Thumbnail image of cotttgrave's dictionarie of 1611One of the earliest known documents using the term, “bayonnette” was Randle Cotgrave’s A Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues, in 1611. He defines the bayonnette as “a kind of small flat pocket-dagger, furnished with knives; or a great knife to hang at the girdle, like a dagger.” [View an image of the actual dictionary entry]

The Basque coastal town of Bayonne, in the Pyrenees Region along the border between France and Spain, was a center of cutlery manufacturing. Although there is not conclusive evidence linking Bayonne and the word “bayonnette,” the inference that the bayonet originated in the area around Bayonne seems reasonable. However, the bayonet most likely originated as a hunting dagger and was in use for some time, before it was married with the musket to become what we know as the “bayonet.” The latter part of the 16th century is believed to be when the “bayonne dagger” likely emerged. Documentation prior to the 1640s is scant. There is a lot about the bayonet's origins that we just do not know.

Early firearms were inaccurate single-shot weapons. When hunting wild boar, a spear was often required to finish off one's quarry. Unlike most animals, that flee when wounded, the boar has a nasty habit of charging its assailant. Early firearms were slow and cumbersome to load. Although the spear was a necessity, stalking game with a five-foot musket in one hand and a six-foot spear in the other must have been difficult under the best of circumstances. Hunters also began carrying a small dagger or side knife. The concept of affixing a dagger to a musket, as likely arose by chance as it did out of a conscious desire to combine the musket and spear. We do not really know how the concept of inserting the dagger into the musket bore came to be.

The first bayonets were known as baïonnettes à manche (bayonets with handles). Today, we know them as “plug" bayonets. They were simply a hunting dagger, fitted with a round tapered grip, inserted into the musket barrel when required.

© Ralph E. Cobb 2009 All Rights Reserved
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Origin of the Bayonet

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