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Firearms and Faster Horses

Innovations in Military Weaponry and Tactics in the Early 1600s Led to a New Role for the Horse in Battle.

The development of firearms greatly affected the use of the cavalry horse. Cavalrymen were previously armed with lances. While these had proved effective against infantry and other cavalry, cavalrymen now became vulnerable to the well-aimed shot of the musketeer. In order to survive, cavalry too were equipped with firearms – both pistols and short muskets. The varied new roles of military horsemen led to new names such as cuirassiers, carbineers, and dragoons.

1631 The Swedish King-Soldier, Gustavus Adolphus, Utilized Lighter Artillery and Faster Cavalry

The individual who most radically changed the use and effectiveness of cavalry in the 1600s was Gustavus Adolphus, the soldier-king of Sweden known as “The Lion of the North.” Gustavus was the leader of the Protestant forces in the Thirty Years’ War which began in 1618. His victories over the forces of the Holy Roman Empire were largely due to his brilliant use of horses. For instance, he utilized lighter artillery pieces which could be quickly pulled from place to place by a single horse. More significant, he increased the mobility of his cavalry by use of a lighter type of horse. Instead of using the “shoot and run” tactics of the past, Gustavus’ forces moved numerous well organized waves of a few horsemen who were lightly armored but mobile. These horsemen contributed to overwhelming victories at Breitenfield (1631) and Lutzen (1632). Gustavus Adolphus was killed in the latter battle, but the “Lion of the North” and his new use of the horse profoundly affected the future of the cavalry.