Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Swedish Gå På Tactics During The Great Northern War

Swedish Reenactors 

Dear Reader,

Today we have another excellent guest post focusing on the Karoliner, by historian Mike Glaeser.[1]


"Never have I seen such a combination of uncontrollable dash and perfectly controlled discipline, such soldiers and such subjects are not to be found the wide world over except in Sweden"[2]
- General Magnus Stenbock after the Battle of Gadebusch, 1712

If students of early modern warfare know one thing about the Swedish Karoliner, it is that they preferred aggressive tactics often executed in the face of overwhelming odds. Their successes in the first half of the Great Northern War bewildered their enemies and endeared the Karoliner to many a historian and wargamer since. Known as Gå På, translated as “go on”, the Swedish tactics emphasized speed over firepower and closing with cold steel.[3] At a time when much of Western European warfare devolved into long and grueling sieges, Gå På allowed the Swedes to play an attacking role and quickly move against a numerically superior foe before excessive firepower could be brought to bear. In this way the Swedes were victorious at Narva (outnumbered 3:1), Klissow (2:1), and Fraustadt (2:1), to name a few. What follows is a brief look at the mindset of the Swedish army, their weapons, and how this combination allowed them to execute Gå På with élan.

Swedish Infantry Formation, Alf Aberg, Karoliner, 156.

Voltaire described the Swedes as “well made, robust, agile and capable of enduring the greatest hardships, hunger and poverty. They are born warriors, full of pride and more brave than industrious” .[4] It is from this stock that the army drew its manpower. Military reforms undertaken by King Charles XI in the 1680s and 90s helped create a strong, unified force that could be sustained in times of peace and quickly mustered for war.[5] The men in each provincial regiment came from the same geographic area which fostered an esprit de corps. Continuous training was a high priority and companies would gather once a month while the full regiment assembled annually for drills under the supervision of the king. They were expected to follow orders without question: “Commands will be carried out soberly and silently without any observation on the part of those whose business it is to obey”.[6] While the men honored their king, they also feared God. Each regiment had an attachment of chaplains who preached the Lutheran creed. Ultimately, God alone decided when and where each soldier would die so it was a moot point to fear death. This religious fatalism allowed the Swedes to march and ride undaunted into enemy fire. Rigorous training, strict discipline, and a shared faith provided the foundations for effective Gå På.

Gå På tactics affected the selection and use of certain weapons. The most notable armament difference between Swedish armies and those of Western Europe was the deployment of the pike. Starting with the Spanish Tercios and Swiss mercenaries of the 1500s, the pike became the queen of the battlefield for much of the following century. It was primarily used as a defensive weapon to help protect matchlock musketeers from cavalry attacks. True to form, the Swedish pike held off a charge of the Polish Crown army at Klissow and then shattered them with two volleys of musket fire. However, the “push of pike” was also a devastating offensive maneuver but one that relied on momentum to see the attack through. With the advent of effective bayonets towards the end of the 17th century, as well as the improvements in gun technology, the pike began to fall out of favor.[7] Nevertheless, the Swedes and Russians tended to make use of the pike throughout the Great Northern War.[8] For the Swedes, the pike suited Gå På tactics perfectly as an offensive shock weapon. Up to one third of each battalion was equipped with the 12-18 foot long weapon with the pikemen taking up the center of the formation. With a typical musket and bayonet amounting to ~6.5 feet, the pike enjoyed a distinct reach advantage. Following the one or two volleys from the musketeers, the entire battalion would charge with pikes leveled.

The Swedes put their faith in the effectiveness of cold steel. While Charles respected firepower, the prevailing belief was that the sword could be more accurate and devastating. At Holowczyn in 1708, “…the king himself went from one battalion to another ordering them above all things, instead of firing, to use their pikes, bayonets and their swords”.[9] All infantry, musketeers and pikemen alike, were equipped with a sword that the king himself had a hand in designing. Once the initial volley was delivered, bayonets would be fixed and swords drawn. The musket with fixed bayonet would be tucked under one arm and the sword leveled in the other. The horse and dragoons had a similar blade and it was used to the same effect. It is worth noting that the blade was straight rather than curved, reinforcing the emphasis on stabbing rather than slashing.

Tent of Augustus the Strong, captured in 1702 by Swedish Karoliner

There is a common perception that Charles had no use for the artillery as it was rarely fielded en masse in his armies. Even the head of the artillery, General Carl Cronstedt, had a similar observation: “At the beginning of the war His Majesty had a sort of contempt for the artillery; but later bitter experience taught him how valuable a weapon it could be”.[10] For Charles and the spirit of Gå På, it was a matter of deployment and speed. Many of Sweden’s victories saw them start the battle as the outnumbered attacker which meant a traditional artillery duel was unsustainable. Deploying cannons could be a time-consuming process and in most cases the Swedes had a tactical disadvantage in terms of terrain. To maintain the initiative, the larger pieces simply had to be kept out.

With morale and discipline established and the appropriate weaponry in place, the Gå På tactic was ready to be unleashed. A provincial infantry regiment consisted of about 1200 Swedes. This was broken down into two battalions and these served as the primary tactical unit. During battle, a battalion would line up four ranks deep with pikes in the center, musketeers on either side, and grenadiers on the flanks. The order to advance would be given by the sound of drums and there are examples of Swedes marching in total silence. At about 40 paces from the enemy, the two front ranks would kneel and the two rear ranks would give fire. The advance would then continue through the cover of the blackpowder smoke to about 20 paces where the two front ranks would fire.[11] General Stenbock’s Instructions stressed holding fire until the foe was within bayonet range.The order was then given to charge and if the enemy unit was not already wavering from being shot at point-blank range, they were now assaulted with sword, bayonet, and pike. At Fraustadt in 1706, some battalions attacked the Saxon lines without firing a single volley. More often than not, the first volley or charge was enough to break a unit and the momentum then carried the Swedes through enemy lines. At the first battle of Narva, the rapidity of the assault allowed the Swedes to close on their opponents with minor casualties and despite being outnumbered three to one, the majority of fighting was over within three hours. The Gå På tactic was devastating against low discipline/ ill-trained units but occasionally proved more problematic against a disciplined foe, especially one that was entrenched like the Russians at Poltava.

Reconstructed Karoliner (Svenska Armeemuseum)

The Swedish cavalry tended to make up around fifty percent of the fighting force. The cavalry was divided between the horse and dragoons although they acted and fought the same way.[12] The tactical unit was the squadron of about 250 men. Deployed on the flanks, the Swedish cavalry tended to move quicker than their enemy counterparts and would charge home at the gallop rather than the trot. The squadron would advance “knee behind knee” with the cornet at the front and each man slightly behind the next to form an arrow. This wedge shape helped punch holes through infantry and cavalry alike. While the horse had pistols and the dragoons their carbines, doctrine decreed that guns should not be fired (unless the attack wasn’t slowed as a result) and the unit should charge home with cold steel.[13] At Klissow in 1702, the Saxon horse surprised the Swedes with a quick deployment through swampy terrain. However, any impetus was lost when the Saxons slowed down and began to caracole .[14] The Swedish cavalry recovered, formed up, and charged with swords. They managed to break the Saxons before turning in on the flank. Here then is a clear example of cold steel having a greater effect than black powder.

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Thanks for Reading,

Mike Glaeser

[1] Michael Glaeser is an early modern historian specializing in the Great Northern War and the reign of Charles XII of Sweden. He is published in The Great Northern War Compendium and taught history at the University of New Hampshire. He is also an avid reenactor and wargamer. He completed his graduate work at the University of Sheffield, England.
[2]Robert Nisbet Bain, Charles XII and the Collapse of the Swedish Empire, 243.
[3]The “a” has a ring diacritic which gives it a similar pronunciation as “o”. Gå På is therefore pronounced as “go-po”
[4]Voltaire, The History of Charles XII of Sweden, 31.
[5]This was known as the indelningsverk, or allotment system
[6]Charles XI quoted by Alf Aberg, Sweden’s Age of Greatness 1632-1718, 272.
[7]Despite being outdated, Maurice de Saxe still supported use of the pike later in the century.
[8]The Danes, having seen the effectiveness of the pike earlier in the conflict, fielded them when they re-entered the war in 1710.
[9]Robert Frost, The Northern Wars 1558-1721, 274.
[10]Aberg, 284.
[11]David Chandler suggests 40-20 paces whereas Einar Lynth and Lars-Eric Hoglund suggest 70-30.
[12]Dragoons were cheaper to raise and equip but they behaved like cavalry on the battlefield. Their carbines tended to be employed more during foraging missions.
[13]Stenbock, Instructions, Waxjo 1710.
[14]The caracole (Spanish for snail) was a tactic that saw cavalry advance on the enemy at a trot, fire their pistols, and then retreat to the rear to reload while the next rank repeated the same steps.


  1. Great post lets have more on the northern war armies

  2. Great Article, really enlightening!

  3. Thanks for such excellent instructive research. I knew of Sweden's martial prowess, but not the details of it's application in the times.