Fix Bayonets! Posted November 23, 2022 Throughout Fort Mackinac’s military history, British and American soldiers were issued bayonets to complement their shoulder arms. Bayonets allowed a firearm to double as a stabbing weapon and a pike. Additionally, soldiers advancing with fixed bayonets could be a powerful psychological weapon, frightening the enemy into fleeing before contact. By the 1880s, however, bayonets had lost much of their tactical usefulness. Nonetheless, American soldiers stationed at Fort Mackinac and elsewhere continued carrying these secondary weapons, and the bayonets of the late 19th century reflect an interesting time of transition for the U.S. Army. When the army adopted the new Springfield .45-70 rifle in 1873, a new bayonet came with it. Featuring an 18-inch long triangular blade, the Model 1873 bayonet utilized a rotating clasp to lock onto the front sight at the muzzle end of the gun barrel. From 1873 to 1878, bayonets were specifically produced for use with the new rifles. However, officials in the War Department, always eager for ways to reduce costs, realized that the government still had large stocks of surplus Model 1855 bayonets. These older weapons, produced in huge quantities to supply federal troops during the Civil War, were designed to fit .58 caliber rifled muskets. Fortuitously, officers at the Springfield Armory devised a method of cold-swaging the larger sockets of the 1855 bayonets down to fit the .45 caliber barrels of the 1873 rifles. The older bayonets could thus be utilized at little cost to the government, and no new bayonets were produced after 1878. So large was the stock of 1855 bayonets that it took a decade for the armory to finally run out of them. When the old bayonets were finally expended in 1888/89, the army officially adopted a ramrod bayonet. A sharpened metal rod carried within the stock just under the barrel (the traditional location for a ramrod on all earlier muzzleloading weapons), the ramrod bayonet could be extended beyond the muzzle and locked in place. This eliminated the need for soldiers to carry a separate bayonet and scabbard, since the bayonet was already integral to the rifle. The army experimented with ramrod bayonets for most of the 1880s, continually tinkering with the design and issuing small numbers of the weapon to soldiers for field testing. In 1886, Co. K of the 23rd Infantry, stationed at Fort Mackinac, received rifles with ramrod bayonets for evaluation. As bayonet designs evolved, so too did the scabbards to carry them. Although the ramrod bayonet eliminated the need for a separate scabbard, those weapons were not in general service until the middle of 1890. As a result, most soldiers carried their bayonets in metal scabbards hung from their belts through the 1880s. Initially, scabbards for the 1873 bayonet featured a leather frog, which simply looped over the 1¾-inch wide waist belts issued beginning in 1872. However, as soldiers increasingly preferred to wear wider cartridge belts for field service, these scabbards were no longer compatible. As a result, in 1889 the army finally adopted a new scabbard design featuring a long, thin brass hook in place of the leather loop. The hook could still easily be worn with the narrower 1872 belts, but could also be used with a woven cartridge belt. Even as the Army continually refined and experimented with bayonet designs, general officers and regular soldiers alike increasingly questioned the utility of the bayonet in an age when troops were trained for exceptionally long-range marksmanship. Noting that in combat the bayonet functioned only as far as a soldier could reach, Commanding General of the Army William Sherman stated that “my experience teaches me that one side or the other runs away before arm’s length is reached.” Sherman and other officers suggested that the bayonet be declared obsolete and dropped from service, but stopped short of pressing the issue as he believed bayonets might still be useful in highly specific circumstances such as riot control. In the 1870s and 1880s soldiers were deployed to suppress civil unrest, usually linked to strikes and other labor actions, and officers felt that bayonets allowed troops to “safely” disperse crowds without firing on them. If you would like to see original bayonets up close, feel free to ask our interpretive staff at Fort Mackinac. They carry original bayonets (to go with the original .45-70 rifles used daily for demonstration) and are happy to answer questions about them, as well as the rest of the unique uniforms and equipment utilized by the U.S. Army during the 1880s. This was a time of change and experimentation for the army. If you would like more information, or an opportunity to buy tickets to Fort Mackinac and our other museums, please visit our website.