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US M1873 Trowel Bayonet

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US M1873 Trowel Bayonet 9

Broad spadelike trowel blade with flat face on the socket side and central rib on the reverse side. 2-piece socket with rotating rear section with enclosed mounting slot, which turns 90 degrees to admit the front sight post then returns to position to lock the bayonet in place. Tin scabbard covered with black leather, with brass chape piece, riveted integral hanging strap with rotating belt loop. The brass swivel of the frog is cast with ‘US’.

In the 1860s the US Army had no standard issue entrenching tools for the individual infantryman (earthworks being the domain of engineers), but experience from the Civil and Indian Wars led commanders to the conclusion that the ability to create one’s own cover, even in the form of a shallow pit, was crucial for infantry on the battlefield. Development of a combination entrenching tool and bayonet began under the supervision of Brevet Lt. Col. Edmund Rice, with 200 experimental pieces made in 1868, converted from existing socket bayonets by shortening the cruciform blade and welding on side pieces to broaden it into a pointed spade shape.

These were followed by 500 of the same design, but made from scratch – dubbed ‘Rice’s Trowel Bayonet’, these were issued to the 3rd and 5th Infantry Regiments for field testing. Reports of it as a tool were surprisingly positive: tests at Fort Leavenworth found that in fifteen minutes two companies of infantry ‘so covered themselves that they could not be seen at a distance of fifty feet in front of an embankment which had been thrown up by them with the bayonet, and which could not be penetrated by a musket-ball fired at a distance of ten feet’.

There were notes of caution, however, that the design might not be soldier-proof, tempting troops to dig with it fixed to the rifle, which risked bending the barrel or clogging the muzzle. The Chief of Ordnance pointed out that an ordinary trowel ‘which can be carried in a soldier’s belt, will be quite as effective for digging… and would cost much less’.

As a weapon, there was concern that it would put soldiers at a disadvantage in reach against longer bayonets. Opinions differed on whether it would be better or worse at causing injury and some saw it as ‘uncouth and ugly’ for parade use, although it was also thought its fearsome appearance would have a greater psychological effect. A strong majority took the view, however, that bayonets were on their way to becoming obsolete in war anyway, and Rice’s design was a useful tool first and an adequate weapon second, handily combined together to save weight.

“My opinion [is] that prudence requires that the bayonet should be retained until experience shall demonstrate that it is valueless, [but] if it were necessary to dispense with it in order that an intrenching tool might be carried, I should advocate its abandonment. The trowel bayonet… spares us the necessity of making a choice between the two.” – Brig.-Gen. Terry, chair of the Board of Breech-Loading Small Arms

Most striking were the passionate views of combat veterans that, if every soldier were given such a tool, lives would be saved and battles won:

“It is a well-known fact, that on many an occasion during [the Civil War] our lines had to retire, but, had they been armed with the trowel-bayonet, they could have thrown up a temporary shelter… enabled to hold on to their position, and perhaps in some cases could have repulsed the enemy…” – Lt. Mitchell, 3rd Infantry

“… in over fifteen years’ service on the frontier, I can recall many an instance where the trowel bayonet would have been very welcome indeed to deepen a buffalo wallow, or to throw up a small earth-work for protection against a hot fire from Indians… being without the least shelter on the prairies, not a stone or piece of wood within sight or reach, hotly pursued by mounted Indians, has to be experienced in order to value properly an intrenching tool always on hand…” – 2nd Lt Gerlach, 3rd Infantry

“At the battle of Fredericksburg in December 1862, the regiment to which I belonged lost forty percent of its strength from the fire of sharpshooters, whilst lying down in line awaiting the order to advance – a disaster which I truly believe would have been avoided had the trowel bayonet been at that time in use.” – 2nd Lt Campbell, 3rd Infantry

“I served three years as a line officer… in every battle fought by the Army of the Potomac, with exception of two, and in numberless skirmishes… I often felt want of something other than tin plates, halves of canteens, sharpened sticks etc. with which to throw up temporary shelter from the fire of the enemy, as the intrenching tools of an Army rarely ever get up to the front until the exigency for their use has passed.” – Lt Logan, 5th Infantry

With lukewarm support for traditional bayonets and very strong support for an individual entrenching tool, a revised version of Rice’s design went into limited production as the Model 1873, of which this is an example. 10,000 were produced, which seem to have been intended for trial use across the whole Army with a view to further production, but the experiment seems to have petered out. By 1876 the trowels were no longer being issued, and in due course the Model 1880 entrenching tool was introduced: a much simpler short, flat military trowel with wooden handle.

The M1873 may have inspired the Mexican M1908 Mondragon bayonet, the only other entrenching tool/bayonet combination attempted by an army – although the Mondragon’s blade shape is notably similar to the M1880 tool instead.

The bayonet’s socket and shank are blued overall, while the blade has patinated to a very similar grey finish, with some scattered light pitting to the upper face. The socket’s rotating rear section functions well. The brass scabbard fittings are lightly and evenly patinated, there is some surface-level cracking to the leather of the scabbard, and light rubbing wear along its raised central ‘rib’ and around the throat. This is purely cosmetic, with no loss of integrity to the scabbard body. Some slight movement to the riveted hanging strap, while the belt loop rotates on its swivel as expected. The belt loop’s leather has some deeper cracking in places on the inside as worn. All the scabbard’s stitching is intact.


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