Bayonet: Still killing after all these years

Cpl. Alvin Ghazlo, a senior bayonet and unarmed-combat instructor at Montford Point, disarms Pvt. Ernest Jones.
Cpl. Alvin Ghazlo, a senior bayonet and unarmed-combat instructor at Montford Point, disarms Pvt. Ernest Jones. (Marine Corps)
Posted: October 24, 2012

By Forrest Wickman

In the third and final presidential debate this week, Mitt Romney accused President Obama of reducing the number of ships in the U.S. Navy. President Obama responded, "Well, governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets."

Does the U.S. military still use bayonets much?

Yes. All Marines learn to use bayonets during their basic martial arts training. Some of this training takes place on the Bayonet Assault Course, on which Marines are unleashed to bayonet everything in sight. Marines are expected to learn to attach and remove the bayonets from their rifles quickly, so that they might swiftly initiate a charge. Proficiency in basic bayoneting techniques is part of qualifying for a tan belt, which is required of every recruit.

While the bayonet dates to the 17th century, it has evolved through technological innovations over the years. In 2003, the Marine Corps replaced its standard-issue bayonet with a longer, sharper model, the OKC-3S. The new model, designed by New York's Ontario Knife Co., was also more effective when brandished as a hand knife - not to mention more ergonomically correct. Perhaps more vitally, the blades were also better able to pierce body armor, a concern particular to modern warriors. More than 120,000 bayonets were commissioned to supply one to each Marine, at an estimated price of $36.35 each, or $4.36 million total.

In addition to potential use in hand-to-hand combat, bayonets are said to be useful for keeping prisoners under control and for "poking an enemy to see whether he is dead."

The Marines aren't the only branch of the military that equips its soldiers with bayonets. The Army issues the M9 bayonet knife, which has been in use since the 1980s, but troops have moved away from the detachable knives in recent years. In 2010, the Army began to scale back on bayonet drills in favor of calisthenics, perhaps a wise move given that the soldiers rarely carry bayonets on their rifles, and since the last U.S. bayonet charge was in 1951.

Others, however, have still found uses for the bayonet charge in recent years. Just last month, a British soldier was honored for a bayonet charge on the Taliban that he led in 2011. This charge was reminiscent of another British bayonet charge, in Basra, Iraq, in 2004. In 2011, Col. Moammar Gadhafi was reportedly killed by a bayonet stab to the rear.

While the use of bayonets is rare, the use of horses is even rarer. The military still maintains the historic First Cavalry Division out of Fort Hood, Texas, and the division's horse detachment still sometimes mounts up for the occasional charge. But these charges tend to take place only as part of parades, historical ceremonies, and fairs.

Forrest Wickman writes for Slate.

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