Shock vs. fires - the ancient choice

There's an ancient debate about shock attack vs. fire attack. Many descriptions of 15th, 16th, 17th, 18th, 19th and yes, also 20th century generals* include remarks about how the person preferred shock over fires. The choice of words varies, of course. A typical way to describe it is to mention a preference for cold steel (bayonet assault).

The choice (and in part trade-off) appears to be very, very old. Still, the seeming historical continuity of the debate can deceive. Here's an earlier Defence and Freedom text describing a similar problem:

The choice is between closing with the enemy and staying at a distance (preferring stand-off fires).
To go close to short range (melee) combat tends to promise decisive results because troops cannot survive close to hostiles for long and usually need to fight it out quickly.
To stay at a distance is subjectively less risky, and tends to deliver results more slowly. It's also more expensive materially (ammunition mostly - blackpowder and especially its salpetre was very expensive and scarce).

The choice may be ancient, but the conclusions depend on the state of the forces (and their technology).
Russian troops weren't exactly the most sophisticated during the 18th century, butwell capable of shock attacks. Suvorov won dozens of battles by exploiting this and is one of the historical generals known for a preference for 'cold steel'. Other armies preferred to impress with firepower, such as the Prussians.

The balance between shock and fires was a tricky one during the 17th and 18th centuries, and a mere look at the weapons cannot explain the issue. I'll give it a try with what I (believe to) know:

Battle of Poltava, 1709, painted 1726
The musket was a firearm of very, very disappointing performance in almost every regard. This didn't even matter much given the poor training and the smoke of the blackpowder, though. The musket began to be useful at about 200 m, and getting the first salvo off was important. You wouldn't want to fire the first salvo at a too long distance due to the poor accuracy, though. Then again many soldiers didn't (and don't) really want to hit anyone anyway.
The second salvo was already very inaccurate and hasty even if it was fired at shorter ranges simply because the smoke usually obscured the enemy. Then again, you couldn't really aim much with the almost straight buttstocks (those looked better on the parade-ground) and no real sights anyway.
The physical effect of musket fires was thus quite unsatisfactory and gave rise to an interest in melee combat which we don't have any more because of much better firearms.
The psychological effect of firearms and their effects was considerable, though - especially if one line just felt that the other line was firing salvoes at a faster rate.

The bayonet matured to a form which allowed
loading and firing with bayonet fixed.
The argument for shock attacks didn't rest on an excellent weapon either. The bayonet was -even when matured as a technology- a very poor melee weapon. A dung fork was a better melee weapon than a musket with a bayonet. 1,000 BC spears were better melee weapons than a musket with a bayonet. Almost everything but a knife was better for melee combat than a musket with bayonet fixed. Maybe even a knife.
The raison d'être for the bayonet was really to deter and if necessary stab horsemen (or horses) - it wasn't much worse than pikes in this job.
Swords and sabres were added to musketeers/fusiliers during peacetime on several occasions because they seemed to be a good idea. They were ditched during wartime on several occasions.
 There was almost no melee combat during age of musket battles apparently!

Yet, few soldiers [meant: infantrymen] actually fought each other with cold steel. At Austerlitz, the Russian Guards made a classic 300-yard charge, but were exhausted after breaking through the first French line and driven back by fire. Generally, it was the threat of the bayonet, and not the actual clash that decided an issue. After studying the casualties suffered by units in a number of hand to hand combats, Surgeon General Larrey of the Grand Army found only five bayonet wounds and concluded that the effect of the weapon was primarily psychological. And one of Wellington's senior medical officers, George J. Guthrie, asserted that formed regiments 'charging with the bayonet never meet and struggle hand to hand and foot on foot; and this for the best possible reason, that one side turns and runs away as soon as the other comes close enough to do mischief.'
 "The Art of Warfare in the Age of Napoleon",
G.E.Rothenberg, 1979, p.69

There's also a nice quote from the other end of the blackpowder era, from when Tercios with a combination of pikemen and arquebusiers dominated West European battlefields. The author back then in the late 16th or early 17th century stated that one shouldn't kill pikemen if avoidable, for they hardly ever kill anyone themselves who didn't charge against them on horseback. The pike was later replaced by the bayonet and the expert swordsmen known from early Tercios had already disappeared from late Tercios. Regrettably, I didn't rediscover the exact quote.

a typical formation from the early age of muskets
Even battles with plenty successful "shock attacks" had little infantry-on-infantry melee combat. This is one of the least intuitive and most unbelievable observations of 17th and 18th century authors about battles in the age of muskets.

One closed order infantry formation was sent to attack another, they shot at each other, the attackers keeps advancing after salvoes again and again - and then one line formation broke. The men simply fled. This may have been the attacker or the defender, but actual melee combat with men stabbing each other with bayonets or using sabres was very uncommon during battles.** Sometimes the defenders did a counter-charge to break the already cracked morale of the decimated (by fire) attacking formation, but the result was still that one party would break and flee, and there would usually be no melee combat on grand scale.

This observation explains why the very poor bayonet was sufficient as the only melee weapon, and how quickly closing with the enemy while under fire wasn't only the more decisive tactic, but at times even the less bloody one. It sure saved blackpowder and lead and allowed less sophisticated forces to prevail. Superior discipline was the best approach to avoid being the one whose formation breaks and disintegrates. It helped to soften up the enemy more with quicker salvoes and made the men more steady in face of impressive salvoes and seemingly irresistibly approaching forces.
This explains why the line infantry forces of the 17th and especially the 18th century were drilled incessantly and why discipline had become the focus for almost all infantry units in Europe.

It all kind of makes sense, but only in the context of the period's technology (particularly the drawbacks of blackpowder) and if one pays much attention to morale and discipline.

And this is why the old times' debates about shock attack vs. fires attack is utterly irrelevant today. It's seemingly a timeless, persisting debate about a seeming constant in warfare - but the answers need be found anew again and again as the nature and technology of warfare change.

Bonus part:
Only to show how tricky the military trade is at times: It still made sense to train the infantry in bayonet combat, and then preferably to pitch them against recruits in mock combat in order to instil great confidence in them. Confidence in the own bayonet combat skills made it less likely that the own formation would break first.

Even more tricky: Non-commissioned officers carried long polearms (spontoons) which are usually called obsolete even at their time by book authors. Those were pointless anachronisms, right?
Again, no - it's tricky. Those long poles were used to push and keep the line infantrymen into formation. They were held horizontally and crosswise for this. A fusilier who wavered and made a step back would be pushed back into line again with the spontoon. Spontoons were rather decorated tools than weapons.
Again; it's about morale and discipline, not about the (low) inherent quality of the 'weapon' itself.***


*: There wasn't much of a choice prior to the arrival of firearms because arrows were quite easily stopped with shields or most armours.
**: This appears to have been true since the early 17th century, when early firearms had become more important than pikes.
***: You may find similar thoughts in my 2009 text on flamethrowers.  The morale and discipline aspect of warfare is easily lost to later generations.

P.S.: About modern bayonets: I suppose knife bayonets make sense, for you end up having a rifle and a knife anyway, and there's almost no compromise necessary to enable knife bayonet usage. The only real benefit is in handling prisoners of war or in deterring civilians, though.

edit: The Weapons and Warfare blog has more:


  1. The battle of Poltava was in 1709. The painting however, was made in 1726 ;-)

  2. Hans Jakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen liess den Protagonisten seines Werkes "Der seltzame Springinsfeld" im 13. Kapitel über die Pikeniere höhnen:

    "Und dannenhero glaube ich daß der jenige der einen Piquenirer nidermacht (den er sonst verschonen köndte) einen unschuldigen ermordet / und solchen Todtschlag nimmermehr verantworten kan; dann ob dise arme Schiebochsen (mit disem Spöttischen Namen werden sie genennet) gleich creirt seyn / ihre Brigaden vor dem Einhauen der Reutter im freyen Feld zubeschützen / so thun sie doch vor sich selbst niemand kein Leid / und geschicht dem allererst recht / der einem oder dem anderen in seinen langen Spies rennet. Jn Summa ich habe mein Tage viel scharpffe Occasionen gesehen / aber selten wahrgenommen / daß ein Piquenirer jemand umgebracht hette."

  3. The bayonet, was primarly used in Fibua and like clashes, where there wasnt as easy an escape. And regarding the 5 wounds by bayonet by surgeon general larry, its says casualties, and not dead. Wouldnt the bayonet be deadlier if you repeat stabbed a guy, in stead of one musket ball hit.

  4. 'The bayonet was -even when matured as a technology- a very poor melee weapon.' Thats not true. In a confined space, swords are inferior to bayonets, since they don't have enough room to perform slashs (and rifle bayonets have longer reach). Fighting in open order drills with a sword carrys a high risk of injuring your comrades.

    'And this is why the old times' debates about shock attack vs. fires attack is utterly irrelevant today.' In modern times, the definition has changed. What we call shock action today is done at rifle distance rather than CQC range. Likewise, what we now can fire action is done at artillery range (rather than rifle distance). Having an army that relys solely on one or the other is misguided, check out this article for why: The Limitations of Standoff Firepower-Based Operations.

    'I suppose knife bayonets make sense, for you end up having a rifle and a knife anyway, and there's almost no compromise necessary to enable knife bayonet usage.' You really ought to heed the words of phil west. According to him, bayonets designed to also act as utility knives generally offer the worst of both worlds. We should model new bayonets on what worked best in the past: Probably the best spike bayonet was the sks', while the best sword bayonet would be the lee enfields (specifically, the pattern 1903).

    1. The debate about the longer reach (particularly bayonet vs. bayonet) belongs to the 18th century. The longer reach was never THAT important, for a spear and even more so a spike bayonet have a critical weakness: They're easy to push aside (single-handed spear more than bayonet) and it's very difficult to recover from a failed push. Basically all what a man with a knife or infantry sabre needs to do is push the bayonet aside (parry or offensively) and enter the infight.

      Note how line infantry was equipped with infantry sabres (blade with a large radius, still useful for thrusting) - cutting motion attacks were very well within their repertoire, and cutting motion is what you can still do at the most close range.

  5. My understanding is that in urban fighting, where the blind approaches and tight quarters meant a higher likelihood that the guys would actually come to within arms-reach of each other, the troops that survived the initial encounter tended to prefer single-handed weapons; knives and apparently pistols (in particular the large-caliber revolvers like the Soviet M1895 Nagant) were prized.

    One of my early platoon sergeants hung onto his wooden-handled entrenching spade after we went to the 1980s U.S.-issue folding metal spade; he said that the wood handle spade was a useful melee tool; you folded the blade down to the 90-degree position and then used it like a big hatchet.

    I tend to agree with you overall, though, that the number of actual "bayonet fights" through military history has probably been a) quite small, and b) overrated as a tactic...

  6. Related:

    Also, thanks for the link back to my site. It sounds like we are interested in many of the same things and I look forward to reading more of your posts!