Cold Steel - the History of the Bayonet
Created | Updated Mar 11, 2008
'They don't like it up 'em!' said an old soldier, a veteran of the small wars of the British Empire. He was right, although a large quantity of lead balls or bullets to demoralise the enemy always preceded the bayonet charge. For centuries, the British soldier has been renowned for closing with an enemy and defeating them at the point of a bayonet. It so impressed the Ghurkhas of Nepal that they promised their loyalty in battle and their king allowed his soldiers to fight for another crown.
The origin of the bayonet lies in 17th Century France. It got the name from the city of Bayonne; the first recorded use of the bayonet for the British Army was at the Battle of Killiecrankie in 1689. The bayonet then used was a plug bayonet, which fitted into the muzzle of the musket thus preventing it from firing. Unfortunately for the Crown and its forces, the charge of the Highlanders was unstoppable: just how much this defeat was due to the new bayonet is debatable.
Building a Reputation
The continental wars against the French in the 18th Century built the British Infantry into a fearsome weapon on the battlefield. Capable of delivering three volleys per minute at fifty metres or less and then charging forward with the bayonet, the Infantry demoralised and defeated the opposition. The bayonet had by then developed into a socket bayonet, which fitted over the muzzle and allowed the musket to be loaded and fired. The bayonet had a triangular blade with a flat side towards the muzzle and two fluted sides outermost to a length of 15 inches (38cm). However it had no lock to keep it fast to the muzzle and it was well documented as falling off in the heat of battle.
This design remained almost unchanged until the year 1800 when the rifle was introduced into service. The selected bayonet was in the shape of a short sword with a straight 24-inch (60cm) blade. The British used it in the mid-18th Century and then discarded it about 1780, but the French Imperial Guard, at least, used it up to 1815. To this day, no matter what length of bayonet, the Rifle Regiments 'Fix Swords'.
The socket bayonet survived the introduction of the rifled musket in 1854, which copied the French locking ring system. It proved its mettle in the Battles of the Alma and Inkerman during the Crimean War, where the Imperial Russian Army learned to fear it as well.
The Volunteer movement of the 1860s brought another fashion of the design. Most Volunteer units preferred the carbine of two band Enfield Rifled muskets. These were supplied with a sword-like yaghatan blade bayonet of 24 inches (60cm). They were standard for Engineers and Artillery and were of dubious value, but they looked good and impressed the ladies.
Many of these were made in Solingen, Germany, and other continental sources. Poor quality control in bayonet and sword manufacture and storage led to the scandals of the early 1880s, where bent and deformed weapons endangered troops as they closed in on the enemy - African tribesmen - in the traditional English way. A cartoon of the time in Punch, always a ready observer of scandal, showed an infantryman with a bent and twisted socket bayonet standing beside a seated officer, holding a bottle of wine. The infantryman says, 'Corkscrew sir? Why, my bayonet will serve as any.' Foreign suppliers, rightly or wrongly, took the blame and the result was a major reform of design and quality control.
The bayonet for the Lee-Metford Magazine rifle of 1888 was a triumph of quality and effectiveness. The blade was a 12-inches (30cm) long, double-edged knife blade, with a knife-type grip that locked under the barrel. It was ground hollow on each side to form a central rib, with the edges and point honed. It was rigourously tested, with one of the tests bending the flat of the blade over a 12-inch radius curve and to have it return with no bend set in the blade.
With modifications and minor design changes, it lasted until 1916 when the Long Lee Enfield rifle was phased out. 'They don't like it up 'em!' might have been describing the Boers of South Africa, whom the British fought twice. The Boers loathed and feared the bayonet and being good marksmen with their Mauser rifles, they did their killing at long range and set off on horseback as soon as the British closed in, thus avoiding the bayonet.
Reforms of the Army produced the Short Magazine Lee-Enfield (SMLE) rifle of 1907. To compensate for a shorter barrel, the bayonet was lengthened to 17 inches (42cm). The design was still along the lines of a knife but the blade was narrower, single-edged and with a fuller, ground indent, on both sides for much of its length. Originally it had a quillion or forward curving extension of the cross-guard. This was supposed to enable the infantryman to break the opponents bayonet blade and was copied from the French bayonet but was removed from later versions after 1914. The Short Magazine Lee-Enfield was the standard issue rifle and bayonet for the British Army from 1908 to 1943.
In 1943, the Lee-Enfield No4 rifle was introduced with a much handier 8-inch (20cm) bayonet. This was a very cheap socket bayonet, made of round steel about 1/2-inch (1cm) diameter tapering to a point rather like a nail. It represented the tactical value of the bayonet at the time. It was always known as the 'pig sticker', referring to an abattoir's instrument of dispatch. It had really only one use, although it could open condensed milk tins too. Some versions were good quality, made from solid materials while others were a cheap, nasty combination of a steel rod and pressed steel.
The bayonet charge was not always in the traditional image of the British Army. One of the last bayonet charges of the Second World War took place in 1945 during the battle for the Reichswald. One of the participants remembers that the British were taking cover in ditches and returning fire towards some trenches occupied by German troops about 200m away, when they were ordered to fix bayonets. He cannot remember the order to charge, no rush of adrenaline, any yells or bravado, just soldiers getting to their feet and running towards the trenches. As they closed in on the Germans, the return fire ceased and the German soldiers raised their hands; for the demoralised troops, resistance seemed pointless and it was time to surrender.
The British have never given up the bayonet. It has remained at 8 inches long but with a thin, fullered, bowie-type knife blade. Even the Submachine Gun L2A3 (Sterling) was issued with a bayonet in case the gun jammed or ran out of ammunition. The bayonet now passes as a combat knife, a sort of saw or a battlefield tool capable of cutting thin wire. It is still fitted to the business end of a rifle, knife-like, the quintessential close-quarter combat weapon.
The last documented use of the bayonet in combat by the British Army would probably be during the Falklands campaign by 3rd Battalion, The Parachute Regiment on the night of June 11-12 and 2nd Battalion, Scots Guards on the night of June 13-14 1982, when night allowed them to close with the enemy without being seen, and engaged, at a distance.
The 3rd Battalion took Mt Longdon and its surroundings after hand-to-hand and bayonet fighting with the 7th Infantry Regiment. The British casualties were 23 killed, one of which, Sergeant Ian John McKay of the 3rd Battalion, was later awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross1. The Argentinians suffered over 50 dead, with many more injured.
The 2nd Scots Guards pushed the 5th Marine Infantry Battalion off the summit and flanks of Mt Tumbledown with rifle and bayonet shortly before the surrender of Argentine forces. It cost seven Guardsmen and one Royal Engineer killed, while 40 Argentinean Marines lost their lives opposing them.
After the Falklands, the infantry began to train in the use of the bayonet again; it had returned from near oblivion.
Modern weapons have an awesome weight of firepower available, so why bother with cold steel? The bayonet, used by a determined soldier, is capable of physical harm, but it is primarily a psychological weapon. Its value is not in its form or the harm it can do.
When the soldier fixes his bayonet and points it at the enemy, he is declaring his determination to close and kill savagely at close quarter. For most soldiers trained to kill with bullets and shells at distance, it is time to think seriously about an easy way out.