Bayonets and Bayonet Attacks
Bayonets and Bayonet Attacks
BAYONETS AND BAYONET ATTACKS. The bayonet was the most common as well as the most important edged weapon in all armies during the War of Independence. Developed in France in the mid-seventeenth century to give infantrymen armed with muzzle-loading muskets an edged weapon to replace the pikes they had previously wielded, the first bayonet resembled a short knife or dagger. (The term reflects the bayonet's apparent origins in the French cutlery center of Bayonne.) Because it was inserted in the muzzle of the firearm, it was called a plug bayonet and effectively turned musketeers into spearmen by preventing them from reloading. A modified bayonet was developed, again in France, and came into widespread use by the end of the seventeenth century. This weapon featured a four-inch socket that fitted over the muzzle of the firearm and carried a blade more than a foot in length that was offset about two inches out of the path of the projectile. Reloading a muzzle-loading firearm with a socket bayonet in place was still a cumbersome task, but it was a vast improvement over being disarmed by the plug bayonet. Several systems were developed to secure the socket bayonet, most of which used a lug attached at the front of the barrel to guide the socket into place. Most bayonets used a slotted socket and locking ring, or a socket in which two slots were cut at right angles. The blades of most bayonets were triangular in cross section and designed for thrusting rather than cutting.
The bayonet played a vital role in the linear tactics of the period. The standard infantry firearm was a smoothbore musket, with which a well-trained infantryman could average an initial rate of fire of about three or four rounds per minute—a rate that dropped rapidly thereafter. Thus there was an increasing amount of time between volleys during which he would not be ready to fire his weapon. On top of the problem of rate of fire, a musket could not deliver aimed fire at much more than fifty yards, meaning an enemy could close for hand-to-hand combat before the infantryman could load and fire to stop him. The bayonet made both attack and defense in close combat more effective, and provided a weapon that could still be used if one's musket misfired or gunpowder was damp. If one side had bayonets and the other did not, the impact of a charge by bayonet could be devastating. British infantrymen, armed with seventeen-inch bayonets, were said to pray for rain so they could close with the enemy without receiving any volley fire, confident that their proficiency with the bayonet would overwhelm the opponent. Americans initially suffered a severe shortage of bayonets, and the states scrambled to fill the void with various patterns, from the eighteen-inch bayonets of Massachusetts and Virginia to the fourteen-inch bayonets of Connecticut.
Bayonets were especially important in night attacks, when they were used to retain surprise and reduce the risk of firing into friendly units by mistake. Soldiers would load their muskets but were not permitted to prime them, to prevent the loss of surprise by premature firing; then, if necessary, the commander could order his troops to complete this last step and open fire. Another technique was to load the musket, put in the priming charge, close the firing pan, and remove the flint. Major General Charles ("Noflint") Grey used it in his surprise attacks on Continental units at Paoli, Pennsylvania, on 21 September 1777, and at Tappan, New Jersey, on 28 September 1778. On both occasions Grey was accused of allowing atrocities—largely, it seems, because his attacks succeeded.
Neumann, George C. Battle Weapons of the American Revolution. Texarkana, Tex.: Surlock Publishing Company, 1998.
Peterson, Harold L. The Book of the Continental Soldier. Harrisburg, Penn.: Stackpole Books, 1968.
revised by Harold E. Selesky