Why do I collect bayonets? by Graham Priest
As a post Second World child my first eight years of existence were spent without a television and largely without regular access to a motor car. Radio and cinema was a big influence, but real-life experience and the printed word were the vehicles for much information or imaginative entertainment. Life in a suburb of the City of Bath revolved around local affairs. Friends lived in the neighbourhood, attended the same schools, were restricted to distances that could be travelled by bicycle or on foot (rarely steam train or omnibus) and had more freedom to roam than children today. Most adults were known by name and knew you. The outside world did intrude greatly into daily life as demolished buildings and blackened walls were dotted all over the locality due to the actions of the war. Luxury goods and many foodstuffs required coupons as rationing was still in place. Exploring old cellars on bomb sites, climbing trees, building dens, cooking simple food on campfires, paddling in streams or swimming in the River Avon (and the wonderful thermal baths) were normal activities.
My father who was in the design team for HMS Vanguard, an uncle who had served in the RAF in Iraq, India & Afghanistan and another as an infantryman in Burma hinted at military events. German coins of curious zinc with Hitler’s face, brass regimental buttons & badges, playing cards with silhouettes of aircraft, tiny grey wooden recognition models of ships & war planes appeared as keepsakes. A large rusty piece of bomb-casing from an allotment was a treasure as it had formed part of the weapon that took the roof off our rented house, with my parents and sister inside, during the ‘Bath Blitz’ (24th-25th April 1942). Even better was a ‘tin hat’ issued to the Home Guard. A gnarled stick became a rifle and the ‘Axis Powers’ (friends without helmets!) were defeated regularly in the overgrown orchard of the Larkhall suburb! Even in the school playground a trade in artefacts was common. Coins, stamps, marbles, buttons, badges & cigarette cards were standard fare. Where is this leading?
My point is that circumstances produced a generation of collectors. Without the distractions of the digital age actual interaction between individuals was face-to-face. Limited resources fomented trade. Especially true when many domestic items, pre-1939, were no longer manufactured. The one exception was military surplus. To haggle required stock (‘swaps’ i.e. duplicates), discernment (do I have or want the other item?), knowledge (is the offering genuine and what is it?), relativity (what is the real value compared with the proposed deal?) and desire (how far can I go to secure the piece?). Such characteristics remain essential for the modern collector, whether they focus on bayonets or any other series of objects.
My first acquisition was a Danish Model 1899 cavalry sabre, negotiated for 5 shillings (25p) in my Secondary School playground in 1957. The spurious story that the seller’s uncle had carried it in the Crimean War (1854-56) had been taken into account (and discarded) as the chap would have been rather long-lived to have done so. With rust on the piece how was it to be treated? ‘Conservation’ began immediately when my father helped out (to ruin the original patina) with the buffing wheel on his lathe. A lesson to be later re-examined. To display them came next. A ‘pegboard’, neatly framed, was set up in my bedroom by the willing parent. Of course a single blade looked rather lost so the search began for a matched pair. Again adult help was gained when another sword was spotted in a Widcombe ‘junk shop’ on the journey to work. This time cost was £1-10s (£1.50) and all pocket-money was needed to gain it. It was ‘Number 21995’, a Pattern 1855 Wilkinson brass ‘Gothic’ hilted British infantry officer’s arm with steel scabbard. The symmetrical cross on the panel it made with the Danish version was (briefly) satisfying.
Chance then took a hand. George Deverall an ‘Uncle’ (most male neighbours were then) offered a French épée-bayonet that he had kept to defend his wholesale confectionary shop during the war. On fetching it from the Bath Walcot Street store a traditional farthing was requested to secure the gift. Although a variety of edged weapons appeared in the collection from this time onwards, either ethnic types or bayonets appeared to be the most commonly seen. Sword and knife bayonets soon outnumbered the rest. Specialism was still some years away.
A typed list was begun. Marks noted on the pieces stimulated enquiries. My French schoolmaster translated a rubbing from the back of the Épée-baïonnette modèle 1874. The inscription of Mre d’Armes de Ste Etienne Janvier 1878 became ‘Saint Etienne Arms Manufactory January 1878.’ This was my first research result. A few years later J.A. Clayton of Wilkinson Sword Ltd. confirmed that blade number 21995 had been sold at Pall Mall on 21st September 1877 as part of a batch of twenty-five examples.
‘O’ & ‘A’ Levels, higher education, job, marriage and family did not dim the search for extra edged weapons. A cedar wood panel was created in the hall of the new house. Street markets, antique shops, army surplus stores and similar emporia displayed numerous desirable blades so choice was only limited to a ready budget. The initial rule that no purchase would be made on credit was maintained.
Focus appeared when passing Quinney’s antique shop in Park Row when studying at Bristol University. In the corner of the window was a brass shell case full of socket bayonets. [Fig.2] Although cheaper than most of the serried ranks of weapons inside, the container never seemed to empty. Closer study showed the objects to be subtly different and possibly well over 150 years old. A steady purchase began. Soon swords, Malayan kris, sword-bayonets etc. previously bought began to be sold off to raise funds. This was the time when a wider search for socket bayonets started. Exchange & Mart listed mail-order bayonet sellers and through this medium contact with the established gurus of the bayonet world was at last fulfilled.
An awareness now dawned that many more discerning individuals had been influenced by the increased availability of bayonets in the 1950s and 1960s. Some of this was the result of the business acumen of international arms dealers such as Sam Cummings who had seen the potential of the civilian market to boost sales. (Brogan, P., & Zarca: 1984) He realised that North American shooters & huntsmen would buy up cheap military rifles for ‘sporterisation’ and the bayonets were therefore extra sources of revenue if sold separately. Those in the loop began general collections, others sought a particular country (Germany, Britain & USA especially) and a few became ‘middle men’ to supply the rest. Notable among the latter in England was John Anthony Carter (1943-2002) who had worked for Christie’s auction houses in London and Montreal. (Daily Telegraph: 6-7-2002) His cyclostyled list of bayonets from August 1971 onwards created a regular clientele. Other pioneers included Gordon Hughes from Brighton, George Seymour from Southend and Bernard Marsh from Manchester. Elsewhere in the world John Denner of Lancaster, Ontario Canada also set up in business. Interest was encouraged through advertising in journals such a Guns Review or the above trade paper I had discovered. They integrated with established groups (focused on armour, firearms & swords) that created opportunities for meetings at venues such as Arms Fair ‘68 held at the Cumberland Hotel in London. Less emphasis on the bayonet field ensured that demand was in its infancy and therefore availability greater.
A desire for knowledge at the time stimulated writers to publish data specifically about bayonets. In Britain Robert Wilkinson-Latham’s British Military Bayonets: From 1700-1945 (1967), Bert Walsh’s Bayonets Illustrated and Identified, Vol.1 (1968), Fred Stephen’s Bayonets: An Illustrated History and Reference Guide (1968) and John Walter & Gordon Hughes’ A Primer of World Bayonets: Common Knife & Sabre Bayonets, Part 1 (1969) set the scene. Al Hardin’s The American Bayonet 1776-1964 (1964) had already surpassed these academically with its amazing original research. Anthony Carter, Peter White, John Watts, Roger Evans, Ian Skennerton, Jerry Janzen, Robert Reilly and Paul Kiesling were soon to follow. Each more sophisticated study provided accurate background or explored a particular blade style.
Anthony Carter became an authority on German bayonets through his meticulous studies, and even opened up another branch of acquisition with his three-volume series entitled Bayonet Belt Frogs. More comprehensive general surveys supported those collecting principles that had interested me from an early age.
The arrival of the internet, global auction sites and better communications has risen collecting to a new level. Although shops, arms fairs and gun shows provide numerous chances for collecting, specialist sellers with lists e.g. The Bayonet Connection and other computer links e.g. Otto’s Militaria Web Site, not to mention online auctions such as eBay, have revolutionised retail methods. Enthusiasts in numerous countries now avidly explore and collect weapons from their native lands. Particularly strong is an interest in Australian bayonets as well as Second World War issues from Central Europe. Soviet blades have a big following. North America remains the leading continent, with most aficionados.
Information exchanges are also enhanced by organisations such as The Society of American Bayonet Collectors (1/1988), L’Association Française des Collectionneurs de Baïonnettes (1/1997), Bayonet Collectors’ Network (11/1996) and International Bayonet Association (1/2008). Publications with sections on bayonets, like Classic Arms & Militaria and The Armourer, also have a role to play. Fortunately the mercenary side of collecting, just to make a good investment, can be enhanced by the social interaction that a mutual hobby generates.
As the years pass the incentive to share my knowledge with others strengthen, which resulted in publishing The Socket Bayonet, A History & Collector's Guide (Amberley Publications 2016). I am glad that I focused on bayonets. The principles gained in that tarmac playground still give as much pleasure now as they did then.
1) Choose a range of objects with plenty of variation and price difference.
2) Discover as much information about them as you can prior to purchase through literature, internet research, visits to museums, shows & collections, personal advice & plenty of ‘hands-on’.
3) Buy from a reputable source (with a guarantee of authenticity) unless willing to risk disappointment.
4) Record your acquisition (information & insurance purposes) and tag in some way.
5) Only conserve if necessary. Better quality items need little attention.
6) Display to enhance enjoyment.
7) Share with others, either as individuals or through a suitable organisation.
Graham Priest's new book Socket Bayonets: A History and Collector's Guide is available now.
Brogan, P., & Zarca, A., Deadly Business, Michael Joseph Ltd., London, 1984.
Carter, A., World Bayonets 1800 to the Present: An Illustrated Guide to Collectors, 4 editions, Arms & Armour Press, London, 1984 with ‘price guide’ for 1984-85, 1987-88, 1990-91 & 1996-97.
Evans, R.D.C., A Bibliography of the Bayonet, Bayonet Studies, Series No.1, Baildon, 2000 (with updates since)
Janzen, J. Bayonets from Janzen’s Notebook, USA, 1987.
Kiesling, P., Bayonets of the World, 4 Vols. Military Collectors Service, Holland, from 1974.
Reilly, R.M., American Socket Bayonets and Scabbards, Mowbray, USA, 1990.
Skennerton, I., & Richardson, R., British & Commonwealth Bayonets, Margate, Australia, 1986.
Watts, J. & White, P., The Bayonet Book, Birmingham, 1975.