French Units Glossary 1789 - 1815




  • Carabiniers: Elite heavy cavalry originally armed with a carbine and sabre. Over time their equipment evolved to more closely resemble cuirassiers when in 1809 they began wearing armor.
  • Chasseurs à Cheval: Light cavalry armed with a sabre and carbine. Fulfilled the same roles as hussars.
  • Chasseurs à Pied: Light infantry on foot of the Old Guard.
  • Cuirassiers: Elite shock cavalry on the largest horses, armored with a cuirass and helmet and armed with a sabre and pistol. Due to their size and weight, they typically did not see action until a battle, where they would build momentum and charge to break an enemy position.
  • Dragoons: Cavalry intended to serve as either light cavalry when mounted or infantry when dismounted. They were armed with muskets shorter than the standard musket, a bayonet, a straight sword, and a pistol.

  • Foot Artillery: Standard artillery that traveled with the army and could be devastating when massed as a battery. Less mobile than horse artillery.
  • Fusilier: Standard line infantry, armed with a musket and bayonet.
  • Gardes de la Marine: Young gentleman cadets specifically chosen and sponsored by the king to study to become naval officers.
  • Gendarmes: Military police, typically tasked with guard duty, discipline, and interrogation of prisoners.
  • Grenadiers: Elite and experienced shock infantry that met minimum height and size requirements to intimidate and overpower opponents. Their smaller equivalents were the voltigeurs.
  • Grenadiers à Cheval: Mounted grenadiers of the Old Guard.
  • Grenadiers à Pied: Grenadiers on foot of the Old Guard.
  • Guides: The precursor to the Imperial Guard, a select group of elite cavalry troops designated to protect the commander-in-chief.
  • Guards of Honor: Four regiments of light cavalry formed by Napoleon in 1813 and consisting of wealthy men who could provide their own horse and pay for the cost of their equipment.
  • Heavy Cavalry: Cavalry on larger horses and often armored, not able to maneuver as quickly as light cavalry, but carrying more momentum to break an enemy formation when charging in battle. The term typically implies carabiniers, cuirassiers, and/or grenadiers à cheval.
  • Horse Artillery: Artillery pulled by horses during a battle making them more mobile than foot artillery.
  • Hussars: Light cavalry armed with a sabre and carbine. Fulfilled the same roles as chasseurs à cheval but had more elaborate uniforms. Considered themselves the elite of the light cavalry.
  • Imperial Guard: Napoleon's guard and his best and most disciplined troops. The Imperial Guard was often held as a reserve during a battle, used as a striking force or reinforcing a position as circumstances dictated.
  • Lancers: Light cavalry armed with a lance, sabre, carbine, and two pistols.
  • Light Cavalry: Cavalry on smaller horses and generally without armor, able to quickly maneuver as needs dictated. They were often employed as scouts to determine enemy movements and screen the movements of their own armies, and they were also used to protect convoys and communications. They might charge during battles and after battles they were usually sent in pursuit of the retreating army, hopefully harrying the enemy army and preventing it from rallying. The term typically implies chasseurs à cheval, hussars, and lancers.
  • Light Infantry: Infantry trained with an emphasis on speed, maneuverability, and accuracy. Units were composed of fusiliers, grenadiers, tirailleurs, and/or voltigeurs. The distinction between light infantry and line infantry was small, as both types of troops were trained in the same tactics. Light infantry was armed with a sabre unlike the line infantry. Light infantry was usually selected to lead a division into battle and/or serve as skirmishers.
  • Line Infantry: Standard infantry named after their well known maneuver of marching in a wide, straight line at the enemy during battle to maximize firepower. Units were composed of fusiliers, grenadiers, and/or voltigeurs. The distinction between line infantry and line infantry was small, as both types of troops were trained in the same tactics. Line infantry did not usually carry a sabre, except for NCOs and elite units of grenadiers and voltigeurs.
  • Mamelukes: Skilled riders recruited from Napoleon's Egyptian campaign who decided to join the French army. As the unit experienced attrition over the years due to casualties and retirement, they were replaced by soldiers of other locales, including French soldiers.
  • Middle Guard: Elite veterans who had earned a position in the Imperial Guard but did not have as much experience as the Old Guard.
  • Old Guard: The most elite and longest serving soldiers of the Imperial Guard.
  • Pontooneers: Engineers specializing in the repair or construction of bridges.
  • Sappers: Also known as pioneers, combat infantry engineers specializing in the clearing and destruction of obstacles.
  • Scouts (Éclaireurs): Three regiments of light cavalry of the Imperial Guard formed by Napoleon in 1814 for the defense of France. Inspired by the Russian Cossacks, these troops would specialize in hit and run tactics.
  • Siege Artillery: Heavy artillery that was difficult to move, usually requiring good roads, good weather, and plenty of time. These guns fired larger cannonballs intended to wear down and breach walls of fortresses.
  • Skirmishers: Light infantry that moved ahead of the line infantry in battle, hid behind cover when available, and tried to pick off enemy troops one by one.
  • Tirailleurs: Sharpshooting, fast-moving skirmishers.
  • Voltigeurs: Elite and experienced infantry that were under maximum height and size requirements, enabling them to be faster to maneuver and harder to hit. Their larger equivalents were the grenadiers.
  • Young Guard: The least experienced soldiers of the Imperial Guard, often composed of the most promising recruits.

Updated July 2021

© Nathan D. Jensen