|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|
I'm sure they demanded higher pay for doing two jobs.
I doubt they received it!