The history of the Winged Hussars begins in the year 1389. Serbian Prince Lazar has assembled his army on the plain of Kosovo in the Balkans to meet the invading Muslim Ottoman Army of Sultan Murad. Prince Lazar and his knights are on their knees taking Communion while squires hold their horses. It is June 15 and the weather is warm and sunny.

Historical accounts vary, but a few hours after taking the Sacraments that June day, Prince Lazar would be dead along with most of his army. Sultan Murad would also be killed and in revenge for his death, his sons rampaged among the captured Serbs beheading any nobles among them. The few hundred knights serving under Prince Lazar’s banner that survived this bloody day elected to leave Serbia rather than live as vassals under Ottoman rule, so they crossed Hungary into Poland. In their hearts would burn a fierce desire for revenge against the Ottomans who drove them from their own country. That revenge would come in a most spectacular way almost 300 years later, in the single biggest cavalry charge in history, a charge led by what came to be known as the Winged Hussars.

Arriving in Poland these countryless knights gave their allegiance to the Polish king, who was happy to add several hundred light cavalry to his army. The knights set themselves apart. They retained their Serbian heritage, customs, and way of fighting until death and ended up influencing the composition and makeup of the Polish army in a major way. By 1503, they had become Polish and formally established in the government.

From a light, unarmored cavalry they had evolved into Hussars. The word comes from “Usar” by which these knights were known in their native language.


A Killing Machine on a Horse

winged hussars armor

They adapted segmented armor, similar to the design employed by Roman Legions, that extended to their arms, thighs, and calves. They were armed with a sword fixed to their deep seat Turkish-style saddles, a saber, and two pistols. Some also carried light axes. Believe it or not, the pistols were not used to shoot enemies out of their saddles. These early handguns were hardly accurate, but the sound of a gunshot, especially hundreds of them in quick succession, often panicked the horses of the enemy which would flee from the field.

One would think that in the age of gun powder, horse cavalry like the Hussars would be slaughtered. That might have been the case if musketeers were trained properly, but they often weren’t. At 100 yards the average shooter might hit a man-sized target 40 percent of the time. The guns were prone to explode if overcharged with powder. Furthermore, the recoil of the 60-caliber ball was terrific and tended to kick the barrel up resulting in the shot going high. Inexperienced musketeers would close their eyes and turn their heads away from the exploding powder in the flash pan to avoid burns to their eyes and faces. Finally, the guns were cumbersome to reload, and a charging Hussar could cover 100 yards in less than 10 seconds. You might get off a single badly aimed shot with a 60 percent likelihood of missing, but then you would have to face that long lance with a very high likelihood of going right through you.