A traditional Swiss mercenery weapon the halberd
A traditional Swiss mercenery weapon the halberd

Switzerland may be small, but it has always been a nation of warriors. Even Tacitus, the Roman historian, asserted that the Swiss were a very militant people. They were to prove this particularly in the 14th century at the Battle of Morgarten (15th November 1315) and at the Battle of Sempach (9th July 1386) where they destroyed the vastly superior Habsburg troups. The confederates fought on foot; they were only equipped with light „Rüschtige“ (en: armour) which enabled them to move more swiftly and had an excellent grasp of tactics. They also invented an effective and deadly weapon: the halberd, a cross between an axe and a lance.

A reputation for fierceness

The Swiss quickly gained a reputation for being unbeatable. This came about despite the confederates not having a regular army. „Buure“ (dt.: Farmers), craftsmen, patricians and aristocrats all banded together to boot out the „Ihdringling“ (en: invaders). Subsequently, from the 14th to the 17th century it became de rigeur for field commanders to hire Swiss mercenaries and the Swiss fought on battlefields all over Europe. It was during this time that a unit was formed that still exists today and is known throughout the world as the Pontifical Swiss Guard.

History of the Swiss Guard – a constant back and forth

In 1505, Pope Julius II requested the Swiss Confederation to send mercenaries to protect the Vatican and, a year later, the Pontifical Swiss Guard was born. The first and to date the most severe test of their abilities was on 6th May 1527 when Spanish mercenaries together with Frundsberg’s landsknechts stormed the city at dawn and massacred 12,000 people in eight days. The Vatican was not spared, but the Swiss Guard managed to whisk Pope Clement VII to safety. The price, however, was steep: out of 189 men only 42 survived. When Pope Clement VII capitulated, the Swiss Guard was disbanded and German landknechts took over the protection of the pope.

In 1537, Pope Paul III discharged the Germans and rehired the Swiss, but it was only in 1552 that the Swiss Guard were able to reach their required strength of 200 men. The next time the Swiss Guard was dissolved was when French troups occupied the Vatican on 15th February 1798. The Swiss Guard were disarmed and „entloh“ (en: let go) and Pope Pius VI had to leave Rome.

In 1800, Pope Pius VII recommissioned the Swiss Guard and, in 1870, Italian forces invaded the Vatican. The Apostolic See lost sovereignty over the state and Pope Pius IX had to let all troops go. Only the Swiss Guard remained, but their duties were restricted to providing security and safety.

The Vatican regained its sovereignty in 1929 and Switzerland classified the Swiss Guard as a police force. This was of particular importance as, since 1848, Switzerland has prohibited Swiss citizens from serving in a foreign military organisation.

The Pontifical Swiss Guard today

The Pontifical Swiss Guard
The Pontifical Swiss Guard

Although the Swiss Guard is classified as a regiment, it is made up of only 110 men. It is organised in three squadrons of three sub-units each. The Swiss Guard is lead by a commander (colonel) and a vice-commander with the rank of a lieutenant colonel.„D Ufgobe“ (en: The duties) of the troop include

  • ensuring the safety of the pope;
  • guarding of all Vatican City entrances;
  • ensuring the safety of the College of Cardinals during the sede vacante;
  • and providing security and honourary services.



The Swiss Guards are equipped with swords, rapiers, polearms, flamberge great swords and the halberd. The unit is also equipped with modern weaponry, but give „kei Uskunft“ (en: no information) on what these might be. However, it is known that these are some of the weapons in their arsenal:

  • SIG aussault rifle 90 and pistol 75
  • HK machine guns 5 and 7
  • pepper spray RSG 2000

This weaponary shows that there is more to the job than just parading around with a bit of knight’s armour.


Traditional uniform of the Swiss Guard
Traditional uniform of the Swiss Guard

The unit has two different uniforms. One is the blue drill uniform with a white collar and white cuffs. This is worn during training and on night duty. The other uniform is the full dress uniform and is red, blue and yellow. The headdress is a beret which carries the rank insignia. At Christmas, Easter and the swearing in, „wissi Händschä“ (en: white gloves), helmet and armour are worn in addition to the dress uniform.


Training to be a Swiss Guard takes five weeks. Recruits focus on drill, self defence and learning Italian. When the training is completed, there is a swearing-in ceremony that takes place every year on 6th May. But not everyone can join the Swiss Guard…


The Swiss Guard is a very traditional instituation with strict rules. „Ä Bewärber“ (en: An applicant) must be a Swiss male between 19 and 30 and have completed recruit school in the Swiss army. An applicant must also

  • have either completed the Matura or finished an apprenticeship;
  • be a practising Catholic;
  • be of good repute;
  • be physically fit;
  • have no health restrictions;
  • and be single.

Applicants must also sign up for a minimum period of service of 25 months.

Would you like to know more about the Swiss Guards?

The Pontifical Swiss Guards has a comprehensive website: www.guardiasvizzera.va/. If you would like to know more about this traditional Swiss troop, wander over to their website for an indepth look and lots of information.


Vocabulary list


Swiss German English
1 Rüschtige armour
2 Buure farmers
3 Ihdringling invaders
4 entloh let go
5 D Ufgobe the duties
6 kei Uskunft no information
7 wissi Handschä white gloves
8 ä Bewärber an applicant


The Swiss Guard – a Melding of Tradition and Modernity
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