cavalry, a military force consisting of mounted troops trained to fight from horseback. Horseback riding probably evolved independently in the Eurasian steppes and the mountains above the Mesopotamian plain. By 1400 BC, the use of smelted iron to make weapons gave the infantry supremacy. Cavalry was used for scouting and pursuit of a routed enemy, but with a few exceptions infantry remained dominant in Europe until the threat of light cavalry relying on archery, typified by the Mongols (see Jenghiz Khan), brought about the adoption of heavy armored cavalry, developed first by the Parthian Empire.
European feudalism was based on such knights, made possible by the introduction of saddles in the 4th cent. and stirrups in the 8th cent. to the West. Both saddles and stirrups had been used in the East since the 1st cent. In Europe, cavalry dominated local wars and attempts to fend off Norsemen, Magyar, and Muslim raiders. The Crusades were essentially cavalry wars and sieges, eventually won by the Muslims, and the incredible military success of the Mongols in the 13th cent. was based on their cavalry. At the end of the Middle Ages, infantry came to the fore again but cavalry remained prominent in the armies of Louis XIV, Frederick II (Frederick the Great), and particularly Napoleon.
In the 19th cent., cavalry was frequently used by Europeans in colonial wars, by the U.S. army and Plains peoples in the Indian wars, and in the U.S. Civil War. However, the value of cavalry, already diminished by the development of rifles, plummeted with the introduction of machine guns and other automatic weapons at the end of the 19th cent. In World War I, because of trench warfare, horsemen were used only in small numbers on the plains of E Europe and the Middle East, but they were decisive in the Arab revolt (see Lawrence, Thomas Edward). Cavalry was employed against Germany at the beginning of World War II by the Polish and Soviet armies, but the highly mobile tank and armored units that were introduced in that war led to end of the use of mounted troops. The modern U.S. 1st Cavalry Division consists of helicoptered airborne troops.
See also Spahis.
See J. Lawford, Cavalry (1976).
cav·al·ry / ˈkavəlrē/ • n. (pl. -ries) [usu. treated as pl.] hist. soldiers who fought on horseback. ∎ hist. a branch of an army made up of such soldiers. ∎ modern soldiers who fight in armored vehicles. DERIVATIVES: cav·al·ry·man / -mən/ n. (pl. -men) .