The Plug Bayonet

In the early 17th Century the matchlock musket was a cumbersome, slow loading weapon and the musketeers required the protection of soldiers carrying long, wooden-shafted pikes to shield them from enemy cavalry and footsoldiers during the lengthy reloading process.  As the century progressed, more emphasis began to be placed on the use of the musket as a primary weapon of the common soldier and as a result, the pike was gradually phased out.

In former times, the usual practice when engaging at close quarters was to fire the musket and then follow the pikemen as they closed on the enemy wielding the musket as if it were a club.  A sword or long knife was also carried as a secondary weapon.  The use of the gun in this way was far from effective and the idea was hit upon to jam the tapered handle of a belt knife in to the muzzle, temporarily converting the musket to a short pike.  This "plug bayonet" produced a far more effective weapon than the clubbed musket and in time removed the need for large numbers of pikemen. 
The term "bayonet" is thought to have derived from the French town of Bayonne, famous for its cutlers and may have originally referred to a type of long knife or dagger which was carried by soldiers of the time.

Plug Bayonet
The obvious disadvantage of the plug bayonet is that once fixed, the gun cannot be fired until the bayonet is removed. 
In the late 17th Century experiments were carried out to address this problem and the short- lived "ring bayonet" was born.  This was affixed to the barrel by two rings, but seems not to have found favour and was replaced shortly after by 
the socket bayonet - a pattern which would last until after WWII.
The Socket Bayonet

The socket bayonet  first appears in the ranks of the French army  in the 1670ís and afterwards came into general use throughout Europe.  The standard form of the socket bayonet comprised a short steel tube 3-4 inches long fitting over the barrel of the musket on to which was welded a steel blade.  The socket is then  locked on to the muzzle by means of a "zig-zag" slot which engages with the foresight stud. This innovation would now allow the musket to be fired and reloaded without removing the bayonet.

French Socket Bayonet - attached
Initially, many fanciful knife and sword type blades were attached to the socket, until around 1715 when the familiar triangular section blades were introduced as the new standard pattern.
At the start 18th Century there still seemed to be very little uniformity in the weapons carried by the common soldier and the external diameter of musket barrels could vary greatly.  In the days of the plug-bayonet this was not a problem as the tapering handle meant that "one size fits all". However, in order to fit, the socket bayonet had to be matched more accurately to the barrel diameter. 

Skennerton - British and Commonwealth Bayonets      An early remedy to this was the split-socket bayonet where a
     longitudinal split was made down the socket allowing the
     diameter to be adjusted to fit any barrel. This must have reduced
     the structural strength of the weapon considerably and they
     appear to have had a relatively short life, possibly due in Britain
     to the introduction of the more uniform "Brown Bess" musket as
     the standard issue weapon of the British soldier from c.1725.
With this design established, the form of the socket bayonet was to remain almost unchanged for the next 150 years - the minor variations which did occur worldwide were mainly to the method of securing the socket to the barrel. Some early sockets were fitted with a leaf spring to help lock the bayonet to the foresight stud, whilst several different springs and catches on the guns themselves came and went during the 19th Century.  One of the most effective methods of retaining the bayonet appears to have been the twisting locking-ring which is found on sockets of many different countries throughout the 19th Century. 
Wilkinson-Latham - Antique Weapons and Armour
As previously mentioned, the socket bayonet was still in use well in to the first half of the 20th Century - during WWII the Russian troops were armed with a socket bayonet for the Mosin-Nagent rifle and even the British had the No.4 Spike bayonet (although contemporary accounts seem to suggest that this was chiefly used to open tins of milk rather than as a weapon of war....)

For more details on the evolution of Commonwealth socket bayonets I would recommend the reader to consult Skennerton & Richardsonís excellent and detailed work "British & Commonwealth Bayonets". 
(See Bibliography)


Beyond Sockets

In 1800 the British army established the Corps of Riflemen (later to become the 95th Rifle Regiment) drawn from existing Line Regiments. This new Corps were to be  issued with a new weapon, the Baker rifled musket.  This rifle, based on those carried by German Jaeger troops was issued with a bayonet which, although it did not replace the socket, was to start a new trend in bayonets that would last for the next 100 years. 

Baker Rifle and Bayonet - Wilkinson-Latham - Antique Guns in Colour
    Baker Rifle & Bayonet  c.1800
The Pattern 1800 Baker Sword bayonet had a flat, unfullered 24 inch blade, ribbed brass grips, a brass knuckle-guard and was carried in a leather and brass scabbard.  The means of attachment of this bayonet was a bar brazed to the barrel which engaged with a mortise slot on the hilt of the bayonet and was held in place by a sprung locking bolt operated by a press-stud. This method (with some modifications) was later to be adopted almost universally for the attachment of bayonets.
Contemporary accounts show that it was very popular with Riflemen and aside from its status value was particularly useful for wood and brush-cutting, a task for which many later sword bayonets were destined
The Baker bayonet was, to all intents and purposes, a sword with all the romantic associations of that weapon. With the rise of the many patriotically inspired volunteer regiments in the early 19th Century, it is not surprising that such sword bayonets, often worn while off duty were more appealing to such soldiers than the workaday, but possibly more efficient socket bayonets. Over the course of the century, sword bayonets were often used as symbols of status and rank, being especially popular with those ranks not normally permitted to wear a sword.  Many, particularly the early volunteer weapons, were elaborate pieces that although decorative must have been quite impractical in there primary function
as bayonets.
Wilkinson-Latham - Antique Weapons and Armour
   Napoleonic Volunteer Baker 
   Rifle Bayone
As the British committee set up to modernise the British cavalry sword eventually discovered in 1906,  the most serious wounds can be inflicted with a thrusting stroke using a slim, rigid blade - a form which is embodied by the triangular and cruciform bladed socket bayonets. This being the case, sword bayonets which vary from this pattern having thicker, single edged blades are a compromise. Their efficiency as a thrusting weapon is reduced whilst at the same time are impractically short and unwieldy to be used as swords.
However, there interest to collectors is unquestionable. They show, not only a higher degree of craftsmanship than their socket cousins, but may I suggest that they are also more interesting to the beginner.  If you do not have long experience of identifying the tiny variations in the socket bayonet you are often hard pressed to tell which century a piece is from, let alone the country of origin!
Before leaving the sword bayonet, mention must be made of the so called "Yataghan" bayonets such as that for the famous 1866 "Chassepot" rifle. These will be the most common 19th century pattern encountered by collectors.  The first of this type, based on the Turkish recurved  yataghan was introduced by France in 1840 to NCOs and this shape quickly spread throughout the rest of Europe and the Americas.  The first British yataghan bayonet, the brass gripped  P1853 Artillery was an almost identical copy of the French 1842 model.


A Selection of Yataghan Bayonets

Top:       American yataghan c.1865
Middle:  British P1856 Artillery bayonet
Bottom:  French M1842 bayonet

Wilkinson-Latham - Antique Weapons and Armour
The Knife Bayonet

Towards the end of the 19th Century military fashions once again began to change and the long elaborate sword type bayonets began to give way to a shorter, easier to handle knife-type. This type with wooden grips and usually a metal scabbard quickly became the standard which has lasted to the current day.
There are a couple of contenders for the earliest actual knife bayonet (as opposed to shortened sword bayonets) The most commonly quoted is the German 1871/84 pattern issued in 1886, however an earlier example could be the United States M1861 "Dahlgren". This was a short brass and wood gripped bowie-bladed bayonet for the 1876 Navy rifle, reputed to have been designed by Admiral John Dahlgren.

Stephens - The Collector's Pictorial Book of Bayonets JL Janzen - Bayonets From Janzen's Notebook
The change to the short knife was by no means immediate or universal, many long sword and sockets continued in use, particularly on the shorter carbine weapons which have tended to have longer bayonets to make up the length. An example of this is the P1879 for the Martini Henry Artillery Carbine which is a magnificent sword bayonet over 31 inches long.
Unusual Bayonets

The evolution of the bayonet has by no means been a linear progression over time as the brief history above might suggest.  The different types of bayonet existed side by side and many variations on the theme have been tried over the years - some which were practical but were never widely produced and some which were quite bizarre. 

An example of the latter has to be the privately produced 1916 Pritchard pistol bayonet. Manufactured by WW Greener, this was a short brass-hilted affair utilising a cut-down French Gras bayonet blade and was meant to attach to the Webley mark IV revolver. The idea of a bayonet on a pistol was not new but was probably as ineffective in WWI as it was in the 18th Century.  Only around 200 of these were ever produced as private purchases. Pritchard Bayonet : Skennerton - British and Commonwealth Bayonets
American Model 1873 trowel bayonet 

As its name suggests, the shape is that of a mason's trowel and was envisaged as doubling as an entrenching tool.  The idea never caught on and issue of the piece was limited. 

Stephens - Collector's Pictorial Book of Bayonets
Cutlass Bayonets  -  The British Naval Pattern 1859 was the first of the "cutlass" bayonets and were intended to do away with the necessity of a separate boarding cutlass.  Initially these were long, heavy, slightly curved unfullered blades with sheet steel bowl guards, although later patterns were lightened and straightened.  In 1871 they were converted for use with the Martini Henry rifle and were to be the basis of the aforementioned P1879 Artillery Carbine sword bayonet. Wilkinson-Latham - Antique Weapons and Armour
Ramrod Bayonets  -  Several patterns of these misleading named bayonet (the rifles were breech loading) were produced in the United States between 1882 to 1903 for the Springfield rifle.  When not in use the bayonet slides into the stock of the rifle and is held in place with a spring-clip. The pattern however is older, having been used on the M 1833 Musketoon. Stephens - Collectors Pictorial Book of Bayonets
Practice Bayonets Occasionally you may come across a bayonet which has a dull blade and a ball, disk or rough blob of metal in place of the sharp tip.  This will almost certainly be a practice bayonet used to train soldiers in the art of bayonet fencing whilst reducing injuries.  In some cases, rather than a dedicated practice bayonet, old stocks of bayonets were blunted and had the tips rounded off for use in bayonet drill or fencing practice.
The Future

The bayonet in all its forms must represent one the most primitive of weapons - a sharp object mounted on a shaft to gain extra reach than could be had by holding a blade in the hand. 
Even in the 21st century when the flint blades of our aboriginal ancestors have been replaced by vanadium steel and battles are conducted at ranges measured in miles rather than yards, the bayonet still has a place as the last-ditch weapon of almost all armies of the world.  Almost all assault rifles produced today still have provision for a bayonet.

As long as men carry long arms to battle, the bayonet will more than likely be carried with them.

John Whittle

[References & Bibliography]