Above: Reiters (from the NYPL, Vinkhuijzen Coll.)
The cavalry of the 16th c. was divided into units that varied in number according to the commander’s custom and battlefield demands. The basic unit was the troop or cornet of 60-120 men, commanded by a rittmeister, in German-speaking lands. Larger units of 300-1,000 pistoleers, as many as 30 ranks deep, were called squadrons.
The first troops to make widespread use of pistols, reiters found it necessary to revise the standard cavalry tactic of attack in line (en haye) in order to gain the maximum effect of concentrated firepower. Intended primarily for use against infantry squares, a tactic known as the caracole was evolved.
In the most common version, a unit as large as a squadron was formed in column, wedge, or square, on average 10-15 ranks deep, and advanced towards the enemy at a slow trot, towards the front, flank, or at an angle to the enemy formation. The unit halted just beyond the ranks of the enemy pikes. Each reiter rank then advanced in succession, the individual troopers holding their fire until the last possible moment. They halted again and turned their mounts to the flank (to avoid blasting the horse’s ears off). With the faustrohre on its side, lock up to insure that the priming powder would make contact with the main charge, each reiter fired into the mass of foot and, wheeling his horse around the flank of the formation, trotted back to rejoin the tail of the column.
The following ranks would move up and repeat the procedure, thus giving the troops who had fired time to reload their wheellocks, a process which took as many as 14 separate steps. Continuously applied, this tactic could and often did result in the disorder of the enemy foot—unless they were hardened veterans, especially trained against cavalry. Once a break had been made, the reiters would charge into the gaps, using clubbed pistols, swords, and loaded pistols to force the enemy from the field of battle.
All of this worked in theory of course. In reality, the caracole was a very difficult maneuver to perform properly. Unless the troopers were well-trained, they would often fire a premature volley (not necessarily at the enemy), then, instead of rejoining the column, would ride away from the battle. Some who hadn’t fired at all would ride to the rear with those who had. In addition, due to the short effective range of the pistol, only tough troops would continue to caracole and take losses without becoming disorganized, or broken by enemy countercharges. While the front rank was filing to the rear, the whole formation was vulnerable to attacks by determined sword- or lance-wielding horsemen. For example, at the Battle of Mookerheyde (1574), reloading reiter cavalry was charged by Spanish lancers. The reiter front broke, causing chaos in the following ranks and the reserves. The resultant panic spread to the Dutch infantry, who also fled.
Opposing caracoles would often engage in prolonged fire combat without decisive results until one or the other finally broke.