Cold Steel: Evolving the Bayonet

British soldier with bayonet and gas mask

 

As weapon technology has improved, so too has the bayonet been adapted to meet these new circumstances. Troops armed with hand-to-hand weapons operating in the right environment have come out on top against gatling guns, mortars, machine guns, and more. But many more battles have seen the order to “fix bayonets” end in doom and slaughter.

The Bayonet Charge

Since the Napoleonic Era, the rough calculation for bayonet success has remained the same.

To be effective, the bayonet wielder must close with the enemy as quickly as possible.

They must also be in a position at which defensive ranged shooting will be relatively ineffective.

To a demoralized enemy, receiving a bayonet charge is the final straw that brings 1 of only 3 possibilities: surrender, retreat, or extermination.

On countless battlefields across Europe and during our own country’s Civil War, the bayonet has in many cases won the day.

But with each passing year, guns on the battlefield have became faster and more accurate.

Some say that the first World War was the final test of the bayonet, where it was found wanting against fully automatic, mechanized, armored ranged fire.

Infamously, the first day of the Battle of the Somme resulted in over 57,000 British casualties. Many of these were infantrymen ordered to charge into the enemy with bayonets fixed, only to find themselves caught in a literal meat grinder of German mortars and machine guns.

 

British Commonwealth troops advance, bayonets fixed

 

Where hand-to-hand fighting found success was in specialized conditions: bad weather, darkness, blocked firing lanes, and other factors that modified things in favor of the melee fighters. Raids into enemy trenches used smaller numbers of troops, often the hardened veterans of the unit.

Undetected, unexpected, the cold steel of improvised trench weapons could do the dirty work, with the shock and surprise of the attack doing the rest to send the survivors running.

From Trench Knife to Sword Bayonet

When the United States entered World War II, the M1 Garand was paired with the M1905 Bayonet, the same one attached to the Springfield Rifle issued in World War I. This bayonet was 16″ long, designed for skewering and spearing, but not so good for the type of close fighting infantry continued to encounter on the evolving battlefield.

To come up with a new bayonet, designers looked at the WWI trench knives that had proven so popular.

Both the length and weight was dramatically reduced. The handle and blade were also both simplified. The new M1 Bayonet could be used just as easy in one hand, or fixed to the M1 Garand. And the icing on the cake: it could be manufactured cheaply and in volume. The very popular M1 would remain unchanged through multiple service rifles: the M4, M5, M6, and M7 bayonets all shared this basic design.

After World War II, the M4 variant of this design would come to gain special prominence in the Korean Conflict.

In the snowbound and mountainous terrain of North Korea, the bayonet was used to terrible effect by both U.S. and Chinese forces.

Facing the lethality of concentrated machine gun fire, smaller groups of Chinese PVA (People’s Volunteer Army) wrecked havoc with Korean defensive lines using “short attacks” that seemed to come out of nowhere. Coming from multiple directions, in small groups that were harder to concentrate fire on, The PVA broke through defenses with ease.

The M4 Bayonet in use taking PLA prisoners

 

One the Allied side of the conflict, American units found an unlikely focal point for a renewed interest in bayonet attacks: officer Lewis L. Millett.

In what became known as the Battle of Hill 180, Millett led 2 U.S. Army platoons through heavy machine gun fire. With fixed bayonets, and while tossing grenades towards the defensive postiions, they bayoneted the enemy from one position to the next until Hill 180 had been taken.

M7 bayonet, an M1 variant for the M-16 rifle

Assault Knifes for Assault Rifles

The Soviet development of the AK-47 was a great leap forward in automatic rifles. First accepted into the Soviet Armed Forces in 1949, it was eventually manufactured distributed to arm Soviet-backed insurgencies around the world. It could be used with little training and even less maintenance, all while delivering dependable operation shot after shot.

Original versions of the AK-47 lacked a way to even add a bayonet. But eventually the feature was requested, and the legendary Kalashnikov found itself issued with a standard Russian “sword” bayonet, the same type seen used by virtually every global military since World War II.

When an improved version of the AK-47, the AKM, came off the assembly line, an entirely new bayonet came with it. This new bayonet was designed to be a field tool first, a survival knife second, and a bayonet when absolutely necessary.

The large clip-point blade had teeth along the spine for sawing branches and other improvised construction. When combined with the scabbard, the blade could also be used to snip through barbed wire. The scabbard was even insulated against electrical current, very handy if the wire being cut turned out to be electrified.

Yugoslav variant of the newer AKM Type II Bayonet

 

In 1986, the United States Army replaced their standard “sword” style bayonet (the M7) with a very similar blade designed and developed by Charles A. “Mickey” Finn. This M9 Bayonet was intended to be an all-in-one fighting knife, field knife, utility knife, wire cutter, saw, and finally bayonet. It was widely popular right from the start, and was manufactured by many companies including Buck Knives, Ontario Company, not to mention Finn’s own company Phrobis.

The M9 Phrobis Bayonet

 

While technically still in use, the M9 isn’t regularly issued to today’s warfighter. In the U.S. Armed Forces, traditional bayonet training has instead been replaced with comprehensive “combatives” training that seeks to more closely follow the types of last-resort fighting seen by U.S. troops in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Instead of bayonet charges, troops engage in scenarios where their primary battle rifle is compromised by an enemy in close proximity, and must use everything at their disposal to maintain control.

Will the bayonet find its way to the battlefield again? If history has taught anything, it’s that this old tool can find surprising ways to adapt to the changing face of war.

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4 Responses to “Cold Steel: Evolving the Bayonet”

  1. mike hirshman

    Seems to be a bit of confusion about the M1 bayonet and the M3 knife/M4 bayonet,(Which became the blade design for the M5, M5A1, M6, and M7). M.H.

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  2. Travis

    The M-9 bayonet was never widely popular or well accepted. It was heavy and dismissed as a knife/bayonet/tool that could neither cut nor clip wire. They were impossible to sharpen due to the extremely hard steel used. When infantrymen found themselves needing a practical bayonet for field use, they purchased surplus M-7’s. More often, they simply bought their own field knives. The M-9’s were most useful in the place they were commonly found – in a foot locker in the company arms room. It’s no wonder that the Marines decided to go with the OKC-3S design.

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  3. Lea

    The 16″ bayonet was wonderful for close in fighting but not much else. It was of little use as a utility knife. It was designed for not only killing men but horses as well. When the need to repel cavalry charges by “forming the square” passed, the length of the bayonet shrank.

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  4. DANA ARBEIT

    Mike has it right. The M1905 Bayonet was based on the bayonet for the Krag Infantry rifle but lengthened to 16″ because the rifle(M1903) had been shortened from a 30″ barrel to a 24″ barrel. The Army wanted our Infantry to have the same “reach” as soldiers from an army that had yet to adopt the ‘new’ general issue length rifle. Interestingly the M1905 bayonet and the M1 bayonet will both fit on a M1892/1898 Krag Infantry rifle. In that time period, horse cavalry still existed and the Infantryman’s bayonet was primarily a defense against a mounted charge. The infantry would form 2-3 ranks (front kneeling others standing) to present a “hedge” of bayonets that a horse would not ride through. Along came WWII and the M1 rifle that while able to use the M1905 bayonet was awkward in the jungle and other close encounters. Initially, M1905s were shortened in Theater(the Pacific Theater was first I think) to 10″. The Army then began producing new 10″ blade “M1” bayonets new for issue. The grip and latch were identical in form to the M1905 with just some change in materials. The M3 “Trench Knife” was a entirely different blade/grip form. When deciding on a bayonet for the M1 Carbine, they took the simple way out and adapted the already mass produced M3 knife form with a latch and muzzle ring added to hold it on the Carbine. The M5 bayonet for the M1 Rifle used the same blade form as the M3/M4 but without a muzzle ring. The M6 for the M14 used the same form but with appropriate latch and muzzle ring. The M7 for the M16 “rifle” did the same.
    The bayonet has always been a utility tool besides a weapon. Bill Mauldin’s Willie & Joe, upon attaching the bayonet to his M1, remarks: “Look Joe, this can opener fits on the end of a rifle”.

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