10 Greatest Special Forces in History

Posted by Powee Celdran

Welcome back to another article by the Byzantium Blogger! Now this time, I will return to one of my most talked about subjects… historical warfare. More than 5000 years of history was dominated by warfare which led to the formation and fall of kingdoms and empires. History has been decided on the battlefield and what determines victories and defeats of various armies are their numbers, military tactics, weaponry, morale of the soldiers, and critical thinking of commanders. However, another factor to victories of many historical armies were their elite forces, the best equipped and trained units in the army. Most of history’s special military forces are trained soldiers from an early age, large in physical size or number of soldiers, or just heavily equipped with weapons and armor. This article will make a list of history’s Top 10 special forces from the ancient days of Greece and Persia to the early 19th century. Many of these special forces are still well remembered up to this day such as the Greek Hoplites, Roman Legionnaires, Medieval Knights, and Japanese Samurai but some are underrated and have a lot to be discovered about such as the Byzantine Cataphracts and Swedish heavy infantry. Other than these 10, there will be 5 honorable mentions of other historical special forces. What really interests me most about these warriors of the past is not only their tactics and strength but the variety of their weapons and colorful (sometimes ornate) designs of their armor and uniforms.

 

I. Hoplites- Ancient Greece

 One of the best remembered figures of Ancient Greece, sometimes seen on brand or team logos is a helmet with an opening only for the eyes and a plume above it. This helmet is known as the Kranos and was worn by the elite soldiers of the armies of the Ancient Greek City States known as the Hoplites. Since the 8th century BC, Greek civilization rose up as several city states with their own governments and each city state to defend itself against invaders or against each other when war would rise between them needed a strong army, and to create a powerful army, the Greek created a heavily armed force known as the Hoplites. As the elite warriors of Ancient Greece, the hoplites created a distinct battle formation known as the Phalanx where they would line themselves up into rows with their long spears in ascending order from front to back. The name of this elite force unit comes from the large round Greek shield known as a Hoplon which weighed up to 15lbs made of an outer layer of bronze with an interior of wood and leather. A hoplite, aside from the helmet wore a thickly layered white leather armor called a Linothorax which was reinforced with metal scales, to protect their waist they wore strips of leather called Pteruges, for their arms they usually wore bracers for protection, and for their legs they wore bronze greaves called Knemides. Majority of Greek hoplites wore the white leather armor, though the Spartans would usually wear a fully bronze chest plate armor; and aside from this the Spartan Hoplites were professionally trained soldiers since childhood. The helmets with the horsehair plume were usually worn by officers including the captains known as Polemarchs and general or Strategoi, while the rest just wore the helmet as is; most hoplite wore a long cape as well called a Tribon, and the color of it depended on the city states they came from, the Spartans wore red capes while the Athenians wore blue capes to distinguish each other. For weaponry, the hoplites had a complete selection but their basic weapon was a 2-4m spear known as a Dory which was used for thrusting the enemy while staying in the phalanx formation. The secondary weapon of a hoplite was a sword kept on his left side; they either carried a double-edged straight blade known as a Xiphos or a single-edged curved blade known as a Kopis; on the other hand, they seldomly carried bows and javelins as these weapons were left to the lighter infantry known as the Psiloi and Peltasts for archery and javelin throwing. Symbols found on the hoplites’ shield are the symbols of their city states such as the white owl over a blue background for Athens and the Lambda (Greek “L”) for Sparta. The hoplites were the major land forces during the Battles of Marathon (490BC) and Thermopylae (480BC) where only 300 Spartan hoplites fought against thousands of Persians soldiers during the Greek-Persian Wars. These special forces were also at the frontlines during the Peloponnesian War (431-404BC) between Athens and Sparta, as well as later during Xenophon’s Persian Expedition, and during Alexander the Great’s campaigns in the east (334-23BC). Hoplites were not only used as the elite forces of the Greek Cities but also of the Macedonian Empire of Alexander the Great and after his death in 323BC by his successor kingdoms, the Egyptian Ptolemaic Empire and the Syrian Seleucid Empire; other Mediterranean powers such as Carthage fought using hoplites as well. The armies of the Greek cities barely used cavalry and it was only during Alexander’s period and afterwards when the Greeks began using a heavy cavalry and war chariots, so this means that ancient Greek soldiers relied heavily on their physical strength and agility to fight battles. Other than strength and a powerful grip on their heavy spears and shields, agility was a major skill for hoplites since they sometimes needed to use a power kick on enemies at close combat and the ability to run and jump as well since the Greeks usually fought on rocky land and on beaches more than they did with siege warfare.

Read one of my previous articles for more info about Ancient Greek Warfare

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Greek Hoplite in full armor
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Hoplites in battle (AC Odyssey)
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Macedonian Hoplites in Phalanx formation
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Set of Ancient Greek weapons
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2 types of Greek Hoplites
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Greek Hoplite diagram

 

II. Immortals- Persian Empire

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Achaemenid Persian Empire flag

 In 560BC, a powerful empire quickly rose from nothing, this was the Achaemenid Persian Empire, founded by King Cyrus the Great. The Persian Empire was massive covering land all the way from Western China to Egypt, from the Balkan shores of the Black Sea to the Arabian Peninsula, and with this vast territory, they could get up to hundreds of thousands in their army. The Persian army was multinational and multiracial which means different units depending on what part of the empire they came from used their own native tactics and weapons. A time when the whole empire came together to fight was in their 2 invasions of Greece, first in 490BC led by King Darius I then in 480BC by King Xerxes I but in both invasions, the Persians were defeated by the Greek City States combined and forced back to Persia. However, in both invasions of Greece, the Persians had a mixed unit army of Persians, Medes, Elamites, Babylonians, Assyrians, Arabs, Jews, Sogdians, Bactrians, Phrygians, Armenians, Lydians, Egyptians, and Thracians and each could be distinguished not by their features but by their different uniforms and weapons. Most of the army units of the Persian army were however disorganized and not very skilled or equipped with weapons and armor, except for the archers who came in thousands; this was mainly because most of the army were slaves or peasants without much training, but one particular unit that stood out in the Persian army were the 10,000 Immortals. These special forces were called “Immortals” because they had to be maintained at a number of 10,000 and if one dies or is injured he is immediately replaced. Aside from being elite forces of the army, they were also the king’s bodyguard and the reserve army used for heavy attacks; they were effectively used during the Persian invasion of Egypt in 525BC, the wars against Scythia in 520 and 513BC, and later in the defeat of the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae in 480BC. The Immortals instead of wearing full armor and helmets like the Greek Hoplites wore hoods over their heads and scarves to protect their mouth possibly from the hot sun and dusty sands of Persia, and for armor they did not wear much except for a scale armor coat worn under long robes and over a long-sleeved tunic, at the bottom they usually have a beaded metal waistband and for their legs they wore pants and boots to give them better agility in combat. In equipment, the Immortals had a wide selection and had to carry all of them in battle including a spear shorter than that of the Greeks, a short sword for close combat called an Acinaces and sometimes they would use a small axe called a Sagaris, other than that they even carried a bow and arrows with them, and a round or rectangular shield made of wicker and covered with leather. In battle, the Immortals needed to be agile and have the ability to carry so many weapons as well as quick thinking to ready different weapons when needed, although while holding so many weapons they did not move as fast in battle. The Persian army was also made up of cavalry units with horse archers and javelin throwers, as well as war elephants and chariots, but the Immortals were still their most well trained and equipped force all the way until the defeat of the Achaemenid Empire by Alexander the Great in 330BC.

Read one of my articles for more info about Ancient Persian and Eastern Warfare

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Artwork of Persian Immortal variants
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Persian Immortal in full armor and weapons set
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My sketch of Persian warriors
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Persian Immortals frieze at Babylon

 

III. Legionnaires- Roman Empire

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Roman Empire Flag

The legions and its legionnaires are one of the most memorable things of the Roman civilization other than their impressive works of architecture and gladiator fights. The legions are very much remembered up to this day for their massive numbers in battle, tight and orderly formations with large rectangular shields, and brave and disciplined fighting abilities. Over years (even centuries) Rome grew into an empire controlling the whole Mediterranean, most of Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa and what maintained the empire for hundreds of years defending its borders and conquering new lands was the massive Roman Army and the heart of it that made the army powerful were the elite forces known as the Legionnaires. At the beginning when Rome was a republic, the army wasn’t yet professionalized, in fact during the Punic Wars between Rome and Carthage (264-146BC), the Roman army was not as organized and very basic in weapons and tactics. It was only in 107BC after the reforms of the consul Gaius Marius that the Roman army was professionalized and the legions were created. A legion itself was made up of thousands of soldiers but were divided into 107 cohorts or divisions of the legionnaire special forces which were divided into 6 centuries made up of 80 men including their commander the centurion, a standard bearer called the signifer, and a trumpet officer to send the signals called the cornicen; each of them went to battle in an organized formation and all had uniforms and weapons made from a central armory, soldiers of the same rank had equal pay, and the weapons they used weren’t that much lethal but what was lethal about the army was their number, combined strength, and discipline. The legionnaire was the basic unit in a century and during the Roman Empire era (beginning 27BC), the legionnaires were at the height of the empire wore a metal plated armor known as Lorica Segmentata which were fastened by leather straps attached to brass hooks, for the head they used a helmet with cheek and neck protection called a Galea while the helmets with a vertical or horizontal plume were reserved for officers such as the centurions and cavalry officers known as the decurion, for the waist the legionnaires had a belt with bronze studs, underneath their armor they wore wool tunics which came in red, blue, white, and green, depending on their legion, and for their feet they only wore leather sandals called Caligae. For their weaponry, legionnaires first charge at the enemy throwing their tall javelins or Pilums which was strong enough to pierce through armor, then after throwing they all gather up covering themselves with their shields in all sides into the formation known as the Testudo or tortoise which was effective both during siege and in the field. Their secondary weapons, but primary weapons while during Testudo formation was the famous Roman short sword or Gladius while the dagger or Pugio was their alternative close combat weapon, and what all legionnaires needed was their large wooden rectangular shield or Scutum which had print on them to identify their legion and at the center of it was an iron dome to thrust on enemies. The color on the legionnaire’s shield usually matched the color of his tunic and so did with the rest of the legionnaires in a cohort, this was part of their effective system in the army. It is commonly thought that all legionnaires wore the same iron plated armor, but in fact not all but only the most elite of them found at the frontlines of battle did, the other legionnaires in the centuries found behind wore a simpler chain mail armor suit known as Lorica Hamata which were also worn by auxiliaries or the light infantry that made up a legion as well as by the trumpeter and standard bearer. As the legionnaires consisted of professional soldiers enlisted to 25 years of service therefore training at all times while at the camp, the auxiliaries on the other hand were made up mostly of non-Roman citizen foreigners and younger recruits unlike the legionnaires which were Roman citizens; auxiliaries consisted of the archers, spearmen, and the Roman cavalry. To be a legionnaire, one needed to be fit, well trained, move quickly, and be disciplined since it required a lot of weight to be carried, and continuous marching for hundreds of kilometers to the next camp, this means the legionnaires had to adapt to different landscapes and climates of the different parts of the empire. To be a legionnaire, one also needed to strictly follow orders from the general or centurion as well as had to be able to commit in building public works such as roads, aqueducts, and forts. The legionnaires have brought victory to Rome several times such as during Julius Caesar’s conquest of Gaul (58-51BC), the conquest of Britain (43AD), and in defeating the Jewish rebel army at Masada (73AD), but the legions have suffered heavy defeats as well such as in Teutoburg Forest (9AD) against the Germanic tribes. At the height of the empire in 117AD, the legions were the primary army but as the empire declined starting in the late 3rd century, the Roman army began to minimize in size and the old system of the legions were discontinued.

Read one of my previous articles for more info on Ancient Roman warfare:

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Roman Legionnaire weapons and armor set
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Legionnaire in Lorica Segmentata
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Romans vs Gauls in battle (Battle of Alesia, 52BC)

 

IV. Cataphracts- Byzantine Empire

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Byzantine Imperial flag and symbols

 The Roman Empire did not completely fall as the Middle Ages began in the 5th century, rather it was the western half that fell and became divided into different kingdoms founded by the Barbarians while the eastern half of it, based in Constantinople survived as the Eastern Roman Empire, commonly known as Byzantium. The Byzantine Empire survived as the last remnant of the old Rome throughout the Middle Ages, even if not based in Rome, meanwhile they survived for 1,100 years but always under constant enemy threats and having to fight wars at all times to defend their borders. Unlike the Roman Empire previously, Byzantium was not known for a powerful army and endless conquests, they only had to fight wars when needed and to make themselves more powerful, they focused on building alliances with other kingdoms near them. Even if the Byzantine Army was not that powerful and in fact outdated as they still used old Roman tactics during the Middle Ages, they still found ways to improve their armies by creating highly skilled military units to help defend their borders. One particular elite force unit of the Byzantines were the Cataphracts (Kataphraktoi in Greek), which were a heavy cavalry unit, heavily armored, and with a large selection of weapons mounted on armored horses. The cataphracts were in use ever since the 6th century when the Byzantine army under General Belisarius during the reign of Emperor Justinian I conquered North Africa and Italy to regain the lands the Romans lost and claim it back for them. Over the next centuries, Byzantium’s military strength declined, so did their borders but it did not stop them from improving their army. During the reign of Emperor Nikephoros II Phokas (963-69), the cataphract cavalry was upgraded with new tactics such as the design where the cavalry charges in a wedge formation. The cataphracts formed Byzantium’s professional army and special force units and were in many ways similar to the knights of Western Europe since they were heavily armored and on horses. A Byzantine cataphract was equipped with 3 layers of armor, first was chain mail, over it was the classic Byzantine plated armor or Klibania, and over it a padded coat or Epilorikon which was worn underneath the armor sometimes. Aside from this, they also wore a conical helmet attached to a piece of chain mail that covered the rest of their head and neck leaving only the eyes visible; meanwhile their horses were armored too with the same plated armor and a crest was worn under their chins to identify their tagma or cavalry unit. The weapons the cataphracts carried were numerous including their primary weapon which was the kontos or 3.5m long spear for thrusting while mounted, then if the spear fell off or was thrusted straight into the enemy the cataphracts used their secondary weapons or their long sword called a spathion or their short sword called a paramerion, then for close combat, they would use a mace known as a bardoukion; bows however were seldomly used but they would usually carry it with them behind their backs to shoot the enemies from afar, meanwhile carrying a shield was very rare for them. Byzantine cataphracts had to be strong enough to carry all these weapons and had to be skilled in riding horses which required a lot of training for them, and in battle they had to be able to charge while wearing heavy armor which was however not as heavy as that of medieval knights, but being mounted made it easier for them. Also, what gave the cataphracts together with other Byzantine military units their strength and confidence to fight was that they kept it in heart and mind that they were the defenders of the Orthodox Christian faith and would go to war for it. Like the Roman legionnaires, the cataphracts too were professional soldiers being Byzantines themselves rather than mercenaries like the other Byzantine army units such as the Varangian Guards, and their armor and weapons were all provided by the state as well from a central armory. The cataphracts were effective in many battles including the reconquests of Syria by Nikephoros Phokas (961) and at the Battle of Kleidion (1014) where Emperor Basil II defeated the Bulgarian Empire. However, the cataphracts were not overall invincible, especially because they suffered a heavy defeat at the hands of the Seljuk Turks at the Battle of Manzikert (1071), which started the long-term decline of Byzantium and the start of Turkish dominance in Anatolia.

Read one of my previous articles for more info on Byzantine warfare

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Byzantine Cataphract rides to battle
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Cataphract in Epilorikon (outer coat) mounted on armored horses
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Byzantine Cataphract armor and weapons set (in Greek)
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Battle of Manzikert: Byzantines vs Seljuks (1071)

 

V. Horsemen- Mongol Empire

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Mongol Empire flag

During the Middle Ages, as the Byzantine Empire controlled the Eastern Mediterranean and the kingdoms of Western Europe were growing powerful, there was one power in the eastern part of the world that would rapidly grow to be larger than the Byzantine Empire and the western kingdoms combined, this new power was the Mongol Empire founded in 1206 by Genghis Khan originating in the steppes of Central Asia after uniting the tribes of the area. In order to build an empire, a strong army was created which unlike other armies which were made of infantrymen, the one of the Mongols consisted of thousands of cavalrymen, both heavy and light. The Mongols focused more on a strong cavalry mainly because there were a lot of horses in Central Asia and to move around the vast plains, the best way was by riding. As nomadic people, the Mongols together travelled across the land conquering cities and in only a few years, the Mongols stretched their empire all the way as far as China to the east to Central Europe in the west. What made the Mongols a powerful army was that they were great in number but also, they were fast and skilled horsemen with the ability to shoot arrows while riding quickly without falling off. The light cavalrymen making up 60% of the army travelled light wearing leather armor and wool or leather armor, and usually they wore fur for protection from the cold climate of the steppes. The heavy cavalry making up 40% of the army was more fully armored with scale armor similar to that of the Byzantines but still usually wore leather helmets, sometimes they had metal ones as well. For weapons, Mongol horsemen used 2 types of bows as their primary weapon, the longer one for shooting up to 300m and the shorter one for close combat, the arrows they used kept with them in a large quiver had the special whistling feature to make a signaling sound and sometimes the horse archers would set their arrows on fire to shock the enemy, then for melee weapons they used a long curved saber as their sword when charging at the enemy in close combat. The Mongol horsemen had to be agile and skilled riders which means they had to be trained in this skill from an early age and when riding, they had to be able to keep their balance as both hands are released from the horse as they shoot arrows, and in order to do this they secured their feet on stirrups attached to the horse, meanwhile underneath the saddle was raw meat for food supply. When shooting arrows, the Mongols had a firm grip on the bowstring and to shock the enemy, they would rain arrows by forming a spinning circle of horsemen. With an army of hundreds of thousands of horsemen, the Mongols were able to defeat the Indians, Persians, Arabs, Russians, Poles, and Hungarians all within the early 13th century. One critical battle was at Mohi in Hungary (1241) where the Mongols crushed the Hungarian army not just with their horsemen but with their siege weapons too including a new one using gunpowder from China, afterwards they made their way into Central Europe but with the death of their emperor, Ogedei Khan, they were forced to retreat back to the east. Not only the Mongols, but other tribes and forces originating from Central Asia like the Seljuk Turks, Huns, and Scythians used the war tactic of horse archers.

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Mongol Horse-Archer in the Steppes
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Mongol Horsemen in Oriental art
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Mongol heavy cavalry armor and weapons set
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Battle of Mohi: Mongols vs Hungarians (1241)


VI. Knights- Western Europe

When hearing about the Middle Ages, knights and their heroic acts in battle are the first thing that comes into people’s minds. In reality, the knights of Western Europe have a long and complicated history but have remained the elite warrior force- as warfare had decreased to a smaller scale in the Middle Ages- of many kingdoms including England, France, and the Holy Roman Empire, usually they come from the nobility and are there to protect the king and their feudal lords but other knights were part of religious orders such as Templars and Teutonic Knights with the mission to fight for the Christian faith. During the Crusades (11th-13th centuries), knights formed orders such as the Templar Order while other kingdoms sent their knights as the special military force to reclaim the Holy Land (Israel-Palestine) from the Muslim Arabs, while in Northern Europe the German Teutonic Knights conquered the lands around the Baltic Sea from the last remaining Pagan Baltic tribes, and in Spain knights fought in the Reconquista to reclaim the Iberian Peninsula from the Moors (North African Arab Muslims). When the knights rose to become an elite force in the 11th century, they weren’t that much equipped as they only wore a coat of chain mail with a tunic and cape over it, a helmet, greaves and bracers and usually carried a shield and a sword, axe, or mace for fighting. The tunic over the knights’ chain mail armor usually had the symbol of their order or kingdom; the Templars has a red cross over a white background, the Teutonic Order had a black cross over a white background, while French knights wore a blue tunic over their armor with their royal symbol, the fleur-de-lis. What made someone a knight, aside from noble birth was that they had to own a horse and the tactic knights used in battle was to make a heavy charge with a lance while mounted on an armored horse. Knights were most effective while mounted on horses but if they were knocked off from it, they would be defenseless as their heavy armor made it slow for them to move, while their weapons were slow and heavy as well but when fighting they were extremely potent. By the 14th century, knights went to battle in a full set of armor covering all parts of the body with different armor sets attached to each other by leather straps fastened into hooks; overall the armor including the chain mail inside weighed up to 50kg. There could be up 250 metal parts in a knight’s armor which means a squire was needed to assist the knight in wearing his armor, meanwhile the squires would sometimes assist the knights in battle but did not use heavy weapons, rather they fired crossbows like the common soldiers in medieval warfare. 14th century knights carried long and heavy steel swords aside from lances and spears, sometimes they would use a shield, and helmets came in different designs including the bucket shape, pointed face, or the simple Corinthian helmet with a hinged visor; meanwhile most armor types looked the same, except that the style of the shoulder guards (spaulders) varied in size. Knights had to be fit and have a strong build especially since they had to fight wearing 50kg of armor while swinging heavy weapons, and this made them effective fighting against other knights. During the Hundred-Years-War (1337-1453) between England and France, knights fought in the full set of heavy armor but lost their effectiveness after the Battle of Crecy (1346) when the heavily armored French knights were heavily crushed by the lightly armored peasant English bowmen; then when guns and gunpowder came a century later, the use of heavy armor was no longer necessary.

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Medieval Knight’s armor diagram
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Templar Knight diagram
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Medieval knight variants

 

VII. Janissaries- Ottoman Empire

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Ottoman Empire flag

From the 15th to 19th centuries, the Ottoman Empire was one of the largest and most powerful empires in history and a part of what made them a strong empire was a strong army with an advanced system of weapons, artillery, and an elite force known as the Janissaries. The Janissary unit began in the early days of the Ottoman Empire in the 14th century, formed by Sultan Murad I by recruiting captured male slaves and prisoners of war from their enemies, and as the Ottomans conquered the lands in the Balkan Peninsula from the Byzantines in the early 15th century, young mostly Slavic boys were captured and recruited to be trained as janissaries in the Ottoman court in the ways of fighting and with an Islamic cultural education. During the formation of the Turkish Ottoman Empire in the 15th century, the janissary force only consisted of 1,000 men but they were still the strongest in the army being tall and fearless warriors able to carry multiple weapons in battle. Janissaries had a uniform consisting of a tall felt hat with a short veil called a bork, and instead of wearing full armor like the European knights or Byzantine soldiers, the janissaries wore silk robes in the sultan’s red and green colors with a layer of chain mail underneath it, a fabric belt around the waist to hold their weapons, then for their feet they wore comfortable leather boots. The janissaries carried a set of weapons sometimes including a long and heavy poleaxe, though this was usually reserved for palace guards, which means that most janissaries carried either an axe, mace, or a curved sword called a Kilij or more preferably the long sword or Yatagan, and for close combat they used a deadly long dagger, sometimes they would use a small round shield, and for range combat they used a short bow which was both fast and effective. However, by the late 15th century, firearms were introduced and the Ottoman Janissaries were one of the first military units to use the musket, blunderbuss, and harquebus with gunpowder and ammunition, this then led to the shield and bow to go out of use, although they still used the same uniforms. For the Ottomans, another elite force they used was the heavy cavalry known as the Sipahi but they were not as fearless and disciplined as the janissaries, these horsemen were on the other hand more like the knights of Europe but not in a very heavy set of armor, rather they wore a set of lighter plate armor over chain mail and fought in battle by making a cavalry charge at the enemy using their long curved blade or Kilij. The janissaries helped bring the Ottoman Empire to many victories such as in conquering Egypt, defeating the Hungarians at the Battle of Mohacs (1526), conquering Egypt (1517), and in capturing Constantinople (1453) ending the Byzantine Empire. The Ottoman army including the janissaries and Sipahi fought on both borders of the empire from Austria on the west to Persia on the east. For a very long time, the janissaries were an influential force being fearless soldiers with a strong motivation to fight but in by the 19th century they have grown too strong in political power that they rebelled against the sultan who suppressed and executed them.

Read one of my previous articles for more info on Ottoman warfare

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Ottoman Janissary in full armor and uniform

 

VIII. Samurai- Japan

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Edo (Tokugawa) Shogunate flag

If medieval Europe had knights, castles, and feudal lords, medieval Japan had the same thing too except their knights known as the Samurai wore lighter armor but functioned the same way as knights protecting their feudal lord known as a Daimyo in Japan who was under the military commander, later ruler of Japan known as the Shogun. Like the knights, samurai were warriors who followed a code of loyalty and honor and for them, if it was broken they would have to commit suicide in the ritual of hara-kiri. The samurai emerged in the 10th century in Kyoto, back then the seat of the Japanese imperial court and as Japan was rocked by civil wars in the Middle Ages, the samurai grew to become an elite force and the strongest in the Japanese armies. Originally, the samurai were horse archers who used the technique of placing the arrow at 1/3 of the length of the Yumi bow before firing, but as time evolved they began to master sword combat. The basic weapon of a samurai was the Katana or long sword which was as long as 60cm and used rapidly in one strike against the enemy, in fact it could even cut through several enemies with its sharpness if it were swung very rapidly. Their secondary weapon was a shorter Katana or Wakizashi and sometimes they would use a short spear called a Yari which were shorter than the ones used by the infantry and had a katana-like blade at the top, while on the other hand the samurai never really used shields and for long distance combat they still used their Yumi bows; although when firearms were introduced to Japan in the 16th century, samurai sometimes used them. For armor, the Samurai used the same full set or Yoroi for centuries made up of several iron and leather plates fastened together by ropes, it however did not cover as much parts as the armor of the European knights, and the samurai did not have any chain mail beneath it, rather this armor was their only protection and underneath it was just their robes. The armor set included protection for the chest or the Do, the skirt protecting the thigh or Kusazuri and underneath it the Haidate and above it was a fabric waist belt holding the 2 swords, then for the arms and legs there was a protective layer as well; meanwhile they wore a large iron helmet called a Kabuto which had all sorts of elaborate designs including horns in front and a face mask or Mempo sometimes with a moustache and fake teeth for intimidation. Meditation and the practice of Zen gave the Samurai their strength and with their strength in battle, they were an effective military force for centuries including during the Tokugawa Shogunate period of Japan (1603-1867), although when the Shogunate was dissolved and the power returned to the emperor, the samurai were outdated.

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Samurai armor diagram
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Samurai armor variants
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Samurai with dual Katana blades
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Samurai armor detailed diagram
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Samurai warriors in battle

 

IX. Heavy Infantry- Sweden

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Swedish Empire flag

In the Renaissance period of Europe, armies developed new tactics, grew larger in size, and gave up the use of armor as firearms were introduced and became primary weapons. In the 17th century, a powerful but underrated military force was the Kingdom of Sweden, which had a professional citizen army that won them a couple of battles in the 30-Years-War (1618-48) between the Protestant kingdoms and the Catholic Holy Roman Empire. TO begin with, Sweden did not have much of an army and when King Gustav II Adolf (Gustavus Adolphus) came into power in 1612, Sweden had multiple enemies and what was needed to fight back was the creation of a strong army. Gustav II created this army by recruiting citizens through the church which gave them a religious motivation to fight for their Protestant faith against the Catholics and in battle they were divided into regiments, which were divided into companies. The units of the Swedish army consisted of pikemen holding long weapons or pikes in a Phalanx formation while the elite forces were the musketeers which used the rifle known as a flintlock musket as their primary weapon. As the elite fighting force, the musketeers carried a set of weapons including their musket or a shorter gun called a carbine as an alternative, then they would use a longsword or rapier for close combat, a dagger would also be kept, and sometimes they would carry a Bardiche or poleaxe or a pole with a fork at the top to support their rifle’s aim. Meanwhile, the cavalry of the Swedish army was strong as well as they charged with broadswords and used 2 flintlock pistols for their firearms, although the Swedes did not master artillery warfare. The uniform of the Swedish musketeers consisted of a lose blue outer coat like the French Musketeers, although inside it the Swedes wore a yellow tunic as both colors represented the royal colors of Sweden. Over the coat, these soldiers wore a sash containing vials of gunpowder and ammunition, over their head they wore a large brown leather hat rather than a helmet, and underneath they wore a special kind of water-resistant boots. During the 30-Year’s-War, the Swedish army had the same weapons as the armies of the Holy Roman Empire and Austria, although what made them different was their strict discipline in battle and motivation to fight for their king and faith, also they were tall in height and had great strength like their ancestors, the Vikings; these assets of theirs helped them win battles like the Battle of Lützen (1632) even with Gustav II killed in that battle. By the end of the 17th century, the Swedish army was reformed once more by King Karl XI creating the Carolean Army, which were much more disciplined for religious purposes but still used the same war tactics. The Swedish Empire’s army began to decline when Sweden lost to the Russian Empire in the Great Northern War (1700-21), which began the era of Russian imperial dominance.

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17th century Swedish army

 

X. Cuirassiers- French Empire

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French Empire flag

As for this article’s final elite force, the French Cuirassier is the most modern in the list even if they have been active 200 years ago, but by that time in the early 19th century, warfare changed with faster firearms and more units on the battlefield. In the early 19th century, a master of warfare and strategy was Napoleon Bonaparte, a French general who became the 1st emperor of France and over a decade he continuously won in the battlefield leading to the conquest of most of Europe. The army of Napoleon was best known as the Grande Armée (Great Army) and his original intention for it was to invade England after its creation in 1805, although this plan never happened, but instead this formidable armed force swept across Europe having already conquered Italy and Egypt and later defeating the Austrian and Prussian Empires in battles such as Austerlitz (1805), but in 1812 it was defeated by the army of the Russian Empire in Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, and afterwards the Grande Armée suffered more heavy defeats until Napoleon’s final defeat at Waterloo (1815) mainly by the British and Prussian armies. What made the Grand Armée unique was not their weapons since they practically used the same weapons as the other armies did, not much their size even though they came in the hundred thousands, but rather it was the fact that they were a citizen army and were divided into divisions each behaving independently but all in the same uniforms. The French army was still divided into the infantry, cavalry, and artillery each being powerful forces moving quickly in battle. The infantry consisted of the riflemen and as well as the Imperial Guard, the elite force of most experienced soldiers armed with a caliber musket fixed with a bayonet, but wearing the same red, white, and blue uniform but with a tall hat made of bearskin. Meanwhile, Napoleon’s army had a powerful cavalry as well, in fact some of the imperial guards made up the cavalry, but another deadly force in the French cavalry were the Cuirassiers, in which their name comes from the chest armor piece they wore known as a Cuirass. The cuirassiers wore the same army uniform consisting of a blue coat with red lining and a white piece in front symbolizing the French national colors; although over their uniform was the piece of armor only for the chest and back used for hand to hand combat and over it a white sash, then on their head they wore a metal helmet with horsehair looking similar to a Greek or Roman helmet instead of a hat, and underneath the coat was cut short in front extending lower behind, while they wore while gloves for the hands and high-cut boots which were more comfortable for riding than marching. For weapons, the cuirassiers used a saber as their main weapon for cavalry charges which was kept in a sheath, then they also carried 2 flintlock pistols and a short gun or carbine. The cuirassiers were not the only cavalry units in the army, others included the light cavalry Hussars as well as soldiers of allied countries like Italy, Poland, Bavaria, as well as Egypt as the Egyptian units known as the Mamelukes wore a distinct uniform. On the other hand, French troops wore the same type of uniforms and carried the same types of weapons but their discipline in battle and motivation to fight for the republican ideals of France (liberty, equality, fraternity) made them the formidable army they are known for today. Before the French Revolution of 1789, the French did not have much of a powerful army but after the army was reformed in 1793 they became a more disciplined force replacing the old royal army in both members and in uniform as the previous white coats with blue interiors were replaced by the national French tricolor.

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French Cuirassier armor and weapons set
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Mounted French Imperial Cuirassier
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Cuirassiers’ cavalry charge
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Cuirassier armor and helmet variants
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French imperial guards in battle

 

Honorable Mentions- Historical Special Forces:

Bowmen- England 

Tercios- Spanish Empire 

Hussars- Poland 

Grenadiers- Prussia 

 

Well, this finishes this over 6000-word article! But before I finish, I would like to say that these 10 elite forces including the 5 honorable mentions are my all-time favorite fighting forces and possible the most powerful army units of all time excluding the modern ones. Of course, in the modern age there have been even more powerful special forces including the World War II Paratroopers ad US Navy Seals but their strength and abilities would be way too far for these historical soldiers. Discussing the abilities and weapons of modern special forces would be a topic for another time, but also, I have a much larger interest for the lesser known, which includes warfare, weapons, and uniforms of the past. Anyway, I hope you learned a lot from this article because I’ve also learned a lot from writing this including the skills each special forces needed in history to be great and smart soldiers, which is not just a great sense of discipline but the ability to strategize battles and known the terrain which were the skills the French Grande Armée needed. Meanwhile, other soldiers such as the knights, cataphracts, and Swedish infantry gained their strength to fight from the motivation to fight for their faith while the samurai on the other hand followed a code of honor and loyalty as well as gained their strength from meditation. What was also interesting to know is that as early as ancient times, the Greek hoplites and Roman legionnaires were already an advanced force in battle. In the course of history, battle tactics from period influenced the tactics of the next period and were innovated up to this day when warfare has grown to be very technological. Anyway, this is all for now on my historical elite forces article… thanks for viewing!