A Complete System of Bayonet Exercise

by Richard Francis Burton.

First edition, 1853.
William Clowes and sons.

PDF Page Image Facsimile, prepared by burtoniana.org from an original copy.


THE days have been when there was a prejudice against attempting to introduce into our armies a regular System of Bayonet Exercise. The feeling still lingers, however, amongst some officers of the different services, who oppose the innovation for a peculiar reason. They do not object to teaching the lancer the use of his lance, or the swordsman to handle his sword skilfully: but they determine that the bayoneteer must not learn to attack his enemy, or to defend himself, with his bayonet. The objections urged by them against Bayonet Practice are—that the men should be taught to depend solely upon the charge, when they have nothing to do but to keep together in line,—that the real old English system is to thrust at the enemy without any other consideration but to run him through the body,—and that the soldier that is induced to rely upon his individual strength or skill would be more likely to leave the ranks, thus throwing them into disorder. It is certainly a novel thing in the history of arms, to put a weapon into a man’s hand, and, proscribing its efficient use on account of its possible abuse, to leave him in ignorance of what can be done with it. A non-military reader would scarcely believe it, if told, that after teaching our soldiers only to fix and to unfix their bayonets…and to charge in one position, we leave them to direct or misdirect their weapons as they please, whereas all the military nations of Europe have authorised in their armies regular systems of attack and defence.

But now the march of improvement has commenced, even in the most stationary of our establishments. We have found out, at last, that no nation has wasted blood & treasure more wilfully than ours. We begin to think that the art of war is not a mere instinct, and therefore we require from officers proofs of proficiency in military studies. And in this country there is a feeling, every year increasing, that some improvements might be introduced into the arms and accoutrements, the dress, and drill of our soldiers. May the subject obtain the attention which it merits! So may we hope, in our future wars, to escape those heavy losses, which, as a general rule, have ushered in the brilliant closes of our campaigns. And thus we shall be enabled to do justice to our men, not just by trusting to their fatal courage and determination, but by bringing them into the field with all the advantages which their noble qualities deserve.

The Bayonet Exercise has been used for many years in almost all the armies of the Continent, and experience in actual service has taught the French to consider it a necessary part of soldier’s education. Upon the drill ground it supplies the recruit with vigour, suppleness, and elasticity of limb – in other words it teaches him the free use of his arms and legs which the Manual and Platoon tend to fetter & stiffen rather than otherwise. He becomes less likely to lose his balance, he feels the firelock, lighter in his hands, and what is of the greatest consequence, he acquires full confidence in that “queen of weapons” the musket. In the field it has many uses. After the charge, if a stout resistance be made, there ensues a confusion, during which enemy meets enemy hand to hand, when the able bayoneteer avails himself of his effective thrusts, and the half drilled man experiences the full effect of his incapacity. When engaged in skirmishing, or in crowning heights, light infantry may suddenly be set upon by small bodies of assailants – infantry or cavalry – when a general melee must take place. Even the sentinel may have an opportunity of defending himself with his bayonet. All feel that they hold in their hands a deadly weapon, which, when ably wielded, is superior to anything that can be opposed to it; they are therefore when acting in detached bodies both cooler in firing, and readier to reserve their fire till it can be delivered with effect. But the principle use of the bayonet exercise is for Light Infantry. And it may confidently be asserted that no armies require the knowledge of it so much as ours, engaged, as they are ever liable to be, in long and frequent wars with barbarous and semi-barbarous nations, whose tactics are skirmishes surprises and desultory onsets.

To the Indian army this exercise will, it is believed, to be found most advantageous. The Sepoy has not learned to trust to his musket as a European soldier does. The former, being inferior in physical strength, finds the firelock a cumbrous weapon, and perhaps he feels himself deficient in that dogged courage which must animate those who fight sturdily under a serious disadvantage. Consequently the Sepoy would often, if permitted, throw away his musket, & trust to the sword or dagger, the handling of which is more familiar to him. But Indians are not so adverse to innovations as they are popularly supposed to be. Show them a valid reason for changing the customs of their forefathers, and they will do so as readily as most people. Teach the Sepoy to use his arms and legs, lighten the musket in his hands by a proper course of training, and prove to him its superiority over spear, sabre, and poniard: he will not be slow to take the lessons and its deductions.

The following system of the bayonet exercise is drawn from those in actual use amongst the continental nations, and it has this advantage, that every motion described in it has stood the test of trial in the field. An objection has been raised against it, that it is too complicated. To obviate this defect, in page 35 will be found a concise everyday lesson, forming a foundation for efficient practice.
But why, it might be inquired, should the English soldier be deterred by difficulties which every French voltigeur can master? As officers, we admire the intelligence of our neighbours in military matters. We remark that they are born as soldiers, and that their men learn as much as four months as ours do in six. Is bot this, however, partly our own fault. In my humble opinion we mistake the cause of their quickness, attributing to nature the effect of Art. When our system of drill is thoroughly efficient – when Manual and Platoon is properly simplified – when a Salle d’ Armes is established in every corps, and when bayonet Exercise becomes a recognised branch of instruction, then, I believe, we shall find our soldiers equal in intelligence to any others.

In France a dozen lessons are considered sufficient to teach the soldier the use of his bayonet. Conceding to him superiority of acuteness, we may expect to effect this desirable object in a month or two. The instructor, however, must fully explain to his men the reason and object of every motion. He must be careful that the soldiers limbs be supple, that his postures natural, and that his motions be steady, but not stiff. As in Sword Practice so in Bayonet Drill, rigidity of muscles retards the action: it tends also to defeat one of the principle objects of the exercise, namely, that of “setting up” the soldier.
Light Infantry and rifle Corps should be taught to perform the Bayonet Exercise, both with the right hand & the left hand and leg to the front: this will be found to serve the purpose of a system of gymnastics. Loose practice should be encouraged, a wooden button with al leathern pad being fixed upon the point of the bayonet, and masks worn to prevent accidents. Sometimes two or three must be opposed to one man, who should be taught to keep his assailants in front by shifting ground; to attack them with feints; to perform several thrusts and parries in rapid succession, as explained in sect. VII; and to avail himself of any object that can secure his rear. The men must be accustomed to avoid the charge of a horseman, by springing to the side with a Right or a Left close; always avoiding. If possible, the enemy’s sword arm, - and to deliver a smart point either at man or beast, the moment they are within reach of the bayonet.

For detailed directions respecting the practice of bayonet against Sword, and sword against bayonet, the works of Mr. HENRY ANGELO, late superintendent of sword exercise, may be consulted with the greatest advantage.