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The bayonet was introduced in the late 17th century as a knife (later a short sword) attached to a musket, to enable the musketeer to protect himself when reloading their single-shot weapons. As such, it was something of an "adjunct" weapon to the gun itself. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bayonet

Anti-cavalry tactics in the late 18th, early 19th century often consisted of musketeers with bayonets "forming square" to resist cavalry charges. These resistances often succeeded, whereas during earlier periods, such as the Middle Ages, soldiers armed with "pole" weapons such as spears were usually at a disadvantage versus cavalry (unless there were compensating features such as rough ground or bad weather), even though these were their "primary" weapons.

What gave soldiers with bayonets (and muskets) their effectiveness? Did the one volley of musket fire sufficiently disorganize the cavalry to give the bayoneters their advantage? Did the presence of muskets force a change in cavalry tactics (e.g. the removal of armor) that favored the musketeer? Were they just better-drilled soldiers than the spear carriers?

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2 Answers 2

up vote 9 down vote accepted

The situation is complex. While the pike-or-equivalent must be of a sufficient length and density to be effective against cavalry, the longer the weapon the more difficult it is to adjust formation and facing. Cavalry's most effective weapon on the battlefield is its speed. A mass of spearmen facing one direction are easily flanked and broken up, and then worse, by cavalry that can find it's flank.

Note that an infantry square from the Napoleonic period (open, as practiced by the French or British) comprised 2 or 3 ranks of densely packed bayonets, backed by additional ranks of musketeers and pistol-armed officers loaded and primed. The bayonet wall was to keep the cavalry at bay and prevent an overrun, while the muskets and pistols behind kept cavalry from trying to squeeze in with the sabre or lance.

The closed square practiced from Brandenburg eastward, and by skirmishers caught in the open, was less well organized and a bit more vulnerable, but could form significantly quicker. (Even 15 or 20 seconds faster is important when a half-ton of horseflesh plus rider is approaching at 25 mph.) The additional speed was essential against the very fast light cavalry of the steppes, who also fought in looser and less organized formations and were less able to attempt square-breaking.

Also the professional training of the small late 17th century to early 18th century gave units the experience and morale to stand firm as a cavalry charge approached. The medieval formations of spearmen were generally levy's, not trained troops. Prior to that of course, the Roman legions and Greek phalanxes were extremely effective against the stirrup-less cavalry that they faced. That is the raison d'etre of Republican Rome's Triari.

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I think there were two reasons at play:

  1. Musketeers were "formation troops", i.e., they were used to fighting in a close formation, standing next to each other and acting in sync. This means that when they affixed bayonets and pointed them at the cavalry, the horses were facing tightly knit line of steel and could not carry their riders close enough for their sabers to be effective. The spear/halberd carriers were more accustomed to one-on-one combat (during middle ages), so they did not always managed to stand shoulder to shoulder to meet the enemy cavalry in time for its attack.
  2. Cavalry which attacked spear/halberd carriers was the heavy knight cavalry: armored man and horse, with the rider armed with a lance or long sword. The cavalry which faced musketeers was lighter (at most a cuirass) and their weapons were shorter.

Both changes were happening during the same time period, driven by the gunpowder revolution which made body armor useless and forced close formation on the infantry (to compensate for the lack of accuracy).

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This is blatant nonsense: "The spear/halberd carriers were more accustomed to one-on-one combat, so they did not stand shoulder to shoulder to meet the enemy cavalry." The phalanx is as old as ancient Greece, and the March of the ten thousand the inspiration for Philip and then Alexander. –  Pieter Geerkens Aug 8 '13 at 21:55
@PieterGeerkens: I did not say that pre-firearm infantry did not know phalanx - just that their normal tactics at THAT time was more oriented towards "free form" (I edited the answer to emphasize that) –  sds Aug 8 '13 at 21:59
In the middle ages the spear was often thrown (early) and were also often used in a tight formation to counter cavalry - as used by William Wallace at the battle of Falkirk. Fisher, Andrew (1986). William Wallace. –  Kobunite Aug 8 '13 at 22:04
Spears are never thrown. Javelins are thrown, and spears are kept in hand. The weight balance is completely different, making spears impossible to aim or throw for distance, and javelins much too light and short to be effective as a hand-held weapon. –  Pieter Geerkens Aug 8 '13 at 22:08
A Javelin is a spear. The spear adapted over time based on needs. –  Kobunite Aug 9 '13 at 8:02

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