from a painting by Sebastian VrancxWhen one thinks ‘cavalry,’ one of course thinks fighters on horseback. There ends the sameness; not all horsemen – thus, cavalry – were alike. By this battle, the variety ranged from cuirassiers, clad in helmet and three-quarter body armor mounted on sturdy horses to dragoons, essentially lightly armored (or unarmored) infantry astride second-string horses. A large category in between was the light cavalry. Their armor was light, usually a helmet and leather buffcoat. All types carried swords. Used also in this conflict were mounted men from eastern Europe, in particular Croats, Poles, Hungarians and Cossacks. Croats grew a reputation of shedding blood first, then thinking about the consequences later (if at all). And Hungarians were noted for their dexterity with sabers.

In the mid 1470’s, Charles the Bold and his Burgundian knights were the first to experience pike being handled as a one-weapon system by a large, rectangular body of disciplined soldiers, men from the cantons in what we now call Switzerland. Wielding their long weapons in concert, pikemen formed walls – prickly walls – that no horse nor rider could penetrate; the knight’s lance could not match the reach of a pike. A solid block of rank upon closed rank of infantry holding out long pikes consistently stopped charging cavalry; hurling man and horse against massed pike was a futile and fatal gesture. A different approach entirely was needed and light firearms offered an alternative (although additional factors figured into the drift from lance to firearm). Gordon Frye prepared a revealing and very informative article: ‘From Lance to Pistol – The Evolution of Mounted Soldiers from 1550 to 1600.’ The unregimented knight had to become a team member. As with the infantry, the greatest damage could be inflicted by every rider working in concert, coordinated in ranks and files.

Used for decades, a rank-and-file way for cavalry to deliver fire was to use the caracole. Compared to the thundering charge, a caracole was tame. The cavalry of old smashed whereas caracoling horsemen were simply riding around gradually eroding the opposition, and the psychological impact of cavalry was a shadow what it had been at the end of the Middle Ages.

But the caracole was rarely used by both the Swedish cavalry and the Imperial-Leaguist horse and, for the 1631 Battle of Breitenfeld, eyewitnesses did not mention either side using caracoles .  How they attacked: