Introduction page Battles and campaigns 1450 to 1697 Army composition
main conflicts 1450-1697 Maps of Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth Army's development 1450-1697

Army Development

Second Half of 15th Century

First Half of 16th Century

Second Half of 16th Century

First Half of 17th Century

Reforms of 1632-1633

Second Half of 17th Century

The end of 17th Century

Beginning of the 16th Century

In the late 15th Century thePolish knights and artillery crossing the Orsza river composition of the Polish army began to alter. Due to the destruction of the Teutonic state as a major military force in the Thirteen Years War, and Poland's increasingly close ties with Lithuania, the Polish army became more and more involved in warfare in the open territories of the East. The heavily armoured knights, so common in Prussia, were too cumbersome and slow against the elusive cavalries of the East and began to discard the horse-bard but their numbers still dwindled as a new type of cavalry grew prominent, called racowie.

Early husarsThese were light cavalry armed with lance and shield with Serbo-Hungarian origins. They found success against the Tatars using tactics of speed and maneuverability and a powerful, knee-to-knee, full gallop charge. As they began to oust the knight from his premier position in the army they also started to wear armour and were later to become the famed hussars (husaria). The knights and supporting archers also began to adopt certain eastern techniques.

Another major change in the army was due to the improvement of firearm technology, the arquebus quickly replaced the crossbow in both the infantry and cavalry. The introduction of long barrelled cannons had a shattering effect on enemy fortifications during the last Teutonic war. Even with the heavy preponderance of cavalry the Polish commanders appreciated the importance of firepower relatively early and the use of infantry and artillery in support of the cavalry became widespread.

Adapted Polish battle formationThe old Polish battle formation was adapted as shown in Fig.2 and this type of formation was typically used up until the early 17th Century. Though there were no constraints were imposed on commanders to keep to this system and it was used with great flexibility, being adapted to suit the needs at the time.


A typical Polish infantry rota of the early 16th Century normally stood in ten ranks, the first rank composed of heavily armoured shield men, followed by two ranks of spearmen (one rank consisting of dziesietnik's or "tenth men" who were in charge of their column of men and were similar to the nobleman in charge of his poczet. The next six ranks were arquebusiers (or, earlier on, crossbow men) and then a final rank of spearmen. Obviously they could not fire by the counter march system; they fired by ranks and ranks in front would crouch to avoid being shot. It appears that the infantry units were not uniformly organised and the above example is only a guide to what they should have been like; wide differences in the composition of infantry units occurred. Rota units varied from under 50 to over a thousand, but most were between 100 and 200 men.

The infantry and artillery's role was to weaken the enemy and prepare the way for the cavalry and also to disorganise enemy attacks. Though the infantry would follow the cavalry to join the melee, battles were still decided by heavy cavalry charges and infantry numbers were around 10-25% of the army.

Battle of Obertyn - woodcut An important aspect of Polish Eastern warfare was the use of the tabor, an armoured wagon train. It was basically a movable fortress of wagons used to protect the encamped Polish army in areas where natural obstacles and man-made fortifications were few. Hetman Tarnowski used the tabor repeatedly in victories against overwhelming odds and he is credited with modifying the Hussite tabor to suit Polish requirements.

In 1526 the obrona potoczna received an established financial grant and in 1563 it was replaced by a small standing army of around 4,000 troops, mostly cavalry, and financed by a quarter tax on the income of Royal Estates. The cavalry continued to be the main striking force of the army with the hussars gaining prominence over the knights and also becoming much heavier. In the First Northern War there were two hussars to every knight and supporting the heavy cavalry were medium and light cavalry called Cossacks, who were mainly arquebus or bow armed. The decline of the knights continued and by 1576 they formed only 7% of the cavalry.

The army was in need of a serious reorganisation, especially the infantry, which had become a hotchpotch of troop types and included mounted men.



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