Badass of the Month: Cuirassier

In doing some technical research for another main character, I came across these guys. Cuirassiers were named for the breastplates (cuirasses) they wore, and were a type of heavy cavalry popular well into the 19th century. In fact, they were still around to a limited extent in World War I, and still possess a regiment in the French Army today.

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Pappenheim’s Cuirassiers during the 30 Years War

We’ve already discussed how cavalry was undergoing some serious changes in the period before and during the Thirty Years War. The increased use of firearms and pike made traditional cavalry nearly obsolete. But there was still a use for big guys on big horses, wearing a lot of armor. Yay!

The armor was as follows: a full-coverage helmet, or burgonet. How anyone saw or heard anything while wearing one of these, I do not know. They sometimes had scary-looking masks on them, which gave rise to the name of “Totenkopf,” or Death’s Head. I’m sure some of you have heard of that appellation in other contexts.*coughSScough*

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Helmet belonging to Prince Elector Johann Georg I of Saxony

Then, they pretty much covered themselves in really heavy, thick armor that could stop bullets. In fact, the armor sometimes came from the manufacturer already dented, to prove that it had been tested against firearms. It could weigh up to eighty pounds. It probably got pretty sweaty in there, too.

After the helmet came the gorget, which covered the neck. Then, the breast- and back-plates which protected the torso. Shoulders were covered by pauldrons, the elbows by couters, and rerebraces and vambraces covered the upper and lower arms, respectively. Yes, there will be a quiz!

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German cuirassier gauntlets, ca 1620

They also wore armored gauntlets to protect hands and wrists, but the right-hand ones were often left off because it was difficult to reload a pistol while wearing. Or doing anything else, I imagine!

I mean seriously, could YOU ride a horse, draw and fire pistols and use a sword with any kind of accuracy wearing metal gloves? Reloading would be the least of my worries. I guess that’s why they’re badasses and I am not.

Here’s a nice example of the full armor:

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Cuirassier 3/4 Armor, Germany ca 1620

If you’re interested in more, or just want to do well on quiz, you can take a look at my pinterest board with even more cool-looking pieces.

On to the weapons!

From the best three pages (seriously, they’re the only pages that are fun to read) of Peter Wilson’s book on The Thirty Years War, we get the following:

Pistols were carried in the saddle holsters with the triggers facing outwards, because their long barrels meant they had to be drawn with the hand turned towards the back.

As most men were right-handed, they had to hold the reins in their left hand and reach over to draw their left-hand side pistol or their sword. (pg. 92)

Ugh, sounds complicated. Cuirassiers typically carried wheellock pistols, which were the successor to the matchlock. Since the matchlock needed to be lit with an actual flame in order to fire, the wheellock was superior in many ways. It was safer, because you were less likely to be blown up by your own gunpowder, since yes, carrying an open flame on your person along with the gunpowder on your person seems like a recipe for disaster.

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A pair of wheellock pistols

It was also more reliable, because the slow matches that lit matchlocks could go out in the rain (most fighting was in Germany which = rainy), and could be hard to light when wet, while the wheellock had a covered priming pan that kept the powder dry and let sparks be generated in any kind of weather.

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A Walloon sword

Even with those technological improvements, pistols were still not terribly reliable. So cuirassiers always carried something sharp as well. One popular item was the Walloon sword, and in fact some basket-handled rapiers made during the Thirty Years War were called Pappenheimer rapiers after the excellent Imperial cavalry general Gottfried, Count Pappenheim.

So, how did cuirassiers fight? They were frequently sent up against blocks of pike and musket, which had to be made to break up before cavalry could be effective. If the pikes stayed in formation, the horses would simply refuse to ride into them. Yet more evidence that horses are smarter than people.

One tactic that developed was called the caracole. From Wilson:

Successive ranks would trot within range, fire and ride back to reload, sacrificing the psychological impact of shock tactics to the accumulative effect of firepower.

Even men trained to charge home with cold steel would often panic and break off their attack around ten metres from their target, ‘bouncing’ back to their start positions.

Many regiments were composed of a mix of cuirassiers and arquebusiers into the 1620s, with the former deployed in the front ranks if the unit made a charge. (pg. 94)

This tactic became less and less effective as infantry became more numerous, better-trained, and used better weapons. Some commanders adjusted to this by expecting the cuirassiers to go aggressively hand-to-hand, using their pistols only when they were close enough to fire directly against their opponents armor, to make sure it went through. That’s not very nice.

Some started to add mace heads, hammer heads or axe blades to their pistols, so they could continue to use them once the barrel was empty. Cause yeah, I don’t know about you, but I would be less than pleased to find myself staring at the whites of their eyes after firing my two measly rounds. Time for a bit of bludgeoning!

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