In historical fiction and fantasy, authors often make some assumptions about ideal weapons for a given body type. The idea that many subscribe to is very basic: close combat = large and muscular, ranged combat = skinny/lithe. That is why women (and elves) are given bows, while men (and dwarves) use a variety of close-combat weapons such as swords, warhammers, mallets, mallets-portrayed-as-warhammers etc. Men wielding warhammers are often portrayed as particularly large and muscular.
Problem is, those ideas are bullshit. Below, explanation will be given why and how, as well as what weapons will particular groups use. That being said, what is noted here are ideal conditions; often, a person may be forced to use weapon that is not optimal for a given body type. While I have done quite some research, I will be making up some terminology to streamline the explanation.
Weapons characteristics and usage
When it comes to weapons, there are two primary categories: melee weapons and ranged weapons. Ranged weapons themselves can be divided into thrown weapons and mechanical weapons. Thrown weapons utilize leverages inbuilt into human body to produce force; examples are various javelins. Mechanical weapons use various types of compression to acumulate force, which is then released to propel the projectile. Mechanical weapons themselves can be divided into two groups: tension weaponry, which uses compression of solid part to generate force (e.g. Various types of bows), and torsion weaponry, which uses torsion of a rope.
Weapons and body type
Body type determines mechanics of weapons usage. Maximum force which can be exerted by muscle depends on its crossection, while length varies distance over which it can be applied. Short stout muscle will exert greater force over shorter distance, while long thin muscle will exert smaller force over greater distance; but for the same mass, amount of work will remain the same. This force however is mediated through skeleton, which further diversifies physical abilities based on attachment points.
Tension weaponry requires a significant amount of power. Reason for this is that the velocity of projectile, and thus weapon’s lethality, depends solely on the energy accumulated in the launch mechanism. Usage of bow therefore requires great force (strength) in order to accumulate such energy. As a result, archer requires power leverage in the arm, which is favoured by short limb segments, short and thick muscles, and tendon distant from the joint. He also requires lot of strength in shoulder and back muscles. Generally, ideal archer would display extreme mesomorphy and laterallity of build in the shoulder and upper extremity (“omomorphy”), and would overall be strong and robust. Bow indeed reached its highest development among central Mongoloids, who show lateral build and strong shoulders.
Crossbow requires significant strength to pull back the string, but since it has locking mechanism in place, tension can be held indefinitely. With a bow, user has to both draw back the string and hold it in place, which requires significant strength and stamina. Finger, arm and back muscles are particularly important in this. As a result, archers had to be trained from birth, and such skill-set could not be reproduced outside a specific culture.
Traditional Western body ideal for male physique – muscular body and wide shoulders – thus reflects an age of archery. Ectomorph’s adaptation to bow is to increase its length. Longbow reduces strength required for any given range, as while some efficiency is lost, it enables significantly longer draw for a given draw weight. This however reduces efficiency, as more of energy is expended in accelerating arms of the bow itself. Arrow must also be heavier; as a result, short bows often have superior performance compared to longbows.
Some crossbows however are not directly powered by person. These enabled even cultures with no archery tradition to have significant missile component in their armies. Windlass crossbow in particular does not require much strength to use.
Unlike tension weapons, spears and darts depend solely on human body. Here, important factor is not the mechanical power, but rather velocity imparted on the missile by person’s body. As a result, usage of thrown weapons favours linear physique with long limb segments and tendons close to the joint; i.e. ectomorphic body type, providing maximum in-built leverages for spear-throwing. Throwing of spear can also be readily combined with running, which depending on situation may give advantage to either ectomorphic (endurance running) or mesomorphic (sprinting) body type. Since sprinting throw would be more likely in combat, indication is that javelin throw would be best adapted by peoples of mesomorphic stature (as also shown here). If however tactics disallow sprinting throw (e.g. javeliners positioned behind a shield or pike wall), ectomorphic body type would be better suited for the purpose.
Sling is a deadly weapon, capable of achieving ranges up to 400 meters. Unlike only other such infantry weapon – bow – it does not rely on tension, is easy to carry and cheap to produce. Range depends on the length of the sling, and Balearic slingers regularly carried long sling for long-range shots, short sling for short-range shots, and medium sling for intermediate range. Staff sling is inferior in range to hand sling, but can throw larger and heavier missiles. Ancient Grek slingers were regularly accurate enough to hit not just head of the enemy, but particular part of face. Speed of the missile can easily exceed 100 kph upon leaving the sling, and is more likely around 60 mps / 220 kph; as noted here, recurve bow can achieve 140 kph, compound bow 320 kph, and longbow 230 kph. Vegetius stated that slings were more deadly than bows against opponents clad in leather armour – unlike arrow, sling projectile could inflict blunt damage through armour. During Spanish invasion of Peru, stone from sling was observed to break a sword in two at 30 paces. Spaniards themselves feared only Aztec slingers: stone-tipped arrows would glance off or shatter against the armour, but slings would cause damage through armour. Historically, peoples who took up the sling saw no reason to develop the bow, and vice-versa.
Slingers are more mobile than archers, and can shoot on the move. Slings projectiles are also much more difficult to see than arrows. However, they are much more difficult to use in deep formations. With regards to body type and performance, it has already been noted that sling’s range is connected to its length. Therefore, taller slingers – capable of utilizing longer slings with typical underhand throw – would have the advantage. Shorter slinger could compensate by utilizing overhand or side throw, but these have disadvantages – especially side throw, which is difficult to use in formation.
Clubs are simple, but also primitive weapons. Because of this, they require a significant mount of force to be effective, thus favouring endomorphic body type. Neanderthals, who had used clubs, developed heavier physique to go with it, while homo sapiens developed throwing spear and linear physique. Clubs and maces of medieval Europe and Polynesia had appeared among peoples of large stature and balanced physique.
However, medieval combat in general required endurance at least as much as strength, thus favouring either balanced (mesomorphic) or slight (ectomorphic) physique. Full suit of gothic plate armour weighted 15 to 25 kg (20 to 30 kg, maybe), but this was well distributed all across the body and thus much less strenous than wearing equivalent backpack. Overall, hand-eye coordination is much more important than raw strength.
A large proportion of medieval combat happened on horseback. Heavy cavalry were striking arm of typical medieval army. Riding is anything but easy, and modern-day jousters have similar fitness levels to professional footballers (note: soccer players for Americans) and tennis players. Jouster examined in the article is 33 years old with body fat percentage of 7,72% – which is less than that of a professional footballer (8 – 10%) – core stability superior to that of a swimmer and alignment and balance of an acrobat.
Fighting style would depend on body build. A person with a wiry body would rely more on endurance, speed and mobility, darting in and out as necessary, and harassing the opponent until an opening presents itself or else the opponent tires out. A tall guy could use reach advantage to keep opponent at the distance. A large / heavy person should avoid protracted fight, and instead try to get to grips quickly, using size and strength advantage to overwhelm the opponent.
Person with broad chest yet short arms may find some longsword guards – where wrists cross over – to be cumbersome. This also applies to extremely muscular individuals. Both very muscular and overweight people can have success with sword and shield, as shield can be used to literally push opponent around and also compensates for possible disadvantage in guarding large body. Tall and slender person on the other hand would do better with a longsword, as it maximizes reach advantage. Outside swords, more lightly built person would do well with a spear, as it would enable combatant to keep his distance. Short, stocky person would find it more advantageous to get inside opponent’s guard, thus creating an ideal opportunity for dagger work. Likewise, lanky build lends itself to a polehammer. Polehammer is a two-handed weapon and allows for various grips which would limit strength required to use it properly. Stocky build is better for wrestlers/grapplers, as short limbs and distant attachment points means that they have advantage in applying and resisting force.
Most melee weapons are not as disadvantaged by body build as is often believed. Warhammers, unlike their portrayal in e.g. Warhammer and much of fantasy (including A Song of Ice and Fire), do not in fact require great physical strength. Many medieval warhammers are in fact two-handed weapons. Typical warhammer would have been 2 – 2,5 ft in length and weighted around 4 lbs with maybe 3 lbs of it being a head. This makes it comparable in weight to a longsword. A polehammer would have weighted 4,6 lbs with length of 4,7 ft (reconstruction example), though some could have been up to 7 ft long – but not much heavier than 5 lbs. Even so, due to big spike and distribution of weight, warhammers were capable of penetrating plate armour – if a solid hit was achieved. A warhammer, especially a polehammer, could be used effectively by men of fairly slight body build, though some minimum level of strength is necessary. Combat axes are also comparatively light. However, both warhammers and axes are much less well balanced and thus more tiring to use than swords; thus, poleaxes and polehammers are a better choice for a person of less physical strength.
Both warhammers and swords – especially latter, due to the stance and weight distribution – would require not so much physical strength, as they would endurance. Combat is very taxing, and merely holding a sword, especially a single-handed sword, in a guard stance, can be tiring. As a result, person would require a lot of slow-twitch muscles as well as forearm strength. Properly performed cuts in particular are not powered by arms, but rather by the core strength and leg muscles. Staff and spear also rely more on speed than on strength.
Historical cases and evidence
In early 16th century, French accounts forbade those under 18 from serving as men-at-arms. This indicates that many knights were teenagers or young adults, meaning that their body build would have been naturally slighter. Literature also distinguishes “noble” physique from that of labourers, farm hands and blacksmiths. Nobles were expected to not be as burly as common peasants, but rather more agile, graceful and courageous.
Book of Courtier, from 16th century, shows that ideal knight should not be extremely short or tall. Further, it notes that “men thus huge of body are also unfit for every exercise of agility”, and that knight should be “well built and shapely of limb, and would have him show strength and lightness and suppleness, and know all bodily exercises that befit a man of war”. This means that knights would likely be quite lean, rather than large.
According to Johannes Lichtenauer, a knight should be agile more than strong, nimble than muscular, and have good muscular coordination skills rather than brute force, as well as be highly intelligent. He states that “buffalo”, a person who relies solely on physical strength, is no threat to a skilled fighter, and that the best knight will become from a boy who is medium size in stature, has good muscle coordination, long arms and has the center of gravity near the navel.
Plate armour has to conform to body in order to achieve adequate agility. As such, armour can be used to determine body build of person it had been made for. Many pieces of plate armour indicate relatively slim build, with narrow waist and leg armour, but not all – regardless of what the ideal is, different individuals have different body builds. See images below.
English knight who died in 1388. was heavily muscled. As shown above, this was not the ideal body type for a knight, but certainly did happen.
Weapons and fantasy races
Physical characteristics of fantasy races
Above questions and issues are even more pronounced by various fantasy races. In fantasy, elves are often portrayed as generally ectomorphic, and dwarves as either mesomorphic or even endomorphic. There are very few to no exceptions within races, and depending on the setting, said characteristics may be even more exaggerated than among humans. Other species are more varied. Tolkien’s Uruk’s are implied to be – and depicted in movies as being – heavily mesomorphic, while various Snaga that serve as trackers may be closer to ectomorphic body type.
Due to the above, many weapons used by fantasy races do not make sense. Elves are usually given bows and swords, and dwarves warhammers and axes. But, also depending on the situation, ideal weapons would be quite different.
Dwarves are usually described as short and stocky, and incredibly strong. They also usually live underground, which raises a question of eyesight. If eyesight is not a problem – unlikely – then usage of powerful recurve bows as well as crossbows would make sense above the ground. However, as stereotypical dwarves spend their life underground, they are likely to be short-sighted compared to humans. As a result, dwarves are unlikely to use any ranged weapons at all. In melee, dwarves would have to compensate for the lack of reach; therefore, various weapons mounted on a stick would be useful. These include spears, pikes and polearms, such as Danish axe, glaive, corseque, halberd and poleaxe. Another useful weapon would be two-handed flail. Even so, short reach would be a disadvantage in melee as dwarves would be incapable of producing as much leverage and control as taller races would. Underground, lack of space would dictate weapon types. Thus shorter weapons such as normal warhammers, maces, axes and clubs would be regularly used, and to great effect; short swords and daggers would be used as well. Hammer and axe would definitely be weaponized, as they would have been used for mining. Two-handed swords (longswords, greatswords etc.) would not be used, as overly muscular build and short arms would inhibit many two-handed guards and moves.
Being stocky, dwarves would have low centre of gravity, and profound physical strength (recall discussion on body types). This would enable them to wear much heavier armour, as well as to use weapons that are much heavier than what humans could use. Dwarves would also be able to use shields to great effect: a dwarven shield would cover most of the body, especially from attacks by taller opponents, and stocky body build and low centre of gravity would allow dwarves to be good at simply pushing opponents around. However, too large shield would not be good, as it must not block view or limit mobility; something the relative size of Roman scutum would be ideal, as it would protect the legs. Stocky build would also be an advantage in grappling, as short limbs (levers) and strong muscles would make it difficult for an opponent to make dwarves’ limbs go the way they want them to, and low centre of gravity would make it easier for a dwarf to suplex or lift a man. It would also facilitate easy takedowns, as dwarf would not have to crouch to get below opponent’s centre of gravity. A charge by a dwarf would easily knock a human off his feet. This would enable dwarves to grapple the enemy into submission and then use dagger to find chinks in the armour.
Consequently, a human (or an elf) fighting a dwarf would have to stay away, using reach and mobility advantage to prevent dwarf from coming to body contact range. This is important for another reason as well. Short and stocky build with distant muscle attachment points indicates that dwarves would have limited endurance; therefore, useful approach for a more gracile race would be to stay away and wait for a charging dwarf to tire himself out. Using a warhammer or a sword against a dwarf would be similar as sword would have to be used as a hammer (murder stroke); this would enable the attacker to pull back dwarf’s shield out of the way. In a bind, attacker could use his shield and weight to lock down dwarf’s weapon (or else a shield) and strike around it.
Elves are usually described as tall, slim and graceful. This would make them more agile yet more frail and physically weaker than most humans (elves may or may not be slimmer than ectomorphic humans, depending on depiction). As noted earlier, this means that they would be ill-suited for usage of bows, even longbows (except those elves that are noted to be much stronger than humans, because magic). Their ranged weapons would be predominantly slings, darts and javelins – weapons which do not require much strength, but rather rely on technique (slings) or leverage (darts, javelins). Crossbows would actually see much more use than bows, as windlass crossbows do not require as much strength to use as bows or hand-cocked crossbows.
In melee, elves would again favour weapons that do not require strength. As a result, spears and swords would see heavy usage. For anti-armour work, elves would predominantly use polehammers, as a two-handed warhammer would require less muscular strength than single-handed one, even if it is slightly heavier. Being naturally more graceful and agile than humans, elves would be naturally better fighters, especially with weapons that rely on skill and speed (spears and swords). Daggers however would not be used as primary weapons, as longsword would have so much advantage over dagger as to make skill nearly useless.
Further reading / online sources