Some of the Most Effective Melee Weapons of WWI, The Bayonet Was Not One of Them

Photo Credit: York Museums Trust - CC BY-SA 4.0; MittlererWeg - CC BY-SA 3.0
Photo Credit: York Museums Trust - CC BY-SA 4.0; MittlererWeg - CC BY-SA 3.0

WWI was a terrifying fusion of old and new. An infantryman might have a slower-firing bolt action rifle, or he could find himself behind a rapid-firing Maxim gun.

Mazes of trenches that ran for hundreds of miles were the setting of a lot of fighting. Trenches could be filled with gas, soaked and muddy, or partially collapsed by artillery. This made for frantic close-quarters-combat. In these confines and situations of overwhelming charges of men, melee weapons became extremely effective.

A somewhat surprising fact is that the least preferred melee weapon was the bayonet, a knife attached to the end of a gun barrel. The reach was decent, but predictable forward jabs could be parried. The blade could break, being so thin and exposed. It could become wedged in an enemy, being successful, then immediately useless. Bearing that in mind, here are some of the most effective melee weapons of the Great War.


The Kukri is one of the few on the list that was not an improvised weapon and was not created in response to trench warfare. It had always been and continues to be an absolutely deadly weapon.

A wide and very long knife/short sword, the Kukri has a concave kink less than a third of the way up the blade. After the kink the blade widens and angles inward, finishing in a sharp point.

The Kukri’s weight and angle enabled it to be swung like an ax, causing disproportional damage compared to its weight. Its reach was deceptive. Striking with just a small bit of the point would cleave through the heaviest of clothing.

One thing to note was that the Kukri was used almost exclusively by the Nepalese Gurkha regiments that fought for the British Empire.

a simple tourist version of the Kukri. Photo Credit
A simple tourist version of the Kukri. Anon5551212 – CC BY-SA 4.0


Trench Club

One of the most varied items utilized in the war was the trench club. Simply, it could be anything used as a club and be the most effective it could be. A stick of wood could work, but when soldiers drilled out a hole for a lead weight and wrapped the end in barbed wire, it became truly lethal.

Antique maces that looked like they came straight out of the dark ages were also used.

A collection of clubs used in WWI. Photo Credit
A collection of clubs used in WWI. Stefano Menchiari – CC BY-SA 3.0.

Trench clubs were incredibly useful during the war. They were much quieter than guns and could immediately incapacitate an enemy with a sharp blow to the head. They had a reach advantage over knives and could be readied quite quickly after a strike.

Soldiers may have used clubs when charging through the aftermath of a successful gas attack, putting gassed men out of their misery.

French Nails

While not the most effective weapons French Nails were some of the cheapest and easiest weapons to make during the war. Made from steel stakes or unwanted bayonets, they were the simplest of knives with crude, bent handles.

An early, simple, version of the French Nail. Photo Source
An early, simple, version of the French Nail. MittlererWeg – CC BY-SA 3.0.

The bottom line was that they worked. They were reasonably durable and were small enough to use as a one-off weapon before switching to a gun or club. The U.S.’s official trench knife was good, but the brass knuckle guard was not liked by everyone.

Its blade was known to be brittle. Two to three French Nails could be produced from one bayonet, and their design was improved and standardized throughout the war.

Entrenching Tool (Trench Shovel)

Shovels would continue to account for kills all the way through the Korean and Vietnam Wars.
Shovels would continue to account for kills all the way through the Korean and Vietnam Wars.

Yes, a simple shovel was an astoundingly effective weapon during WWI. Soldier’s shovels were relatively compact.

They had a sturdy handle and wide, sharp blade which could be sharpened to make it almost as effective as an ax. It also had an excellent reach, and when swung correctly, the blade cut through the air to strike even faster than a club.

Similar to French Nails, the shovels were comparatively cheap, especially as the troops already needed shovels. A mainstay in trench warfare, soldiers were usually within reach of a shovel.

Sharpening the shovel made it more effective at digging and killing, so a soldier had two reasons to maintain his shovel.

Lastly, melee weapons could be as simple as a soldier bringing his own ax to the front, or as ornate as an officer’s saber. Swords were particularly effective as the majority of troops did not have any armor to stop sword slashes.

Pikes were even used on occasion, giving, by far, the longest reach. They were, however, only really effective in open terrain where guns were much more superior.

William Mclaughlin

William Mclaughlin is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE