Learning More About Bayonets & Their History Part I
The Bayonet: Its History And Evolution Part I
The matchlock musket became an increasingly popular weapon of war in the early 17th century. Because the loading process was slow and cumbersome, musketeers needed to be defended from enemies (particularly cavalry) by heavy contingents of pikemen. Over the course of the century, the use of pikes was gradually phased out, and the bayonet played a vital role in this development.
Originally, musketeers who found themselves in close quarters combat suffered a significant disadvantage. While heavy, the matchlock made a poor club, and so most soldiers armed with muskets also carried swords or long knives to defend themselves. Military science took a significant step forward when soldiers discovered that a belt knife with a tapered handle could be rammed down the muzzle of the musket, producing a makeshift hybrid that duplicated the function of a short pike. This was the plug bayonet, and it provided musketeers with the ability to defend themselves without pikemen.
The origins of the word "bayonet" are not known for certain, but most scholars agree that it was likely taken from the French city of Bayonne. Home to many noted knife-makers, Bayonne may have lent its name to the original daggers which became the first plug bayonets. The name has stuck, and even today bayonets are available from the same places where consumers can buy guns online.
While they represented a significant leap forward, plug bayonets also came with an obvious problem: They rendered muskets useless as firearms while they were installed. The earliest solution, appearing at the end of the 17th century, was the so-called "ring" bayonet that linked a blade to the musket with two rings.
The French Army pioneered a superior replacement in the 1670s: the socket bayonet. Soon spreading throughout Europe, the socket bayonet took the form of a blade attached to a three-to-four-inch tube which fit over the musket's barrel. The bayonet's tube includes a "zig-zag" slot which engages with a stud on the musket to lock it in place. The key advantage of the socket bayonet is that the attached blade offers minimal interference to the loading and firing of the musket.
During its early years, the socket bayonet displayed a wide range of fanciful blade styles. These replicated combat knives and even swords. By 1715, though, bayonet styles in most European armies had gravitated toward a standardized triangular section.
One challenge to standardization in the early 18th century was the relatively wide variation in barrel thickness between individual muskets. This had not been a problem for plug bayonets, as a tapered handle could fit a wide range of different muzzles. Socket bayonets were a different story; they required a much closer fit to the exterior diameter of the barrel.
One early fix for this problem was the split-socket bayonet. In these designs, a lengthwise opening was left in the socket so that a bayonet could be adjusted to fit a wider range of different barrels. This was a stopgap solution at best, as the split in the socket significantly weakened the connection and made the bayonet-equipped musket a weaker melee weapon.
This problem was overcome by increasing standardization in muskets rather than by adjusting the design of the bayonet any further. The British Army, for example, introduced the consistent "Brown Bess" musket as its primary weapon from 1725 onwards. Once the range of different barrels that might be encountered narrowed, it was far easier to issue a single model of a bayonet to large bodies of troops.
The socket bayonet went on to have a worldwide career that lasted more than 150 years. Minor design innovations were introduced, primarily seeking to make operation easier or the connection to the firearm more secure. Early socket bayonets sometimes included a leaf spring to lock them in place; other designs in the 19th century offered a variety of catches and springs on the firearms themselves. The most effective and widespread locking system in the 19th century was the twisting locking ring, utilized in the armies of many different nations. This design offered a secondary mechanism the locked the bayonet in place once it was securely installed on a rifle.
The reign of the socket bayonet lasted all the way to the 20th century and even up to the Second World War. The Russian Army in the WWII era issued socket bayonets for its soldiers' venerable Mosin-Nagant rifles. Even the British Army retained the No. 4 spike bayonet through WWII. (Anecdotal evidence from British soldiers does suggest that these saw more use as can openers than combat weapons.)