The development of the domesticated horse, Equus ferus caballus, into a weapon of war happened about six thousand years ago somewhere in Eurasia, and peaked with the destriers, coursers, and rounceys of medieval Europe. And while there are a few notable and relevant exceptions, as Nat notes, the warhorse entered a long, slow decline concurrent with the ramping up of the Industrial Revolution (see also: Light Brigade, Charge of the) and the mechanization of cavalry.
But contra the president’s debate quip, unlike the warhorse, the bayonet (both word and object come to us from 17th-century France) is still very much in its prime. The Army uses the M9, a model developed in the 1980s for the M-16 rifle by the late Charles A. “Mickey” Finn, a military-weapons superguru who was known to answer to the name “Q” in special-forces circles, an homage to James Bond’s armorer. The M16A2, M16A4, and M4A1 carbines currently in service with U.S. soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines all retain lugs to receive the M9 (though some buffs complain the bayonet doesn’t fit properly on the barrel of the shorter carbine).
And the Marine Corps has transitioned to the slick new OKC3S bayonet: a full-tang construction, 13.25″ piece of 1095 steel with a zinc-phosphate non-reflective finish, a stealthy sheath, and a “Dynaflex® handle ergonomically grooved to reduce hand fatigue.” Designed to be sharper, stronger, and more natural in the hand than its predecessors, the OKC3S is built to penetrate body armor and was part of the Marine Corps’s post-9/11 push to reemphasize hand-to-hand combat.
There may not be — no, there certainly is not — anybody in the world who knows more about American bayonets than Homer Brett. A 65-year-old former active-duty Marine and military historian (The Military Knife & Bayonet), Brett is currently the “subject matter expert on edge weapons” for the Marine Corps Martial Arts Program based in Quantico, Virginia. The MCMAP teaches Marines a breadth and depth of hand-to-hand fighting techniques as they progress through five “belts.” Every Marine, officer or enlisted man, must obtain a tan belt as part of basic training, but they are also expected to advance, over the course of a career, through the gray, green, brown, and black belts.
So what does a knife bring to a gun fight? It’s simple.
“The spear, if you like, is one of the oldest weapons mankind had, going back to the time of caveman,” Brett tells me. “The farther out you can reach your opponent, the better your opportunity that you will survive and he will not.”
But aren’t they obsolete? No way.
“There are people in the Army — especially as they get higher up and the air gets thinner and their brains get thicker — who say we have all this modern stuff and we don’t need bayonets. It’s bulls***.
“A rifle is a piece of plastic and steel which, if it malfunctions, or if there’s not time to reload it, or if it’s out of ammunition, without a bayonet is just a club, and not a very good one,” Brett says. “In the Civil War you did mass charges. Okay, fine, we’re past that. But you can never say you won’t have an empty weapon. You can never say you won’t have a jammed weapon. You can never say that you won’t have a broken weapon.
“Imagine you’re going up the stairs in a stack in Baghdad,” he continues. “Maybe some hand grenades get thrown and some magazines get emptied, maybe you think you cleared a room and somebody pops out from behind a door, and you’re so close you can’t even take aim.
“Look at pictures of the second battle of Fallujah — there are plenty of examples of entire Marine units with bayonets fixed.”
Indeed, like this one:
I asked Brett if the Marine Corps likes its bayonet better than the Army’s. Unsurprisingly, his answer was yes. But he did yield that the Army chose the M9 to match a different set of specifications. In particular, they wanted a good wire-cutter. The M9, the best wire cutter among several options, was also bigger and bulkier as a result.
By contrast, the OKC3S bayonet has “no bells and whistles — just lethality.
“It had to be a good bayonet. It had to be a good fighting knife. And it had to be a good utility knife.”
The OKC3S was designed and contracted by the Ontario Knife Company, founded in 1889 and run out of Franklinville, New York. At least 120,000 have been produced for the USMC at a cost of about $37 each, starting in 2003.
I asked OKC to comment on the president’s “horses and bayonets” line, but they declined beyond offering a press release through a PR firm.
“We take pride in our military products and it’s an honor and privilege to supply these weapons/tools to the US military,” said OKC CEO Ken Trbovich in the release. “The military deploys our products for a wide range of combat and field operations, these include but are not limited to breaching devices, rescue tools and combat weapons.”
I asked as well if OKC was still producing or expecting to produce bayonets for the Marine Corps. Again, representatives wouldn’t elaborate beyond the release, which says, “Ontario Knife Company cannot comment on the overall procurement rate or inventory levels of military bayonets.” (Representatives at Buck Knives, which produces M9s for the Army, did not respond to inquiries by post time.)
But talk to a young Marine and he’ll tell you that the bayonet is very much a presence on the battlefield.
“The training is part of Boot Camp and is something new recruits practice several times,” Mitchell Cain, a USMC veteran, told me. “Is it common to use a bayonet on patrol in Iraq? No. Do we still ‘fix bayonets’ in close quarters? Yes. I don’t want to overstate their presence, but the president is categorically wrong on this.”
So what explains President Obama’s goof in what appeared to be a pre-planned “zinger”?
Brett offered one possible explanation, and while he wasn’t referring to POTUS specifically, it sounds plausible enough.
“I live in liberal Washington,” he said, where neighbors, and especially dates, are often aghast at what he does for a living. “So when people ask me what I teach in the Marine Corps, I just tell them ‘Battlefield Survival Statistics.’
“The liberal part of our population — God bless ‘em — they want the job done. They just don’t want to know how it’s done.”