Skirmishers are infantry
Infantrymen are soldiers who are specifically trained for the role of fighting on foot to engage the enemy face to face and have historically borne the brunt of the casualties of combat in wars. As the oldest branch of combat arms, they are the backbone of armies...

 or cavalry
Cavalry or horsemen were soldiers or warriors who fought mounted on horseback. Cavalry were historically the third oldest and the most mobile of the combat arms...

A soldier is a member of the land component of national armed forces; whereas a soldier hired for service in a foreign army would be termed a mercenary...

s stationed ahead or alongside a larger body of friendly troops. They are usually placed in a skirmish line to harass the enemy.


In ancient and medieval warfare, skirmishers typically carried bows
Bow (weapon)
The bow and arrow is a projectile weapon system that predates recorded history and is common to most cultures.-Description:A bow is a flexible arc that shoots aerodynamic projectiles by means of elastic energy. Essentially, the bow is a form of spring powered by a string or cord...

, javelins, slings
Sling (weapon)
A sling is a projectile weapon typically used to throw a blunt projectile such as a stone or lead "sling-bullet". It is also known as the shepherd's sling....

, and sometimes carried light shield
A shield is a type of personal armor, meant to intercept attacks, either by stopping projectiles such as arrows or redirecting a hit from a sword, mace or battle axe to the side of the shield-bearer....

s. Acting as light infantry
Light infantry
Traditionally light infantry were soldiers whose job was to provide a skirmishing screen ahead of the main body of infantry, harassing and delaying the enemy advance. Light infantry was distinct from medium, heavy or line infantry. Heavy infantry were dedicated primarily to fighting in tight...

 with their light arms and minimal armor, they could run ahead of the main battle line, release a volley of arrows, slingshots or javelins, and retreat behind their main battle line before the clash of the opposing main forces. The aims of skirmishing were to disrupt enemy formations by causing casualties before the main battle, and to tempt the opposing infantry
Infantrymen are soldiers who are specifically trained for the role of fighting on foot to engage the enemy face to face and have historically borne the brunt of the casualties of combat in wars. As the oldest branch of combat arms, they are the backbone of armies...

 into attacking prematurely, throwing their organization into disarray. Skirmishers could also be effectively used to surround opposing soldiers in the absence of friendly cavalry
Cavalry or horsemen were soldiers or warriors who fought mounted on horseback. Cavalry were historically the third oldest and the most mobile of the combat arms...


Once preliminary skirmishing was over, skirmishers participated in the main battle by shooting into the enemy formation, or joined in melée
Melee , generally refers to disorganized close combat involving a group of fighters. A melee ensues when groups become locked together in combat with no regard to group tactics or fighting as an organized unit; each participant fights as an individual....

 combat with daggers or short swords. Alternatively, they could act as ammunition
Ammunition is a generic term derived from the French language la munition which embraced all material used for war , but which in time came to refer specifically to gunpowder and artillery. The collective term for all types of ammunition is munitions...

 bearers or stretcher
A stretcher is a medical device used to carry casualties or an incapacitated person from one place to another. It is a simple type of litter, and still called by that name in some cases....


Due to their mobility, skirmishers were also valuable for reconnaissance
Reconnaissance is the military term for exploring beyond the area occupied by friendly forces to gain information about enemy forces or features of the environment....

, especially in wooded or urban areas. During the gunpowder
Gunpowder, also known since in the late 19th century as black powder, was the first chemical explosive and the only one known until the mid 1800s. It is a mixture of sulfur, charcoal, and potassium nitrate - with the sulfur and charcoal acting as fuels, while the saltpeter works as an oxidizer...

 era, a skirmish line could discover the extent of the enemy front line.

In classical Greece, skirmishers had low status. For example, Herodotus
Herodotus was an ancient Greek historian who was born in Halicarnassus, Caria and lived in the 5th century BC . He has been called the "Father of History", and was the first historian known to collect his materials systematically, test their accuracy to a certain extent and arrange them in a...

, in his account of the Battle of Plataea
Battle of Plataea
The Battle of Plataea was the final land battle during the second Persian invasion of Greece. It took place in 479 BC near the city of Plataea in Boeotia, and was fought between an alliance of the Greek city-states, including Sparta, Athens, Corinth and Megara, and the Persian Empire of Xerxes...

 of 479 BC
479 BC
Year 479 BC was a year of the pre-Julian Roman calendar. At the time, it was known as the Year of the Consulship of Vibulanus and Rutilus...

, mentions that the Spartans
Spartan Army
The Spartan army was the military force of Sparta, one of the leading city-states of ancient Greece. The army stood at the centre of the Spartan state, whose citizens' primary obligation was to be good soldiers. Subject to military drill from infancy, the Spartans were one of the most feared...

 fielded 35,000 light armed helots to 5,000 hoplite
A hoplite was a citizen-soldier of the Ancient Greek city-states. Hoplites were primarily armed as spearmen and fought in a phalanx formation. The word "hoplite" derives from "hoplon" , the type of the shield used by the soldiers, although, as a word, "hopla" could also denote weapons held or even...

s yet there is no mention of them in his account of the fighting. Often Greek historians ignored them altogether. It was far cheaper to equip oneself as light armed as opposed to a fully armed hoplite – indeed it was not uncommon for light armed to go into battle equipped with stones. Hence the low status of skirmishers reflected the low status of the poorer sections of society who made up skirmishers. Additionally, "hit and run" contradicted the Greek ideal of heroism. Plato
Plato , was a Classical Greek philosopher, mathematician, student of Socrates, writer of philosophical dialogues, and founder of the Academy in Athens, the first institution of higher learning in the Western world. Along with his mentor, Socrates, and his student, Aristotle, Plato helped to lay the...

 gives the skirmisher a voice to advocate "flight without shame," but only to denounce it as an inversion of decent values.
Nevertheless, skirmishers chalked up significant victories, such as the Athenian defeat at the hands of the Aetolian javelin men
Aetolian campaign
The Aetolian campaign, often referred to as "Demosthenes' Aetolian campaign", was a failed Athenian offensive in northwestern Greece during the Archidamian War. In 426 BCE, Demosthenes was dispatched from Athens to the Corinthian Gulf in command of a fleet of 30 ships...

 in 426 BC
426 BC
Year 426 BC was a year of the pre-Julian Roman calendar. At the time, it was known as the Year of the Tribunate of Cincinnatus, Albinus, Fusus and Cossus...

 and, in the same war, the Athenian victory of Sphacteria
Battle of Sphacteria
The Battle of Sphacteria was a land battle of the Peloponnesian War, fought in 425 BC between Athens and Sparta. Following the Battle of Pylos and subsequent peace negotiations, which failed, a number of Spartans were stranded on the island of Sphacteria...


Celts did not, in general, favor ranged weapons. The exceptions tended not to include the use of skirmishers. The Britons
Britons (historical)
The Britons were the Celtic people culturally dominating Great Britain from the Iron Age through the Early Middle Ages. They spoke the Insular Celtic language known as British or Brythonic...

 used the sling extensively, but for siege warfare, not skirmishing. Among the Gauls likewise, the bow was employed when defending a fixed position. The Celtic lack of skirmishers cost them dearly during the Gallic Invasion of Greece of 279 BC
279 BC
Year 279 BC was a year of the pre-Julian Roman calendar. At the time it was known as the Year of the Consulship of Saverrius and Mus...

, where they found themselves helpless in the face of Aetolian skirmishing tactics.

In the Punic Wars, despite the Roman and Carthaginian armies' different organizations, skimishers had the same role in both: to screen the main armies

The Americas

The Seven Years War and American War for Independence were two early conflicts in which the modern rifle
A rifle is a firearm designed to be fired from the shoulder, with a barrel that has a helical groove or pattern of grooves cut into the barrel walls. The raised areas of the rifling are called "lands," which make contact with the projectile , imparting spin around an axis corresponding to the...

 began to make a significant contribution to warfare due to its advantage in range and accuracy over the smoothbore musket
A musket is a muzzle-loaded, smooth bore long gun, fired from the shoulder. Muskets were designed for use by infantry. A soldier armed with a musket had the designation musketman or musketeer....

 common among professional armies of the mid-18th century. Many of the men provided by the American colonists in both wars were frontiersmen serving in the militia—the Continental Army
Continental Army
The Continental Army was formed after the outbreak of the American Revolutionary War by the colonies that became the United States of America. Established by a resolution of the Continental Congress on June 14, 1775, it was created to coordinate the military efforts of the Thirteen Colonies in...

 itself during the latter conflict was largely made up of such irregular troops—participating in skirmishing tactics by firing from cover rather than the open field engagements of the day, largely influenced by Colonial experiences fighting natives. The character of Natty Bumppo
Natty Bumppo
Nathaniel "Natty" Bumppo is the protagonist of James Fenimore Cooper's pentalogy of novels known as the Leatherstocking Tales.- Fictional biography :...

 in James Fenimore Cooper
James Fenimore Cooper
James Fenimore Cooper was a prolific and popular American writer of the early 19th century. He is best remembered as a novelist who wrote numerous sea-stories and the historical novels known as the Leatherstocking Tales, featuring frontiersman Natty Bumppo...

's novel The Last of the Mohicans
The Last of the Mohicans
The Last of the Mohicans: A Narrative of 1757 is a historical novel by James Fenimore Cooper, first published in February 1826. It is the second book of the Leatherstocking Tales pentalogy and the best known...

was notably called La Longue Carabine by the French due to his skill with the long rifle common among the Colonials.

Napoleonic Wars

During the Napoleonic Wars skirmishers played a key role in battles, attempting to disrupt the main enemy force by firing into their close-packed ranks and by preventing enemy skirmishers from doing the same to friendly troops. As the skirmishers generally fought in open order they could take cover behind trees, houses, towers and other obstacles and as such were harder targets to hit with small arms
Small arms
Small arms is a term of art used by armed forces to denote infantry weapons an individual soldier may carry. The description is usually limited to revolvers, pistols, submachine guns, carbines, assault rifles, battle rifles, multiple barrel firearms, sniper rifles, squad automatic weapons, light...

 and artillery
Originally applied to any group of infantry primarily armed with projectile weapons, artillery has over time become limited in meaning to refer only to those engines of war that operate by projection of munitions far beyond the range of effect of personal weapons...

 fire, though this made them very vulnerable to cavalry. While muskets were the predominant weapon at the time, the British Army
British Army
The British Army is the land warfare branch of Her Majesty's Armed Forces in the United Kingdom. It came into being with the unification of the Kingdom of England and Scotland into the Kingdom of Great Britain in 1707. The new British Army incorporated Regiments that had already existed in England...

 experimented with rifles which though slower to reload were more accurate and had a longer range of effective fire. In the American theater
War of 1812
The War of 1812 was a military conflict fought between the forces of the United States of America and those of the British Empire. The Americans declared war in 1812 for several reasons, including trade restrictions because of Britain's ongoing war with France, impressment of American merchant...

, American riflemen again contributed to British casualties but now had to contend with revised British light infantry tactics.

A feature of these wars was a trend to training line troops to adopt tactics that until then had been used only by skirmishers.

American Civil War

The treatise, New American Tactics, by General John Watts de Peyster
John Watts de Peyster
John Watts de Peyster, Sr. was an author on the art of war, philanthropist, and early Adjutant General of the New York National Guard. He served in the New York State Militia during the Mexican-American War and American Civil War...

 advocated making the skirmish line the new line of battle, a revolutionary idea at the time. During the American Civil War
American Civil War
The American Civil War was a civil war fought in the United States of America. In response to the election of Abraham Lincoln as President of the United States, 11 southern slave states declared their secession from the United States and formed the Confederate States of America ; the other 25...

, it was common for cavalrymen
Cavalry in the American Civil War
Cavalry in the American Civil War was a branch of army service in a process of transition. It suffered from emerging technology threats, difficult logistics, and sometimes misguided or inept commanders...

 to dismount and form a skirmish line to delay enemy troops advancing towards an objective (for example, the actions of the Federal cavalrymen on the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg
Battle of Gettysburg, First Day
The First Day of the Battle of Gettysburg during the American Civil War took place on July 1, 1863, and began as an engagement between isolated units of the Army of Northern Virginia under Confederate General Robert E. Lee and the Army of the Potomac under Union Maj. Gen. George G. Meade...



By the late 19th century, the concept of fighting in formation was on the wane, and the distinctions between skirmishers and heavy infantry
Heavy infantry
Heavy infantry refers to heavily armed and armoured ground troops, as opposed to medium or light infantry, in which the warriors are relatively lightly armoured. As modern infantry troops usually define their subgroups differently , 'heavy infantry' almost always is used to describe pre-gunpowder...

 has now disappeared. The Soviet Army
Soviet Army
The Soviet Army is the name given to the main part of the Armed Forces of the Soviet Union between 1946 and 1992. Previously, it had been known as the Red Army. Informally, Армия referred to all the MOD armed forces, except, in some cases, the Soviet Navy.This article covers the Soviet Ground...

, however, had lighter BTR-equipped motorized rifle regiment
A regiment is a major tactical military unit, composed of variable numbers of batteries, squadrons or battalions, commanded by a colonel or lieutenant colonel...

s fighting on the flanks or secondary sectors of a motorized rifle division
Division (military)
A division is a large military unit or formation usually consisting of between 10,000 and 20,000 soldiers. In most armies, a division is composed of several regiments or brigades, and in turn several divisions typically make up a corps...

 on the offensive, while heavier BMP
BMP Development
The BMP series of infantry fighting vehicles were the first production line IFVs. Included in the series are the mainline BMPs, the airborne variant BMDs, and licensed modified and reverse engineered versions . BMP stands for Boyevaya Mashina Pekhoty , meaning "fighting vehicle of infantry")...

-equipped motorized rifle regiments would fight in the division's sector of main effort.


Further reading

  • "Light Infantry", special issue of Ancient Warfare
    Ancient Warfare (magazine)
    Ancient Warfare is a glossy, bi-monthly military history magazine published by the Dutch publishing company Karwansaray. The founding and current magazine editor is Jasper Oorthuys....

    , 2/1 (2008)

External links

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