A la bayonet, or, "hot blood and cold steel" (Part 6)

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"At The Throat … Jab!"

The New Land Service Musket, the Martini-Henry, and the Lee-Enfield had certain common attributes, they were well balanced for drill and had the mass and solidity necessary for use with their bayonets. The Martini-Henry, for example, massed four kilograms (9 lbs) and was 126 cm (4' 1 1/2") long, this weapon mounted a 56 cm (22-inch) triangular or sword bayonet, bringing its full mass to almost 4.5 kilograms (10 lbs). (47) This weapon would be wielded by a British soldier averaging 163 cm (5’4"), (48) making bayonet fighting a heavy and tiring task for a man with a shoulder bruised by recoil, hands burned by the hot barrel and a parched throat at the close of a hot day’s action.

Through World Wars One and Two, the British Lee Enfield was a standard infantry small arm, it also massed about four kilograms. In its various models the Lee-Enfield sported a 17-inch sword bayonet (1902-1914), an 8-inch cruciform spike (1940) and the 8-inch round spike or sword style bayonets (1946). (49) The Lee-Enfield No. 4 was 113 cm (3’5œ") in length, with its shorter bayonets the soldier of 1940 had lost 22 inches (56 cm) in reach enjoyed by his counterpart of 1879. In 1954, the FN gave up another eight centimetres in reach. (50)

But the infantry’s fascination with the bayonet never faded, Even the Sterling submachine-gun had bayonet mounting lugs. With its mass of 2.7 Kilograms (6 lbs), an extended length of 71 cm (28 in) inches (51) and the bayonet handle being along the barrel jacket/forestock, it actually gave the soldier no real advantage of reach or mass.

The bayonet, throughout its history, has been designed for stabbing with its point. Triangular and round cross-sectional bayonets had no cutting edge at all. Blade bayonets, whether sword- or knife-like, have not even always had sharpened edges. These design elements restricted the bayonets use for other purposes. They also ensured that it would only be effective with a clean, straight thrust delivered with the weight and force of the rifle and the man behind and in line. Failure to deliver such a blow "by the numbers" might allow one’s opponent to parry and counter the thrust, could bend or break a poorly tempered iron or brittle steel blade. A soldier was forced to use his bayonet, if at all, exactly as taught, for it could be ineffective in any other case and, therefore, fatal to himself.

Other writers have described how the evolution of small arms departed from classic characteristics with the development of assault weapons. The SA-80, the C7 and the AK-74 are all lighter and smaller in construction than earlier infantry rifles. Protruding magazines change the space the weapon needs in close quarters; they have more moving parts, less robust overall construction and optics that their antecedents never had. They were not designed for, nor are they well applied to, bayonet fighting.

Remaining in use today for ritualized training of the offensive spirit, the bayonet is more likely to be used as a blunt utility knife or can-opener (52) than for its designed purpose. Bayonets are more likely to figure in parades and inspections than any realistic training for combat. Realization that the awkwardness of stylized bayonet fighting movements is outdated is far from new. In the 1890s, General Evelyn Wood, VC, remarked that the bayonet training of the day was "more suitable for a Music Hall than for training men to fight." (53)

There is no perfect close quarter weapon because attack and defence mechanisms are very individualistic. Formulaic application of a weapon one is unused to or uncomfortable with only offers the opponent openings for attack. The bayonet has to be one of least efficient close quarter weapons, especially when troops are inculcated in employing a stock range of motion for it. This particular limitation is further exaggerated by training on dummies that are purpose-designed to be struck "by the book" thus giving a false sense of confidence in its effectiveness. Compare this stylized training approach to the fact that soldiers will often "club" their weapon, swinging the mass of the butt, the barrel as handle, because it was more effective.

We should look closely at the weapons and tactics of those who have been given a free hand to investigate and develop new close quarter tactics: the trench raiders of World War One and counter-terrorist forces of the 1990s offer two examples. The trench raiders tended to develop their own suite of selected and improvised weapons: bombs, knives with brass-knuckled handles, clubs, sharpened shovels and handguns all figure prominently in the literature describing raiding parties. For true hand-to-hand contact, it would seem, the delivery of blunt trauma was generally more effective than trying to deliver a precisely controlled bayonet thrust against a man likely to be heavily clothed and accoutred. Counter-terrorist forces prefer an arsenal including stun grenades and highly accurate sub-machineguns. Close is, however, a relative term, and grappling with one’s foe is very inefficient. Given freedom to test and select weapons to deal with their intended enemies in close quarters, neither of these types of forces, encouraged and led by original thinkers and proponents of innovation, chose to rely on the rifle and bayonet.

"Right Parry ... and Kill!"

Historically, the bayonet charge signified not so much the application of offensive spirit as it did the release of intense emotion by soldiers freed of the rigid discipline of the tactics used to win the battle. It was not a controlled state but the running amok of blood lust, to harry and kill a defeated enemy, taking revenge for the death of friends and a pursuit of the spoils. Alternatively, desperate defence and the forlorn hope were characterized by absence of optional courses of action, one thrust and parried when no other course remained. In the heat of battle, these were not the activities of rational men; they were the reflexive actions of over-wrought men fighting to survive one more day.

Offensive spirit cannot be taught or trained. Soldiers can only be taught skills, reflexes and given knowledge of weapons and fighting techniques. The formulaic thrust and parry with rifle and bayonet may well be outdated, for only if matched with a similarly trained and dedicated opponent will the army-issue drills even be applicable to the combat. Certainly these actions are not natural responses, that is why pugil (54) training most often turns into a brawl between two men with Nerf® bats.


An inappropriate passion for cold steel has seen the bayonet remain hung on every infantryman’s web belt long after it should have been hung up beside the pioneer’s leather apron. Warfare today is the cool application of disciplined initiative and knowledge, rather than the brutal mutual punishment of massed soldiery until one side was released at the moment of victory to avenge its losses against a fleeing foe. No sensible business case based on the frequency of bayonet injuries and deaths over the past century would ever justify their purchase and issue today as a single role implement. Yet we persist in maintaining the bayonet for no better overt justification than that it is a symbol of the infantry.

Should bayonet training be dropped from Army syllabi? No, not necessarily. While it remains an available weapon, soldiers should be aware of its employment, but also of its limitations. Alternatively, the training of close quarter combat, including bayonet training, should be expanded and given broader scope. The intent is not to infuse a warrior spirit, for this cannot be done artificially, but to broaden the skill set and responses available to the average soldier.

First, let’s update the bayonet. We continue to issue every soldier a bayonet that does not justify its own weight. Replace it with a sturdy, well-honed utility knife with a high-quality steel blade. Leave the bayonet mounting hardware on the hilt for the rare cases in which it becomes necessary. Teach the soldier how to handle a rifle and bayonet, but let’s bring in a professional in improvised fighting techniques to help develop a useful combat system for it. Parade square parries and thrusts are only appropriate if the enemy has had similar instruction and is willing to fight by mutually understood rules. The Military Manual of Self-Defence (55) offers a series of aggressive alternatives to traditional bayonet fighting movements, its focus more on disabling the opponent than parrying until a clean point can be made. While not necessarily offering a full replacement to classic bayonet training, it does show that more options exist.

On possible approach is to incorporate in Army physical fitness training a structured martial arts program. A discipline can be selected to develop confidence, balance, reflexes, and close combat tactics. This program could include combat techniques; both unarmed and with a variety of weapons, including the bayonet, within a progressive format. This program could lead to every field soldier having recognized skill levels in a close quarter combat system that supports rather than confines reflexive responses in hand-to-hand combat. It should also provide advanced training and continuous skill maintenance throughout a soldier’s career.

We must continue to train our soldier in close quarter combat techniques, but it should be based on a rational analysis of the purpose and components of that training untainted by the romanticism of tradition.

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(47) Wilkinson-Latham, Robert and Christopher, Infantry Uniforms, Book Two, London, Blandford Press, 1970

(48) Best, Brian, Campaign Life In The British Army During The Zulu War, http://www.web-marketing.co.uk/anglozuluwar/sol-life.htm, 1999

(49) Journal of the Society for Army Historical Research, Vol. XLV, No. 184, Winter 1967; "The Principal Small Arms Carried by British Regular Infantry," compiled by Major G. Tylden, E.D.

(50) Journal of the Society for Army Historical Research, Vol. XLV, No. 184, Winter 1967; "The Principal Small Arms Carried by British Regular Infantry," compiled by Major G. Tylden, E.D.

(51) Jane's Infantry Weapons 1975, New York, Franklin Watts, 1975

(52) Van Creveld, Martin, Technology and War; From 2000 B.C. to the Present, Don Mills, Maxwell MacMillan, 1991

(53) Farwell, Byron, Mr, Kipling’s Army, New York, Norton, 1981

(54) Pugil sticks are padded wooden staffs used to simulate rifles and bayonets for bouts between soldiers. An excellent description of pugil stick training comes from Steele, David E., Bayonets and Knives, Infantry, Volume 65, Number 3, May-June 1975. "[Soldiers] were expected to perform in "pugil stick" training, which is an excellent exercise (though often resulting in separated shoulders), but which has no resemblance, as it is usually conducted, to the single thrust or single parry-and-thrust that could decide a typical combat engagement.

Often troops would pound each other senseless with the pugil sticks without ever understanding what they were supposed to be learning about bayonet tactics."

(55)  Herbert, Colonel Anthony B., U.S. Army (Ret), Military Manual of Self-Defense; A Complete Guide to Hand-to-Hand Combat, New York, Hippocrene Books, 1984

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