The Early Russian army- Russia’s undiscovered military forces

Russia itself had a long history of wars and conquests and of course Russia grew from small city-states to a powerful empire from conquests with a powerful army that developed over time. Most of us are familiar with the Russian army of the imperial age from the 18th-20th centuries and more so familiar with the Russian army from the time of WWII and the Soviet era but here, it will share the information on Russia’s early military forces before Russia’s imperial age. Over here would be a bit of Russia’s early history before we knew of Russia’s existence and the interesting facts of Russian military force in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, especially during the 16th century. Russia began out as small city-states along the rivers of Russia and present day Ukraine and Belarus founded by the Varangians or Norsemen in the 9th century. Throughout the centuries, the city-states of Novgorod, Kiev, and Moscow grew to be powerful and rich trading with the Byzantine Empire down south but in order to expand their territory; they had to conquer lands beyond them. It was Moscow that became Russia’s dominant city-state had the strongest military force, in the 16th century; Ivan IV, prince of Moscow, becoming Russia’s first Tsar, Ivan the Terrible, turned the principality into an empire. With the military force, Russia fought several enemies including the Tatars, Siberians, and Mongols in the east, Teutonic Germans and Polish in the west, Byzantines and Turks in the south. These military units mentioned here were used long ago in different Russian states under different princes, and the units were very similar to those not only in Russia but other Slavic countries as well, although it was Moscow that grew to be the power in the east. With the wars and conquests, Russia became an empire and continuously expanded growing from weak undeveloped city-states to a leading world power.

Map of Russia 16th cent
Map of Russia 16th cent
Map of the Russian Empire
Map of the Russian Empire
Russian state of Kiev flag
Russian state of Kiev flag
Russian state of Moscow flag
Russian state of Moscow flag
Russian arms and armour samples
Russian arms and armour samples

The old Russian army at the time the empire was formed was made up of a few distinct units, although there were only a few type of units in the Russian army compared to the number of units of any other medieval European army or the Byzantine or Ottoman armies. The Russian military force of the middle ages though were distinct from the rest of Europe and looked more civilized and fashionable compared to the Mongol army, although the Russian troops lacked armor except for chain mail, which is one thing that made them different from other European armies, though the Russian soldiers and elite horsemen wore the chain mail under their fur cloaks as fur cloaks was somewhat the uniform of the old Russian troops. To begin talking about the early Russian army units, we start with the Boyars, these units were the highest ranking forces and were the military commanders in Russia’s Muscovite period back in the time of Ivan the Terrible and earlier when Russia was ruled by princes. The boyars were next to the princes of the Russian states and were the commanders of the regular soldiers, they were similar to the knights of medieval Western Europe. The Boyars had chain mail underneath their fur cloaks and sometimes during battle, some of them had an armored vest, but usually they had a fur overcoat with rich patterns over the chain mail and on their head, they usually had fur hats. For weapons, the Boyars held a long curved sword similar to the Turkish kilij, and later on when guns were introduced to Russia. As commanders and Russian nobles, the Boyars were mounted on horse during battle. The Boyars were not just the nobles or knights in Russia (Moscow) but also in Ukraine (Kiev), Moldavia, Wallachia, Bulgaria, and Serbia, which were all Slavic countries.

Russian Boyar sample
Russian Boyar sample
Russian Boyar with cavalrymen
Russian Boyar with cavalrymen
Russian Boyar and infantry soldier in battle against Mordovian
Russian Boyar and infantry soldier in battle against Mordovian
Russian Boyars
Russian Boyars

The infantry units of the early imperial Russian army was called the Streltsy, created by the 1st Russian tsar, Ivan the Terrible between 1545 and 1550 in order to have a large number of soldiers to build up the 1st Russian empire. The Streltsy units were first used as elite guardsmen of Moscow then later for Russia’s wars with the Mongols in the south and the Livonian war with Poland and Lithuania in the northwest. These units fought well in battle especially having a set of weaponry, at least having 3 weapons together. The basic weapon for the Streltsy were firearms, the particular firearm they carried was a Harquebus rifle, which European armies use as well in that time. These units were also equipped with gunpowder and musket balls in a flask attached to their belt. For melee combat once the enemy is to close or if out of ammunition, these units carried a large war-axe called a Bardiche for fighting full force. As an alternative weapon, these units were required to have a saber sword together with the war-axe, the saber was a long curved sword used to fight at close combat if there is no time to slay the enemy. Like most Renaissance forces, the Streltsy either carried a large war-axe or a pike or poleaxe but always had to have a saber as an alternative. For their uniforms, the Streltsy had identical blue, red, or green fur coats depending on their rank and had pointy orange boots and no armor at all, except some of them had chain mail underneath the coats; for headgear, they either had a small round metal helmet or a fur hat. The Streltsy were basically the infantry soldiers of the early Russian empire and fought in many campaigns to expand the empire until the late 17th century when they evolved into the imperial guards.

Streltsy units in battle
Streltsy units in battle
Sample Streltsy unit
Sample Streltsy unit
2 different Streltsy units
2 different Streltsy units
Streltsy unit types
Streltsy unit types
Russian Streltsy sketch (repost)
Russian Streltsy sketch (repost)

Earlier on in the 13th-15th centuries, when Russia was made up of many principality states, each states had forces skilled especially in cavalry and archery just like the Mongols. Although the Russian states had a few infantry units skilled in melee combat and archery. Back then, the Russian units looked similar to the Byzantine military units, some having cone shaped helmets, long spears, similar curved swords, maces, bows and arrows, chainmail, padded cushioned armor, and triangular shields. Back then the Russian armies fought wars with the Mongol hordes in the south but could barely beat them, though at the west they were able to counter attack the German Teutonic knights. To describe the look of the early Russian units, they looked very similar to Byzantine military units but had a few Oriental looking elements such as long arrows in a large quiver, silk outfits, fur, and pointy fur hats like the Mongols. Other samples of the early unnamed Russian military units were equipped with crossbows, had fur coats over the chainmail suit, and round helmets just like the Byzantine crossbow units. The Russian archer units, which went either on foot or horse, were unarmored but had a cone hat and padded outfit, for weapons, a longbow with a large quiver of arrows, and for a melee weapon, either a sword, axe, or mace. However, there were only a few Russian units of the middle ages that had full armor, although it was not as full as the armor of European knights but was a lot lighter, made up of several iron strips with engraved details. These metal armored pieces were only put to protect the chest, arms, and legs and were not full but were only placed over the chainmail. As for the full helmet set, the Russian troops wither had a cone shaped helmet over the head and chainmail below it to cover the face or also just chainmail over the head without a helmet. The Russian units back then were strong in handling large and heavy weaponry but the army was not as well organized and disciplined as the Byzantine army was.

Byzantine-Russian units in battle
Byzantine-Russian units in battle
Early Russian archer unit
Early Russian archer unit
Russian (Varangian) heavy infantry unit
Russian (Varangian) heavy infantry unit
Russian cavalry charge
Russian cavalry charge

The rest of Russia’s early military units remain to be unknown, especially the infantry forces but the best known of all the Russian military units of the middle ages are the cavalry forces, most especially the Cossacks. In the early days of the Russian empire, the Cossacks were the special forces of the Russian military especially used in cavalry charges and long distance campaigns. The Cossacks were originally skilled horsemen from all over Russia, especially the far reaches or the Steppes at the Urals, Siberia, Astrakhan, the Don, and the Dnieper, the Cossacks as well came from other Slavic countries like Ukraine, Belarus, and Poland. For the Cossacks, the commander of the cavalry units was called a Hetman; they were somewhat the generals of the Cossacks and were assigned to commanding the forces, however the Hetman title was only used for the commanders of the Polish and Ukrainian Cossacks and not the Russians. The Cossacks were plainly cavalry units best skilled in shock charges and attacking in full force. The Cossacks were unarmored but instead had a set of Oriental silk clothing or fur coats, sometimes with chainmail underneath. For headgear, Cossacks usually hat a tall fur hat or a helmet with fur lining. For weapons, the Cossacks usually carried a wide curved saber sword a their basic weapon, or sometimes a long spear for thrusting, and sometimes a rifle. During the time of Tsar Peter the Great, Russia was modernized and the army was also reorganized to be more orderly, the Cossacks too became more orderly with the green Russian military jackets and orderly formations in battle.

Cossack thrusting
Cossack thrusting
Russian Cossacks on horse
Russian Cossacks on horse
early Russian Cossacks
Early Russian Cossacks
Russian Cossack warriors
Russian Cossack warriors

The early Russian forces of medieval times of different states had a complex set of weaponry. The early Russian forces did not take armor that seriously but relied a lot on weapons since the early Russian troops were mostly skilled in full force combat rather than defensive tactics. Early Russian weapons were one of a kind and unique to Russia although some were based on Oriental, Byzantine, and Nordic weapons though Russian troops used them with full force. One of the weapons unique to Russia was the long thin curved saber sword used by most units especially the heavy infantry, cavalry, and Cossacks, and later on the Streltsy, although some early Russian infantry troops used the same long thin swords the Normans used. Many of the Russian states including Moscow and Kiev used the rare Russian oriental weapons that came in all sorts of curved shaped for the blades and a lot of bows and arrows while the troops of Novgorod used a lot of weapons European armies use mainly because Novgorod was Russia’s trading hub with Europe. The weapons the Russians used, which ere the same in Europe included the medieval war hammers, pikes, Norman long swords, and crossbows. One of the main weapons many Russian infantry and cavalry soldiers used was the bow and arrow, coming in different sizes, the infantry used longbows for long distance and heavy impact shots, while light cavalry units used shorter bows for skirmishing the enemy basing it on Mongol horse archery tactics. The arrows used for the bows were stored in ornately designed quivers which also stored the bow, crossbows however were stored separately but its bolts were put in ornate quivers too, however bows and crossbows served as just one of the weapons Russian troops used as they would carry a set of javelins, a sword and shield, a mace, or spear. Many of Russia’s early weaponry were the same as the weapons the Byzantines used, which includes the long curves swords, long cavalry spears, and the different types of maces for quick striking. For shields, early Russian troops used either the long kite-shaped Byzantine shields or the large round Turkish shields. The early Russians had all sorts of unique weapons including a cavalry lance with a long curved blade, which is their version of the European pike. One of the weapons most unique to Russia and neighboring countries like Poland and Lithuania was the large war axe called a Bardiche, which had a large curved blade for heavy slashing. The Streltsy units later on used the Bardiche as a support for Russia’s newly introduced rifle guns. Later on however, Russia’s army was re-organized using newer rifles and flint-l;ock-guns with European sabers but some weapons such as the Bardiche and the long curved saber were kept. To describe the Russian troops and their weapons, especially the Cossacks, they did not wield one but a set of them all stored with them for battle.

Set of Russian spears and lances
Set of Russian spears and lances
Early Russian weapon samples
Early Russian weapon samples
Unique Russian Cossack sabre
Unique Russian Cossack sabre
Russian Bardiche blade
Russian Bardiche blade
Different Russian bows and crossbows with arrows and quivers
Different Russian bows and crossbows with arrows and quivers
Different types of Russian maces
Different types of Russian maces

The early Russian army was not very well organized but was strong in combat and skilled with weapons, but aside from weapons, the early Russian forces had different sets of armor as well. Most Russian forces, especially the light infantry that were just rural recruits did not rely on armor much but instead just padded vests, however the elite forces, had a full set of armor. From the 13th-16th centuries, Russian troops did not have the same armor as European knights did but instead used the same style as the old Byzantine armor with more features added to them. Chainmail suits was one thing common to most Russian soldiers, especially the infantry that served as their basic protection, however the elite forces placed some metal paddings over the chain mail. A lot of the early Russian armors looked the same as the classic Byzantine armor with padded scales over the chain mail an the cone shaped helmet although the Russians added new elements to eat, mostly fur linings and lighter metal for the armor. Just like Byzantine armor, the early Russians had scales over the chainmail but made a lighter version of the padded armor to make combat quicker and also the padded armor was cushioned; also as an alternative to the metal padded scales, Russian troops used only cushioned padded armor over the chainmail to lighten the weight but it also served as a protection, and also the difference between Russian and Byzantine armor styles was that the Russians used more cloth and fur both over and under the armor more than they used metal. True enough Russian and Byzantine armor is very similar mainly because the soldiers who served the Byzantine Empire were not Greek, rather they were Russian mercenaries skilled in all sorts of martial arts and close combat attacks, the most famous of these Russian mercenary units were the Varangian guards. Of course the Russians got their armor design from the Byzantine Greeks from their service to Byzantium as the Byzantines for a long time used Russian and Nordic mercenaries. Unlike the regular Byzantine armor, the Russians had different details such as lighter metal scales over the chainmail giving extra protection to the chest, back, and shoulders, and unlike the full set of medieval knight’s armor, the Russian padded armor only covered a few parts. The Russians also got their armor design from Byzantium since earlier to that; their battle outfit looked very much like Norsemen. In addition, the Russian soldiers had metal bracers and greaves for arm and leg protection together with a chainmail to protect the face and neck attached to the cone shaped helmet. The Russians either used the Byzantine style cone shaped helmets or the round eye protection Nordic helmets, however some of the elite units had chainmail covering the head forming a square shape even giving eye protection. In some ways, Russian armor looks a little similar to the armor the Ottoman Turks had mainly from the light armor pads over the chainmail protecting the chest and shoulders and the helmet shape; however the light cavalry units with their padded cushion armor and fur hats looked somewhat like the Mongol warriors. On the other hand, some units especially the Cossacks went unarmored in battle but only using fur cloaks, as they did not need the armor since they were skilled and fast riders. Later units like the Streltsy also did not use armor since they were over armed with weapons and were supposed to be like the troops of Renaissance Europe. Of course, Russia’s army became more organized in its imperial age having a professional army with green coats and advanced weapons and orderly in battle.

Early Russian chain mail armour with sword and shield
Early Russian chain mail armour with sword and shield
Russian light cavalry armour
Russian light cavalry armour
Early Russian infantry soldier with padded armour
Early Russian infantry soldier with padded armour
Russian armour with scale protection for chest
Russian armour with scale protection for chest
Russian armour samples
Russian armour samples
Russian helmet sample
Russian helmet sample
Cossack outfit
Cossack outfit
Russian imperial army outfit
Russian Imperial army outfit

The Russian army before the imperial age of Russia was not very well organised and disciplined, in fact some of the names of the units are missing and only a few of their names remain known today such as Streltsy and Cossacks, however the type of armour and weapons the early Russian troops used are still known. In the Middle Ages, Russian forces had unique armour and weapons and were basically based on arms and armour of the old Nordic and Slavic nations though when Byzantine influence got to Russia by trade, the Russians started using the same type of armour the Byzantine troops did. On the other hand, the battle formations and weaponry mostly for archery is somewhat like the battle formations and skills of the Mongol and Turkish army. To describe the troops and battle strategy of the early Russians, they were not known known to be organised as the Byzantine and Ottoman armies were, neither were they skilled in defensive tactics, although the Russians were best at full force combat especially using heavy weapons for full force melee combat and at the same time being skilled in archery even from horseback making them better off with offensive tactics. Even if the early Russian army was unorganised, but at the same time strong in attack, the Russian states were able to build an empire easily driving away the Mongols, conquering the Tatars, Teutonics, and other tribes of the area, also fighting off the Ottoman Turks, and from this Russia grew to be a powerful empire. With Russia as an empire, the army became organised with different types of units and battalions with identical green coat uniforms, rifle guns, and sabres but most of all, the Russians were most excellent in their cavalry. For more than 300 years, Russia, with the help of the army ruled as one of Europe’s most powerful empires. That’s all for now… thanks for viewing!