AskDefine | Define infantry

Dictionary Definition

infantry n : an army unit consisting of soldiers who fight on foot; "there came ten thousand horsemen and as many fully-armed foot" [syn: foot]

User Contributed Dictionary



From French infanterie, from older Italian, Spanish infanteria "foot soldiers, force composed of those too inexperienced or low in rank for cavalry," from infante "foot soldier," originally "a youth," from Latin infans '(child) who doesn't speak' from in- 'non-' + fari 'to speak'


  1. Soldiers who fight on foot (on land), as opposed to cavalry.
  2. The part of an army consisting of infantry soldiers. (Compare artillery, armor.)

Derived terms


soldiers who fight on foot
the part of an army consisting of infantry soldiers

Extensive Definition

Infantry are soldiers who are primary trained for the role of fighting on foot. A soldier in the infantry is known as an infantryman, or sometimes as an infanteer. Infantry units have more physically demanding training than other branches of armies, and place a greater emphasis on fitness, physical strength, and aggression.
Infantry can be distinguished from soldiers trained to fight in other roles: For instance, on horseback, in tanks, or in technical roles such as armourers or signallers. Nonetheless basic infantry skills are fundamental to the training of any soldier, and soldiers of any branch of an army are expected to serve as auxiliary infantry (i.e. patrol and fight on foot) when necessary.
In Western armies, infantry make up a minority of soldiers, typically between 10% and 30% (e.g. less than 49,000 infantrymen out of 519,472 soldiers in the United States Army today This reflects the greatly increased requirement for technical and logistical specialists in Western armies, resulting from the increasing complexity of military technology and an increased recogntion of the importance of logisitcs in warfare. In third world armies, infantry still normally make up a majority of the soldiers.
Infantry are often categorized by the types of weaponry and equipment they posess, such as heavy, medium, and light infantry.


The word infantry comes from the same Latin root as 'infant', either via Italian, where it referred to young men who accompanied knights on foot, or via Spanish, where the infantes (royal princes who were not heirs to the throne) commanded the footmen, hence known as infanteria.
With few exceptions, most armies in history have been built around a core of infantry. While the specific weapons have varied, the common factor is that these soldiers have relied on their feet for operational movements (transportation behind the lines, especially in the pre-industrial era) and tactical movement (movement in battle) although they may sometimes be transported to the battlefield by various means.
In earliest days, infantry were essentially armed mobs, fighting in loosely organized opposing lines under the voice direction of individual commanders in the immediate vicinity (within earshot) of the troops under their command. However, the benefits of uniform equipment, weaponry and above all training led to the development of formations able to carry out pre-arranged tactical maneuvers in the heat of battle.
Infantry organization has focused since recorded history began on striking a balance between heavily-armed formations (such as the Greek phalanx) fighting in rigid formations, and more lightly-armed but more mobile units (like the Roman legion) able to move relatively quickly around the battlefield and exploit opportunities as they arose. Mobility, weaponry, and protection have been the competing yet complementary factors to be balanced.

Classical period

Infantry was the primary combat arm of the Classical period. Examples of infantry units of the period are the hoplites of ancient Greece and the legions of Imperial Rome. In contrast to the strictly organized phalanxes and legions, most armies of the ancient world also employed units of irregulars (often mercenaries) who wore less armor and fought in more open formations usually as skirmishers.
As the Roman Empire declined and fell to the depredations of Germanic tribes such as the Vandals, Goths, and Visigoths in the 5th century AD, the political and military resources necessary for the maintenance of such rigid-formation units largely disappeared until the later Middle Ages.

Middle Ages

For most of the Middle Ages, warfare and society were dominated by the cavalry (horse-mounted soldiers), composed of individual knights. Knights were generally drawn from the aristocracy, while the infantry levies were raised from commoners. This situation slowed the advance of infantry tactics and weapon technologies; those that were developed by the end of the Middle Ages included the use of long spears or halberds to counter the long reach of knights' lances, and the increased use of ranged weaponry to counter the cavalry's advantages of momentum, speed, height, and reach. However, from 1350 onwards the knights themselves usually dismounted for battle, becoming super-heavy infantry themselves, as a countermeasure to development of massed archery tactics which would bring their horses down. This led to development of combined arms tactics of archery and dismounted knights.
While bows remained in use long after the development of firearms, technological fine-tuning (along with the development of the wheel-lock) allowed firearms to supersede even the feared English longbow as the ranged weapon of choice for infantry. The bow also declined in favor due to the ease with which musketeers could be trained (days or weeks to attain moderate proficiency, as opposed to many years for the longbow).
After the Spanish Tercios, many other nations combined firearms with extremely long pikes into units that were virtually invincible against cavalry formations. Eventually, with the development of the bayonet, the pikemen were dropped from the formation, resulting in the first examples of an infantry unit as recognizable today.


Before the development of railroads in the 19th century, infantry armies got to the battlefield by walking, or sometimes by ship. The Republic of Venice set up the "Fanti da mar," the first corps of troops specifically trained for fighting from ships, in the 15th century or possibly even before; the oldest still-existing Marine corps in the world was established in the 16th century by the Spanish (Infanteria de Marina), followed in the 17th century by other European countries including the United Kingdom. Due to Britain's island status, a large army was unnecessary, however infantry soldiers were still required for eventual landings. A typical Royal Navy warship carried 600 men. Of these men, 120-180 would be Royal Marines. These men usually had a deck to themselves and had little to do with sailing the vessel. The men were proficient in the use of metal-working, gunpowder and modern weapons of the day and would form landing parties when exploring. The Marines also defended the vessel if boarded and would repair damaged weapons and cannons after a battle.
In the 1890s and later, some countries, such as Italy with their Bersaglieri, used bicycle infantry, but the real revolution in mobility started in the 1920s with the use of motor vehicles, resulting in motorized infantry. Action in World War II demonstrated the importance of protecting the soldiers while they are moving around, resulting in the development of mechanized infantry, who use armored vehicles for transport. World War II also saw the first widespread use of paratroopers. These were soldiers that parachuted from airplanes into combat, and they played key roles in several campaigns in the European theater. During the Vietnam conflict, the United States Army pioneered the use of helicopters to deliver large numbers of infantry quickly to and from key locations on the battlefield. During that era such formations were referred to as airmobile. Today, delivering infantry into battle by way of helicopter is known as an air assault.
Modern-day mechanized infantry is supported by armored fighting vehicles, artillery, and aircraft, but along with light infantry, which does not use armored fighting vehicles, is still the only kind of military force that can take and hold some terrain types (such as urban or other close terrain), and thus remains essential to fighting wars. However, the tactic of having massive formations of infantry on open terrain fight it out has fallen into disuse in Western armies ever since World War II. This is mainly because of advanced technology which can support, replace, and exceed the capabilities of infantry. Modern military doctrine supported by political influence have also kept the practice of total war and mass combat casualties to a minimum.


Infantry is notable by its reliance on organized formations to be employed in battle. These have been developed over time, but remain a key element to effective infantry development and deployment. Up until the 20th century, infantry units were for the most part employed in close organized formations up until the last moment possible. This was necessary to allow commanders to retain control of the unit, especially while maneuvering, as well as allowing officers to retain discipline amongst the ranks.
With the development of weapons with increased firepower, it became necessary to disperse the infantry over a wider expanse of terrain. This made the unit less susceptible to high explosive and rapid fire weapons. Modern infantry spacing on daytime patrols should be approximately 8m. From World War I, it was recognized that infantry were most successfully employed when using their ability to maneuver in constricted terrain and evade detection in ways not possible for other weapons such as vehicles. This decentralization of command was made possible by improved communications equipment and greater focus on small unit training.


The most important role of the infantry has been as the primary killing force of any army. It is the infantry which ultimately decides whether ground is held or taken, and it is the presence of infantry that assures control of territory. While the tactics of employment in battle have changed, the basic missions of the infantry have not.
Attack operations are the most basic role of the infantry, and along with defense, form the two primary stances of the infantry on the battlefield. Traditionally, in an open battle, or meeting engagement, two armies would maneuver to contact, at which point they would form up their infantry and other units opposite each other. Then one or both would advance and attempt to defeat the enemy force. The goal of an attack remains the same: to advance into an enemy-held objective and dislodge the enemy, thereby establishing control of the objective. Attacks are often feared by the infantry conducting them due to the high number of casualties suffered while advancing under enemy fire (mechanized infantry are considered in assaulting positions in contrast to light infantry due to armoured protection and high mobility). Successful attacks rely on sufficient force, preparative reconnaissance and bombardment, and retention of unit cohesion throughout the attack.
Defense operations are the natural counter to attacks, in which the mission is to hold an objective and defeat enemy forces attempting to dislodge the defender. Defensive posture offers many advantages to the infantry, including the ability to use terrain and constructed fortifications to advantage and the reduced exposure to enemy fire compared with advancing forces. Effective defense relies on minimizing losses to enemy fire, breaking the enemy's cohesion before their advance is completed, and preventing enemy penetration of defensive positions.
Patrol is the most common infantry mission. Full scale attacks and defensive efforts are occasional, but patrols are constant. Patrols consist of small groups of infantry moving about in areas of possible enemy activity to discern enemy deployments and ambush enemy patrols. Patrols are used not only on the front-lines, but in rear areas where enemy infiltration or insurgencies are possible.
Due to the very nature of the "work" with firearms, explosives, physical-emotional stress, and genuine violence, casualties and or deaths are not uncommon in both war and in peace. The infantryman is expected and trained to continue on with the mission despite personal fear, despair, fatigue and injury; through the foe, to the objective, though he be the last man.
Life in an active duty infantry unit is rigorous, a 24 hour cycle makes for long hours of exercise/training/fighting/patrolling in often brutal climates armed only with the weapons, ammunition and essential war fighting equipment that they can carry on their backs. Remaining space is meant for a meal rations to fight their hunger. Infantry are usually afforded upwards of 4000 calories per day when on operations. Very little space is afforded for comforts. The physical demands are extreme. Forced marches, carrying in excess of 80lbs (36 kg) of equipment upwards of 25 miles (40 km) at a 4-6mi/h (6–10 km/h) pace is not uncommon. 15 mile runs at a forced pace are common as well. Mastering ones body is essential, as eating just one meal a day may be experienced occasionally when situations dictate such. Teamwork and absolute trust are essential for the survival of not only the individual, but the unit as a whole.
Very strong bonds that last an entire life time form within these infantry units and there is a sort of professional respect given from one infantryman to another, both inside and outside of the military, which is based on a common understanding of what life is like on the inside of an infantry battalion and the character and discipline of the individuals who comprise them.


The equipment of infantry forces has evolved along with the development of military technology in general, but certain constants remain regarding the design and selection of this equipment. Primary types of equipment are weaponry, protective gear, survival gear, and special equipment.
Infantry weapons have included all types of personal weapons, i.e. anything that can be handled by individual soldiers, as well as some small crew-served weapons that can be carried. During operations, especially in modern times, infantry often scavenge and employ whatever weapons they can acquire in addition to those given them by their supply chain.
Infantry from ancient times up until the modern age have wielded a wide array of weaponry. Infantry used all sorts of melee weapons, such as various types swords, axes, and maces, as well as ranged weapons such as javelins, bows, and slings. Infantry of these periods also often wore varying types of armor, including chain mail and Cuirasses. Many of their weapons evolved over time to counter advances made in armor, such as the falchion, whose heavy blade was designed to break chain mail armor.
Modern infantry weaponry include rifles, sub machine guns, machine guns, shoulder-fired rocket launchers and missiles, and lighter mortars and grenade launchers. Modern infantry are often equipped with helmets, a gas mask, and in some cases, additional body armor.

Protective equipment and survival gear

Infantry protective gear includes all equipment designed to protect the soldier against enemy attack. Most protective gear comprises body armor of some type. Classical and medieval infantry employed leather and metal armor as defense against both ranged and melee attacks, but with the advent of firearms, such armor could no longer defeat attacks and was discarded. The return to use of the helmet was prompted by the need to defend against high explosive fragmentation, and further developments in materials led to effective bullet-defeating armor within the weight acceptable for infantry use. The use of body armor is again becoming widespread amongst infantry units, primarily using Kevlar technology. Infantry must also often carry protective measures against chemical and biological attack, including gas masks, counter-agents, and protective suits.
Infantry survival gear includes all of the items soldiers require for day-to-day survival in the combat environment. These include basic environmental protections, medical supplies, food, and sundries. Traditionally, infantry have suffered large casualty rates from disease, exposure, and privation--often in excess of those suffered from enemy attacks. Better equipment of troops in this area greatly reduce this rate of loss. One of the most valuable pieces of gear is the entrenching tool--basically a small shovel--which can be employed not only to dig important defenses, but also in a variety of other daily tasks and even as an effective weapon.
Specialized equipment consists of a variety of gear which may or may not be carried depending on the mission and the level of equipment of an army. Communications gear has become a necessity, as it allows effective command of infantry units over greater distances. In some units, individual communications are being used to allow the greatest level of flexibility. Engineering equipment, including demolitions, mines, and other gear, is also commonly carried by the infantry or attached specialists. A variety of other gear, often relating to a specific mission, or to the particular terrain in which the unit is employed, can be carried by infantry units.

Historical descriptions

  • "Let us be clear about three facts: First, all battles and all wars are won in the end by the infantryman. Secondly, the infantryman always bears the brunt. His casualties are heavier, he suffers greater extremes of discomfort and fatigue than the other arms. Thirdly, the art of the infantryman is less stereotyped and far harder to acquire in modern war than that of any other arm." Field Marshall Earl Wavell
  • "I love the infantry because they are the underdogs. They are the mud-rain-frost-and-wind boys. They have no comforts, and they even learn to live without the necessities. And in the end they are the guys that wars can't be won without." Ernie Pyle
  • "I'm convinced that the infantry is the group in the army which gives more and gets less than anybody else." Bill Mauldin, Up Front (1945)
  • "War is never glorious. Ask the infantry, ask the dead."-Hemingway
  • "The infantry doesn't change. We're the only arm of the military where the weapon is the man himself." C.T. Shortis
  • "Ah, yes, mere infantry — poor beggars…" Plautus
  • "The army's infantry is its most essential component. Even today, no army can take and hold any ground without the use of infantry." (George Nafziger - "Napoleon's Invasion of Russia" p 13, 1998)
  • "The infantry is there so that when some die the generals know where to direct the artillery fire" (anonymous Japanese soldier, Iwo Jima)
  • '"Aerial bombardment can obliterate, but only infantry can occupy" - a Finnish Army observation of the Operation Allied Force in the 1990s, where the Serbian army wasn't defeated in spite of heavy losses to NATO air strikes


infantry in Arabic: مشاة
infantry in Belarusian (Tarashkevitsa): Пяхота
infantry in Bavarian: Infanterie
infantry in Bosnian: Pješadija
infantry in Bulgarian: Пехота
infantry in Catalan: Infanteria
infantry in Czech: Pěchota
infantry in Danish: Infanteri
infantry in German: Infanterie
infantry in Modern Greek (1453-): Φαντάρος
infantry in Spanish: Infantería
infantry in Esperanto: Infanterio
infantry in French: Infanterie
infantry in Korean: 보병
infantry in Croatian: Pješaštvo
infantry in Indonesian: Infanteri
infantry in Icelandic: Fótgöngulið
infantry in Italian: Fanteria
infantry in Hebrew: חיל רגלים
infantry in Lithuanian: Pėstininkas
infantry in Hungarian: Gyalogság
infantry in Macedonian: Пешадија
infantry in Marathi: पायदळ सैनिक
infantry in Dutch: Infanterie
infantry in Japanese: 歩兵
infantry in Norwegian: Infanteri
infantry in Polish: Piechota
infantry in Portuguese: Infantaria
infantry in Romanian: Infanterie
infantry in Russian: Пехота
infantry in Slovak: Pechota
infantry in Slovenian: Pehota
infantry in Serbo-Croatian: Pješadija
infantry in Finnish: Jalkaväki
infantry in Swedish: Infanteri
infantry in Tagalog: Impanteriya
infantry in Thai: ทหารราบ
infantry in Vietnamese: Bộ binh (quân đội)
infantry in Turkish: Piyade
infantry in Ukrainian: Піхота
infantry in Yiddish: פוס מיליטער
infantry in Chinese: 步兵
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