The French Bayonet

The role of skirmishers in warfare.

Article by Steve N. Jackson (v. 1)

Light infantry originated in ancient times when military forces adopted armor, heavy shields, and tight packed fighting formations. These innovations likely occurred before recorded history, so no one can really be sure who invented them, but clear textural evidence for the heavy infantry formation occurs with the Greeks. In classical Greek warfare soldiers known as hoplites fought in a tight packed blocks, relying on an unbroken wall of shields to protect individuals in the formation from attack. These formations were unbeatable when they came up against disorganized opposition who tried to meet them in an open field, but they lacked tactical flexibility. Broken ground, rapidly retreating enemy, or an enemy who could hit the formation and run in an organized manner from the sides and rear were difficult for the phalanx to handle.

Greek infantry were not armed in any sense by the state. Instead each soldier arrived with the equipment they could afford. The middle class were the foundation of the hoplite formations, with fairly uniform weapons and armor. However the lower class still participated, but they lacked the weapons to take part in a phalanx. Instead they formed light, maneuverable units whose lack of armor, heavy shield, and heavy spear was actually an advantage in broken ground.

The importance of these light units have been overlooked for centuries because the famous fighters in the wall of battle were all heavy infantry. Herodotus tells us in book 9 of Histories that each Spartan (by default heavy infantry) was accompanied by seven helots, armed slaves who acted as servants, porters, and fighters. As fighters, their jobs were varied, but at various times they and other light fighters of the Greeks held mountain passes, made flanking attacks, protected the phalanx from flanking attacks, and scouted enemy encampments. Many of these soldiers were armed with no more than a long knife.

Thus the light infantry held a position in the classical world of importance. The late Roman and early medieval periods saw a de-emphasis of infantry in favor of heavy cavalry in Europe, and light cavalry in Asia, and light infantry fell out of favor and memory. In the middle of the 16th century though heavy infantry again came to the forefront of warfare, first fighting with Pikes and later in the 17th century with bayonet equipped muskets in tight formations.

Light infantry units were rarely formed during the 16th and 17th century, except in the form of armed camp followers or lesser trained soldiers who could not fight in the line of battle. With the French innovations of Colonel Martinet, there was simply no way that light infantry could stand up against heavy infantry in the open terrain of Europe. The same could not be said for the new world. Soldiers arriving in the Americas from European countries found that close order formations were rarely effective. First, except for the Aztecs and the Inca, no American population had the equipment or training to hold a formation. Instead they were used to low order conflicts with fighting causing few casualties. Battles such as the Battle of Blood Mountain were told as epic tales of carnage, but there has never been a clear archeological picture to indicate the battles were either large or concentrated. Instead great battles were, in the European’s eyes at least, skirmishes. And the European way of fighting was largely ineffective in the vast North American continent.

The settlers of New France, Louisiana, the Carolinas, and New England essentially reinvented light infantry tactics to respond to the native American way of warfare. In essence, light infantry are skirmishers who travel in light, loose formations. Unlike heavy infantry, which trains in formation marching, light infantry works in small groups of mutually supporting soldiers. These soldiers make maximum use of camouflage and cover to attack enemy forces in detail rather than en masse. Ideally, light infantry are given maximum autonomy to solve tactical problems within a strategic goal, and in the Americas light infantry developed woodcraft and mountain-craft as additional needed skills, the ability to stay whole and functional while living in the wilderness away from lines of supply.

Light infantry in the Americas remained an American phenomenon, but they also stated to adopt a new weapon at the turn of the 18th century: the rifle. Rifles were used in small numbers for hunting, but their rate of fire was so low that they were simply were not considered useful in Europe. Light infantry though, who rarely engaged enemy soldiers except for from cover found that the range of the rifle, double that of the smooth-bore musket, and the accuracy that individual shooters gained, was a powerful reason to have at least some fighters armed with the weapon.

During the Seven Years War France and England fought in a series of engagements on the American continent. American colonial forces, Native tribal groups, and the French all relied heavily on light infantry tactics, but the British regulars started the war as a conventional force. At the Battle of the Monongahela the British suffered a significant defeat as their tight formations were unable to contend with French and Native irregular formations. In particular, the British found that they were vulnerable to ambush and flanking action.

The British solved the problem by forming light infantry companies in each regiment. These soldiers would scout, form screening parties, and flank enemy units. The combination of light and heavy infantry proved to be a strong tactic. These screening units were never better than the Native and later American irregulars when the British fought them during the American revolution, but they were backed by a powerful heavy core that slowly came to rely less on massed musket fire and more on the organized bayonet charge. Light units could not, as a rule, absorb these charges effectively. The result was the slow movement to heavy infantry by the Americans, and the movement to lighter, looser formations by the British.

During the Napoleonic era and beyond heavy infantry was combined with light infantry, or was given light infantry training and weapons for select members of their groups, allowing the heavy infantry unit to remain intact, but to face light infantry by throwing out teams of skirmishers. The French whose Chasseurs à pied has been instrumental in developing European light infantry tactics, soon adopted the British practice of individual light infantry companies known as Voltigeurs. In many cases these units were armed no differently than their heavy infantry counterparts. Instead they relied on training and superior morale to be effective in their roles.

Through the 19th century heavy infantry adopted the rifle of the light infantry - whose slow improvement was increasing its rate of fire and ease of use. By the Crimean and American Civil war light infantry units had disappeared as distinct forces, except in the form of specialist troops such as the French Chasseurs Alpins. In the Americas rifle armed heavy infantry matched with light cavalry progressively defeated Native forces, while British and French colonial forces proved the worth of the formation heavy infantry. It was not until the adoption of magazine repeaters and heavy artillery by European armies that the role of heavy infantry came into question. (see article).

Today the term light infantry refers to infantry who do not have the heavy mechanized equipment of line infantry units. These infantry units have formed in many militaries as elite forces tasked with special missions, or to carry out operations in broken or urban ground. The key connection of these units with the traditional light infantry is the emphasis on individual training, initiative, and small units tactics to accomplish small missions.


Calloway, C. (2011). First Peoples: A Documentary Survey of American Indian History. Bedford - St. Martin's Press.

Crowdy, T. (2012). Incomparable: Napoleon's 9th Light Infantry Regiment. Osprey Publishing.

Hansen, V. (1993). Hoplites: The Classical Greek Battle Experience. Routledge.

Herodotus. (2003). The Histories, Revised. Penguin Classics.

Kagan, D. (2008). The Peloponnesian War. Paw Prints.

Kopperman, P. (2003). Braddock at the Monongahela. The University of Pittsburgh Press.

Mcculloch, I. (2004). British Light Infantryman of the Seven Year's War: North America 1757-63. Osprey Publishing.

Philbrick, N. (2006). Mayflower. Penguin Books.

Spring, M. (2010). With Zeal and with Bayonets Only: The British Army on Campaign in North America, 1775-1783. The University of Oklahoma Press.