Armor and Uniform
Hussar armor and recruiting posters
Winged Hussar memorial at the Our Lady of Czestochowa Shrine, Doylestown, PA
the Commonwealth's "Tanks"
There was a huge sound of a collision then, like a toppling mountain, and then a vast ringing as if a thousand blacksmiths were beating on their anvils. We looked again and—dear God alive!—the Elector's men were all down and trampled like a wheat field scoured by a hurricane, and they… the husaria… were already far beyond them, with lance pennons flickering…
Next they struck the
Swedes. One regiment of Reiters went down like
before a scythe. Another went under. …They charged the Swedish
broke them. They shattered them. Everything fled before them,
chaff! Everything was tumbling back, running and recoiling! The whole
army split apart before them and they charged down that gaping avenue
avalanche. Nothing could stop them! They cut through half of the
line. And then they ran into the Swedish Horse Guards where Carolus
Charles Gustav] and his staff were standing… And, I tell you, it was as
windstorm had whirled in among those Guardsmen and carried them away…!
Henryk Sienkiewicz, The Deluge (Kuniczak translation), pp. 815-816
The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was more than three centuries ahead of armored-warfare exponents like George S. Patton Jr., Erwin Rommel, and Heinz Guderian. It was two centuries ahead of the famous Russian marshal Aleksandr V. Suvorov in the development of mobile warfare and the advocacy of decisive shock battle.
The husaria (Hussars) were the Commonwealth's equivalent of tanks. This was not because of their armor (medieval knights were even more heavily-protected) but rather because of their tactics. Descriptions of Hussar engagements suggest that they sought to break through and overrun enemy units instead of engaging in melee (as is normally shown in cavalry engagements in movies). The "overrun attack" (a variant of Suvorov's "attack through") was later adopted by tank commanders. Another use of modern armor is to get into the enemy's rear areas and wreak havoc there. Per Adam Zamoyski's The Polish Way (p. 154), the Poles would often send cavalry in arcs of up to a thousand miles behind the enemy lines. (These were not necessarily Husaria; they could easily have been lighter-armed riders.)
Hussar weapons reinforce the conclusion that the attack through, as opposed to melee, was the principal tactic. The koncerz and pallasz (see below) lacked cutting edges and they were so long as to be unsuitable for epee-type fencing. They were instead used as secondary "lances" after the Hussar expended his long kopia. A Hussar would not have wanted to stop and use either of these weapons to fence with his opponent; he'd probably want to attempt to hit while passing at a full charge, which is how the attack through works. The Husaria did of course carry sabres (the szabla) that could be used in a melee.
Armor and Uniform
The Hussar's protection consisted of half-armor (helmet and cuirass) or three-quarter-armor (helmet, cuirass, upper leg armor, and some protection for the arms). Two unique elements of the Hussar uniform were a cape made from a leopard, wolf, or tiger fur, and a pair of wooden frames that held an impressive array of feathers. Their purpose was apparently to frighten enemy horses. One can speculate, for example, that horses would be instinctively terrified of the residual odor (if downwind) and the appearance of a wolf or leopard fur. The wings' appearance also was unusual and they were said to emit a terrifying hiss as the wind rushed through them. The Poles' own horses were, of course, accustomed to these things. The Poles also knew of lariat-wielding steppe horsemen and it was very difficult to get a lasso around the wings.
Armament consisted of the szabla, a curved Polish sabre that Zamoyski (p. 155) describes as "the finest cutting instrument ever in use in a European army." It originated in the East and was modified by the Hungarians, who also were known for their superb cavalry. The Poles then made further improvements during the sixteenth century. Each Hussar also carried a pair of wheellock pistols and possibly a bow. Far from being a primitive weapon in comparison to contemporary firearms, the bow was a high-skill weapon whose rate of fire was much higher than that of any musket. Armies used muskets instead of bows because it took years of training to create, for example, the kind of archers who won the Battle of Agincourt in 1415. You could, on the other hand, go into a low-class tavern, recruit what the Duke of Wellington called "the scum of the earth" for a shilling a day, and turn them into passable musketeers in a few weeks. The Husaria also used three weapons of uniquely Commonwealth origin:
Medieval knights in full armor could not move very quickly, especially since the giant draft horses they rode (e.g. Percheron, Clydesdale breeds) also wore armor. The Husaria wore up to three-quarter armor but they could charge at a full gallop. The Polish horse was bred for speed and endurance, and Zamoyski (p. 155) writes that Polish cavalry could travel 120 kilometers per day without killing the horses. (He does not say, however, if these were light cavalry or Husaria.) The Poles also adopted the Eastern saddle, which was easier on the horse. Furthermore, I read somewhere (I am still looking for a reference) that the Poles invented the posting or rising trot, which is more comfortable for both horse and rider than the more dignified sitting trot.