A Beginners Introduction to Napoleonic Light Cavalry in Skirmish Wargames

11 September 2020
Outposts, Pickets, and Scouting

Words by David Hiscocks, Pictures by John Treadaway. 

What was the function of light cavalry in the period? What exactly did they do and how should one use them on the tabletop? Mr Hiscocks offers us some analysis and four scenarios for two popular rules sets: Sharp Practice and Black Powder. Ed

Cavalry are always good for flanking attacks: From the Cross of Iron game by Border Rievers at Derby World Team Championships 2017



In the hours, days, and weeks leading up to the battles of the Napoleonic Wars, the light cavalry troops of both sides would be roaming the countryside. As the primary reconnaissance units of the period, they would be gathering information on the terrain their forces would be marching and fighting over, the dispositions of the enemy, while also attempting to gauge their opponent’s morale and readiness for battle. 

If they had the opportunity they would attempt to intercept enemy communication and supply routes. Simultaneously they would be working to shield friendly forces from the attentions of the enemy’s own light cavalry who would be operating with the same mission objectives. These were critical activities, the importance of which was underestimated by commanders at their peril. As has always been the case throughout history, the army with the best intelligence gains a significant potentially battle-winning advantage as a result.


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The secondary roles of most light cavalry units would revolve around the day of battle and its aftermath. During the battle light cavalry would typically, although not always, be used to support the attacks of the heavy cavalry. Once the heavy cavalry had launched their charge, their horses would become blown and take time to recover. The light cavalry would be in a supporting position to either exploit their success, or cover their withdrawal until another charge could be launched. 

At the battle’s end they would be used to relentlessly harry their opponents while they retreated, often operating in combination with mobile horse artillery to break up enemy formations. Conversely, if the day went against them, then the light cavalry would be used to screen the withdrawal to give their army time to regroup. Often during these actions, they would work in cooperation with fast-moving horse artillery to give them some much-needed firepower.



Some of the most visually stunning and flamboyant units in the Napoleonic Wars were the light cavalry. Furthermore, the independent and demanding nature of light cavalry service often attracted the most eccentric, brilliant, and memorable officers of the era, such as Murat, Lasalle, and Uxbridge.

Every army had some form of light cavalry, and most had multiple variations. The French were known for having the greatest variety of light cavalry, deploying lancers, hussars, dragoons, and chasseurs a cheval, to name but a few. Nearly all nations deployed hussars and dragoons, but other unique units include the mounted Landwehr of Prussia, and the infamous Russian Cossacks. It would be usual for even the smallest of detachments of any nation to have some light cavalry attached, to act as scouts, messengers, and pickets. There is, therefore, no excuse not to have some light cavalry models in your Napoleonic Army. 



One of the most famous of the light cavalry commanders in the Napoleonic Wars, Lasalle fought in every theatre of Napoleon’s campaigns until he was killed at the head of his men at the Battle of Wagram. A thoroughbred light cavalryman, he exhibited all of the stereotypes of the breed, being an inveterate womaniser, superb swordsman, and exhibiting fearlessness in combat. Widely regarded as one of the premier light cavalrymen in Europe of the period, he had a natural talent for all of the duties of light cavalry.
“…any hussar who does not die by thirty is a blackguard” - Antoine Charles Louis de Lasalle, 1775-1809



Translating the tactics and activities of light cavalry into a miniature tabletop wargaming situation is not easily achieved. Very few mainstream rule sets reward the players for deploying and using their light cavalry in a realistic historical manner. The primary issues is that the majority of wargames drop the player into the seat of the commander after any pre-battle activities, such as those performed by the light cavalry, have been performed. Furthermore, there is typically little benefit to keeping the light cavalry intact and in reserve during the game itself so that they are available to perform post-battle activities which are not simulated on the tabletop. Unfortunately, these issues lead to light cavalry often being treated as a disposable battlefield asset by wargamers, often being regarded and used simply as an inferior version of the heavy cavalry. 

However, the nature of many of the roles undertaken by light cavalry are such that they are admirably suited to skirmish wargames in 28mm rather than large scale battles. Writing of the qualities that a light cavalryman should have, the noted French cavalry officer Fortune de Brack stated that:

“A man must be born a light cavalry soldier. No situation requires so many natural dispositions, an innate genius for war, as that of an officer of light troops. The qualities which render a man superior – intelligence, will, power – ought to be found united in him. Left constantly to himself, exposed to constant fighting, responsible not only for the troops under his command but also for those which he is protecting and scouting for, every minute finds employment for his mental and bodily faculties.”

It is during small scale actions that these qualities will come to the fore. 


Thoughtful scenario design can enable players to explore the tactics and actions of Napoleonic light cavalry. Such games will not usually be a typical “line up and joust” game, but should pit asymmetric forces against one another, with objectives that may be unusual in comparison to many normal wargames. The role of the light cavalryman relied on their intelligence and initiative while operating away from the main body of the army as much as their martial prowess, and this should be reflected in the scenario. There are a plethora of rules to choose from, but for the purposes of this article I have selected two popular games: Sharp Practice by Too Fat Lardies, and Black Powder by Warlord Games. In contrast to Sharp Practice, Black Powder is usually seen as a game for large-scale battles, yet – as it has no fixed unit scale – it can be used to simulate small actions as well. 

“If the Cossacks attack during the night, it is to keep you awake, to wear you out… you seldom have to do anything more than look alert. If the Prussian cavalry attacks during the night, that is more serious; you must not only be ready, but manoeuvre to meet them. If the Austrian cavalry attack at night they probably have their infantry with them. If the English cavalry understood war, they might be…the most terrible in Europe…” – Fortune


Advancing infantry: another shot from the Cross of Iron game by Border Rievers at Derby World Team Championships 2017


I’ll present four scenarios in this article, which can be played as one-offs or could be linked in a narrative campaign to begin the character development of your newly raised light cavalry formation. 



In this mission one force will be the attacker and the other the defender. The attacker’s objective is to drive off the enemy’s outpost force in preparation for an assault on the main body of the enemy’s army. The defender’s objective is to identify as many of their opponent’s units as possible before being driven off so that details of the impending attack can be accurately relayed to the army commander to prepare a counter-attack.


Deployment Points: 

The defending force will set up their primary deployment point first. This must be within 12” of one of the short table edges. A prominent piece of terrain should be placed in this area to act as the outpost’s location, such as a hill or watchtower. A leader 1 and one group of cavalry, or one group of skirmish/ light troops, must be deployed by the defender within 6” of this point. The attacking force’s primary deployment point must be deployed anywhere on the board within 6” of a board edge and more than 36” from the defender’s primary deployment point. 


Force Support: 

The defender must spend at least 75% of their points on mounted units. The attacker may spend up to 33% more on their army list than the defender. Both sides may take D3x3 support points.


  • The attacking force must capture the defender’s primary deployment point to win the battle.
  • The defender must identify at least 80% of their opponent’s formations. 
  • To identify an enemy formation a defending unit must be in line of sight of at least 50% of that enemy formation. 
  • Only one formation may be identified per turn. 
  • The leader who spotted the enemy must successfully leave the board via the defender’s board edge in order that their intelligence be returned to their commander. 
  • If they are prevented from doing so then none of the enemy units that leader has spotted count towards determining if the defender wins the battle. 


Terrain and Minor Characters:

There should be D3 minor characters present. The terrain can be set up in any mutually agreeable manner. 

Cavalry advance from the same Cross of Iron game




A river separates the two armies, and all of the bridges have been burnt or blown up. A scouting force has been ordered to reconnoitre the river to confirm rumours that there is a possible place for their army to ford the river to attack the main enemy camp. The defending force orders are to put a stop their opponent’s reconnaissance activities. 

Cavalry charge in the snow! From the Retreat from Moscow game by the Wessex Wargamers at Colours 2018

Deployment Points: 

The player’s primary deployment points must be placed within 6” of the centre of the short board edges. Randomly determine which short table edge will be the attacker’s. The opposite will be the defender’s edge.


Force Support: 

Both sides may also have D3 x 3 support points. If the scouting force has more light cavalry groups than the defender they gain +1 command card. If the defenders have 50% fewer light cavalry units than the scouting force then the scouting force gain +2 command cards and the defenders lose 1 command card.


Terrain and Minor Characters: 

Place a river down one of the long table edges so that for the majority of its length it is in contact with the edge of the playing area. Take 3 blank chits. Write “Ford” on the bottom of one of these chits. Turn over all of the chits and mix them up. Then roll 3D6 for each chit, noting the total on the top of each of the chits respectively. Place these chits at roughly equal intervals along the length of the river, more than 24” from any primary deployment points. D3 minor characters should be present.



  • The scouting force must determine which of the chits mark the ford. When any formation or group touches a chit it can be ordered to start to try and identify if it is the real ford. This is a Physical Action Test (as defined in the standard rules), with the bottom of the chit being revealed when the unit score reaches the total on the top of the chit. The score is cumulative across turns. If the ford chit is revealed the scouting formation that revealed it must leave the board via their primary deployment point with their intelligence. If they do so then the scouting force wins. 
  • The attacking force wins if it stops the scouting force from completing their mission, or if they hold the enemy’s primary deployment point at the end of the chapter. 




In this mission two larger reconnaissance forces have bumped into each other. They must now drive off their opponents while also ensuring their own troops remain sufficiently intact to be able to continue on to reconnoitre the enemy position. Each “brigade” represents a battalion sized force (approximately 500-800 men).


One table edge will be player one’s table edge. The opposite will be player two’s.

One brigade from each side will be the vanguard force. Before the game begins the players must secretly give their vanguard force orders for the first turn, including an instruction about where to deploy onto the board from.

The player’s remaining brigades will enter the board behind the vanguard force. At the start of the second turn roll a D6 for each brigade remaining, on a 4+ the brigade enters the board. Add +1 to this roll for each successive turn until all the brigades have arrived. 


Opposing Armies: 

Both sides’ orders of battles must include no less than 75% cavalry. 



Move at least one unbroken brigade off the enemy’s table edge.

Ensure that no enemy brigades manage the same.

Hussars waiting to be deployed



In the aftermath of a significant battle the enemy are falling back in defeat. All that stands in the way of the attackers achieving a great victory is a small body of troops that have managed to form up to buy time for their comrades to escape. If they can be quickly brushed aside the attackers will be able to cause havoc in the ranks of their retreating opponents, turning their retreat into an all-out rout.


Deployment Points: 

Deployment points to be set up as per scenario 5 of the main rulebook, Sharp Practice II. The defender may not take any hard obstacles or defences in their army list or as support choices. 


Force Support: 

The attacking force may spend 33% more on their order of battle than the defender. The attacking force must spend at least 75% of its points on mounted units. Both sides may also have D3 x 3 support points. 



To achieve victory the attacker must capture the defender’s primary deployment point, or reduce their opponent’s force morale to zero within 12 turns.

Any other result will be a victory for the defending force. 


Terrain and Minor Characters: 

No minor characters should be present. The terrain should be relatively open, and there should be a road running from the attacker’s board edge to the defender’s board edge. A number of carts can be placed on the road to represent the detritus typically left behind when an army flees the field of battle. 



In 28mm scale there is a remarkably large range of figures and rules to choose from: almost a bewildering variety. Consequently, for a gamer new to Napoleonic warfare who is looking to build up a new army, building a small light cavalry force with supporting arms is eminently achievable and, in comparison to many other infantry-based skirmish forces, would be visually distinctive on the tabletop. 

Depending on which nationality you decide to collect, between 30-40 cavalry along with a unit of horse artillery, and perhaps 20 light infantry, would make for an interesting and effective force with scope for future expansion. Perry Miniatures or Warlord Games are manufacturers I would recommend for the beginner, both having a large range of plastic and metal figures to cover the main combatants. An additional advantage with those two manufacturers is that – for those wanting elements from both companies – these figures do not look out of place next to one another. 

When you want to scale up your forces for larger brigade or divisional level games, this small starter force will make for a versatile core force, perhaps as a basis of a cavalry brigade. 

For those wanting some inspiration, two army lists for Sharp Practice have been included below, alongside a corresponding list of miniatures you could purchase to collect these.


British Peninsula Force
(Points cost: 67)

Formation I 

  • Leader 3
  • Leader 1
  • 3 groups of Light Dragoons (Use the rules for Dragoons)

Formation 2

  • Leader 2
  • Leader 1
  • 2 groups of Hussars (Use the rules for Light Dragoons)

Formation 3

  • Leader 2
  • Medium artillery (9 Pounder)


To build this force you will need to purchase:

  • Two boxes of Perry Miniatures plastic British Hussars
  • Perry Miniatures Royal Horse Artillery firing 9 Pounder, and limber (BH38 & BH40)
  • Perry Miniatures British Light Dragoon Command x1 (BH33-35)
  • Two boxes of Warlord Games Union Brigade cavalry


French Peninsula Force, 1809-1812 (Points cost: 70)

Formation I 

  • Leader 3
  • Leader 1
  • 3 groups of Dragoons (including dismounted option)

Formation 2 

  • Leader 2
  • Leader 1
  • 2 groups of Chasseurs a Cheval (use rules for Hussars)

Formation 3 

  • Leader 2
  • Medium artillery 

To build this force you will need to purchase:

  • Two boxes of Warlord Games Chasseurs a Cheval
  • Two boxes of Warlord Games Dragoons
  • Perry Miniatures Line Horse Artillery aiming 6 Pounder, and limber (FN110 & FN112)
  • Perry Miniatures Dragoon Command Galloping x1 (FN202)

Cavalry advance: from the Cross of Iron game


Light cavalry are an essential yet widely misunderstood element of the Napoleonic army, distinctive in both role and appearance. From the flamboyant hussars to the rough Cossacks, every nation employed light cavalry of all types in large numbers to undertake a range of essential military duties. On the tabletop these actions are a far cry from typical “line up and fight” battles of most wargames, leading to tactically challenging scenarios with an unusual twist. The sheer ubiquity and versatility of light cavalry means that virtually every wargamer can justify and benefit from their inclusion in the ranks of their miniature force. 


Philip Haythornthwaite, Napoleonic Light Cavalry Tactics (Osprey Publishing, 2013).

Antonis Brack, Light Cavalry Outposts (London, 1876).

G.F. Nafziger, Imperial Bayonets: Tactics of the Napoleonic Battery, Battalion and Brigade as found in contemporary regulations (London & Mechanicsburg, 1996).

This review originally appeared in Issue 445 of Miniature Wargames  . Pick up the latest issue in print or digital here or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue 


Excellent article - just what I've been looking for, having just got into Napoleonic skirmish games. Congratulations to David Hiscocks. More of these please!

Posted by Andy Moorhouse on Wed 09 Dec 10:50:19