Tag Archives: historical warfare

Q&A: Anti-Cav

What would be the most efficient way to blunt a heavy cavalry charge? My characters are part of a larger unit wearing heavier armour and ready access to shield and polearms like spears, halberds, and the like. Would these tools assist in reducing the chance of being heavily disrupted?

The very short answer is: kill the horses. Heavy cavalry without horses are just heavy infantry. Still dangerous, still with a combat role, but nowhere near as threatening as they were on horseback.

This may sound callous, or even cruel, especially in a modern context, but it’s worth remembering that warhorses are equal parts weapon, and a member of the enemy forces. It is neither a pet, nor an innocent participant. It is actively trying to kill you.

Depending on the situation, the easiest way to deal with enemy cavalry may simply be entrenchment. Rows of sharp spikes mounted onto a log (called a Cheval de Frise) is one excellent way of making sure that enemy cavalry can’t simply charge into your forces. Improvised ones may be as simple as lashing crudely sharpened logs together.

In more offensive situations, making sure your front line, particularly along the flanks, includes squads equipped with polearms (usually spears or lances) can make the force far more resistant to incoming cavalry charges. If they deploy those weapons in a rough phalanx, the first line of any incoming horses will get skewered, and the ones that follow will have to navigate their own dead in addition to the battlefield. (Also worth noting that films have lied to you. Most horses, even war horses, will not willingly charge into readied spears, even if its rider orders it to.) These soldiers may be reinforced with heavy infantry, who can move in and replace them when the enemy infantry reaches the spear wall.

One primary value of cavalry is the ability to flank an enemy force. Somewhat obviously, the horse can move far faster on the battlefield, which more than makes up for the additional logistical concerns, and that, while traveling, heavy cavalry will actually slow the army’s movement overall. This means that effective use of the horse includes moving past the the enemy’s formation, and then strike from the rear, or sides of their forces. This can potentially result in a situation where both sides field flanking cavalry, who engage with one another out away from the main force.

Carefully deployed skirmishers can break up a cavalry charge before it gets started. Skirmishers are light units who may be deployed in advance of the main force, with the intention of disrupting and harassing enemy forces before combat begins. While it’s less of a sure thing, skirmishers armed with ranged weapons can begin softening up the incoming cavalry before the fight even gets started.

Mounted archers (and later mounted gunmen) were more of a specialized unit, so not every force fielded them, but they could be exceptionally useful in a skirmisher role, taking shots at enemy forces, while still maintaining their distance.

Terrain can also be an important factor to control enemy charges. Holding high ground, like a ridge, can make it much more difficult for cavalry to charge up to you. They’ll still be able to get there, but they’ll be far more exhausted by the time they reach you.

Dense forests can also be incredibly disruptive for horses, as it’s much harder to maintain formation when there’s a tree in your way. Combine that with uneven terrain, and it’s just a terrible place for mounted combatants.


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Q&A: Flaming Weapons

How viable are non-magical flaming weapons? Like, coating the sword with a flammable substance and then setting it on fire. Would the trouble be worth it for the increased damage? Would they be more dangerous for the yielder? Would the fire negatively affect the blade?

No. At least not, that example. Also flaming arrows are out. The physics involved mean they either self-extinguish on launch, or they’ll ignite the user (I don’t remember which, and I kinda think it’s the former.)

That said, there are a lot of historical and modern military applications for flame.

The modern examples that come immediately to mind are napalm, dragon’s breath shells, and Molotov cocktails.

Napalm is, basically, jellied gasoline. It will burn, it will stick when it lands, and it will keep burning. Set something on fire and watch it melt. Napalm is, quite frankly, pretty terrifying stuff, and while the exact chemical formula is recent, the concept of launching burning liquids at people is not, going all the way back to Greek Fire. No one is exactly sure what Greek Fire was, but it would burn, could be lobbed onto ships or people you didn’t like, while burning, and would not stop burning once it arrived.

Molotov Cocktails are a medium ground here. You load a bottle up with alcohol, use an alcohol soaked rag as a fuse, light, and throw. There’s a little bit more going on here though. Alcohol solutions are only directly flammable if they’re more than 50% alcohol by volume. Most hard liquor is around 80 proof (40%), but, the vapors put off by the solution are still flammable (down to around 20%, if I remember correctly). So you can use a bottle of vodka as an improvised incendiary device. (Fair warning, it’s been a long time since I took a chemistry class, so those exact percentages may be a bit off.)

In spite of being named after a Russian Revolutionary, the idea of setting something on fire and chucking it someplace is not a new concept.

I know you can launch flaming payloads with a trebuchet, put them roughly where you want them, and set the area on fire. I’m not 100% sure of the military history, but it was used for centuries. Anything that will break apart on impact will spread the flame over a decent area and get a good blaze going.

Hot shots originally referred to cannonballs that were preheated before firing, with the intention of it igniting enemy structures or ships. This isn’t something we still think about (outside of the term “hotshot” seeping into idiomatic usage), but it did work, apparently.

The modern equivalent would be incendiary ammunition. There’s a lot of variety here, and they range from phosphorous rounds, which will ignite on contact with moisture, including the moisture in the air, to dragon’s breath shells which eject a mixture of highly flammable metals, such as magnesium, or potassium, which will ignite on contact with moisture.

Phosphorous was also a popular component for incendiary grenades, mortars, and other explosives. For example, one of the US military’s versions of a Molotov in WWII was produced by dissolving phosphorous and rubber (as a thickener) in gasoline). This mixture would self ignite on contact with the atmosphere (when the glass broke).

One variant of modern incendiary grenades use a Thermite variant
(called thermate)

to eject molten iron on detonation.

So far as it goes, most flare guns fire a 12 gauge shotgun shell. While the plastic ones won’t survive trying to put a conventional shell down range, the flare shell itself can result in horrific, and fatal, burns.

If you want a melee weapon to set someone on fire, you might be able to achieve that safely by heating the blade or using something like a thermal lance. The problem with simply coating a sword with oil and lighting it up is, they tend to drip. And, when you’re swinging the sword around, you’ll end up with burning oil getting splashed everywhere, including on the user. This is, “a very bad thing.”

Of course, shoving a torch in someone’s face is also a very bad thing, for them, and fits the definition provided.

So, the short answer is, yes there are a lot of real applications for setting someone on fire, especially when they’re all the way over there and walking is too much effort. Setting your own sword on fire is not a great idea, however.


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