AskDefine | Define skirmish

Dictionary Definition

skirmish n : a minor short-term fight [syn: brush, clash, encounter] v : engage in a skirmish

User Contributed Dictionary



  • a UK /ˈskɝmɪʃ/


  1. A brief battle between small groups, usually part of a longer or larger battle or war.
  2. A minor dispute.
  3. In warfare a tactic of attacking with missile weapons without making contact.


a brief battle between small groups
a minor dispute
in warfare a tactic of attacking with missile weapons without making contact


  1. To engage in a minor battle or dispute


to engage in a minor battle or dispute
  • Japanese: 小競り合い

Extensive Definition

Skirmishers are infantry or cavalry soldiers stationed ahead or alongside of a larger body of friendly troops. They are usually placed in a skirmish line to either harass enemy troops or to protect their own troops from similar attacks by the enemy. Skirmishers are generally lightly armoured for increased battlefield mobility and are usually armed with ranged weapons to attack the enemy from a distance.



In ancient and medieval warfare, skirmishers typically carried bows, javelins, slings, and sometimes carried light shields. Acting as light infantry with their light arms and minimal armor, they could run ahead of the main battle line, release a volley of arrows, slingshots or javelins, and retreat behind their main battle line before the clash of the opposing main forces. The aims of skirmishing were to disrupt enemy formations by causing casualties before the main battle, and to tempt the opposing infantry into attacking prematurely, throwing their organization into disarray. Skirmishers could also be effectively used to surround opposing soldiers in the absence of friendly cavalry.
Once the preliminary skirmishing was done, the skirmishers would participate during the main battle by shooting into the enemy formation, or could participate in melée combat with daggers or short swords. Alternatively, they could also act as ammunition bearers or stretcher-bearers.
Due to their mobility, skirmishers were also valuable for reconnaissance, especially in wooded or urban areas. During the gunpowder era, a skirmish line could be used to discover the extent of the enemy front line.

Napoleonic Wars

During the Napoleonic Wars, skirmishers played a key role in battles, attempting to disrupt the main enemy force by firing into their close-packed ranks, and by preventing enemy skirmishers from doing the same to friendly troops. As the skirmishers generally were spread out and were able to take cover behind trees, houses, and other obstacles, they were harder targets to hit with small arms and artillery fire. While muskets were the predominant weapon at the time, The British Army experimented with rifles, which had a far greater range to deadly effect, increasing the effectiveness of the skirmisher in disrupting enemy movements and communication.

American Civil War

The treatise New American Tactics by General John Watts de Peyster advocated making the skirmish line the new line of battle, and was considered revolutionary at the time. During the American Civil War it was common for cavalrymen to dismount and form a skirmish line in order to delay enemy troops advancing towards an objective (for example, the actions of the Federal cavalrymen on the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg.)


By the late 19th century the concept of fighting in formation was on the wane and the distinctions between skirmishers and heavy infantry began to disappear. Essentially, all infantry became skirmishers in practice.


skirmish in German: Tirailleure
skirmish in French: Chasseur à pied
skirmish in Japanese: 散兵
skirmish in Portuguese: Caçador (militar)
skirmish in Chinese: 散兵

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

action, aerial combat, affray, ambush, armored combat, assault, attack, battle, battle royal, box, brawl, broil, brush, bullfight, clash, clash of arms, close, cockfight, collide, combat, come to blows, conflict, confrontation, contend, contest, cut and thrust, dogfight, duel, embroilment, encounter, engagement, exchange blows, exchange of blows, fence, feud, fight, fight a duel, fire fight, fracas, fray, give and take, give satisfaction, grapple, grapple with, ground combat, hand-to-hand combat, hand-to-hand fight, house-to-house combat, jostle, joust, melee, mix it up, naval combat, passage of arms, pitched battle, quarrel, rassle, riot, rumble, run a tilt, run-in, running fight, scramble, scrap, scrimmage, scuffle, set-to, shoving match, showdown, spar, stand-up fight, street fight, strive, struggle, tauromachy, thrust and parry, tilt, tourney, tug-of-war, tussle, wage war, war, wrestle
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