Although the smoothbore musket was to remain the primary infantry weapon until the 1850s, the rifle was used in limited numbers beginning in the late 1700s. Early rifles fired cloth-patched round balls, which presented a couple of major drawbacks: 1) these rifles were slow to load; and 2) they could only fire a few shots before the barrel became so fouled with powder residue that a tight-fitting patched-ball could not be rammed down the bore. However, they were supremely accurate. In trained hands, a rifle could hit a man-sized target at 300 yards; where a smoothbore musket could not do so consistently at distances beyond 50 yards.

The Germans were the first to recruit riflemen into military service from the ranks of professional hunters. In Germany, jäegers (hunters) hunted with a rifle and carried a short sword called a hirschfänger (deer-slayer). The British Army would later come to call short swords 'hangers', a corruption of hirschfänger. When jäegers came in to military service they brought their own rifles and, of course, their hirschfängers. The sword bayonet came about as a way to make the hirschfänger double as a bayonet. In 1787, the Prussian Army adopted the first military rifle to fix a sword bayonet, the Jäeger Büchse (hunting rifle) Model of 1787.

Early sword bayonets, such as the Pattern 1801 Baker sword bayonet pictured below, very much looked as if they could serve either purpose. However, the bayonet is a thrusting weapon, while the sword is a slashing weapon. The vision of dual-purpose use never panned out in practice. By the mid-1800s, sword bayonets had evolved into implements solely intended for use as bayonets.

© Ralph E. Cobb 2009 All Rights Reserved
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1787—The Sword Bayonet

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