Home Forums Horse and Musket Napoleonic Napoleonic Cavalry – what did they really do?

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    Avatar photoGuy Farrish

    I normally fight shy of Napoleonic discussions. Not because I have an aversion to the period on principle. I’ve been gaming the period off and on for fifty years. (sobering thought) and it remains one of my main interests.

    No, the reason for my avoidance is the general, how shall we say, the enthusiastic combativeness of some of the proponents. Enthusiasm is a modern virtue but I retain a traditional British reserve regarding it to be honest – rather colonial. However, there is enthusiasm and unwarranted obsession. Many of the lines drawn in the blood sodden sand over various bits of uniform and accoutrement possibilities are to me pointless at best and jolly annoying distractions at worst.

    However I have recently been lurking on a site which alerted me to something which is far from irrelevant to Napoleonic wargaming and has confused me no end.

    Napoleonic cavalry, (particularly Dragoons). Not uniforms, horse colours, accoutrements, organisation but something rather more fundamental to turning an understanding of the period’s warfare into a game. What did they do? And how did they do it?

    I’ve had a pretty clear idea in my head since the mid 1970s of what the various types of cavalry did in the period .

    Heavy Cavalry – Cuirassiers, Carabiniers, (British Dragoons) – battlefield cavalry sometimes characterised as ‘shock’ cavalry but probably don’t try and smash fresh steady infantry or you’ll waste them.

    Medium Cavalry – Dragoons, (British Dragoons depending) – cheaper, lower impact versions of the above but also able to do quite a lot of light cavalry work during the campaign as opposed to the battlefield phase of things.

    Light Cavalry – Hussars, Chasseurs a Cheval, (British Light Dragoons) etc – eyes and ears of the army, protection against enemy scouts, petit guerre and occasionally useful on the flanks of battles.

    Lancers, Uhlans – supermen on horseback who reincarnated the mediaeval knight, or more realistically one trick pony fashionistas who nobody knew what to do with most of the time. Take your pick.

    Oh and for completeness I suppose – cossacks and their ilk. Scavenging bandits of little or no use except in terrorising everyone in a campaign, often their own supposed side as well as the enemy. Might look scary on a flank in a battle but give them a good shooting and they’re off to pick on someone smaller and weaker and preferably completely helpless.

    But now I learn there is a seemingly strong swathe of online opinion that has Dragoons back to their seventeenth century roots, dismounting to blaze away in firefights with formed infantry, all sorts of cavalry performing fire combat evolutions from the saddle and in addition being used very much as later ACW cavalry to rush, seize and hold strong points and the fabled (I blame Sam Elliott in ‘Gettysburg’) good ground.

    Dragoons and light cavalry did of course dismount and use their short muskets or carbines in the campaign context but rarely, and to little or no effect, in battlefield conditions in my reading. (I know about the foot dragoons in the Peninsula but that’s what happens when you eat your horses – it’s not a tactical option of choice).

    But these imaginary evolutions are being used to write and implement rules in large games where lots of gamers are gaining the impression that this is accurate historical gaming and that worries me.

    Have I been labouring under a huge misapprehension all these years? Did Napoleonic dragoons regularly ape Okey’s men at Sulby hedges? Did John Buford command the Prussian hussars at Waterloo to seize Plancenoit and hold the ‘best damn ground around’?

    Any (polite-ish) answers please?

    Avatar photoThaddeus Blanchette

    I have noticed the same trend as you and gone “Whaaaaaa…?”


    I can only imagine some new book has been published. My understanding of dragoons is that they were  great jacks of all trades, especially for the “little war” in places like Spain.

    I think what’s probably happened is that people have realized that Dragoons did indeed shoot from the saddle from time to time, but more as harassers and and skirmishers than anything else. I recently read an eyewitness account of them doing this at Waterloo. And, as so often is the case in our hobby, this has been taken to an extreme.


    I think if you’re playing at a low level of command — maybe Sharpe Practice — you are justified in giving dragoons a weak shot, even from the saddle. But at anything above that level… All I can say is maybe they’d be slightly better skirmishers when it comes to screening because they could generate a lot of smoke?

    We get slapped around, but we have a good time!

    Avatar photoGeneral Slade

    Hi Guy,

    I haven’t seen the online discussion you are referencing but I agree with the general tenor of your post.  However, it might be worth taking a look at Philip Haythornthwaite’s Osprey, Napoleonic Heavy Cavalry and Dragoon Tactics because it includes some interesting stuff that I wasn’t aware of before reading it.  For example, he quotes from Jonathan Leach’s Rough Sketches of the Life of an Old Soldier, where Leach says that the French dragoons in the Peninsula were armed with muskets that were able to out range the “pop-gun” carbines of the British heavy and light dragoons, so when bodies of cavalry met at a distance in broken terrain the French would dismount and shoot at the British cavalry while remaining out of range of their return fire.  He goes on to say: “In the French army, one man was left in charge of three or four horses, out of reach of fire, whilst the dismounted dragoons or chasseurs became efficient light infantry, and acted as such if their infantry were not up.” However, Haythornthwaite does not suggest that this practice was widespread in other theatres or in other armies.  He also doesn’t suggest it was a tactic used on the battlefield during a general engagement.

    Haythornthwaite also notes that even heavy cavalry engaged in skirmishing and quotes artillery officer Cavalié Mercer (Journal of the Waterloo Campaign) who wrote, ‘the cuirassiers led the second attack . . . sending up a cloud of skirmishers, who galled us terribly by a fire of carbines and pistols at scarcely 40 yards from our front.’

    In his companion book, Napoleonic Light Cavalry Tactics, Haythornthwaite says there were instances where cavalry engaged in volley-firing from the saddle when being engaged by the enemy and cites one example where this was successful (French 20e Chasseurs a Cheval against Russian cavalry at Eylau – where the snow reduced the Russian charge to a walking pace) and where it was disastrous (French chasseurs and dragoons at Sahagun where they were swept away by the British 15th Hussars).  In the same book, the author also notes that during the retreat from Quatre Bras, the British 10th Dragoons dismounted its skirmishers, who were armed with the Baker rifle, to block the bridge over the river Thy and so discourage the French pursuit.

    Having said all of this, the examples Haythornthwaite cites all seem to be exceptions to the rule and I am not sure that trying to incorporate them into a set of wargame rules would make any sense at anything above the skirmish level.

    Best wishes




    Avatar photoJohn D Salt

    I thought everyone knew that the role of cavalry is to give tone to what would otherwise be a mere vulgar brawl:


    All the best,


    Avatar photoGeneral Slade

    I thought everyone knew that the role of cavalry is to give tone to what would otherwise be a mere vulgar brawl: https://magazine.punch.co.uk/image/I0000LEv5mpE01Cg All the best, John.

    I love that cartoon.  I am seriously tempted to buy a print.

    Avatar photobobm

    Wargamers love firing “because they can” irrespective of the odds against causing any lasting impact.  Whereas in real battles firing was for a purpose and therefore often at close range and to clear the enemy from your front.  Causing a few odd casualties really was pretty irrelevant most of the time…unless you could draw your opponent into wasting a controlled volley or charge etc


    There's 10 types of people in the world. Those who understand binary and those who don't.....

    Avatar photoGuy Farrish

    I thought everyone knew that the role of cavalry is to give tone to what would otherwise be a mere vulgar brawl: https://magazine.punch.co.uk/image/I0000LEv5mpE01Cg All the best, John.

    Well absolutely, and I find it hard to believe that loud shooty things lend anything to proceedings except more smoke and vulgarity.

    Avatar photoPatrice

    Charge aboard a ship? 😉


    Avatar photoOotKust

    I’ve been gaming the period off and on for fifty years. (sobering thought) and it remains one of my main interests.

    Surprised I am to read this Guy. Didn’t expect you’d do such a thing. Ditto me, around so long… now only interest (dabble others but little time spent). Not like friends who literally still own and create 10-20+ armies, or lead piles.

    Anyway, on the subject you are correct AFAIAC. The Colonial thing is a bit jaded; and your dismissive of Cossacks I’d say further from the reality; in certain conditions, than we now can understand how they worked. Not just Russian accounts [1806/07] but corroborating memoires from the French side as well. And that include instances of their firing pistols mounted at close range to intimidate and annoy possible targets.

    Another example, sadly mistreated in English texts is the ‘charge of the precious Constantine Uhlans’ at Austerlitz. Claims of their being lancers found to be false, as lances had not been issued* despite their being trained and organised under an Austrians tutelage.

    What of the claims of lance wounds to certain French? Reading accounts we find that Cossacks charged ‘on the flanks’ of the line regiment, in support so to speak. These being mistaken for the substantive unit, seem to be the cause of the error.
    *Russian records show the regiment, 400 men down at the battle, were only issued (and trained with them) in 1806, after return to St.Petersburg. No doubt Konstantine got a ‘please explain’ ultimatum, after the Emperor had bigger fish to fry.

    Dragoons- well the very first combat in 1805 campaign against Austria (demobbed Army of the Coasts of course!)- was the so called ‘Action of Wertingen’- and that involved two significant corps of men- dragoons dismounted assaulting a village held by Austrian Grenadiers (agreed it was a foward outpost…) because this cavalry Division had outstripped any infantry support, per orders, a recconnaisance in force. Effective against a defensive enemy- yes. The foot winkled them out, the mounted regiments harrassed and/ or attacked their retreat and thence open field positions.

    The second corps of note, were the ‘fast’ infantry who came up in support- on the enemies flank- known as Oudinots Grenadiers (or Reserve/ United Grenadiers etc.)- they were the first French infantry in combat role of the campaign. Dupas Brigade IIRC. [Their first role had been non-combative – to make a lot of noise and distraction near Thuringia with some of Murat Cavalry Reserve to dupe the Austrians into believing that was the French line of march].

    Secondly you have as I cited elsewhere, a small handful of Austrian Chevau-Leger, another form of dragoons- dismounted with loaded carbines in the deep darkness circa 0300 of a Winter night on Dec 2nd, walking into Tellnitz village and surprising sleeping sentries (Tir du Po) who should have known better, taking some prisoner*. (Stutterheim).

    This ‘created’ the French backlash that saw two additional battalions of the 3eme de ligne woken and quick marched from their slumber in or near Sokolnitz to reinforce the other single battalion [3eme] and one company of ‘expert’ skirmishers from Tir du Po -this company remained detached throughout the entire battle. Thus this minor incursion by foot troops created a stronger defence of the village.

    So apart from Iberia, yes they did work in that fashion sometimes. I dont have other incidents to hand or memory however.

    One should discount the single dismounted dragoon company taken at Wishau by the Russian advance as a sacrificial unit, a political move again to dupe the ‘Coalition’ into believing the Grande Armée was falling apart and ripe for attack (nearly true tho!).

    With all due respect to Gen Slade, I’m afraid I discount anything written by Haythornthwaite now- his uniform anthologies reek of respeak and often lack sources; and Osprey I have little faith any more, having had to renew my acquaintence in my new mission role; things like Russian shakos; uniform colours (many) etc.

    The source of your consternation Guy I am unaware, but have seen horrendous interpretations by ‘rule writers’ that I prefer to gloss over. Analysis by non-European sources seem particularly agregious at times and the more modern, the greater variation. As I cited one example, they couldn’t even get the right terrain for a certain battle scenario- yet expect people to pay for their rules and ‘systems’ for dummies formats! Hell no!

    My force- yes I have one ‘official’ dismounted dragoon battalion [yet to be refurbed s/h] as a token stand-in for some unit of legere in battles. Otherwise, my main battle consists of the 6 regiment 3rd Dragoon Division – of which I have completed 4 of the regiments in full- attached to Soult IV Corps.

    BTW the French used a cut down musket, musketoon called, so could/would outrange carbines. As you say, was it the shot or the puff of smoke that caused enemy to wither? Only NCOs were issued any form of carbine, or legere officers as well.

    regards davew

    Avatar photoOotKust

    Charge aboard a ship?

    Ahh Patrice- the 8th Hussars at the Tegel again!  

    Avatar photoSkip

    My latest project in 15-18mm is the best answer, the British Union Brigade destroyed 5 French infantry Brigade at Waterloo.

    Been reading lots of Russian accounts lately so can’t recall exactly where that Cossacks beat regular French cavalry in small battles usually by deception and traps.

    Avatar photoGuy Farrish

    What pushed me over the edge about this was an attack in an online Kriegsspiel. A regiment of dragoons received a lancer regiment’s charge, firing their carbines/musketoons/muskets at the halt pre contact. They routed the lancers. This felt odd.

    I was not involved so have no game axe to grind, and I have a healthy scepticism of the supertrooper view of lancers. I would however expect dragoons firing at the halt against attacking lancers to be roughly handled unless there were some extraordinary terrain, training and morale advantages.

    If it had been a one off I would have shrugged. But the use of dragoons in fire combat appears to be a standard and charges to contact by them penalised amongst some gaming groups. I would expect dragoons v horse to be at a significant disadvantage in the seventeenth and possibly early eighteenth centuries but not later.

    Interesting to hear of Haythornthwaite quoting the 20th Chasseurs at Eylau example. Captain Parquin’s account has the Chasseurs, at the halt, shooting down almost the entire front rank of Russian dragoons (advancing at the walk). This did not stop the attack however and the combat was indecisive. The dragoons retired in order but then received most of their casualties from the fire of the square of the 27th Legere during the withdrawal.

    This was a light cavalry unit shooting, something I always believed they were more likely to engage in given their role away from the battlefield. Dragoons always appear to me at least to have more of a heavy/medium cavalry role on the battlefield in this period.

    I am not suggesting that dragoons, or any other cavalry unit, never shot their weapons, either on foot or mounted (although reloading on horseback in the middle of a battle sounds like a recipe for disaster, not to mention physically challenging) but as a standard procedure in battle it feels unlikely. Does unlikely mean rules should not allow it to happen? I don’t think so. I’m generally one to allow a player to do anything they like, however anachronistic or plain dumb it may be. Just make sure that it gets the outcome contemporaries would expect.

    Cossacks. I am probably being as anachronistic in my view of what a Cossack was in this period as those who see dragoons as mounted infantry in this period.

    Avatar photoOotKust

    Hmm, seems an extreme case and shouldn’t be highly [or commonly] repeatable.
    Nearly everyone had small arms- that doesnt mean they all delivered fire from the saddle. Certainly, specialists existed in several forms, but a norm, no.

    If ‘factoring’ is to blame, the latitude is taking things too far. If you hit a cow on the road, will your car flip over just because that happens in movies??

    [I had an accident and hit a dog at speed who crossed my path, unable to avoid it. He was fatally injured, so was our American style stationwagon. Impact crushed the bumper into the radiator which punctured- ergo we were hors de combat. So was the dog…].

    Lancers have to arrive in order to inflict casualties and disorder, otherwise it is just the [same] morale imperitive present on recipients.

    Its late and I’m probably not explaining welll, cheers

    Avatar photoGeneral Slade

    Hi Guy,

    I agree with everything in your last post.  I think the idea that dragoons are somehow different from other cavalry in the Napoleonic era is misguided.  How effective they are as battlefield cavalry really comes down to the size of the horses they are sitting on (and training obviously).  French dragoons were, according to the regulations, mounted on smaller horses than the cuirassiers and carabiniers, so it might be appropriate to make them somewhat less effective in a charge than the bigger boys.  But the notion that they should therefore sit and fire their muskets at the enemy is just silly.

    I personally don’t have any problem with denoting some cavalry (such as French dragoons and Bavarian dragoons) as ‘medium’ cavalry and making them a bit more effective than light dragoons and hussars and a bit less effective than heavy dragoons, cuirassiers etc.  However, using the term ‘medium’ cavalry on certain forums will annoy the experts who will tell you there was no such thing.  And then you will find yourself caught up in the kind of Napoleonic debate you have wisely spent years avoiding.


    Avatar photoChris Pringle

    In the few rare exceptions that prove the rule – the famous isolated instances where cavalry used their carbines or musketoons for organised volley fire – I will wager there was some particular combination of favourable circumstances that made it a sensible option. E.g.:

    – A commander who thought laterally enough to consider using it as a formal tactic despite it being no more than an afterthought in the cavalry manual (has anyone looked at any of these? I haven’t lately)

    – His regiment having time and opportunity to actually practise with their weapons, rather than performing the myriad other duties that usually occupied them

    – Fine weather (no damp or wind to cause misfires)

    – The time and leisure in a battlefield situation to anticipate the enemy’s approach, load weapons, and deploy for volley fire rather than a charge

    – A terrain feature (slope, ditch, soft ground, etc) that would slow the enemy’s charge, make them a good target, and give the volleying cavalry time to change weapons and brace themselves for melee.

    For tabletop Napoleonic cavalry to be allowed to generate significant firepower on-table, I’d suggest they should have to make some sacrifice or be really lucky.

    Clausewitz doesn’t go into low-level tactical stuff but he does have a few pithy things to say about cavalry, along the lines of:

    – incapable of holding ground

    – negligible firepower

    – its only real value is mobility that enables it to achieve local numerical superiority quickly

    – the most dispensable of the three combat arms

    – beyond the small essential number needed for cavalry-specific tasks (reconnaissance, liaison, etc) it is an expensive luxury and you’re better off spending the same money on the more destructive artillery or a larger number of the more versatile infantry (he particularly berates the Austrians for sending a ridiculously large proportion of cavalry into Germany in 1799).

    But what did he know.

    Avatar photoGuy Farrish

    OotKust –  Thanks. Dave I agree entirely about the having to arrive bit about the lancers – it’s just that I doubt a rank (it was one rank only of the mounted cavalry that fired from what I have read) of dragoon fire would be likely to stop a move to contact unless the lancers were seriously poor or seriously disordered already.

    Stephen  – Thanks – wise words I shall now tactically withdraw/run away!

    Chris – Thanks, pretty much as I thought – except for this Clausewitz bloke –  who’s he? :^)

    Thank you everyone for reassuring me that I haven’t missed some major revision in Napoleonic history (this time anyway).

    Avatar photoSkip

    I read way to much, so finding references would be difficult.

    Know the Prussian Dragoons saved a day somewhere, Lithuanian I am thinking.

    The French Dragoons did use carbines on a Russian cavalry,  think Dragoons also but it was in snow I think slowing the charge.

    And have been looking into but only know before Borodino the Ingermanland Dragoons did a foolhardy charge and lost lots of troopers so by Borodino were taken out of the line and given police duty which I have only a couple squadrons and use them for headquarters protection.

    Empire III has a cavalry firing at 3 levels lower than their moral level. Not sure all these years killed 12 figures, I don’t do it to often, more return fire than instigate it.

    Avatar photoOotKust

    Just a catch up but so many built-on beliefs colour views, and books replaced by internet have to an extent made this a lot worse, however-

    • I don’t buy the light/ heavy horse issue- it was movement, action and celerity at a time and place that mattered most.
    • All troops do things to discomfort enemy or protect themselves, sometimes outside their ‘role’.
    • Nearly all impetuous activity is reality based- what will work for a squadron locally may not for a regimemt in battle.(Kellermans charge/ assault at Marengo the more remarkable despite him acting like a gamer- his formation was ‘disordered’ as not in correct ‘ranks’ and of mixed units- but falling on the flank of marching infantry, under cover of smoke, noise and treelines- brilliant!).
    • And despite the years of ‘Britsih’ superiority driven down our throats, it is evident that most nations or some leaders at least, also adopted variable tactics and roles as necessary- debasing the ‘nationality’ issue considerably.
    • Finally, on E3- whist I applaud the mechanisms (used them for about 5 years with a hi-brow group) I consider the values given/ exhibited a bit off.

    Nice one Guy, next round….

    Avatar photoChris Pringle

    The light / heavy distinction was very real. If I may, let me cite the Hungarian War of Independence – not a Napoleonic War but one fought with Napoleonic weapons and tactics by generals who had learned their trade as junior officers in the Napoleonic Wars. (One of the Austrian generals, Schlik, lost an eye to the [careless or drunken?] lance of an allied Cossack in 1813. Don’t know if that gives us any special insight into Cossacks’ tactics or effectiveness …) Anyway: when Hungary rebelled, all the Austrian army’s hussars ended up on the Hungarian side, leaving the Imperials with all the heavy cavalry, i.e., the cuirassiers and dragoons (plus a few uhlans and chevaulegers). When the two sides’ cavalry clashed in combat, the heavies generally had the better of it – definitely worth a +1 in melee. However, when the heavies were forced to perform all the scouting, picket, liaison etc duties for lack of light cavalry, their heavy horses carrying heavy men wore out very rapidly. Think Tiger tanks breaking down while the Shermans cruise on.

    Avatar photoNot Connard Sage

    A dragoon sword

    A light dragoon sword

    Is your answer.

    Obvious contrarian and passive aggressive old prat, who is taken far too seriously by some and not seriously enough by others.

    Avatar photoOotKust

    The light / heavy distinction was very real. I

    I wasn’t suggesting otherwise. However horses moved at the same speeds, in the same ways, under systemic conditions. Lesser or better trained riders affected this as much as other factors.
    Thus attributes for each; light cavalry were capable of defeating heavies.
    Gamings ‘factoring’ is often out of kilter to the realities of the period. But I’ll not pursue the matter further.

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