Skirmishers are infantry or cavalry soldiers stationed ahead or alongside of a larger body of friendly troops. They are usually placed in a skirmish line to either harass enemy troops or to protect their own troops from similar attacks by the enemy. Skirmishers are generally lightly armoured for increased battlefield mobility and are usually armed with ranged weapons to attack the enemy from a distance.



In ancient and medieval warfare, skirmishers typically carried bows, javelins, slings, and sometimes carried light shields. Acting as light infantry with their light arms and minimal armor, they could run ahead of the main battle line, release a volley of arrows, slingshots or javelins, and retreat behind their main battle line before the clash of the opposing main forces. The aims of skirmishing were to disrupt enemy formations by causing casualties before the main battle, and to tempt the opposing infantry into attacking prematurely, throwing their organization into disarray. Skirmishers could also be effectively used to surround opposing soldiers in the absence of friendly cavalry.

Once the preliminary skirmishing was done, the skirmishers would participate during the main battle by shooting into the enemy formation, or could participate in melée combat with daggers or short swords. Alternatively, they could also act as ammunition bearers or stretcher-bearers.

Due to their mobility, skirmishers were also valuable for reconnaissance, especially in wooded or urban areas. During the gunpowder era, a skirmish line could be used to discover the extent of the enemy front line.

In classical Greece skirmishers had low status. For example, Herodotus, in is account of the Battle of Plataea of 479 BCE, mentions that the Spartans fielded 35000 light armed hellots to 5000 hoplites yet there is no mention of them in his account of the fighting. Often Greek historians ignored them altogether. It was far cheaper to equip oneself as light armed as opposed to a fully armed hoplite - indeed it was not uncommon for light armed to go into battle equipped with stones. Hence the low status of skirmishers reflected the low status of the poorer sections of society who made up skirmishers. On top of that however was the way that hit and run contradicted the Greek ideal of heroism - in Plato the skirmisher is given a voice to advocate "flight without shame" but only in order to denounce it as an inversion of decent values. Nevertheless, skirmishers chalked up quite a few significant victories such as the Athenian defeat at the hands of the Aetolian javelin men in 426 BCE and, in the same war, the Athenian victory of Sphacteria.

Celts did not favor ranged weapons. The exception were the British who used the sling extensively but in siege warfare not as skirmishers. The Celtic contempt towards skirmishers was to cost them dearly during the Gallic Invasion of Greece of 279 BCE where the Gallic warriors found them helpless in the face of Aetolian skirmishing tactics.

In the Punic Wars, despite the fact that the Roman and Carthaginian armies were organized in very different ways in other respects, skimishers had the same role in both - to screen the armies

Napoleonic Wars

During the Napoleonic Wars, skirmishers played a key role in battles, attempting to disrupt the main enemy force by firing into their close-packed ranks, and by preventing enemy skirmishers from doing the same to friendly troops. As the skirmishers generally were spread out and were able to take cover behind trees, houses, towers and other obstacles, they were harder targets to hit with small arms and artillery fire. While muskets were the predominant weapon at the time, the British Army experimented with rifles, which had a far greater range to deadly effect, increasing the effectiveness of the skirmisher in disrupting enemy movements and communication.

American Civil War

The treatise New American Tactics by General John Watts de Peyster advocated making the skirmish line the new line of battle, and was considered revolutionary at the time. During the American Civil War it was common for cavalrymen to dismount and form a skirmish line in order to delay enemy troops advancing towards an objective (for example, the actions of the Federal cavalrymen on the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg.)


By the late 19th century the concept of fighting in formation was on the wane and the distinctions between skirmishers and heavy infantry began to disappear. Essentially, all infantry became skirmishers in practice.

See also

References and notes


  • Randolph, Lewis Hamersly, Biographical Sketches of Distinguished Officers of the Army and Navy , Henry E. Huntington Library: New York, 1905.

Further reading

External links

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