Light infantry (or skirmishers) are soldiers whose job was to provide a skirmishing screen ahead of the main body of infantry, harassing and delaying the enemy advance. Light infantry was distinct from medium, heavy or line infantry. Heavy infantry were dedicated primarily to fighting in tight formations that were the core of large battles. Light infantry fought in open-order, often in close co-ordination with heavy infantry, where they could screen the heavy infantry from harassing fire, and the heavy infantry could intervene to protect the light infantry from attacks of enemy heavy infantry or cavalry. Heavy infantry originally had heavier arms and more armour than light infantry, but this distinction was lost as the use of armour declined and gunpowder weapons became standardized.
The concept of a skirmishing screen is a very old one and was already well-established in Ancient Greece and Roman times in the form, for example, of the Greek peltast and psiloi, and the Roman velites. As with so called "light infantry" of later periods, the term more adequately describes the role of such infantry rather than the actual weight of their equipment. Peltast equipment, for example, grew steadily heavier at the same time as hoplite equipment grew lighter. It was the fact that peltasts fought in open order as skirmishers that made them light infantry and that hoplites fought in the battle line in a phalanx formation that made them heavy infantry.
Early regular armies of the modern era frequently relied on irregulars to perform the duties of light infantry skirmishers. In the 17th century, dragoons were the light infantry skirmishers of their day – lightly armed mounted infantrymen who rode into battle but dismounted to fight, giving them a mobility lacking to regular foot soldiers.
In the 18th and 19th centuries most infantry regiments or battalions had a light company as an integral part of its composition. Its members were often smaller, more agile men with high shooting ability and capability of using initiative. They did not usually fight in disciplined ranks as did the ordinary infantry but often in widely dispersed groups, necessitating an understanding of skirmish warfare. They were expected to avoid melee engagements unless necessary, and would fight ahead of the main line to harass the enemy before falling back to the main position.
During the period 1777–1781, the Continental Army of the United States adopted the British Army practice of seasonally drafting light infantry regiments as temporary units during active field operations, by combining existing light infantry companies detached from their parent regiments.
Light infantry sometimes carried lighter muskets than ordinary infantrymen while others carried rifles and wore rifle green uniforms. These became designated as rifle regiments in Britain and Jäger (hunter) regiments in German speaking Europe. In France, during the Napoleonic Wars, light infantry were called voltigeurs and chasseurs and the sharpshooters tirailleurs. The Austrian army had Grenzer regiments from the middle of the 18th century, who originally served as irregular militia skirmishers recruited from mountainous frontier areas. They were gradually absorbed into the line infantry becoming a hybrid type that proved successful against the French, to the extent that Napoleon recruited several units of Austrian army Grenzer to his own army after victory over Austria in 1809 compelled the Austrians to cede territories from which they were traditionally recruited. In Portugal, 1797, companies of Caçadores (Hunters) were created in the Portuguese Army, and in 1808 led to the formation of independent "Caçador" battalions that became known for their ability to perform precision shooting at long distances.
Light infantry officers sometimes carried muskets or rifles, rather than pistols, and their swords were light curved sabres; as opposed to the heavy, straighter swords of other infantry officers. Orders were sent by bugle or whistle instead of drum (since the sound of a bugle carries further and it is difficult to move fast when carrying a drum). Some armies, including the British and French, recruited whole regiments (or converted existing ones) of light infantry. These were considered elite units, since they required specialised training with emphasis on self-discipline, manoeuvre and initiative to carry out the roles of light infantry as well as those of ordinary infantry.
By the late 19th century the concept of fighting in formation was on the wane due to advancements in weaponry and the distinctions between light and heavy infantry began to disappear. Essentially, all infantry became light infantry in operational practice. Some regiments retained the name and customs, but there was in effect little difference between them and other infantry regiments.
On the eve of World War I the British Army included seven light infantry regiments. These differed from other infantry only in maintaining such traditional distinctions as badges that included a bugle horn, dark green home service helmets for full dress, and a fast-stepping parade ground march.
Today the term "light" denotes, in the United States table of organization and equipment, units lacking heavy weapons and armor or with a reduced vehicle footprint. Light infantry units lack the greater firepower, operational mobility and protection of mechanized or armored units, but possess greater tactical mobility and the ability to execute missions in severely restrictive terrain and in areas where weather makes vehicular mobility difficult.
Light infantry forces typically rely on their ability to operate under restrictive conditions, surprise, violence of action, training, stealth, field craft, and fitness levels of the individual soldiers to address their reduced lethality. Despite the usage of the term "light", forces in a light unit will normally carry heavier individual loads versus other forces; they must carry everything they require to fight, survive and win due to lack of vehicles. Although units like the 101st Airborne (Air Assault) and the 82nd Airborne Division are categorized as Air Assault Infantry and Airborne Infantry respectively, they fall under the overall concept of light infantry.
In the 1980s, the United States Army increased light forces to address contingencies and increased threats requiring a more deployable force able to operate in restrictive environments for limited periods. At its height, this included the 6th Infantry Division (light), 7th Infantry Division (light), 10th Mountain Division (light infantry), 25th Infantry Division, and the 75th Ranger Regiment. Operation Just Cause is often cited as proof of concept. Almost 30,000 U.S. Forces, mostly light, deployed to Panama within a 48-hour period to execute combat operations.
During the Falklands War in 1982, both Argentina and the United Kingdom made heavy use of light infantry and its doctrines during the campaign, most notably the Argentine 5th Naval Infantry Battalion (Argentina) and 25th Infantry Regiment (Argentina) and the British Parachute Regiment and Royal Marines of 3 Commando Brigade. Due to the rocky and mountainous terrain of the Falkland Islands, operations on the ground were only made possible with the use of light infantry because the use of mechanized infantry or armour was severely limited by of the terrain, leading to the "Yomp" across the Falklands, in which Royal Marines and Paras yomped (and tabbed) with their equipment across the islands, covering 56 miles (90 km) in three days carrying 80-pound (36 kg) loads after disembarking from ships at San Carlos on East Falkland, on 21 May 1982.
During the 1990s, the concept of purely light forces in the US military came under scrutiny due to their decreased lethality and survivability. This scrutiny has resulted in the Stryker Brigade Combat Team, a greater focus on task organized units (such as Marine Expeditionary Units) and a reduction of purely light forces.
Despite their reduction, light forces have proven successful in Afghanistan (Operation Enduring Freedom), underlining the continued need for light infantry.
In the Australian Defence Force riflemen are employed by the Australian Army in both the Regular Army and the Army Reserves. Riflemen in the Australian Army are members of the Royal Australian Infantry Corps. Riflemen in the Regular Army are organised into seven battalions of the Royal Australian Regiment.
Riflemen of the Army Reserve are organized into individual state and university regiments with reserve depots being found in many places throughout rural and metropolitan Australia.
Finnish infantry units are also known as Jäger (Finnish pl. Jääkärit, Swedish pl. Jägarna), a legacy of a Finnish volunteer Jäger battalion formed in Germany during World War I to fight for the liberation of Finland from Russia.
The light infantry was organised in France in the 18th century.
The name Chasseurs à pied (light infantry) was originally used for infantry units in the French Army recruited from hunters or woodsmen. Recognized for their marksmanship and skirmishing skills, the chasseurs were comparable to the German Jäger or the British light infantry. The Chasseurs à Pied, as the marksmen of the French army, were regarded as elite light companies and regiments. The first unit raised was Jean Chrétien Fischer's Free Hunter Company in 1743. These units were often a mix of cavalry and infantry. In 1776 all the Chasseurs units were re-organized in six battalions, each one linked to a cavalry regiment (Chasseurs à cheval). In 1788, the special link between infantry battalions and cavalry regiment was broken.
Revolution and Napoleon
In 1793, the Ancien Régime Chasseurs battalions were merged with volunteers battalions in new units called Light Infantry Half-Brigades (demi-brigades d’infanterie légère). In 1803, the half-brigades were rebranded regiment. These units had three battalions of three regular Chasseurs companies, one elite Carabiniers company and one reconnaissance voltigeurs company.
In Napoléon’s Imperial Guard, many units used names linked to light infantry :
The Napoléon-type Light Infantry regiment existed till 1854, but with very few differences from the line infantry regiment, so the 25 remaining light infantry regiments were transformed in line infantry in 1854.
Chasseurs à pied
The Duke of Orléans, heir to the throne, created in 1838 a new light infantry unit, the Tirailleurs battalion. It soon became, under the name Chasseur à Pied, the main light infantry unit in the French Army. The number of battalions grew up steadily through the century. The current Chasseurs battalions drew their lineage form this unit.
Some of Chasseurs à pied battalions were converted to specialized mountain units as Bataillons de Chasseurs Alpins in 1888, as an answer to the Italian Alpine (Alpini) regiments stationed along the Alpine frontier.
The Chasseurs forestiers (Forest Huntsmen) were militarized units of the Forest Service. They were organized in companies. The Chasseurs forestiers existed between 1875 and 1924.
The Zouaves battalions and regiments were colonial troops, formed originally by Algerians, then by European settlers and colonists. The first Zouave battalion was created in 1831 and changed its recruiting to Europeans in 1841.
Tirailleurs (Skirmishers) were light infantry who formed a shallow line ahead of the line of battle during the Revolutionary/Napoleonic Wars and subsequently. The name was also used for the locally recruited colonial troops in the French Empire between 1841 and 1962.
Chasseurs à pied
The Chasseurs à pieds evolved during the mid-XXth century into mechanized infantry units (Chasseurs mécanisés) or armored division infantry (chasseurs portés). After World War Two, all Chasseur units were organized on the mechanized infantry model.
The Chasseurs alpins', mountain warfare units of the French Army created in 1888.
The Chasseurs pyrénéens were the short-lived (1939-1940) mountain warfare units formed in the Pyrénées.
The Chasseurs-parachutistes were airborne infantry units formed in 1943 from Air Force infantry compagnies transferred to the Army.
Zouaves and Tirailleurs'
After the independence of the countries that made up the French Colonial Empire, the Zouaves and the Tirailleurs units, save for one, were disbanded.
Modern French Army Light Infantry
Although the traditions of these different branches of the French Army are very different, there is still a tendency to confuse one with the other. For example, when World War I veteran Léon Weil died, the AFP press agency stated that he was a member of the 5th "Regiment de Chasseurs Alpins". It was in fact the 5th Bataillon.
The Indian Army of 1914 included 10 regiments with "Light Infantry" in their titles. These were the:2nd Queen Victoria's Own Rajput Light Infantry5th Light Infantry6th Jat Light Infantry63rd Palamcottah Light Infantry83rd Wallajahabad Light Infantry91st Punjabis (Light Infantry)103rd Mahratta Light Infantry105th Mahratta Light Infantry110th Mahratta Light Infantry127th Baluch Light Infantry
Of the 28 Infantry regiment of the modern Indian Army, the following 10 are designated as "Rifles". They are distinguished by their black rank badges, black buttons on their service and ceremonial uniforms and also a beret which is a darker shade of green than the other regiments. Apart from these, two paramilitary forces: the Assam Rifles and the Eastern Frontier Rifles, also follows the traditions of the rifle regiment.Rajputana RiflesGarhwal RiflesJammu and Kashmir Rifles1st Gorkha Rifles (The Malaun Regiment)3 Gorkha Rifles4 Gorkha Rifles5 Gorkha Rifles (Frontier Force)8 Gorkha Rifles9 Gorkha Rifles11 Gorkha Rifles
In the Israel Defense Forces every soldier goes through some basic training of infantry, called "Tironut". However, the level of training changes according to the role and unit to which the soldier belongs. The "Rifleman" rating (in Hebrew: רובאי) includes basic military skills, physical training, military discipline and using assault rifle. More infantry skills (such as operating diverse weapons) are added as the level of training increases.
Basic training ("Tironut"):
Advance training ("Imun Mitkadem"):
Additional training for combat soldiers:
Israel also has multiple such light infantry units like the Paratroopers Brigade for example.
Although all of Italy's main substates in the late 18th/early 19th century had their own units of skirmishers, after the unification of Italy what remained were the "Bersaglieri". Those became some of the most iconic soldiers for Italy and worked as the "quick reaction force" in all of the conflicts in which the Italian Army was involved. Another light infantry unit is the corp of the Alpini. Although it may not seem a true "light infantry" unit, given that they were assigned their own artillery, and had a slower marching pace (45 steps per minute, as opposed to the 60 steps per minute of infantry), the Alpini were trained as jagers and skirmishers, introducing the use of skis for operations in snowy areas and climbing training for all of their recruits. Those two corps still exist nowadays, but in the years the Bersaglieri, from a fully "light infantry" unit have become a "mechanised infantry" unit, working closely to support the armored units, and up until the mid 90s they had their own tank and artillery units. Other units who can be classified as light infantry are:
Portuguese Riflemen were known as Caçadores literally "Huntsmen". Portuguese Caçadores battalions were the elite light soldiers of the Portuguese Army during the Peninsular War. They wore distinctive brown uniforms for camouflage. They were considered, by the Duke of Wellington, as the "fighting cocks of his army". Each Caçadores battalion included an elite company armed with rifles known as atiradores (literally "Shooters").
In the first half of the 20th century the Caçadores battalions were recreated as border defense units.
In the 1950s, the title "Caçadores" was also given to the light infantry battalions and independent companies responsible for garrisoning the Portuguese overseas territories. Colonial troops with this title were recruited from both Portuguese settlers and from the indigenous populations in each overseas territory.
At the beginning of the 1960s, several special forces companies of the Portuguese Army were named "Special Huntsmen" (Caçadores Especiais). These units wore a brown beret in the colour of the uniforms of the caçadores of the Peninsular War. Later these units were abolished and the brown beret started to be used by most of the units of the Portuguese Army.
In the 1950s a paratrooper unit was formed in the Portuguese Air Force, known as "Parachutist Hunters" (Caçadores Paraquedistas). Later, battalions of Caçadores Paraquedistas were also created in Angola, Mozambique and Portuguese Guinea.
In 1975, the designation "Caçadores" was discontinued in the Portuguese Armed Forces. All former units of caçadores were redesigned as "Infantry".
Currently, every infantry soldier of the Portuguese Army is known as atirador.
The Rhodesia Regiment had an affiliation with the King's Royal Rifle Corps since World War I. The regiment's badge was the Maltese Cross, the colours were red, black and rifle green and rifle green berets were worn. A private soldier had the title of "Rifleman".
The Imperial Russian Army, which was heavily influenced by the Prussian and Austrian military systems, included fifty Jäger or yegerskii [егерский] regiments in its organisation by 1812, including the Egersky Guards Regiment. These regiments were disbanded in 1917-18.
Historically the Spanish infantry included several battalions of light infantry that were designated as Cazadores. These units were incorporated into the ordinary infantry following army reorganization in the early 1930s.
Until 2006 the modern Spanish Army maintained a Brigada de Cazadores de Montaña "Aragón I" (Mountain Huntsmen Brigade "Aragón I")
Until the 1950s the British Army included six regiments specifically designated as light infantry. In contrast to the Rifle regiments (see below) those units were distinguished from other infantry regiments only by secondary details of uniform and insignia. They did however have the rapid ceremonial marching step which originated with the need to keep ahead of the slower moving line infantry columns in 18th century campaigns. Between 1957 and 1968 the light infantry regiments underwent a series of mergers and disbandments, with the surviving units becoming a single large regiment: The Light Infantry. This in turn was amalgamated into The Rifles in 2007.
From their inception the British Rifle Regiments were distinguished by a dark green dress with blackened buttons, black leather equipment and sombre facing colours that gave them what was really a modern aspect - designed for concealment rather than display. This has been retained until the present day for those British units that still carry on the traditions of the riflemen. Their most famous weapon was the 'Baker rifle', which in the hands of the elite 95th regiment and the light companies of the 60th regiment and the Kings German Legion gained fame in the Peninsular War against Napoleonic France.
During the Siege of Delhi the 8th (Sirmoor) Local Battalion along with the 60th Rifles defended Hindu Rao's House during which a strong bond developed. After the rebellion the 60th Rifles pressed for the Sirmoor Battalion to become a rifle regiment. This honour was granted to them next year (1858) when the Battalion was renamed the Sirmoor Rifle Regiment. Later all British Army Gurka regiments were designated rifle regiments; a nomenclature maintained to this day with the Royal Gurkha Rifles.
The rank of Rifleman instead of Private was officially introduced in 1923.
In 1808, the United States Army created its first Regiment of Riflemen. During the War of 1812 three more Rifle Regiments were raised but disbanded after the war. The Rifle Regiment was disbanded in 1821.
Riflemen were listed as separate to infantry up to the American Civil War.
During the Civil War, Sharpshooter regiments were raised in the North with several companies being raised by individual states for their own regiments.
In the United States Marine Corps, the Military Occupational Specialty (MOS) 0311 is for "Rifleman." It is the primary infantry MOS for the Marine Corps, equivalent to the U.S. Army MOS 11B for Infantryman. The training for Riflemen is conducted at the U.S. Marine Corps School of Infantry.