Heavy Cavalry: An Introduction

During the late years of the Roman Empire, the two halves of the Empire were split and essentially ruled by different leaders.  While the western part dealt with Visigoths and other incursions into the northern border, the eastern half dealt with constant fighting with the Persians.  Between the 500s A.D. and the 700s, much of the fighting between the Persians and the Byzantines was done from horseback.  And the armor of the cavalry on both sides became more and more similar over time, coming to look something like this artistic piece:

Image courtesy of http://jpchapleau.blogspot.com/2011/10/easily-oldest-of-states-of-exodus-is.html

The armaments of a Byzantine Cataphract, (a name given to the heavy cavalry, literally meaning “armored” from the Greek, Kataphraktos) would include some or all of the following: two bows, a lance, a spear, a sword, a mace, an axe, a sling, full plate armor, full barding armor and in some cases a banner.  Because of the wide variety of their armaments, these warriors likely spent much of each year training in the use of each of their weapons.   They were the elite fighting force of their time.

The horsemanship of each man was as important as his familiarity with his weapons.  The Cataphracts rode in units and were capable of intricate movements to gain advantages on the field, and this was only possible because of expert horsemanship.

The advantage gained by this kind of a fighting force is that the riders could ride in deep (8-10 deep) ranks and punch through an entire rank of enemy infantry without losing all momentum.  They were as much a weapon of fear as an effective fighting force.  This tactic was emulated through history up to and even slightly beyond the development of gunpowder weapons.

Part of what allowed the extensive use of heavy cavalry was a decision made by Heraclius, Emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire from 610-641 A.D., who ordered that soldiers of Byzantium would be assigned a parcel of land in reward for their service.  Because land is very necessary for maintaining horses, this allowed many more of his men to keep and train horses for battle.

Scottish Claymores

What they are:

A claymore is a two handed Scottish great sword.  The origin of the name claymore comes from the Gaelic words ‘claidheamh mòr’ meaning ‘great sword.’

What they look like: Claymores have a long two handed hilt made with a spiral carved wooden handle covering the full tang with a cross guard angled toward the blade.  The intention behind this may have been to catch an enemy’s blade behind the crossguard providing an opportunity to kill or disarm him.  The crossguard of a claymore traditionally ends with a quatrefoil on each side, and the blade is traditionally between four-and-a-half and five feet long.  It includes a blunt section known as a ricasso.  This would sometimes be wrapped in leather, enabling the wielder to use it as a leverage point if his opponent managed to come to close grips with him.  Thus the sword would be agile enough to allow a contest even at very close quarters in spite of the blade’s great size and weight.claymore.jpeg

This is a stainless steel replica of a claymore from Scotland.  In all respects except materials, it closely resembles a historic piece which survived. Image is courtesy of http://www.sears.com/irc-claymore-sword-52inch-overall-red-handle/p-SPM7317624313?prdNo=1&blockNo=1&blockType=G1


How they were used: these great swords were used for close quarters combat but also gave some reach to the swordsman potentially allowing him to strike at his adversary before he himself was at risk of counter attack.

Scottish highlanders likely used claymores against the british and in border wars with other Scottish tribes as a weapon of intimidation because of the weight of the weapon and length of the blade.  This presented some difficulty when fighting in close ranks because the weapon seemed to be less about control and more about intimidation.

History of the claymore: the first claymores likely appeared in the late 1300s and were used up until the 1700s.

They were likely used by William Wallace and his men, however Wallace seems to have carried a custom sword that does not fit the exact qualifications of a claymore.  Despite this, it is likely that both claymores and highlanders were brought fame because of the campaigns fought by the Scottish against British oppression following the lead of William Wallace.