French cuirassier (1809)

Cuirassiers (play /ˌkwɪrəˈsɪər/, from French cuirassier[1], pronounced: [kɥiʁasje]) were mounted cavalry soldiers equipped with armour and firearms, first appearing in late 15th-century Europe. They were the successors of the medieval armoured knights. This French term means "the one with a cuirass" (cuirasse), the breastplate armour which they wore.[2]


The 16th and 17th century cuirassier

Cuirassiers giving fire with their pistols (cuirassiers of Gottfried Heinrich Graf zu Pappenheim)

The first cuirassiers did not appear very different from the fully armoured Late Medieval man-at-arms. They wore three-quarters armour that covered the entire upper body as well as the front half of the legs down to the knee. The head was protected by a close helm, burgonet or lobster tail pot helmet, usually worn with a gorget for the neck. The torso was protected by a breast and back plate, sometimes reinforced by a 'placate'. The arms and shoulders were fully armoured with pauldrons, rerebraces, elbow couters and vambraces. Armoured gauntlets were often abandoned, particularly for the right hand, as they interfered with the loading of pistols. Long tassets, instead of a combination of short tassets with cuisses, protected the front of the thighs and knees, Riding boots were substituted for lower leg armour (greaves and sabatons).[3] Weapons included a pair of pistols in saddle holsters, these were the primary weapons instead of a lance, a 'horseman's pick' (a type of war hammer) was sometimes employed and a sword. Horse armour was not used.

The armour of a cuirassier was very expensive; in England, in 1629, a cuirassier's equipment cost four pounds and 10 shillings, whilst a harquebusier's (a lighter type of cavalry) was a mere one pound and six shillings.[4]

During the latter half of the 16th century the heavy "knightly" lance gradually fell out of use, perhaps because of the widespread adoption of the infantry pike. The lancer or demi-lancer, when he had abandoned his lance, became the pistol-armed cuirassier or reiter. The adoption of the pistol as the primary weapon led to the development of the stately caracole tactic where cuirassiers fired their pistols at the enemy, then retired to reload whilst their comrades advanced in turn to maintain the firing.

The first recorded cuirassiers were formed as 100-strong regiments of Austrian kyrissers recruited from Croatia in 1484[citation needed] to serve the future Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian. They fought the Swedes and their allies in 1632 in Lützen and killed the Swedish king Gustavus Adolphus. Only two cuirassier regiments were raised during the English Civil War, the Lifeguard of the Earl of Essex and the 'London lobsters,' though individuals within other regiments did serve in full armour. With the refinement of infantry firearms, especially the introduction of the powerful musket, the usefulness of the protection afforded by full armour became greatly lessened. By the mid 17th century the fully armoured cuirassier was becoming increasingly anachronistic. The cuirassier lost his limb armour and entered the 18th century with just the breast and backplate.

18th and 19th century

Body armour, restricted to a breast and backplate, fell in and out of use during the 18th century; for example British cavalry entered the War of the Spanish Succession without body armour, although they readopted it during the conflict. Cuirassiers played a prominent role in the armies of Austria, and of Frederick the Great of Prussia. By the time of the French Revolutionary War, few heavy cavalry regiments, excepting those of Austria, wore the cuirass on campaign. Most heavy cavalry of this time wore the bicorne or cocked hat rather than a helmet.

A resurgence of armoured cavalry took place in France under the rule of Napoleon Bonaparte, who increased the number of armoured regiments from one to, ultimately, sixteen (fourteen cuirassier regiments plus two Carabiniers-à-Cheval regiments). During the first few decades of the 19th century, most of the states of Europe, excepting Austria, which had retained its armoured cavalry, readopted the cuirass for some of their heavy cavalry in emulation of the French. Helmets, often of hardened leather with brass reinforcement (though the French used iron-skulled helmets for their cuirassiers), replaced the bicorne hat.

Effectiveness during Napoleonic Wars

Though the armour could not protect against contemporary flintlock musket fire, it could deflect shots fired from long-range, stop ricochets and offered protection from all but very close range pistol fire. More importantly, in an age which saw cavalry used in large numbers, the breastplates (along with the helmets) provided excellent protection against the swords and lances of opposing cavalry. It also had some psychological effect for the wearer (effectively making the cuirassier more willing to plunge into the thick of fighting) and the enemy (adding intimidation), while it also added weight to a charge, especially in cavalry versus cavalry actions.

"(Cuirasses) were no longer proof against musketry at short range and even less against artillery, the cuirass was of greatest use in close-quarter melee, proof against sabre and bayonet blows."[5]

The utility of this armour was sometimes disputed. Prussian cuirassiers had abandoned the armoured cuirass before the Napoleonic Wars, but were reissued with it in 1814. During this period, British cavalry wore cuirasses only during the Netherlands campaign of 1794, using breastplates taken from store.[6] The Austrian cuirassiers traded protection for mobility by wearing only the half-cuirass (without back plate) and helmet.[7] Napoleon believed it sufficiently useful that he had cuirassier-style armour issued to his two carabinier regiments after the Battle of Wagram. Despite being highly advanced from the plate armour of old, the Napoleonic era cuirass was still quite cumbersome and hot to wear in warm weather, however, the added protection it gave to the wearer and the imposing appearance of an armoured cavalryman ensured that it was worn with pride and gratitude.

Cuirassiers were generally the senior branch of the mounted portion of an army, retaining their status as heavy cavalry—"big men on big horses". Their value as a heavy striking force during the Napoleonic Wars ensured that the French, Russian and Prussian armies continued to use cuirassier regiments throughout the 19th century. The Austrian cuirassiers were abolished in 1868.[8]

20th Century

French cuirassiers in Paris, August 1914. These regiments wore cloth-covered cuirasses and helmets during the early months of World War I.[9]

In 1914 the German Army still retained cuirassiers (ten regiments including the Gardes du Corps and the Guards Cuirassiers); as did the French (twelve regiments) and the Russian (four regiments, all of the Imperial Guard) armies. The Austrians had dispensed with heavy breastplates in 1860[10]and formally abolished the cuirassiers as a branch of their cavalry in 1868[11]. By the end of the 19th century, the German and Russian cuirassiers used the breastplates only as part of their peacetime parade dress, but the French regiments still wore the cuirass (with a cloth cover) and plumed helmet on active service during the first weeks of World War I. The three Household Cavalry regiments of the British Army (1st and 2nd Life Guards and Royal Horse Guards) adopted cuirasses after the Napoleonic Wars as part of their full dress uniforms, but never had occasion to wear the armour in battle.

The retention of cuirasses as part of their field uniform by the French Army in 1914 reflected the historic prestige of this branch of the cavalry, dating back through the Franco-Prussian War to the campaigns of Napoleon. Before the war, it had been argued within the army that the cuirass should be limited to parade dress but upon mobilisation in 1914 the only concession made to active service was the addition of a cover of brown or blue cloth over the shining steel and brass to make the wearer less visible. Within a few weeks, most French regiments stopped wearing the cuirass, as it served no real purpose in this new war. It was not however formally withdrawn until October 1915.[12]

The Russian and German cuirassiers ceased to exist when the Imperial armies in both countries were disbanded in 1917 and 1918. The French cuirassiers continued in existence after World War I, although without their traditional armour and reduced in numbers to only the six regiments that had been most decorated during the war. Five of these units achieved their distinctions serving as "cuirassiers à pied" or dismounted cavalry in the trenches. The surviving cuirassier regiments were amongst the first mounted cavalry in the French Army to be mechanised during the 1930s. One cuirassier regiment still forms part of the French Army.

Cuirassiers today

Italian corazzieri during a public event
  • France maintains one historic cuirassier regiment as an armoured unit:
  • Italy maintains the Cuirassiers' Regiment (Italian: Reggimento Corazzieri), who are the honour guard of the President of the Italian Republic. They are part of the Carabinieri.
  • Spain maintains a cavalry detachment as part of the Spanish Royal Guard; they wear cuirasses and are sometimes known as cuirassiers (Spanish: Coraceros). Their proper title is Royal Escort Squadron (Escuadrón de Escolta Real).
  • The British Household Cavalry Regiment wear cuirasses as part of their parade equipment on formal occasions but were never formally designated as cuirassiers, instead retaining the titles Lifeguards and Horse Guards.
  • In Argentina and Chile, three army units (two in the Argentine Army and one in the Chilean Army) are cuirassier cavalry regiments. The Chilean unit is the 1st Armored Brigade "Cuirassiers" and the Argentine units are the 7th Tank Cavalry and 4th Mountain Cavalry Regiments

Cuirassier Harness Evolution

The development of firearms, which reduced the efficiency of expensive heavy armour, led to a considerable reduction of the size and complexity of the latter. This form of protection was gradually reduced to the breastplate and the helmet, both of which become largely decorative.


  1. ^
  2. ^ Angus Konstam, William Younghusband (1996). Russian Army of the Seven Years War. Osprey Publishing. ISBN 185532587X. 
  3. ^ Tincey, J. (McBride, A. - illustrator) (1990) Soldiers of the English Civil War (2) Cavalry, Osprey Publishing, ISBN 0850459400. pp. 31 and 45.
  4. ^ Haythornthwaite, P. (1983) The English Civil War, An Illustrated History Blandford Press. ISBN 1-85409-323-1. pp. 45 and 49.
  5. ^ Haythornthwaite "The Napoleonic Sourcebook". 1995
  6. ^ W.Y. Carman, A Dictionary of Military Uniform, ISBN 0-684-15130-8
  7. ^ Philip Haythornthwaite, Austrian Army of the Napoleonic Wars - Cavalry, ISBN 0-85045-726-2
  8. ^ Richard Knotel, page 24 "Uniforms of the World, ISBN 0-684-16304-7
  9. ^ Louis Delperier, Les Cuirassiers 1845-1918, 1981, pp. 60-67
  10. ^ Rothenburg, G. The Army of Francis Joseph. West Lafayette: Purdue University Press, 1976. p 63.
  11. ^ Richard Knotel, page 24 "Uniforms of the World", ISBN0-684-16304-7
  12. ^ Louis Delperier, pp 34 and 60 Les Cuirassiers 1845-1918, Paris: Argout-Editions, 1981

External links

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Look at other dictionaries:

  • CUIRASSIER — À l’origine désigne un cavalier portant cuirasse. La première application officielle du nom de cuirassier dans l’armée française date de 1665: création du régiment de cuirassiers du roi, «régiment no 7» de la cavalerie dite alors légère depuis la …   Encyclopédie Universelle

  • Cuirassier — Cui ras*sier (kw? r?s s?r ), n. [F. cuirassier. See {Curass}.] (Mil.) A soldier armed with a cuirass; especially, a soldier of the heaviest cavalry, wearing a cuirass only when in full dress. Milton. [1913 Webster Webster 1913 Suppl.] || …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • cuirassier — CUIRASSIER. sub. masc. Cavalier armé de cuirasse. Il avoit tant de Cuirassiers. Un Régiment de Cuirassiers …   Dictionnaire de l'Académie Française 1798

  • cuirassier — Cuirassier. s. m. Cavalier armé de cuirasse. Il avoit tant de Cuirassiers …   Dictionnaire de l'Académie française

  • cuirassier — [kwē΄rə sir′] n. [Fr] a cavalryman wearing a cuirass …   English World dictionary

  • Cuirassier —  Ne doit pas être confondu avec Cuirassé. Cuirassier français pendant la Guerre franco prussienne de 1870 par Alphonse de Neuville. Un …   Wikipédia en Français

  • CUIRASSIER — s. m. Cavalier armé d une cuirasse. On donne plus particulièrement ce nom Aux soldats d un corps de grosse cavalerie dont la cuirasse et le casque sont de fer. Il avait tant de cuirassiers. Un régiment de cuirassiers. Capitaine de cuirassiers. Un …   Dictionnaire de l'Academie Francaise, 7eme edition (1835)

  • cuirassier — (kui ra sié ; l r ne se lie jamais ; au pluriel, l s se lie : les kui ra sié z et les dragons) s. m. Soldat armé d une cuirasse.    Aujourd hui cavalier portant casque et cuirasse. Régiment de cuirassiers. •   Revel le suit de près ; sous ce chef …   Dictionnaire de la Langue Française d'Émile Littré

  • cuirassier — cuirassié m. cuirassier …   Diccionari Personau e Evolutiu

  • cuirassier — noun Date: 1625 a mounted soldier wearing a cuirass …   New Collegiate Dictionary

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