangular Bayonets.” A Changing of Ethics: From Bayonets to Drones.  N.p., n.d. Web. 18 July, 2016.
Whittle, John. “History and Evolution of the Bayonet.” The Armoury Online. N.p., 5 July 2006. Web. 18 July 2016.
International Committee of the Red Cross. International Committee of the Red Cross, 2016. Web. 18 July, 2016.
Schloesser, Kelly. “2010 Brings Major Transformation to Basic Combat Training.” U. S. Army. 19 July 2010. Web. 21 July 2016.
“Marine Bayonet.” Marines.com. United States Marine Corps, 2016. Web. 21 July 2016.
Plug Bayonet. Digital image. Firearms history, Technology, and Development. N.p., 8 July 2012. Web. 21 July 2016.
Socket Bayonet. Digital image. Firearms history, Technology, and Development. N.p., 8 July 2012. Web. 21 July 2016.

warof 1812, medicalcare, weapons, historicrowing crew

Last updated: January 4, 2017

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