Weapons of the Hussars of the Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth, 1570-1750

By Radoslaw Sikora

Polish version: (Bron Palna)

Translated and edited by Rick Orli



The Hussar's Lance


Firearms were a basic weapon of the hussar, and readily available from the 1570s on.

It is possible to say that there were three kinds of firearms: short, medium and long. However, long firearms such as matchlock muskets were not used from horseback. In contrast short weapons – pistols - were carried in abundance as a matter of course, in pairs of holsters over the fore part of the saddle and across the horse's back. The ‘medium’ length weapons – harquebus carbines with a maximum length of about one meter - were also designed to be used from horseback, and were usually carried by a sling over the shoulder to allow for single-handed operation.

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(It should be noted that the term ‘harquebus’ (a.k.a. ‘arquebus’) sometimes means archaic matchlocks of the XV and XVI century, and in another context, ‘modern’ XVII C cavalry wheellock and snaphaunce carbines.)

All cavalry of this period carried pistols. An edict of King Stephan Batory in the 1570s required every hussar to carry at least a brace of pistols; 4 pistols became customary fairly early, and carrying 6 was a common practice. ‘Comrade’ Hussars of the front rank, who carried the lance, did not carry the harquebus normally; it was more common for the retainers in the rear ranks to be armed with them; however this was a latter development, perhaps not until the mid-1680s. The arquebuser cavalry of course carried the harquebus throughout the 17th C., as did many dragoons and pancers, and some light cavalry.

Firearms use resulted from a deep acquaintance of their weaknesses and strengths. They were a major contributor to unit effectiveness, but at least in the hussar’s case, were seldom decisive alone, in the absence of a follow-up of cold steel combat.

The efficiency of short firearms was low. They used small loads of powder, small shot, and had low range and poor accuracy. Effective use was limited to about twenty meters, and preferably less. The hussars treated them only as secondary weapons. However, by allowing an attack from a slight distance, the hussar exposed himself only to fire, not directly to blows.

The hussar and other cavalry used long guns when they fought on foot. This requires explanation. That the hussars fought on foot can, at first, seem surprising, but consider the many type of fighting that might be called upon – at night, in sieges, in ambush, or if the hussar’s camp were attacked. For example in the battle of Chociem 1621, the hussars fought many days from behind fieldworks against the besieging Turks. Pasture for horses was cut off , and the horses not eaten by the men were soon in bad shape from hunger, and were not suitable for the saddle. Eight thousand elite hussars, in a dangerous situation when each soldier mattered, were expected to pull their weight even without horses. Since firearms were most effective when long, a few muskets were generally in each post’s gear. However, the musket’s use was not limited to such an extreme situation. Even if the hussar comrade and his retainers fought on horseback, the servants were expected to keep guard over the camp. While the servants’ normal duty was to act as teamsters and to make camp, prepare food, and take care of horses they also stood guard. (Although camp servants were not counted as soldier, they took part in battles sometimes, in defense of the personal camp particularly, and rarely, in assaults on fortified opponents ). As a result, muskets and sometimes other, even larger weapons (‘wall guns’ or Hakowice, from use from the tabor wagons) had a place in all cavalry outfits.

(Hussar and pancer posts usually were accompanied by one or several tabor wagons)

After this longish explanation of scope, lets proceed with a description of situational use of firearms.

First let's concentrate on short weapons. Hussars, like all contemporary cavalry, used wheellock weapons (or sometimes snaphaunce or dog-locks, early forms of flintlocks). So, they had at least one advantage against matchlock-armed infantry: the weapon was always ready to shoot, whereas matchlocks, even if loaded, required the presence of lit match – and only men on guard duty or ready on a field of battle carry lit match, given its burn rate and the huge quantity of match consumed. A no less important advantage was that only one hand was required for shooting. These two features allowed this weapon’s use by cavalry, who usually had one hand engaged in controlling the horse. Advantages were compensated with some significant difficulties. This weapon was, because of its complexity, very expensive as well as very tricky to use. The lock easily failed. The pyrite crumbled easily in normal operation, and sometimes the pyrite shattered or became misaligned, or the mechanism was obstructed by powder residue. Contemporary black powder left behind ash as a byproduct of incineration, and the chemical substances caused corrosion. So, a mistreated weapon could be rendered unfit for use after several weeks. The delicate mechanism of wheellock was vulnerable to mechanical injuries, and in battle the weapon could easily fall into disarray. It is possible to follow the principle of operation of wheellock through the following drawing.


Wheellock ‘kolowy zamek’ (or ‘krzosowy’ or ‘krecony’) Schema

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Wheellock operation relies on the friction of a steel wheel rubbing against a stone (iron pyrite - ‘pirytu’) which creates a spark, igniting the priming powder, which is kept in place by a pan cover. The iron pyrite stone is placed into a vice-like cock, cushioned by a piece of leather. The first step in firing is to to lower the cock until the pyrite contacts the the wheel, or the pan cover depending on the specific design. The wheel connects to the mainspring through a chain composed of a few flat-links, which are attached to the wheel's axle. The wheel is cocked with a key, a sort of spanner or wrench that turns a nut, which rotates the wheel in the opposite direction. The wheel is locked in place when cocked by a latch. When the trigger is pulled, the latch is released and 1) the pan cover moves exposing the priming powder, and 2) the wheel spins, scraping against the iron pyrite. This generates sparks, exactly like flicking your Bic (cigarette lighter).

An exemplary wheellock pistol is presented below, it is transported in the hussar’s holster.

Two pistols and a winding key from the first half of the XVII C (lengths are 42.5 cm and 45.5cm). Powder flask from the second half of the XVII C.

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Wheellock pistol (above) and wheellock arkebuz (below)

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As I indicated above, the hussars also carried the medium-length firearms on horseback. This became formalized after 1689 when Hetman Jablonowski ordered hussar retainers (rear-rankers) to carry harquebuses instead of lance. It boosted the fire power of the hussars, while the men with the lance ensured that the banner still had great ‘breaking power’.  The following photo illustrates a wheellock/cavalry harquebus(rusznica).

‘Bandolet’, cavalry or dragoon carbine from XVIIw. With wheellock and butt of French style. Weapon’s caliber is 15 mm, full length 114 cm. Stock from dark wood.

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Let's proceed to long weapons not carried on horseback (except by dragoons, who were mounted infantry).  

This picture shoes a 17th C. flintlock short musket with shoulder strap - classic dragoon configuration.

Matchlock and long firelock weapons were also used by cavalry, who had to do all sorts of tasks, but were transported normally on the tabor wagons. The following illustrates comparative sizes of a cavalry carbine, infantry musket, and a very large hackbut or 'wall gun' - usually fired from fortifications or mounted on tabor wagons or boats (and typically crewed by 2 men).  


Schema of matchlock

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The matchlock uses a slowmatch to ignite the priming powder, and fire the weapon. It works like this. The priming powder is held in place by the pan cover, which also protects from stray sparks. The slowmatch is placed into the jaws of the cock, hot end toward the pan (the slow match smolders red, sort of like a cigarette end). The cock is ‘tried’ or lowered a bit to help confirm that it is properly aligned with the pan. On the command to ‘ready’, the musket is raised (eyes should be BELOW pan level!) and the pan is opened, exposing the powder. Then, on the command to fire, the trigger is squeezed slowly, which lowers the hot match into the powder. The matchlock was simple, easy to maintain, and cheap to produce. The primitive mechanism was resistant to mechanical injuries. It survived in European military use into the early 18th C. However, it had serious defects. It required several special handling steps to fire, including lighting the match in advance, keeping the burning match in hand at all times without allowing it to burn holes into ones’ person or igniting ones’ powder supply; placing the match into the cock, and so on. Many of these steps required two hands. So, even a weapon that had been pre-loaded was not convenient for use by cavalry.

The procedure for loading a weapon was very time-consuming, and the loading speed for a careful job allowed only 1 or at most 2 shots per minute (although infantry skirmishers could fire 3 shots per minute, taking all possible short cuts.) The rate of fire was considerably lower at the start of the XVI century – by some reports, each rank took 10-12 -min. to prepare to fire.

Efficiency also depended on the kind and period, the oldest matchlock harquebus of the XV C. had a maximum range of about 100-150 M. the Arkebuz matchlock (‘lontowy’), the successor to the harquebus (‘rusznicy’), had an range of 150-200 M. the Musket (Muszkiet), the weapon which dominated battlefields from the end of the XVI C. could even shoot 250 –300 M and was generally about as effective as later firearms (the flintlock improved firing under certain adverse conditions, but under favorable condition the matchlock ignition was just as good, and the speed and size and flight of the musket ball was essentially unchanged until the invention of the minie ball and the rifled musket). However, the above range values represent only a theoretical maximum, and the actual effective range was far lower (usually under 50 M) due to their low accuracy. The caliber (from 10 to over 20 mm), different quality and load size of gun powder affected range and penetrating power. Certainly the biggest musket could pierce armor at 100 M. Shot was considerably weaker from the arquebus and harquebus - e.g. the best period armor protected against harquebus fire, especially if at long range or if the blow was glancing.

All the weapons discussed had a large number of misfires, or rather ‘duds’ – where aiming a loaded weapon and pulling a trigger resulted in nothing happening, except for a soft ‘click’ sound followed (one might imagine) by a somewhat louder curse. This reliability factor also affected the use of firearms, particularly in the personal combat as experienced by the cavalry.

The final photo compares the wheellock and matchlock weapons.

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"Husaria" Jerzy Cichowski, Andrzej Szulczynski
"Pistolety i rewolwery XVI-XIX wieku" Roman Matuszewski
"Muszkiety, arkebuzy, karabiny..." Roman Matuszewski
"Slownik uzbrojenia historycznego (Dictionary of Historic Arms)" Michal Gradowski,Zdzislaw Zygulski jun.
"Historia piechoty polskiej (History Polish Infantry) do 1864r." Jan Wimmer

The Hussar's Lance

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