The pincer movement or double envelopment is a military maneuver. The flanks of the opponent are attacked simultaneously in a pinching motion after the opponent has advanced towards the center of an army which is responding by moving its outside forces to the enemy's flanks, in order to surround it. At the same time, a second layer of pincers attacks on the more extreme flanks, so as to prevent any attempts to reinforce the target unit.


A double envelopment by definition leads to the attacking army facing the enemy in front, on both flanks, and in the rear. If the attacking pincers link up in the enemy's rear, the enemy is encircled. Such battles often end in surrender or destruction of the enemy force, although the encircled force can attempt a breakout, attacking the encirclement from the inside in order to escape, or a friendly external force can attack from the outside to open up an escape route for the encircled force.


Sun Tzu in The Art of War speculated on the maneuver, but advised against trying it, feeling that an army would likely run first before the move could be completed. He argued that it was best to allow the enemy a path to escape, as the target army would fight with more ferocity when completely surrounded.

The maneuver was probably first used at the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC. The historian Herodotus describes how the Athenian general Miltiades deployed his forces of 10,000 Athenian and 900 Plataean hoplites in a U formation, with the wings manned much deeper than the center. His enemy outnumbered him heavily, and Miltiades chose to match the breadth of the Persian battle line by thinning out the center of his forces while reinforcing the wings. In the course of the battle, the weaker central formations retreated in order, allowing the wings to converge behind the Persian battle line, thus driving the much more numerous, but lightly armed Persians to panicky retreat.

Hannibal executed this maneuver at the Battle of Cannae in 216 BC. This is viewed by military historians as one of the greatest battlefield maneuvers in history, and is cited as the first successful use of the pincer movement to have been recorded in detail,[1] by the Greek historian Polybius.

It was also later effectively used by Khalid ibn al-Walid at the Battle of Walaja in 633, by Alp Arslan at the Battle of Manzikert in 1071 under name of Crescent Tactic, at Battle of Mohács by Süleyman the Magnificent in 1526 and by Field Marshal Carl Gustav Rehnskiöld at the Battle of Fraustadt in 1706.

It was also used by Daniel Morgan at the Battle of Cowpens in 1781 in South Carolina. Morgan's cunning plan at Cowpens is widely considered to be the tactical masterpiece of the American War of Independence.

A version of this maneuver was a standard tactic used by Zulu impis, who called it the "buffalo horn" formation.

A rudimentary form of this maneuver was also employed by Genghis Khan, known colloquially as the 'horns' tactic. In this case, two enveloping flanks of horsemen surrounded the enemy although they usually remained unjoined, leaving the enemy an escape route to the rear, as described above. This was key to many of Genghis' early victories over other Mongolian tribes.

The maneuver was famously developed to its perfection in the blitzkrieg as practiced by the armed forces of Nazi Germany during World War II. In this case, rather than being a mere infantry maneuver, it developed into a complex multi-discipline endeavor involving fast movement of mechanized armor, use of artillery barrages, air force bombardment, and effective radio communications, with the primary objective of destroying enemy command and control chains, undermining enemy troop morale, and disrupting supply lines.

See also


Further reading

  • U.S. Army training manual diagram of different modes of attack, including double envelopment
  • essay with a section on envelopments
  • Academic paper on military diagramming with diagram of a double envelopment
  • Georgy Zhukov's double envelopment at the battle of Stalingradit:Aggiramento
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