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Alex T. Kim

Location: Detroit, MI
Joined: 24 Nov 2008

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PostPosted: Mon 24 Nov, 2008 1:16 am    Post subject: The decline of the cavalry pistol?         Reply with quote

Why is it that European cavalry stopped using flintlock pistols from 1700-1820? The caracole was dropped much earlier, but even then, theorists, even proponents of the lance over the pistol, agreed that it wasa good idea to carry one or two for use in the close combat that happened after the charge. Muskets may have made caracoling obsolete, and lances and sabers may have much greater shock value, but it still seems wasteful to remove something as compact and useful as a brace of pistols for shooting point blank at enemy cavalry when they're out of sabre's reach.

What confuses me further is that French Napoleonic cavalry seems to have abandoned its defining equipment-that is, cuirassiers stopped using a cuirass, and carabineers stopped using a carbine, and the two names just denoted rank and training. If even the heaviest horse on the field is unarmored, and all attempts at using anything larger than a pistol are abandoned, why not keep the pistol so that even chaussiers a cheval and light dragoons can deal serious injury to cavalry elites, such as cuirassiers and carabineers?
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Lafayette C Curtis

Location: Indonesia
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PostPosted: Sun 30 Nov, 2008 4:49 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Interestingly, the caracole might not have been such an important fixture in the realm of European cavalry tactics. Have a look at these two older discussions:

And of course Gordon Frye's article (though you might have come across that one already).

Now, as far as the decline of the pistol is concerned, the impression I got is that it was mostly connected to the disappearance of armor in European armies, especially during the second half of the 17th century and the first couple of decades of the 18th century. This eventually made swords and lances much more effective against a broader variety of targets (especially cavalrymen and pikemen/infantrymen in general), while the pistol's armor-piercing power became rather superfluous for the majority of targets that the cavalryman could expect to meet on the field and so it got relegated to the status of a secondary weapon. But it was still carried by the majority of proper cavalry troops (as opposed to mounted infantry but including some dragoons that had become "dismountable light cavalry" rather than "mounted infantry").

I also recall a prior discussion about an evolution in pistol design at around this time--the pistol barrels became shorter and the bore larger, so an average cavalry pistol at the end of the 17th century would have fired a bigger, slower ball than one from the beginning of the century. The later pistol would have had a bigger "punch" against unarmored targets while the earlier pistols would have been more efficient at penetrating armor. Unfortunately, I haven't been able to find the thread in question, though some people like Lin Robinson or Daniel Satberg might be able to chime in here (IIRC, the information about pistol calibers was posted by either or both of the two).

Finally, it would seem that the later pistols were not very accurate at all; there's the famous anecdote about Frederick the Great (or some other 18th-century German sovereign) telling his cavalrymen to attack a dummy once with a pistol and once with a sword, and not a single shot hit the dummy but practically all sword strikes scored hits. And then there's the Napoleonic Wars incident where a body of cavalry stood to receive a charge and fired their pistols at short range but failed to sap their enemies' momentum and got swept away by the incoming charge (though, to be fair, this already happened at least as early as the mid-17th-century battle of Roundway Down).
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Elling Polden

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PostPosted: Mon 01 Dec, 2008 4:50 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

If you read Mr. Frye's article, he says that the winning point of the pistollier was armour penetration. 16th century armour was simply to good to be easily defeated even by couched lances.
Early pistol cavalry wore plate armours as heavy as the lancers they faced, but with unarmoured horses.

Even in the 16th century, it was recogniced that melee cavalry was more efficient against foot, and where less vonerable to premature discarges (hir hir) and poor order.

When charging, pistol cavalry did not aim for impact. Thus, they would be more likely to fire early, or buck away when to close. Your mind is set on firing and turning, so that is what you do, for instance when an enemy cavalryman comes towards you.

When charging with the sword, however, you aim your horse straight for the enemy, and do not turn away before you have hit him with the sword, or riden past him.

In the late 17th century, when armour was all but gone (in response to the widespread use of firearms), the factor that made the pistol superior (its armour penetration) was gone. Carabines and calivers where also fully developed, and replaced the pistols for ranged fire.

Pistols where still very much around though.
Thanks to the sword knot, it was quite posible (and probably very effective, without me beeing an expert) to let go of the sabre after the initial impact, and use the sadle guns. At this point, you would be at arms reach, and the risk of missing would be much smaller.

"this [fight] looks curious, almost like a game. See, they are looking around them before they fall, to find a dry spot to fall on, or they are falling on their shields. Can you see blood on their cloths and weapons? No. This must be trickery."
-Reidar Sendeman, from King Sverre's Saga, 1201
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Lafayette C Curtis

Location: Indonesia
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PostPosted: Sat 06 Dec, 2008 11:53 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Elling Polden wrote:
When charging, pistol cavalry did not aim for impact. Thus, they would be more likely to fire early, or buck away when to close. Your mind is set on firing and turning, so that is what you do, for instance when an enemy cavalryman comes towards you.

Bad pistol-armed cavalry didn't. Good pistoliers/cuirassiers/whatever still relied on a mostly shock-based paradigm, charging at the enemy and using their pistols much like a very long lance or sword. For optimum effect the pistol was supposed to be fired at point-blank range, which was only marginally longer (if at all) than the reach of a sword or lance

Gordon (Frye) ought to be able to explain this better if you PM or poke him; judging from his official resume, he started riding and researching Renaissance cavalry tactics before I was even born!
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Lafayette C Curtis

Location: Indonesia
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PostPosted: Sun 18 Jan, 2009 10:26 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Ah. Found the relevant old thread:
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James R.Fox

Location: Youngstowm,Ohio
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PostPosted: Mon 19 Jan, 2009 8:23 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Sirs-Check out " Fighting techniques of the Early Modern World",on sale at, It covers in great detail why the pistol armed calvary declined in favor of saber armed calvary,ie in practice it gave better, more controlled impact. Under the Swedish system of Gustavus Adolfus, as improved by the Duke of Marlebourough the firepower was produced by blocks of musketeers supported by light 3 and 6 pound cannon interspersed between blocks of calvary. The calvary charged out from between the blocks and retreated to their covering fire if necessary.. The Duke permitted his calvarymen only 3 rounds per pistol, to be used to drive off horse and cattle rustelers.The men were punished for using the pistol in battle.
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Gordon Frye

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PostPosted: Mon 19 Jan, 2009 9:37 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Hey, nobody poked me until I just found this thread! Alas...

Anyway, in MY opinion, one of the main reasons that the flintlock pistol fell out of favour with officialdom in Europe was that the need just wasn't there anymore. As was noted above, when you had to punch through armour, a good high-velocity pistol was just the thing needed to do it (see the Graz tests for confirmation on this one). However, when armour went out of style due to A.) muskets becoming a larger and larger portion of the Infantry forces, and B.) the use of all cavalry becoming closer to the scouting role that for so long had been the sole occupation of various light forms of cavalry, swords would work just fine for combat. Plus they didn't need to be reloaded, nor was there as much need for training. (There was, to the best of my knowledge, very little actual training in swordsmanship going on in most professional armies at this time either. Most Cavalry training was in keeping the horses together at various gaits, and using the horses as the primary weapon rather than armes blanche or firearms.) The Duke of Marlborough was famous for supposedly only issuing three rounds per pistol and carbine to his troopers for an entire campaign, and expected that they not be used. Instead he preferred that his troopers, like the Ironsides before them, retain the pistol for the melee at most, and instead relying on the impetus of the charge to do the damage. The advantage there was that you could charge in with the sword/sabre at a gallop " loose reined and bloody spurred", while most charges with pistols were done at a trot in order to keep better order prior to firing.

There WERE definitely instances in which pistols were used to good effect, however, and proved their usefulness. One such event was Culloden, in which the British Heavy Dragoons actually performed what was in effect a caracole, firing their pistols in ranks against the poorly armed Highlanders. This was one instance wherein such a tactic was not only reasonable, it was brilliant. Hard to mount a "Highland Charge" against Horse, who would simply ride away when you charged! A second event was actually with a "faux pistol". Frederick the Great of Prussia prided himself on the fact that when his recruits were first learning their trade, they wanted to fire pistols, but usually missed their mark when on horseback. When introduced to a properly conducted sword charge, they became more sure of themselves, as "swords seldom miss their mark". But at one point in a battle with the Russians, Frederick found himself with only a mounted musician with him, and they surrounded by several Cossacks with lances. The King had only his light court sword, but the quick-thinking musician pulled a flute out of his saddle holster and held it threateningly, pointing it first at one then another of the Cossacks. This held them off until a unit of Prussian Horse came to the rescue and drove off the marauding Cossacks. I always thought that was a pretty cool use of a flute, myself.

By the early 19th Century (at least insofar as Europe went) the use of pistols was even more on the wane, though in some units they were the only firearms issued. (I believe that in English Lancer units, the Sergeants and a few troopers were issued with pistols for guard duty, that was it. No other firearms.) However in the New World that was changing, especially on the American Frontier. US Dragoons were still only armed with a single pistol along with their breech-loading carbine and a sabre, but the irregular forces in Texas began to adopt the Colt's revolving pistols by the early 1840's, and by the end of the decade had once again proven (the first time being in the 16th Century) that a pistol out-ranges a lance. This time it was Texas Rangers vs. Mexican Lancers, but the result was the same. But even with this, the commander of the Texans, Col. John Coffee Hays, stated "Let the bone and muscle of your horses be your weapons". Pistol balls would defeat lances, but it took the bigger horses of the Americans to defeat the closely packed and disciplined ranks of the Mexican Cavalry. By the American Civil War, pistol charges were going out of style though, certainly against Infantry armed with rifles. There were definitely some successes by the Confederates in their contests with the Union Cavalrymen, employing revolvers vs. sabres. By the end of the war, most of the various cavalry units on both sides were reduced to mounted infantry, though each brigade was careful to retain at least some companies armed with the sabre "just in case", and usually it was a well-founded concern. (Interestingly enough, in the Palestine Campaign in WWI, Allenby instituted the same arrangement by having every mounted rifles/light horse regiment rearm several companies with swords, to avoid repeats of such problems as encountered at Bersheeba. Swords were discovered to be quite useful even in WWI!)

Hopefully this sort of answers the question. It seems as though on two occasions Pistols were at the technological cutting edge of cavalry tactics. After they had done their duty, they were replaced by more powerful and long-range carbines, and by the theoreticians who were in love with the Lance and Sword. Funny though, when the troops were given a choice, they almost ALWAYS chose the pistols over the swords.



"After God, we owe our victory to our Horses"
Gonsalo Jimenez de Quesada
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