Bayonet History and Drill, Circa 1861

For much of the 20th Century, squad drill was the bugbear of visionary firearms designers. Great emphasis was placed by the using services on the training maneuvers and positions that had been developed in the previous century, but which were rapidly becoming irrelevant.

The reason there was such emphasis on drill in the 20th Century was due to their importance in the 19th. To help get a sense of why, it helps to look at the 19th Century drills themselves. The YouTube channel britishmuzzleloaders has a very thorough overview of British bayonet drill from the twilight of the muzzle-loading era, the 1860s, including reenactment of the drill in full Highland Regiment uniform:

Today, these sorts of exercises are easy to dismiss as quaint or silly, but in the past they were the foundation of an effective fighting force. Ever since the Roman era, and until the invention of modern communications and weapons technology, the supremacy of the well-disciplined unit was recognized, and these drills were essential to the creation of a disciplined body of men that could fight together as a unit in the face of pike or horse.

In modernity, discipline is built in other ways, and while unit cohesion and discipline is still key to an effective fighting force, its overwhelming importance has been reduced due to the more fast-paced nature of technological development that characterized warfare from the late 19th Century onwards. The nature of infantry combat, too, changed, and bayonet is no longer being taught at all to the troops of the major powers (though the bayonet as a weapon still should not be entirely discounted).

H/T, Historical Firearms blog

Nathaniel F

Nathaniel is a history enthusiast and firearms hobbyist whose primary interest lies in military small arms technological developments beginning with the smokeless powder era. In addition to contributing to The Firearm Blog, he runs 196,800 Revolutions Per Minute, a blog devoted to modern small arms design and theory. He is also the author of the original web serial Heartblood, which is being updated and edited regularly. He can be reached via email at


  • Zebra Dun

    No slashes I guess with a socket bayonet.
    I wonder when the bayonet slash and butt strokes came into being?

    • Canadian Vet

      Seems to me it has more to do with the blade section than the socket design. With a spike or triangular section bayonet, you lack the ability to have effective sharp edges and it is primarily a thrusting weapon. However, while buttstrokes might or might not have been part of the manuals, they were likely used as a strike of opportunity, only codified later when their use was observed as being widespread in the field.

      Slashes, however, would have likely been added with the advent of sword bayonets as they would present an obvious and effective edge.

      Please note, I am no expert in the matter, just stating my opinion.

      • The_Champ

        I seem to recall L. Col Dave Grossman offered some anecdotal evidence in one of his books of soldiers being reluctant to stab another human being, and therefore being more likely to butt stroke or club them with their rifles.

        • Zebra Dun

          I’ve read of this pertaining to the War between the States where the number of bayonet wounds and deaths was minimal compared to clubbing with rifle buttstocks and just plain fisticuffs.
          Bayonets being used mostly to fend off cavalry and to put flight to routed enemy.

      • Zebra Dun

        As in hooks and such as opposed to Jabs in Boxing maybe.

    • Grindstone50k

      Spike bayonets were originally intended to replace the need to have pikemen mixed among the musketeers, primarily for defense against cavalry charge. Even though the early plug bayonet had some edge to it, it was still primarily intended to be used in a spear-like fashion. In a fight, slashing tended to be less reliable than stabbing at incapacitating an enemy, especially if that enemy wore armor (yes, armor was worn by some units into the 19th century and beyond). Plus the formations held the men in tight quarters, making swinging your weapon around a risky business. Sticking to a stabbing motion kept the business end pointed toward the enemy, both for melee and for ranged use.

    • RealitiCzech

      Stabbing kills much better than slashing. See the evolution of swords from medieval to modern times to see how that information impacted designs. The butt stroke is the ‘less lethal’ option.

  • ChristianC

    Very enjoyable video. Thanks TFB.

    • Head on over to britishmuzzleloaders and subscribe if you liked it!

  • Bal256

    I love bayonets. I have one for every weapon I have that can mount one, even if I don’t foresee myself ever using it. A kabar on my mossberg 590 makes me feel very secure at night.

    • Canadian Vet

      Bayonets still have a very real place in modern combat, if only in a psychological edge capacity. Those Highlanders in Iraq must have scared the living crap out out of the insurgents when they closed in with bayonets fixed.

      I also know of a case in Afghanistan where a British platoon would fix bayonets as a SOP before going on patrol as a means to boost confidence. Turns out, their Lieutenant who had never intended to use his bayonet stumbled in a machine gun crew while they were under contact in a cannabis field (if memory serves) as they were reloading and his rifle failed so he engaged with his bayonet with grear success.

      Mind you, those are exceptions. But the modern iterations, which are a utility knife sometimes with a wire-cutter functiinality when combined with the scabbard, are no longer a primary weapon of war as they used to be.

  • Alex Nicolin

    Fixing bayonets to short rifles, around 80-85 cm like the M4 or L85A2 is not that useful, since they don’t extend much further than the outstretched arm in two handed attack. Modern rifles also tend to be more fragile, being build for intermediate cartridges like the 5.56x45mm, and hitting hard with a bayonet may deform the barrel or receiver enough to have an impact on accuracy.

    • I think the bayonet’s relevance is more as a field tool and marshalling weapon. If you have to herd civilians or POWs (which is one of the many duties of the soldier), it helps to have something pointy.

      As well, I think the fragileness of modern rifles has been overstated. I’ve done buttstroking tests with my AR-15, and didn’t find it to be a very weak rifle structurally. Just being built for a smaller round doesn’t make the weapon more fragile, in fact the barrels of many 5.56mm and 5.45mm rifles are thicker and stronger than their larger-caliber counterparts.

      Clearly, the example I linked in the article shows that, while far from ideal for bayonet fighting, even bullpups can be used effectively as a bayonet handle.

  • Zebra Dun

    The bayonet in riot control was to prevent a rioter from grabbing the Troops rifles, perhaps in CQB the use is the same.