There is a military technology that once had become obsoleted but bounced back agian. Heavy cavalry actually had a near death experience in Europe from about 1550 to 1650. Shortly after the introduction of reliable matchlocks, traditional European heavy cavalry (knights, basically) started to disappear from the battlefield in Western Europe. Starting in the 1540s, an alternative form of cavalry emerged on Western European battlefields, the Reiter:
These started as German mercenaries who swapped the lance for wheel-lock pistols and wore discount plate armor (often black colored, and thus “Black Reiter” was a common moniker).
Their tactic was to ride up real close (under 20 meters) to pikemen and discharge their two pistols, then ride off to reload. Despite the point blank range, their volleys weren’t terribly effective. The front ranks of pikemen often wore plate armor, and could stop pistol fire quite effectively.
Reiters employed the caracole tactic of riding to point black range and firing off their pistols at pike squares.
Regardless of penetration, it doesn’t take a genius to see why this would not have been a terribly efficient way to use cavalry. Nevertheless, they were valued as mercenaries because… they’re still cavalry, and an element of mobility is essential in any field battle.
Against other armored cavalry, they’d often have to press the muzzle of their pistols to the enemy rider’s plate armor before firing, otherwise there was little chance for their pistols to penetrate. Again, you don’t need to be a tactical genius to see why using a pistol as a one-stab dagger isn’t the best weapon for cavalrymen.
Despite all the shortcomings, they were still considered more bang for the buck when compared to traditional full-plate heavy cavalry, as exemplified by the French gendarmes of the same period.
The French gendarme was the first professional cavalry corps of Western Europe. It dominated the battlefield for a few decades before being superseded by the German Reiter as the most popular cavalry archetype in Western Europe.
The gendarmes were prohibitively expensive to maintain as each gendarme required 9 supporting men and at least 5 horses to keep in their field. Only the French kings had the capital to maintain such a force.
While heavy shock cavalry was being phased on in Western Europe, it was seeing a golden age in Eastern Europe. The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth had began fielding a professional heavy cavalry corps in the mold of the French gendarmes, but with far more success. Of course, I’m referring to the Polish Winged Hussar:
Reiter vs Polish Winged Hussars
Polish Winged Hussars at the Battle of Kircholm where they broke entrenched Swedish infantry, a feat considered impossible by most tacticians
The wide open terrain of Poland meant that full horse barding and plate armor was impractical. The Poles valued speed over steel protection. And this proved to be the correct choice.
The Winged Hussars worse 3/4 plate harness and rode on unarmored horses like the German Reiters, but instead of pistols, they stuck to their long lances, longer even than many of the pikes they came against. This allowed them to charge pikemen and still maintain an advantage in reach.
To mitigate the effect of firearms, the Hussars closed in on their target riding spread out and just one or two riders deep. Only in the last few dozen meters would the Hussars close ranks, riding knee-to-knee to break through the infantry.
Against enemy cavalry, the Hussars were equally devastating. Neither the pistols of Western Reiters nor the bows of Ottoman Sipahis had much effect against their plate armor. And they had no answer to counter the Hussars’ super long lances.
Gustavus Adolphus recognized the value of Hussar tactics after being defeated by them on multiple occasions. After suing for peace with the Poles, he trained his own cavalry to charge home with saber and lance in hand as their Medieval forbearers had done.
Reiter vs Hakkapeliitta
Many of these cavalrymen came from Finland, then a part of the Swedish empire. These were the Hakkapeliitta. They wore only a breastplate and helmet, and specialized in the saber and pistol rather than lance. Though they’re classified as light cavalry by historians, I’d argue they were more akin to heavy cavalry given their preference for shock tactics.
Finnish Hakkapeliitta proved to be highly effective against contemporaries in Western Europe. They represented the elite cavalry of the Swedes during the Thirty Years’ War. Their general kit and tactics would be copied by Western armies all the way to the Napoleonic Wars some 150 years later.
Thus with a combination of Swedish heavy lancers and Finnish Hakkapeliitta, Gustavus rewrote the tactics of Western Europe. The idea of the Reiter largely disappeared after the Thirty Years’ War as armies finally came to their senses and remembered that heavy cavalry’s greatest value was shock, not fire.
And so it was that the glory of the knightly charge was reborn in Europe. For the next 200 years, European armies would field huge numbers of lancers, hussars, dragoons, and cuirassiers, all of whom preferred their sabers and lances over their pistols and carbines.
These men are not reenactors. This is actual unit of French Cuirassiers shortly before WWI. Despite their modern bolt-action carbines, they were still expected to charge the enemy infantry as if the year were 1814, not 1914. And no, their breastplates would not have stopped a rifle bullet.
It would take the inventions of repeating rifles, machineguns, and the exploding shell to finally snuff out this last remnant of Medieval warfare in the opening months of WWI.
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