Why did cavalrymen ditch the lances ?

So. Military history time.
I grok the point of charging footmen using a long pole - focusing all the momentum of 2 and a half tons of galloping horse+rider on a single point, good times. Reach to keep safe - once you’ve skewered a dude or three you can always ditch it and gallop away for another go.

However around the 17th or so, and at the same time footmen turned into musketmen and pikemen at the same time (with the advent of the bayonet) cavalry forces by and large seem to have switched to the saber as their primary weapon - not all of them as there were still lancers around but cuirassiers, hussars, dragoons, chevau-légers, cavalrymen of the US Civil War… all appear to have been “strictly sword” outfits.
I’m not knocking on sabers per se - I’m sure one can do some damage with one… but it still seems to me like a step backwards from cavalry lances, notably in that you have to be much, much closer to the footsloggers (and thus expose both yourself and your horse to their repugnant smell and harsh language).

So, why did they do it ?

Lances are useless against pikes and muskets. So cavalry switched to a weapon that would be useful against other cavalry. They were also armed with pistols. I believe the usual tactic of the time would be to charge in close, fire a pistol volley, then on in with the sabers, if you were forced to engage foot soldiers en mass.

With the advent of muskets, cavalry shifted from shock troops to scouting and exploitation roles.

Lances are mainly useful for frontal charges. I mean, surely lancers didn’t just stand in front of their enemy and keep poking them. A lance is a weapon you hit the other guy with once while charging at him.

Against ranged troops with bayonets and the square formation, frontal charges became a minor asset. Much better to have the flexibility of pistol/carbine and sword.

Perhaps they were “much, much closer” to the enemy if your engagement window is limited to melee. In that way, a 1m vs 3m difference is large. However, if the musketmen have a range of 100m, it hardly matter if you’re hitting them from 1 or 3m. With the widespread use of the musket & bayonet, the battlefield shrunk.

I would be curious to know about the proportion of archers/infantry/cavalry and artillery/musketmen/cavalry through time. I bet non-dragoon-like cavalry has a tendency to go down and the basic infantryman occupies a bigger % of troops up until the turn of the 20th century or perhaps the interwar years.

Lancers still existed during WWI. The lancers last significant role, as lancers, was during the Boer-British war, at the battle of Elandslaagte in Oct, 1899.


While they looked resplendent in parade but died by the thousands against 7mm Mausers and .303 Enfields.

The demise of the lance is slightly exaggerated. They declined in use after the 17th century, but didn’t disappear and were used right down to the 20th. They were still deadly weapons against non-massed infantry, but as firearms became steadily more efficient cavalry was increasingly regulated to screening, scouting and raiding. In which context a majority of combat was cavalry-on-cavalry where as noted above sabers and pistols were less clumsy.

But they were still used right down to WW I.

Because guns. . .

IIRC, Pennsylvania did have a regiment of lancers in the ACW. But compared to other forms of cavalry, especially dragoons, it takes years of training to get a bunch of guys on horses with sharp poles into an effective fighting unit.

Once that’s done, they’re a great shock force against infantry standing in the open. But not if they’re dug in. And I read of an English rider at Waterloo who was being pursued by a French lancer: he just used his hand to parry the lance and that was all the counter measure required.

Even in the gun era, lancers could occasionally engage successfully. In the 1846 Battle of San Pasqual, a smaller force of Mexican lancers skillfully lured American dragoons away from the main body of infantry and cut them up quite badly. It was only later, when attempting to stop the entire American column, that the outnumbered lancers were driven off.

Admittedly that sort of encounter was pretty rare.

Frankly, I think it’s what we need to turn the tide against ISIS.
And there still wouldn’t be “boots on the ground”.


I’m used to looking at edged weapons in museums, but contemplating the lance points in the museum at Trentino, I fairly got the shivers. Those things are scary.

No joke, SEALs and similar special covert undercover special advisor expert special forces in Afghanistan used/use horses extensively to move around the country. They’re less conspicuous than a mil truck, better at negotiating rocky terrain… I think the fact that they’re stylish as hell plays a part too :p.

Anyway, thanks guys for the comprehensive answer ! Makes sense.

Even after WWI actually; they were used in the The Polish-Bolshevik War:

And while tales of Polish lancers charging German panzers in 1939 aren’t true, the lance wasn’t withdrawn from service until 1937:

Here’s a lengthy article about the battle, including such interesting tidbits as a doctor on the scene noting that the lancers seemed to aim for the kidneys. It has some odd typography; looks like perhaps it was OCR scanned, but if you can ignore the occasional odd period or exclamation point it’s an absorbing read.

San Diego Reader article