The history of the bayonet predates the United States by at least a century. These were initially short swords, knives, and daggers that could be fitted to the end of a musket to allow it to be used as a spear in combat. This was considered not only practical but essential as early long guns were slow to reload, and as an enemy closed, ranged weapons could still be employed in a melee.
Originally, bayonets weren’t mounted under or to the side of a firearm’s barrel but literally plugged into the muzzle. This then gave way to “socket bayonets” that were mounted around a barrel. Designs slowly evolved, but even through the Second World War, many bayonets were still upwards of 20 inches in length, which unbalanced a rifle. The U.S. Army sought to shorten the length and the result was the M4 bayonet, which had a relatively narrow 6.75-inch spear-point blade with a sharpened 3.5-inch secondary edge. Its design was based on the M3 trench fighting knife that replaced the lengthy World War I trench knife.
It featured a blade made of carbon steel and was either blued or parkerized; while it initially had a grooved wooden handle that was later simplified by forming the grip out of stacked leather washers that were shaped by turning on a lathe. Later models utilized a molded plastic handle. It was upgraded as the M5, M6, and M7 bayonets—the latter being developed specifically for the M16 rifle (and can still be used today with the M4 carbine). The M7 entered service in 1964 and saw its first use in combat during the Vietnam War.
Enter the M9 Bayonet
The M7 remained in use with the U.S. military for more than two decades, until the partial introduction of the M9 bayonet, which was first issued by the United States Army in 1986. However, it is worth noting that the M7 is still in service, and the M9 hasn’t entirely replaced it.
The M9 is noted for several marked improvements.
Designed and developed by the late Charles A. “Mickey” Finn at Qual-A-Tec, it is actually a refined copy of the Russian AKM 6H3 bayonet. Finn, who was nicknamed “Q” after the James Bond film character, had designed a number of weapon systems for the U.S. Military and other government agencies. He later developed a golf putter, but it is the M9 bayonet that is his lasting legacy.
According to the legend, the Army had some 49 companies compete for the contract for the new bayonet, and Qual-A-Tec was the only one tested that had a zero percent rate of failure. Finn had been a minor celebrity from his designs, and his M9 bayonet was subsequently profiled in the Los Angeles Times newspaper and in a January 1987 issue of People magazine.
Finn is also remembered for explaining, “Everything I design is the best, regardless of cost. In the weapons industry, if what you make has defects it cost lives. I couldn’t live with that type of guilt.”
The Perfect Bayonet?
The M9 multi-purpose knife and bayonet has a seven-inch blade and like the M7 can be fitted to the M16 series rifle. When not employed on a rifle, it can serve as a utility knife and a wire cutter with its scabbard, while its spine features a serrated edge that is used as a cutting saw. Slightly longer than the M7, it also has a thicker and larger blade, which makes it ideal in its reserve role as a hand-held close-combat weapon for the infantry.
The first contract from the Army was for 315,600 units with two 60,000-unit options. The M9 was initially manufactured by Buck Knives for Finn’s company Phrobis in 1987, and in total Buck Knives produced 325,000 bayonets for the U.S. military between 1987 and 1989.
In addition, Buck Knives manufactured the M9 bayonets for the commercial market, and while nearly identical to models produced for the Army these were not true mil-spec models. All of the military-produced bayonets from this era will have Phrobis Markings, while any with Buck 188 marks are commercial versions.
Though the Army contract ended in 1989, Buck Knives went on to produce 5,000 bayonets for the United States Marine Corps in 1991. Those bayonets were issued to the 2nd Marine Division.
Where the story of the M9 becomes complicated is in its reputation and the numerous reports of breakage. Some soldiers and marines said they found the blade to be too thin, and that it was even prone to breaking. As a result, many prefer the time-proven M7 bayonet.
However, there is speculation that the issue could be with the commercial M9s, while subsequent firms also produced the bayonets under contract. That included LanCay, the Ontario Knife Company, and Tri-Technologies, which combined produced more than 100,000 bayonets. In addition, Finn’s design has been widely counterfeited and sold illegally by other makers.
Despite the reports of some breakage, the M9 continues to be used by multiple militaries, paramilitary forces, and police units around the world. In addition to the U.S. military, the M9 is currently used by the armed forces of Singapore, Thailand, and the Netherlands, and by the security forces of Abu Dhabi.
The M9 bayonet first saw its use in combat operations with the U.S. Military in the December 1990 invasion of Panama (Operation Just Cause). It was later used in the Persian Gulf War, the War in Afghanistan, and the Iraq War among other conflicts. More than 400,000 M9 bayonets have been produced to date.
While the USMC has adopted the OKC-3S, the Army continues to employ the M9 as it closes in on four decades in service.