Hussars originated in mercenary units of exiled Serbian warriors, the concept having originated in Serbia in the late 14th century. The oldest mention of hussars in Polish documents date to 1500, although they were probably in service earlier. In the 15th century, light hussars based on those of King Mathias Corvinus were adopted by some European armies to provide light, expendable cavalry units.
Initially the first hussar units in the Kingdom of Poland were formed by the Sejm (Polish parliament) in 1503, which hired three banners of Hungarian mercenaries. Soon, recruitment also began among Polish citizens. Being far more expendable than the heavily armoured lancers of the Renaissance, the Serbian-Hungarian hussars played a fairly minor role in the Polish Crown victories during the early 16th century, exemplified by the victories at Orsza (1514) and Obertyn (1531). During the so-called "transition period" of the mid-16th-century, heavy hussars largely replaced armoured lancers riding armoured horses, in the Polish Obrona Potoczna cavalry forces serving on the southern frontier.
The true "winged hussar" arrived with the reforms of the King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania Stephen Bathory in the 1570s and was later led by the King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania John III Sobieski. The hussars were the leading, or even elite, branch of cavalry in the Polish army from the 1570s until 1776, when their duties and traditions were passed on to the Uhlans by a parliamentary decree. Most hussars were recruited from the wealthier Polish nobility (szlachta). Each hussar towarzysz ("comrade") raised his own poczet or lance/retinue. Several retinues were combined to form a hussar banner or company (chorągiew husarska).
Over the course of the 16th century, hussars in Hungary became heavier in character: they abandoned wooden shields and adopted metal-plated body armour. When Bathory was elected King of Poland and later accepted as a Grand Duke of Lithuania in 1576, he reorganized the hussars of his Royal Guard into a heavy formation equipped with a long lance as their main weapon. By the reign of Batory (1576–1586), the hussars had replaced medieval-style lancers in the Polish Crown army, and they now formed the bulk of the Polish cavalry. By the 1590s, most Polish hussar units had been reformed along the same "heavy" model. These heavy hussars were known in Poland as Husaria.
With the Battle of Lubiszew in 1577, the 'Golden Age' of the Husaria began. Between then and the Battle of Vienna in 1683, the Hussars fought many battles against various enemies, most of which they won. In the battles of Lubiszew in 1577, Byczyna (1588), Kokenhausen (1601), Kircholm (1605), Kłuszyn (1610), Chocim (1621), Martynów (1624), Trzciana (1629), Ochmatów (1644), Beresteczko (1651), Połonka (1660), Cudnów (1660), Chocim (1673), Lwów (1675), Vienna (1683), and Párkány (1683), they proved to be the decisive factor against often overwhelming odds. For instance, in the Battle of Kluszyn during the Polish–Muscovite War, the Russians outnumbered the Commonwealth army 5 to 1, yet were heavily defeated.
The role of the Hussar evolved into a reconnaissance and advanced scout capacity. Their uniforms became more elaborate as their armour and heavy weapons were abandoned. In the 18th century, as infantry firearms became more effective, heavy cavalry, with its tactics of charging into and breaking infantry units, became increasingly obsolete and hussars transformed from an elite fighting unit to a parade one.
Instead of ostrich feathers, the husaria men wore wooden arcs attached to their armour at the back and raising over their heads. These arcs, together with bristling feathers sticking out of them, were dyed in various colours in imitation of laurel branches or palm leaves, and were a strangely beautiful sight to behold ... – Jędrzej Kitowicz (1728–1804).
The Hussars were famous for their huge "wings", a wooden frame carrying eagle, ostrich, swan or goose feathers. In the 16th century, characteristic painted wings or winged claws began to appear on cavalry shields. The most common theory is that the hussars wore the wings because they made a loud, clattering noise which made it seem like the cavalry was much larger than in reality and frightened the enemy's horses. Other possibilities included the wings being made to defend the backs of the men against swords and lassos, or that they were worn to make their own horses deaf to the wooden noise-makers used by the Ottoman and the Crimean Tatars..
The hussars represented the heavy cavalry of the Commonwealth. The Towarzysz husarski (Companion) commanded his own poczet (kopia) consisting of two to five similarly armed retainers and other servants (czeladnicy) who tended to his horses, food, supplies, repairs and fodder and often participated in battle. His 'lance' was part of a larger unit known as a banner (chorągiew). Each banner had from 30 to over 60 kopia. The commander, per his contractual obligation, was called "rotmistrz", while the de facto commander was often the porucznik (lieutenant). There was also one chorąży (ensign) who carried the banner's flag ("znak" or "chorągiew") and could command the banner when the porucznik was unable to. Each banner had one rotmistrz kopia that was larger than its other lances; this included trumpeters, and musicians (kettle drummers, more trumpeters etc.). There were other towarzysze with duties (keeping order, helping with manoeuvres) within the banner during battle, but their functions are rather poorly understood.
The Polish hussars' primary battle tactic was the charge. They charged at and through the enemy. The charge started at a slow pace and in a relatively loose formation. The formation gradually gathered pace and closed ranks while approaching the enemy, and reached its highest pace and closest formation immediately before engagement. They tended to repeat the charge several times until the enemy formation broke (they had supply wagons with spare lances). The tactic of a charge by heavily armoured hussars and horses was usually decisive for nearly two centuries. The hussars fought with a long lance, a koncerz (stabbing sword), a szabla (sabre), set of two to six pistols, often a carbine or arquebus (known in Polish as a bandolet) and sometimes a warhammer or light axe. The lighter, Ottoman-style saddle allowed for more armour to be used by both the horses and the warriors. Moreover, the horses were bred to run very fast with a heavy load and to recover quickly. These were hybrids of old, Polish equine lineage and eastern horses, usually from Tatar tribes. As a result, a horse could walk hundreds of kilometres loaded with over 100 kilograms (warrior plus armour and weaponry) and instantly charge. Also, hussar horses were very quick and maneuverable. This made hussars able to fight with any cavalry or infantry force from western heavy cuirassiers to quick Tatars.
The hussars' towarzysz were required to provide the arms and armour for themselves and their retainers, except for the lance which was provided by the King. Each lance's horses also came at each towarzysz husarski's expense. During their heyday, 1574–1705, winged hussars carried the following arms and armour:
The 'kopia' lance was the main offensive weapon of the hussar. The lances were based on the Balkan and, finally, Hungarian lances, but Polish lances could have been longer and, like their predecessors from the Balkans and Western Europe, they were hollowed, with two halves glued together and painted, and were often richly gilded. They were commonly made from fir-wood, with the lance point being made from forged steel. They had a gałka large wooden ball which served as the handle guard. The hussar's lances usually ranged from 4.5 to 6.2 metres in length and were provided by the King or the banner's owner, not by the regular soldiers. A large 'silk'/taffeta proporzec pennon was attached to the lance below the point. Another type of lance, known as the demi-lance or kopijka, was used and could have been 3 to 3.6 metres long and was used against the Tatars and Turks in late-17th-century wars.
The Towarzysz husarski carried underneath his left thigh an Eastern-derived koncerz estoc (up to 1.5 metres in length) and, often, a palasz (a type of broadsword) under his right thigh. The szabla sabre was carried on the left side, and several types of sabres were known to winged hussars, including the famous szabla husarska.
Winged hussars sometimes carried additional weapons, such as "nadziak" type of war hammers and battleaxes. Towarzysz husarski carried one or two wheellock (later flintlock) pistols in the saddle holsters, while retainers also might have carried a pistol or light wheellock arquebus or carbine; from the 1680s a carbine for retainers was mandatory.
Individual hussar towarzysz may possibly have carried a Tatar or Turkish reflex bow with arrows in a quiver, especially after the mid-17th century, when many 'pancerny' companions became hussars, and some sources of the late 17th century note the existence of bows amongst the hussar companions. During the first half of the 18th century, while in non-military attire, the hussars' companion carried a bow in a bow case to denote his military status. Yet bows in bow cases were carried by all cavalry officers of the National Army until the reforms of the 1770s, including Uhlan units in the Saxon service.
At the height of their prowess, from 1576 to 1653, hussar armour consisted of a Polish variant of the szyszak Oriental Turkic-originated helmet with a hemispherical skull, comb-like, Western morion 'cheekpieces' with a heart-shaped cut in the middle, neck-guard of several plates secured by sliding rivets, and adjustable nasal terminating in a leaf-shaped visor. Szyszak and kettle hat helmets for the lower rank (retainers) were often blackened as was their armour. A cuirass (breast plate), back plate, gorget, shoulder guards and of the Great Steppe, Western vambraces with iron glove and later, during the 1630s, the Persian-originated karwasz vambrace, for forearm protection. Towarzysz also could wear tasset hip, cuisse thigh and poleyn knee protection, underneath a thigh-length coat of mail or specially padded coat with mail sleeves. Retainers usually wore less expensive and older armour, often painted black, and, after the 1670s, might have no cuirass, according to some sources.
Karacena Sarmatian armour (of iron scales riveted to a leather support) might have consisted of a scale helmet, cuirass, gorget, leg and shoulder protection and became popular during the reign of King John Sobieski, but perhaps due to costs and weight, remained popular mostly with the winged hussar commanding officers.
Their armour was light, usually around 15 kg, allowing them to be relatively quick and for their horses to gallop at full speed for long periods. Albeit from the 1670s onwards, chain-mail was used when fighting the Tatars in the southern part of the republic. Towarzysz usually wore a leopard (sometimes tiger, jaguar or lion) pelt over his left shoulder, or as often depicted in the surviving Podhorce Castle paintings, he had the exotic pelt underneath his saddle or wrapped around his hips. Wolf, brown bear and lynx pelts were reserved for leaders and veterans (starszyzna).
The Polish hussars are depicted on the commemorative 200 złotych gold coin, and the badge of the Polish Army's 1st Armoured Division is inspired by armour of Winged Hussars.
The unit is also a subject of a song named Winged Hussars by the Swedish heavy metal band Sabaton in their 8th studio album The Last Stand.
In Sid Meier's Civilization 5 and Civilization 6 Winged Hussars is an unique unit available to the Polish civilization.
In Creative Assembly's Empire: Total War Winged Hussars are an unique unit available to Poland.
The Hussar unit in Age of Empires II: The Conquerors strongly resembles the Polish winged hussars however the unit is available to a variety of civilizations which have little to no historic connection to them.
In the game League of Legends, made by Riot Games, the champion Xin Zhao has a cosmetic skin in reference to the Winged Hussars.
In Paradox Interactive game Europa Universalis 4, both Poland and Lithuania has national idea of "Winged Hussar", which gives 33% Calvary combat ability. This effectively make them possess the strongest Calvary unit in-game, until Artillery come into play much later in the game.
In the Girls und Panzer spinoff manga, Girls und Panzer: Ribbon Warrior, the main antagonist is represented charging and partially dressed as a Winged Hussar.