Thursday, June 19, 2014

Light vs Heavy

Light Cavalry, the French 4th Hussars at Friedland
Heavy Cavalry, Saxon Garde du Corps versus Russian Cuirassiers

FRaVMotC  Well Seasoned Fool asked me in an e-mail "...can you explain the difference between light and heavy cavalry?"

Why yes, yes I can.

Light cavalry and heavy cavalry can be distinguished, appearance-wise, by the size of the men and the horses they are mounted upon. Light cavalry horses tend to be smaller and more active than the horses ridden by the heavies. The men themselves are also, in general, smaller than the heavy cavalrymen.

Why is that?

For that we need to take a look at the roles and missions performed by these two types of horsemen.

The light cavalry spends a lot of time performing reconnaissance, screening the movements of their own army, protecting lines of communications and occasionally raiding the enemy's lines of communication. So they must be very active.

While they were used on the battlefield occasionally (think Charge of the Light Brigade) they weren't considered to be "line of battle" cavalry. No, that job belonged to the heavy cavalry.

The heavies, at least way back in the day, were armored, sometimes horse and man. Think of the knights of the old days, they were the ultimate heavy cavalry and at one time dominated warfare in Europe. One thing that limited their use was the expense. All that armor costs a lot of money.

As time went by and the infantry got better armed, typically by carrying some sort of firearm, the heavy cavalry began to shed a lot of that armor. They were still big men on big horses, but by the time of Napoléon about the only armor many of them had were helmets. Some units were equipped with steel breastplates and back plates (not all, the Austrians only had breastplates). Most of them were known as cuirassiers (kürassier in German) after the armor they wore.

The heavies were intended to be used on the battlefield as shock troops. Once the enemy had been bombarded and rattled, the heavies would advance, first at a walk then building to a gallop. Smashing into the foe, scattering them like so much chaff.

Unless the infantry kept their wits, maintained their formation and gave the cavalry a volley just before impact. Then a lot of men and horses would go down. (Hollywood always shows the guys getting shot off their horses and the horses just gallop on. Nope. The horses, being bigger than the men, were therefore bigger targets. Of course, having your horse shot out from under you was not a healthy thing to happen. Especially at a gallop!)

Also the light cavalry typically carried a curved sword and were expected to slash and cut with that weapon. The heavy cavalry sword was typically straight (and heavy, I know, I own one). The heavies were expected to use the point of the sword on the enemy, i.e. the thrust as opposed to the slash.

So those are the basic differences between light and heavy cavalry.

Then there are the dragoons. They were originally intended to be infantrymen on run-of-the-mill nags. The horses were simply to get them from point A to point B. Where they would dismount and fight like infantry. Most American cavalry were dragoons.

U.S. Dragoon circa 1850
While the dragoons were intended to be a sort of mobile infantry, in practice they were used like cavalry. Unfortunately, many generals used them the same as light cavalry (scouting and skirmishing) and expected them to perform as heavy cavalry as well! On the battlefield, charging and counter-charging with the heavies.

I'm sure they demanded higher pay for doing two jobs.

I doubt they received it!


  1. Thank you! Now, where do the lancers fit in?

    1. Lancers were generally classed as light cavalry. Though that lance was a very handy weapon in the right hands. So they did see a lot of use on the battlefield.

      The Poles were superb light cavalry, many were lancers. Napoleon took a regiment of them into his guard. He also created a number of French lancer regiments, who were officially known as chevau-légers lanciers which translates as "light horse lancers." Oddly enough, most of those lancer regiments were converted from dragoons!

    2. The most famous exploit of the Polish chevau-legeres was this:

      though, the golden age of Polish cavalry was 1500s and 1600s with the fabled
      decisively defeating armies many times their size

    3. The Immortal Winged Hussars!

  2. At least within the context of the Napoleonic Wars, most lancer units were used as a hybrid---medium cavalry, if you will. While not quite true shock cavalry like the cuirassiers, carabiners, etc., they could be used in a variety of combat effective roles. They could also be used to perform many of the traditional light cavalry duties. Napoleon's Polish lancers are certainly the most renown of the lancer units from this era. They were rightly feared by Russian Cossack cavalry as among the most fierce units in the French army. Having said that, the combat effectiveness of the lance has been a subject of some debate since its reintroduction during the Napoleonic Era. If you're looking for more information on this subject, or on Napoleonic cavalry generally, I would highly recommend Rory Muir's "Tactics and the Experience of Battle in the Age of Napoleon". It's a great synthesis of primary sources from that era.

    1. I actually have a copy of that book David, an excellent read!

      Good explanation of the role of the lancer. Typically (IIRC) only the first rank of a lancer squadron would carry a lance, the second (and subsequent) ranks were armed with the saber. I know the guys with lances also had sabers but not sure if all were issued lances. I suspect they were. The lance was a very hard skill to acquire. The Poles were experts, so were a number of Indian units. Some of which were incorporated into the East Indian forces maintained by the British during the period of the Raj.

      Another interesting cavalry note, the British had no cuirassier units during the Napoleonic Wars and did not see many of those in the Peninsula (most of the French cavalry there were dragoons). Based on the experience of Waterloo, where they saw a lot of those armored "behemoths", the British equipped a unit of cavalry with cuirasses. Which was odd, as this unit had been raised as cuirassiers in the 1600s!

      From Wikipedia - Founded August 1650 in Newcastle upon Tyne by Sir Arthur Haselrig on the orders of Oliver Cromwell as the Regiment of Cuirassiers, also known as the London lobsters, the regiment became the Earl of Oxford's Regiment during the reign of King Charles II. As the regiment's uniform was blue in colour at the time, it was nicknamed "the Oxford Blues", from which was derived the nickname the "Blues." In 1750 the regiment became the Royal Horse Guards Blue and eventually, in 1877, the Royal Horse Guards (The Blues).

  3. Thanks for the history lesson! That US Dragoon was probably mounted on a Western Mustang... :-)