In dressage, riders execute a caracole as a single half turn, either to the left or to the right, representative of the massed cavalry tactic of caracole previously used in the military.
The military caracole as it is usually understood today developed in the mid-16th century in an attempt to integrate gunpowder weapons into cavalry tactics. Equipped with one or more wheellock pistols or similar firearms, cavalrymen would advance on their target at less than a gallop in formation as deep as 12 ranks. As each rank came into range, the soldiers would turn their mount slightly to one side, discharge one pistol, then turn slightly to the other side to discharge another pistol at their target. The horsemen then retired to the back of the formation to reload, and then repeat the manoeuvre. The whole caracole formation might move slowly forward as each rank fired to help press the attack, or move slowly back for to avoid an enemy's advance. Despite this complex manoeuvring, the formation was kept dense rather than open, as the cavalrymen were generally also armed and armoured for melee, and hoped to follow the caracole with a charge. The tactic was accompanied by the increasing popularity of the German reiter in Western armies from about 1540.
The effectiveness of the caracole is debated. This tactic was often successfully implemented, for instance, at the Battle of Pinkie Cleugh.
Some historians after Michael Roberts associate the demise of the caracole with the name of Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden (1594–1632). Certainly he regarded the technique as fairly useless, and ordered cavalry under Swedish command not to use the caracole; instead, he required them to charge aggressively like their Polish-Lithuanian opponents. However, there is plenty of evidence that the caracole was falling out of use by the 1580s at the latest. Henry IV's Huguenot cavalry and Dutch cuirassiers were good examples of cavalry units that abandoned the caracole early on — if they ever used it at all.
According to De la Noue, Henry IV's pistol-armed cavalrymen were instructed to deliver a volley at close quarters and then "charge home" (charge into the enemy). Ranks were reduced from 12 to 6, still enough to punch a hole into the classic thin line in which heavy lancers were deployed. That was the tactic usually employed by cavalry since then, and the name reiter was replaced by cuirassier. Sometimes it has been erroneously identified as caracole when low morale cavalry units, instead of charging home, contented themselves with delivering a volley and retire without closing the enemy, but in all those actions the distinctive factor of the caracole, the rolling fire through countermarching, was absent.
The caracole was rarely tried against enemy cavalry, as it could be easily broken when performing the maneuver by a countercharge. The last recorded example of the use of the caracole against enemy cavalry ended in disaster at the battle of Mookerheyde (1574), in which 400 Spanish lanzas (light cavalry) charged 2,000 German reiters (in Dutch employ) while the second line was reloading their pistols, easily routing the whole force. It is significant that 20 years later, the Dutch cuirassiers easily routed the Spanish lancers at the battle of Turnhout and the battle of Nieuwpoort, so that according to Charles Oman, in 1603 lancers were finally disbanded from the Spanish army. Nevertheless, various variants of the caracole tactics continued to be used well into 17th century against enemy cavalry. During the battle of Gniew of 1626, the Polish light cavalry used it with success twice. The first time light cavalry units under Mikołaj Abramowicz fired at the Swedish cavalry rank by rank, but instead of withdrawing to reload, it immediately proceeded to charge the enemy with sabres. Later the same unit also tried the caracole using gaps in the line of charging husaria heavy cavalry.
It is worth noting that contemporary 16th- and 17th-century sources did not seem to have used the term "caracole" in its modern sense. John Cruso, for example, explained the "caracoll" as a maneuver whereby a formation of cuirassiers would receive the enemy's charge by wheeling apart to either side, letting the enemy rush in between the pincers of their trap, and then charging inwards against the flanks of the overextended enemy.
- Cruso, John, Militarie Instructions for the Cavallrie
- La Noue, F. Discours Politiques et Militaires
- Oman, C. The Art of War in the Sixteenth Century