Development of the Caracole Maneuver

The invention of wheel lock pistols spurred the development of a new cavalry tactic called the caracole, which attempted to reestablish the primacy of cavalry on the battlefield. The maneuver involved tight, rotating formations of soldiers using pistols on horseback, but it proved less than adequate in battle and was thus superseded by the end of the sixteenth century.

Summary of Event

One significant feature of warfare during the Renaissance was the declining importance of cavalry on the battlefield. During the Middle Ages, feudal knights and heavily armored men-at-arms dominated the battlefield. A charge of close-packed horsemen could be stopped only by obstacles, well-disciplined infantry armed with pikes, or effective use of projectile weapons. During the fourteenth century both disciplined pike forces, such as the Swiss, and effective archers or crossbowmen were able to inflict terrible defeats on armies composed primarily of mounted men-at-arms. Caracole maneuver, development of
Montmorency, Anne, duke of
Louis I of Bourbon
Condé, Louis I of Bourbon, prince of
Montmorency, Anne, duke of

The values—and limitations—of the caracole maneuver were witnessed at the Battle of Dreux in 1562.

(Frederick Ungar Publishing Co.)

The introduction of gunpowder changed this balance slowly, as early handheld guns were cumbersome, inaccurate, and hard to use on the battlefield. In the fifteenth century, though, the introduction of the harquebus (also called arquebus) began to change this equation. The harquebus was fired by lowering a slow-burning match into a gunpowder-filled pan. This ignited the main charge in the breech, which in turn fired the harquebus. This type of mechanism was called a matchlock. Soldiers wielding a harquebus could inflict serious damage, but they were especially vulnerable to cavalry charges because the long process of reloading required both hands and thus left gunners unable to defend themselves. A matchlock was reasonably easy to use on foot, but the smoldering matches they required often frightened the horses, so they were inconvenient weapons for mounted use.

During the fifteenth century, Spanish captains began to create a new tactical system that combined the firepower of the harquebus with the protection of pikes. Dense formations of pikemen, if well disciplined, provided defensive bulwarks behind which harquebusiers could safely fire and reload. Units that combined pike and harquebus were capable of defeating most cavalry charges; at the same time, the increasing lethality of handheld firearms forced horsemen to wear armor that came to be progressively heavier. As a result, armies in the field reduced the numbers of mounted men-at-arms. By the beginning of the sixteenth century many mounted men were wearing less armor and looking for better ways to incorporate firearms into their tactics so as to restore their potency on the battlefield.

The invention of the wheel lock presented this opportunity. Invented around the year 1515, the wheel lock featured a steel wheel mounted on a spring and facing a hammer that held iron pyrite. After the spring was wound, pulling the trigger released the wheel to spin against the pyrite. Like a modern cigarette lighter, the spinning of the wheel against the pyrite would strike sparks that would then ignite the gunpowder. Since no prelit smoldering match was necessary, a gunner could load the piece, wind up the spring, and carry it into action ready to fire. The drawback was that wheel locks were complex to make—they required a clockmaker’s precision to work properly—and thus expensive. As a result, they were common weapons among the wealthy only, such as knights or military entrepreneurs, and far too expensive for the common foot soldier.

The increasing complexity of Renaissance warfare led to an increase in military entrepreneurs—mercenaries whose occupation was warfare. One particularly fertile area for recruiting such mercenaries was the cluster of small states and kingdoms that made up what is today Germany. These states were too small to need large numbers of homegrown men-at-arms, so these surplus soldiers sought their fortunes elsewhere. Such men were called reiters—German for “riders.” The name first came into use in the 1540’, the same time that wheel lock pistols were introduced in large numbers. Armed with wheel locks and lighter armor, reiters were easier and cheaper to recruit, and they were faster on the battlefield than the more ponderous heavy cavalry.

To make themselves more effective, they began to charge with their wheel locks rather than to depend on sword or lance. By the mid-1500’s this tactic was codified as the caracole. In the caracole, reiters would mass and charge in columns. At the last possible moment, the first rank of the column would wheel and fire their pistols into the enemy formation. Then as the second rank followed suit, the first rank would trot toward the rear and reload or unholster and prepare a second pistol. Using this technique, rank after rank could continuously pour fire into a pike formation until it lost cohesion, and then use their swords to finish off the infantry.

Although the caracole returned some potency to mounted formations, it rarely proved decisive. The short barrels of pistols ensured that they were lethal at close range only, unlike harquebus fire, which remained deadly at longer ranges. Against knights using only lance or sword, the caracole could disorganize formations while the reiters’ lighter armor allowed them enough mobility to avoid a countercharge, but the caracole also minimized the fire to small—and thus less devastating—volleys. This dissipated the effects of each volley and made reiter formations much less deadly.

Contemporary critics compared the caracole with a stately court dance, for the slow and deliberate pace of the caracole, with its constant flow of horsemen riding back to the end of the column while reloading, resembled a dance more than a battle-winning tactic. Instead of overwhelming an enemy, a caracole-style attack was likely to result in a desultory—and irritating, but not particularly deadly—fire on the enemy. During the Thirty Years’ War, the Swedish cavalry under Gustavus II Adolphus would return to the sharp impact delivered by massed cavalry charges. To do this, Gustavus’s cavalry learned to fire a volley and then charge in with swords before the enemy could reload or reform. This Swedish innovation restored shock power to cavalry and once again made the charge a battle-winning tactic.

An instructive example of the value—and limitations—of the caracole can be found in the Battle of Dreux in 1562 Dreux, Battle of (1562) , which was the first major battle in France’s sixteenth century Wars of Religion Religion, French Wars of (1562-1598) . The Huguenot (French Protestant) forces under Louis I of Bourbon, the prince of Condé, unexpectedly bumped into a French Catholic army under the overall command of the duke de Montmorency. Both forces had been strengthened by contingents of mercenaries; the Huguenots deployed a number of reiter companies while the Catholics fielded a large force of Swiss infantry.

In the opening phases of the battle, attacks by Huguenot reiters swept away the Catholic light and medium cavalry forces, but then the reiters became dispersed during pursuit. Subsequent attacks on the well-formed Swiss formations in Montmorency’s center failed to dislodge them. The Swiss pikemen were supported by a number of harquebusiers, and before long attrition and exhaustion depleted the attacking Huguenot forces. Once the Huguenot units began to lose cohesion, the Catholics began to counterattack and advance. The cavalry that had pursued the broken Catholic cavalry—including many reiters—were reformed and returned to the field to put up a spirited defense that slowed the Catholic advance. Nightfall ended the battle in a virtual draw. During the day’s seesaw fighting, the attacks of the reiters had broken or disordered several cavalry formations but had not been powerful enough to shatter the Swiss. Thus, the caracole had played a role in the battle, but it by no means decided the battle’s outcome.


During the middle of the sixteenth century, innovative cavalrymen, including military entrepreneurs like the reiters, attempted to incorporate the new technology of wheel lock firearms into their battlefield tactics. The result was the caracole maneuver. While in the short term the caracole did reestablish some value to cavalry action in the battle line, it was not in itself a decisive tactic. Not until the reforms of Gustavus II Adolphus combined the massed cavalry charge with a pistol volley by the entire unit did cavalry once again become a battle-winning arm.

Further Reading

  • Arnold, Thomas T. Renaissance at War. London: Cassell, 2001. Arnold provides in this work a good overview of military developments during the Renaissance.
  • Eltis, David. The Military Revolution in Sixteenth Century Europe. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1998. Eltis provides a clear and concise description of the changes that occurred in warfare during the Renaissance, such as the increasing importance of infantry firepower and the declining significance of cavalry forces.
  • Hall, Bert S. Weapons and Warfare in Renaissance Europe. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997. This is a very thorough and accessible history of the development of gunpowder weapons. The work looks at both the technologies of the new weapons and the changes in tactics heralded by these technological innovations.
  • Oman, Sir Charles William Chadwick. A History of the Art of War in the Sixteenth Century. Mechanicsburg, Pa.: Greenhill Books, 1999. This is a reprint of Oman’s 1937 classic, a work upon which most other studies of Renaissance warfare are based. It also features an excellent description of the Battle of Dreux.

16th cent.: Proliferation of Firearms

June 28, 1522-Dec. 27, 1522: Siege and Fall of Rhodes

1550’s: Tartaglia Publishes The New Science

Mar., 1562-May 2, 1598: French Wars of Religion