On assuming power Peter the Great (1672-1725) soon came to realise that his great ambitions for his backward country could not be realised with the military forces at his disposal, and he rapidly began to modernise his army, modelling it on Western European lines. In the past Russian cavalry had been provided by the nobles and their retainers, but this amateur and sometimes reluctant force would no longer do, so in 1700 the first of two new dragoon regiments were formed. In fact most of the new cavalry was made up of dragoons as Peter felt they well suited the type of warfare he expected, and over the next few years many more such regiments were formed until 34 appeared on the army lists, plus three horse grenadier regiments.
Since it is very relevant to the poses in this set a few words on Russian dragoon tactics are in order here. As elsewhere dragoons were still seen as largely mounted infantry, but whereas in the West dismounted dragoons normally acted as skirmishers, in Russia dragoons were expected to form firing lines like normal infantry. When they did remain mounted they would trot toward the enemy until about 30 paces from them, then fire a volley with their muskets or carbines. Then pistols or swords would be drawn and the trot would continue until contact was made. By contrast the Swedish cavalry liked to conduct a charge and trust to cold steel.
The Russian tactics explain the unusual selection of poses offered by this set. Of the nine poses three are dismounted – two are using their muskets while the third is holding the horses (one man in six was designated to fulfil this function, so this set has about the right proportions). The first two figures in the top row are using their swords from the saddle in the manner we are accustomed to seeing in most cavalry sets, while the last four poses are all of specialist troops. Beside the two dismounted troopers is an ensign with a pistol, while the third row shows a drummer, standard-bearer and officer. This gives us nine poses, which is quite a good number for a cavalry set of this quality, so we feel quite guilty in pointing out that a figure firing his musket from the saddle would have been a really useful pose (perhaps instead of one of the swordsmen). However the poses we do have are all very good. The first swordsman is actually pointing his sword, and facing, well to the right of where his horse is taking him, which is a limitation of the mould seen in several cavalry sets, but otherwise the poses are superb. The man holding the horses and the dismounted men are well worth the loss of mounted figures, and all are very useful, as are the one-off figures. As mounted infantry dragoons were provided with drummers, as here, but one source has suggested that these were only for use when on foot rather than when mounted, so the drummer in this set, who seems clearly to be actually using his drum, may be a mistake and should have his drum stowed instead.
As was traditional the dragoons followed the lead of the infantry in matters of uniform, and these figures have the usual coat and tricorn hat of the period, which seems to have been the uniform of the majority of the Russian regiments. The one major difference was the long boots, which all these figures have, with tops that could be turned down when on foot, although no one here has chosen to do this. With no collars these coats are quite correct for the stated period on the box (1701-1721) after which a fall collar appeared. However we were surprised to see all the figures with turnbacks on their coat skirts, which is not a feature generally shown in illustrations. Turnbacks became more fashionable during this period, both for infantry and, therefore, dragoons, so this particular feature seems more likely for the later rather than the early years, but to what extent, if at all, this style was in evidence by Poltava in 1709 is unclear.
Each trooper has a broad belt over the left shoulder which supports his musket or carbine, although this has been modelled with the muzzle up in the air and the butt by the riders foot when it seems the reverse was actually the case, with the muzzle resting in a bucket at the horse’s shoulder. Over the right shoulder the men correctly have another narrower belt holding their cartridge box, and all have the long straight sword, which contrasted with the curved sabre of pre-Petrine Russian cavalry. In addition every horse has a brace of pistols attached to the saddle. One source claims dragoons only carried one pistol, on the left side, but enough contemporary pictorial evidence exists to cast doubt on this assertion, so we are content with the pairs provided here (although it does mean even the man firing his pistol still has two more on his saddle).
An oft commented feature of the dragoons was the poor quality of their horses, at least in Western eyes. Traditionally Russia had bred horses suitable for the steppe – small rugged and tough – which looked ill compared to the fine specimens in Swedish or French armies. Peter started farming of larger horse breeds, but this took time, so the good-looking animals in this set seem rather too good as a result. However their saddlery and other kits all looks authentic. We did not like the pose of the most common horse here as it is both unnatural and suggests moving forward at something much more than a trot. The standing/walking horse in the bottom row is the best, but the others are acceptable. The instructions tell us the man holding the horses should be holding the standing animal (makes sense) and the pose of which there are five in the set, which to us looks rather too animated to be stationary.
As always we find nothing to complain about in the sculptural quality of these models, all of which are superb. The two dismounted musketeers are the same basic pose but with different arms, which tells you these need to be attached, as does one arm of the horse holder. These are a tight fit – really tight – which makes the task quite a fiddly one, and while this means they need no gluing the temptation is strong to cut off most of the peg in the arm and simply glue it instead. The proportions are excellent and the detail crisp and clear, as usual. Zvezda have engraved the flag with a design which is a perfectly proper dragoon design (following an extant example now in the Hermitage), but there were a great many very different dragoon flags (not necessarily all following infantry patterns) so we would have preferred plain. However this one is of a good size and correctly has a fringe.
The inverted muskets and the mounted use of the drum both seem like accuracy problems, although it is hard now to be sure that, while perhaps unusual, neither ever happened, particularly as there was not even an absolute standard uniform at this time. It should be noted however that these are rather large figures for the scale, and combined with the good-looking horses these are problems some will find harder to overlook. The lack of a mounted musket firer is a pity, although the set is still generous with its poses. Other than that this set is yet another top quality product which cannot help but appeal to anyone with even a passing interest in 18th century warfare.