Part 5 - Cavalry weapons and organisation

by George Gush

Heavy cavalry

AT THE BEGINNING of the period the fully armoured cavalryman - the often aristocratic 'Gendarme' - still formed the main striking force of most European armies. Protected from head to toe by elaborate plate armour of 'Maximilian' or 'Italian' style, armed with a heavy lance and often riding a charger itself protected by an armoured 'bard', these ultra-heavy horsemen normally charged at the gallop 'en haie' (in line abreast) and, given open ground to charge over, could still smash most infantry other than solid formations of pikemen.
    In the French and other forces such men still came to war with what amounted to a small retinue of servants and retainers - the French counted them by 'lances' each consisting of one gendarme and five lighter horsemen - and thus in the early 16th Century lighter and heavier cavalry charged together in mixed formation.
    Heavy lancers remained in widespread use up to the end of the 16th Century, and in small numbers in, for example, Spanish service, up to the 30 Years War, and they were employed everywhere from England in the West to Poland and Hungary in the East. Their armour probably tended to become heavier during the 16th Century, since at least the main plates were made 'proof' (against firearms - by the 17th Century breastplates were supposed to be musket-proof and backplates pistol-proof). Certainly armour reached its greatest weight during this period - one Maximilian armour of 1520 weighed 42 lb, and an English armour of 1590 no less than 71 lb, while the armour for horse and man of the Count Palatine, 1530, totals about 120 lb.
    Perhaps as compensation for this, horse armour seems to have largely disappeared after the first quarter of the 16th Century (German mercenaries in the service of Henry VIII refused to use horse bards, saying they were cumberous and only fit for show). Moreover, armour replaced full harness, heavy leather boots taking over the protection of the rider's lower leg. In the 17th Century the more heavily armoured cavalry usually wore a rather ugly type of armour, with a very short peaked breastplate and long laminated 'tassets' protecting them from waist to knee.
    The invention of the pistol (probably in Germany in the 1530s) created an alternative type of heavy cavalryman, the pistolier, who gradually replaced the lancer in the second half of the 16th Century. Armoured similarly, or wearing half-armour, pistoliers formed up in close-packed square, wedge-shaped or column formation. They normally advanced at a ponderous trot, each rank loosing off their pistols when within range, then wheeling to a flank and proceeding to the rear to reload. This tactic, the 'caracole' or 'limangon' has been universally condemned by later military writers, and must certainly have been very difficult to carry out properly under battle conditions; moreover it was not very effective against other cavalry, especially if they were prepared to charge home.
    However, it did give cavalry some chance of taking on the massive pike-blocks of the period, the pistol fire opening up gaps which could be exploited by a charge. I think this was probably why the pistolier was preferred to the Lancer in the later 16th Century. They must have been effective troops or their most famous exemplars, the mercenary German 'Reiters' would not have been in such demand for so long.
    In the French Wars of Religion, Henry of Navarre began to train his Huguenot pistoliers to charge home with the sword, firing their pistols and then hurling them at the enemy at the last moment. This proved highly effective against other cavalry, and in the 17th Century cavalry operating in this way became very widespread and successful - the 'standard' type in fact. The charge finished at the gallop and there was a tendency toward the lightening of the armour of such horsemen, either to breast and back plate and open 'pot' helmet, or even to just a buff (leather) coat and plumed hat; in this period dealing with enemy cavalry had become the main cavalry task. Trotting pistoliers in heavier armour also survived, one example being the Parliamentarian cuirassiers or 'lobsters' of the English Civil War. Cavalry charging at the gallop were drawn up five or six ranks deep in the early 17th Century, later sometimes in three ranks. They were often supported by small groups of 'commanded' musketeers, interspersed chequer-board fashion between their squadrons.

Light cavalry

    'Light' cavalry, usually armed with the lance, and often pretty heavily armoured were, as has been seen, often mixed with gendarmes in the early 16th Century, and such troops were later separated into groups of' chevaulegers' or similar. However troops of this type, like the English 'demilances' of the period, were really heavy cavalry using similar tactics to the gendarmes.
    True light cavalry, with high mobility, loose open-order formations, and a skirmishing function in battle, were at the beginning of the period found only in the East (where they were universally unarmoured horse-archers with composite bows) and in areas influenced by these Easterners, like Poland and Hungary (horse-archers too), Spain ('Genitors' with javelin and shield) and Italy, where the favoured types were mounted crossbowmen and the originally Albanian 'Stradiots' with spear, sabre, mace and shield.
    The development of firearms which could be employed on horseback gave rise to a new breed of light cavalry during the Italian Wars (though very primitive handguns had been used by some cavalry by the mid-15th Century). Mounted arquebusiers seem to have been first used by the Condottiere Camillo Vitelli in the 1490s, and were quite widespread by the mid- 16th Century, when the French even had elite troops of this type.
    Such cavalry were trained to skirmish on foot as well as horseback, and by the 17th Century tended to divide into, firstly, Dragoons, who were really mounted infantry, and secondly troops still called 'Arquebusiers', 'Carabineers' and so forth, but who had actually managed to turn themselves into heavy cavalry, armed with sword and pistols, rather than with the weapons from which they derived their names.
    Eastern Europe continued to provide light cavalry in the 17th Century, and by the 30 Years War recognisable prototypes of later light cavalry such as hussars were already to be found in Imperial armies. Most carried curved single-edged sabres originally derived from Tartar or Turkish swords.

Eastern cavalry

    The main type, apart from the light horsearchers already mentioned, was a heavy lancer, armoured in a combination of mail and plate and carrying a light 12-foot lance (similar to that used by English, Scottish and Spanish light cavalry into the 17th Century). Such a horseman would normally also carry the composite bow and perhaps a shield and might ride an armoured horse. Troops of this kind were employed by the Mamelukes (the best), Turks, Persians and Indians throughout the period (and in the latter two cases up until the 19th Century). They resisted the introduction of firearms until late in the 17th Century.
    Mailed lancers of a not very dissimilar type were also found in Muscovite and Polish armies of the period.

Cavalry weapons

    Apart from the lances, etc, already mentioned, most European cavalry also carried a long straight double-edged sword and sometimes other short weapons like maces and pollaxes (short weapons with an axe blade on one side and a hammer-head on the other, still carried, slung on the wrist, by cavalry in the English Civil War). Some Eastern cavalry had extra-long straight swords intended for armour-piercing.
    Cavalry firearms became really practical with the invention of the wheel-lock (Germany, about 1517). This worked by using a key to wind up a spring attached to a steel wheel with serrated edge; when the trigger was released the spring spun the wheel against a piece of iron pyrites, causing a shower of sparks, igniting the powder in the pan and thus firing the gun (provided, that is, it had not been left wound up for too long so that the spring lost its elasticity - this could happen overnight as the Parliamentary General Lambert was saddened to discover).
    The wheel-lock was a relatively delicate and expensive mechanism and so did not catch on as an infantry weapon, but was a godsend to the cavalryman, providing, as it did, a weapon which could be fired one-handed. It was quickly applied to arquebusses, pistols, and petronels (a 16th Century cavalry gun of intermediate size). Cavalry also used flintlocks in the later part of the period.
    Favourite cavalry pistols were the German 'Faustrohre' type - barrel 18 inches long, firing a ball of 20 to the pound, and weighing about 5 lb. Having a nearly straight butt with a very large round pommel, it was well-suited to clubbing the enemy as well as shooting them. When fired, pistols were normally held on one side, lock upwards, to make sure that the priming powder communicated with the touch-hole. A long-barrelled one of this type might be accurate up to 20 yards or so and unaimed fire might be effective up to 50 yards or more against a really huge target, though in 1587 de la Noue wrote that effective range was three paces!
    Cavalry Arquebusses, Carbines, Dragons and the like varied in size, but seem to have been usually shorter and of wider calibre than equivalent infantry weapons - Markham, in his Souldiers Accidence of 1625 stated that a 'dragon' should have a 16 inch barrel, and in the 1640s a dragoon was said to have a musket with 'something a wider bore than ordinary'. A French carbine or 'scoppette' of the 1550s has a barrel about 17 inches long and a bore of nearly an inch! Such weapons would be a little more accurate than pistols (especially the shorter-barrelled type called 'dags' in England) but still would not be effective at any great distance, especially if fired from the saddle. I would think 100 yards or so the maximum range at which any damage could be done.
    During the English Civil War rifled pistols were popular with officers. They were very accurate (Prince Rupert showed off by hitting a church weather-cock with a shot from one) but they don't seem to have been used in other countries.

Cavalry organisation

    In the 16th Century heavy cavalry seem usually to have operated in tactical units, sometimes referred to as squadrons, of 400 to 1,000 men (the higher figure referring particularly to pistoliers). These were probably ad hue rather than permanent formations. In the later 16th and the 17th Century the basic cavalry unit was a troop (sometimes called cornet, squadron or ensign) of from 60 to 120 men; from four (Dutch) to eight (Scots Covenanters) troops might be formed into a regiment but until the second quarter of the Century such Regiments would not be permanent formations.

Proportion of cavalry in armies

    Throughout the period this would be very high indeed in Eastern armies; Tartars would always, and Persians and Mamelukes usually, have 100 per cent cavalry. The Turks generally backed their cavalry with footsoldiers but normally employed more horse than foot, and in their standing army cavalry outnumbered infantry. The same would be generally true of Eastern Europe - Muscovy, Poland, Hungary.
    In Western Europe there was some variation between nations - the French in the 16th Century usually fielded a lot of cavalry, the Spanish and English were generally short of horse - but there were some general trends. In the Italian Wars period the proportion of cavalry tended to fall (France from 2/3 to about 1/11, Spain from 1/5 to 1/12). This may have been caused by the successes won in these wars by artillery and arquebus, temporarily placing cavalry under a cloud, because there was a later recovery: Henry IV of France in 1609 had about 1/7 cavalry in his regular army; and Imperialist armies of the 30 Years War seem to have had up to 1/3 cavalry. This proportion was stated to be the ideal by General Monck, and was actually achieved in the Parliamentary 'New Model Army' of 1644, while the Cavaliers often had a higher proportion, up to nearly 50 per cent.


Mounted arquebusiers, their equipment and evolutions; from Wallhavsen Art Militaire a Cheval, 1616.

Equipment of lancer and reiter, also from Wallshavsen Art Militare a Cheval, 1616.

Burgundian horse armour (Bard) of the 16th Century, also in the Tower of London.

17th Century German cavalry armour in the Tower of London.

German horseman with wheel lock Faustrohre pistols, about 1600. [After Joseph Amman, 1578].

Henry VIII's horse armour from the Tower of London.

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