What is a Bayonet?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A bayonet is a blade which is designed to be fixed to the muzzle of a rifle. Classically, bayonets are used in close-quarters combat, when firing a rifle could be dangerous or inadvisable. The use of bayonets as practical military weapons is on the decline, although many militaries continue to issue them for morale reasons and for use as all-purpose knives and blades. There are a number of different designs, and some people collect various versions from around the world.

Charges with bayonets fixed attempted to dislodge entrenched soldiers during the First World War.
Charges with bayonets fixed attempted to dislodge entrenched soldiers during the First World War.

This weapon appears to have originated in Bayonne, France, a region famous for its cutlery. The first bayonets were issued in the 1600s, in a design known as the plug bayonet. These knives were actually fitted inside the barrel of the gun, making it impossible to fire, and they were designed primarily as a weapon of last resort. Later, armies began making and issuing socket bayonets, which fitted around rather than in the barrel, and modern bayonets are either permanently affixed, or attached to a sliding rail which will not interfere with the operation of the gun.

Bayonets can vary in length. The sword bayonet, a popular design, is long enough to double as a short sword when detached, although it can make handling the gun extremely difficult. Shorter versions are actually preferable and more effective, but they lack the symbolic power of a longer and more intimidating blade. Ceremonial blades fixed during special ceremonies may be longer because their owners do not need to worry about practicalities.

Charges with bayonets fixed do still occur in various regions of the world, although they reached their height during the trench warfare of the First World War. Soldiers are also given bayonet training so that they know how to use the blades if necessary. Full dress uniforms may include a fixed bayonet in some regions of the world, and soldiers are expected to keep their skills up in the event that the blades are called for.

While older bayonets tend to look more like swords, modern versions are similar to knives. Depending on the region, soldiers may have blades which can be used on an assortment of weapons or a particular family of guns, such as the American M-series, or specific blades may be developed for particular guns. In all cases, fitting the blade properly and quickly is crucial, as a badly-fixed bayonet can wobble, which is a very undesirable state of affairs.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


@cardsfan27 - I do not know. I would think that it is possible but I can also see beck then the armies simply just giving their soldiers rifles and bayonets and simply checking them off as receiving them.

I will say though that many people have a passion for collecting various bayonets and have always wondered why? It could be because bayonets are pretty neat looking weapons but I also have to wonder whether or not people collect bayonets because it is more difficult to collect rifles and guns used in battle due to the various gun laws that exist everywhere.


@jmc88 - I was at Gettysburg a few years ago and found a very rusty bayonet in the ground. The thing was very corroded but could obviously be recognized as a bayonet. Because off the federal laws about taking things found at battle sites I notified one of the people working there and they took it to their museum to be analyzed.

One question I had being a Civil War buff was whether or not they could somehow trace the bayonet to the particular soldier. I figure that it could be a long shot but I wonder whether or not the armies on both sides catelogued who took which bayonets and rifles considering that most army equipment has issue numbers.


@jmc88 - That is a very interesting story and do not at all doubt that has happened in numerous wars over the years, not just the Civil War.

Going along with your comment on bayonets being simple wonders in weaponry I know that back in the Civil War they put high emphasis on bayonet battle and hand to hand combat. The bayonet was the last line of defense and when someone is charging in a battlefield a rifle is virtually useless so that is where the bayonet comes into play.

The best part about the simplicity of the bayonet is that the rifle it is attached to can be used as a two edged weapon. The person with the rifle attached to the bayonet can either stab the person with the affixed bayonet or bash their adversary with the butt of their rifle. Add in an additional shot in the rifle, now you have one deadly weapon in a soldiers hands.


I went to Gettysburg last summer and saw a display of bayonets in the museum. These things are simple wonders in weaponry.

The ones I saw in Gettysburg were not permanently affixed to the gun, but rather could be taken off. As a history buff I have heard stories that in the the heat of the battle when soldiers rifles malfunctioned and they had nowhere to go in the battlefield they simply pulled off their bayonets and used it as a mini sword and fought their way back to safe ground.


@strawCake - Maybe bayonets aren't practical now, but I know they were widely used in the past, like the article said. I actually saw a few bayonets displayed in a museum awhile back, and let me tell you, those things are no joke!

The ones I saw looked very frightening. They were sharp, and permanently affixed to the gun. I wouldn't want to have to face one of those in close quarter combat!


A bayonet just doesn't seem like it's a very practical weapon these days. I mean, I guess if you're engaged in close quarter combat it might make sense.

But unless it was already affixed to your gun, it seems like it might take too much time to set it up. If you're already fighting in close quarters, it might be too late!

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