Cavalry
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Basic Information

Cavalry are soldiers who engage in mounted combat - historically this has almost always meant on horseback1 - as distinct from infantry who fight on foot. The definition also excludes mounted infantry - who ride into battle and then fight on foot - but normally includes dragoons and similar troops trained and equipped to fight either mounted or on foot.

Historically, cavalry required the breeding of horses capable of carrying an rider - prior to that cavalry roles were fulfilled by chariots - and seems to begin around 900-800 BC.

Like infantry, cavalry units have traditionally been divided between light and heavy roles, usually based on role as much as equipment. Not all users have been interested (or able) in the use of both kinds. There is also the inevitable (and inevitably disputed) "medium" class - sometimes allocated to troops who can perform either role.

Light Cavalry: Are mainly designed for screening and reconaissance, raiding and skirmish work - they are normally lightly equipped and mounted and rely on superior speed to avoid contact with enemy troops, although they can often be sucessfully deployed against enemy infantry if the infantry in question are in open order or have become disordered (e.g. by artillery fire, rout or a failed charge). Many light cavalry, especially in the pre-modern era, were missile units, capable of harrassing enemy troops with weapons such as javelins and bows whilst using their speed to avoid counterattacks. Light cavalry were vulnerable to counter-fire (a man on a horse being a fairly big target) but, properly equipped and used, could be deadly to an opponent without sufficient missile troops or light cavalry of his own.

Heavy Cavalry: Are specifically intended to close with and destroy enemy troops in melee combat - they are generally armoured men, often on horses fitted with barding and trained and equipped to deliver a shock attack. Heavy cavalry uses the added mass of the horse and the height advantage of the rider to accquire a substantial combat advantage over infantrymen and - in the short term at least - can move around the battlefield far faster. The invention of the stirrup was a major upgrade to heavy cavalry in particular as it allowed the full employment of the lance. The European knight was probably the apogee of heavy cavalry warfare - fully armoured, lance armed and mounted on a barded horse. Some historical heavy cavalry units were also missile armed - central Asian Cataphracts often carried a bow as well as their melee arms and early modern heavy cavalry quite often carried firearms - such as carbines.

Confusingly (and with reference to the mounted infantry point above), firearms equipped modern cavalry tended to fight dismounted more then they fought mounted - certainly by the start of WW1 most cavalry units were fighting more or less as mounted infantry, although the same conflict saw several notable mounted battles as well and traditional cavalry charges still took place well into WW2.

In the modern era, almost all "cavalry" units are mechanised. In many nations, cavalry units today are more or less tank formations, sometimes with accompanying IFV mounted infantry. Others use the term for mechanised infantry or armoured reconaissance formations, whilst still others call helicopterborne troops cavalry. In some ways, the old light/heavy distinction exists - the light mobile, heliborne and armoured recce units serve in the traditional roles of the light horseman, whilst the tank and armoured infantry formations fullfill that of the heavy horse.

Sources

Bibliography
1. full source reference

Game and Story Use

  • Cultural misunderstandings are great - when one person refers to cavalry meaning a light recce formation and his audience assumes an image of horsemen (or tanks).
  • In a fantasy/sci-fi setting, forget the "mainly horses" - you can help yourself to riding lizards, birds, pigs and a variety of other species.
  • For reference, on a strategic level, cavalry doesn't move much faster than infantry - there is some advantage, but the amount of maintenance that horses require means that it's less than you think.
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