Invariably, whenever most people talk about the military prowess of the Polish cavalry, some joker busts out with some intelligent, well-constructed argument that vaguely resembles something along the order of "YA RITE HOW BOUT CHARGIN NAZI TANKS W HORSIES FTW LOLOLOL OMG I”M HILARIOUS SOMEBODY LOVE ME PLS". Well not only are the wild claims of that infamous engagement dubious at best, but it's time that the Polish cavalry – and particularly the Winged Hussars – get appropriately recognized as one of the most eye-skeweringly hardcore associations of asskickers ever assembled. These daring, brave, unabashedly-feathered badasses crushed throats up and down Europe for two centuries, annihilating battle-tested armies three times their size with nothing more than a huge-ass lance, an awesome set of ultra-cool wings, and a gym bag full of iron-plated armor ballsacks.
The hussars as we know them first show up on the scene in the early 16th century as part of a hammer-smashing army of stone-cold motherfuckers under the Hungarian King Stefan Bathory. Bathory (who fought the Turks alongside Vlad the Impaler and was an ancestor of the infamous virgin-cidal blood countess and psychopath Elizabeth Bathory), basically levied the cavalry force by conscripting one out of every twenty Polish and Lithuanian peasants to strap on a pair of wings and a suit of heavy armor and start piercing the faces of anyone stupid enough to step to Eastern Europe. Over the next two hundred years, these ordinary dudes morphed into a ten-ton anvil of pointy justice that would go up against some of the toughest armies the world had to offer and completely fuck them inside out.
I'M IN UR TOWN TORCHIN UR HUTS
The combat record of the Winged Hussars stands for itself. In 1577 a massive charge of this ultra-heavy cavalry unit smashed a German army from Danzig, blitzing into the teeth of a 12,000 man force and crushing them until all that remained was a well-trampled patch of red where the enemy army once used to be. Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth losses in the battle totaled about 88 men, and most of those clowns weren't even Hussars. In 1601, a thousand Hussars defeated a Swedish cavalry force four times that size. At the Battle of Kircholm four years later, the Hussars (whose commanders' completely badass motto was "Kill First, Calculate Later"), sent 1,000 lancers in a charge against 11,000 Swedish infantrymen and cannons for some reason, and incredibly, despite the ridiculous idiocy of sending your elite troops on such an impossible mission, the friggin' Hussars jammed their poles (OMG AWESOME PUN FTW) into anything they could find and not only emerged victorious, but utterly slaughtered their opponents army, hacking the broken infantry units into giblets as they fled the field. Amazingly, that wasn't even the most impressive shit this mobile last stand accomplished in its proud heritage as the Commonwealth's premier exporter of busted-up faces. At the Battle of Klushino in 1610, the Hussars were outnumbered ten to one, and still somehow came out on top, utterly annihilating an army of 40,000 Swedes and Russians with just 4,000 lancers.
What might be even more awesome then the Winged Hussars' much-deserved reputation as seemingly-invincible shit-wreckers is their completely over-the-top awesome battle gear. These guys went with the heaviest armor they could find, decking themselves out in fully-articulated plate mail at a time when most European armies were switching away from breastplates and over to firearms, but these ferocious warriors didn't even give a crap about rushing at state-of-the-art muskets with hand-to-hand combat weapons. Their primary implement of facial demolition was a lightweight (yet still completely insane) 19-foot lance capable of outreaching even the most well-endowed infantry spear hedges, and after they splintered that up the asses of their foes, the Hussars could fall back on pistols, a dagger, and one of two different types of swords. Why they needed two different swords is beyond the scope of my knowledge, but I'm pretty sure that I support it.
While the badass weaponry and armor was unquestionably utilitarian, the Winged Hussars also went that extra mile to ensure that they were armor-crappingly terrifying while charging ahead in perfect formation. Their armor was burnished and well-polished so that it gleamed in the sunlight (most Renaissance-era knights preferred black armor because it was more resistant to rust), they wore brightly-colored heraldry, and OH YEAH they also had giant-ass fucking wings strapped onto their backs. These wings, which were made of ostrich or eagle feathers glued onto wooden frames that arched up and over the back, made an insane whistling noise while the Hussars were charging, completely unsettling, terrifying, and overawing the enemy in the brief moments between when they said, "holy shit WTF" and when they had a kebab skewer jammed into their eye sockets at about a hundred and twenty miles per hour. Some of the Hussars also used to up the "wow factor" by stuffing severed heads down the tips of their weapons and charging into battle with a lance-full of heads, which sounds pretty gnarly.
The hussars were also super-well-trained, capable of changing directions and altering their formations in mid-charge, and then plowing through their enemy, circling around, and hitting them again from the rear. In case you've never seen footage of a well-executed cavalry charge before, this is kind of like the equine equivalent of the Blue Angels doing all of their trademark death-defying stunts while in the middle of a dogfight. I don't care who you are, this has to kind of fuck with your head a little.
While they have a long and illustrious string of asskickings under their heavyweight championship belts, the Winged Hussars' finest hour came during the epic Battle of Vienna in 1683, when the Ottoman Turkish armies were busting nuts across Eastern Europe looking to conquer all of Christendom. With the main body of the Holy Roman Imperial army completely surrounded and besieged by over 200,000 Turkish warriors, the badass Polish King Jan Sobieski led the single hugest and most balls-out cavalry charge in history. Their wings fluttering and zipping like creepy, spear-flinging birds of prey, three thousand Winged Hussars plowed into the Turkish force, driving them back, plundering their supply train, and driving the Turks from the field. It would be the furthest West the Ottoman Empire would ever advance, and it was the Poles who had finally stuffed them like Shaq blocking a layup attempt by Verne Troyer. Honorable mention during the Battle of Vienna has to go to the Ottoman Grand Vizier Kara Mustafa, who personally charged out to try and help his men, fought in hand-to-hand combat even after his entire bodyguard was annihilated, and only escaped after saving the Holy Banner that once belonged to the Prophet Muhammad from falling into Christian hands. Mustafa was rewarded for his heroism by having his head chopped off and delivered to the Sultan in a velvet bag, but what can you do - there's just no pleasing Sultans sometimes, especially when you've just let three thousand Polish Hussars completely rout a force roughly a hundred times larger than them.
They just didn't realize that this is how the Winged Hussars rolled. These guys were nuts – they never backed down from a fight, always went completely balls-out all of the time, and looked at ten-to-one as an exciting challenge rather than a suicide charge. Total insantiy.
Polish Renaissance Military
Siege of Vienna 1683
Brzezinski, Richard. Polish Armies 1569-1696. Osprey, 1987.
Brzezinski, Richard. Polish Winged Hussar 1576-1775. Osprey, 2006.
Davies, Norman. God's Playground. Columbia University Press, 1982.
Dennis, Peter. Vienna 1683. Osprey, 2008.