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Cavalry had evolved into five distinct types by 1590 in an attempt to address the different tactical roles of shock, firepower and reconnaissance. Shock tactics exploited the physical and psychological impact of a charge by heavily armed and armoured horsemen riding large horses. Cavalry mounts were around 16 hands high, weighing 500kg and could gallop at over 40kmh, though the weight of the rider meant that most attacks were delivered at considerably less than this. Horses were conditioned by being exercised in fields full of blazing straw and heaps of carrion to get them used to the sights and smells of the battlefield. They were also trained to kick and to manoeuvre in formation at various gaits.

Two types of ‘heavy’ cavalry evolved to use these tactics. Lancers were favoured by the Spanish and French as ‘gensdarmes’ and wore a full helmet that closed with a visor, as well as armour covering the entire torso, upper arms and upper legs. High leather boots protected the lower legs and feet, while leather or steel gauntlets covered the hands and forearms. They carried steel-tipped wooden lances around three metres long, enabling them to strike crouching foot soldiers as well as unseat opposing horsemen. The spread of firearms reduced the number of lancers in western and Central European armies to a small proportion by 1610, but Hungarian and Polish nobles still fought in this manner as ‘hussars’, wearing mail coats or armour made from layered metal sheets. These eastern lancers fastened pennons to their weapons and often wore ‘wings’ of bird feathers fixed to a wooden frame on their backs that created a rushing sound as they charged, adding to their fearsome appearance. Elsewhere, lancers joined the second group of heavy cavalry called cuirassiers, who wore the same armour but relied on long, straight swords for thrusting. These were easier to use in close combat than lances that were largely useless if the initial shock failed to break the opponent.

Both types of cavalrymen also carried a brace of pistols that were used both to shoot at stationary targets and in close combat. Pistols were carried in the saddle holsters with the triggers facing outwards, because their long barrels meant they had to be drawn with the hand turned towards the back. They could be fired only one at a time, as the rider needed a hand free to hold the reins. Ideally, each rider turned his horse to the left and fired with his right arm outstretched at right angles to avoid startling his horse or burning its ears if he fired directly over its head. As most men were right-handed, they had to hold the reins in their left hand and reach over to draw their left-hand side pistol or their sword. The latter was also difficult to extract while mounted, since there was no hand free to hold the scabbard. Firing a carbine was harder still, because this required both hands. Such difficulties persisted till the end of cavalry in the early twentieth century. While later technological developments made firearms easier to use on horseback they did little to resolve the basic problems of fighting while mounted.

Shock tactics were of limited use against disciplined infantry. Experienced commanders became skilled in judging whether opposing foot were likely to run by seeing how steadily they held their pikes. However, a charge could still falter if the infantry remained together, since the horses would not throw themselves on the pikes. Even those horsemen who did break through often found that their mounts simply bolted through the gaps between the enemy ranks, carrying them right through the formation. Swords were often blunt and failed to do much damage, even against the woollen cloaks of the musketeers.

Such problems encouraged the use of firearms instead, based on the caracole, a tactic similar to the counter-march that had been developed earlier by German pistoleers in the 1530s. Successive ranks would trot within range, fire and ride back to reload, sacrificing the psychological impact of shock tactics to the accumulative effect of firepower. The caracole was less tiring on the horses and required less resolve from soldiers than a charge, since the men did not need to close with their opponents. Even men trained to charge home with cold steel would often panic and break off their attack around ten metres from their target, ‘bouncing’ back to their start positions. This explains why contemporary accounts speak of repeated ‘charges’ by the same unit in battle.

The desire to improve mounted firepower led to a third type of ‘medium’ cavalryman called the arquebusier or carabineer, equipped with a light arquebus or carbine with greater range and penetrating power than a pistol. They generally wore less armour, usually no more than a helmet, breastplate, buff coat, boots and gauntlets, and so rode smaller horses and were cheaper to raise. Since they carried two pistols and a sword as well, they could be used for shock tactics and consequently gradually replaced the more expensive cuirassiers and lancers around 1630. Many regiments were composed of a mix of cuirassiers and arquebusiers into the 1620s, with the former deployed in the front ranks if the unit made a charge.

The fourth type of cavalry was a form of mounted infantry, called dragoons, who rode lighter horses or ponies and generally lacked any armour, including the high boots that were difficult to walk in. Dragoons were a mix of pike and shot, using their mounts for rapid movement to stiffen scouting parties, support infantry skirmishers sent forward to secure key positions, or turn an enemy flank. The last type was often employed on similar tasks, but remained mounted to fight. These ‘light’ cavalry were most numerous in Hungarian, Polish and Transylvanian armies and were a major feature of ‘eastern’ warfare that was integrated into the imperial forces. Around a fifth to a quarter of the imperial light cavalry carried lances and were generally called Cossacks or Poles, regardless of their actual origins, while the rest were Croats, distinctive in their red cloaks and fur hats, each armed with a carbine and a pair of pistols. They were grouped in regiments of generally less than five hundred men and attacked rapidly in a zigzag, first firing their right-hand pistol, then their left and finally their carbine again on their right, before racing away to reload.


The regiment was the primary administrative unit for both horse and foot, subdivided into companies, still called ‘banners’ (Fähnlein) in the Empire. This organization derived from the way soldiers were recruited, whereby a prince contracted a colonel to raise a regiment who then subcontracted the task of recruiting individual companies to captains. Influenced by the classical model of the Roman legion, most colonels strove to have regiments of ten companies, but actual numbers varied from four or five up to twenty companies in some foot units. Captains who received commissions direct from their paymaster raised ‘free companies’ unattached to any larger unit. Such companies were recruited to garrison fortresses or were raised by ambitious individuals hoping to rise through the ranks by proving their value as recruiting officers.

The military hierarchy of ranks still used in the twenty-first century was already in place by 1600.13 A colonel was assisted by a lieutenant-colonel who commanded in his absence. A major supervised training and administration and could command part of the regiment if it became detached from the rest of it. These three ‘staff’ officers were supplemented by secretaries, chaplains, doctors and a provost in charge of punishment. The same pattern was repeated in each company, with the captain assisted by one or two lieutenants, together with an ensign (called a cornet in the cavalry) responsible for the flag. There was generally also a company scribe, a barber surgeon and a number of non-commissioned officers (NCOs). Together, these senior ranks were known as the prima plana, or ‘first page’, on account of their names being listed before all the others in the muster register. The overall size of foot companies fell from three to four hundred, to two to three hundred over the sixteenth century, with cavalry companies averaging around half these sizes. The number of officers remained the same throughout, reflecting the growing emphasis on hierarchical order and enabling more complicated manoeuvres to be carried out. Officers and NCOs had ‘staff’ weapons in addition to swords, with the former carrying a partisan, or half-pike, that resembled a broad-bladed spear, while the latter held a halberd, or spear with an axe-head attached. Both these weapons symbolized rank, and had a practical purpose since they could be used for dressing the ranks by grasping the shaft in both hands and pushing it against several men simultaneously. They could also be used to push pikes or muskets up or down, especially to stop overexcited musketeers from firing prematurely.

The officer-to-men ratio remained relatively static after 1590, because of the technical limitations of the available weapons that required them to be used en masse. Around one officer or NCO could supervise about fifteen soldiers, but captains found it hard to command more than three hundred, as the smoke and noise of battle limited their ability to see what was happening and to shout instructions. This was another reason why infantrymen were packed close together in large formations, since it kept them within the sight of their mounted colonel. The flags and drums would be grouped in the centre and used to signal commands to the rest of the unit. Command problems also placed a premium on experienced men and it was reckoned at least a third of the strength had to be veterans to provide cohesion and sufficient old soldiers to teach new recruits the rudiments of drill and how to survive the rigours of campaign. However, personnel policy remained decentralized and in the hands of individual colonels who were reluctant to part with experienced men to assist the formation of new regiments. Regiment size also dictated prestige, as large formations commanded greater respect and resources than smaller ones that were more likely to be disbanded or amalgamated.

These factors encouraged Spanish and imperial colonels to recruit foot regiments of two to three thousand men, and mounted ones of around a thousand. The latter would be split into two to five squadrons, each of two companies, as tactical units formed into six to ten ranks. These squadrons were interspersed between the battalions in Dutch deployment, or massed on the flanks of the tercios in the Spanish system. Cavalry formed between a fifth and a third of western and Central European field armies, though the total proportion of infantry was higher since additional foot soldiers would garrison fortresses. Large infantry regiments could deploy as a single tercio, but weak ones had to be brigaded together to achieve the right numbers. Dutch-style battalions numbered between four and seven hundred men, so a large regiment might form two.

Artillery lacked formal organization as gunners still regarded themselves a separate guild under St Barbara, the patron saint of miners. Serving the guns was considered a special art with its own tradition and rituals. Catholic gun crew made the sign of the cross before firing and all faiths gave their pieces individual names. German theorists reckoned two to four pieces were required for every thousand soldiers, but usually only the lighter culverins and falconets accompanied the infantry and cavalry in battle. Large guns were expensive to produce and difficult to move, making them both valuable and vulnerable prizes for a victorious enemy.

Battle Tactics

Battle tactics sought the optimum combination of the three main military arms. Battles generally opened with a cannonade at under a thousand paces, while skirmishers went forward to probe and reconnoitre the enemy position. These moves bought time for the rest of the troops to assemble, and could be used simply to delay an enemy while the army made good its escape. The preference for large infantry formations kept deployment relatively varied, since these could be interspersed with artillery and cavalry in different patterns according to the terrain and the commander’s intentions. As Dutch-style firing tactics became more influential, the infantry tended to be massed in the centre in one or more continuous lines with only narrow gaps between each battalion to prevent enemy cavalry striking their vulnerable flanks. Second and subsequent lines were kept between a hundred and three hundred metres behind the first: any closer and they risked shooting their comrades in the back; any further and they would be too far away to assist in a crisis. This linear tactic encouraged commanders to place their cavalry on either side of the infantry lines in the manner that became standard in the later seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Full adoption of linear tactics was inhibited by doubts about the relative merits of firepower over shock, and by the conditions in eastern Europe where the Turks and others employed more flexible enveloping tactics using larger numbers of light troops. Imperial generals operating in Hungary relied on earthworks or wagons and other movable defences to protect their foot.

Generally, each of the three arms fought it out with their counterparts. The artillery sought to silence the enemy guns before its own troops moved forward and obscured the field of fire. The cavalry engaged the opposing horse, trying to drive them from the field and expose the flanks of the enemy foot. Each side hoped it would have sufficient artillery and cavalry left to tip the balance by the time the slower-moving foot soldiers had closed to within musket range, since the combination of two or more arms was generally superior to only one. Infantry could be pinned down by the threat of a cavalry attack, forcing them to remain in defensive formation while the enemy pounded them with artillery and musketry. Firepower could also be used to crack opposing formations, encouraging them to make a premature attack, or lose cohesion and so open them to a charge. Generalship and tactical innovation relied on variations in this standard pattern to achieve the effective combination of the three arms at an earlier stage in the engagement, thereby securing an easier and less costly victory.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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