Imagine standing on a hillside shoulder to shoulder with a line of soldiers. Smoke from heavy musket fire burns your nostrils and the sound of heavy artillery far to your flanks makes a deep thumping sensation in your chest. You’ve been firing down the hill throughout the morning at the advancing army, and you are low on ammunition. Through the fog, you hear a clamoring war cry from the opposing force as they start up the hill for one last charge. Your heart starts to beat faster as you push another ball into your weapon. It is hard to get the ramrod into the muzzle with your shaking hands. Just as you prepare for another volley, you hear an officer cry at the top of his lungs, “Fix Bayonets!” You know you may only get one shot before things get close—and you hope the enemy isn’t as well trained as you are.
Bayonets have a long tradition in the military as an ancillary last resort type device. Originating in France, the bayonet was a standard issue war implement by the 1660s, and it is still common, though to a much lesser extent on today’s battlefields. Early firearms had an appallingly slow rate of fire, as well as severe accuracy and range issues. In an attempt to increase the effectiveness of the average foot soldier, the bayonet turned a line of troops into a bristling impenetrable wall of steel. At the time, armies would try to take ground by firing into a standing line of enemy troops, then charging in to force a retreat. A bayonet on a five-foot-tall musket achieved a reach similar to that of an infantry spear, which made it an effective anti-cavalry weapon.
Early attempts at bayonets involved plugging the muzzle of the musket, thus preventing the guns from firing; armies quickly worked to correct this design flaw. The more familiar ring design was a vast improvement over the plug type bayonet. This allowed the bayonet to remain fixed during firing. During the 1800s, longer bayonets served a dual purpose. Soldiers could utilize them as a shortsword or traditional bayonet when the need arose. Different designs attempted to make them into multi-use instruments, including sawing, digging and cooking utensils.
The Bayonet Charge
With the adoption of the sturdier socket bayonet, the British infantry perfected the massed bayonet charge during the European continental wars against France. While not perfecting it, the Russian army used the bayonet frequently during the Napoleonic wars. A Russian tactical precept coined by Russian General Alexander Suvorov was, “The bullet is foolish, the bayonet wise.” Given Russia’s often inadequately trained conscript armies and the use of inaccurate smoothbore muskets, Russian officers preferred to use the bayonet charge in lieu of musket volley fire whenever they could.
During the Korean War, a U.S. Army officer named Lewis Millet led his troops in a bayonet charge to take out a machine gun nest at the top of a hill. After joining two platoons at the base of the hill, he started up the slope while swinging his bayonet and throwing hand grenades. At the top, the hand-to-hand fight forced the enemy to retreat, and troops later dubbed the location Bayonet Hill. Officials awarded Millet the Medal of Honor for his bravery and subsequently cemented his place in history as the last man to lead a bayonet charge in the U.S. Army.
Overall, the bayonet declined in use over the course of the century as better accuracy and rates of fire made the bayonet charge historical military doctrine. However, many contemporary combat rifles retain a bayonet lug and commanders still use it as a weapon of last resort, as well as a training aid for increasing a soldier’s aggressiveness. I can’t imagine what it would feel like watching a wall of steel sprinting toward my position on a battlefield—let’s hope I never do!