I know that some people in Europe very much admire Russian Cossack cavalry and think it is very effective. But in Russia there was a proverb that one hussar is equal to two cossacks, one dragoon is equal to two hussars and one cuirassier is equal to two dragoons. This places a cossack to be only 1/8 as effective as a cuirassier.

This possibly is not exactly true but in fact the cossack cavalry rarely participated in battles, making disturbing raids instead (and even in that they were thought to be worse than regular light cavalry).

So my question is whether Cossack cavalry was indeed so ineffective?

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    One might wonder if that quote didn't originate from a cuirassier...
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Jun 18, 2012 at 14:44

5 Answers 5

  1. Cossacks in early 18th Century were the light cavalry. The lightest one. Even Hussars needed carts with grain and food. But Cossacks used them only if it was absolutely impossible to “take” everything on site. So, they were very, very quick. Yes, in battle, they were weaker. But they were not meant for the battle lines, but for intercepting on the enemies communications. For this work they were formidable.
  2. It is senseless to speak of Cossacks without mentioning the epoch. In 16th or 20th centuries everything was very different… There were no dragoons, for example in the 16th Century, and Cossacks were instead. And Cossacks in the 20th Century were very different, too. They became very multitarget.
  3. All the time Cossacks worked also as saboteurs, as special regiments, and that role only increased in time.

Ineffective? No. Bruce Lee is weaker than a tank… Sometimes.

  • 1
    Also Cossacks before 18th century were known as an excellent infantry, in opposite to weak (very light) cavalry. Commented Mar 26, 2013 at 13:05
  • Yes, at this time even cossack cavalry resembled later dragoons.
    – Gangnus
    Commented Mar 26, 2013 at 14:59
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    "Bruce Lee is weaker than a tank", I'm voting to "close this answer" because is based in unhistorical facts ;D
    – Brasidas
    Commented Oct 4, 2016 at 22:23
  • Didn't Cossacks also reintroduce the lance to European cavalry? From virtual non-existence in the early 1700's, by 1914 lance-equipped dragoons was ubiquitous from Drumheller to the Don River. Commented Oct 18, 2018 at 6:29
  • @PieterGeerkens Yes, they did, you are right. But that is rather the question of "ineffectiveness" of the lance in 19 Cent. It worked excellently against Napoleon Army. As for 20th Cent, the cutlass WAS effective, but the lance was not already. I didn't heard of its use except for training and parades. And attention: cossacks of 20th Cent. are not dragoons, even if they could be used as such. Cossacks were much more universal. So, mentioning of dragoons on Don seems very strange by itself. Your reference is not on the subj, BTW.
    – Gangnus
    Commented Oct 25, 2018 at 8:28

Both sets of statements are true: The Cossacks were inferior to other types of cavalry, and the Cossacks were "effective," because they were good enough to do the job.

To take just one example, the cuirassiers were the most heavily trained, heavily armed cavalry around. That means that there were relatively few of them.

The Cossacks were the opposite: They were "random" soldiers drawn from nomads and "runaways" of the borderlands between Russia and modern Kazakhstan. Compared to other forms of cavalry, they were lightly armed and poorly trained. But there were a lot of them, and they were "handy" to have in tight situation.

For instance, Cossacks were instrumental in executing Peter the Great's "scorched earth" strategy against Charles XII of Sweden (whose troops were elite).

How and why did Charles XII Get to Poltava?

The Cossacks weren't great soldiers. Not really good enough for battles. But (barely) good enough to conduct raids and get a lot of (dirty) jobs done, meaning that they were "effective."

  • 3
    Well Cossacks were not composed of Kazakhs, I hope this is a joke.
    – Anixx
    Commented Jan 15, 2012 at 18:35
  • 3
    @Anixx: To the best of my knowledge and belief, many Cossacks were at least partly of Kazakh descent, and the name Cossack is derived from Kazakh. (But, of course, not all.)The whole point is that Cossacks were Russian "runaways" (from serfdom) who fled toward Kazakh lands, and later intermarried with them. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_the_Cossacks
    – Tom Au
    Commented Jan 15, 2012 at 20:21
  • 4
    Still most of the Cossacks live not in Kazakhstan, but in Russia and Ukraine, they speak Slavic language, and not Turkic, and they practice Christianity, and not Islam as Kazakhs do.
    – Anixx
    Commented Jan 15, 2012 at 20:30
  • 2
    1. There were some kipchaks among cossacks, but they were not the main bulk. They started from the lesser nations (mainly Torks and Berendeis) on the border against kipchaks. 2. In these times there simply were no Kazachs. This name appeared in 18-19th cent. As a branch of Kyrgizes. So, the name derivation you mentioned is impossible. 3) Kipchaks or their other name, Polovci, were blond ("polova" = the straw) and hardly could look like Kazachs. Any more ideas?
    – Gangnus
    Commented Jan 29, 2012 at 0:07
  • 4
    Your citation "Put a Kazakh on a horse and give him a sword, and you've got a Cossack." is obviously a result of misreading or bad translation. Where have you got it? Your argumentation doesn't support it even a little bit - mass users of proverbs didn't know the history of cossacks.
    – Gangnus
    Commented Jan 29, 2012 at 0:14

During the Napoleonic period cossacks were generally not regarded as "battle cavalry" and rarely did much on the battlefield. Though is rough hierarchy of cavalry weight hussars, dragoons, cuirassier, there are many examples of lighter cavalry overthrowing heavier cavalry.

However there is vast range of other tasks required of cavalry in addition to performing on the battlefield. Scouting, pursuit, outposts, guarding prisoners, police functions in rear areas. The cossacks were used predominately in these functions, and with greater endurance, light supply needs ideal for many of these functions. While poor in massed charges they were adapt as small skirmishers particularly in rougher ground the regular cavalry could struggle.

Russian cossacks intros period took most of this workload off the regular Russian cavalry which meant they would be conserved and fresher for battle. Their raiding in 1812/13 greatly added to the french difficulties in supply , movement and rear areas with greater escorts needed. Small detachments of regular cavalry and horse artillery were attached to the cossack flying columnist give them a bit of punch.

Cossacks were also available in large numbers, and were relatively cheap to raise. Guard cossacks were different and had a good battlefield record.


It depends on what you are doing. If you line up a brigade of Cossacks versus heavy cavalry in a battle and charge both, the Cossacks would be wiped out. If you had the same brigade of each trying to control the areas around the two armies in the field, the Cossacks would run rampant over the area and the Heavies would be useless and vulnerable.


The Cossack cavalry was a light cavalry, acting mainly with raids against logistics, hit-and-run tactics against moving portions of armies (for example the Great Army when it was retreating) and scouting for the main army (for example the attack on Napoleon just before Austerlitz).

In all these roles, Cossack cavalry was as effective as other Russian light cavalries, as well as French cavalry.

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