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The Swiss Guard: the Smallest and Oldest Army in the World

The Swiss Guard, or Pontifical Swiss Guard, is an armed force that has the main goal of protecting the Pope and his residence, the Apostolic Palace. The Swiss Guard is the oldest and smallest active army in the world.

Swiss Guard

History of the Swiss Guard

In October 1478, Pope Sixtus IV made an agreement with the Swiss Confederacy. This agreement allowed him to recruit Swiss mercenaries during his pontificate, until 1479.

The Swiss mercenaries were known to be some of the best for their loyalty, courage and their ability to fight and win against large armies.

After Pope Sixtus VI, Pope Innocent VIII decided to renew this pact and so did his successors.

In 1505, the Swiss bishop Matthäus Schiner proposed the creation of a Swiss contingent under the control of the pope.

On the 22nd of January 1506, 150 Swiss mercenaries, led by Commander Kaspar von Silenen, entered for the first time in the Papal States through the “Porta del Popolo” to serve Pope Julius II.

The number of the Swiss Guard’s members varied during the years. The Pope employed them as personal escorts, but they also took part in various fights.

The Sack of Rome

The first major engagement, that highlighted the Swiss Guard abilities and dedication to the cause, took place on the 6th of May 1527. During the Sack of Rome, while fighting against Emperor Charles V and his troops, 147 Guards died in order to save Pope Clement VII.

Clement VII managed to escape with only 42 Guards through the Passetto di Borgo, the passageway which connects the Vatican and Castel Sant’Angelo.

After eight days Pope Clement VII had to surrender and accept hard terms, such as handing over various fortresses and cities.

The Swiss Guard was dismantled, and the Pope swapped them with 200 mercenaries from Germany and Spain.

In March 1548, Pope Paul III reinstated the Swiss Guard, under the leadership of Jost von Meggen.

After the end of the Italian Wars, around 1560, the Pope decided to employ the Swiss Guard not as a military combat unit but only as a protection unit.

Between 1560 and 1849, the Swiss Guard was dismantled various times, due to a Pope’s death or loss in battles.

In the late 19th century, the unit declined to low standards, and the Pope employed it only as a ceremonial body.

The Restructuring of the Swiss Guard

In order to restore the Swiss Guard and bring it back to its original prestige, Jules Repond, the commander from 1910 to 1921, established a restructuring reform. The Swiss commander introduced modern weapons to the Swiss Guard armoury. He also proposed to recruit only men born and raised and Switzerland.

On the 11th of February 1929, the Italian State and the Holy See signed the Lateran Treaty, creating a new state, the Vatican City. With this treaty, the Swiss Guard became the official army of the Vatican City.

Since the attempted murder of Pope John Paul II, on the 13th of May 1981, the Swiss Guard is more oriented and active on the Pope’s protection. The ceremonial guard role is still important, but modern times required the Swiss Guard to take upon new roles and responsibilities. 

Sometimes the military unit is described as the Vatican City police. There is actually a different police force in charge of the overall security of the nation, which is the Pontifical Gendarmerie.

Structure

Before the 1914 restructuring, the Swiss Guard consisted of men born in Rome with Swiss descendent that could only speak Roman dialect. The guards only received training on ceremonial parades. At that time, not more than 100 men were part of the unit, nonetheless, the limit was 133.

The modern Swiss guard comes from the reform created by Jules Repond and Pope Pius X.

On the 13th of March 1914, the new regulation came into force.

The recruits could only be natives from Switzerland and many military exercises were introduced. Repond also tried to introduce modern arms, but Pius X only allowed them if they were not functional.

The unit consisted of:

  • One chaplain
  • Six officers
  • 15 non-commissioned officers
  • 110 guards (Halberdiers)

Repond also launched a new uniform. The tunic was, and still is, characterised by dark blue, red, and yellow, the colours of the Medici and Della Rovere families. While wearing the traditional dress, the Swiss Guard carry swords and pikes and wears white ruffs and high plumed helmets.

Swiss Guard

Requirements

Candidates have to be:

  • Roman Catholic men with Swiss citizenship
  • Single
  • In good health
  • Between the age of 19 and 30
  • At least 5 feet 8 inches (1.74m) tall.

They also need a high school degree, and they have to complete basic training with the Swiss military.

The minimum period of service in the Swiss Guard is two years.

According to Pope Francis reform, introduced on the 29th of April 2018, the number of men will have to be 135, instead of 122.

In the last years, the number of recruits decreased. Averagely, in order to maintain a full unit, the Vatican City has to recruit 35 men every year.

Since the late 2010s, in order to attract more men to join the Swiss Guard, the Vatican allows the members to get married after five years of service, regardless of the military rank.

According to Swiss media, the new Swiss Guard barracks will be ready in 2026. They will be planned to welcome also female members. However, as of now, the Swiss Guard does not accept female recruits.

Responsibilities of the Swiss Guard

The Swiss Guard primary role has always been a ceremonial role during official receptions in the Vatican City. However, in the last years, due to the changing times and the rise of new threats, the Swiss Guard provides security and protection to the Pope.

The Swiss Guard main responsibilities are:

  • Protecting the Pope and his residency.
  • Accompanying the Pope during his apostolic travels, within the Vatican City and in foreign countries.
  • Guardin the entrances to the Vatican City.
  • Performing honorary and security services.
  • Protecting the College of Cardinals when the Holy See is vacant.

Training

The training consists of a five-week induction training in Rome. When the recruit accomplishes it, the Swiss soldiers, called Halberdiers, which derives from the name of the weapon used in the 15th century, take the oath before the Pope.

Swiss Guard recruit drills

The training to become a Swiss Guard is very long and harsh and it consists of:

  • How to handle a weapon and how to shoot.
  • Surveillance.
  • Crowd control.
  • VIP protection.
  • Martial arts and judo.
  • Counterespionage and counterterrorism courses.
  • Tactic behaviours.
  • Personal safety.
  • Handling of swords, spears, and halberds.

The ceremony takes place on the 6th of May of every year. During the ceremony, the left hand of the Swiss soldier is on the flag of the Swiss Guard. At the same time, the Halberdier raises his right hand with three fingers open, symbolising the Trinity.

Swiss Guard

Equipment

The armoury of the Swiss Guard consists of weapons from every century. From vintage armours to submachine guns, almost everything can be found there.

The vintage weapons are Swiss T59 muskets, Vetterli Model 1871, M1867 rifles, Hisso MP43-44 sub-machine guns, Schmidt Rubin K31 bolt-action rifles.

Swiss Guard
Swiss Guard armoury

As personal defence weapon (PDW), the Swiss Guard has the Heckler & Koch MP7. This weapon is very popular among elite units such as the US SEAL Team. It is compact enough that the Guards can hide it.

As for sidearms, the Swiss Guard use to carry the Dreyse Model 1907 pistol. After the attempted murder of Pope John Paul II in 1982, the Sig P220, a semi-automatic pistol, became the official weapon of the Swiss soldiers. Besides that, the Swiss Guard has with the Glock 19 pistol. These guns are engraved with the letters AG, from “Ausruestung der Guarde”, which means “Gear of the Guards”, and the Vatican seal.

As heavy weapons, the Swiss Guard has a range of Sig SG550 assault rifles. They can be used both in close-quarters battles and in extended-range engagements.

Other entities in the Vatican City

Within the Vatican City, there is also the Gendarmerie Corps of Vatican City State. The Gendarmerie Corps is the local police and security force. It is responsible for criminal investigations, traffic and border control, and other police duties.

The Gendarmerie Corps includes two special units: the Anti-Sabotage Unit (Unità Antisabotaggio), which monitors suspicious envelopes and packages and intervenes in case of possible threats. The second one is the Rapid Intervention Group (Gruppo Intervento Rapido), which is responsible for countering subversive activities.

Author

Rachele Momi

Rachele Momi is a graduate in Intelligence & Security Studies at Brunel University and in Middle East Politics at SOAS. Her research is mainly focused on the Middle East region, tradecraft, and defence issues.

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