The bayonet is such a familiar weapon that it comes as a surprise to remember that when it first appeared it helped revolutionise infantry warfare. When the bayonet first appeared most infantry forces contained two troops types – slow firing, vulnerable musketeers and pikemen, whose job was to protect them. The emergence of the bayonet meant that the pikemen were no longer needed and the entire infantry force could be armed with muskets while still being able to protect themselves if needed.
This book covers both the development of the bayonet and its use in combat. One of the biggest changes actually came early on, when the plug bayonet was replaced with the socket bayonet, which allowed the infantry to fire their weapons with the bayonet installed. After that the changes have been fairly minor – the shape of the blade or the method of attachments have changed, but the basic design is still the same. However there have been plenty of detailed changes, which are traced nicely here.
One minor area that could have been improved is the section on the various ways of firmly attaching a socket bayonet, where the text would have benefited from some diagrams or labelled photos to make it easier to understand the different systems.
I like the section on the bayonet at war, which the author splits into five periods. First comes the period in which the new weapon fairly rapidly replaced the pike, and thus changed the nature of infantry from a composite force (pike and shot) into a single force (musket with bayonet). Second is the 18th and early 19th centuries, where the bayonet charge was often the decisive moment in a battle – not because it led to much actual bayonet fighting, but because it completed the defeat of an already shaken opponent, often driving them off the battlefield. Third is the period when the rifle began to replace the smoothbore musket, but many commanders retained their faith in the bayonet (what you might call the ‘they don’t like it up’em’ period). This period saw firepower increase, and with it the human cost of a successful bayonet charge, until you reach the slaughter of the Trenches in 1914-18. Fourth is the period that included the Second World War, in which the massed bayonet charge was no longer seen as a useful tactic, but it still had some use in emergencies. Finally we reach the modern period, where the bayonet has become a handy tool, more useful as a knife than as anything else.
This is an excellent account of the development and use of one of the most significant weapons of modern warfare, one of the few items on the modern battlefield that would be genuinely familiar to a soldier from 1700.
Development – Blades for firearms
Use – The bayonet goes to war
Impact – The bayonet’s reach
Author: Bill Harriman