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In 16th century Polish hussars were heavy cavalry, they were what knights became. In 17-18th centuries hussars were light cavalry. How and why did the change happen? Wiki mentions the change, but says nothing about the reasons.

It was not that all cavalry became light. Notice, that both heavy and light cavalry continued to exist during all time of 16-19th centuries. But the Hussars and only they changed their armor, weapons and role so dramatically.

And yes, the Hungarian hussars of 15th century were not heavy, but medium cavalry, but that was BEFORE the period mentioned.

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    It looks like they started light, and it was the Polish Hussars who were unusual in transforming into heavy cavalry.
    – T.E.D.
    May 26 '17 at 0:45
  • In 17-18th centuries hussars were light cavalry. How and why did the change happen? See Deluge. Hint: money is tight.
    – Matt
    May 26 '17 at 7:45
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    Perhaps the question should be rewritten to mention Polish hussars explicitly.
    – Matt
    May 26 '17 at 7:48
  • Military units often adopt to changing times... Italy still has infantry, yet they don't fight with glaudius.
    – Greg
    May 26 '17 at 17:13
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    @Gangnus what is the use to change hussars into cheap light cavalry and simultaneously create new heavy cavalry types Hussars always were light cavalry. But the point is that when you have a lot of light cavalry you have to make it a bit heavier to use it also in "normal battles". And the easiest way to achieve this is... just to give them additional armor protection. Do not ever mess with reforming existing regiments into something else. Let them think they are still "hussars" even if they make use of tanks instead of horses (think of modern US Cavalry divisions).
    – Matt
    May 27 '17 at 8:33
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Polish husarz (hussar) (also known under Old Polish word usarz) is originally Hungarian. Literally - some Hungarians who fought Turks emigrated to Poland in middle 1400s. So 15th century Polish hussars would be actual Hungarians initially or after few decades Poles armed and organized like the originals. Which meant light cavalry, which would operate alongside heavier lancer units at the time. However, the hussars quickly gained in prominence, and by the beginning of the 1500 they were the backbone of Polish cavalry. In fact, they were already used for deciding charges in battle, with most prominent example of such being The Battle of Orsza in 1514.

As a side note on latest research on the origins - P. Grotowski speculates that hussars can trace their origins to Byzantium's light cavalry from 10th or 11th century. Konstanty Górski, Historya Jazdy Polskiej and Piotr Grotowski, Trapezici, tasinarci i husarze – z rozważań nad genezą husarii

However, by the end of 16th century Polish husarze were employed in the role of the shock cavalry (for example Battle of Lubiszewo [or Lubieszów] in 1577), following the reforms of newly elected king Stefan Batory (coronated in 1576).

[In registry documents, husarskie units were marked with abbreviation p.t.d.p. - (p)ancerz (armor), (t)arcza (shield), (d)rzewo (lance), (p)rzyłbica (bascinet). The sabre was not mentioned because it was expected for everyone to have one. Z dziejów husarii - Radosław Sikora

While at this time 80% of Polish cavalry force was of "rackiej organizacji" (that is: Hungarian hussars style), Batory created essentially new force. On one hand, he divided existing units by the nationality and mandated regulation armament of the both Polish and Hungarian hussars, of which most important change was requiring use of light armor. On the other hand there was the formation of completely new force, which required even more and better equipment from the volunteers

According to surviving documents, Batory required from anyone who wanted to join his "husarskie chorągwie koronne" to have: iron armor, gauntlets and helmet, wooden lance (which was of unique polish design and manufacture), sabre and pistols. Documents also mentioned fearthers and other ornaments, both for splendor and to demoralize the enemy - from which evolved characteristic wings of later years.

Point of note: name "husarskie chorągwie koronne" (crown hussars units) did not mean they were "royal own" - it denoted the actual, elite, winged hussars, of which at least some were formed privately by dukes and princes, too. And, of course, this would be the easy to determine point when polish hussar units became usarze, and actual hussar units became rackie, then later kozackie and finally lisowczyki. Though, as mentioned earlier, the divergence in actual employment in battle between hussars in Poland and hussars elsewhere happened earlier - Battle of Orsza was the first known instance where hussars were used to break through enemy forces, which is obviously not the proper use of light cavalry.

This designation may cause additional confusion for non-polish speakers, because Res Publica Poloniae at that time comprised of Old Polish Kingdom ("Korona" - eng. Crown) and Great Duchy of Lithuania ("Litwa"), and later also Ukraina, as Republic of Poland was actually an union of two (Poland and Lithuania) and later three (Poland, Lithuania and Ukraine) nations, each with their own nominal head, subordinated to Polish King only. Thus if there was a need of concentrating large army from all regions, they will be divided into "national" corps, designated Koronne, Litewskie i Ukraińskie armiesx, after geographical region. Yet all three would have husarskie chorągwie koronne in their order of battle, and substantial part would be, as mentioned, raised by private parties (at the time they would be called magnates). Sorry (not) for eventual confusion.

Husaria - Jerzy Cichowski, Andrzej Szulczyński as well as Description de l'Vkranie depvis les confins de la Moscovie jvsqu'avx limites de la Transylvanie - Guillaume Levasseur de Beauplan

Of course the Batory reforms weren't instantaneous, but starting with 1577 and with Muscovite campaigns of 1579-81, Polish Hussars were known to be almost exclusively shock cavalry of their true fame.

There has to be a point made here: technically Polish husarze weren't heavy cavalry - those were different unit type called "pancerne" - they were used mostly (though not exclusively) as a force to achieve breakthrough by concentrated charge on weakest point of enemy's force. Those breakthroughs were then exploited by attacks of "choragwie pancerne i kozackie" - units of heavy and light cossack (not: Cossack) cavalry.

Polish heavy cavalry would be an chainmail, iron helmet and shield armored, sabre, spear and bow-and-arrow armed unit, while cossacks (or "lisowczyk" - this name became norm later, to distinguish from actual, ethinic Cossacks) were light, ususally un-armored units.

Most importantly, Polish husarze were definitely an universal soldiers - they were best at breakthrough charge, but would be excellent in pursuit, very good at escort and would do very well as an infantry, too. They had their use even in fortified defense - to break up infantry charging the walls with powerful sallies. They were truly elite units, comprising often no more than 10% of the total numbers. This could be done because they were able to charge multiple times during each battle (historical sources mention that 2-3 were nothing unusual, with at least one encounter seeing 10 charges).

By now it should be obvious that not everybody could be an usarz. Because it required substantial expenditure to afford the equipment (of which most expensive were war horses, specially raised and trained, and which usarz needed several), it was almost exclusively noble-born profession. How they became such a force is well explored, and a very easy to understand movie, describing who were the people joining the hussars can be found, too: Born For The Saber.

It is no mystery, as well, why it was never a large force, at the peak being just over 8000 strong nationally, especially in a country that would be largest in Europe at the time.

But back to designations, types and use of units. While technically correct, designation of Polish husaria as "heavy" is not precise: they would place above cuirassiers in terms of armor and arms, with actual heavy (pancerne) units below cuirassiers in same terms. Successful husarz charge required follow-on attack of both pancerne and lisowczyk units to decide the battle, due to mostly low numbers of hussars.

Undoubtedly there were still Hungarian units in Polish forces that were calling themselves hussars, but being light (or light-ish) cavalry, they were started to be called "rackie", to distinguish the two, now very dissimilar, unit types, as mentioned earlier.

"Jazda Racka", which is the general name for troops arriving from Hungary to Poland comes from Old Polish word Rac, meaning Serb (as in the person from Serbia). So in Poland of the early 16th century "Rac cavalry" and "hussars" would be synonymous until Batory's reforms. Afterwards, they would be also called cossack or lisowczyk , with latter dominating after Cossack Uprisings throughout 17th century, also as mentioned earlier.

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    A promising answer. References for the specific claims made are missing though. Jan 13 at 16:29
  • @PieterGeerkens - this is not really easy. Documents mentioned are actually latin-written receipts detailing numbers of equipment delivered to a king or duke (private hussars were equipped similarly to Crown units), I don't know neither name nor collection nor museum they are kept - I just know they exist from writings on the topics by others. My take is almost all this information is common knowledge of the time, not needed to be written down because it is OBVIOUS to any contemporary writer. We have rich military documentation from that era, but it's mostly legal...
    – AcePL
    Jan 14 at 8:36
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    @PieterGeerkens - added some sources, though not sure how useful they will be for non-Polish speaking/reading people...
    – AcePL
    Jan 18 at 10:36
  • Excellent! So, they already started as light cavalry. And their being as a heavy cavalry was a temporary branch in development. As for the amount of information, your answer is two levels above my previous knowledge of the subject. But I would ask you to look at your answer once again and mark all Polish and Magyar words in some single style (italics, citation braces, font, anything - choose yourself). Because without that your so interesting text is hard for reading. Please!
    – Gangnus
    Jan 19 at 16:52
  • As for references - I have heard about one Armenian Astronomer, who published an article in the Armenian language early in his carrier. Later, when he needed to support ANY of his ideas by a reference, he always put a reference to that article. And it worked. As for me, I also had used here references to the Czech materials, and they were accepted, in spite of the number of Czech readers. Even worse, I have read answers here, that were "supported" by openly illiterate texts in English. Nobody checked these references, and if you protest against the quality of support, you are downvoted.
    – Gangnus
    Jan 19 at 17:01
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Originally, Hussars had "heavy" (e.g. Polish) cavalry, and "light" (e.g. Hungarian) cavalry side by side. So then the question is what tipped the balance in favor of "light?"

The answer I have is terrain. Poland (and Russia) has mostly flat land. This is ideal for the charges of heavily armed and armored horsemen over "easy" ground, for massed, line-breaking charges. As the Poles and Soviets unfortunately found out during World War II, most of this territory (except the Pripet Marshes of the Ukraine, and the Byelorussian forests) was good "tank" country. Heavy cavalry tactics worked well enough at the Battle of Vienna, 1683.

In the south, the situation was different. Hungarians facing the Turks invading from the Balkans operated over hillier, forested ground, better for light cavalry. Here, the emphasis was not on massed charges, but reconnaissance and "blocking" actions by faster, more lightly armed cavalry.

Western Europe had more "Hungarian" type (hilly and forested) than "Polish" territory. Hence light cavalry was more suitable, especially since the introduction of firearms foreshadowed the vulnerabilities of (French) heavy cavalry at battles like Crecy, Poitiers, and Agincourt. Western European cavalry moved closer to the (lighter) Hungarian model, eventually veering into "dragoons"(mounted infantry).

The 1683 Battle of Vienna was the "last hurrah" of heavy cavalry. Thereafter, cavalry got "lighter and lighter" as firearms got better and better beginning the end of the 17th century.

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  • I'm led to believe that the Great Hungarian Plain is rather steppe-like - hence its attractiveness for the Mongols in the 12th century - and not at all "hillier, [and] forested ground". Jan 6 at 0:56
  • It is an interesting point of view. +1. But I disagree with the last paragraph. Heavy cavalry was widely used later, too. Frederik The Great's army, gendarmes in France, English army, Napoleon (at Borodino, they were extremely useful), and the last, but not the least, cuirassiers at Franco-Prussian war. They were used even in WW1, but were found useless. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cuirassier
    – Gangnus
    Jan 8 at 14:31
  • Guys, one of you says that the change from heavy to light happened BOTH in Poland and Hungary, the other says, that that transfer happened in Hungary only. Have you any prooves for your variant?
    – Gangnus
    Jan 8 at 14:34
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The answer lies in Poland versus the rest of Europe:

Poland: The Hussards corps mainly consisted in heavy and light cavalry, and there were more about putting a cavalry force under the authority of one commander. The force of the winged hussars was very well known because of its role in big battles, but Polish hussars were an effective light cavalry as well.

Europe In the rest of the world, the terms of hussars apply to light cavalry only, but regiments have formed a tradition of "brave" light cavalry able to strike in the battlefield.

EDIT:

I'll edit to be clear : Yes, this answered the question. Because it meant that except for Poland (and Hungary) there were no transition between heavy hussars and light hussars. Accross Europe, hussars have always been light. For Poland and Hungary, cavalrymen were named "hussars". Both light and heavy existed at some time, then only the light. Always called "hussars".

This is also said in the Wiki linked in the question by the OP:

Hussars outside the Polish Kingdom followed a different line of development. During the early decades of the 17th century, hussars in Hungary ceased to wear metal body armour; and, by 1640, most were light cavalry. It was hussars of this "light" pattern, rather than the Polish heavy hussar, that were later to be copied across Europe. These light hussars were ideal for reconnaissance and raiding sources of fodder and provisions in advance of the army.

So the how and why is answered like that:

  • How: There were heavy cavalry during the Middle Age. Poland and Hungary called them hussars. Rest of Europe called them khnights, gendarmes or lances. When the transition came betweeen heavy charging cavalry and light/medium cavalry with firearmes, Poland and Hungary transformed and they called their light cavalry hussars as well. They were efficient and numerous, so rest of Europe started to recruit and/or copy them, and copy the name as well: Light cavalry was named "hussars"
  • Why: Causes of the transition from heavy to medium/light cavalries during the Renaissance in Europe is a wide question largely adressed in many questions on SE and articles. This is out of the scope of this specific question.
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  • Do you want to say that Polish hussars were simultaneously light and heavy cavalry?
    – Gangnus
    Jan 5 at 2:39
  • @Gangnus I want to say that the winged hussars were heavy cavalary, but overall in Europe hussars were light cavalry Jan 5 at 8:52
  • About some light hussars existing in Poland this is said in @Tom Au answer as well Jan 5 at 8:52
  • The question was how did that happen, that the hussars started as heavy cavalry, but changed to the light one. You did not say a word about it.
    – Gangnus
    Jan 5 at 14:53
  • @Gangnus Yes I did answer the question, but maybe it was not clear, so I edited. Thanks to have highlighted it Jan 5 at 15:21

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