Thoughts and Observations On The Use Of The Bayonet
(this ran in the 2002 Dec. Regimental Dispatch.)
By: R.W. Gregory

"If your bayonet breaks, strike with the stock; if the stock gives way, hit with your fists; if your fists are hurt, bite with your teeth." - Gen. Mikhail Dragomirov

“With the bayonet one can do anything.” Napoleon

"Close combat, man to man, is plainly to be regarded as the real basis of combat." - Carl Von Clausewitz

“We shall give them the bayonet.”-Stonewall Jackson

“For the Romans not only made a jest of those who fought with the edge of that weapon, they always found them an easy conquest.” –Vegetius

“Avance Avec La Baïonnette”-Advance with the bayonet-French Military command

“Un Debole Si Sente Mai Non Ha Baciato Un Maiale”-Old Italian saying

Several nights ago as of the writing of this article (August 11, 2002) I was watching on the Discovery Channel a documentary on United States MARINE CORPS Boot Camp. During the course of the program they showed recruits being taught bayonet fighting. I began to ponder the uses of the bayonet and its application in the American Civil War. I also wondered about the origins of bayonet drill and what it purpose it served.

The bayonet first made its appearance in the late 1500’s. With the invention of the matchlock, firearms were gradually replacing edged weapons; primarily the pike, on the battlefields of Europe. In a series of battles in the early 1500’s ; Swiss and Spanish pike formations that had previously dominated the battlefields were torn apart by disciplined volleys of matchlock wielding musketeers. The musket was soon to change the nature of warfare.

Despite their many advantages; matchlock muskets had several disadvantages that could be exploited on a battlefield. Matchlock muskets were slow to reload and in inclement weather almost impossible to fire. Musketeers could find themselves vulnerable to sudden rushes of pikes or sword wielding attackers.

In the 1590’s a short knife with a rounded handle began to appear in European armies. The rounded handle was jammed into the barrel and this “plug” bayonet (named for the town of Bayonne in France where they first appeared) was a great innovation. There were however two drawbacks to the new weapon. The first was that when the plug bayonet was inserted the musket could not be fired. A second drawback was with the coarsely ground powder in use at the time retained still burning embers for a considerable length of time. Unexploded gunpowder would smolder and when it exploded with the plug bayonet in place it would rupture the barrel.

Soon French engineers invented a ring type bayonet that fit onto the barrel allowing the musket to be fired when fitted to the muzzle. However this method left the bayonet rather loosely attached and it would fall off; leaving the musketeer embarrassingly “hors du combat.” Further experimentation led to the socket bayonet, which was securely attached to the musket.

Another problem with the early bayonet was the blade shape. The blade was shaped like a traditional knife and could be used in both slashing and thrusting attacks. However, the soft iron used in barrels of muskets caused the barrels to actually bend when the bayonet was used in a slashing attack. Thrusting techniques were encouraged and a new style bayonet blade was developed. The new shape; a long triangular or cruciform shape made thrusting attacks easier.

With a new weapon; new tactics had to be developed to exploit it advantages. The Dutch studied ancient texts on warfare and in particular “Tactics Of Aelian”; a circa 100 A.D. book that showed the tactics and drill of the Romans and the Greeks. Maurice of Nassau realized that rotating ranks of musketeers could provide the same type of continuous missile attack, as the Romans were able to achieve with their javelin throwers and slingers.

The Dutch with their long experience in warfare were considered the premier military thinkers of the day, much like the French later on and the Prussians after that. Dutch mercenary officers who had served during the wars of the Dutch revolt or the Lowland wars had developed a system for systematic training of an individual soldier. Relearning the lost skills of Classical armies from translation of Roman military manuals, they reorganized battle formations to make them more flexible. The most famous of these was Jacob de Gheyn’s drill book, Wapenhandelinghe van Roers Musquetten ende Spiessen (1607) or (in English) The Exercise of Armes.

Despite the advent of the socket bayonet; no new means of employing the bayonet was developed. De Gheyn’s drill book saw the bayoneted musket as merely another thrusting weapon essentially a variation of the pike. The pike; from its employment by Hellenic hoplites to its use on the battlefields of Europe was a weapon that pushes the combat back from sword fighting range. Soldiers armed with edged weapons cannot approach the pike wedge and despite the development of long two handed swords by German Landsknecht and other pole type weapons there was no way until the advent of gunpowder weapons to closely engage and break a pike formation.

Later editions of De Gheyn’s manual, along with French, Prussian and English manuals such as Humphrey Bland’s influential Treatise of Military Discipline[1], which was first, published in 1724 influenced later official British drill manuals and other European drill systems continued to treat the bayoneted musket as pole type thrusting weapon.

The early manuals gave no insight in to how to deploy the bayonet. In the manuals there were essentially two commands for the use of the bayonet. The first instructed the soldier to “Charge your bayonet breast high.” At this command the soldier turned to the right and raised his firelock to breast height. At the next command of “Push”, the soldier pushed on the butt of his firelock with his right hand and engaged his opponent.

There were some problems with this early form of bayonet usage. Unless the enemy was agreeable enough to put himself upon the bayonet there was not much that a commander could do to bring the bayonet effectively to the enemy.

The answer was found in the mid 1750’s. At about the same time the Prussians, French and English discovered a new way to deploy the bayonet. At the Charge bayonet command the infantryman while still facing front extended his right arm downward and balanced his musket at waist level. The soldier could now move forward relatively quickly and present the bayonet to the enemy line. This maneuver was quickly incorporated into various manuals.

In his privately published, A Plan Of Discipline Composed for the Use of the Militia of the County of Norfolk, William Windham included this method of deploying the bayonet. The English army in their 1764 regulations adopted Windham’s method. Arguing for his new method Windham stated, “By our method of charging the bayonet, a man is firm against any shock, and in guard; shall see occasion, or opportunity, to defend himself, or annoy his enemy, or to advance against him, if he should give way. We have given no word of command for pushing the bayonet, the motion being so natural, that one in action can scare avoid doing it properly.”[2]

These small improvements redefined the role of the infantryman. Offensively, it allowed the infantryman to move quickly across the battlefield. With some minor adjustments of tactical formations; for example the square, the role of cavalry on the battlefield was greatly reduced. Infantry can now close with their opposite numbers. Eighteenth century land warfare will emphasize the infantry-moving close enough to weaken the enemy formation with volley fire and then closing with a bayonet charge in hopes of sweeping their opponent off the field.

The bayonet defensively allows infantry to fix an opposing force in place. Prior to the mass introduction of rifled muskets which greatly increased the effective engagement range of an infantry unit; the combat effective range of a smoothbore musket was about 70 paces or roughly 100 yards. The normal rate of advance for infantry was 70 paces per minute give or take a few paces depending on the drill manual then in use.

This meant that the oncoming infantry if steady enough could cross the effective combat range in under a minute. If they could ignore the opposing volleys (usually two or three depending on the army) they could arrive with the other side having unloaded muskets. The fixed bayonet discouraged infantry charges on unloaded muskets.

With both sides fixed in place; the firefight would develop and then it was simply a matter of one side or the other then giving way. The bayonet kept one from closing the crucial distance during a moment in the firefight when the opposing forces muskets were unloaded.

Since the bayonet acted as a checking device; a way had to be found to counter it. Soon methods of fire control were developed; for example the British method of sectional or platoon firing or the Prussian method of “flicker fire.” Firing by rank also became more common as commanders sought ways to break the opposing line. Drill manuals of the period emphasized that three aimed shots per minute was the desired rate of fire. Until it became heavily fouled during sustained combat, the smoothbore musket was easily able to maintain this rate of fire or exceed it. Most British regiments of the Napoleonic wars were capable of four or even five shots a minute. This capability of putting out an almost horizontal sheet of fire on a continuous basis served to help break up an opposing line.

It is obvious that the bayonet is an effective adjunct to the smoothbore musket. It serves to help hold an opposing force in what is the effective firing range of the smoothbore musket, which is nominally 75-100 yards. Before we disparage the smoothbore musket let us consider that with the possible exceptions of the Roman short sword and the Mongol compound bow, there has been no more effective killer of men in the hands of the infantryman.

How were bayonet drill movements developed?

Most writers of manuals considered the musket with the bayonet attached as fourth type of fencing weapon; the other three being the saber, foil and epee. The sword type that most closely resembled the bayonet was the foil. The foil evolved in the mid sixteenth century as the practice weapon for the larger and heavier rapier. Fencing masters of this time frame were emphasizing the thrusting action of the smaller foil over the cutting action of larger blades.

As most military swords were still of the saber type with a heavy guard it was thought that the thrusting action of the bayonet along with it’s greater reach would give the bayonet user a significant advantage over his saber wielding opponent. The fencing foil has flexible rectangular blade, approximately 35 inches in length. The foil is a weapon that can make a quick strike but its drawback is that due to the narrow cross section of the blade it requires a deep thrust to inflict a mortal wound. The foil is actually in the target zone for a longer period than other weapons.

It has long been considered conventional wisdom that in edged weapon fighting; “The point beats the edge.” This philosophy was responsible for the basic design of a great many edged weapons; including the bayonet. For the Romans; with their Gladius Iberius short swords this was their preferred fighting method. The difference between the Roman legionnaire and a bayonet-wielding infantryman was that the Legionnaire was taught to make only a quick short stab of only a couple inches into the opponent’s body whereas the bayonet wielder was taught to make a deep thrust.

The deep thrust took longer to execute leaving the fencer somewhat more vulnerable to either a counter thrust or a thrust from an unengaged opponent. Although the Roman short sword was designed to stab an opponent; the design also allowed the user to use the edge to block an opponents slashing movement and allowing another legionnaire to engage the unprotected side of his opponent. Manuals had been previously published for training with the sword. A Treatise On The Art Of Fencing For the use of the Officers of the United States, dedicated to the officers of Virginia" by T De St Margueritte, privately printed in Winchester, Virginia in 1808 and Henry C. Wayne ‘s The Sword exercise Arranged for Military Instruction of 1850 are just a few examples. Various drill manuals such as Scott’s, had only the rudiments of how to employ the bayonet. These manuals addressed the use of the bayonet in the guard positions but not how to fight with the bayonet.

Prior to 1852, the United States Army had no official manual for using the bayonet in combat. However, a young captain of the engineers, George B. McClellan, translated Gomard’s Escrime a la Baionnette ou Ecole du Fantassin (Fencing with the bayonet from the School of the Infantryman). Gomard, a fencing instructor with an excellent reputation; in 1847 developed a bayonet manual based upon fencing with foil. The French army’s Chasseur De Pied regiment tested his techniques. The Chasseur De Pied were an elite unit whose main function in peacetime was to be “test bed” of advanced French military thought.

In the 1840’s the French began to experiment with an extended open order infantry formations. These formations were characterized by rapid forward movement utilizing a quick or double time pace or as the French called it the Pas Gymastique. These maneuvers were designed to rapidly move the troops into contact with the enemy where it was hoped that a quick firefight and then a bayonet charge would sweep the enemy away. It was hoped that “Furor Française” would provide the impetus for a successful bayonet charge. Gommard was asked to develop a bayonet manual that gave the infantryman some training in the use of the bayonet; and was easy to learn. Experimentation found that Gomard’s system was effective against cavalry whether the cavalryman was armed with saber, lance or sword. In the translation of the manual McClellan stated that one of the purposes of the manual besides providing exercise, “was to give the men great additional confidence in themselves and their weapon.”[3] General Winfield Scott recommended that McClellan’s translation become regulation and part of the system of instruction.A close examination of McClellan’s manual clearly shows that the intention was for use in an open order. The basic elements of defense and offense occupy a frontal position with a very narrow range of movement. This leaves the question of how do we reconcile a bayonet manual that requires open order for it’s use with our drill systems which require shoulder to shoulder alignment. Some thoughts on this and it’s implications a little a later on.

The bayonet is primarily a weapon of intimidation. In his book “Battle Studies, Ardant Du Picq stated “In modern battle, which is delivered with combatants so far apart; man has come to have a horror of man. He comes to hand-to-hand fighting only to defend his body as if forced to it. [i]

How does the Bayonet intimidate it’s foe’?

With the exception of knife fighting or actual hand-to-hand combat, there is no more direct and personal way to inflict death or die in combat than by the point of the bayonet. In his book: On Killing[ii], Colonel David Grossman contends that soldiers will rarely involve themselves in direct personal combat if can be avoided.

The opposing ranks may have withstood hours of artillery bombardment; and exchanges of musket fire and after enduring all this they have withstood the actuality of fear. Units that have undergone severe shock in combat are vulnerable to a perceived threat whether it is a prolonged bombardment or a bayonet charge. The bayonet is a weapon of intimidation. Most of it’s victories are when the opponent runs before the charge is carried home. The threat of the bayonet causes an irrational fear of being stabbed. This fear destroys the enemy’s will to fight and by destroying the will to fight, the ability to fight is also destroyed.

In Battle Tactics Of The Civil War, author Paddy Griffith concluded; “A great deal of misunderstanding has arisen from the fact that a bayonet charge could be highly effective even without any bayonet actually touching an enemy soldier much less killing him. One hundred percent of the casualties might be caused by musketry yet the bayonet will be the instrument of victory. This is because it’s purpose is not to kill soldiers but to disorganize regiments and win ground. It was the flourish of the bayonet and the determination in the eyes of it’s owner that on some occasions produced shock.”

For an example of this type of action we need look no further than the Official Records Series 1, Volume 31, Part 1 (Knoxville and Lookout Mountain) page 663 in the after action report for Mossy Creek Tennessee, by Report of Lieutenant Colonel Thomas L. Young, One hundred and eighteenth Ohio Infantry “…For this purpose I ordered the regiment to cease firing, fix bayonets, and shoulder arms. I then old the boys what I wanted them to do to crown the victory so gallantry won. We then charged out of the woods, and charged bayonets at double quick up the hill. The enemy preserved his line well until we got within about 100 yards of him; he then gave us a parting volley (by which I only lost 3 men), brake and fled in great disorder to the left, through the corn field and along the road into the woods and everywhere out of sight, so much faster than we could run that when we reached the op of the hill in our front I ordered the men to halt and lie down; it was vain to pursue any farther, as the rebel artillery on our left had ceased firing as soon as they saw our bayonets….”

Was the bayonet used in the Civil War?

Hardly ever according to some historians. A commonly cited statistic is that only 0.4% of all wounds was caused by the bayonet or other edged weapons.[4] This figure is based upon casualty returns of Union doctors. There are several problems with using this data to derive a conclusion. It assumes that the author has seen or is familiar with every single wound inflicted on both Union and Confederate during the course of the war.

It also makes the assumption that any person wounded with a bayonet is going to be treated by surgeon or doctor. By its very nature the use of the bayonet involves close combat and in these encounters there is rarely a survivor whose wound would need treatment. Bayonet struggles are almost always fatal to the loser.

The Civil War is notable for several savage battles in which free use was made of the bayonet. The 21st Virginia found itself engaged in a savage bayonet fight at Cedar Mountain. The Mule Shoe at Spotsylvania Court House, and The Crater are other examples of large-scale bayonet fights.

Let’s look at some examples of reports of bayonet fights.

Mention of a bayonet fight can be found in Brigadier General George A. McCall’s after action report on the Seven Day’s Campaign. In his report for the Battle of New Market Cross-Roads on the 30th June, 1862, McCall reported “….I had ridden into the regiment (Fourth) and endeavored to check them, but with only partial success. It was here my fortune to witness one of the fiercest bayonet fights that perhaps ever occurred on this continent. Bayonet wounds, mortal or slight, were given and received. I saw skulls crushed by the butts of muskets and every effort made by either party in this life or death struggle, proving here indeed Greek had met Greek.”[5]

The Berkshire (Massachusetts) Courier in it’s report on the Battle of Seven Pines stated “…that the brigades of Gen. Daniel E. Sickles, and Thomas Francis Meagher did some of the best fighting, and vied with each other in gallant deeds. Gen. McClellan stated that the bayonet charges of these two brigades were the most stubborn, sanguinary, and signal of modern times. Again and again they advanced with cold steel and were as vigorously met by the enemy. In one place on the field of carnage, three men were found on each side, that had fallen by mutual thrusts…”

At the Battle of Belmont Missouri, Leonidias K.Polk reported “..desperate by successful charges with the bayonet, driving back the enemy on his heavy reserves…”[6]

At Chancellorsville, the federals “..Silent and cool, with ranks well closed they rushed on without firing a shot, routed the enemy from behind the stone wall at the point of the bayonet…”[7]

Captain A. Hopkins of the 37th Massachusetts reporting on the fighting at Sailor’s creek “..We barely had time to face about when they charged us and a desperate hand to hand fight with swords, pistols and bayonets ensued. Several men were wounded with the bayonet…”[8]

In his Diary of the War, Robert S. Robertson gave the following account of Spotsylvania Court House”…The 26th Michigan was the first to reach the breastworks on as the line scaled the bank it was met by volley from close quarters and recoiled with fearful loss, but only for an instant, for we pushed on and the works were ours. The men, infuriated and wild with excitement went to work with bayonets and clubbed muskets and a scene of horror ensured for a few moments. It was the first time I had been in the midst of a hand to hand fight and seen men bayoneted, or their brains bashed out with the butt of a musket, and I wish never to see another such scene.”

Bayoneted muskets were also used as spears. In the fighting at the Bloody Angle at Spotsylvania Court House there are instances of a desperate infantryman standing up and throwing his musket like a spear. At the Battle of the Crater, many of Mahone’s men first fired their muskets and then hurled their empty muskets into the packed ranks below. Abandoned muskets were also used in this capacity.

The intimidation factor of the bayonet is amplified when its use is directed against poorly trained or troops with low morale. Hurriedly raised civilian levies or green troops in particular fit this scenario especially when facing soldiers skilled in the use of the bayonet or those whose reputation for ferocity in battle are well known.

Bayonets have been particularly effective in riots and crowd control situation. The participants in a riot are usually urban dwellers who have no intimate knowledge of or daily use of edged weapons; therefore they have an inordinate fear of the sight of a line of bayonet wielding troops. Also most instances of civil insurrection, the participants are loath to engage in close combat.

Figure 1. The caption on this illustration which appeared in 'Harper's Weekly' in November 1859 reads: "The Harper's Ferry Insurrection.--The U.S. Marines storming the Engine-House.--Insurgents firing through holes in the wall." Image Credit: Historic Photo Collection

The illustration above shows the Marines with bayonets fixed on their 1842 Springfield muskets. The Marines had fixed bayonets because they could not risk firing with hostages inside. Lieutenant Israel Green, who led the assault, attacked Brown with a dress sword he brought by mistake from Washington. The sword, which was never meant for combat, bent on Brown’s leather belt. Grasping the bent blade, Green knocked Brown unconscious with a blow to the head. The Marines wielding bayonets wounded two other followers of John Brown.

During the draft riots in New York City in 1863, it took the sight of bayonet armed regulars to disperse and control the rioters.

The Psychology of the Bayonet

What does it take to wield the bayonet in combat? To be most effective the bayonet charge must be delivered in an orderly manner. The men must arrive simultaneously so that the defenders do not get a chance to overwhelm the individual soldier. This implies a disciplined approach; an application of offensive spirit. Instead it is usually a release of intense emotion. The soldier whose has made it to the point of usage has overcome many obstacles.

There is a great deal of physical effort required to use the bayonet. The average height of an American Civil War soldier was 5’8-1/4” and he weighed approximately 143 pounds. He had to wield a musket that weighted eleven or more pounds tipped with 21 inches of steel. He would then have to plunge the bayonet into another soldier through layers of wool and leather. He had to do all of this while suffering the effects of heat or cold, and weakened by the lack of food or water.

Along with physical effort there is an enormous amount of psychological effort required to use a bayonet in combat. There are three main psychological factors in bayonet usage.

The first is overcome the reluctance to kill at close range. It is one thing to fire a musket at a distant target and see it fall. The other side is no longer a faceless target. At bayonet range, the soldier could look directly into the eyes of his opponent; he could hear the screams and perhaps be splashed with his foe’s blood. Secondly, with this reluctance to directly attack at close range, human instinct is to use other tools; such as the butt of the musket rather than an edged weapon. The final factor to overcome is not only the reluctance to use the bayonet but to overcome the fear of being stabbed yourself. Only when that fear is subdued are you willing to come to that intimate death dealing range.

The bayonet is a bridge that links the past and the present. When the bayonet is attached to the weapon, whether it be a 16th century matchlock, a Springfield musket or a M-16, it converts what is a state of the art weapon into a weapon that could have been carried by a Greek Hoplite or a footman of Medieval times.

The bayonet also serves as a serious psychological tool. When the bayonet is affixed to the weapon it affirms that the assault or defense is going to be a desperate affair. Prince Hohlerlon stated that “He who has not made up his mind to come at last to the bayonet can never win, for he can have no serious intention to assault.” Edward Costello, an officer in the British Expeditionary Force of the First World War, stated that “bayonets are vital for the moral effect on attacking troops.”


Bourke, Joanna An Intimate History of Killing London, Basic Books 1999

Coco, Gregory A The Civil War Infantryman: In Camp, On the March, And In Battle Gettysburg, Pa Thomas Publications, 1996

Davis, William C. The Illustrated History Of the Civil War Bramley Books, New York 1992

Griffith, Paddy Military Thought In The French Army 1815-1851 Manchester University Press Manchester UK 1989

Grossman, Dave On Killing, The Psychological Cost of Learning To Kill in War and Society Boston: Back Bay Books 1996

Hanson, Victor Davis Carnage and Culture-The Rise of Western Powers New York: Doubleday Books 2001

George B. McClellan Manual of Bayonet Exercise, J.B. Lippincott & Co. Philadelphia 1862

Parker, Geoffrey editor The Cambridge Illustrated History of Warfare Cambridge University Press 1995

US Army Field Manual 21-150, Combatives 1992

[1] Bland, Humphrey, Treatise of Military Discipline, London 1724

[2] Windham, William, A Plan Of Discipline Composed for the Use of the Militia of the County of Norfolk, London 1759

[3] Manual of Bayonet Exercise, George B. McClellan, J.B. Lippincott & Co. Philadelphia 1862

[4] Davis, William C. The Illustrated History Of the Civil War Bramley Books, New York, 1997

[5] Official Records Series 1 Volume 11, Part 2 (Peninsular Campaign) Page 391.

[6] Official Records Series 1, Volume 3 Part 1 Wilson’s Creek Campaign) page 322

[7] Official Records Series 1, Volume 41 Part 1 (Supplements) page 181

[8] Official Records, Series 1, Volume 46, Part 1 (Appomattox Campaign) page 946-947

[i] Du Picq, Ardant Battle Studies Telegraph Press Harrisburg PA 1946 Reprint

[ii] Grossman, David On Killing, The Psychological Cost of Learning To Kill in War and Society Boston: Back Bay Books 1996

596 visitors have been to this page.