An Introduction to Training in Rifle-Bayonet Fighting in the US Military

Journal of Non-lethal Combatives, November 1999

by Joseph R. Svinth 
Copyright © 1999 All rights reserved.

 During the 1590s the Republican Dutch started developing military musket drills. Mostly a form of industrial safety accidental discharges pose a serious threat to closely- packed ranks of armed men -- the Dutch taught their methods using rote patterns that were, in Japanese terms, kata,  or forms. Although I have not found anything to show that the Dutch developments were linked to simultaneous Japanese developments, they could have been, as the Dutch were regular visitors to Nagasaki as early as the 1590s, and were providing the Satsuma clan with cavalry and gunnery instructors as late as 1649.

 Be that as it may, bayonets started appearing on French and Spanish muskets during the 1580s or 1590s. These little knives were used mostly by grenadiers, men whose job involved throwing bombs at enemy cavalry, thus scaring their horses. Since the grenadiers were not superhuman, they could not carry pikes, muskets, and grenades all at once. Therefore they stuck their knives into the bores of discharged weapons, and used them as makeshift pikes.  Of course, plugging the bores sometimes caused still- charged weapons to cook-off and burst, thus injuring their carriers. To overcome this problem, the French tried ring bayonets, but as these tended to fall off when the weapon was turned upside down, they were never popular with the troops. Experimentation continued, and around 1678 French engineers solved the problem by inventing the socket bayonet. As military muskets manufactured after 1690 always contained the appropriate mounting brackets, the socket bayonet's musket-mounted locking lugs probably helped convince eighteenth century European armies to re-equip with flintlock muskets.

 During the eighteenth century bayonet training continued to be mostly a form of industrial safety.  Most soldiers drank a gallon of beer or wine a day, and fought and moved in closely packed squares. Unsurprisingly, accidents were common and considerable effort was expended to keep soldiers from cutting, sticking, or shooting one another.

 Eighteenth-century musketry training was equally rudimentary. Mostly this was cost: governments preferred spending money on pretty uniforms to spending money on powder and shot. But also it had to do with safety. First, the flash from a  flintlock's pan was so fearsome that soldiers were taught to close their eyes and turn their heads away to prevent eye injuries. Second, not all accidental shootings on the battlefield are accidental, and for the safety of officers and NCOs, supply sergeants only issued ball and powder after ranks had been formed and the enemy sighted. So, despite stories of Daniel Boone shooting the heads off squirrels, most European armies considered it good shooting if a battalion could consistently put half its shots into a target six feet high and a hundred feet long from a range of fifty yards.

 Hunters were obviously unimpressed with such shooting, and obtained far more accurate rifled weapons for personal use. Eighteenth century Swiss rifles and their American cousins could easily put five bullets into a two-inch group at 100 yards, and hit a horse at 400 yards. Several German princes organized rifle companies (known as Jäger, or hunters) during the late eighteenth century, and several units armed with these weapons were fielded by Hessians and British during the American Revolution. Still, the British did not begin seriously experimenting with rifled muskets until after the American War.  Supposedly this was because rifles were slower to reload than muskets, and harder to clean. But this wasn't true, as good shooters could fire up to four shots per minute using the military rifles of the 1770s. Furthermore, rifles required no more cleaning than any other black powder firearm. So more likely reasons involved their butt- stocks being too fragile to use for butt-stroking, which was the way most soldiers used (and according to most accounts, still use) their weapons during close combat.

 Following the Napoleonic Wars many people started thinking that training in close-quarter combat would provide soldiers with training in self-defense at the same time as it provided them with needed physical conditioning. At the Swedish Royal Central Institute of Gymnastics, for example, a reserve officer named Pehr Ling taught officer cadets to fence with sword and musket, and in 1836 he even published a text on the subject of bayonet fencing.

 For Ling, sticking the bayonet deep into the target was seen as critically important. Why? For one thing, as a trained European fencer, Ling was a firm believer in the theory that thrusting was better than slashing. Equally importantly, thrusting resulted in fewer damaged rifles. (The standard bayonet target was a hank of rope or bundle of straw hung from a crossbeam. If soldiers clubbed these targets, then they risked damaging the firing mechanisms, stocks, and barrels of their weapons.) And of course that appealed to everyone with an interest in the budget.

 Mass training in rifle-bayonet fighting developed throughout the late nineteenth century, and was in part due to the development of centrally-administered and managed training depots. Originally, the British and the Japanese were the main proponents of rifle-bayonet fencing. While the Japanese turned to their own martial art traditions for fighting methods, the British turned to a Florentine system designed by Ferdinando Masiello. Masiello stressed form over function, and originally the British rifle-bayonet fencers weren't even allowed to shout or trip while attacking.  Then, in 1904, a Japanese Army rifle-bayonet fencing team that kicked, shouted, and screamed trounced a Royal Marine team in Shanghai. After that, some noise was allowed. Nevertheless, silent displays of choreographed fencing always impressed watching politicians.

 In 1917 the US military adopted the British system of rifle-bayonet fencing. As individuals, most Americans found they liked .45 automatics better than bayonets, and as a result the main use of bayonets by American soldiers during World War I was the opening of cans and boxes.
 Between the wars, the bayoneted rifles were sometimes used to awe strikers. Here, though, their value was limited, as when soldiers were issued rifles and bayonets but no ammunition, then the strikers would often beat up the soldiers and take their weapons. See, for example, the Tacoma strikes of the 1930s.

 During World War II the Detroit journalist and Army historian S.L.A. Marshall found only a couple of documented uses of Americans using their rifle-bayonet combination in combat and all of those involved soldiers killing unarmed prisoners.

 In Korea, the Turks reportedly used bayonets against the Chinese, but upon investigation one quickly discovers those were based on press releases rather than objective descriptions of Turkish military operations. (As the British learned at Gallipolli, the Turkish army actually preferred machine guns to bayonets for breaking up human wave attacks.)

 During the Vietnam and post-Vietnam eras, the US military generally kept bayonets in supply rooms rather than barracks, and issued them mostly for special occasions such as parades or riot control training. During the Vietnam era, the reason was fear that troops would use the knives against one another during interracial brawls. Since the 1980s, however, the main reason has been the fear that soldiers would lose or steal the little knives. Which is not as silly as it may sound, either, as the replacement cost of an M-7 bayonet is about $100, and the paperwork involved is enormous.

 John Styer's Cold Steel (1952) shows how to use the rifle-bayonet combination attached to an M-1 rifle. To see the same system modified for use with an M-16 rifle, see US Army Field Manual 21-150, Combatives, 1992, bin/atdl.dll/fm/21-150/toc.htm.  In my opinion, if the average US soldier were to try the methods shown against someone trained in Filipino, medieval European, or Japanese staff fighting he would end up hurt, and if he tried them in combat against an opponent armed with an assault rifle he would probably end up dead.

 One possible problem of the current US rifle-bayonet training program is that it encourages soldiers to ram the bayonet too deep into the target. If lethality is the goal, then a two-inch deep slash across the stomach or throat is just as lethal as a bayonet rammed up to the hilt. More importantly it is also easier to remove and therefore employ against subsequent opponents. However, if the main purpose of the rifle-bayonet training is not lethality but simply to increase the individual soldier's self-confidence and aggressiveness, then by all means encourage trainees to ram the things home to the hilt.

 From a riot control standpoint, bayoneted rifles retain considerable intimidation value, especially in cultures such as the North American where swords and machetes are seen more than used. On the other hand, in countries where everyone openly carries knives or machetes, then the American soldiers' obvious unfamiliarity with edged weapons is often cause for amusement. Commanders therefore should consider the psychology of both troops and rioters when ordering mission-specific outfitting.

 For what it's worth, it is my opinion that during peacekeeping operations US commanders should consider equipping their soldiers with riot batons, shields, and chemical weapons rather than unloaded assault rifles tipped with fixed bayonets. Why? First, an M16A2 is an expensive, fragile, and clumsy pike. Second, if the rifle is taken away from the soldier, then the other fellows merely need to add some easily obtained 5.56mm ball ammunition to have  a weapon considerably more lethal than a bayonet. Third, fixed bayonets are more likely to cause fatal injuries than are batons and chemical weapons. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, they are less likely to arouse complaints from sensitive television viewers. Either way, snipers and heavily-armed assault teams supported by helicopters and armored vehicles must be instantly available to support the essentially unarmed peacekeepers, otherwise they are nothing more than moving targets.

 It is also my belief that in most combat situations US soldiers would be better off carrying an extra canteen of water or an extra 30-round magazine for their M-16. The reason is that the current issue bayonet weighs over a pound and does not open cans as well as a Swiss Army knife weighing less than an ounce. Canteens meanwhile help prevent heat injuries while thirty more rounds of 5.56mm ball per man should prevent any need for bayonet fighting.

 Structurally, the commonly-voiced argument that combat infantry sometimes run out of ammunition is reflective mostly of people failing to understand or properly use existing supply channels. So, if instead of awarding medals to people who bayonet-fight their way out of tight situations, we court-martialed the commanders, senior NCOs, and logisticians who allowed the situation to come to that there should be far fewer cases of deployed infantry running short of ammunition, food, and water. (The push-pack is a logistical concept dating to at least World War II, and if commanders haven't heard of it by now, they deserve to be fired for incompetence.)

 Training with pugil sticks remains worthwhile, however, provided it is properly supervised and trained first aid providers are on hand. Descriptions of pugil stick training are provided in FM 21-150.

JNC Nov 1999.