Part 21 - the Swedish army (continued)

THOUGH GUSTAVUS infantry were the mainstay in his earlier wars, and were, fully capable of offensive action, by the entry into the Thirty Years' War he had developed a highly effective cavalry which became the ultimate striking-force of his army, as it was of most 17th Century armies.
   Few, ill-mounted and ineffective at the beginning of his reign, his cavalry were developed in the hard school of war against the Polish lancers, and by Breitenfeld (1631) formed about a third of his army and were superior to their Imperial opponents.
   Among the best of his horsemen were the Finns, known as 'Hakkapelis' from their war-cry (which meant 'chop 'em down', the Finns being apt to refuse quarter), who in his earlier wars provided as much as half Gustavus' horse. Gustavus himself normally led one of the cavalry wings.
   The mounted arquebusiers, who were usually unarmoured, disappeared early in his reign, as unfit for the offensive. Heavy cuirassiers in three-quarter armour survived into the Thirty Years' War period, but declined in numbers, owing to their high cost. Each was supposed to be accompanied both by a mounted servant equipped like the 'light cavalry' and a baggage-servant with a packhorse. Those who remained were mainly supplied by the nobility.
   The standard type of cavalryman became that previously called the 'light cavalryman', equipped with pot helmet, corselet, a pair of pistols and a sword. Following the example both of the Poles and of Henri IV of France, Gustavus taught his horse to charge at the gallop with the sword, firing in the charge being delivered only by the front rank, and that at point-blank range; shock tactics which represented the most effective practice of the time rather than being wholly original, and which became standard in the later 17th Century.
   The cavalry were normally disposed on the wings of the army, drawn up in two lines of squadrons, themselves disposed only three-deep. Between these units, bodies of up to 200 'commanded' musketeers were placed, to give fire support.
   A cavalry regiment was supposed to be of eight companies of 125 men each, and was disposed in battle in two squadrons; however, in practice the regiment could be of four to 12 companies, while squadrons could have only three companies.
   Dragoons were introduced in 1611, equipped like those of other nations, their main role was to provide further fire-support for the cavalry, and they are said to have been less often used on foot than those in other armies, However, under Gustavus they represented only about five per cent of the Swedish cavalry.
   The Swedish artillery were more integrated into the army organisationally as well as tactically, than those of other nations, they were made soldiers by Gustavus, rather than the semi-civilian skilled artisans that they tended to remain elsewhere. As a corollary, the Swedes were the first to introduce any real artillery organisation, in the form of companies in 1623, regiments six years later, each of four gunner companies, one of pioneers and one of engineers.
   The guns themselves were standardised by Gustavus - 6, 12 and 24 pounders - and were shortened and lightened for mobility. The 6-pounder, like the regimental guns, used cartridges, though not 'fixed' ammunition. Except at sieges the heavier artillery were naturally much less numerous than the infantry pieces - at Breitenfeld 12 to 42.


   16th Century dress was mainly either peasant costume or similar to continental military fashions with Lansknecht-style slashing and so on. Some clothing was issued and this may have ended to be of uniform colours. Erik XIV's coronation procession included a 900-man Fanika uniformly clad in blue, white, red and yellow, possibly a guard unit.
   Early in Gustavus Adolphus' reign most of the Swedish infantry were in peasant dress, long jerkins or smocks, though the foot guard company were uniformed, probably in blue. By 1625 the Household Regiment (I think, of horse) had blue coats decorated with broad yellow lace, while the Life Guard of Foot company received a black and yellow uniform, with fringes in the same colours for their partisans.
   Troops of the line soon started to receive official issues of clothing; this established a uniform style of dress - cassock, sleeveless jerkin, loose breeches and woollen stockings, with, as might be expected, unusually thorough provision for winter, including leather boots and fur cloaks. As usual in this period, the question of actual uniform is a vexed one, but it does seem clear that some - possibly most - of Gustavus' infantry regiments wore coats of uniform colour. Red was certainly ordered for companies of the Smalands, Ostgota and Upplands Regiments, with yellow, blue or black trim. Thurn's regiment seem to have been bluecoats, and there are other references to bodies of Swedish infantry in blue, yellow, black and light grey uniform coats.
   This would mean uniformly-clad squadrons, but not brigades. The colour titles of the Brigades seem to be from the leading regiment in each, and these in turn to have been named from the colours of their standards rather than their coats (however this might not always be so - for example the red-coated Ostgota Regiment was in the Red Brigade).
   Coat colours certainly did not always or even often match those of the regimental standards.
   The Scots infantry probably retained, at least to begin with, some items of national dress, such as the blue bonnet, and, for Highlanders, tartan trews. The Green Brigade certainly had pipers.
   Cavalry also had sometimes uniform coats - there was another blue clad regiment beside the Household. However, helmet, corselet, buff-coat, gauntlets and leather breeches and boots would cover up the clothing and convey a fairly uniform impression in any case. Another 'standard' item worn by musketeers and cavalry if not wearing helmets was the wide-brimmed, tall-crowned, Swedish-made felt hat, which was grey.
   Like other forces, the Swedes were forced to use field signs (like the green sprigs worn at Breitenfeld) for army identification, with field words for further security ('God with us' at Leipzig, 1631). This was probably especially necessary as in Gustavus Adolphus' time they appear to have lacked a standard colour for officers', cavalrymen's and pikemen's sashes, various colours including sky-blue and green being worn. Earlier, Erik XIV had in one campaign ordered yellow sashes to be worn, together with red feathers or fox- or squirrel-tails in his soldiers' caps, but had later switched to red, then green sashes. In the later 30 Years War, after Gustavus' death, blue sashes, usually with yellow borders, became standard.


   The modern national flag was introduced by Gustavus Vasa, and may sometimes have been carried by Swedish troops in the 16th Century, but apparently not in the 17th. Multicoloured flags with stripes of geometrical patterns were common in the 16th and early 17th Centuries, King John III (1568-92) ordering that such flags should carry a yellow cross as national badge, Lions, and the Scandinavian three-crown device, in use since the 15th Century, also appeared.
   The earliest Swedish military flag to have survived is the striped infantry one shown, dating from the 1620s, in national-flag colours, and very like Dutch ones of similar period. Blue-and-yellow and orange-and-green infantry flags mentioned as carried by Swedes in the Thirty Years' War could well be of this type.
   Under Gustavus, common styles for infantry flags were a plain ground with a crown over either the royal arms or the royal monogram (Gustavus would use G.A.R.S. for 'Gustavus Adolphus Rex Sueciae'). Such flags often bore mottoes, such as 'Gustavus Adolphus Rex Fidei Evangelicae Defensor'.
   Other patterns include a white flag bearing a crown surmounted by a rose, and the motto 'Touch me not or you'll get burnt' (presumably in Latin), and a red flag with a flame and a figure of Justice carrying sword and scales, inscribed 'Pro Rege et Grege.' Another showed the sun over-shadowed by clouds, with 'Sero sed Serio'. Judging by later practices these would probably be Colonel's flags: company flags bore devices chosen by the colonel.
   In the 1650s Charles X introduced a new system 'in keeping with earlier customs'; the Colonel's flag was white, with the King's monogram or the Swedish arms, the company flags in provincial colours with devices selected as above.
   Cavalry flags (the usual small square pattern except for dragoon guidons) were, as usual, more variable. The three-crowns design is often shown; others include a blue and orange flag with an arm holding a sword and the inscription 'Si Deus pro nobis, quis contra nos?' and a sceptre crossed with a sword and the motto 'Ensem Gradius Sceptrum Themis Ipsa Gubernat'. Gustavus' escort carried a black and gold cornet, and other colours included blue and white, blue and red, red, white, blue, orange, yellow, and green.

The later Swedish army

   After the death of Gustavus at Lutzen (1632), the Swedish army continued to play a major role in the Thirty Years' War, but as a mercenary force in French pay rather than a national army, becoming increasingly German in its composition, and like other armies in the awful broken-backed' later stages of that conflict, subsisting increasingly upon loot. Discipline declined, and the Swedes were decisively defeated at Nordlingen (1634) though successful later under Torstensson and Wrangel. Nearly 100,000 men were under arms at the end of the war.
   Organisation and tactics remained based on Gustavus' practice, but it would seem that the proportion of pikes fell further, approximating to one-third of the foot by the end of our period. Among the horse, the proportion of dragoons greatly increased. Armour largely vanished from the foot.
   After the war, Charles X reorganised the army, returning to national lines and adopting the first complete or nearly-complete system of uniform, half the infantry regiments had matching coat and trousers, the other half contrasting ones. The list below, though from 1675, probably gives an idea of this uniforming, and in some cases the colours go back still further.

   Regiment               Coat               Cuffs
   Uppland                Red                Yellow
   Skaraborg              Yellow             Black
   Abo                    Grey               Yellow
   Sodermanland           Yellow             Blue
   Kronoberg              Yellow             Red
   Jonkoping              Grey               Red
   Bjorneborg             Red                Blue
   Dal                    Blue               Red
   Ostgota                Red                Black
   Tavastehus             Red                Yellow
   Halsinge               Red                Green
   Elfsborg               Gray               Isabelle
   Viborg                 Blue               Red
   Nyslott                Green              White
   Vastgota               Grey               Yellow
   Vastmanland            Green              Red
   Vasterbotten           Blue               White
   Kalmar                 Grey               Green
   Nyland                 Gray               Red
   Narke-Varmland         Red                White
   Osterbotten            Grey               Blue
   Jamtland               Gray               Green


The Swedish Army at Breitenfeld in 1631. In front of the formation are 12 heavy guns, followed by the First Line (Blue Brigade, Erik Hands' Brigade, Oxenstierna's Brigade and Yellow Brigade). Behind these come the First Line's Reserve then the Second Line (Vitzthumin's, Green Brigade and Thurn's Brigade), and finally the Second Line's Reserve.

A Swedish cuirassier or Senior officer of the 30 Years' War.
Note unusual helmet type, popular with Swedes.

Left to right a Swedish general or marshal about 1650 in very Polish-style uniform. It appears that the fur-trimmed hat had remained in use since Erik XIV's day. Next to him is a cavalryman in 'pot' helmet, half armour and buff coat, 30 Years' War period. The officer behind him wears a grey felt hat and buff coat, with large lying-down white collar and white cuffs, plus a green scarf over his right shoulder. At far right is a Swedish musketeer of 1665, who is very similar in appearance to, for instance, French infantry of the same period.

Key to flags. a cavalry flag of Gustavus Adolphus' time. b National flag, yellow on blue, introduced by Gustavus Vasa. c blue and yellow infantry flag of the 1620s. d and e 16th Century flags. f Viborg and Nyslott Cavalry Regiment, 1665. g infantry company colour 1658 (inscription incomplete). h Royal Arms, end of 16th Century. In the upper left quadrant are three gold crowns on blue. Upper right, a gold lion on blue with three white stripes. Lower left, a yellow lion and axe on red. Lower right, three blue lions on yellow with red hearts. i company flag of Robert Monroe's Regiment, Gustavus Adolphus' period. Horse white, other colours unknown. j a monogram of Gustavus Adolphus (GARS). These letters could also appear in the style shown on 'g'.

Swedish cavalry helmet, 30 Years' War, from a contemporary drawing. Note 'lobster-tail' neck guard, very large side flaps (much worn by Swedes), plume holder at rear, and single adjustable nasal.

Swedish pikeman's armour, 17th Century, showing simple style, though helmet with moveable peak and large cheek pieces, as shown for cavalry, could also be worn.

Regimental piece and carriage. This unusual shafted carriage with limited traverse is from a book of the early 18th Century. 30 Years' War pieces may have been more simply mounted.
Previous: Part 20 - the Swedish army by George Gush
Next: Part 22 - the Muscovites by George Gush

Return to Contents of Renaissance Warfare by George Gush (Airfix Magazine Articles)

See also a 17th Century Scale Model of a Swedish Regimental Cannon
PDF of Scottish mercenaries in the service of Denmark and Sweden, 1626-1632 by James A. Fallon, from the University of Glasgow
Order of Battle for Breitenfeld.