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Classical Fencing and the Bayonet I

Classical Fencing and the Bayonet I

The emergence of fencing as a modern sport was accompanied by a renewal in interest in edged weapons in the military services. Although many believed that the sword was a viable battlefield weapon in the 1880s through 1913, the lessons of the American Civil War and the Franco Prussian War were only the warning signals in the sword’s demise as a key military weapon. World War I put paid forever to the notion that swords generally should be carried into combat. However, the sword was not the only fencing weapon in military service; the bayonet survives to this day as a weapon in virtually every army.

The Bayonet occupies a special place in the history of fencing. From at least 1888 through 1960 bayonet fencing was fought as a competitive sport in England, largely in the military services, with interservice competitions and regular participation in the Royal Tournament. Interestingly enough, bayonet fencing never became a sport of record in the United States – certainly there is no record of bayonet fencing under the Amateur Athletic Union or the Amateur Fencers League of America. As early as 1863 A New Manual of the Bayonet for the Army and Militia of the United States uses the term fencing to describe bayonet training. This same publication includes guards and actions obviously drawn from contemporary sword fencing practice. As late as World War II Lidstone’s Bloody Bayonets included a complete set of rules for bayonet fencing competitions.

This history firmly establishes the bayonet as a classical weapon to accompany the foil, sabre, epee, and singlestick. Probably the height of bayonet fencing technical development was reached in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Hutton’s 1882 Bayonet-Fencing and Sword-Practice takes the bayonet to four guards, parries and ripostes, beats, feints, and compound attacks. In addition, a separate section addresses cuts with the sword bayonet. Hutton specifically states that this work is for fencing room and not for the parade ground.

However, the furthest development undoubtedly comes with Hutton’s 1890 work, Fixed Bayonets, A Complete System of Fence for the British Magazine Rifle. Now there was a complete range of guards and parries analogous to contemporary foil technique, the same range of simple attacks, attacks on the weapon the same as the fencing attacks on the blade, and even a compound riposte. Hutton made it clear that this work was informed by sword fencing practice, and acknowledges the assistance of the prominent amateur fencer Egerton-Castle.

Why did bayonet fencing not make the transition to modern sport? It is difficult to answer this with any certainty. However, the personal equipment was always large, bulky, and heavy, and the practice rifle and bayonet weapons somewhat prone to jamming so that they lost any capability to cushion the hits. Bayonet fencing gave every opportunity for heavy, hard hits that were not pleasant, acceptable for military personnel for whom this could be justified as training, but distinctly off putting as a civilian sport. And the military character of the sport version made it a niche activity at a time when most nations were reducing the size of their armed forces.

However, this does not mean that the bayonet is not a worthy area of study for classical fencers. First, it is a classical fencing weapon. Second, there is a wealth of original or reprinted material available on the use of the bayonet in the classical period. Third, there are a variety of weapons available which can be used for study of the techniques. I should note that actually fencing with these weapons is dangerous and can result in serious injury, and that there is no protective equipment certified by its manufacturer to provide adequate protection for bayonet fencing. And finally, there is even an organization dedicated to the study of bayonet systems, American Jukenjutsu – The Bayonet Society. If you want to explore a different part of the heritage of classical fencing, use these resources to take a look at bayonet fencing techniques.