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What is a Dragoon?

The Oxford English Dictionary has Dragoon listed as originating in 1604. However, several historical books talk about Dragoons or Dragoon-like soldiers from about 1540 onward.

The origin of the word Dragoon has been disputed. The opinion of some ancient military writers has it that these troops received their name from a supposed resemblance to that fabulous monster the dragon, because, says one, "they fought in air or on the ground, mounted or on foot." While another likens a Dragoon to the same beast because of his riding at a gallop on horseback with his burning match in his hand.

This class of troop likely derived its title from the weapon with which it was armed, and which was known as "a faire dragon." It was a wheel-lock firearm with a barrel sixteen inches long, the muzzle being cast in the form of a monster's head. Dragoon is, in fact, a form of the word dragon (it was borrowed from French dragon 'carbine or musket' which itself came from the Old French word for 'fire-breathing serpent').

The names of serpents, birds of prey, rapacious animals, etc., were generally used for firearms, which usually had a representation of a reptile, bird or animal either carved or cast upon some part of the weapon.

Dragoons originally were simply what we call mounted infantry. They were foot soldiers who used horses only as  a means of rapid locomotion. There were at one time,  previous to and in 1632, two kinds of Dragoons, pikemen and musketeers. These troops are of French origin, and were introduced by Marèchal de Brissac in 1554, when they were mounted arquebusiers.

By the time the American Army instituted mounted units, the Dragoon had become a combination of two other types of soldier: Cavalry, and Mounted Infantry.  The Cavalryman was trained and equipped to travel and fight while mounted on his horse with Saber and (sometimes) Pistol, while the Mounted Infantryman traveled via horse, but fought solidly on the ground with his Musket like any other Musketman.

The Dragoon then traveled and fought in the saddle as the Cavalryman, but would also fight mounted or on the ground with his shortened Musketoon or Carbine.  While we Americans dabbled at times with true Cavalry and Mounted Infantry, our horse-soldiers have mostly been Dragoons regardless of the name used.  Since the horse was replaced by wheeled, tracked, and winged vehicles, our Cavalry units act in a combined definition of Cavalry, Dragoons, Mounted Infantry, and Light Artillery.