Saturday, June 7, 2014

Don Cossacks (cavalry)

What is or was a Cossack by 1854? In ethnic terms, they were generally by this time dominated by Greater Russian peoples. Socially, they were based on nomadic structures but this had been changing for many generations as had their cultural independence.They spoke Russian, observed in their own way Christian Orthodoxy but retained the strong influence of their Tartar origins in custom, law and in the way they waged war.

What is certain is that not all Cossacks were the same and there were most probably significant differences between regiments, Cossack hosts and the specific army they served in. The Don Cossacks were the most significant of the Cossack hosts from the time of the Napoleonic wars. Born to the saddle, a conspicuously high proportion of the male Cossack population (60% plus) was under arms in constant service to the Tzar in return for communal lands. From 1835, service was set at 35 years from the age of nineteen years.

In  real terms, the Cossack people of the Don were a war machine for Russia who were organised and collectively equipped their men for a lifetime of service under arms. What they were not by this period were disparate bands of brigand-like, barely civilized marauder skirmishers - the romantic and outdated concept of the irregular, unreliable maverick scouts in the style of Hollywood's Taras Bulba. Some of these classical traits and customs, identity and behaviours were surely a feature but we need to be careful not to allow mythology to lead us to cliche.
Russian Cossacks taken 1854 by Szathmary (the Royal Collection UK)
If we take a longer look as Szathmary's photo (above) we see a group of quite uniformed and smartly turned out soldiers. Their mounts are not so different from other cavalry as we might have imagined. Though black & white, the photo shows they appear to be attired in the dark blue proffered by the Tsarist government in this period and with little adornment. To be sure, it appears to be a set of officers and staff: there's not a wild fur coat, bandolier or pig-tail in sight. For more detailed discussion further on, their papakha headdress is uncovered and shows the formal red bag and what I make to be signs of several pom-poms or white plumes on the left of the crown rim.


Generations of uprisings and successful Tsarist suppression had affected increasing dominance from Moscow in local political power structures and a closer alignment of the Cossack military machine with Imperial Russian military organisation. Nevertheless, they continued to cloth an accoutre themselves for service, albeit more uniformly than in previous periods. Mount and saddlery was an expense born by the Cossack trooper. Whilst furnishing artillery and infantry regiments on campaign, the Don and other Cossack hosts continued to fulfill the irregular cavalry role for which they had long been renown.

The principle organisational unit remained the Sotnya (or sotnie): either a cavalry squadron or infantry company of 100 men. Six sotnya formed a cavalry regiment, most of whom would have mounted their own steppe ponies drawn from their vast herds about the Don. They rode them without stirrups, exerting control through the nagaika (whip).

They had their own rank titles up to Lieutenant-Colonel which mirrored the Imperial army ranks. For my wargaming purposes, it is perhaps only the Lieutenant-Colonel or starshina and major (esaul) whom I need to identify at a 1:20 representative troop scale.

Uniform (or perhaps more accurately: Dress)

Seaton & Youens (The Cossacks, Osprey Men-At-Arms 1972) emphasize the inaccuracy or rather falsehood in artistic depictions of uniformly attired Cossacks at war when compared to the written records and later photographic evidence. Considerable variation in basic clothing within and certainly between sotnyas of a regiment would appear highly likely. Having said that, the above photo of Szathmary's clearly show some smartly turned out and clearly 'uniformed' Cossacks and it appears that some level of uniformity was achieved at this particular time. This was certainly the desire, intent and practice of the Tsarist government in its employment of Cossacks for the first part of the nineteenth century.

Guard Cossack papakha 1790
That item of dress which identifies the Don in the Crimean War from any other type of Cossack is perhaps his headgear: the papakha. A tall cylindrical busby of pressed, rough lambswool, the papakha is Turkish in origin. It is similar to the common Astrakhan cap which is essentially of the same design and material, but the Don papakha is conspicuously taller. The crown was red and sometimes formed a bag which extended some way down the right side. Particular Don Cossack regiments might even include a white pom-pom or plume fixed to the left of the top rim but this may have been mostly for guard regiments and a governmental inclusion in the European style. Thomas & Scollins (The Russian Army of the Crimean War 1854-56, Osprey Men-At-Army no:241) highlights the practice of forming the papakha oilskin cover into a cap of its own for use in the field - see below illustration of 60th Don Cossacks.

Vansen's sketches of 42nd Don Cossacks
The black fur and cloth cap worn in the Caucasus was retained by those regiments who fought in that army which included the first 54 regiments. Vansen's sketch (illustrated right) shows the crown of the cap which would have been red with white piping for the Don regiments.
Mid-ninetheenth century Cossacks (note red crown and piping)

60th Don Cossacks (note the oilskin cap)

The tunic (coat) or tchekman worn by the Cossacks of the Crimean War reflects this particular period of attempts by Moscow to bring greater conformity to Cossack appearance in the field. In the European style, this tunic may have been common beyond the 60th Don Cossacks (illustrated left). Pants were predominately blue with a single and relatively wide red stripe (see Vansen's sketch above). Collar and shoulder straps are blue and red piped generally.


Don Cossack cavalry had by this period long favoured the lance (without pennon) as their principle weapon. They were armed with a rifle (no bayonet) and a curved sabre (the shashka). Both the Caucasian and Cossack shashka originated in design from the 12th century and was an ornately decorated single edged, curved and hilt-less sword with a counter-curved grip. Wider than the European sabre, the shashka blade is seen often with more than one fuller. Cossacks also took whatever additional arms the individual chose to carry - mostly pistols and knives.

Other References

Vezio Melegari: "The World's Great Regiments" 1968.


  1. Nice post, well illustrated...and great blog!

  2. Definitely a post to bookmark, thank you.

  3. You are both more than welcome. I have some fellas from the St Petersburg Museum getting through to me on some translated research soon. It should prove illuminating.