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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.