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In the late middle ages, every knight or even his retainers and squires were armed with a spear or a lance. When heavy cavalry gave way to pike squares, we still see the lance still in use among the demi-lancers. Somewhere along the way though, they completely disappeared, surviving only in the Polish army and appropriately enough to be resurrected by them in the 18th century when the effectiveness of the Polish cavalry was shown. Since then, the lance stayed with cavalry until they became mechanized.

A possible culprit is the Reiter employing the caracole which showed tactical supremacy over the lancer in many battles such as Coutras but that doesn't explain why they suddenly became resurgent again in the 18/19th century.

What caused the lance's short disappearance and why? If it indeed was firearms and caracolle tactics, then what made them become popular again later on?

  • while i wont argue with them becoming popular again, i would ask how much cavalry was actually active in the 1700's-1800's, compared to their use prior, we see the majority of fighting in this time switch to British/french musket lines. – Himarm Jan 28 '15 at 14:37
  • I thought the lace mainly came back as an anti infantry weapon rather than rather than cavalry main arm. Lance was discarded for pistol (fired at very short range in charge) and then for sabre (more flexible than lance) though cavalry still hard firearms the sabre was emphasised as commitment to shock action. – pugsville Jan 29 '15 at 7:24
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Because lances were unwieldy but required significant training to be proficient in. Their usefulness was progressively declining against the increasingly attractive (and cost-effective) firearms.

Because of the nature of the weapon, and the training required to produce a proficient lancer, it had generally fallen from use by the mid 17th century.

- Haythornthwaite, Philip. Napoleonic Light Cavalry Tactics. Osprey Publishing, 2013.

At 3-4 metres long it was too clumsy to handle in close engagements, ineffective against the longer massed infantry pike, and quite useless in sieges and against a musket at any distance. It was expensive and broke easily. It required long training and discipline, "a weapon of much trouble and charge (weight)", says a Spanish authority in 1597.

Kunzle, David, ed. From Criminal to Courtier: the Soldier in Netherlandish Art 1550-1672. Vol. 10. Brill, 2002.


Despite these drawbacks, lances did not vanish "completely" during this period. When the Spanish Armada set sail for England in 1588, Queen Elizabeth ordered an army to be assembled from the county militias and feudal levies. Lances featured prominently in the cavalry component of this force, with 2711 demi-lancers (31%) and 4388 light horse (50%) using the weapon in some capacity.

[W]e know that the horse was divided into three types: demi-lancers, as described by Sir Roger Williams, petronels, which were a form of harquebusiers on horseback armed with small-calibre weapons, and light horse armed with a light lance and single pistol.

- Tincey, John. Ironsides: English Cavalry 1588-1688. Vol. 44. Osprey Publishing, 2012.

Use of lances declined in Western and Central Europe after the 30 Years War, when sword-centric cuirassiers became the last hurrah of the heavy cavalry. Nonetheless, they did not vanish - in fact, one of the most celebrated lancer charges in history took place in 1605. As late as 1644 a regiment of Scottish lancers performed so well against Royalists in the Battle of Marston Moor that all new cavalry levies after 1650 were ordered to be lancers (up from 50/50).

In other armies, lances experienced a revival even before Napoleon. The Prussian Army for example raised a lancer unit, the Bosniakenkorps, in 1745. The Austrians under Emperor Joseph II created lance cavalry after the Polish fashion.

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The fall (and rise) of lances were tied to other developments regarding horse troops.

It was the (original) "cavalry" that used pointed weapons from the lances, dating back to the Middle Ages. By about the 17th century, there was a new type of horse soldier, dragoons, who were mounted infantry, rather than cavalry. As such, they were "musketeers" on horses, in contrast to "lancers." As time passed, tacticians "rethought" the value of hand weapons, and gave dragoons swords, which were easier to handle than lances, while (in some cases), replacing their heavy muskets with lighter "carbines" for firing. Provided with inferior weapons and horses, dragoons were usually at a disadvantage against both infantry and cavalry in a "stand up" fight, but their combination of speed and firepower made them ideal for patrolling, scouting, seizing and holding key points, etc.

In the 19th century, the introduction of rifles changed the equation further, by making guns longer ranged, and through the addition of the "repeating" feature. At this point, riflemen on horses were at a disadvantage against riflemen on foot, but the cavalry did have the advantage of getting to key points faster. Using this advantage, cavalry would (mostly) fight dismounted, with one-fourth of the men holding the horses of three others. In a war in which (cavalry) general Nathan Bedford Forrest described as "getting there firstest with the mostest," the advantage of faster arrival often outweighed the disadvantage of a one-quarter reduction in manpower.

Even so, traditional cavalry (with lances) was still good for some things, like attacking artillery positions and "running down" fleeing infantrymen from broken formations. These advantages were more apparent in the plains of Eastern Europe (and in Spanish possessions), than in the more broken ground of the rest of Western Europe. So many East European armies reserved a some cavalry for such purposes, while other armies largely switched to infantry. In this regard, the (remaining) use of cavalry was kind of like the old rock-scissors-paper game.

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The coming back part, is, IMHO well covered by Tom Au. But the disappearance is due to modernisation of the armies in the 15th Century as well as the appearance of fire-weapons.

In the earlier Middle Age, the nobles were equiped with lances and mounted on horses. This lead to the tactical uses of heavy cavalries, which were, e.g., quite effective in the First Crusade. One should note that the effectiveness of heavy cavalries were only part due to the effectiveness of the lance, and part to a psychological effect. This is quite well illustrated in Braveheart (regardless the inaccuracies that the film may present). The problem was: this unit was highly effective, but costed a lot of money. Nevertheless, through centuries, that was considered the main unit of a feudal army. During the 100 years war, however, three factors came in: the armies became more professional, the fire weapons which countered well cavalries unit (scaring the horses) and it was shown that those expensive units could be countered (slaughtered?) by much less expensive units (Crécy, Agincourt).

Professional armies, rarely had the means for heavy cavalries (due to their cost), and nobles slowly retiring from effective battle-combats also reduced slowly their numbers. That coupled with effective means to fight against the once number one unit, lead to a (relative) disappearance of mounted lances on battle field of Western Europe.

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