Friends and enemies of the imperial cuirassiers

“Gustav Adolphus at the Battle of Lutzen.” Jan Martens de Jonge (1609-1647), c. 1634 (private collection)

Darius sent a thousand horsemen with them.
Second Book of Ezra 5: 2

Military affairs at the turn of the eras. In past materials, we met with the enemies of cuirassiers among the horsemen of the West and East. But not all of the East was considered, so today we will continue this topic. Well, this time the material will be illustrated entirely by “colorful pictures”. And then all the photographs from museums, even the famous ones. But the illustrators of the same books by the publishing houses Osprey and Kassel are also familiar with them, and the requirements for them are very high. So why not look at them, and at the same time get to know the next “horsemen of war”, whom the battlefields of the 16th-17th centuries saw in this most critical era? However, we also cannot do without museum artifacts, as well as paintings by artists of that era, so today we will look at the canvases of Jan Martens de Jonge.

Swedish cavalrymen attack on the flank of the Imperial cuirassiers. One of the many paintings by Jan Martens de Jonge, dedicated to the equestrian battles of the Thirty Years War. His paintings are often confused with those of Palamedes Palamedes and Snyers, and vice versa. And no wonder! Private collection, sold at Sotheby’s

Knights with pistols in their hands

And it so happened that the plate cavalry of cuirassiers and reiters, which replaced the former knights, although it was very numerous – under Henry II in the same France in 1558, there were only 7000 horsemen of reitars, but still it could not replace the cavalry of the horsemen with light weapons. And if it was hard for France to have so many detachments of pistol-armored men, then what can we say about countries whose economy and industry were not so developed at that time?

Friends and enemies of the imperial cuirassiers
Armor of the equestrian arquebusier. Belonged to King Pedro II of Portugal (reigned 1683-1706). (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)

“Equipment and martial arts of harquebusiers”. Engraving from the textbook for officers “The Art of the Cavalry” by Jacob von Walhausen, published in 1616. (German Photo Library, Dresden)

The opinion of a foolish king is a tragedy, a clever one is happiness

This is why the battlefields of Europe in the period immediately preceding the Thirty Years’ War were dominated by four types of horsemen, not counting the light eastern horsemen. The heaviest were cuirassiers in three-quarter armor, which the Swedish king Gustav Adolphus, for example, considered too expensive in comparison with their combat characteristics; then came the light cavalry, which played a secondary role in the battle and which he considered underestimated; then horse arquebusiers, who were engaged in fire support of cuirassiers by shooting from a horse, and dragoons, “mounted infantry”, which, in his opinion, could have been used much better.

Plate cavalry fights infantry. One of the paintings by Jan Martens de Jonge. (Private collection)

And now, being an innovator at heart, but also just an intelligent person, and possessing all the fullness of royal power, he restructured the Swedish army, made it the main fighting force of the continent and a model for reforms in the armies of other countries. The logical consequence of royal preferences was the decision to make do with only two types of riders: the dragoons were supposed to take on the role of fire support, and light riders, who were supposed to be his striking units. He also did not completely abandon the cavalrymen, who mainly consisted of the Swedish nobility, wearing three-quarter armor, but now they did not greatly influence the nature of military operations and did not play a serious role in the army of the Swedish king.

“Sturmhaube” (“assault helmet”) is a typical helmet of the European plate cavalry of the 16th-17th centuries. (Arsenal in Graz, Austria)

Typical English “sweat” 1630-1640 The same helmets will later be worn by Cromwell’s “iron-sided” of his famous “army of the new model”, created on the Swedish model (Metropolitan Museum, New York)

“Sweat” in the European manner. (Arsenal in Graz, Austria)

Swedish cavalryman – “medium cavalryman”

Over time, the standard Swedish cavalry from this time began to refer to the “medium” type of cavalry. He wore a cuirass and a “pot helmet” (“sweat” in English) (or a large hat with a metal frame) and was armed with a pair of pistols and a heavy sword somewhat longer than in other European armies. The tactics of such riders consisted in the use of edged weapons; only the first rank used firearms, and fired a point-blank volley at the enemy during the attack. On paper, the strength of the regiment was eight companies of 125 men each; in fact, there could have been only four companies in the regiments.

Horseman’s armor of the 16th century (Arsenal in Graz, Austria)

Cuirassier armor of the 16th century (Dresden Armory)

Some of the finest cavalrymen in the Swedish army were the Finnish horsemen known as hakkapeli, a name derived from their battle cry, which meant “slash them!”

Rapier with a flamberg-type blade, Italy, 1620-1640. Total length 1118 mm, weight 1346.6 g (Metropolitan Museum, New York)

Cuirassiers’ cavalry pistols. From which it was possible to shoot, and after the shot it could also be used as a club! (Dresden Armory)

With such troops, Gustav Adolf won many victories, fighting in Europe during the Thirty Years War, but he himself fell on the battlefield at the Battle of Lutsen.

“Death of King Gustav II Adolf. At the battle of Lutzen on November 6, 1632. ” Artist Karl Walbom (1810-1858). Written in 1855 (National Museum, Stockholm)

Feathers, wings, armor and flags

However, both the Swedes and the imperial cuirassiers had very worthy opponents in the Commonwealth. A participant in the battle of Vienna (1683) witnessed the attack of 3000 Polish winged hussars on the Kahlenberg slope on the Turkish army and described it this way: “The hussars attacked the godless Turks like angels from heaven”, clearly referring to the wings attached to the backs of the hussars armor. And yes, indeed, these riders, dressed in ornate “three-quarter armor”, with blankets and cloaks made of bear, leopard and tiger skins, as well as wings made of eagle, swan and wild goose feathers, with long spears with colored pennants , amazed the imagination of contemporaries. Many contemporaries wrote that they were the most beautiful horsemen in the world: metal, skins, flags and noble horses, all this was truly delightful and at the same time a formidable sight.

The Winged Hussar. Illustration from the book “Cavalry. The history of fighting elite 650BC – AD1914 “V. Vuksic, Z. Grbasic

Many drawings, engravings and written sources from the 16th century depict or describe these “winged horsemen”. According to one source, this original tradition came from Asia and was adopted by the peoples who became part of the Turkish Empire. Another finds it in medieval Serbia. In addition to their purely decorative function, it was believed that the wings give the rider “the lightness and speed of a bird carried by the wind”, and, presumably, they did not give the opportunity to throw a lasso over him and strike a saber on the neck from behind and from the side. Well, and of course, giving the rider growth, such equipment frightened the enemy horses, and the riders themselves.

However, the “winged horsemen” of the 17th century are usually identified with the Polish plate hussars, and all because for almost a hundred years the Polish cavalry dominated the areas of northeastern Europe. With the motto: “First we will defeat the enemies, and then we will count”, they defeated the Swedes at Kokenhaussen (1601), defeated the Russian troops at Kushino (1610), the Cossacks at Berestechko (1651), beat the Turks in 1621 and 1673, but their main victories were the battle at the walls of Vienna and the battle at Parkans (1683).

“Battle of Vienna” (1688; dimensions 806 x 813 cm). Hood. Martino Altomonte (Lviv National Gallery of Art)

“Battle of Parkans” (1693-1695; dimensions 886 × 782 cm). Hood. Martino Altomonte. (Lviv National Gallery of Art) It is considered the largest battle painting in Europe. By the way, the famous “Battle of Grunwald” by Jan Matejko has dimensions of 426 × 987 cm

The hussar’s cuirass in front could withstand a musket shot from 20 steps, while its rear part was impenetrable for a pistol shot at point-blank range. The most common gilded decorations on the bib were the image of the Virgin Mary on the left side and the cross on the right side. In addition to a 5 m long heavy spear, the hussars had a shipbuilder saber, a 170 cm long straight konchar sword (carried on the left at the saddle), as well as two pistols in saddle holsters. That is, in fact, they were the same cuirassiers, but with more advanced weapons, which were based on the experience of using plate horsemen. The spear helped to fight light cavalry and infantry, deprived of the pikemen’s cover, pistols – turned the “winged hussars” into the same cuirassiers, but when the spears broke or could be thrown, a thrusting sword-konchar came to the aid of the rider. He did not have a sharpening on the blade, but they could hit both an infantryman who fell to the ground, and any rider with a shorter saber or sword. It was not without reason that the British cavalrymen were also armed with swords on the eve of the First World War. It turned out that stabbing is easier than chopping. Since a thrusting blow is not only more dangerous, but also delivered for a split second more quickly …

Armor of Polish hussars (Museum of the Polish Army, Warsaw)

In addition, the armor of the Polish hussars, in particular, the same cuirasses, just like those of many English knights of the first half of the 17th century, were recruited from strips joined by rivets. It turned out that such “typesetting cuirasses”, firstly, are easier to make, and secondly, they were stronger than solid-forged ones. The strips turned out to be easier to harden!

Polish hussar in the battle with the Turkish janissaries. Fig. Angus McBride

The Kassel edition of Cavalry reports that the hussar’s cuirass was strong enough in front that it could withstand a musket shot from a distance of 20 paces, while its rear was impenetrable for a pistol shot at point-blank range. Moreover, it was customary to decorate the breastplate of the cuirass. The most common gilded decorations on the bib were images of the Virgin Mary on the left side and a cross on the right. The helmets had a movable fixed nosepiece, and often with a very developed forehead, which gave the rider’s face additional protection.

Hussar detachments (banners) consisted of 150 people who were either recruited on a territorial basis, or belonged to some major Polish tycoon: Radziwill, Sobesky, Potocki, Sienovsky, Lubomirsky, Ras, and so on. Each unit had a distinctive pennant for identification on the battlefield, and each hussar had from one to two servants during the campaigns, as well as a corresponding “baggage space” in the wagon train.

PS There were a lot of materials about the “winged hussars” in Russian publications, such as, for example, the magazines “Tseikhgauz” and “Voin”, and there this topic was considered in great detail. Therefore, here it is given on the basis of foreign sources and only in relation to the general theme of the series.


1. Richard Brzezinski & Richard Hook. The Army of Gustavus Adolphus (2): Cavalry. Osprey Publishing Ltd. (MEN-AT-ARMS 262),1993.
2. Richard Brzezinski & Velimir Vuksic. Polish Winged Hussar 1576–1775. Osprey Publishing Ltd. (WARRIOR 94), 2006.
3. Richard Brzezinski & Graham Turner. Lützen 1632. Climax of the Thirty years war. Osprey Publishing Ltd. (CAMPAIGN 68), 2001.
4. Richard Bonney. The Thirty Years’ War 1618–1648. Osprey Publishing Ltd., (ESSENTIAL HISTORIES 29), 2002.
5. Richard Brzezinski & Angus McBride. Polish Armies 1569–1696 (1). (MEN-AT-ARMS 184), 1987.
6. V.Vuksic & Z.Grbasic. Cavalry. The history of fighting elite 650BC – AD1914. Cassell, 1994.

To be continued…

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