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The Swiss Pikemen
10.04.2013 31684493594

"The Swiss are well-armed and very free." - Niccolo Machiavelli

You ever look at a Swiss Army Knife and be like, "lol Swiss Army har har har more like Swiss Miss Brand Hot Chocolate because lol what the hell have the Swiss ever done lol it's totally fitting the Swiss Army only uses can openers, corkscrews, and pocket knives am I right here folks duh hurrrrrrr?"  Honestly, pretty much everyone not currently residing within the Swiss Alps has felt this way at some point in their lives, and with a fairly good reason – the Swiss are monuments to International Neutrality; an apathetic bastion of cuckoo-clock-making "meh" in a world where everyone and their grandmas are out there trying to lop each other's heads off and use their decapitated corpses as decorative coffee tables commemorating the time they once chopped a dude's head off for no reason at all.  Despite being basically half-German, half-French, and half-whatever-the-hell Romansh is, these ambivalent diplomacy -mongers spent their entire existence dead in the center of a war-torn European hellhole of artillery-laden destruction yet somehow systematically managed to avoid every major armed conflict of the last two hundred or so years.  It's like, pick a side dudes and stand for something, right?

Wrong.  The reason the Swiss have had the luxury of being neutral through two World Wars and a Franco-Prussian conflict is because these guys are so over-the-top hardcore badass as hell that nobody would dare screw with them.  They're a tough-as-shit, patriotic population with one simple rule of war – if you come into Swiss territory, we will show you No Quarter, take no prisoners, and kill every last motherhumping invader who would dare set foot on our soil.  Every single man in Switzerland has been given hardcore professional militia training, been handed a government-issued SiG-550 assault rifle, taught how to use it in live-fire exercises, and keeps it in his home just in case anyone ever decides to step to his country's Badass Neutrality clause.  The idea is simple – don't step to us, and we won't bash your head in with a magazine full of 5.56mm NATO ammunition. 


The Swiss Army in 2013.


The idea of No Quarter for Invaders is a time-honored tradition of military badassitude that dates back to the middle ages, when the Swiss Pikemen were the single most badass infantry formation the world had ever seen.  An awesome hedge of fast-moving, always-attacking twenty-foot spears that skewered the balls of any army the Kings of Europe could throw at them, the Swiss Phalanx won independence for its country against three separate armies, won several battles against impossible odds, and then became so highly-recruited as mercenaries that monarchs from Spain to Austria would get into bidding wars over who got the opportunity to hire them.

The story starts in the 1300s, when Switzerland was part of the Holy Roman Empire.  The short version of the story is that the Swiss Cantons (basically city-states) decided hey, fuck feudalism, having an Emperor sucks, we just wanna do our own thing and be left alone.  They declared the Swiss Confederation, a loosely-associated group of states where every man was free to chill out and just do whatever he wanted.  There was no overarching president, every man was a citizen-soldier who was trained in militia tactics, and even though they were still technically part of the Holy Roman Empire, Switzerland was pretty much its own thing. 

As you might imagine, this didn't work for the Holy Roman Emperor.  That guy, a dude named Leopold, decreed that these "rude cow-milker" hill-people peasant hick motherfuckers needed to be skewered by cavalry lances until they'd learned a lesson in Medieval hierarchy, and sent a ton of assholes to beat the shit out of them for real.


Hello, we are here to kill you.


Leopold had greatly underestimated his opponents.  The Swiss were poor peasant farmers, sure, but while they couldn't afford heavily-armored footmen, high-tech crossbows, or massive numbers of heavy knight cavalry, they made do with what they had.  And what they had were badass, Alexander the Great-style Macedonian phalanx fucking 20-foot-long pikes that outreached any kind of sword or axe or cavalry lance you could throw at it.  Organized into well-disciplined, hard-fighting squares where every man in the unit was fighting alongside his best friends and neighbors, the Swiss wore no armor, leveled their pikes, and used what they lacked in defense to make up for in mobility.  According to medieval sources, these guys were so badass that they could move at a dead-run while maintaining perfect shoulder-to-shoulder formation, attack in any direction, defend against attack from any side, and sprint through forests, over trenches, and up hills in order to plow into their enemies with a five-pike-deep wall of pointy deathiness.

The men of Switzerland had been trained in this from the time they were six years old.  They could do it in their sleep.  And, as Europe would soon learn, they would be the greatest infantry fighting force of the Middle Ages – a hardcore, face-stabbing assortment of badasses who were only finally slowed down by the invention of gunpowder.


I don't care how cool your armor looks,
you do not want to charge this on a horse.


In November of 1315, the Holy Roman Empire marched 5,000 armored knights into Switzerland looking to put an end to this whole Swiss Confederacy bullshit.  A mere 2,000 Swiss rolled boulders down a hill, charged down in full phalanx formation right into a formation of heavily-armed enemies that outnumbered them two-to-one, hacked the Austrians to pieces, and drowned any prisoners by throwing them through a hole into a frozen, ice-covered lake.  A couple years later, some jerks from the Kingdom of Burgundy (part of present-day France) tried to assert their dominance over Switzerland, marched 20,000 peasant conscript assholes across the Alps, then watched in horror as just 1,500 Swiss arranged in two gigantic bricks of pikemen plowed into their formation, broke their lines in half, surrounded them somehow, drove them from the field, and drowned 80 Austrian and Burgundian barons in a river.  In 1386 they did it again, beating 6,000 Austrian dismounted knights with 1,200 unarmored pikemen, beating the Holy Roman Empire so severely that the Hapsburg Dynasty made a 50-year peace treaty with Switzerland because he didn't want to deal with it anymore.

The best example of Swiss pike badassitude is the Battle of St. Jakob an der Birs, which took place on August 24, 1444.  Basically, after that 50-year peace treaty expired, the Emperor once again tried to assert his power over the Confederacy.  He allied with King Louis XI of France, who sent 30,000 men into Switzerland to pound the Swiss into submission.  Louis came across a small group of Swiss outside a little monastery – somewhere between 1,200 and 1,600 pikemen.  But these guys came here to fight, and they meant business.

Louis XI had the best armor in the world.  The most experienced knights.  The toughest warriors.  And he outnumbered the Swiss fifteen-to-one.

The 1,500 Swiss took a look at Louis's 30,000-man army, formed up into one square of pike, and charged.

They charged.


A Swiss "push of pike", also known to
Medieval sources as a "face-shanking clusterfuck ".


The tiny square of Swiss plowed straight into the main French body of troops, and, despite all measure of bravery and sanity, broke the center of the French formation.  Louis, freaking out, ordered his men to completely surround the Swiss and kill the shit out of them from every side.  The Swiss formed a defensive posture known as the "hedgehog", where they formed a square and put spears out in all four directions. 

The battle lasted ten hours.  At one point, an Austrian noble called for a cease-fire to talk peace.  The 700 surviving Swiss pikemen beat him to death with rocks, so Louis ordered his crossbows to hang back and hammer the Swiss until everyone was dead.

Only ten Swiss soldiers walked away from the battle.  But the French had lost 3,000 men.  Even though he'd won the battle, Louis XI immediately called off his attack, returned to France, made an Alliance with Switzerland, and started trying to hire their pikemen as mercenaries for the French Army.



In 1474, the Emperor of Austria got sick of the Swiss, said "fuck it", and sold Switzerland to Duke Charles the Bold of Burgundy.  Charles the Bold, who you may remember from the Jeanne Hachette story, was a world-famous bastard, and he immediately ran into Switzerland, captured the first town he could find, and killed the entire garrison – half of them by hanging, and the other half by drowning.  Then he sent out a declaration that he had a couple dozen of these newfangled black powder Cannons, and he was going to utilize them to bone Switzerland until everyone was dead.

By the time he left the town, the Swiss had 20,000 pikemen waiting for him.

They kicked his ass and took his cannons away.  He retreated.  Then they defeated him again.  Charles withdrew and built fortifications, so they Pikemen charged out of the forest, humped him into submission, drowned his entire army in a lake, and killed 8,000 Burgundians while losing just 410 men.  Charles the Bold ran for it, but he didn't get far – the Swiss caught him, killed him with a halberd to the face at the Battle of Nancy in 1477, and left his body to be eaten by dogs.  Because fuck that guy.



From this point on, not only did nobody fuck with Switzerland, but basically every ruler from Austria to France spent the next hundred years or so hiring Swiss Pikemen to fight for them as badass neck-obliterating mercenaries.  The Swiss were happy to comply.  Decked out in garishly-big-pimpin' uniforms, Swiss merc bands hired themselves out to anyone who would pay them, kicking ass from Spain to Italy and carting off all the plunder they could carry.  In 1494 they helped the French conquer Naples.  In 1525, they conquered Milan, then fought against the French.  The back-and-forth was so intense that Kings were hiring them not just because they wanted the best infantry in Europe, but also because they didn't want to have to face these guys in combat, and various Kings routinely found themselves in bidding wars to see who could secure the services of Swiss pikemen.  To this day, there's a saying in France that dates back to this time period – "No money, no Swiss."

Oh yeah, and the Swiss took their jobs really damn seriously.  Remember that "no quarter for the invaders" thing?  It applied to their mercenary work as well – any foreign mercenaries caught by the Swiss in combat would receive no mercy and be massacred on the spot.  It was the Swiss way of making sure there wasn't any competition for their merc jobs.

The Swiss would battle through the Middle Ages, staying strong until the eventual ascendancy of cannons and muskets phased the pike out as a viable infantry weapon.  But even in the twilight years of their power they stayed badass – when guns were still being fine-tuned, the Swiss would lay down on the ground in formation, wait for the bullets to sail over their heads, then get up and run straight at the enemy until they were all dead from being impaled, and even in 1522, in a battle where 3,000 Swiss were mowed down charging Spanish musketeers, the infantrymen told their officers the only way they'd charge a second time was if the officers led from the front.  The officers agreed.  The battle was a crushing defeat, but you can never debate these guys' bravery.

To this day, the Swiss still serve as the personal bodyguard of the Pope.




Dandliker, Karl.  A Short History of Switzerland.  S. Sonneschein, 1899.

Dupuy, Trever Nevitt.  The Evolution of Warfare and Weapons.  Da Capo, 1990.

Jones, Archer.  The Art of War in the Western World.  University of Illinois Press, 2001.

Oechsli, William.  History of Switzerland  1499-1914.  Cambridge Univ. Press, 1922.

Poulos, Terrence.  Extreme War.  Citadel, 2007.

Sandler, Stanley.  Ground Warfare.  ABC-CLIO, 2002.

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Tags: 16th century | Last Stand | Medieval | Mercenary | Military Unit | Soldier | Switzerland

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