Part 20 - the Swedish army

by George Gush

THE SWEDISH ARMY was borne of the struggle against the Danes, which in the 1520s became a national fight for independence, successful with the crowning of Gustavus Vasa in 1523. The Swedish infantry of these wars were drawn from the peasantry, who from early times were obliged to possess folk-weapons for national defence, and who showed themselves tough adversaries even for professional soldiers, as at the battle of Brunkenberg in 1471, where they were able to mount a successful assault on a strong position even after two bloody repulses. Their arms were mainly crossbows and assorted pole-weapons.
   Cavalry, were provided by the nobility, whose obligations in this respect were regularised by Gustavus Vasa; the horsemen provided were half heavy (full-armoured lancers) and half light. Gustavus also supplemented the infantry with mercenaries, but found Swedes cheaper to hire than foreigners, and thus like his successors tended to rely on an army of his own subjects, giving the Swedish forces already their distinctive 'national' stamp in what was generally an age of mercenary forces.
   Under him, and his successor Erik XIV, a system developed whereby the infantry were largely drafted, one man in ten from the peasantry aged 15 to 44 having to serve on a semi-permanent basis. Noble cavalry were supplemented by volunteers (farmsteads supplying man and horse escaping both draft and land-tax). Unlike infantry, who were billeted or kept in garrisons, cavalry seem to have gone home in time of peace. The system did not work entirely satisfactorily until Gustavus Adolphus' time, and ambitious plans, such as those of Erik or Gustavus Adolphus, still called for the employment of mercenaries also.
   Swedish 16th Century infantry were organised in a 'Fanika' (ensign or company), which could be of varying composition and size, as these examples from Gustavus Vasa's time show:
Date           1552     1552     1556
Halberds etc     4       29       19
Firearms       183       69      210
Crossbows      499      506      223
              ----     ----     ----
Totals         686      604      452

   These are largely of missilemen, and Gustavus Vasa, who tried to increase the use of pikes, which he introduced to Swedish service; met a great deal of resistance, the soldiers preferring missile weapons. Erik XIV had the same problem.
   Erik was an extravagant and unbalanced monarch, and was quickly deposed (1568).
   However, he not only once more involved Sweden in external war, but also showed himself one of the first 16th Century military reformers to try to apply the principles of classical military writers to the new conditions of war.
   He attempted to standardise the infantry Fanika at about 500 men, with the composition shown. Twelve formed a regiment, but in battle they were drawn up spaced out in two lines as shown, with two of the five 'quarters' of each Fanika detached as a 'forlorn hope' or screen - a disposition to some extent anticipating Maurice of Nassau's battalions. Equipment was supposed to be standardised also, with pikemen wearing helmet, gorget, corselet and armour for the arms, the shot having helmets and long or short arquebusses.
   The cavalry 'Fana' (cornet) was standardised at 300 men (in five 'quarters', of which one formed a reserve). The heavy cavalry retained three-quarter armour but were equipped with two pistols, the lighter ones having arquebusses. Both were formed in near-square formation, 15 ranks deep, and employing caracole tactics.
   Probably these plans had limited success in practice; certainly the effects were temporary, Erik's successor John III again allowing the proportion of shot to rise at the expense of pikes. Infantry companies fell to about 300 men, and the composition of a 2,000 man force of 1573 is probably fairly typical - 45 per cent pikes, six per cent halberds, 38 per cent arquebusses and 11 per cent crossbows (the latter evidently a favourite weapon since it was retained so late by the Swedes. Gustavus Vasa had increased crossbow production, and by this time most were of steel).
   By the 1590s, the musket began to replace the arquebuss, but pikes were still relatively in short supply and war against the Poles in open terrain at the end of the century showed this up and forced the Swedish musketeers to protect themselves against the cavalry with sharpened stakes, later formalised as 'swine-feathers' (known elsewhere as 'Swedish feathers').

Gustavus Adolphus

   When, in 1611, the 17-year-old Gustavus Adolphus inherited a throne; an army; and three wars, his forces could not match the 'quality of the professional soldiers of Denmark or Poland, the recruitment of the Swedish forces was imperfect, and their battle-organisation on an improvised and temporary basis which did not conform to their administrative arrangements.
   The young king, however, was already well-versed in the military lore of the ancients, and was also acquainted with, and influenced by, the Dutch example (especially after his meetings with John of Nassau in 1620). With the practical experience of his wars with the Russians, Poles and Danes, the King evolved by stages a highly effective system of organisation, equipment and training, which, with his own generalship and gallantry (he was wounded 13 times - an unusual record for a supreme commander, even in the 17th Century'), allowed the 'Lion of the North' and his national army to pursue a brief but brilliant, comet-like career across the wider stage of the Thirty Years' War.
   Like his predecessors, Gustavus built on the foundation of a national army, raised by the methods already described from Sweden and Finland (the Finns in fact providing a disproportionately large contribution amounting to nine infantry and three cavalry field-regiments). However, he also hired mercenaries, predominantly Scots and Germans; the Scots providing a field marshal, at least six generals, nearly 30 colonels and some 13,000 men. By the time Gustavus entered the German war, some 40 per cent of all his forces, and over half his forces in Germany, were foreign. All, however, were trained and organised on the lines of the Swedish units.
   For recruiting and administration, the Swedish army was organised in Provincial 'Landsregements', each of which by the 1620s provided three infantry 'Field-Regiments', each of which had eight companies (at least after the adoption of small Dutch-style companies in the 1620s). The tactical unit, established as early as 1618, was the 'Squadron', which had four of the new-style companies, containing in all 216 pikemen and 288 musketeers. 96 of the musketeers would normally be detached or 'commanded' as a forlorn hope, to support the cavalry, guard the baggage train or for similar duty, (This represents four 'Corporalships' - a corporalship was either four six-man files of musketeers, or three of pikemen). The Squadron corresponded to the Dutch battalion; in battle the Dutch normally drew up in three large groups - 'battles' or 'brigades', and Gustavus in the 1620s evolved the famous 'Swedish Brigade' originally of six, later of four or three squadrons. These brigades, rather than the regiments, were the higher tactical units. In the 30 Years' War they were kept permanently together, and stood at seven brigades of three squadrons each, as follows:
The Yellow Brigade This was named after its leading unit, the Yellow or Household Regiment, Teuffel's Germans.
The Green Brigade Led by Hepburn's Green Regiment, and including Mackay's this was largely or wholly of Scots.
The Blue Brigade Led by Winckel's Germans, and chiefly German.
The Red Brigade Hogendorf's Red Regiment, Erik Hands' Ostgota Regiment, Kari Herds Vastgota Regiment.
The White Brigade Led by Vitzthum's Regiment.
The Black Brigade (?) Led by Thurn's German regiment.
Ake Oxonstierna's Brigade All Swedes.
   Though the organisation of Squadrons and Brigades was kept up fairly well, it must be realised that, as in all armies of the period, there was a gap between this paper organisation and reality. Thus, in Germany, Gustavus' infantry regiments, though mainly of eight companies, were often down to a strength of only 500 to 600 men, and thus formed in practice one Squadron rather than two. Several German regiments had 12 companies (but again fell short of two-Squadron strength) a few 16 companies.
   As usual discipline and training were probably more significant than the precise type of organisation, and Gustavus army excelled in both respects:
   The national basis gave a firmer foundation for discipline than in most contemporary armies, and religion reinforced this. Though all denominations were tolerated, the army had its own preachers and every man was issued with a prayerbook. Though there was no flogging, punishments were severe including the 'gatlopp' (the origin of running the gauntlet') and death for such offences as despising divine service a third time in these respects as in others the Swedes provided a model for the later times of Cromwell and the Covenant.
   The tactics of the Swedes were a further development from the Dutch model. The musketeers, drawn up only six ranks deep, were trained both to fire by countermarch, two ranks at a time, and to double the files extending into three-deep formation to deliver concerted volleys, every man firing at once, the front rank kneeling, the second crouching and the third standing upright.
   To the weight of fire which this gave (it enabled Scots musketeers at Leipzig, 1631, to break an attack by Imperial cuirassiers-by their fire alone) was added the fire of up to 12 light regimental guns attached to each brigade - a much closer combination of artillery and the other arms than previously attempted. After abortive experiments with copper and leather 1 1/2 pounders had been dropped (unkind Germans accused the hungry Swedes of having eaten these weapons!) Gustavus Scots artillerist Sandy Hamilton evolved light 3 pounders, which with the aid of pre-loaded cartridges could fire (usually 'hail shot') more rapidly than the musketeers, while keeping up reasonably well with an infantry advance (they were, incidentally, Bofors' guns),
   A 'fire-shock' was thus achieved, to be exploited by the Swedish pikemen, trained to charge in after a volley rather than passively defend the 'shot'. They could then fall back to allow the musketeers a second volley (volley-firing of course meant a fairly long interval between bursts of fire). Michael Roberts, in Essays in Swedish History, points out that the offensively-minded Gustavus had actually increased the proportion of pikes compared to that in the essentially defensive Dutch army. However, it must be pointed out that the actual pike strength in the Swedish army was below the theoretical - in the Thirty Years' War by up to 25 per cent - whereas the musketeers were much closer to their establishment (perhaps the earlier Swedish anti-pike attitudes persisted?).
   Infantry equipment was also improved, though some of the more; radical innovations attributed to Gustavus appear to be mythical. So far as possible musketeers were given uniform weapons, probably firing a ball of ten to the pound, as in the Dutch army, and in the later part of Gustavus' reign Swedish-made muskets were shortened (to 1.2 metres overall). This, with a lighter stock, cut the weight by about a third (judging by weapons in the Stockholm Armemuseum).
   Gustavus did not achieve complete standardisation, nor did he go over to flint or wheel-locks, the majority of Swedish weapons retaining the matchlock, which was more reliable and more within the capabilities of Swedish lockmakers.
   Though he abolished the 'swine-feather' Gustavus did not, as is often said, abolish the musket-rest (though 'commanded' musketeers may have dispensed with it).
   Much the same applies to his reputed shortening of Swedish pikes to 11 feet. This error seems to arise from the 11 foot partisans which were carried by the King's lifeguard of Foot (one company), and possibly also by the Household Regiment, in place of pikes.
   Swedish regulations originally called for pikes over 18 feet long, and a 1619 order only reduced them to 17 foot 6 inches, though some were probably unofficially shortened by those who had to carry them.
   Musketeers were supposed to wear an open helmet, and carried the usual sword and bandolier with 12 cartouches, while pikemen had helmet, garget, corselet, and, originally thigh-pieces or short tassets, though these may have often been omitted. Officers carried partisans, and up to the Thirty Years' War were distinguished by gilded gorgets; under-officers of pikes carried pikes, while those of musketeers carried partisans.


a pikeman of Erik XIV's reign in half armour. b crossbowman of the earlier 16th Century. c arquebusier of Erik XIV's reign. Note widely worn fur-trimmed hat. He may be wearing a 'jack'. d Swedish soldier of early 16th Century. He wears a pot helmet and may have a breastplate. His odd trousers look almost like cowboy 'chaps'. As well as his peculiar 'knavelspjut' he bears a very large sword - probably a two-hander. e 30 Years' War musketeer wearing a very wide skirted buff coat, trimmed in red, and very floppy boots. f early 16th Century soldier with spear and crossbow. Felt hat, trousers and boots black, coat white with green trim edged red, leggings white, quiver brown. g musketeer of Gustavus Adolphus' period. Sleeveless buff coat, trimmed with ribbon, and boots. h pikeman of the same period in morion and corselet. He wears a long-skirted buff coat and winter boots. i Scot in bonnet, thin trews, and sleeveless buff coat. j pikemen, probably end of 16th Century although frilled sleeves seem to have lingered among the Swedes as late as the 30 Years' War.

k 'Swinefeather' or Swedish Feather. Note attachment for resting musket barrel.

A Swedish Brigade, according to Lord Reay's diagram. This appears to have two regiments of two squadrons each. Small 'boxes' are four files wide by six ranks deep, large blocks of pikemen are 36 files wide by six ranks deep. P = pikemen, M = musketeers, A1 and A2 = the Colonels in front of their regiments.

A squadron drawn up in the same proportions of ranks and files (from The Swedish Discipline).

'a Regiment according to the Swedish Brigade', after Richard Elton's Compleat Body of the Art Military. Here the pike blocks are 26 files wide.

Line of 'Fanikas' in action with their 'forlorn hope'. (The units of this had about 20 pikes, 20 halberds, 42 short firearms, 126 longer ones. The complete Fanika had about 101 pikemen, 74 halberdiers and 213 shot).
Previous: Part 19 - the Dutch army
Next: Part 21 - the Swedish army (continued)

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See also Swedish Armies of the XVI Century