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Towards the 16th century, the increased availability of horses, weapons and armour radically changed how cavalry units were recruited and deployed in Europe. With the gradual disestablishment of the feudal system, the role of heavy cavalry reflected this too, as being no longer the preserve of the highest-ranking nobles,but was also recruiting from the commoners and the yeomen to make up for a shortfall in manpower, especially after the Black Death of the mid-14th century. Even so, the weapons and accoutrements of such warriors had not completely died out. In many parts of Europe, lance-riding cavalry continued to form the shock cavalry component of many armies and for good reason too: the shock and morale effect of the lance when used mounted in cavalry warfare, combined with its reach, meant that it was a very effective melee weapon against most targets, whether on two feet or four.

All that changed when antipersonnel firearms became more effective weapons for use on the battlefield — the rise of the musket and the wheel-lock meant that firearms could now have greater rates of fire as well as range and projectile velocity, making them a threat even to armoured knights. Thus, heavy knights and demi-lancers gave way to cuirassiers — named so for the breastplate or cuirass which they wore into combat, which was the only piece of body armour that would be retained over from the Middle Ages. The heavy cavalry of the period would begin to evolve, first by exchanging lances for swords and pistols, then by stripping away most of their body armour. Helmets and breastplates were still in existence by the 17th century, but by the 18th, even light helmets had gone too. The cuirass however was retained as it gave these new soldiers an edge in the close combat scraps they were envisioned to fight, although it was heavy, cumbersome and uncomfortable to wear, especially during the summer months. Even so, many veterans swore by it during the Napoleonic Wars although by then many cuirassier units had by then been discarding even the breastplates too. Cuirassiers continued to retain their position nonetheless, most notably in the French army, until the First World War brought an end to the relevance of melee cavalry tactics in Western Europe.

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