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Polish Vistula lancer and Austrian cuirassier in close combat or mêlée

A lancer was a type of cavalryman who fought with a lance. Lances were used in mounted warfare by the Assyrians as early as 700 BC and subsequently by Greek, Persian, Gallic, Chinese, and Roman horsemen.[1] The weapon was widely used in Asia and Europe during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance by armoured cavalry, before being adopted by light cavalry, particularly in Eastern Europe. In a modern context, a lancer regiment usually denotes an armoured unit.

17th–19th century

Charge of the Polish uhlans at the city of Poznań during the November Uprising 1831

The lancer (called ułan in Polish and Uhlan in German) had become a common sight in almost every European, Ottoman, and Indian army during this time, but, with the exception of the Ottoman troops, they increasingly discarded the heavy armour to give greater freedom of movement in combat. The Polish "winged" lancers were amongst the last to abandon the armour in Europe. There was debate over the value of the lance in mounted combat during the 18th century and most armies had few lancer units by the beginning of the 19th century. However, during the Napoleonic Wars, lancers were to be seen in many of the combatant nations as their value in shock tactics became clear. During the wars, the Poles became a ready source of recruitment for several armies, willingly or unwillingly. Polish lancers served with distinction in the Austrian, Prussian, Russian and French armies, most famously in Napoleon's French Imperial Guard as the 1er Regiment de Chevau-Legers-Lanciers de la Garde Impériale.

The charge of the British 16th Lancers at Aliwal on 28 January 1846, during the Anglo-Sikh war

At the Battle of Waterloo, French lances were "nearly three meters (about nine feet, ten inches) long, weighed three kilograms (about six pounds, ten ounces), and had a steel point on a wooden staff," according to historian Alessandro Barbero. He adds that they were "terrifyingly efficient." Commander of the French 1st Corps, 4th Division General Durutte, who saw the battle from the high ground in front of Papelotte, would write later, "I had never before realized the great superiority of the lance over the sword."[2]

In the Siege of Los Angeles (1846), during the war between Mexico and the United States, a company of Californio lancers temporarily recaptured the town, expelling a company of U.S. Marines.

Although having substantial impact in the charge, lancers could be vulnerable to other cavalry at close quarters, where the lance proved a clumsy and easily deflected weapon when employed against sabres.[3] By the late 19th century, many cavalry regiments in the British and other European armies were composed of troopers with lances, as primary weapons, in the front rank and horsemen with sabres only in the second: the lances for the initial shock and sabres for the subsequent mêlée.

Lancer's equipage

Imperial French lancer

Lancers typically wore a double-breasted jacket (kurtka) with a coloured panel (plastron) at the front, a coloured sash, and a square-topped Polish cap (czapka). Their lances usually had small swallow-tailed flags (known as the lance pennon) just below the spearhead. The pennons were normally removed or wrapped in a canvas cover on active service. With the improved range and accuracy of infantry rifles, the high-profile presented by lancers with their conspicuous weapons became a problem. The ułans or uhlans, as lancers are known in the Polish and German languages respectively, were trained to lower their lances when scouting on hill-tops.

Lancers of the Spanish Royal Guard

20th century lancers

German dragoons armed with lances take down a border marker 1914

In 1914, lances were still being carried by regiments in the British, Indian, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish, Japanese, Ottoman, Belgian, Argentinian, and Russian armies, amongst others. Almost all German cavalry (hussars, dragoons and cuirassiers as well as uhlans) retained a steel lance as their primary weapon.[4] As late as 1914, half of the troopers in each Russian regular cavalry regiment (hussars, uhlans and dragoons) carried lances on active service, as did all cossacks.[5]

The British lancer regiments lost this weapon for all but ceremonial use following the Boer War, but a conservative backlash led to its reintroduction for active service from 1908 to 1928.[Note 1] The French army did not have lancer regiments as such, but steel lances 2.97 metres in length were carried by the twenty-six dragoon regiments and some light cavalry units in 1914. The French had earlier tested the Indian bamboo lances used by the British cavalry, but had rated them as being too fragile for the shock of encounter.[6]

Volunteer Representative Squadron of the City of Poznań in the uniform of the 15th Uhlan Regiment of Poznań from 1939
Coat of arms of the Cavalry Group "Lancers of Bourbon"
(11th Cavalry Regiment "Spain")

Prior to the outbreak of World War I, there had been controversy as to whether lances or sabres were the more effective armes blanches (i.e., edged weapons) for cavalry, but neither proved a match for modern firearms. Some armies continued to use lances throughout this war, but they seldom saw use on the Western Front after initial clashes in France and Belgium in 1914. On the Eastern Front, mounted cavalry still had a role and lances saw limited use by the Russian, German and Austrian armies.[7]

During the 1920s, the use of lances ceased for active service in most armies. British and Indian lancer regiments continued to carry lances on mounted parades, until mechanization took place in the late 1930s. Some other armies retained lance-armed ceremonial units. The Polish cavalry did not discard the lance as a weapon until 1934 and continued to train with lances until the outbreak of World War II.[8]

Current lancer units

British lancers taking part in a homecoming parade in 2008
Italian regiment “Lancieri di Montebello” on public duties in Rome 2019

Some modern armored cavalry units are still designated as lancer regiments for historical reasons. There are examples in the armies of Spain (the King's Lancers Troop of the Royal Guard's Escort Squadron and the Bourbon's Lancers Group of the 11th Cavalry Regiment), United Kingdom (Royal Lancers), India (2nd Lancers (Gardner's Horse) and 20th Lancers), Belgium, Portugal (2nd Lancers Regiment), Pakistan, Italy (5th Lancieri di Novara, 6th Lancieri di Aosta, 8th Lancieri di Montebello) and Australia (12th/16th Hunter River Lancers, 1st/15th Royal New South Wales Lancers), Argentina (2nd Tank Cavalry Regiment "General Paz's Lancers", Argentine Army) and Chile (5th Cavalry Regiment "Lancers", Chilean Army). The elite troops of the Colombian National Army are called "lanceros".

The Italian Lancieri di Montebello (8th Cavalry Regiment) parade honor guards and other dismounted ceremonial detachments in the regiment's nineteenth century blue uniforms, armed with the lances carried until 1920 (see photo below). Although not classified as lancers, the Brazilian Army's Dragões da Independência (1st Guards Regiment) and the Portuguese National Republican Guard's horse squadrons carry lances on mounted parades, as do ceremonial cavalry regiments in Chile, Argentina, Bolivia and Peru.

See also


  1. ^ For an illustration of a fully armed lancer, see Michael Chappell's "Men at Arms Series British Cavalry Equipment 1800–1941" illustration G 1.


  1. ^ Niels M. Saxtorph: "Warriors & Weapons of Early Times" ISBN 0-7137-0575-2.
  2. ^ Barbero, pp. 161, 163.
  3. ^ p150, Volume 16, Encyclopædia Britannica, Eleventh Edition
  4. ^ John Terraine, page 68, "Mons. Retreat to Victory", 1960, ISBN 978-0713411638
  5. ^ Nick Cornish, page 5 "The Russian Army 1914-18, ISBN 1-84176-303-9
  6. ^ Christian Tollet "Les Dragons 1914" Histoire & Collections 2009
  7. ^ Vladimir Littauer, pages 115-116, "Russian Hussar", ISBN 1-59048-256-5
  8. ^ Steven J. Zaloga, page 5 "The Polish Army 1939-45" ISBN 0-85045-417-4


  • Barbero, Alessandro, The Battle; A New History of Waterloo, Walker & Co., New York 2005,
  • Chappell, Mike (2002). Men at Arms Series British Cavalry Equipment 1800-1941. Men–at–arms No. 138 (revised ed.). Oxford: Osprey Publishing. OCLC 48783714.

External links

  • Cavalry Tactics and Combat in the Napoleonic Wars: Lancers !

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