Saturday, December 3, 2016

"A Bayonet Fitted to His Gun" - Why Massachusetts Militia Companies Lacked Bayonets on the Eve of the Revolution

The origins of the bayonet can be traced back to 17th century France. The first recorded military use of this weapon by the French army was in 1642. Twenty years later, the British army also adopted bayonets. The early version was known as the “plug bayonet”: a dagger having a tapered handle for insertion into the muzzle of a soldier’s musket. However, the plug bayonet had its limitations. Soldiers could not fire their muskets when the bayonet was inserted in the muzzle; the plug bayonet often jammed and it was easily lost during close combat. By 1720, both England and France adopted the socket bayonet. The socket bayonet, which slipped over the barrel of a musket, remained in use throughout the American Revolution.

The bayonet was an offensive tool with the dual purpose of serving as a weapon during close quarter combat and, at the same time, instilling “shock and awe” in the enemy. However, prior to the American Revolution Massachusetts militiamen were very reluctant to adopt this important weapon. In his work Swords and Blades of the American Revolution, George Neuman asserts “When the . . . bayonet . . . gained acceptance throughout Europe in the late 1600s the Americans apparently used it sparingly . . . [Specifications] by most colonies for their militia continued to stress swords and hatchets as the recommended side arms. Bayonets appear to have finally begun to receive official endorsement during the 1740s – but even then only as an elective alternate to the sword or hatchet.” This policy may have continued with Massachusetts militia units through the early years of the American Revolution. For example, a 1776 inspection of a Bristol County militia regiment suggests that there were only 175 bayonets available for 446 muskets.

Surviving bayonet carriage attributable to Salem, Massachusetts 

Naturally, this begs the question why was the bayonet in short supply in 18th Century Massachusetts? It appears two factors influenced this condition, economics and governmental policy. In regard to the former, many gunsmiths actually elected not to sell bayonets to their customers. For example, John Pim of Boston advertised “To be sold by John Pim of Boston, Gunsmith, at the Sign of the Cross Guns, in Anne-Street near the Draw Bridge, at very Reasonable rates, sundry choice of Arms lately arrived from London, viz. Handy Muskets, Buccaneer-Guns, Fowling Pieces, Hunting Guns, Carbines, several sorts of Pistols, Brass and Iron, fashionable swords.” Twenty-two years later, Samuel Miller announced “Newly imported, and sold by Samuel Miller, Gunsmith, at the Sign of the Cross Guns near the Draw-Bridge, Boston: Neat Fire Arms of all sorts, Pistols, Swords, Hangars, Cutlasses, Flasks for Horsemen, Firelocks.”

Although business choices severely limited a militia man’s access to a bayonet, early government policy actually discouraged the use of bayonets. Most likely, officials saw little use for the bayonet on the battlefields of North America. As early as 1693, Massachusetts Militia laws dictated that “Every listed souldier ... shall be alwayes provided with a well fixt firelock musket, of musket or bastard musket bore, the barrel not less then three foot and a half long, or other good firearms to the satisfaction of the commission officers of the company, a snapsack, a coller with twelve bandeleers or cartouch-box, one pound of good powder, twenty bullets fit for his gun, and twelve flints, a good sword or cutlace, a worm and priming wire fit for his gun.” In 1733, it was advertised “Every listed Soldier, and other Householder shall be always provided with a well fixt Firelock Musket, of Musket or Bastard-Musket bore, the Barrel not less than three Foot and an half long, or other good Fire Arms to the satisfaction of the Commission Officers of the Company; a Cartouch Box: one Pound of good Powder: Twenty Bullets fit for his Gun, and twelve Flynts; a good Sword or Cutlass; a Worm, & priming Wire, fit for his Gun, on Penalty of six Shillings...”

During the French and Indian War, not all Massachusetts provincial soldiers were issued bayonets. Some were only provided with a “Canteen, Wooden bottle one hoop . . . Knapsacks…Arms and Cartridge Boxes.” Even on the eve of the American Revolution, militia regulations still discouraged the adoption of bayonets as a primary weapon. Massachusetts militia men were required to fall out with “his firelock in good repair, four pounds of lead in bullets, fitted to the bore of his piece, four flints, a cutlass or tomahawk, a good belt round his body, a canvas knapsack to hold a bushel, with a good matumpline, fitting easy across the breast and shoulders, good clothing, etc.”

Thus, when war seemed inevitable with England, the Massachusetts Provincial Congress surprisingly reversed decades of policy and ordered bayonets be carried by its soldiers. It is likely this change occurred because of the nature and skill of Massachusetts' new enemy. Where previous wars with the French typically involved le petite guerre tactics, a military conflict with England would likely involve more traditional 18th century tactics.

Massachusetts militia and minute man companies scrambled to adopt bayonets. In Lexington, the residents resolved “to provide bayonets at the town’s cost for one third of the training soldiers.” In Roxbury, minutemen were ordered to “hold themselves in readiness at a minutes warning, compleat in arms and ammunition; that is to say a good and sufficient firelock, bayonet, thirty rounds of powder and ball, pouch and knapsack.” In Bridgewater, Arthur Harris noted “Each soldier to provide himself with a good fire arm, a steel or iron ram rod and a spring for same, a worm, a priming wire and brush, a bayonet fitted to his gun, a scabbard and belt thereof, a cutting sword or tomahawk or hatchet, a . . .cartridge box holding fifteen rounds . . . at least, a hundred buckshot, six flints, one pound of powder, forty leaden balls fitted to the gun, a knapsack and blanket, [and] a canteen or wooden bottle to hold one quart [of water]”

The shortage of bayonets continued to be a source of frustration in the aftermath of Lexington and Concord. Although American and foreign sources began to supply the American army with bayonets as the war progressed, the problem did not subside within the ranks of militia.


  1. Replies
    1. Thanks John! Coming from you that means a lot!

  2. Very well written. I enjoyed reading.

  3. In the Timothy Pickering Papers at the Mass Hist Socy, there are lists of men and their equipment in several units of the Salem militia as of 17 Mar 1775, three days after a muster. In the 3d company, every man had a musket but only about a third have bayonets. In the 2d company/Ward #1, there were 104 muskets, 62 bayonets, 28 swords, and so on down to 65 screwdrivers.

  4. That is awesome! Thanks for the info! Dumb question, any chance do you have a copy or transcript of the original inspections? If not no worries as I'm going down to the Mass. Hist. Socy. over winter break. I've got lying around somewhere similar inspections for Bristol County and Chelmsford MA. I'll have to post them to the blog!

  5. Great article!...looking forward to hear how Bristol County was fitted out!


  6. I have been searching for a more tactical tool that I can attach to my shotgun, and I think the bayonet will do the trick instead of an ordinary blade. I have learnt a number of things about this unique cutting tool from your post, thank you. Also, check out some guns that you can use with bayonets here: