Light infantry

Light infantry

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Traditionally light infantry (or skirmishers) were soldiers whose job was to provide a skirmishing screen ahead of the main body of infantry
Infantry
Infantrymen are soldiers who are specifically trained for the role of fighting on foot to engage the enemy face to face and have historically borne the brunt of the casualties of combat in wars. As the oldest branch of combat arms, they are the backbone of armies...

, harassing
Hit-and-run tactics
Hit-and-run tactics is a tactical doctrine where the purpose of the combat involved is not to seize control of territory, but to inflict damage on a target and immediately exit the area to avoid the enemy's defense and/or retaliation.-History:...

 and delaying the enemy advance. Light infantry was distinct from medium, heavy
Heavy infantry
Heavy infantry refers to heavily armed and armoured ground troops, as opposed to medium or light infantry, in which the warriors are relatively lightly armoured. As modern infantry troops usually define their subgroups differently , 'heavy infantry' almost always is used to describe pre-gunpowder...

 or line infantry
Line infantry
Line infantry is a type of infantry which composed the basis of European land armies from the middle of the 17th century to the middle of the 19th century....

. Heavy infantry were dedicated primarily to fighting in tight formation
Tactical formation
A tactical formation is the arrangement or deployment of moving military forces such as infantry, cavalry, AFVs, military aircraft, or naval vessels...

s that were the core of large battle
Battle
Generally, a battle is a conceptual component in the hierarchy of combat in warfare between two or more armed forces, or combatants. In a battle, each combatant will seek to defeat the others, with defeat determined by the conditions of a military campaign...

s. 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
Cavalry
Cavalry or horsemen were soldiers or warriors who fought mounted on horseback. Cavalry were historically the third oldest and the most mobile of the combat arms...

. Heavy infantry originally had heavier arms and more armour
Armour
Armour or armor is protective covering used to prevent damage from being inflicted to an object, individual or a vehicle through use of direct contact weapons or projectiles, usually during combat, or from damage caused by a potentially dangerous environment or action...

 than light infantry, but this distinction was lost as the use of armour declined and gunpowder weapons became standardized.

Antiquity


The concept of a skirmishing screen is a very old one and was already well-established by Greek
Ancient Greece
Ancient Greece is a civilization belonging to a period of Greek history that lasted from the Archaic period of the 8th to 6th centuries BC to the end of antiquity. Immediately following this period was the beginning of the Early Middle Ages and the Byzantine era. Included in Ancient Greece is the...


and Roman
Roman Republic
The Roman Republic was the period of the ancient Roman civilization where the government operated as a republic. It began with the overthrow of the Roman monarchy, traditionally dated around 508 BC, and its replacement by a government headed by two consuls, elected annually by the citizens and...

 times in the form, for example, of the Greek peltast
Peltast
A peltast was a type of light infantry in Ancient Thrace who often served as skirmishers.-Description:Peltasts carried a crescent-shaped wicker shield called pelte as their main protection, hence their name. According to Aristotle the pelte was rimless and covered in goat or sheep skin...

 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
Hoplite
A hoplite was a citizen-soldier of the Ancient Greek city-states. Hoplites were primarily armed as spearmen and fought in a phalanx formation. The word "hoplite" derives from "hoplon" , the type of the shield used by the soldiers, although, as a word, "hopla" could also denote weapons held or even...

 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 as a phalanx
Phalanx formation
The phalanx is a rectangular mass military formation, usually composed entirely of heavy infantry armed with spears, pikes, sarissas, or similar weapons...

 that made them heavy infantry.

Modern age


Early regular armies of the modern era frequently relied on irregulars
Irregular military
Irregular military refers to any non-standard military. Being defined by exclusion, there is significant variance in what comes under the term. It can refer to the type of military organization, or to the type of tactics used....

 to perform the duties of light infantry skirmishers.
In the 17th century, dragoon
Dragoon
The word dragoon originally meant mounted infantry, who were trained in horse riding as well as infantry fighting skills. However, usage altered over time and during the 18th century, dragoons evolved into conventional light cavalry units and personnel...

s 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
Infantry
Infantrymen are soldiers who are specifically trained for the role of fighting on foot to engage the enemy face to face and have historically borne the brunt of the casualties of combat in wars. As the oldest branch of combat arms, they are the backbone of armies...

 regiment
Regiment
A regiment is a major tactical military unit, composed of variable numbers of batteries, squadrons or battalions, commanded by a colonel or lieutenant colonel...

s or battalion
Battalion
A battalion is a military unit of around 300–1,200 soldiers usually consisting of between two and seven companies and typically commanded by either a Lieutenant Colonel or a Colonel...

s had a light company as a integral part of its composition. Its members were often smaller, more agile
Agility
* Agility is a physical trait of an animal or person, and a component of physical fitness. It is the ability to change the body's position and direction with speed and precision.Agility may also refer to:In Sport:...

 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
Mêlée
Melee , generally refers to disorganized close combat involving a group of fighters. A melee ensues when groups become locked together in combat with no regard to group tactics or fighting as an organized unit; each participant fights as an individual....

 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
Continental Army
The Continental Army was formed after the outbreak of the American Revolutionary War by the colonies that became the United States of America. Established by a resolution of the Continental Congress on June 14, 1775, it was created to coordinate the military efforts of the Thirteen Colonies in...

 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 musket
Musket
A musket is a muzzle-loaded, smooth bore long gun, fired from the shoulder. Muskets were designed for use by infantry. A soldier armed with a musket had the designation musketman or musketeer....

s than ordinary infantrymen while others carried rifle
Rifle
A rifle is a firearm designed to be fired from the shoulder, with a barrel that has a helical groove or pattern of grooves cut into the barrel walls. The raised areas of the rifling are called "lands," which make contact with the projectile , imparting spin around an axis corresponding to the...

s and wore rifle green uniforms. These became designated as rifle regiments in Britain and Jäger
Jäger (military)
Jäger is a term that was adopted in the Enlightenment era in German-speaking states and others influenced by German military practice to describe a kind of light infantry, and it has continued in that use since then....

(hunter) regiments in German
Germany
Germany , officially the Federal Republic of Germany , is a federal parliamentary republic in Europe. The country consists of 16 states while the capital and largest city is Berlin. Germany covers an area of 357,021 km2 and has a largely temperate seasonal climate...

 speaking Europe. In France, during the Napoleonic Wars
Napoleonic Wars
The Napoleonic Wars were a series of wars declared against Napoleon's French Empire by opposing coalitions that ran from 1803 to 1815. As a continuation of the wars sparked by the French Revolution of 1789, they revolutionised European armies and played out on an unprecedented scale, mainly due to...

, light infantry were called voltigeurs
Voltigeurs
The Voltigeurs were French military skirmish units created in 1804 by Emperor Napoleon I.-Etymology:Voltigeurs hold their name from their originally conceived role of cavalry-transported skirmishers: the voltigeurs were intended to jump onto the croup of cavalry horses in order to advance more...

and the sharpshooters tirailleur
Tirailleur
Tirailleur literally means a shooting skirmisher in French from tir—shot. The term dates back to the Napoleonic period where it was used to designate light infantry trained to skirmish ahead of the main columns...

s
. 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 from. In Portugal, 1797, companies of Caçadores
Caçadores
The Caçadores were the elite light infantry of the Portuguese Army during the Peninsular War...

(Hunters) were created in the Portuguese Army, and in 1808 lead 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 sword
Sword
A sword is a bladed weapon used primarily for cutting or thrusting. The precise definition of the term varies with the historical epoch or the geographical region under consideration...

s were light curved sabre
Sabre
The sabre or saber is a kind of backsword that usually has a curved, single-edged blade and a rather large hand guard, covering the knuckles of the hand as well as the thumb and forefinger...

s; as opposed to the heavy, straighter swords of other infantry officers. Orders were sent by bugle
Bugle (instrument)
The bugle is one of the simplest brass instruments, having no valves or other pitch-altering devices. All pitch control is done by varying the player's embouchure, since the bugle has no other mechanism for controlling pitch. Consequently, the bugle is limited to notes within the harmonic series...

 or whistle
Whistle
A whistle or call is a simple aerophone, an instrument which produces sound from a stream of forced air. It may be mouth-operated, or powered by air pressure, steam, or other means...

 instead of drum
Drum
The drum is a member of the percussion group of musical instruments, which is technically classified as the membranophones. Drums consist of at least one membrane, called a drumhead or drum skin, that is stretched over a shell and struck, either directly with the player's hands, or with a...

 (since the sound of a bugle carries further and it is difficult to move fast when carrying a drum). Some armies, including the British
British Army
The British Army is the land warfare branch of Her Majesty's Armed Forces in the United Kingdom. It came into being with the unification of the Kingdom of England and Scotland into the Kingdom of Great Britain in 1707. The new British Army incorporated Regiments that had already existed in England...

 and French
French Army
The French Army, officially the Armée de Terre , is the land-based and largest component of the French Armed Forces.As of 2010, the army employs 123,100 regulars, 18,350 part-time reservists and 7,700 Legionnaires. All soldiers are professionals, following the suspension of conscription, voted in...

, recruited whole regiment
Regiment
A regiment is a major tactical military unit, composed of variable numbers of batteries, squadrons or battalions, commanded by a colonel or lieutenant colonel...

s (or converted existing ones) of light infantry. These were considered elite units
Elite
Elite refers to an exceptional or privileged group that wields considerable power within its sphere of influence...

, 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


Today the term "light" denotes - in the US - the table of organization and equipment
Table of Organization and Equipment
A table of organization and equipment is a document published by the U.S. Department of Defense which prescribes the organization, staffing, and equippage of units. Also used in acronyms as 'T/O' and 'T/E'....

 defining units lacking heavy weapons, armor and/or a reduced vehicle footprint. Light infantry units lack the lethality, tactical mobility and survivability of heavy units, but possess greater operational mobility and the ability to execute missions under restrictive terrain and weather that may otherwise impair a heavy unit's mobility. 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. Ironically, 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)
101st Airborne Division
The 101st Airborne Division—the "Screaming Eagles"—is a U.S. Army modular light infantry division trained for air assault operations. During World War II, it was renowned for its role in Operation Overlord, the D-Day landings on 6 June 1944, in Normandy, France, Operation Market Garden, the...

 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
10th Mountain Division
The 10th Mountain Division is a light infantry division of the United States Army based at Fort Drum, New York. It is a subordinate unit of the XVIII Airborne Corps and the only division-sized element of the U.S. Army to specialize in fighting under harsh terrain and weather conditions...

 (light infantry), 25th Infantry Division, and the 75th Ranger Regiment
75th Ranger Regiment (United States)
The 75th Ranger Regiment , also known as Rangers, is a Special Operations light infantry unit of the United States Army. The Regiment is headquartered in Fort Benning, Georgia with battalions in Fort Benning, Hunter Army Airfield and Joint Base Lewis-McChord...

. Operation Just Cause is often cited as proof of concept. Almost 30,000 U.S. Forces, mostly light, deployed to Panama
Panama
Panama , officially the Republic of Panama , is the southernmost country of Central America. Situated on the isthmus connecting North and South America, it is bordered by Costa Rica to the northwest, Colombia to the southeast, the Caribbean Sea to the north and the Pacific Ocean to the south. The...

 within a 48 hour period to execute combat operations.

During the 1990s, the concept of purely light forces 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
Afghanistan
Afghanistan , officially the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, is a landlocked country located in the centre of Asia, forming South Asia, Central Asia and the Middle East. With a population of about 29 million, it has an area of , making it the 42nd most populous and 41st largest nation in the world...

 (Operation Enduring Freedom), underlining the continued need for light infantry.

Modern Light Infantry Units

  • 75th Ranger Regiment
    75th Ranger Regiment (United States)
    The 75th Ranger Regiment , also known as Rangers, is a Special Operations light infantry unit of the United States Army. The Regiment is headquartered in Fort Benning, Georgia with battalions in Fort Benning, Hunter Army Airfield and Joint Base Lewis-McChord...

    : a flexible, highly trained, and rapidly deployable airborne light infantry unit, used for special operations.
  • Seaborne or ship-based units, such as the United States Marine Corps
    United States Marine Corps
    The United States Marine Corps is a branch of the United States Armed Forces responsible for providing power projection from the sea, using the mobility of the United States Navy to deliver combined-arms task forces rapidly. It is one of seven uniformed services of the United States...

    ' MEU (SOC)
    Maritime Special Purpose Force
    The United States Marine Corps' Maritime Special Purpose Force, or MSPF, are a unique specialized sub-unit that are drawn from the Marine Expeditionary Units' major subordinate elements. They are special operations capable forces deployed to give the commanders low profile, two-platoon surgical...

     and Britain's 3 Commando Brigade
    3 Commando Brigade
    3 Commando Brigade is a commando formation of the British Armed Forces and the main manoeuvre formation of the Royal Marines. Its personnel are predominantly Royal Marines, supported by units of Royal Engineers, Royal Artillery, The Rifles, and the Fleet Air Arm, together with other Commando...

    .
  • Infantry intended for difficult terrain such as mountains (10th Mountain Division, 86th Infantry Brigade Combat Team (Mountain)
    86th Infantry Brigade Combat Team (United States)
    The 86th Infantry Brigade Combat Team is a Vermont National Guard light infantry brigade. It was reorganized from an armored brigade into a light infantry brigade as part of the United States Army's transformation for the 21st century...

    , , 27ème bataillon de Chasseurs alpins
    27ème bataillon de chasseurs alpins
    The 27ème bataillon de chasseurs alpins is a Chasseurs alpins battalion of the French Army. It is a heavily decorated unit, whose members wear the fourragère of the Legion of Honour.- Organisation :...

    ) or jungle (Philippine Army Scout Rangers, Brazilian Army
    Brazilian Army
    The Brazilian Army is the land arm of the Brazilian Military. The Brazilian Army has fought in several international conflicts, mostly in South America and during the 19th century, such as the Brazilian War of Independence , Argentina-Brazil War , War of the Farrapos , Platine War , Uruguayan War ...

     Jungle Infantry Brigades.
  • Internal security
    Internal security
    Internal security, or IS, is the act of keeping peace within the borders of a sovereign state or other self-governing territories. generally by upholding the national law and defending against internal security threats...

     or paramilitary
    Paramilitary
    A paramilitary is a force whose function and organization are similar to those of a professional military, but which is not considered part of a state's formal armed forces....

     troops and police field forces.
  • Troops involved in guerrilla
    Guerrilla warfare
    Guerrilla warfare is a form of irregular warfare and refers to conflicts in which a small group of combatants including, but not limited to, armed civilians use military tactics, such as ambushes, sabotage, raids, the element of surprise, and extraordinary mobility to harass a larger and...

     or counter-guerrilla
    Counter-insurgency
    A counter-insurgency or counterinsurgency involves actions taken by the recognized government of a nation to contain or quell an insurgency taken up against it...

     warfare.
  • Home defense or militia
    Militia
    The term militia is commonly used today to refer to a military force composed of ordinary citizens to provide defense, emergency law enforcement, or paramilitary service, in times of emergency without being paid a regular salary or committed to a fixed term of service. It is a polyseme with...

    .

See also

  • Sissi (Finnish light infantry)
  • Roman infantry tactics, strategy and battle formations
  • History of British light infantry
    History of British light infantry
    The History of British light infantry goes back to the early days of the British Army, when irregular troops and mercenaries added skills in light infantry fighting. From the beginning of the nineteenth century, the Army dedicated some line regiments as specific light infantry troops, were trained...

  • 10th Mountain Division
    10th Mountain Division
    The 10th Mountain Division is a light infantry division of the United States Army based at Fort Drum, New York. It is a subordinate unit of the XVIII Airborne Corps and the only division-sized element of the U.S. Army to specialize in fighting under harsh terrain and weather conditions...

  • 7th Infantry Division (Light)
  • Caçadores
    Caçadores
    The Caçadores were the elite light infantry of the Portuguese Army during the Peninsular War...

  • Bersaglieri
    Bersaglieri
    The Bersaglieri are a corps of the Italian Army originally created by General Alessandro La Marmora on 18 June 1836 to serve in the Piedmontese Army, later to become the Royal Italian Army...

  • Jäger (military)
    Jäger (military)
    Jäger is a term that was adopted in the Enlightenment era in German-speaking states and others influenced by German military practice to describe a kind of light infantry, and it has continued in that use since then....

  • Chasseurs Alpins
  • Jegerkompaniet (Eng: Ranger Coy)
    Jegerkompaniet
    Jegerkompaniet / ISTAR is the Norwegian Army's northern-most unit. It is deployed to the world's northern-most military garrison, Porsangmoen, at 70 degrees northern latitude. The company has both conscripts and professional soldiers...

  • 14th Battalion The Maratha Light Infantry (India)
  • Royal New Zealand Infantry Regiment
    Royal New Zealand Infantry Regiment
    The Royal New Zealand Infantry Regiment is the main combat unit in the regular New Zealand Army. It was formed 9 January 1947 as the New Zealand Regiment with a single infantry battalion as part of the newly created infantry corps....

    , 2/1st Battalion
  • Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry
    Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry
    Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry is one of the three regular force infantry regiments of the Canadian Army. The regiment is composed of four battalions including a primary reserve battalion, for a total of 2,000 soldiers...

  • Evzones
    Evzones
    The Evzones, or Evzoni, is the name of several historical elite light infantry and mountain units of the Greek Army. Today, it refers to the members of the Proedriki Froura , an elite ceremonial unit that guards the Greek Tomb of the Unknown Soldier , the Hellenic Parliament and the Presidential...

  • Northern Light Infantry
    Northern Light Infantry
    The Northern Light Infantry is a Light Infantry Regiment of the Pakistan Army. Headquartered in Gilgit, the capital of Northern Areas, Pakistan, it is the main force protecting the strategically important northern areas of Pakistan. The majority of this regiment's personnel come from native...


Further reading

  • The Partisan in War
    The Partisan in War
    The Partisan in War is a pamphlet written by German soldier Andreas Emmerich .It is a treatise on light infantry tactics learned in the Seven Years' War under Duke Ferdinand of Brunswick, and in the American Revolutionary War. Emmerich had commanded the British Emmerich's Chasseurs regiment during...

    , a treatise on light infantry tactics written by Colonel Andreas Emmerich in 1789.

External links