Welcome To The Swiss Guard - The World's Smallest Army

All the gen on the guardians of the Holy See

Established in 1506 to protect the Pope and guard the Vatican, the Swiss Guard is one of the oldest military units in continuous operation.

Known as Vatican City, Holy See is the world’s smallest country.

Covering just 0.2 square miles, the tiny sovereign state has the smallest military force to match, otherwise known as the Pontifical Swiss Guard or Papal Swiss Guard.

The population of the landlocked city-state is 825 including 135 Swiss Guards.

That adds up to 16.36 per cent of the population serving in the military.

This means that Vatican City is it not only the wealthiest country per capita but also the most highly militarised.  

Serving as a personal bodyguard to the Pope is a religious calling as well as a military career.

The Swiss Guards live with the firm belief that if needed they would sacrifice their lives to save God’s representative on earth.

Vatican City by David Iliff

Bravery Earned The Swiss Their Place

Over many centuries, Swiss mercenaries developed a stellar reputation of being the most courageous soldiers that money could hire.  

Their earnestly earned fame made them the popular choice of many ruling elites throughout Europe during the 14th and 15th centuries.

In 1505, when the Swiss Bishop Matthäus Schiner proposed that a permanent Swiss contingent should be formed in the Vatican, it didn’t take long to convince Pope Julius II.

In September of that year, 150 young Swiss soldiers marched from their home country to Italy. It took them four months to reach Rome. They entered the city on 22nd January 1506, which became the official date of the Guard’s foundation.

They Would Sacrifice Their Life For The Pope

The fame of the soldier’s bravery increased after the courageous sacrifice made by 147 Swiss Guards who died defending Pope Clement VII during the Sack of Rome.

In 1527, a mutinous army under the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V turned into a bloodthirsty mob, pillaging the city.

During the looting and burning, half of the 55,000 Roman inhabitants were killed.

The pope was able to escape because 189 Swiss Guards fought the troops of the Holy Roman Empire to protect him. Only 42 Guards survived the battle. They then escorted Clement VII through an underground tunnel to the safety of Castel Sant'Angelo.

The event wiped out most of the Swiss Guard contingent. They were temporarily replaced by 200 German mercenaries and reinstated 10 years later.

The sacrifice of the Swiss is remembered until this day. Every year on May 6th the fallen of 1527 are commemorated during the initiation ceremony when a recruit officially becomes a Swiss Guard. The oath of loyalty is taken with the full responsibility of knowing that today’s Swiss Guards would also fight to the death for the Pope like their predecessors before them.

Sack of Rome by unknown 17th century artist

There Are No Short Swiss Guards

Many military branches have certain physical requirements that potential recruits must fulfil. For example, as of 2018, all roles in the Marine Corps became open to women, however, potential recruits had to weigh a minimum of 65kg.  

Although the Swiss Guard recruiting process does not specify a minimum or maximum weight, they do require their soldiers to be of a certain height.

To protect the Pope, one must measure at least 5’8” (174 cm).

This is 4cm taller than the average worldwide height of a male which is 5’57” (170 cm).

The Swiss might not have the same reputation for being as tall as the Dutch, however at 5’9” (175.5) they do score slightly higher than the worldwide average.

Therefore, height for most potential recruits would not be an issue.

Celibacy on the other hand may be ...

~Swiss Guard Croppped 230119 CREDIT Harris Walker_0.png

Are They Allowed To Have Sex?

Traditionally, the Swiss Guards were celibate during their time of service. That is no longer the case.

With special permission, guards can marry after the age of 25.

Previously, to don a wedding ring, one had to have reached the rank of colonel.

Recently, the rules were changed by Pope Francis, who is known for his modernisation efforts of the Catholic church. Now those with five years of service under their belt can step into holy matrimony.

The Guard’s military career no longer defining their personal life was seen as a welcome change by the community.

The work schedule of the protectors of the Pope is highly demanding, with the Guards being on call most of the time ready to defend Pope Francis.

Nonetheless, many Guards find time for family life. About 20 Guards have wives and children who live with them inside the walls of the Vatican.

Swiss Guard Armour circa 1570-1590. Displayed in Higgins Armory Museum

The Uniforms Are Made Up Of 154 Pieces

It takes time and effort to look as sleek as a Swiss.

From the golden belt buckle to the starchy ruffle collar, the elite regiment exudes Renaissance chic.

The clothes are handmade in the Vatican and personally tailored to each guard. The full set is comprised of more than one hundred and fifty items and takes around 32hrs and three sittings to complete.  

Possibly the heaviest and most complicated uniform of any standing army, the outfit weighs around eight pounds.

Contrary to popular belief, Michelangelo or Rafael did not lend a hand in the designing of the uniform, although it hasn’t changed much since their time.

Still sporting the bright colours of the Renaissance, the flaring skirt, which was a common feature at the time, was swapped for the trousers and the feathered helmet received a modern makeover last year.

After more than 500 years, the old metal helmet was replaced by a 21st-century state-of-the art 3D printed plastic version of the original.

The upgrade includes air vents and is covered in UV resistant paint, making serving under the Mediterranean sun a more pleasant experience.

New Swiss Guard Helmet 240119 CREDIT Catholic News Agency.jpg

Killing Machines Dressed As A Clown’s Cousin

Don’t let the pantaloons, the bright stripes and ostrich feathered plumes fool you.

The outfits may look overly pompous to a modern-day observer, more like that of a jester than an elite soldier, but the Swiss Guards have held the spot of one of the world’s highest skilled marksmen for centuries.

Before the Guards can be recruited by the Holy Father, they must complete military service in Switzerland. This is followed by an intense five-week induction course in Rome.

During training, the recruits are referred to as Halberdiers after the halberd which was the traditional weapon of choice for the Swiss mercenaries of the 14th and 15th century.

Pompous outfits aside, the Guards have more than 500 years of excellence and impeccable brave conduct to uphold.  

After the failed assassination attempt of John Paul II in 1981, a stronger emphasis was placed on increased training in small arms and hand-to-hand combat, raising the level of the elite warriors even higher. 

Guards Must Be Young, Religious And ... Swiss

Before applying to be a Swiss Guard, the soldier must provide proof of excellent conduct while serving in the Swiss military, as well as have a high school or professional diploma.

Apart from academic achievement and good behaviour, potential recruits have to be unmarried Catholic citizens of Switzerland under the age of 30.

Although Switzerland is a trilingual state, with Italian being one of the primary languages, most of the recruits come from the German-speaking part and must take Italian lessons as part of their training.

By the end of their first year, the Guards are ready to take more front-facing roles such as guard duty at the front gates of the Vatican which often involves helping tourists.

If you ever find yourself at the gates of the Vatican, it is important to remember if the Guard is standing halbert in hand - then he is on guard duty and is not to be disturbed. If he is standing at ease with hands clasped either in front or behind his back then fire away ... your questions that is - he is there to help. 

Pay, Perks And Privileges

Swiss Guards are religious men who see their duty of protecting the Supreme Pontiff as an honour rather than a way to get rich. The Guard’s salary of €1500 is below average in Italy.

Working in the smallest country in the world with only 825 citizens means that the Swiss Guards are not required to pay taxes.

They also enjoy free housing and their children’s school fees are taken care of. There are around 20 children living in the Vatican who attend a private school in Rome.

The Swiss Guards work six days on three days off. A long working week followed by a long weekend. They also enjoy 30 days of paid annual leave.

Deadly Weapons Of Choice Throughout The Ages

The Swiss Guards are also known as Halberdiers, named after their primary weapon of choice – the halberd.

Often called the “Swiss Voulge”, the medieval weapon packs the manoeuvring capabilities of a spear with the power of an axe. In the hands of a highly trained Swiss Guard, it becomes deadly.

Over the past half millennia that the Guards have spent protecting the Pope, their armaments have changed tremendously but the halberd remains a deadly symbol of tradition and continuity spotted at all ceremonial events and Vatican gates.

The Swiss Guards have always used whatever the Swiss Army was issuing at the time. For almost 80 years they packed the reliable Dreyse M1907.

After the assassination attempt of John Paul II, it was time for an upgrade. The SIG Sauer P220 came into play. It was accompanied by the Glock Model 19 9mm pistols, used as a concealed duty weapon.

If more firepower is required, the Guards can take out their SIG SG550 rifle – the standard StW 90 or the SG 552 Commando model which they also have. As well as having one of the worlds most reliable combat rifles, they also have machine guns to match - HK MP7 PDW chambered in 4.6×30mm.

The mercenaries have also kept all its weapons from the past 500 years. Deep within the Vatican, in a secret location, the Swiss Guards Armory is hidden from public view.

Having never sold any of its weapons as surplus, the armoury is a time capsule of Swiss weaponry development throughout the centuries.

The hidden military museum was also featured on the silver screen in Tom Hank’s Demons and Angels. Alas, no public tours take place in this secretive historical gem, although some clergymen, scholars and weapons experts have been given special permission to visit.

Will A Woman Ever Protect The Pope?

It is possible although currently, all Swiss Guards are male.

It has been over a decade since Pontifical Swiss Guard commandant, Daniel Anrig, said that the Swiss Guard might one day be open to recruiting women. Having made the comment in 2009, he stressed that the possibility lies far in the future.

Compulsory military subscription applies to all male Swiss citizens. Women can volunteer to join. They have all the same rights and duties as their male colleagues and are allowed to enlist in any of the services including combat units.

Having successfully passed their training with merit, unlike the male soldiers, women are barred from applying to be a Swiss Guard.