Q&A: Plate and Bayonets

Hey there, aspiring writer here that just discovered your blog, I was wondering if there were any ways someone with a bayonet could fight against an opponent in heavy armor, like a cuirass. A musketball piercing through a breastplate is a foregone conclusion, but if the enemy got in close, can the musketeer actually kill his enemy or is he basically already dead meat?

technonecromancerderaxus

Stepping back for a moment, putting a musket ball through a cuirass is not a foregone conclusion. If you’re talking about modern rifle rounds, yes, those will efficiently punch through metal armor, but black powder firearms are far weaker.

When you’re dealing with a foe in plate armor, you’re not going to be hacking through the plate. (The exception is if you’re trying to use a blunt weapon.) You’re looking for openings to slip a blade in.

The easy openings are at the joints, these are necessary for the armor to function, because if the wearer can’t move, they can’t fight. By necessity, this means that elbows, shoulders, knees, and hips are not completely protected by metal. There were often additional elements designed to help protect those points, but there’s only so much you can do to protect someplace like the armpit.

Armor does confer a significant advantage, since it means that while your musketeer needs to land a precise hit, their foe has far more options for attack. So, your musketeer isn’t already toast, but if they’re one on one against a fully armored foe, they’re in a bad situation.

Detachable bayonets date back to the 1600s, which comes in at the end of full plate. Early bayonets were used to convert light infantry over to deal with incoming cavalry charges. This means the specific match up you’re talking about would have happened sometime between 1610 and 1650.

Also, the early bayonets used a plug design to attach to the weapon, sealing the barrel. Meaning that if a handgunner converted their musket with a bayonet, they wouldn’t be able to fire the weapon until they removed the blade. Ring mounted spike bayonets, which allow the weapon to be fired while mounted, date to the late 17th, or early 18th century.

As firearms became more numerous in war, full plate fell out of favor. Full plate was always expensive enough that its battlefield use was limited. It was useful to put on elite infantry and heavy cavalry. Against melee weapons it was a reasonable investment, particularly for elite forces, but against volleys of musket fire, it didn’t offer enough additional protection to justify the costs. By the time firearms had gained the accuracy to make it viable again, their armor penetration capabilities had improved to the point where plate never made a return.

Something I alluded to a moment ago, but I should probably point out. In a larger battle, it’s unlikely your character would be in a protracted one on one fight with another foe. For one thing, anyone in plate would be an elite in the enemy forces, meaning there wouldn’t be as many of them, and your character would probably have more allies on hand to assist with dealing with them.

However, gunshots do lose velocity over distance, so a round that might not pierce plate at 20ft, might still blow through a dented plate at a few inches. Remember that your character is now in melee with their foe. It’s entirely possible one of their allies might put a hot loaded bullet through their foe’s cuirass at point blank range to save their friend.

Another factor to consider is that in a battle, your character (and their foes) would be continuing to fight for extended periods of time, so fatigue is a major factor. Related to that, fighting while wearing full plate is far more exhausting, meaning that their foe may be more fatigued when they first match up. This is more of a consideration depending on where your fight is during the battle.

Battles are not a single fight scene. They’re an extended sequence that can potentially last for days. Remember they’ll only be fresh at the beginning of the battle. Even that isn’t certain, if they’re coming off a forced march, have been under siege for an extended period, or any number of other potential scenarios, they may already be a bit worn at the beginning of the battle.

When you’re staging a battle for your work, you need to know the scope of your perspective. You’re talking about focusing on infantry, which means the vast majority of the battle takes place beyond their frame of reference, so it becomes more of an ongoing endurance test of combat and trying to find a moment to catch their breath. If your PoV character is a general overseeing the battle, the way the sequence is structured should be significantly different, to reflect what they know and are responding to. So, instead of individual fights, they’d be focused on the overall tactics being used by and against their forces, and formulating ways to respond to those. At the most removed, this might simply be someone in a war room, hundreds of miles away, reading reports and issuing orders to their generals in the field.

The nature of your story should inform you what level of combat you want to engage with. If the war itself is the point, then that’s going to lend itself better to command or strategic level characters, while if it’s focused on the experiences of an individual, that’s probably going to be front line military. (It is possible to have a mix of these if you’re comfortable juggling different PoV characters, but keeping focus in a story like that could prove tricky.)

In a one on one, your character isn’t completely screwed, but it is a bad match up for them. They shouldn’t be in a one on one situation in the middle of a larger battle, but it is possible. However, it will be a very dangerous situation for your character.

-Starke

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