Ancient Polish Arms and Armour – part 2

Ancient Polish Arms and Armour


part 2




(quoted from The Journal of The Arms and Armour Society, vol. IV, no.9, March 1964)

It was pointed out at the end of the last section of this article [1] that the arms and armour used in Poland in the later Middle Ages do not seem to have differed from those used in the rest of Europe during the same period. This state of affairs, however, was subjected to gradual changes which are already discernable by the end of the 15th century, and whose final outcome was that in the second half of the 16th century Polish arms and armour not only began to differ conspicuously from the West European forms but also created a series of characteristic local versions. The influence of the East, and especially of Turkey was responsible for these changes. This influence, obviously connected with the high-water mark of Turkish power, was at first only slight on Polish culture, but it gradually became stronger, mainly by the agency of Hungary, which was connected to Poland by many political, economic and cultural links. Hungary, in its turn, was—as is well known—already directly threatened by Turkey at the close of the 14th century (battle of Nicopolis in 1396), and in 1526 was almost wholly subjugated by the Ottoman Empire.

The specific organization of the Polish army and its characteristic arms and armour finally evolved in the last quarter of the 16th century, in the reign of Stephen Bathory, a Hungarian prince of Transylvania, elected Polish king in 1576 after the dying out of the Jagiellon dynasty and the short-lived reign of Henry of Valois.

In contrast to the states of Western Europe, where by this time infantry played the leading role both with respect to number and importance, in Poland the dominant position was occupied by cavalry which maintained its ascendancy until the close of the 17th century. This state of things resulted from the frequent wars waged against eastern neighbours with strong cavalry forces, i.e. Russia and Turkey, and above all from the necessity to protect the open south-eastern frontiers against the constant inroads of the Crimean Tartars.

The best known kind of Polish cavalry of the 16th, 17th and early 18th centuries is the heavy cavalry named the hussars. Originally (in the early 16th century) this term was applied to the lighter cavalry, consisting of mercenaries armed after the Hungarian or Serbian model, which accompanied the much more numerous native, heavily-armed lancers of the West European type. Gradually, however, the hussars were clad in armour and in the second half of the 16th century themselves became heavy cavalry. Armed mainly with long lances, sabres, two-edged thrusting swords (estocs) and pistols, wearing helmets and half-armour and mounted on large and strong horses, the hussars were destined for a decisive attack, delivered at a gallop and in close array. The strength of their impact was irresistible and neither the cavalry of the West European type which then employed the tactics of caracole, nor the Eastern cavalry, mobile but lighter, and neither so well armed nor so well trained, could withstand it. At the close of the 16th century and in the 17th century even the infantry of Western type was helpless against the charge of the hussars. It was not until considerable progress in fire-arms was made, followed by the adoption of field-trenches, that the hussars lost their importance. In consequence, if at the close of the 16th and in the early 17th century, the hussars formed the majority of the Polish cavalry, in the second half of the 17th century this splendid but expensive kind of mounted troops, suitable only for some actions, was so reduced as to form only one-sixth of the total horse and one-ninth to one-tenth of the whole army. This should be emphasized, since some not too well informed historians imagine that the whole Polish army of the 17th century consisted of hussars alone.” By the early 18th century the hussars were already an anachronism. They disappear gradually and finally change into unarmoured medium cavalry.

The universal cavalry, suitable for a charge in a battle and also fit for reconnaissance, pursuit, and even for fighting on foot, were the Cossacks (not to be confused with Ukrainian and Russian Cossacks with whom they had nothing in common!) later named “pancerni”. Wearing mail shirts and armed with sabres, rifles, pistols, and sometimes also with lances and bows, they were mounted on horses lighter but more nimble than those used by hussars. At first inferior to the hussars in number, already by the mid-17th century they form the majority of the Polish mounted troops and sometimes even more than a half of the whole army. In silhouette and in the kind of weapons they carried the Polish Cossacks resembled the Turkish spahees so strongly, that on the eve of the battle of Vienna (1683) King John Sobieski ordered the Polish soldiers to gird themselves with bands of straw lest their Austrian allies should mistake them for Turks and fire at them by mistake. No better example could be cited to illustrate the process of orientalization to which Polish arms and armour were subjected in the course of the 16th and 17th centuries.

The light cavalry in the strict meaning of the word, i.e. not using any kind of defensive arms and armour, did not play a prominent part in the 16th-17th centuries.

The Polish infantry quickly developed into musketeers, uniformly armed with muskets, sabres and axes. Their fire successfully supported the action of mounted troops. In the first half of the 17th century, however, an infantry of the so-called foreign formation began to emerge in Poland. Originally, it did not differ from the contemporary German infantry, and like the latter consisted of musketeers and pikemen. Apart from dragoons, mounted during a march and fighting on foot, the few detachments of cavalry armed and organized after a West European model (arquebusiers and “Reiters”) were also attributed to the foreign formation.

The artillery led by special “generals of artillery” represented a very high level of efficiency. In the first half of the 17th century, Poland adopted a uniform series of cannon based on the Dutch system (48-, 24-, 12-, and 6-pounders).[2]

The specific forms of organization and tactics employed in the Polish army during the periods under discussion were matched with specific forms of arms and armour. Their common and particularly characteristic feature is the fusion of Western and Eastern elements in a single, harmonious, and purposeful whole.

The early medieval sword, which in the course of the 16th century developed in Western Europe into a rapier, was discarded in Poland to be replaced by the sabre. For almost three centuries (until 1794) and even longer, into the 19th century, the age of uprisings and struggles for inde­pendence, the sabre was a favourite and popular weapon in Poland, and became a symbol of the Polish soldier.

By the close of the Middle Ages various types of sabres were introduced into Poland. It was not, however, until the second half of the 16th century that the sabre began to enjoy popularity and finally replaced the sword to become a characteristic national weapon. The first sabre to be used in Poland (in the reign of Stephen Bathory) was of the Turkish type, intro­duced to us via Hungary (Picture 1). Its blade was stiff, slightly curved, 80-90 cm long, rather broad, and double-edged toward the point. The hilt was of wood covered with leather. The iron cross was very long, straight, and furnished with equally long langets. The rather flat metal pommel, was bent slightly forward. The sheath was of wood with metal mountings.

Picture 1

Picture 1

 At the end of the 16th century and in the early 17th century sabres similar to those from Hungary, continued to be used in Poland. They had a very long cross, often equipped with a small ring for the thumb, and a metal pommel, bent forward, and sometimes provided with a chain linking it to the cross. Another contemporary sabre, also of the Polish-Hungarian type, had a flat metal pommel, a cross with a small thumb-ring, langets, and a knuckle-guard which issued from the cross at right angles (in the shape of a letter “L”) yet did not touch the pommel.

The first half of the 17th century saw the final development of the typical Polish sabre with an open hilt (of the so-called “karabela” type) related to the Persian model (Picture 2,3). It did not have a proper pommel, but instead the upper part of the hilt broadened so as to resemble a bird’s head seen in profile. The cross was rather short, mainly straight, sometimes bent toward the blade. The langets were also rather short. When sabres of this kind are ornamented, they are called “karabele”. They were worn with parade dress by the nobility in the course of the 17th, 18th, and even 19th centuries. Simple battle sabres of this type, which were very popular in the 17th century, were called “black sabres”, prob­ably from the black leather that covered their wooden sheaths.

Another version of the Polish sabre which developed in the 17th century, and which was produced and used until the close of the 18th, is that with a closed hilt (Picture 4A). The hilt had a bow which issued from the cross at an obtuse angle and touched the flat, metal pommel. Hilts of this type are always provided with short langets and a small thumb-ring, and sometimes have an additional protection for the hand in the form of one or two side-rings attached to the cross, furnished with disc-shaped shells; sometimes they were even of basket-like form (Picture 4B).

Picture 4

Picture 4

The hilt most popular in the 18th century has a bow bent twice at right angles and a cross provided with a disc-shaped shell at the side (Picture 5). All versions of these sabres, however, offer the same picture: the fusion of a hilt of the West European character with an Eastern blade.

Picture 5

Picture 5

The metal parts of the hilts of Polish sabres of the closed-hilt type were usually made of iron. Ornamented specimens with engraved, gilded, or silver mounts and, exceptionally, even mounted in silver, do, however, occur. Sheaths are always of wood covered with leather with mountings analogous to those of the hilt. The sabres under discussion were, on the whole, destined for use in battle. Even the more ornamented examples of this type have distinct characteristics of an efficient battle weapon.

The blades of Polish sabres of the 17th and 18th centuries are curved only slightly and are frequently, though by no means always, double-edged toward the point. Occasionally, particularly in the 18th century, they are quite smooth and sometimes provided with a number of grooves. By their inscriptions we distinguish several forms of sabres, e.g. “batorówki”, with an inscription in honour of King Stephen Bathory; “zygmuntówki”, with a similar inscription dedicated to King Sigmund III Waza, etc. Besides curved blades quite straight ones also occur. A weapon provided with blade of this kind is called a “pałasz” (French: latte).[3]

The sabre is first of all a cutting weapon. It was supplemented by a thrusting sword (Polish: koncerz, French: estoc), mainly wielded by hussars (Picture 6). Its blade was very long (the overall length of blade and hilt is about 120-150 cm), three- or four-sided in section, stiff, and designed exclusively for thrusting. In the 17th century the Hungarian type of hilt was the most common. Beside these, other forms of hilt, frequently of Eastern origin, were in use. The thrusting sword was never worn at the side but was always strapped to the saddle, below the knee of the horseman.[4]

Picture 6

Picture 6

The hussar’s lance was a particularly characteristic type of staff weapon in Poland in the 16th-17th centuries. It was 4.8-5.5 m. long and its shaft was provided with a large wooden ball placed not far from the butt. Besides serving as a rest for the hand, this helped to balance the weapon. To make the lance lighter, the whole shaft from the ball to the head was made hollow. For this reason the hussar’s lance was extremely fragile and broke after the first thrust. Yet owing to the unusual length of the lance, the first thrust was generally sufficient to break the order of the enemy, even the close array of pikemen. The head of the hussar’s lance was rather small and four-sided in section. Directly below it there was a long pennon fixed to the shaft, displaying the different colours of each squadron. The function of the pennon was to frighten the enemy’s horses.[5]

 The Polish arms of the 16th-17th centuries mentioned above, were supplemented by various kinds of war-hammers and also by batons and maces. The war hammer, including polehammers and similar forms, served as a walking-stick in everyday use and its evil fame was such that the Polish Parliament repeatedly prohibited the carrying of it in public places as being a weapon more dangerous than the sabre itself.[6] The baton with a metal head, globe or pear-shaped, fixed to a short staff, usually of metal also, became in Poland the symbol of the highest military rank (hetman and others), like the marshal’s baton in the West. For this reason, Polish batons were richly ornamented, gilded and bejewelled. The mace-like staff (buzdygan) was a symbol of lower officers (colonels, captains, and lieutenants). It differed from the hetman’s baton in that its steel head was divided into flanges.[7]

The fire-arms used in Poland in the period under discussion, did not differ at all from the contemporary Western European weapons. But fire­arms of Eastern type were also employed occasionally. The bow, generally of Eastern type, also played some part. It was frequently used by the medium and light cavalry in addition to fire-arms.

The most characteristic Polish armour of the period under discussion was the hussar’s half-armour. Its development ran parallel to the trans­formation of the hussars into heavy cavalry. The half-armour acquired its final classic form in the first half of the 17th century.

The Polish armour of that period (Pictures 7 & 8) consisted of a Zischagge, a cuirass, a collar, pauldrons, a pair of vambraces and perhaps cuisses. Such an armour formed a remarkably serviceable whole, well adapted to the peculiarities of Polish tactics. It protected the body well and at the same time secured the maximum possible freedom of movement. Its origins are rather complex. There is no doubt, however, that its base lies in the harmonious fusion of Eastern (including Hungarian) and Western European elements.

The Polish cuirass of the classic hussar’s armour (Picture 7) consists of a breastplate and a backplate. The upper part of the breastplate consists of a single plate, whereas the lower is composed of several lames. The con­struction of the backplate is similar. The relatively small collar was nearly always worn over the cuirass. The laminated pauldrons covered the arm almost to the elbow. The vambraces of Eastern type covered only the outer side of the arm. Whether or not it originally included laminated cuisses is not quite clear, but there are some indications that they were not used at all. If this is so the examples that have come down to us should be regarded as later anachronistic additions whose sole purpose was to enhance the splendour of the ancient armour. All elements of the classic hussar’s armour have a marked central ridge. Very charac­teristic ornaments made in iron or brass form one of its distinctive features. The decoration consists of distinctively shaped edges to the lames, which usually form a wavy line, and of decorative bands running along the lames, composed of lines, dots and circles executed by means of punches. Another form of ornament comprises rosettes and bosses of brass applied to the surface of the armour, and narrow borders attached to its edges.

Among the different types of brass ornament a special group is formed by the so-called knight’s cross—usually placed on the right side of the breastplate, sometimes in its middle and sometimes on the collar—and by the medallion bearing a representation of the Virgin Mary, which is always placed on the left side of the breastplate (Picture 7). The surface of the armour was not very carefully finished, but this only helped to bring out the contrast between the dull grey iron background and the applied brass decoration, serving to make the whole very attractive.

The Zischagge was always an integral part of the armour. It comprises a hemispherical skull with a flat fall, a laminated neck-guard and cheek-pieces provided with holes (usually heart-shaped) over the ears. A sliding nasal widened downwards to form a characteristic ornament which offered a better protection for the face. The top of the skull is usually rounded, sometimes with a finial or a prominent comb analogous to that surmount­ing Western morions and burgonets. A peculiar version of the Zischagge is the hussar’s morion with a fluted skull (Picture 11). It was in use probably until the mid-17th century. All types of the Zischagge were sometimes furnished with a socket or some other fixture for a plume.

Though similar in general outlines, Polish hussar’s armours differed from each other in detail (Pictures 7, 8, 9, 10). The major distinction, however, is provided by the lavishness or otherwise of the decoration. This is perhaps connected with the special organization of the squadrons that formed the Polish army of the 16th-18th centuries. They consisted of the so-called gentleman-troopers (towarzysz), each of whom was accom­panied by at least one, and usually more, troopers (pocztowy). The arms and armour of the latter were usually less magnificent and consequently cheaper, though by no means inferior in practical use.

The older version of the hussar’s armour dating from the close of the 16th century and the early 17th century have not yet been sufficiently investigated. In the light of recent studies we may suggest that they com­prise some examples which display either predominantly Eastern (Hun­garian) or predominantly Western elements not yet fused together in a harmonious whole.

The last quarter of the 17th century witnessed a change in the classical hussar’s armour. The cuisses even if previously used disappeared now, finally. The backplate was supplanted by a disc-shaped plate fixed where the braces and straps supporting the breastplate crossed.[8] The character­istic central ridge vanished from various parts of the armour. The brass ornaments were covered with rich decorative motifs typical of the late Baroque. New ornamental versions of the Zischagge appeared. Finally the armour lost its original military severity. This is obviously associated with the decline of the hussars as heavy cavalry. By the 18th century the Zischagge and the hussar’s armour became mere anachronisms. They served only for parades and official occasions.

Picture 12

Picture 12

An additional element of the hussar’s armour were the wings made immensely popular through literature and pictures (Picture 13). They consist of feathers fixed to a frame attached to the backplate. Yet the vast majority of surviving hussar’s armours have no wings at all. Also the iconographic and written records seem to indicate that this element, attractive, but easily damaged in battle, was used rarely and if so, for parade only.

Picture 13

Picture 13

The 18th century saw the introduction of Zischagge of the “pappenheimer” type with wings attached to them (Picture 10). The Zischagge of this type, which continued, in a way, the hussars’ tradition, were worn by some detachments of the guard of August the Strong, the Polish king and Saxon Elector.

Another attribute of the hussars, certainly more widely used than the wings, were the hides of tigers, leopards and lynxes, worn over the armour.[9]

In the reign of John III Sobieski (1674-1696) a distinctive version of the hussar’s armour, namely a scale armour (karacena) came into vogue (Picture 14), especially among the upper ranks of officers. Its parts were essentially the same as in the classic hussar’s armour, but its breastplate and backplate consisted not of large plates but of iron scales sewn to a leather foundation. It was supplemented with plate vambraces, a collar, and pauldrons usually of mixed construction (scale-plate).

Picture 15

Picture 15

Each pauldron had a characteristic ornament in the shape of a lion’s head. With scale armour, either the ordinary plate Zischagge or one covered with scales, was worn. In contrast to the more uniform hussar’s plate armour, the scale armour represents such a variety that even two identical examples are rare.[10]

At the close of the 16th century and in the early 17th century, when the hussar’s half-armour was still developing, its plate parts (e.g. the breast­plate and backplate) were often worn with a coat of mail. When the classic half-armour of the hussars acquired its final form (second quarter of the 17th century), the coat of mail became the typical armour of the lighter cavalry (Cossacks) who had already used it widely in the earlier period.

The Polish coat of mail (Picture 15) from the end of the 16th century and during the 17th century, was a garment with sleeves reaching down to the elbows or even to the hands. The fairly large iron rings were rivetted together. Sometimes the coat of mail was decorated with various rosettes, medallions, plates, and buckles, often made of brass and thus contrasting with the background of the iron mail. The shoulders of the mail coat were occasionally reinforced by means of disc-shaped plates.

Picture 15

Picture 15

The coat of mail was usually worn together with plate vambraces of the hussar’s type. The head was protected by a skull cap (callotte d’armes).

In general, the Polish coat of mail of the 16th-17th centuries was closely related to the oriental model. Thus, it seems natural that besides local specimens, Eastern coats of mail, acquired in commercial operations or as a war booty, were also widely used.[11]

Of exclusively Eastern origin were the shields sometimes worn by the Polish cavalry of the 16th—17th centuries, though in parade rather than in battle. The shield (Picture 15), so-called “kałkan”, which was circular and prominently convex in shape, was plaited from branches of the fig-tree and covered with coloured silk. Its metal boss was usually lavishly ornamented.[12]

The Polish horse-harness of the 16th-17th centuries also shows promi¬nent Eastern features, though transformed to suit local needs. In this way two forms of Polish saddle came into existence: one deep with high bows and the other rather shallow. As bridle-bits either snaffle-bits or curb-bits were used. The hind part of the horse was sometimes covered with a decorated cloth called a “dywdyk” (Picture 13). All elements of the horse-harness were usually ornamented, occasionally with exceptional splendour. Eastern (Turkish) horse-harness was also popular. Usually captured in a battle as booty, it was always lavishly decorated. The spurs worn in Poland at this period do not differ from those used in other European countries.[13]

Our knowledge of the production of Polish arms and armour in the 16th-18th centuries is highly unsatisfactory. In all probability the majority were produced in Poland, though in some cases we cannot reject the possibility that some were imported. Our studies in the organization of Polish armourers’ workshops, in their marks and in the technology of their products are still in their infancy. Yet even now very attractive vistas open up before the researchers. We have some evidence, for in­stance, to show that in contrast to urban workshops, which at this time seem to have been few in number and not very developed, the rural work­shops played a prominent role in the production of Polish arms in the 17th century.

A different problem is posed by the organization of large royal arsenals and, consequently, by the production of ammunition and cannon as well as by the organization of town or magnates’ arsenals which constituted an important part of the total military potential of Poland in the 16th-17th centuries.

Polish historians of arms and armour, who form only a small group, are faced with a difficult task. Their primary duty is to clear off the arrears that accumulated in the course of almost two centuries of partitions, occupations, and devastating wars. This is an exacting task which, far from being done at once, will take several years to accomplish. None­theless, each year brings us nearer to the end of work whose final outcome will be the fullest knowledge possible, of the history of Polish arms and armour.


[1]. See part 1
[2]. The most important source of information on the organization and tactics of the Polish army in the 17th-18th centuries is the book of M. Kukiel: Zarys dziejów wojskowości polskiej [Polish military history – an outline], 5th edition, London, 1949. To this problem I have devoted relatively much space, since the mere description of the arms and armour without even the shortest note on the organiz­ation and tactics of the army which employs these arms seems to me valueless.

[3]. Of the vast literature on this subject only the most important items are cited here: W. Dziewanowski: Zarys dziejów uzbrojenia w Polsce [The history of Polish arms and armour – an outline], pp. 39-65; Z. Hartleb, Szabla polska [Polish sabre], Lwów-Warszawa-Kraków 1926; S. Meyer, “Typy szabel polskich” [Types of Polish sabres], Broń i Barwa, Vol. I, Warsaw, 1934, No. 4, pp. 66-72; No 5 pp. 100-104.
[4]. W. Dziewanowski, op. cit., pp. 27-31.
[5]. W. Dziewanowski, op. cit., pp. 78-79.
[6]. W. Dziewanowski, op. cit., pp. 98-100.
[7]. W. Dziewanowski, op. cit., pp. 94-97.

[8]. Some authors maintain that such a reduced breastplate sometimes occurs in classic specimens as well.
[9]. Z. Bocheński, “Ze studiów nad zbroją husarską” [Studies in the hussar’s armour], Rozprawy i sprawozdania Muzeum Narodowego w Krakowie, Vol. VI, 1960, pp. 12-52; W. Dziewanowski, op. cit., pp. 159-161,181-185; B. Gembarzewski, “Husarze – ubiór, oporządzenie i uzbrojenie 1500-1775” [Hussars – their dress, equipment and arms 1500-1775], Warsaw, 1939, offprint from Broń i Barwa. It should be mentioned that even today the hussar’s tradition is still alive among some for­mations of the Polish army. This is indicated, for instance, by the fact that the soldiers of the First Armoured Division (formed in Great Britain during the Second World War) wore on their sleeves a badge with the representation of hussar’s wings. Hussar’s wings figure also on the emblem worn to-day on the caps of the soldiers of the Polish air forces.
[10]. Z. Bocheński, “Karaceny polskie XVII-XVIII wieku” [Polish karacena of the 17th-18th centuries], Broń i Barwa, Vol. V, Warsaw, 1938, No. 6-7. [A karacena, probably the only one in this country, is preserved in the Dept. of British and Mediaeval Antiquities at the British Museum. Editor.] [11]. W. Dziewanowski, op. cit., pp. 180-181; K. Starykoń-Grodecki, Kolczuga [Coat of mail], Warsaw, 1934.
[12]. W. Dziewanowski, op. cit., p. 143.
[13]. W. Dziewanowski, op. cit., pp. 199-203.

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