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infantry, body of soldiers who fight in an army on foot and are equipped with hand-carried weapons, in contradistinction originally to cavalry and other branches of an army. Infantry has often been divided into heavy infantry, which used to wear armor and now fights with tanks, and light infantry, which used to include skirmishers, slingers, and bowmen and now includes commandos and troops with only light tanks. In ancient wars, infantry was armed with swords, spears, slings, and bows. Around 2500 B.C. the armies of the city-states of Ur and Lagash in Mesopotamia fought in formation with shield walls and protruding longspears. The Greek phalanx was the dominant infantry formation in the West from c.500 B.C. until the ascendancy of the more flexible Roman legion. In China, where the crossbow (see bow and arrow) was widely used, more flexible formations and deception were emphasized (see Sun Tzu) along with fortifications such as the Great Wall. Infantry declined as the major fighting force in Eurasia after the 4th cent. when cavalry became dominant, but in the Americas the infantry dominated until the horse was introduced by the Spanish conquistadors. After the middle of the 14th cent., when firearms were first used, the infantry, armed with muskets and rifles, became dominant. Before the advent of automatic weapons at the end of the 19th cent., infantry fought in massed formations; in the Boer War and in World War I the mass formation gave way to trench warfare. See army; strategy and tactics; warfare.


See J. Keegan and R. Holmes, Soldiers (1980).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



(Russian, infanteriia), the name for foot soldiers in a number of states. Now obsolete, the term infanteriia was often used in Russia from the 18th to the early 20th century in official documents, along with the Russian term pekhota, as in the term “a general of infantry” (general ot infanterii).



an arm of the ground forces, designed to defeat the enemy in combined arms battle and capture enemy territory. The infantry is capable of waging unyielding, protracted battle in any season of the year, day or night, in any weather, and on any terrain. The name “infantry” for the combat arm is used in the armed forces of the United States, Great Britain, Federal Republic of Germany, and elsewhere. In the Soviet armed forces analogous infantry troops are called motorized rifle troops. In addition to the infantry of the ground forces, the armed forces of various countries also have airborne infantry and marine infantry.

The infantry is the oldest combat arm. Its role in combat, its importance compared to other combat arms, and its weaponry, organization, and tactics have undergone significant changes in the course of historical development. These changes have been determined by the level of development of production and the socioeconomic system of the state, the invention and introduction of new types of weapons, and other factors. In the slaveholding states, such as Egypt, Greece, and Rome, infantry was the chief combat arm. In Assyria, Persia, and other states of the ancient Orient, as well as Macedonia, cavalry also played a significant part.

Infantry was divided into heavy infantry (called hoplites in Greece and hastati, principes, and triarii in Rome) and light infantry (velites in Rome). The heavy infantry was recruited from the more well-to-do free citizens and was armed with spears and swords. Its armament included round shields, chest armor, helmets, and leggings. The weight of the protective armament reached 30 kg. The light infantry (archers, stone throwers, and javelin throwers) was recruited primarily from the poorest strata. Its weapons were bows, slings, light spears, and javelins. The light infantry usually had no protective armament. From the fourth century B.C., Greece had a medium infantry (peltas-ti), which combined the characteristics of the heavy and light infantry. The slaveholding states originated the troop organization that was developed most highly in Rome. The Roman Army consisted of legions, which were made up of centuries and cohorts. During the decline of the Roman Empire, the heavy spear was replaced by a lighter one, heavy armor was discontinued, and throwing weapons were used extensively in battle. The heavy infantry gradually lost its former importance.

In the armies of the feudal states, the infantry’s role varied in different periods of the development of feudalism and in different countries. The troops of the early feudal states (sixth and seventh centuries) of Western Europe at first consisted primarily of infantry militia. With the formation of large feudal states (eighth and ninth centuries) and the subsequent period of feudal breakup, military service became the privilege of the feudal lords. Instead of the former militia made up of free peasants and artisans, there appeared the feudal militia consisting of the ruling class of landowners, who formed the knighthood.

In the eighth and ninth centuries, the chief military force that decided the outcome of encounters and battles in the countries of Western Europe was the heavy knightly cavalry. It dominated the field of battle for several centuries. The infantry, which played an auxiliary role, was recruited from the serfs and feudal servants. “By the end of the tenth century,” F. Engels wrote, “the cavalry was the one combat arm that actually decided the outcome of battles everywhere in Europe. The infantry, which was much larger than the cavalry in every army, was nothing more than a poorly armed mob, and almost no effort was made to organize it. The infantryman was not even considered a warrior; the word miles (‘warrior’) became a synonym for mounted warrior” (Izbr. voennye proizvedeniia, 1956, p. 188). In the countries of Eastern Europe, infantry continued to be important along with the cavalry.

The development of crafts and trade made the cities stronger. In the 12th and 13th centuries, many cities achieved self-rule and formed their own armed forces, consisting of infantry (artisan militia units), for defense against enemy attacks. In 1302 the infantry of the Flemish cities (western Belgium), with weapons designed for fighting the knightly cavalry (long pikes, iron clubs, and the like), defeated the French knights in the battle at Courtrai. In the battle of Morgarten in 1315 the Hapsburg knightly army was routed by the Swiss infantry, which was made up of free peasants. In the first half of the 15th century, the Hussite infantry defeated the Austrian knights several times. These battles demonstrated the superiority of the infantry over knightly cavalry.

The infantry had a resurgence, and in the late 15th and early 16th centuries, with the emergence of the centralized states of Western Europe, it gradually became the chief combat arm in the mercenary armies. At first the company (150–400 men) was the line and administrative unit of the infantry. Mercenary Swiss and German infantry (lansquenet) units were widely known. In the mid-16th century there emerged the Spanish infantry, which used Swiss tactics and weapons and operated successfully until the 17th century. The introduction of a refined firearm (the musket) in the armies of the 16th century had a great influence on the development of infantry and its tactics. The infantry consisted of pikemen armed with pikes and musketeers, who, in addition to muskets, were armed with swords. However, the musketeers did not have defensive armor like the pikemen and could not be pitted independently against either mounted or dismounted pikemen. Therefore, they were arranged around square columns of pikemen in an order of two to six ranks and waged battle in coordination with the pikemen. In the late 16th century the number of musketeers gradually increased, reaching one-half and even two-thirds of the composition of the infantry. Musket bullets could pierce the armor of the knights, as a result of which knights were no longer used in battle by the late 16th century.

The army of Kievan Rus’ in the ninth to 11th centuries consisted of infantry divided into heavy and light units. The infantry was armed with swords, sabers, knives, spears (for throwing and for hand-to-hand combat), axes, and bows. Defensive equipment included shields, helmets, and chain mail. The need to protect the very long southern border and fight the nomadic Cuman and later the Tatar cavalry led in the 11th through 14th centuries to a significant enlargement of the cavalry. But the infantry did not lose its independent significance. Operating together with the cavalry, the infantry demonstrated its superiority over heavy knightly cavalry (for example, in the Battle on the Ice of 1242), the light Tatar cavalry, and mercenary infantry (for example, in the battle of Kulikovo of 1380). With the formation of the Russian centralized state, infantry constituted the largest part of the standing strel’tsy (semiprofessional musketeers) army, which was formed in 1550 and in the 17th century made up the largest part of the “regiments of the new order.” The organizational unit was the regiment, which had up to 1,000–1,500 men and was divided into companies. In the strel’tsy army the regiment (until 1681 called prikaz) was divided into sotni (hundreds) and desiatki (tens). The weapons of the infantry were muskets, carbines, harquebuses, pikes, poleaxes, halberds, and swords.

In the late 16th and early 17th centuries, standing mercenary armies appeared in the Western European states. The infantry numbered one-half to two-thirds of the troops in these armies. At this time, infantry regiments were formed of from eight to 12 companies and more. Later, two to four companies were made into a battalion. Tactical objectives were achieved by square columns whose size was determined by the number of troops. In the second half of the 16th century, some armies (for example, the Spanish and Dutch, and, in the 17th century, the Swedish) formed infantry brigades. In the late 17th and early 18th centuries, most of the armies adopted the rifle with bayonet, which could serve as both a firearm and a silent weapon. As a result of this, the distinction between musketeers and pikemen disappeared. Defensive armament also was gradually discontinued.

In the 18th century, light infantry appeared along with heavy (line) infantry in the European armies. The light infantry had greater mobility and was armed with improved weapons (carbines) and lighter equipment. It was intended to carry out fire preparation for the attack by line infantry and operated in extended order (with skirmishers). The light infantry was made up of rifle, jaeger, or voltigeur companies (battalions and regiments).

In the European armies, including the Russian Army, companies and, later, detached units of grenadiers were formed. By the late 18th century, they had become crack troops, but in composition, weaponry, and function they did not differ from the rest of the infantry. With the increase in the size of armies in Russia and France in the early 18th century and in other countries somewhat later, divisions were formed. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, corps appeared. The infantry division, which consisted of different combat arms, became a combined arms unit of permanent composition including a definite number of subordinate units based on tables of organization. The corps was a large unit of variable composition that included two to three or more divisions and detached units of various combat arms. In the second half of the 19th century and the early 20th, even though all infantry adopted magazine rifles and was trained for actions in extended order, some units in some European armies continued traditionally to be called musketeer (jaeger or rifle) and grenadier units.

By the start of World War I (1914–18), the infantry division in the armed forces of the largest states had 16,000–21,000 men and included infantry, artillery, cavalry, and sapper (combat engineer) subunits. The strength of the land forces of the states was calculated by the number of infantry divisions. An infantry (army) corps had 43,000–48,000 men and consisted of one cavalry and two to three infantry divisions or brigades. During the war, subunits of heavy and regimental artillery, machine guns, and mortars were formed in the infantry divisions (and its units) of various armies. By the end of the war, the number of machine guns, field guns, and mortars in the infantry division had risen sharply. The infantry’s firepower had increased 2.5–3 times. The infantry was the chief combat arm, the one which determined the outcome of the battle and operation. But with the appearance of tanks, aviation, and chemical warfare troops and with the increased size and combat importance of artillery, engineer troops, and signal troops, the size of the infantry in the armed forces of the warring states dropped from 60–70 percent in 1914 to 40–50 percent in 1918. The infantry increased its mobility by using motor vehicles. The use of motor vehicle transport made it possible to switch infantry from certain sectors of the front to others. Cannon were mounted and transported on vehicles.

At the start of the Civil War of 1918–20, the Red Army consisted primarily of infantry. In subsequent operations, cavalry participated in addition to infantry, artillery, and other combat arms. In 1918 the infantry units of the Red Army were called rifle units, but the name “infantry” was kept for the combat arm.

In the period between the two world wars, the infantry of all armies received new combat equipment, continued to incorporate motor vehicles and machinery, and improved organizational structures. With the technical reequipping of infantry that began in 1935, tanks were included in the Soviet rifle divisions, and the number of field guns and machine guns was increased. The S. G. Simonov automatic rifle (1936 model), the carbine (1938 model), and other weapons were adopted for the infantry. Infantry was assigned an important part in the theory of waging deep offensive operations and deep battle as developed in the Soviet armed forces in the 1930’s. According to the regulations of the Workers’ and Peasants’ Red Army, the infantry was supposed to decide the outcome of battle in close coordination with artillery, tanks, and aviation. All combat arms, operating jointly with the infantry, were to carry out their missions in its interests, supporting the forward movement of the infantry on the attack and its stability in defense.

In World War II (1939–45), despite the increased role of aviation, artillery, and armored forces, the infantry remained the largest combat arm in all armies. It was supplied with new weapons, combat equipment, and vehicular transport and was developed further in all aspects as a combat arm.

In the Soviet armed forces at the beginning of the Great Patriotic War of 1941–45 and throughout the war, the infantry formed the basis of rifle units. In addition, infantry subunits were included in airborne, armored, and mechanized troops and the naval forces. The basic combined arms unit of the Red Army was the rifle division. Artillery, tank, and other units were temporarily attached to rifle units for waging battle. The infantry waged combat together with the troops of other arms and branches of the armed forces. The powerful individual and group weapons of the infantry made it possible to deliver fire strikes from close range and bayonet attacks in hand-to-hand fighting.

After the war, the infantry in the armed forces of the large states was completely motorized and mechanized. It adopted armored combat vehicles and new types of weapons, greatly increasing its combat mobility, striking force, and firepower. The infantry became capable of waging battle not only in dismounted battle formation but also directly from combat vehicles. In 1957 the rifle and mechanized divisions of the Soviet armed forces were reorganized as motorized rifle divisions. In 1963 a new combat arm, the motorized rifle troops, appeared in the ground forces in place of infantry. In the armed forces of the United States, Great Britain, Federal Republic of Germany, and other states, the infantry is divided into line, motorized, and airborne infantry. Organizationally, it is divided into infantry, motorized or mechanized infantry, and airborne divisions and detached infantry (mechanized infantry) brigades and battalions. Mechanized infantry (motorized infantry or infantry) divisions are considered the basic combined arms unit.


Engels, F. Izbr. voennye proizvedeniia. Moscow, 1958.
Razin, E. A. Istoriia voennogo iskusstva, vols. 1–3. Moscow, 1955–61.
Strokov, A. A. Istoriia voennogo iskusstva, vols. 1–3. Moscow, 1955–67.
Rüstow, F. W. Istoriia pekhoty, vols. 1–2. St. Petersburg, 1876. (Translated from German.)


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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