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Would centaur cavalry be able to hold their own in an early 1800s setting? What kind of advantages and disadvantages would they have over the regular man-on-a-horse cavalry? What kind of niche would they fit in?

Information on Centaurs

Biologically, the centaurs have redundant vital organs in both the human and horse halves of the body, although the cardiovascular and respiratory organs in the human torso are really only meant for fine control rather than keeping the centaur alive. Centaurs are omnivorous, although their diet contains considerably more plant material.

Most centaurs live in the grasslands and steppes, and their primary economic income is animal husbandry, which is supplemented by hunting, both for hides and for food.

Many centaurs are taught archery as a part of their hunter tradition. While they had exposure to gunpowder weapons for a long time, most of them dislike the slow process of loading and the blinding smoke generated by firing, and instead prefer hunting with bows and cavalry lances.

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  • $\begingroup$ Related: Would charging unicorns survive the impact with a line of infantry? $\endgroup$ – a CVn Sep 16 '16 at 9:08
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    $\begingroup$ I'm not sure why no-one has brought this up yet - Centaurs have a SIGNIFICANT disadvantage in long-distance warfare because they are HUGE TARGETS. Each Centaur warrior is the size of 1.5 humans from the front, and probably 3-4 from the side. Your enemy doesn't need precision when he's aiming at barn doors! They may have redundant organs, but you don't need both kidneys, half your liver, or one of your lungs either and you would be out for the count if someone shot a bullet/arrow into any of those! $\endgroup$ – GrinningX Sep 16 '16 at 15:03
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    $\begingroup$ Not sure if this is a stupid question...but can a Centaur be saddled up and ridden by a rider? $\endgroup$ – Twelfth Sep 16 '16 at 16:03
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    $\begingroup$ @GrinningX : Horse archers were used by many armies quite successfully, and they were not any smaller targets than centaurs would be. $\endgroup$ – vsz Sep 16 '16 at 17:04
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    $\begingroup$ @GrinningX : also, psychology can be an important factor. An intelligent creature like a centaur might have problems with blindly charging against the enemy. Sometimes heavy cavalry was used to break through a wall of infantry, many of the horses died but heir momentum was enough to break the line. $\endgroup$ – vsz Sep 16 '16 at 21:15
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I do not dispute any of the disadvantages for centaurs that Pete lists in his excellent answer above. However I suggest that centaurs would have the following very large countervailing advantage:

Intelligence, which is closely linked to instant manoeuvrability.

For instance, a centaur seeing the enemy soldiers loading their weapons knows what that means. So does a man on a horse, but in his case any change of course he makes has to be transmitted to the horse, involving a slight but measurable delay.

Much of the skill of a human cavalryman is learning, with great effort, to get his horse to do highly unnatural things for a horse, like charge into a row of pikes pointed at them. If, then, the charge has to be broken off, it is even harder to get them to cease the stampede.

Due to their intelligence, centaurs can take individual action without delay.

Even more basically, centaurs don't have to be taught to ride, a time-consuming process.

For a human cavalryman to fire a bow or rifle from a galloping horse takes very great skill and training, because he must let go of the reins with both hands. (In fact the difficulty of doing anything other than riding while riding ensured that most cavalry actually fought dismounted most of the time.) But a centaur firing his bow does not have to keep his balance and aim while allowing for the movement of the horse; it is his own body. [Added later: Prompted by Pete and Martijn's comments below, I must concede that the bow-firing centaur, unlike the horse carrying a human archer, will have the problem that he can't give his full attention to looking where he is going.]

In comparison with the advantage of intelligence and autonomy, the final advantage I would like to mention seems almost ludicrous but it isn't really: unlike human riders centaurs don't fall off! Accounts of cavalry actions, or any horseriding at speed, always involve plenty of instances of "he then fell from his horse."

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    $\begingroup$ Very nice counter-arguments there. However, I'm not so sure about how well a Centaur could handle a bow on the gallop. You'll know from watching horses that they have to move their head and neck quite a bit to maintain momentum. Then again, Centaurs would have to develop a style of running that didn't result in the head-end getting pretty sea-sick. $\endgroup$ – Snow Sep 16 '16 at 8:23
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    $\begingroup$ Firing a bow while running as a human may not be much easier - and probably harder - than firing a bow while mounted on horseback. I see now clear reason why firing a bow as a galloping centaur would be much easier than firing a bow as a running human. $\endgroup$ – Martijn Sep 16 '16 at 8:24
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    $\begingroup$ @Pete A centaur has an entire human spine where a horse just has the neck portion, which may give them more flex with which to smooth out the motion of running and thereby keep their head (and perhaps shoulders) roughly steady. $\endgroup$ – anaximander Sep 16 '16 at 8:34
  • $\begingroup$ @Martijn, you write, "I see no[w] clear reason why firing a bow as a galloping centaur would be much easier than firing a bow as a running human." I agree, it would be as difficult, but there is such an advantage to firing a bow from the height of a horse/centaur that horse archery has been practised by many nations whereas humans firing bows while running is almost unknown. I also agree with Pete's point that the fact that a centaur must turn his head while firing a bow is a big disadvantage for centaurs as against traditional cavalry. $\endgroup$ – Lostinfrance Sep 16 '16 at 8:34
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    $\begingroup$ @Lostinfrance I think the height advantage wasn't really important, maybe awareness of the surroundings and communication would be improved. The mobility was the trick. Keeping the distance as archer is important, the mounted archers could stay out of reach from any kind of foot soldiers, only other cavalry was able to catch up. $\endgroup$ – WalyKu Sep 16 '16 at 9:18
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To my mind, centaurs would be at a disadvantage in comparison to human/horse pairings.

Fatigue
With human/horse cavalry, when the horse gets tired, the human can change to another one. A Centaur has to cope with the fatigue of it's own body

Redundancy
When a cavalry horse is injured or killed, the ride would (hopefully) be able to dismount and either fight on foot or find another horse. An injured Centaur would just be out of the fight altogether.

Anatomy
Centaurs have their brains (I assume the brain would be in the human end, where else would it be) right at the front of the animal, the human part being the first part that would be exposed to any possible danger. Humans on horse-back have at least a big proportion of horse head and neck to act as a partial shield.

Centaurs have strength, manoeuvrability, and an intimidating presence as well as their skills of archery.

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    $\begingroup$ Reinforcing your third point about anatomy, if a horse plus a rider is shot at from the side then most of the target area consists of the relatively disposable horse. In the case of the centaur, all of the target area is the intelligent, trained warrior who is more difficult to replace. $\endgroup$ – Lostinfrance Sep 16 '16 at 9:42
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    $\begingroup$ @Lostinfrance Are we sure that there are spare horses? Horses are expensive. Cavalry soldiers may well be more expendable than their mounts. $\endgroup$ – TRiG Sep 16 '16 at 12:54
  • $\begingroup$ @TRiG While there won't be a ready source of spare horses, there's going to be some floating around on a battlefield. Once demounted, soldiers become easier to dispatch so their horse thus becomes available. It's reasonable to assume that combatants will ignore empty horses and concentrate on the humans to battle against. Granted, any spare horses might not be inclined to pick up another rider while in the middle of a conflict. $\endgroup$ – Snow Sep 16 '16 at 12:59
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Light Hussars are a reasonable choice for this, heavy cavalry would be a problem.

Centaurs have a balance issues, they're much heavier on the forehand than they should be, this causes problems with speed, climbing hills and maneuverability when compared to a good horse. As heavy cavalry with additional armour, you're only going to make the balance problem worse. Hussars mostly dropped the heavy armour in the 17thC, however weight on the upper 'human' part remains a problem, no heavy armour.

Weapon choice has similar limitations. Archers are good, muskets rather redundant as you're losing the speed advantage with the much slower weapon. A light lance would work but not a heavy spear or polearm. You have the same situation if you want to use a sword, keep it light (however you get into the eternal argument about cavalry swords and whether you should make them for cut or thrust).

Possibly the biggest advantage that nobody has mentioned is the man on a centaur option and all the additional options you get when the two can work together or separately. The man in turn can carry much heavier weapons than the centaur himself as he won't upset the balance in the same way.

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    $\begingroup$ the man on a centaur option - this option is both hilarious and brilliant in my opinion and it's pretty strange that it's so overlooked. $\endgroup$ – Ivan Kolmychek Sep 16 '16 at 17:05
  • $\begingroup$ Although since you mentioned that the human torso would be heavier, wouldn't adding a rider add to the weight issue? $\endgroup$ – Zhehao Chen Sep 16 '16 at 19:01
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    $\begingroup$ @ZhehaoChen it's not so much the amount of weight as the position of the weight. The human torso extends beyond the forelegs where a rider sits in a much more central location. $\endgroup$ – Separatrix Sep 16 '16 at 19:14
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Both regular cavalry and centaurs would lose to mounted centaur cavalry

Centaurs retain many of the advantages of mounted cavalry, such as speed an maneuverability, while being smarter than a horse and capable of fighting far better than a horse would be capable of. However, mounted cavalry have the advantage of having two brains. The horse brain can take care of running around, while the human brain can do things like fire a bow. For regular cavalry, this requires a lot of training on behalf of both the human and the horse, since the horse brain is pretty dumb and still needs a lot of input from the human.

If you stuck your archers on the backs of centaurs, they'd maintain the advantages of mounted cavalry, while not needing any human control over the centaur, which could easily maneuver and fight on its own. The centaur could focus on battlefield maneuvering, while the rider could focus on combat, armed with either a bow or a gun. In close combat, an armored centaur would be more than a match for foot soldiers and could focus on keeping its rider safe, while the rider could continue picking off enemy soldiers at whatever range the centaur could give it to fight.

Lastly, if either the rider or the centaur were killed, the other could remain a potent battlefield force, capable of either fighting alone or seeking out an appropriate centaur or rider who's lost their companion.

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    $\begingroup$ Nice, add archers to centaurs. Here is your +1 $\endgroup$ – Jammin4CO Sep 16 '16 at 17:33
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    $\begingroup$ @Jammin4CO now if we get heavier centaurs (i.e. Rhino instead of Horse)... we mount ballistae on them. And then it's a tank. Alternatively, if we can rig it up we might be able to put a light ballista in front of a regular centaur, though it would need a considerable counterweight to avoid toppling the centaur. Perhaps we use a human as a counterweight. $\endgroup$ – Delioth Sep 16 '16 at 20:25
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The fact that the man and horse part are linked thus exhaustion/injury affect both part are a disadvantage, but it's not too important since human army rarely have spare riders/horse to give during battle.

Moreover, the centaurs have a great advantage in term of intelligence because the horse part is directly linked to the driver's brain and cannot disobey. Even if regular horse can be trained, centaur still have an advantage in this field.

At last, in centaur society, everyone, regardless of his wealth/social class, is a equestrian. Consequently, the amount of skilled horseman within population is way higher than on a human population, which implies better army.

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    $\begingroup$ Very good point about a centaur army having by definition 100% skilled horsemen. They could do well simply by outnumbering any other cavalry force around. $\endgroup$ – Lostinfrance Sep 16 '16 at 8:25
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    $\begingroup$ As someone who has experienced panic, and adrenaline shakes, and the like, I disagree with direct links to my brain prevents the body from disobeying. :) $\endgroup$ – Yakk Sep 16 '16 at 13:05
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    $\begingroup$ A trained soldier is still less likely to panic in front of any stressful situation than a horse. $\endgroup$ – Metushael Sep 16 '16 at 13:09
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A few points other answers have missed.

A standard cavalry troop has the human sitting back. This means the horses head and torso provides some degree of protection for the rider. A centaur is a stark difference to this...it's human body is right upfront and isn't well protected. This makes them far more vulnerable to archer fire, spearmen, and opposition cavalry (preferably with lance). This exposure of the vital organs (head included) makes them less ideal on the battlefield.

Terrain - Centaurs are horses...meaning harsh terrain such as wooded areas are impossible to cross, swampy regions can pose an outright hazard as the heavy beast can sink, walls or other enemy fortifications can interfere far more than with regular troops, and they would have extreme difficulties in a 'storm the castle' scenario. Oddly enough, a wall of wooden poles stuck in the ground where humans could squeeze through would completely block a centaurs movement (allows for 'porous' walls where your human troops can freely move through however centaurs could not).

Projectile vulnerability. Horses are big targets, and worse yet...the vital organs are sitting right upfront on the creature and are easy targets for arrows. In a medieval setting this isn't as much of a hindrance as anti-personnel artillery isn't very present until cannons start appearing on the field. If you go to roman times, a large number of anti-personnel artillery is possessed by a good number of the forces there and ballistas (cheiroballistra if late times), lithbolos, Orangers, and a whole host of other projectile throwing devices could become the bane of centaur troops.

Lack of defensive traits. Centaurs can't dig in, cannot man walls, nor can they form an effective pike wall. They are pretty specialized troops

Inflexible. Without other troops to support on features that the centaurs are poor at, centaurs are at a pretty large disadvantage. This means centaurs would have problems operating on their own and almost require the support of other troops to fulfill the roles they cannot. Forces them to be a part of anothers army and not one themselves.

However on the opposite side of inflexible is they are strong niche troops, especially if you consider them not cavalry replacements, but horse replacements. When mounted, a centaur and a companion become a much stronger force able to put their heads to two tasks at once. A mounted archer (assuming he is tied on) can focus on sustained arrow fire instead of movement and the centaur itself could add to the arrow fire. This puts them as what has to be the most effective mounted archers to reach a battlefield. These traits also make them extremely effective skirmish and raiding troops...a quick move in on an unsuspecting enemy formation, quick strike, and an equally quick withdraw. Some guerrilla tactics in striking at enemy supply lines would also be extremely effective.

Good niche troops yes, but quite a few drawbacks.

As a side note...I do not beleive centaurs would be effective with a lance. In regular cavalry terms, the lance is being held by the mounted person and the impact of the lance is felt further back and closer to the center of gravity of the horse. A centaur on the other hand would be holding the lance in it's front arms, meaning the force of the impact is felt at the shoulders of the centaur (top front). This might make for an extreme disadvantage when attempting a lance charge.

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(sorry for bad English)A comment from person who actually handled medieval weapons:

The centaur would not all be archers. They will have as many archers as any human army, no more. Wars were not won by archers. They were won by foot soldiers, occupying and holding territory.

The height of centaur is a negative factor in close combat too. Centaur is restricted to attacking human from above only, while human can raise his shield above the head and attack centaur legs. In melee, centaur would have to keep human at greater distance than between humans.

Finally, the 50% of the army that day were pikemen. And at a first attempt against centaurs, the commander, unless very wise, would take even more pikemen.

With this in mind I conclude: the weapon of choice for centaur is a greatsword. Even more specifically flamberge. With long handle and extended ricasso. Greatswords were made specifically to fight pikemen in large groups.

I imagine centaur warrior: The armor is uneven. The front legs and the front horse part is armored best of all. Cuirass, may be, or at least very thick chainmail. Everything other is a light chainmail at best, otherwise it will be too heavy. Even more likely, it is thick cotton underlay with leather top. Cotton armor is very effective, but humans don't use it because it is so bulky. Centaur can. Anyway, it will be as much armor as they can carry without slowing down. Because speed is their weapon while size is their flaw.

He carries greatsword, maybe two axes and a heavy shield. At the beginning of the battle, they charge selected enemy units, keeping shields up to protect themselves from enemy arrows and bullets. When they reach few meters from enemy, they drop shields and grab greatswords with two hands. The length of centaur allows the creation of an effective holster for greatsword. If not, they just carry it on shoulder, holding it in one hand and shield with the other hand.

Centaurs use greatswords to break pikemen order. Pikes are useless in close combat. pikemen will drop pikes and draw swords, axes and clubs. While they do this, centaurs attack them with greatswords. When pikemen become axemen, the greatswords may be a disadvantage.(may be not) Then centaurs drop them and draw their axes.

Why axes? Because of their height, centaurs are at a disadvantage when fencing. As I already said, they have less angles of attack. For this reason, sword and shield are not as useful for them as axe and mace. They need weapons designed to break enemy defence, not to bypass it.
When centaurs of the first line start to fall, the warriors of the second line step in to keep pressure at the enemy.

Bows will not be used against enemy archers too. Why exchange blows when you can charge and trample? Bows will not be used against human cavalry too, the greatsword is very effective against knights. Bows will be used during initial phase of battle, during sieges and occasionally. I doubt that centaurs will use kicks. While some legs are in the air, he is very unstable. A slight punch in the knee will topple him, and that is death.

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If archery is their thing, let that light shine. As Separatrix noted, heavy armor would also be an issue. Imagine if you will a highly mobile archery unit. Each individual could carry more ammo and retreat or reposition much quicker.

The primary threat to archery at the time was being flanked by heavy calvary. A Centaur archery squad would remove that risk. It would even be a greater advantage if this unit, when needed, could quickly advance with lance when a line was breached or while firing arrows at a retreating enemy with movement speed faster than they can fall back. Enemy losses would be maximized.

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