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A bayonet (from French baïonnette) is a knife-, dagger-, sword-‘ or spike-shaped weapon designed to fit on or over the muzzle of a rifle barrel or similar weapon, effectively turning the gun into a spear. It is a close quarter battle combat or last-resort weapon.
The origins of the bayonet are somewhat hazy. The term ‘Bayonette’ dates back to the end of the 16th century, but it is not clear if the weapon at the time was the weapon as is known today or simply a type of knife. For example, Cotgrave’s 1611 Dictionarie describes the Bayonet as ‘a kind of small flat pocket dagger, furnished with knives; or a great knife to hang at the girdle’. Likewise, Pierre Borel wrote in 1655 that a kind of long-knife called a ‘bayonette’ was made in Bayonne but does not give any further description .There is a legend that during the mid-17th century irregular military conflicts of rural France, the peasants of the Southern French town of Bayonne, who were Basques, having run out of powder and shot, rammed their long-bladed hunting knives into the muzzles of their primitive muskets to fashion impromptu spears and, by necessity, created an ancillary weapon. Another possibility is that the bayonet originated as a hunting weapon: early firearms were fairly inaccurate and took a long time to reload; thus a hunter of dangerous animals such as wild boar could easily have been exposed to danger if the hunter’s bullet missed the animal. The bayonet thus may have emerged to allow a hunter to fend off wild animals in the event of a missed shot. The weapon was introduced into the French army by General Jean Martinet and was common in most European armies by the 1660s.
There is some evidence that the first bayonet appeared in 13th century China. When the developer of the musket found they could not damage an enemy at close proximity, they introduced two types of firearm, one with an attached knife and the other a spear. One is called (Chinese:???), and the other is (Chinese:???).
The benefit of such a dual-purpose arm contained in one was soon apparent. The early muskets fired at a slow rate (about a round per minute when loading with loose powder and ball, and no more than 3–4 rounds per minute using paper cartridges), and were both inaccurate and unreliable. Bayonets provided a useful addition to the weapons system when an enemy charging to contact could cross the musket’s killing ground (a range of approximately 100 yards/metres at the most optimistic) at the expense of perhaps only one or two volleys from their waiting opponents. A foot-long bayonet, extending to a regulation 17 inches (approx. 43 centimetres) during the Napoleonic period, on a 5-foot (around 1.5 metre) tall musket achieved a reach similar to the infantry spear, and later halberd, of earlier times. The bayonet/musket combination was however considerably heavier than a polearm of the same length.
Early bayonets were of the “plug” type. The bayonet had a round handle that slid directly into the musket barrel. This naturally prevented the gun from being fired. In 1671, plug bayonets were issued to the French regiment of fusiliers then raised. They were issued to part of an English dragoon regiment raised in 1672 and disbanded in 1674, and to the Royal Fusiliers when raised in 1685. The danger incurred by the use of this bayonet (which put a stop to all fire) was felt so early that the younger Puysgur saw a ring-bayonet in 1678 which could be fixed without stopping the fire. 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; and shortly afterwards the defeated leader, Hugh Mackay, is believed to have introduced a ring-bayonet of his own invention. Soon “socket” bayonets offset the blade from the musket barrel’s muzzle. The bayonet attached over the outside of the barrel with a ring-shaped socket, secured on later models by a spring-loaded catch on the muzzle of the musket barrel.
A trial with badly fitting socket or zigzag bayonets was made after the battle of Fleurus, 1690, in the presence of Louis XIV, who refused to adopt them. Shortly after the Peace of Ryswick (1697), the English and Germans abolished the pike and introduced these bayonets, and plates of them are given in Surirey de St. Remy’s Mémoires d’Artillerie, published in Paris in that year; but owing to a military cabal they were not issued to the French infantry until 1703. Henceforward, the bayonet became, with the musket or other firearm, the typical weapon of infantry.
Many socket bayonets were triangular in cross-section in order to provide flexing strength in the blade without much increase in weight. Flexing strength was needed in case a bayonet struck a hard object: better to have it bend and be repairable, than have it be stiff and shatter on impact. This design of bayonet did not usually include a grip for using the bayonet apart from the gun, although a socket bayonet was deemed a sidearm anyway, especially in the British army of 1775.
The triangular bayonet, unlike an old urban legend, was not designed to create stab wounds “that were difficult to stitch when attended to by a medic, as it is more difficult to stitch a three-sided wound than a two-sided one, thus making the wound more likely to become infected”. This quote ignores the reality of surgery, in that surgeons have sewn up jagged wounds using more stitches when needed, since time immemorial. Instead, three sided bayonets were designed to be an economical compromise between flexing strength and the amount of wrought iron needed to make the bayonet (compare to a structural steel Tee-beam).
Similarly, in the Soviet Union, later bayonet blades, now made of steel, were stiffened with a small cross-section in the form of a cross, in order to make them more compact in form and fold better onto the sides of their rifles (see Mosin Nagant model of 1944). It is said that self-inflicted wounds made by soldiers to get themselves out of the line of battle would be recognized as such and bring them greater disciplinary punishment. In All Quiet on the Western Front, Erich Maria Remarque, the book’s author, reported that in World War I French soldiers killed German prisoners who had serrated blade bayonets, as they assumed they were for cutting off the limbs of Allied soldiers. These were carried by combat engineers as tools and by NCOs as signs of rank.
18th and 19th century military tactics included various massed bayonet charges and defenses. The Russian Army used the bayonet the most frequently in any Napoleonic conflict. Their motto was “The Bullet is foolish, the Bayonet wise”. This implies that the bullet of a smoothbore musket was wildly inaccurate at ranges past 50 yards (which was true in most cases), but with the close quarters of bayonet fighting, it was hard to miss. It should be noted, however, that in the thick of a close-quarter combat, many soldiers revert to using bayonet-mounted rifles as clubs, this apparently being a more “natural” way of fighting (as described by military historians like John Keegan).
Bayonets were experimented with through much of the 18th and 19th centuries. In the United States Navy before the American Civil War, bayonet blades were even affixed to single-shot pistols, although they soon proved useless for anything but cooking. Cutlasses remained the favoured weapon for the navies of the time, though Queen Victoria’s Royal Navy gave up the pikes once used to repel attacks by boarders in favor of the cutlass bayonet.
The 19th century finally saw the popularity of the sword bayonet. It was a long-bladed weapon with a single- or double-edged blade that could also be used as a shortsword. Its initial purpose was to ensure that riflemen, when in ranks with musketmen, whose weapons were longer, could form square properly to fend off cavalry attacks, when sword bayonets were fitted. A prime early example of a sword bayonet-fitted rifle would be the British Infantry Rifle of 1800-1840, later known as the “Baker Rifle”. (However, one usually removed the sword bayonet on the Infantry Rifle before firing; the weight at the end of the barrel affected balance and stability, hence accuracy)
The hilt usually had quillons modified to accommodate the gun barrel, and a hilt mechanism that enabled the bayonet to be attached to a bayonet lug. When dismounted, a sword bayonet could be used in combat as a side arm. When attached to the musket or rifle, it effectively turned almost any long gun into a spear or glaive, suitable not only for thrusting but also for slashing. World War I saw the shortening of sword bayonets into knife-sized weapons, usable as fighting knives or trench knives, so that the vast majority of modern bayonets are knife bayonets.
Modern bayonets are often knife-shaped with either a handle and a socket, or are permanently attached to the rifle as with the SKS. Depending on where and when a specific SKS was manufactured, it may have a permanently attached bayonet with a knife-shaped blade (Russian, Romanian, Yugoslavian, early Chinese), or a cruciform (late Chinese) or triangular (Albanian) spike bayonet, or no bayonet at all.