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For much of history, humans have used some form of cavalry for war. Cavalry tactics have evolved over time. Tactically, the main advantages of cavalry over infantry troops were greater mobility, bigger impact and a higher position.


Chariot tactics had been the basis for using the horse in war.[citation needed] The chariot's advantage of speed was outdone by the agility of riding on horseback. The ability of horsemen to pass more difficult terrain was also crucial to this change. Horsemen supplanted most light chariots. In Celtic warfare light chariots (essedum) prevailed among mounted troops for their ability to transport heavily armoured warriors and as mobile command platforms.

Riding and fighting on horseback

At first it was not considered effective to use weapons on horseback, but rather to use the horse as transport. "Mounted infantry" would ride to battle, and then dismount to fight. For a long time, riders and charioteers worked alongside each other in the cavalry.

The first recorded instance of mounted cavalry are the mounted archers of the Iranian tribes appearing in Assyrian records from the 9th century BC.

Mongolian troops had a Buryat bow, for showering the enemy with arrows from a safe distance. The aim on horseback was better than in a jiggling chariot, after it was discovered to shoot while all hooves of the horse were in the air. Nevertheless, an archer in a chariot could shoot potentially stronger infantry bows.

Javelins were employed as a powerful ranged weapon by many cavalries. They were easy to handle on horseback. Two to ten javelins would be carried, depending on their weight. Thrown javelins have less range than composite bows, but often prevailed in use nevertheless. Due to the mass of the weapon there was a greater armor-piercing ability and they thus caused fatal wounds more frequently. Usage is reported for both light and heavy cavalry, for example by Numidia and the Mongol's light cavalry or the heavy cataphracts, Celtic cavalry and the Mamluks during the Crusades. Celtic horsemen training was copied by the Roman equites. A significant element learned from the Celts was turning on horseback to throw javelins backwards, similar to the Parthian shot in archery.

Early saddles had no abdominal belt, nor were they high enough to charge safely with full force. The sarissae, lances and more often spears of cavalry were therefore used as thrusting and cutting weapon with a limited jolt. Stirrups and spurs improved the ability of riders to act fast and secure in melées and manoeuvres demanding agility of the horse. But their employment was not unquestioned. Agile movement of the rider on horseback was highly esteemed for light cavalry to shoot and fight in all directions. Contemporaries regarded stirrups and spurs as inhibiting for this purpose. Andalusian light cavalry refused to employ them till the 12th century, nor were they used by the Baltic turcopoles of the Teutonic order in the battle of Legnica(1241).

An outstanding example of combined arms and efficiency of cavalry forces were the medieval Mongols. Important for their horse archery was the use of stirrups for the archer to stand while shooting. This new position enabled them to use larger and stronger cavalry bows than the enemy.

Tactics of light and medium cavalry using bows


A 13th-century Mongol saddle cover

Armies of horse archers could cover enemy troops with arrows from a distance and never had to engage in close combat. Slower enemies without effective long range weapons often had no chance against them. It was in this manner that the cavalry of the Parthian Empire destroyed the troops of Crassus (53 BC) in the battle of Carrhae. During their raids in Central and Western Europe during the 9th and 10th centuries, Magyar mounted archers spread fear and terror in West Francia and East Francia; a prayer from Modena pleads de sagittis Hungarorum libera nos, domine ("O Lord, deliver us from the arrows of the Hungarians.")[1]

Another fairly popular tactical system was known as "shower shooting." The Sassanid Persians and the Mamluks were the chief proponents of the idea, although Muslim cavalry in India have also been known to use it in their battles. It involved a line of fairly well-armored cavalrymen (often on armored horses) standing in a massed static line or advancing in an ordered formation at the walk while loosing their arrows as quickly as possible by reducing their draw length. They also employ other time-saving measures such as holding several spare arrows in the drawing hand in order to shorten the interval between shots. This technique compromises range, accuracy, and penetration in order to achieve the maximum volume of arrows. It has a reduced ability to penetrate protective equipment, but the high density makes it likely to hit unprotected spots. It was very effective against unsteady enemies who could easily be unnerved by the sight of a vast cloud of arrows raining down upon them; however, an enemy provided with good armor and discipline would often be able to hold out at least temporarily against the barrage. A case in point is Procopius's accounts of Belisarius's wars against the Sassanids [2] where he states how the Byzantine cavalry engaged in massed archery duels against their Persian counterparts. The Byzantines despised the Persians' shower-shooting and preferred to take the time to draw their bows fully and hit the Persians more precisely with their slow and heavy (armour breaking) arrows.

The great weakness of mounted archers was their need of space and their light equipment (compared to contemporary heavy cavalry). If they were forced to fight in close combat against better armoured enemies, they usually lost. Furthermore, they were not suited for participating in sieges. These problems even hindered the Mongols who failed to retake Hungary in 1280 after the Hungarians became more focused on Western European heavy cavalry and castle building. Good cavalry troops needed lots of training and very good horses. Many peoples who engaged in this form of classical cavalry, such as the Hungarians and Mongols, practically lived on horseback.

The battle of Dorylaeum (1097) during the First Crusade shows the advantages and disadvantages of mounted archers; the rider groups of the Seljuk sultan Kilij Arslan I were able to surround an army of Crusaders and shoot them from a distance. Suddenly reinforcements under the command of Godfrey of Bouillon arrived and the Seljuks themselves were encircled. They could escape no longer and were annihilated in close combat. The defeat of the Seljuks at Dorylaeum was so complete, that the Crusaders could practically cross Anatolia unchallenged.

Tactics of heavy cavalry using lances

Battle of La Higueruela (1431) between John II of Castile and Muhammed IX, Nasrid Sultan of Granada

Medieval European knights attacked in several different ways, implementing shock tactics if possible, but always in formations of several knights, not individually. For defense and mêlée a formation of horsemen was as tight as possible next to each other in a line. This prevented their enemy from charging, and also from surrounding them individually. With their heavy and armoured chargers knights trampled through the enemy infantry. The most devastating charging method was to ride in a looser formation fast into attack. This attack was often protected by simultaneous or shortly preceding ranged attacks of archers or crossbowmen. The attack began from a distance of about 350 metres and took about 15–20 seconds to cross the contemporary long range weapon's effective distance. A most important element, and one not easily mastered, was to stay in one line with fixed spaces while accelerating and having the maximum speed at impact. Often knights would come in several waves, with the first being the best equipped and armored. The lance as primary weapon pierced the enemy. If an enemy soldier was hit in full gallop by a knight's lance embedded under the armpit, he was thrown backwards with such a momentum that he knocked over several of his compatriots. The heavy lances were dropped after the attack and the battle was continued with secondary weapons (sword, axe, mace or likewise). Then the troops of a scara regrouped into the tighter formation mentioned above.

The Persians deployed their cataphracts in mixed formations with light archers in the rear ranks, supporting the charge with arrows.[3] Mongolian heavy cavalry improved upon the charging effect by attaching hooks to their lances to take enemies down when bypassing. Usually they had a two ranks deep formation of heavy cavalry charging the enemy. They were supported by three ranks of light cavalry, delivering rapid closeup shots with heavy armor-breaking arrows. Chinese cavalry and Samurai often used polearms. Both handled their primary weapons in the two-handed Asian style. This method of charging attack was very effective, but it depended very much on favorable ground of the chosen battlefield.

Modern historians agree that most knights during many Medieval battles fought on foot.[citation needed] Only with ideal conditions of terrain and support via long-range combatants would attacks be carried out on horseback. If the enemy infantry was equipped with polearms and fought in tight formations it was not possible to charge without heavy losses. A fairly common solution to this was for the men-at-arms to dismount and assault the enemy on foot, such as the way Scottish knights dismounted to stiffen the infantry schiltron or the English combination of longbowmen with dismounted men-at-arms in the Hundred Years' War. Another possibility was to bluff an attack, but turn around before impact. This tempted many infantrymen to go on chase, leaving their formation. The heavy cavalry then turned around again in this new situation and rode down the scattered infantry. Such a tactic was deployed in the battle of Hastings (1066).

A further improvement of fighting ability was the use of well-armed infantry reserves during knightly battles on horseback. After some time the battle split in several small groups with space in between and both sides became exhausted. Then an infantry rush could concentrate on selected targets and rout the enemy. Infantry also helped knights to remount in battle and saved the wounded.

Polish Hussar formation at the Battle of Klushino 1610 - painting of Szymon Boguszowicz 1620

The Polish-Lithuanian hussars' primary battle tactic was the charge. They carried the charge to, and through the enemy. The charge started at a slow pace and in a relatively loose formation. The formation gradually gathered pace and closed ranks while approaching the enemy, and reached its highest pace and closest formation immediately before engagement. They tended to repeat the charge several times until the enemy formation broke (they had supply wagons with spare lances). The tactic of a charge by heavily armoured hussars and horses was usually decisive for nearly two centuries. The hussars fought with a long lance (The hussar's lance usually ranged from 4.5 to 6.20 meters in length), a koncerz (stabbing sword), a szabla (sabre), 1 or 2 pistols, and often with a carbine or arquebus, known in Polish as a bandolet. Winged hussars carried also other weapons, such as "nadziak" type of war hammers and battleaxes. The lighter Turkish-style saddle allowed for more armour to be used by both the horses and the warriors. Moreover, the horses were bred to run very fast with a heavy load and to recover quickly. These were created by mixing old Polish horses blood with eastern horses, usually from Tatar tribes. As a result, horses could walk hundreds of kilometres loaded with over 100 kilograms (warrior plus armor and weaponry) and instantly charge. Also, hussar horses were very quick and manoeuvrable. This made hussars able to fight with any cavalry or infantry force from western heavy kissaiers to quick tatars. They were widely regarded as the most powerful cavalry formation in the world. In the battles of Lubiszew in 1577, Byczyna (1588), Kokenhausen (1601), Kircholm (1605), Kłuszyn (1610), Chocim (1621), Martynów (1624), Trzciana (1629), Ochmatów (1644), Beresteczko (1651), Połonka (1660), Cudnów (1660), Chocim (1673), Lwów (1675), Vienna (1683), and Párkány (1683) the Polish-Lithuanian hussars proved to be the decisive factor often against overwhelming odds. For instance, in the Battle of Kłuszyn during the Polish-Muscovite War the Russians-Swedish outnumbered the Commonwealth army 5 to 1, yet were heavily defeated.[4][5]

Tactics of heavy cavalry using ranged weapons

The death of King Gustavus II Adolphus on 16 November 1632 at the Battle of Lützen

An Ottoman Mamluk, from 1810

Attempts at integrating ranged weapons and heavy cavalry were for example made by the Greeks and Persians equipping their heavier cavalry with javelins and bows. Prior to charging, the enemy would be weakened by repeated missile attacks from combined light cavalry and heavy cavalry (cataphracts).[3] This tactical system was adopted by the Romans, as attested by the presence of an "equites sagittarii clibanarii" unit in the Notitia Dignitatum,[6] and passed down into the tactical repertoire of their Byzantine successors.[7][8]

Guerilla warfare: an enemy who could suddenly strike and retreat was a serious problem for the heavy cavalry. Therefore it was important to have also always enough light cavalry to support the heavier cavalry.

As mentioned earlier, heavy cavalry with lances were always supported by ranged combat units. They could be heavily armoured archers, like cataphracts or clibanarii with bows, advancing together with the charging cavalry. This bow-armed cavalry could loose their arrows as they advanced in the early stages of their charge with the intention of weakening and demoralizing the enemy formation prior to the moment of shock, possibly in shower shooting style. While the enemy was usually capable of countering with equal measures of ranged combat, the horse archers often wore protective equipment, so the changeover from light to heavy cavalry is not always clear and it seems in cases they formed the second charging rank. A similar tactic of heavy skirmishers developed in Late Medieval Europe, employing the easier to handle crossbow. Frontal assaults of heavy cavalry became considered ineffective against formations of spearmen or pikemen combined with crossbowmen or longbow archers. Most of the cavalry men wore armor that could be penetrated by contemporary crossbows at close ranges, although this didn't necessarily result in a fatal injury. It resulted in the development of new cavalry tactics whereby knights and mounted mercenaries deployed in deep triangular wedges, with the most heavily armored men (especially those able to afford armored horses) being deployed in the front ranks. To increase its effect, part of the formation would carry small, powerful all-metal crossbows of their own. These mounted crossbowmen could sally out from the rear ranks to provide a skirmish screen or a preliminary barrage of bolts.

Later on, the tactical landscape would feature harquebusiers or musketeers and pikemen deployed in combined-arms formations pitted against cavalry firing pistols or carbines. One of the cavalry tactics employed in such encounters was the caracole, developed in the mid-16th century in an attempt to integrate gunpowder weapons into cavalry tactics. Equipped with one or two wheellock pistols, cavalrymen would advance on their target at less than a gallop. As each rank came into range, the soldiers would turn away, discharge their pistols at the target, retire to reload, and then repeat the manoeuvre. In early times they had an advantage in firepower, but infantry firepower increased. With the invention of the bayonet, the pike screen against charges could also be turned into firing soldiers. The tactic was accompanied by the increasing popularity of the German Reiter in European armies from about 1540 or similar equipped, but usually lighter armoured Hakkapeliitta. Their main weapons were two or more pistols and a sword; first most wore three-quarters armor, though as time passed this was reduced to a helmet and a cuirass over a buff leather coat; sometimes they also carried a long cavalry firearm known as an arquebus or a carbine (although this type of horsemen soon became regarded as a separate class of cavalry - the arquebusier or in Britain harquebusier).

Modern historians regard the caracole as a tactical system that ultimately proved ineffective.[citation needed] It sacrificed the cavalry advantages of speed and mobility, while also leaving mounted soldiers at a disadvantage to massed infantry equipped with heavier and longer-ranged weapons. The caracole gave way to close artillery support (see Horse artillery) deployed to break up the infantry formations and force the foot soldiers to scatter so that the cavalry would regain their advantage in close-quarters combat. Interestingly, contemporary writers did not seem to have used the term "caracole" in its modern sense; John Cruso, for example, explained it as a maneuver whereby a formation of cuirassiers would receive the enemy's charge by splitting apart to either side and then charging back into the flanks of the overextended enemy.

Some historians associate the demise of the caracole with the name of Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden (1594–1632). Certainly he regarded the technique as fairly inefficient and forbade the cavalry regiments in Swedish employ from using it. However, he was definitely not the first military commander to dismiss the caracole; François de la Noue, in his account of his service under Henry IV of France, mentioned that the pistol-armed Protestant cavalry used their pistols much like very long swords or lances, charging fiercely against the enemy formation before discharging the pistols at point-blank range (or even laying the pistol's muzzle directly against the opponent's armor before firing). There is plenty of reason to believe that the Swedish were influenced by Henry IV's ideas, whether directly or through Dutch mediation—especially by the agency of Swedish officers who served in the Low Countries, such as Jacob De La Gardie.

Infantry countertactics

Against light cavalry with bows and javelins:

It was impossible for infantry to engage light cavalry with bows or javelins in close combat on ground that did not seriously hinder cavalry movement. The only resort for engagement were missile weapons in ranged combat. In this case both cavalry and infantry fought only in a missile exchange. While the infantry can be considered static in comparison to the cavalry, their own protection, the damage their missiles would cause and the hit rate were important.

For example, in the prelude to the battle of Mohi, crossbowmen protected by pavises sniped at the Mongol light cavalry, resulting in a tactical defeat of this Mongol unit, although the Mongols did go on to win the overall battle.[9]

The defence of such ranged combat units was important, for cavalry could always switch roles and engage the ranged combat infantry (often lightly armored skirmishers) in close combat.

Against heavy cavalry with lances the following tactics were sometimes effective:

Missile weapons: The longbow and the crossbow were able to threaten knights. Although the heavy noble cavalry of Middle Ages often fought on foot or at least avoided futile frontal attacks, it happened several times that knightly armies led charges according to their warrior ideal. The results could be devastating. At Crécy (1346) and Poitiers(1356), the French knights suffered heavy casualties against the Welsh/English longbowmen. Important for military archery was the ability to keep several arrows in the air. Thus, while a cavalry charge followed a strict pattern of acceleration (400 metres in 2 minutes, gallop just at the last 150 metres) from a distance beyond effective weapon range, arrows could be launched to hail down on the advancing enemy as they came within effective range.

Polearms: The long spears (pikes) of Scots and Swiss were an excellent defensive weapon against cavalry. The warriors stood in tight formations like an ancient phalanx, the end of their pikes embedded in the ground, presenting a massive spiked wall. In battle against the Scots, the English knights proved to be as narrow-minded as their French counterparts, employing the classic cavalry charge despite the new challenge of the Scottish pike. In the battles of Stirling Bridge (1297) and Bannockburn (1314) they were defeated by the Scots. While the English imitated this tactic successfully against the French, the Swiss perfected it. Despite longer lances for the knights, this formation was now almost impenetrable. Pikemen with polearms remained an important part of armies throughout the 30 Years War. Later tactics used against this formation included caracole maneuvers with ranged weapons.

Using advantages of the terrain: Lancers needed hard, plain ground and enough space for attack. A clever enemy avoided battle on open ground and preferred marshy, mountainous or arboreous grounds for battle. The Scots did this at Bannockburn and Stirling, and in nearly all their guerilla fighting against the English, as did the Welsh to a great extent. The Swiss defeated the Austrian knights at the Battle of Morgarten (1315) by attacking the knightly army in a narrow place between an acclivity and a swamp. The peasants of Dithmarschen faced in 1500, at Hemmingstedt, the army of the Danish king. They opened the dykes and flooded the country. If the terrain was not well suited for a cavalry attack, English knights often fought on foot and used their lances as pikes.

New tactics of light cavalry and mounted infantry

With increasing firepower and no sufficient protection, the role of cavalry on the battlefield was slowly reduced. Light cavalry with firearms could return fire, but the aim from a moving platform was not as good as for infantry. So most important for cavalry was the ability to quickly attack enemy cavalry or scattered infantry with lances and sabres. Speed reduced the time vulnerable to gunfire, but still closed formations became impossible to defeat. This tactic was a striking surprise of Mongolian light cavalry in the battle of the Kalka River. The alternative was to use them as dragoons, reaching their positions quickly, dismounting, and fighting like infantry, often with projectile weapons. Such a way of fighting had started in Europe at least in the 13th century with mounted longbow and crossbow archers, but was also employed by the Mongols with their Buryatian longbows.

Cavalry in modern warfare

Cavalry is featured in modern warfare with cavalrymen retaining the light cavalry missions. Mechanization and motorization has changed the mounts from horse to tracked and wheeled vehicles, but the missions of reconnaissance and security remain the same. Heavy Cavalry, as such, has its role of shock effect fulfilled by tanks.[citation needed]

The word "cavalry" was briefly used at the advent of helicopter warfare with ("air cavalry") units. Modern doctrine has labeled such roles as infantry, termed Air Assault.

War elephants

See the main article at war elephant.

Elephant cavalry first appeared three-thousand years ago, simultaneously in India's Vedic Civilization and in China.[10] Female Asian elephants were used, sometimes in small groups, sometimes in vast regiments of thousands of animals in the 13th century,[11] primarily to produce a tactical "shock and awe" effect in the field. In addition, the large animals provided large elevated platforms from which archers could rain down arrows on the enemy, and from which generals could survey the battle.

The psychological effect of war elephants was often its main tactical use.[12] After encountering elephant cavalry in the Battle of the Hydaspes River, Alexander the Great's troops mutinied and refused to press further into India.[13] However, the animals were often not tractable in battle,[14] and when faced with determined opponents, would often flee, and worse, trample their own infantry in their flight.

Horse cavalry developed tent pegging tactics to deal with elephant cavalry. If they maintained their nerve in the face of the larger mounts, horse cavalry could rout elephant cavalry, especially by moving into close quarters and attacking the elephants' vulnerable feet.[15] The Mongols would fire arrows at their enemy's elephants feet and legs until the elephants ran and trampled over their own army.

Dromedary and camel cavalry

Next to elephants, camels were the tallest and heaviest animals available for cavalry. They are neither as agile nor as fast as horses. Their use as riding animals, reported from the battle of Qarqar, was more frequent than horses in ancient times. Their advantage was that while they were standing, a mounted archer could aim and shoot with a strong bow from behind an infantry formation. Camels equipped with small cannons gave the Afghan troops an advantage during the third battle of Panipat. Another advantage was their effect on horses, if the horses had never before encountered camels. In the battle of Pterium experienced Lydian cavalry suddenly had to struggle with their horses panicking, when trying to face an attack of dromedary riders. The psychological effect of the best trained and most reliable soldiers being overrun in confusion decided the battle. Major powers of Europe, Africa and Asia were preparing for engagement in this war. It is not known whether after this incident war horses were prepared to face camels and dromedaries.


  1. Bloch, Marc (1989). Feudal Society, Vol. 1. tr. L. A. Manyon. London: Routledge. p. 41. 
  2. History of the Wars, Books I and II (of 8) by Procopius - Project Gutenberg
  3. 3.0 3.1 History of Iran: Parthian Army
  4. Brzezinski, Richard and Velimir Vukšić, Polish Winged Hussar 1576-1775, (Osprey Publishing Ltd., 2006), 6.
  5. Polish armies 1569-1696 -Richard Brzeziński
  6. Notitia Dignitatum
  7. John Haldon. Warfare, State and Society in the Byzantine World, 565–1204. London: UCL Press, 1999. ISBN 1-85728-495-X
  9. Verbruggen
  10. War Elephants in Ancient and Medieval China, Edward H. Schafer, Oriens, Vol. 10, No. 2 (Dec. 31, 1957)
  11. Chau Ju-kua, Travels in Chola (F Hirth & W W Rockhill, St Petersburg, 1912)
  12. John C. Rolfe, Ammianus Marcellinus (Harvard University Press, 1956)
  13. JFC Fuller, The Generalship of Alexander the Great (Da Capo Press, 1989)
  14. Flavius Philostratus, The Life of Apollonius of Tyana (Loeb Classical Library translation, 1912)
  15. A Maharaj, Tent Pegging with Unicef Team Canada (retrieved 30 January 2007)

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