Ben Miller

Major Anthony Gordon, and the Development of Bayonet Fencing in the British Isles: 1740-1820

In Georgian Era, Martial Arts, Military, Uncategorized, Weapons and Armor on November 15, 2017 at 1:59 pm

Above: Illustration of Anthony Gordon’s bayonet method, drawn ca. 1804-1805, never published. The soldier in blue represents the old established exercise, while those in red, on the right, showcase Gordon’s new method. Courtesy of the British Museum, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

As far as is currently known, prior to the 1780s, the British military—like that of most of Europe—did not officially instruct its rank and file troops in a systematic method of self-defense for close-quarters combat with the bayonet (although it is possible that elite units received more advanced instruction, no known extant sources indicate what that may have consisted of). Instead, the bayonet position prescribed in the established exercise did not really guard the soldier at all, but was a direct descendant of the old “firelock” stance which had replaced that of the pike. In this exercise, attacks with the bayonet were made by first “charging” the weapon—that is, withdrawing the rear arm so that “the soldier has the butt-end behind him, and the left elbow advanced toward the middle of the barrel”—and then “pushing” the bayonet forward using the arms alone, and sometimes with a slight lean of the body:

The old “push bayonet” position, illustrated in Benjamin Cole’s 1746 Pocket Companion.

Although the British exercise was slightly revised in 1764 (to include a shift in the grip of the rear hand to the “small,” rather than bottom, of the musket butt), the old, simple “charge-push” technique remained essentially the same. In 1771, a treatise on military tactics by “Sieur B,” published in London, lamented the bayonet position “almost general through Europe,” which was “of pernicious consequence, as it is an evident obstacle to the action of a soldier.” Leading members of the British military establishment frequently dismissed such criticism, laboring under the impression that the bayonet was a rather poor and ineffective weapon—only to be used as a last resort—and therefore unworthy of further attention. As the British commander (and veteran of the failed attempt to suppress the American Revolution) Lieutenant Colonel William Dalrymple stated in 1782:

William Dalrymple (1736–1807)

“The Bayonet can be of little utility by way of impulsion in the field, for the reasons before assigned: From the formation of our Battalions, thin and incohesive, calculated so much for the missive weapon; the want of defensive armour; and the bayonet being placed at the end of the firelock, renders it a weapon most unwieldy, and with which it is not easy to fence: These defects in modern infantry, prove the impracticability of two Battalions, opposed to each other, being brought in the open field to close encounter: One body must give way before they get into action.” – Tacticks by Lieutenant Colonel William Dalrymple, of the Queen’s Royal Regiment of Foot (Dublin: Printed by George Bonham, for W. and H. Whitestone, 1782), 113.

Dalrymple’s solution was simply to ignore bayonet training, and to insist that armies avoid close-quarters combat at all costs.

This dynamic would change, however, thanks to the efforts of Anthony Gordon, a native of Ulster, Ireland, who would go on to create the first known method of bayonet fencing in the British Isles, utilizing principles similar to those applied to the foil and small-sword.

Gordon’s signature, shown in government correspondence.

After attending Trinity College, Dublin, Anthony Gordon became, during the early 1780s, a prominent member of the celebrated Dublin fencing society, the Knights of Tara; notably, he was also a student of Ireland’s most renowned fencing master, Cornelius Kelly. Upon leaving Trinity, Gordon joined the British Army in Dublin as a young lieutenant, and was shocked to find that his fellow soldiers apparently received no training in any particular self-defense method for close-quarters combat with the bayonet. He later recounted:

On joining the regiment, [I] was astonished to find no Exercise for close action; no notions of making thrusts, cuts, and parades [parries]; no system of defence or offence; for the established Exercises are adapted only to the missile weapon, and to the movements in Line, Column, Square, and Echellon, &c.

Gordon thus determined to develop and propagate a new, and far more sophisticated, method of attack and defense with the bayonet. Between 1783 and 1805, Gordon authored a number of important treatises on the subject. A detailed chronicle of the development of Gordon’s method is contained in Chapter VII (pp. 289-335) of the new book Irish Swordsmanship: Fencing and Dueling in Eighteenth Century Ireland. This chapter, which is devoted to the life, career, and writings of Major Gordon, also includes numerous extracts and images from Gordon’s earlier works which have not previously been noticed by scholars or historians.

Detail of plate (restored) from Gordon’s 1805 Treatise on the Science of Defence.

Gordon’s earliest known writing on bayonet fencing—which found its way into the hands of America’s founding father, George Washington—laid the groundwork for his later works, of which the most well-known is his Treatise on the Science of Defence: For the Sword, Bayonet, and Pike in Close Action (London: 1805). Shown below are plates from a copy of an 1806 second edition containing autograph notes by Gordon in the margins:

Between 1780 and 1820, a large number of British units trained in, and adopted, Gordon’s method. These included the 67th and 90th regiments, the Royal Marines, numerous volunteer regiments (such as Lord Hobart’s Regiment, the Loyal North Britons, and the St James Westminster Volunteer Regiment), the Light Infantry of the Foot Guards, and others. The effectiveness of Gordon’s exercise—as compared to that of the established exercise—was well-proven at the time. Contests and demonstrations between 1803 and 1818 before King George III and the British military brass gave little doubt as to its superiority. As one witness reported: “the superiority of the new exercise was such as to render it evident, that combatants on the old plan, receiving its attacks, would be destroyed on the first moment of onset.” (Irish Swordsmanship, 299-306, 329-333).

Above: Illustrations of two of the regiments who adopted Gordon’s “new method.” From the book Irish Swordsmanship: Fencing and Dueling in Eighteenth Century Ireland.

As to the system’s specific techniques, as stated previously, many extracts and images from Gordon’s published works and manuscript can be found in Irish Swordsmanship. However, following the publication of that book, several new color images detailing aspects of Gordon’s method have been discovered among the collection of the British Museum, and are presented in this article.

Front view, never published, of Anthony Gordon’s system of consolidated ranks. Courtesy of the British Museum, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

These original pencil and watercolor images, drawn by Richard Cook (1784-1857), were acquired by the British Museum from the artist (or his estate) in 1857. Although they are not identified by the museum as specifically illustrating Gordon’s method, a comparison between the watercolors and Gordon’s known works leaves one with no doubt that they represent the same system. It may be that these watercolors were the original images used as the basis for the illustrations in Gordon’s 1805 publication. Or, it may be that these sketches were part of a unique manuscript (now believed to be lost), authored in 1806 by Gordon’s nephew James, in which a plan was laid out to reform the army and implement the new method.

This image is similar to Plate no. 12 in Gordon’s Treatise, but with some noted differences. On the left are depicted soldiers of the established exercise, while the soldiers on the right demonstrate Gordon’s system. A soldier on the right, originally part of Gordon’s 2nd (center) rank, lunges to reach an enemy soldier in the opposing 2nd rank, while a soldier in Gordon’s 1st rank uses his bayonet to protect against the point of the enemy’s bayonet in the opposing 1st rank. Courtesy of the British Museum, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Some of the watercolor figures are identical to the line drawings which appear in Gordon’s published Treatise on the Science of Defence, but are glaringly absent from an earlier manuscript draft drawn up by Gordon in 1804—thus representing the “missing” figures in the latter, which were then subsequently re-drawn and published in the 1805 and 1806 editions.

The soldiers on the right are nearly identical to those shown in plate 14 of Gordon’s published 1805 treatise. On the left is a frontal view of squared ranks, never published. Courtesy of the British Museum, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Excitingly, the color drawings also include some additional sketches and figures which have never before been published. Among the latter include close-up sketches of the various grips to be used in Gordon’s system, as well as an overhead diagram of the positions which the feet were to be adhered to when forming ranks. These images assist in developing a fuller understanding of Gordon’s innovative method.

Detail: sketch of a grip on the small of the musket butt. Courtesy of the British Museum, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Detail: sketch of the grip on the bottom of the musket butt, used in Gordon’s new method. Courtesy of the British Museum, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Detail: sketch of a soldier on guard in Gordon’s new method. Courtesy of the British Museum, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

A diagram showing the proper placement of feet in a rank formation. Courtesy of the British Museum, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

POSTSCRIPT

Gordon’s system was revolutionary for its time, but, despite the support of numerous officials, and even the king himself, it encountered significant opposition from members of the British military establishment, many of whom held views similar to Dalrymple’s. Although the later European methods of bayonet fencing which developed in the 1820s and 1830s did not copy Gordon’s method closely, his continuing influence can be seen in a number of ways. For instance, the similarities between Gordon’s technique pitting the bayonet against cavalry (which was original when it first appeared) and others used decades later is evident below:

Bayonet versus cavalry (at the top) in Anthony Gordon’s 1805 treatise. Below his image are two plates published in subsequent decades in Germany and Britain.

Whatever the exact degree of influence his method may or may not have exerted, as far as is currently known, Anthony Gordon has the distinction of being the first individual in the British Isles—and perhaps Northern Europe—to write in any significant detail about applying fencing principles to the bayonet. Nearly a century later, in 1913, the Aberdeen Journal was not overstating the truth when it referred to Gordon as the “Modern Father” of bayonet fencing in Great-Britain.

FURTHER READING:

The martial wisdom of Ireland’s swordsmen survives in Irish Swordsmanship: Fencing and Dueling in Eighteenth Century Ireland. The product of more than ten years of research, the first part of this book tells the story of eighteenth century Ireland’s most renowned duelists, gladiators, and fencing masters. The second part of this book contains the text of A Few Mathematical and Critical Remarks on the Sword—an almost completely overlooked fencing treatise, now published again for the first time in more than 230 years, that is currently the only known original treatment of swordsmanship by an Irish author published in Ireland during the eighteenth century. The Irish pike exercise has also been included among the book’s many appendices. “Irish Swordsmanship” contains extensive footnotes, more than sixty drawings, paintings, and engravings from the period, a comprehensive glossary of terms, and seven appendices.

Irish Swordsmanship is available in both paperback and hardcover editions from Amazon USAmazon UKAmazon EuropeBarnes & Noble, and other national and international retailers.

You can also read extracts, view images, and read articles pertaining to the book and its subject by visiting the book’s Facebook page.

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