Light infantry

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For other uses, see Light infantry (disambiguation).

A light infantry (or skirmishers) is a group of soldiers whose job was to provide a skirmishing screen ahead of the main body of infantry, harassing and delaying the enemy advance. Light infantry was distinct from medium, heavy or line infantry. Heavy infantry were dedicated primarily to fighting in tight formations that were the core of large battles. Light infantry often fought in close co-ordination with heavy infantry, where they could screen the heavy infantry from harassing fire, and the heavy infantry could intervene to protect the light infantry from attacks of enemy heavy infantry or cavalry. Heavy infantry originally had heavier arms and more armour than light infantry, but this distinction was lost as the use of armor declined and gunpowder weapons became standardized.[1]

History of the light infantry[edit]

Antiquity[edit]

The concept of a skirmishing screen is a very old one and was already well-established in Ancient Greece and Roman times in the form, for example, of the Greek peltast and psiloi, and the Roman velites. As with so called 'light infantry' of later periods, the term more adequately describes the role of such infantry rather than the actual weight of their equipment. Peltast equipment, for example, grew steadily heavier at the same time as hoplite equipment grew lighter. It was the fact that peltasts fought in open order as skirmishers that made them light infantry and that hoplites fought in the battle line in a phalanx formation that made them heavy infantry.

Modern age[edit]

Early regular armies of the modern era frequently relied on irregulars to perform the duties of light infantry skirmishers. In the 17th century, dragoons were the light infantry skirmishers of their day – lightly armed mounted infantrymen who rode into battle but dismounted to fight, giving them a mobility lacking to regular foot soldiers.

In the 18th and 19th centuries most infantry regiments or battalions had a light company as an integral part of its composition. Its members were often smaller, more agile men with high shooting ability and capability of using initiative. They did not usually fight in disciplined ranks as did the ordinary infantry but often in widely dispersed groups, necessitating an understanding of skirmish warfare. They were expected to avoid melee engagements unless necessary, and would fight ahead of the main line to harass the enemy before falling back to the main position.

During the period 1777–1781, the Continental Army of the United States adopted the British Army practice of seasonally drafting light infantry regiments as temporary units during active field operations, by combining existing light infantry companies detached from their parent regiments.

Light infantry sometimes carried lighter muskets than ordinary infantrymen while others carried rifles and wore rifle green uniforms. These became designated as rifle regiments in Britain and Jäger (hunter) regiments in German speaking Europe. In France, during the Napoleonic Wars, light infantry were called voltigeurs and chasseurs and the sharpshooters tirailleurs. The Austrian army had Grenzer regiments from the middle of the 18th century, who originally served as irregular militia skirmishers recruited from mountainous frontier areas. They were gradually absorbed into the line infantry becoming a hybrid type that proved successful against the French, to the extent that Napoleon recruited several units of Austrian army Grenzer to his own army after victory over Austria in 1809 compelled the Austrians to cede territories from which they were traditionally recruited. In Portugal, 1797, companies of Caçadores (Hunters) were created in the Portuguese Army, and in 1808 led to the formation of independent "Caçador" battalions that became known for their ability to perform precision shooting at long distances.

Light infantry officers sometimes carried muskets or rifles, rather than pistols, and their swords were light curved sabres; as opposed to the heavy, straighter swords of other infantry officers. Orders were sent by bugle or whistle instead of drum (since the sound of a bugle carries further and it is difficult to move fast when carrying a drum). Some armies, including the British and French, recruited whole regiments (or converted existing ones) of light infantry. These were considered elite units, since they required specialised training with emphasis on self-discipline, manoeuvre and initiative to carry out the roles of light infantry as well as those of ordinary infantry.

By the late 19th century the concept of fighting in formation was on the wane due to advancements in weaponry and the distinctions between light and heavy infantry began to disappear. Essentially, all infantry became light infantry in operational practice. Some regiments retained the name and customs, but there was in effect little difference between them and other infantry regiments.

Contemporary light infantry forces[edit]

Today the term "light" denotes, in the United States table of organization and equipment, units lacking heavy weapons and armor or with a reduced vehicle footprint. Light infantry units lack the greater firepower, operational mobility and protection of mechanized or armored units, but possess greater tactical mobility and the ability to execute missions in severely restrictive terrain and in areas where weather makes vehicular mobility difficult.

Light infantry forces typically rely on their ability to operate under restrictive conditions, surprise, violence of action, training, stealth, field craft, and fitness level of the individual soldier to address their reduced lethality. Despite the usage of the term "light", forces in a light unit will normally carry heavier individual loads versus other forces; they must carry everything they require to fight, survive and win due to lack of vehicles. Although units like the 101st Airborne (Air Assault) and the 82nd Airborne Division are categorized as Air Assault Infantry and Airborne Infantry respectively, they fall under the overall concept of light infantry.

In the 1980s, the United States Army increased light forces to address contingencies and increased threats requiring a more deployable force able to operate in restrictive environments for limited periods. At its height, this included the 6th Infantry Division (light), 7th Infantry Division (light), 10th Mountain Division (light infantry), 25th Infantry Division, and the 75th Ranger Regiment. Operation Just Cause is often cited as proof of concept. Almost 30,000 U.S. Forces, mostly light, deployed to Panama within a 48 hour period to execute combat operations.

During the Falklands War in 1982, both Argentina and the United Kingdom made heavy use of light infantry and its doctrines during the campaign, most notably the Argentine 5th Naval Infantry Battalion (Argentina) and 25th Infantry Regiment (Argentina) and the British Parachute Regiment and Royal Marines of 3 Commando Brigade. Due to the rocky and mountainous terrain of the Falkland Islands, operations on the ground were only made possible with the use of light infantry because the use of mechanized infantry or armour was severely limited by of the terrain, leading to the "Yomp" across the Falklands, in which Royal Marines and Paras yomped (and tabbed) with their equipment across the islands, covering 56 miles (90 km) in three days carrying 80-pound (36 kg) loads after disembarking from ships at San Carlos on East Falkland, on 21 May 1982.

During the 1990s, the concept of purely light forces in the US military came under scrutiny due to their decreased lethality and survivability. This scrutiny has resulted in the Stryker Brigade Combat Team, a greater focus on task organized units (such as Marine Expeditionary Units) and a reduction of purely light forces.

Despite their reduction, light forces have proven successful in Afghanistan (Operation Enduring Freedom), underlining the continued need for light infantry.

Modern light infantry units[edit]

Light infantry in different countries[edit]

Argentina[edit]

Australia[edit]

In the Australian Defence Force riflemen are employed by the Australian Army in both the Regular Army and the Army Reserves. Riflemen in the Australian Army are members of the Royal Australian Infantry Corps. Riflemen in the Regular Army are organised into seven battalions of the Royal Australian Regiment.

The 7 battalions are composed of:

  • Two battalions of mechanized infantry
  • Two battalions of motorized infantry
  • Two battalions of light infantry
  • One battalion of paratroop infantry

Riflemen of the Army Reserve are organized into individual state and university regiments with reserve depots being found in many places throughout rural and metropolitan Australia.

Belgium[edit]

Denmark[edit]

Main article: Jægerkorpset

Finland[edit]

Finnish infantry units are also known as Jäger (Finnish pl. Jääkärit, Swedish pl. Jägarna), a legacy of a Finnish volunteer Jäger battalion formed in Germany during World War I to fight for the liberation of Finland from Russia.

France[edit]

A Chasseur designation was given to certain regiments of French light infantry (Chasseurs à pied) or light cavalry (Chasseurs à cheval).

Chasseurs à pied - Foot Huntsmen[edit]

The name Chasseurs à pied (light infantry) was originally used for infantry units in the French Army recruited from hunters or woodsmen. Recognized for their marksmanship and skirmishing skills, the chasseurs were comparable to the German Jäger or the British light infantry. The Chasseurs à Pied, as the marksmen of the French army, were regarded as elite light companies and regiments.[2]

Chasseur alpins - Alpine Huntsmen[edit]

Main article: Chasseurs alpins

The elite mountain infantry of the French Army. Trained to operate in mountainous terrain and in urban warfare.

Chasseurs à cheval - Horse Huntsmen[edit]

The Chasseurs à Cheval, (light cavalry) were generally not held in as high esteem as their infantry counterparts, or the identically armed light cavalry units of hussars. During the French occupation of Algeria regiments of Chasseurs d'Afrique were raised. These were light cavalry recruited originally from French volunteers and subsequently from the French settlers in North Africa doing their military service. As such they were the mounted equivalent of the Zouaves.

Modern French Army Huntsmen[edit]

The modern French Army comprises bataillons of Chasseurs à pied (mechanized infantry : 16e BC),Chasseurs-Alpins (mountain troops : 7e, 13e, 27e BCA) and regiments of Chasseurs à cheval (1er-2e RCh and 4e RCh : light armored regiments). In addition one regiment of Chasseurs d'Afrique (training unit : 1er RCA) has been re-raised to commemorate this branch of the French cavalry. Since May 1943 there has been a "Régiment de Chasseurs Parachutistes" (1er RCP).

All of these units have different traditions :

  • Bataillons de chasseurs are light infantry units created after 1838. Some of these battalions were converted to specialized mountain units as Bataillons de Chasseurs Alpins in 1888, as an answer to the Italian Alpine (Alpini) regiments stationed along the Alpine frontier.
  • Régiments de chasseurs are units of the "Arme Blindée Cavalerie" : armoured units. The basic organic unit is called regiment and not bataillon to avoid confusing cavalry and infantry chasseurs.
  • The airborne infantry units called Régiments de chasseurs parachutistes were created in 1943 with airborne troops from the French Airforce (GIA or Groupe d'Infanterie de l'Air), who were transferred into the Army.

Although the traditions of these different branches of the French Army are very different, there is still a tendency to confuse one with the other. For example, when World War I veteran Léon Weil died, the AFP press agency stated that he was a member of the 5th "Regiment de Chasseurs Alpins". It was in fact the 5th Bataillon.

French rifle units were designated Tirailleurs (Fr. 'Skirmishers').

Germany[edit]

Main article: Jäger (military)

India[edit]

In the Indian Army, of the 28 Infantry regiments, the following 10 are designated rifle regiments and are distinguished by their black rank badges, black buttons on their service and ceremonial uniforms as also the beret which is a darker shade of green than the other regiments. Apart from these, a paramilitary force, Assam Rifles and Eastern Frontier Rifles, also follows the traditions of the rifle regiment.

Rajputana Rifles
Garhwal Rifles
Jammu and Kashmir Rifles
1st Gorkha Rifles (The Malaun Regiment)
3 Gorkha Rifles
4 Gorkha Rifles
5 Gorkha Rifles (Frontier Force)
8 Gorkha Rifles
9 Gorkha Rifles
11 Gorkha Rifles

Israel[edit]

In the Israel Defense Forces every soldier goes through some basic training of infantry, called "Tironut". However, the level of training changes according to the role and unit to which the soldier belongs. The "Rifleman" profession (in Hebrew: רובאי) includes basic military skills, physical training, military discipline and using assault rifle. More infantry skills (such as operating diverse weapons) are added as the level of training increases.

Basic training ("Tironut"):

  • Non-combat soldiers are trained as Rifleman 02.
  • Combat-support troops are trained as Rifleman 03.
  • Combat Engineering soldiers and infantry soldiers are trained as Rifleman 05.

Advance training ("Imun Mitkadem"):

Additional training for combat soldiers:

  • Combat class commanders are trained as Rifleman 08.
  • Combat Senior Sergeants are trained as Rifleman 10.
  • Combat officers are trained as Rifleman 12.

Italy[edit]

Italian Rifle units were designated Cacciatori or Bersaglieri.

The Netherlands[edit]

  • Garderegiment Grenadiers en Jagers, guards regiment, an amalgamation of the Garderegiment Grenadiers and the Garderegiment Jagers. Consists of one air mobile infantry battalion
  • Regiment Limburgse Jagers, line infantry (former 2nd Infantry Regiment). Consists of one armoured infantry battalion

Norway[edit]

Portugal[edit]

Main article: Caçadores

Portuguese Riflemen were known as Caçadores literally "Huntsmen". Portuguese Caçadores battalions were the elite light soldiers of the Portuguese Army during the Peninsular War. They wore distinctive brown uniforms for camouflage. They were considered, by the Duke of Wellington, as the "fighting cocks of his army". Each Caçadores battalion included an elite company armed with rifles known as atiradores (literally "Shooters").

In the first half of the 20th century the Caçadores battalions were recreated as border defense units.

In the 1950s, the title "Caçadores" was also given to the light infantry battalions and independent companies responsible for the garrison of the Portuguese overseas territories. There were units of this type mobilized both in European Portugal and locally in each overseas territory.

At the beginning of the 1960s, several special forces companies of the Portuguese Army were named "Special Huntsmen" (Caçadores Especiais). These units wore a brown beret in the colour of the uniforms of the caçadores of the Peninsular War. Later these units were abolished and the brown beret started to be used by most of the units of the Portuguese Army.

In the 1950s a paratrooper unit was formed in the Portuguese Air Force, known as "Parachutist Hunters" (Caçadores Paraquedistas). Later, battalions of Caçadores Paraquedistas were also created in Angola, Mozambique and Portuguese Guinea.

In 1975, the designation "Caçadores" was discontinued in the Portuguese Armed Forces. All former units of caçadores started to be known simply as "Infantry".

Currently, every infantry soldier of the Portuguese Army is known as atirador.

Rhodesia[edit]

The Rhodesia Regiment had an affiliation with the King's Royal Rifle Corps since World War I. The regiment's badge was the Maltese Cross, the colours were red, black and rifle green and rifle green berets were worn. A private soldier had the title of "Rifleman".

Romania[edit]

  • Vânători de Munte, or Mountain Huntsmen, one of the most active of the Romanian military elite forces.

Russia[edit]

The Imperial Russian Army, which was heavily influenced by the Prussian and Austrian military systems, included fifty Jäger or yegerskii [егерский] regiments in its organisation by 1812, including the Egersky Guards Regiment.

Spain[edit]

Spanish Riflemen were as Cazadores.

Sweden[edit]

United Kingdom[edit]

A historical reenactment with the British 95th Rifles regiment.

From their inception the British Rifle Regiments were distinguished by a dark green dress with blackened buttons, black leather equipment and sombre facing colours that gave them what was really a modern aspect - designed for concealment rather than display. This has been retained until the present day for those British units that still carry on the traditions of the riflemen. Their most famous weapon was the 'Baker rifle', which in the hands of the elite 95th regiment and the light companies of the 60th regiment and the Kings German Legion gained fame in the Peninsular War against Napoleonic France.

During the Siege of Delhi the 8th (Sirmoor) Local Battalion along with the 60th Rifles defended Hindu Rao's House during which a strong bond developed. After the rebellion the 60th Rifles pressed for the Sirmoor Battalion to become a rifle regiment. This honour was granted to them next year (1858) when the Battalion was renamed the Sirmoor Rifle Regiment. Later all British Army Gurka regiments were designated rifle regiments a nomenclature maintained to this day with the Royal Gurkha Rifles.

The rank of Rifleman instead of Private was officially started in 1923.[3]

United States[edit]

In 1808, the United States Army created its first Regiment of Riflemen. During the War of 1812 three more Rifle Regiments were raised but disbanded after the war. The Rifle Regiment was disbanded in 1821.

In the Mexican–American War Colonel Jefferson Davis created and led the Mississippi Rifles.

Riflemen were listed as separate to infantry up to the American Civil War.[4]

During the Civil War, Sharpshooter regiments were raised in the North with several companies being raised by individual states for their own regiments.[5]

In the United States Marine Corps, the Military Occupational Specialty (MOS) 0311 is for "Rifleman." It is the primary infantry MOS for the Marine Corps, equivalent to the U.S. Army MOS 11B for Infantryman. The training for Riflemen is conducted at the U.S. Marine Corps School of Infantry.

References and notes[edit]

  1. ^ Hew Strachan (1988). European armies and the conduct of war. Routledge. ISBN 0-415-07863-6. 
  2. ^ Ross, Steven T. (1996). From Flintlock to Rifle: Infantry Tactics, 1740–1866. Taylor & Francis. ISBN 978-0-7146-4193-5. 
  3. ^ "About the Royal Green Jackets". Retrieved 6 June 2011. 
  4. ^ United States War Department Revised Regulations for the Army of the United States, 1861: With a Full Index J. G. L. Brown, printer, 1861
  5. ^ Katcher, Philip; Walsh, Stephen (2002). Sharpshooters of the American Civil War 1861–65. Osprey Publishing. p. 4. ISBN 978-1-84176-463-4. 

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]