Hussar's charge: the moment of impact:

A Debate



A follow-up by Szczepan

Jerzy Teodorczak in "Wojskowosc polska w pierwszej polowie XVII wieku" describes hussars tactics like this: the hussars approach in 2 or 3 ranks, comrades (towarzysze) in first line with lances, and retainers (pocztowi) in the second line, mostly with carbines ("bandolet" or "polhak"), but other sources claim that pocztowi sometimes carry lances.* The charge begins in loose formation. Well-trained hussars can tighten and loosen their formation on special signals played on the trumpet. Also, they can change the direction of their move 180 degrees on signal in total order.

Teodorczak said, that "when the rotmistrz (Captain) saw an opportunity of breaking an enemy lines, he gave the order to tighten the formation to "knee to knee" (and Teodorczak said later, that they really nearly touched knees) and charge in canter." hussars.jpg (281773 bytes)

When there wasn't a clear and obvious opportunity to break lines, they sometimes turned back very fast, or charged in a canter with loose formation (the distance between hussars was the length of the horse).

After the charge, the hussars turned back very fast, took another lance and charged again. Every hussar had at least 3 lances, which were very expensive weapon, and few shafts - when he broke all "real", excavated lances, they place shafts on normal piece of wood, to have at least something that could be used like a lance.

Quite often lines attack alternately, so the hussar charge was like waves attacking a shore: trot, gallop, canter, BANG!, run away trotting, than another line went to trot, gallop, canter, BANG!, and again and again. Two or three charges usually did the trick.

* Note that both can be true: the retainers might be carrying the lances primarily as replacements for the comrade's broken lances, but they may also have been competent in their use. - Rick

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Radek replied: 

'Act of the Hetman (General of the Army) for the information or all commanders, colonels, captains (rotmistrzom), first lieutenants(porucznikom), cornets/ensigns (chorazym), 2nd Lieutenants namiestnikom and the whole knightly-hood, Orders for formations in moving against the enemy in formal field battles.' Written at the end of the XVII C by H.Lubomirskiego. These instructions written by the commander of Polish troop has irrefutable value. And other contemporary sources wrote about hussars attacking at the canter. I think we can believe them.

I do not know your source's exact argument, but I can speculate on some reasons. Keegan describes normal behavior of a horse, but does not take into account that it is possible to train a horse for exceptional behaviors. We have reliable and believable data on it; Hussar horses were specially cultivated and trained. Special attention was paid in Poland on the breeding of horses of the perfect temperament and capabilities for the hussars. Example:

The horse was trained in the following maneuver: imagine a path 40 meters long and narrow, with a circle 3 meters in diameter at each end. The horse follows the path in full canter speed,

turns, canters back, turns, canters back, turns… and so on. The horse must turn within this circles and not step outside. This is practiced in full battle load - the rider carrying a lance. Such exercises allowed the men and horses to execute their attack smoothly and without commotion in the ranks, during battles.

Another subject the hussar horses mastered was striking a human-sized object with their body (breast or shoulder) while rushing and turning. Dummies' stuffed with hay for this purpose were places on a turn-post, and the bag of hay would be struck by the horse's breast guard. The post turned at impact so it did not harm the horse. These types of exercises weaned the horses of their natural fears.

I don't know what your sources have to say about central and eastern Europe, but I suspect, that they know little about these themes. Really, from where I stand western scholarship only notices the important questions (of military history) and technical advances that happened in the West. And they attribute the invention of the tactic or technology to the first place they see it in the West. For example, the invention of paper cartridges for muskets is sometimes attributed to Gustav Adolfus, when they were used in Poland 50 years earlier. (Not that I claim that this is a Polish invention, because it came to Poland from elsewhere, perhaps from Transylvania. ) Another example, is the special manner of saddling a horse ( the saddle and manner of tack determine the seat of the rider on the horse) Which allowed the horse full liberty and made controlled riding easier, which is a polish invention by Lisowczy (a Polish light horseman from the beginning of the 17th C.) He distinguished the eastern saddle or mount with the legs squat/bent from the western, on straight legs. Probably, the closest to it that has been devised or 'discovered' in the West is the English saddle of the XIX century, the saddle used today throughout the world. It seems to me that scholars in the West are often surprising ignorant of Eastern culture, technology, and military matters.

The cultural fabric in Poland fed the success of the Hussars. The horse and chivalric culture in Poland stood at an incredibly high level thorough the unbroken tradition of Chivalry and they were ingrained in society as in few other cultures. Chivalry was the custom that ruled Poland. Although the old saying that 'a nobleman is born on a horse' was perhaps a bit of an exaggeration, nevertheless, after the birth of nobleman's son, the father's first business was to place the baby on the horse's back for his first few horse steps. The next order of business was often to inscribe the infant boy's name in the ranks of the banner (military unit) in which he was destined to serve. Because they were in the banner from birth, they took their duty to their banner and country seriously. Such was the nobleman's mentality.

Knightly ideals were very durable in Poland. Perhaps they were lost in the west after the decay of the relevance of the knight, but they were adhered to in Poland for centuries longer. Nobleman's children were fostered from the start to be future soldiers, trained and disciplined in the use of all the different weapons, but first of all, in riding and military horsemanship.

Another intriguing thing is that all hussar banners were manned by volunteers. So they fought not for money (as often the case in the West ), but for personal glory or duty. Outfitting a Hussar post (pocztu) cost a fortune, and the pay of a hussar, though the hightest of all Polish troops, did not cover the expense. So, in effect they paid for the privilege to serve. Such a solider had superior moral to, for example, a person who was conscripted, lured by money, or dragooned through force.

This high quality human material automatically made for very high level, elite units. But this level was further brought up in constant battles with the very good cavalry of the East, such as the Turks and Tatars, who invaded Polish lands yearly .



Rick Replies:

I understand what you are saying, but I don't think you understand my main point. (remember that this conversation took place in a mix of Polish and English, and neither party is very good at reading or writing the other's language).

Let us say that the 40 meter course, with a 3 meter circle at the end, is exactly the path the horse takes in battle. I've seen rodeo-like demonstrations and amazing equestrian bullfights in Spain, and know a good horse can 'stop on a dime' (stop from a canter very fast), but a 'dime' at that speed is still, well, about 3 meters.


I rather envision that they were in a canter until the last second, just before they reached the circle, they 'hit the brakes', so that they could almost stop and turn. Where at this point did the lance hit the target? At the start of the 3 meter circle, they were slowing down, maybe out of canter already… but the reach advantage of the lance is not 3 meters… just one meter over a pike, so it they hit at start of the circle, the horse would strongly impact the other pikes, and get impaled and die.

Two to 2.5 meters into the circle, they will have slowed down a lot… can't say they were in a walk gait, because they were in stopping/turning phase, but forward speed was much reduced. Nevertheless, they still had forward speed, and much momentum, and a lance hit here would be solid and powerful, and the horse's breast just clears the pike points assuming a 1 meter reach advantage.

Not only that, but I expect that the horse was partially turned at the moment of the lance hit, so that the rider and flank of the horse were about even… otherwise the reach advantage of the lance would be taken up by the length of the horse's head.

That is also consistent with the description of the hussars charging (at the canter) in waves, breaking their lance, spinning in place and trotting back, grabbing another lance, charging in another wave... repeat.Hussargutstab.jpg (22797 bytes)


(Like the picture, although, with a long lance, and with lance in the right hand, and ignoring the other many problems with the picture)


Radek replies

Oh that's what you mean! Yes, horses covered the 40 M in a careful canter then quickly 'braked', turned and retired to the rear. It was taught as a two-part exercise. First - canter and quick stop/turn. Second - the rest. The other way, they would impact to pike. If the front or flank of horse is presented at the lance  hits, it is as you wrote, but there is other way. I'll explain later. 



Rick adds:

rojoneo.jpg (3628 bytes)I have seen some great horsemanship - barrel racing, demonstrations of herding and roping skills, equestrian events that demonstrate skills of military origin, even a formation of mounted police controlling a big crowd. However the one thing that really left me breathless was an equestrian bullfight in Spain. <> In addition to all the usual steps in the bullfight, the bandelleros were delivered from horseback. Just as a bandellero on foot is required to pass in front of the bulls horns just before the bandoleers are thrust in, the mounted bandellero leans over the horns of the charging bull with his horse at full gallop, passing within inches of the horns. Inches? The horns several times grazed their mark, `nd the horses were bloodied within a few passes, and the rider's jacket was torn. The bandoleer would sometime run with the bull and cut in front, and sometimes converge head-on or at right angles. So, although my own experience on horseback is modest, I have great respect for the extraordinary capabilities of a great horse and rider team.




Radek replies

I promised that would write of another way in which the Hussars attacked a Pike formation, head-on. This topic is very broad, so, in order to write so that it can be easily understood (and translated), I will simplify.

Firstly, what was advantage of length of the lance over the pike? As I have written before, the length of the pike changes over time and it seemed to generally varied from 5.4 ot 4.5m. Several origainal lances exist today over 5M. in length. But source material from the period state that the length of lance fluctuated between 6.2 to 4.3 meters. It is possible that the length of the lance was adjusted for the opponent with which the hussars fought.

So, for battle with turkish cavalry, cossack infantry and Janczaries, who did not use pikes, the Hussars may have used a short lance. If the battle was carried to pike-armed western infantry, they prepared long lances.

Lances were longer (from 0.5 to 1 longer meter) than pikes. All source documents from the hussar’s time assert this.

Second - What was the lance’s advantage over pike? Lances on this drawing are about the correct length - 5 meters. Unfortunately, the pikes for the infantry are, as drawn, not in scale (are much too short). I need a better drawing! After calculation, my conclusion is that the difference is from .5 to 1 M.

(Note! The drawing I have placed on internet is in error! In my calculation I did not take into consideration that one should hold lance forward from the end! )

And another important factor! It is necessary to remember that the hussar’s target is the pikeman’s breast, but the pike’s target is not so much the hussar, but the horse’s breast. It is also necessary to subtract for the lose of reach for the angle of the pike, which is planted on the ground. By applying the pythogrian theorm, we reduce te effective reach of the pike by 16 cm. The lance is almost horizontal, so, is not affected as much by this phenomenon.

Third - as the hussars impacted, they did not run onto the infantry’s pikes. The horse impacted at 40 kilometers/hr (Husar canter, or near 10
meters/second ). Time from lance’s impact to breast of infantry man till reaching the pike would take from 0.05 for 0.1 seconds.

If the pikeman pushed out his pike at the moment of impact, this is not
enough by itself to reach the horseman. But as the pikeman is hit in the breast, since he is holding tightly as his body is jerked back and up, so will go the pike point, and stop threatening the horse! The impact was powerful. It is documented that such an impact pierced the pikeman’s armor! A split second suffices with a ‘snap’ like that to clear it from the line
as happens with dummies in car crash-tests ).

The following describes two methods by which medium cavalry (the pancerizi, or so-called ‘cossack’ cavalry ) (translator's note: and presumably
arquebusers as well) cooperated with the hussars in a combined-arms fire & shock attack.

1. In the first rank, the pancers charged up to the enemy, they shot carbines or pistols at close range, drawing fire and causing disruption and casualties before retiring. The following rank was the hussars' charge with ‘cold steel’ - using their lances - against infantry that might also be unable to respond with fire (since they had fired on the pancers). If the shock failed to break the infantry, they would repeat this formula of one-charge fire, next charge shock (with the lance). For example, the Poles attacked in this manner in the battle of Bolchowem, 1611.

2. The second tactic was to attack simultaneously with fire and shock (carbines and lances). As discussed before, the cavalry was arranged in a
checkerboard pattern, and in the intervals between the hussar units, the pancer units would advance. Just before the hussars would impact, the
pancers (presumably somewhat in the lead) would fire their weapons obliquely, and retreat. The hussars could take advantage of the additional
disruption and gaps in the ranks to press their attack home. This tactic was the hardest to carry off, but it gave excellent results. For example,
this technique was used to break Gustav Adolf’s infantry at Gniewem, October-1-1626.

The battle of Gniewem is very interesting, because the traditional Polish tactics came up against the new Swedish methods. The encounter lasted three days during which time the Swedes introduced several new tactics specifically designed to foil the Polish strengths. The initial failures
suffered by the hussars were directly related to the surprising new methods introduced by Gustav Adolf. These new elements included:
a) Shooting in triple rank, in one salvo, to break a charge, rather than the old single rank fire/countermarch;

b) Use of the ‘Swine feather’ - similar to the beardish axe the Poles sometimes used -a long knife on a stake - used to create field

c) artillery used in close support of infantry, and the combination of field fortifications and artillery on a wide scale,

d) a novel method of infantry & cavalry cooperation. For example, Gustav Adolf was able to take advantage of a flooded field to restrict the axis of advance perfectly. The Poles were unable to have more than 600 men in a charge at one time, and even then they were forced to
charge across a sandy field. Everything combined to keep the Poles from breaking the Swedish formations for the first two days. During this time,
they tried to coordinate pancer fire and hussar shock as described above in method one. After they switched to method two, they were finally able to
push the Swedish infantry from the hill. It is interesting that even though the infantry was screened by the field fortification created by the ‘swine
feathers’ that they could not hold on against the Polish cavalry.

So, this manner of coordinated fire and shock attack proved very effective in the end, since they were able to break the much-improved swedish infantry again, under the capable personal leadership of King Gustav Adolf. However, at least they were not able to blow down the Swedes as before the reforms, and the Poles had to rely on a sophisticated combination of fire and shock tactics to win.


Circusain.jpg (23933 bytes)  The Circausians are watching our every move....