Few fantasy stories would be complete without powerful warriors, skilled soldiers and the armies they head (or fight against), not to mention the tools of their trade – weapons and armour.

This chapter is designed to provide writers with an overview of ancient and medieval arms, armour and armies so that they can effectively include these things in their stories. Other aims are to give writers authentic terminology they can use in their stories, point them in the right directions for doing more research, and help them think about how and why arms and armor were used and developed.


When arming characters, there are several things that writers should take into account. Among these are what the people in question use their weapons for, what their level of technology is and what their material resources are.

The sorts of weapons a culture uses says much about that culture and are determined by their chosen forms of combat. For example, long, slashing swords and javelins might be favored by warriors who fight from chariots or horseback.  Missile weapons like bows and slings are likely to be preferred by warriors who make their living hunting when not waging war.  Maces, picks and other heavy, crushing weapons are the sort that will be used by soldiers who need to penetrate the defenses of heavily armored opponents.  Long, sharpened paddles used for rowing canoes might be the primary weapons of a riverine jungle people.  Steel-bladed swords, spears and arrows might be issued to the professional soldiers of a wealthy city state.

The technology level of the people in question and their available material resources will dictate the material form of the weapons to a very great extent. For example, are they operating at the level of a Stone Age, Copper Age, Bronze Age, Iron Age or even some age unknown in our world?  Warriors of a primitive people unable to work metal and living in an area devoid of appropriate rocks might utilize “Bone Age” technology, arming the edges of heavy wooden clubs with bone shards and making spear- and arrowheads from sharpened pieces of bones.

Writers should also consider the attitudes that people of their cultures have toward their weapons, for example, the warriors of the various Germanic peoples (Goths, Saxons, Vikings) had a spiritual reverence for fine weapons. The Antithesis of this attitude was found in the Roman republic, where soldiers regarded weapons as necessary tools to be brought forth when needed and then put away until needed again.

Weapons Terms

Most weapons can be divided into several broad types, which are explained below. For some, subgroups or various regional or variant names are also provided in parentheses.  Not all are exactly synonymous, but are at the least in the same family of weapons.  For example, a gaesum and a pilum are both types of javelins, but are not identical in form or function.

Weapons inflict three broad types of damage: crushing (clubs, maces), cutting (axes, broadswords) and piercing (arrows, spears, lances, longswords).

axe: Many shapes, sizes and varieties of this weapon have been used throughout the world for about fifty thousand years. Stone Age peoples used flint-headed axes with wooden hafts; medieval men-at-arms used heavy, steel-headed two-handed axes like the bardiche to hack through plate armor; and warriors in India used axes with hafts and heads forged entirely of steel, the weapons ornately decorated with koftgari etch work.  Axes were used extensively by primitive or barbarian warriors because they could serve as both tools and weapons.

bows: Bows have been used by hunters, warriors and soldiers the world over since prehistory. Self-bows consist of a single piece of flexible wood. Composite bows are made of one or more pieces of wood reinforced with layers of horn and sinew.  In all cases, the string is markedly shorter than the bow itself in order to provide tension.

Short self-bows can have pulls ranging from 40 to 50 pounds for the primitive hunting bows of forest peoples, who operate at short ranges, to 70 or 80 pounds for an English longbow with typical ranges of 230-250 yards, to about 110 pounds for some types of East African bows. Composite bows allow for much stronger pulls, the Turkish variety of this weapon having a pull of 150 to 160 pounds with typical ranges of 360-400 yards.

club: Basically an extension of the fist, simple wooden clubs were the first hand weapons and were used universally. Their descendants, composite clubs, were similarly widespread, and consist of wooden clubs with stone or metal heads, sometimes simply round but more often armed with metal flanges or spikes.  Examples of these include maces, morning stars and flails.

crossbows: Crossbows have advantages over bows in that they allow mechanical power to be substituted for muscle and can be kept readied to fire long than can bows. Disadvantages include having a rate of fire much less than that of bows.

Crossbows probably appeared in Europe in the eleventh century and were developed into progressively more powerful weapons over the course of the next few centuries. The lightest had wooden bows and could be cocked by hand.  The most powerful, called arbalests, had steel bows and could only be armed by use of a windlass, goat’s foot lever or similar device.  Such weapons could pierce armor and constituted such a threat to armored knights that for a time the Church banned their usage against Christians (a ban about as effective as those being called for against handguns today).

Crossbows fire bolts, or quarrels, broad-fletched projectiles less than half the length of arrows.

dagger: Usually double-edged and used for both slashing and thrusting, the dagger is a universal weapon. Daggers were often used as secondary weapons to be resorted to after being deprived of a primary weapon (their concealability enhanced this usage), or used as an offhand weapon.

Daggers were also made for special purposes. For example, the Indian peshkabz had an acute point and a reinforced spine, so that it could be rammed through mail armor; and the French misericorde was long and narrow, so that it could be thrust through openings in the armor of knights who had been knocked to the ground.

Amongst people with limited metalworking abilities, long copper, bronze or iron daggers sometimes served as primary weapons.

javelin: Such light spears are designed for hurling, rather than melee, and generally have about twice the range of thrown close-combat spears. Some, notably the pilum, were forged with a soft metal neck that bent upon impact.  This made it impossible to hurl back, hard to withdraw from a wound; and, if stuck in a shield, weighed it down and made it difficult or impossible to use.  (Gallic gaesum; Roman pilum)

lance: In its simplest form, a spear used by a mounted warrior whose horse is equipped with spurs. Used by such a soldier, a lance could be couched under his arm when charging in order to put the weight of the horse behind the impact of the weapon.  During the Middle Ages, the lance developed several features, including hand grips and guards, and specialized heads.  The term “lance” is often erroneously used to refer simply to a spear.  No other melee weapon can inflict as much shock and damage as a lance wielded by a mounted warrior with stirrups, as the weight of the horse is behind the attack.

polearm: Any weapon consisting of a head mounted on a haft, the former usually of metal and the latter usually of wood. The spear, a dagger blade mounted on a pole, is the simplest form of polearm.  Throughout the world, innumerable types have been used, ranging from the modified peasant tools to highly specialized arms designed to penetrate heavy armor.  Examples include the bill, guisarme and fauchard, weapons used by European peasants in time of war; the bec de corbin, Lucerne hammer and halberd, all designed to help infantrymen stand up to or even overcome heavy cavalry; and the Japanese naginata and Indian hoolurge, both polearms with broad cleaving heads.

sword: No class of weapon has been so revered or romanticized as the sword. Swords represent a relatively high level of technology and economic development, in that they were made almost entirely of metal and were thus expensive and labor-intensive.  Swords were produced in a great variety shapes and sizes, and several general types are described below, loosely in the order of their technological development.

bastard sword: Also called a hand-and-a-half sword, this is a weapon that can be wielded with either one hand or two. Examples include the khandar of India and what was called a sword of war during the European Middle Ages.

broadsword: A sword three or more feet in length with a rounded or spatulate tip used for chopping or slashing. Examples include the iron swords of Dark Age barbarians and of Middle Eastern chariot peoples.

khopesh: A bronze sword of ancient Egypt about two feet long with a heavy, cleaverlike, D-shaped blade. What is most interesting about the khopesh is that its form was adopted throughout the ancient world and it became the grandfather of an extended family of cleaverlike shortswords that includes the falcate of Spain, the kopis of Greece, the sax of the Danes and the kukri of Nepal.

longsword: A double-edged, long-bladed sword with an acute point ath could be used for slashing or thrusting. Most of the swords carried by the knights and men-at-arms of the Middle Ages were of this sort, although these can be divided into more than a dozen broad types.  Representing a higher technology level than most broad- or shortswords, such weapons were deadlier and almost always made of steel. Rapiers are an example of an especially thin, long version of such a weapon.

protosword: A wooden club shaped like a sword and fashioned with acute, swordlike edges, or armed with chunks of stone, glass or other sharp objects. Such weapons were made by peoples who recognized the superior form of the sword, but were unable to produce true metal swords.  Examples include the macahuitl of the Aztecs, and the shark-toothed tebutje of the Gilbert Islanders of Micronesia.

scimitar: A carved, single-edged slashing sword, typical of Middle Eastern and especially Arabic peoples. The saber is a type of scimitar designed for equestrian troops.

shortsword: Broad-bladed, usually double-edged swords about two feet in length were popular amongst many peoples. Roman soldiers carried the steel gladius; Celts wielded leaf-shaped bronze shortsword; West Africans used broad-bladed iron shortswords.  Shortswords were often made by people whohad not achieved a high level of metalworking ability and used a relatively soft metal, such as copper or low-carbon iron.  Broad, thick-blades helped to make such weapons strong enough for use in battle.

two-handed sword: Heavy, two-handed weapons of this sort tended to be five or six feet in length, twenty-five or more pounds in weight, and used for hacking. The best examples of such weapons came into use from the fifteenth century onward.  Specific examples include the zweihaender of the German landsknecht mercenaries and the no-dachi of Japan.

stirrups: Although not a weapon as such, stirrups caused one of the great revolutions in the history of warfare. They allowed mounted warriors to use high-impact weapons like lances and to more effectively fire bows from the saddle.  Since the earliest days of European warfare, disciplined formations of heavily armored infantrymen, exemplified by Roman legionnaries, had dominated the battlefield and could withstand attacks from cavalry, which were largely relegated to the role of skirmishers.  Stirrups were invented around 200 B.C. in China, during the early Imperial period.  They were introduced in Europe one thousand years later by Muslin invaders.  The first European warriors to adopt them were probably the mounted troops of Charlemagne, who heralded in a millennium of battlefield dominance by cavalry.


Throughout history, various sorts of armor have been developed to protect combatants, and weapons have been improved upon and specialized for the purposes of penetrating that armor.

In fantasy art, movies and literature, warriors are often depicted wearing little if any body armor. In reality, however, most historical warriors endeavored to equip themselves with as much protection as possible, and unarmored or lightly armored soldiers were generally hacked to bits by those who were better equipped.  Armor stands between a soldier and the weapons that others are trying to kill him with, and its value cannot be underestimated.  Armor can deflect or absorb weapon blows that would otherwise maim or kill their wearer.

The following section is an overview of the use of armor and provides authentic terminology. After all, anybody can write, “Duke William donned his helmet,” and that might be good enough.  If you have to, however, it is nice to be able to write, “Duke William donned his spangenhel, then pulled his ventail up to cover his throat and jaw, tying off the corners of the mail flap to the sides of his coif.”

Armor can be broadly divided into helmets, shields and body armor.

Helmets are one of the most crucial and universally worn pieces of armor, even among nonwealthy troops. Head wounds are the most bloody, disabling and lethal, and nothing is more important than preventing them.  Broadly speaking, a helmet can include anything from a bronze skull cap, a thick cotton turban, an iron great helm, a conical steel helm with a noseguard or a hood of mail.

Shields are devices held in the user’s nonweapon hand and actively used to block weapon blows or enemy missiles. Shields can be of any shape, size or material.  Shields must strike a balance between sturdiness and maneuverability; a shield made of plate steel may stop any weapon, but would be impossible to lift; one made of paper might be easy to carry and move about, but obviously wouldn’t stop weapon blows very well.  Most have a wood core or frame, a covering of leather and metal fitting if available.  Other materials have included wickerwork, turtle shell and even reinforced cloth and silk.

Body armor in some form has been worn for thousands of years in every place that human beings have made war upon each other. The materials such armor was constructed of depended on what was available, the technology level of the society constructing it and the needs of those wearing it.  For example, the peoples of Mesoamerica made armor of quilted cotton because cotton was readily available, they did not have metalworking technology, and they really did not need anything considerably better against the Stone Age weapons they faced.

Throughout the ancient world, many sorts of body armor were used, including coats of mail, scales, rings and plates. Armor ranged in complexity from leather cloaks studded with metal worn by Assyrian soldiers to the extremely complex panoply of the Samurai, which consisted of dozens of specialized pieces of finely crafted metal and silk armor.  Padded clothing was always worn under armor to reduce chafing and help absorb blows.

For many centuries after the fall of Rome in the fifth century A.D., most European warriors woreleather armor, sometimes augmented by metal studs or rings; waist-length, short-sleeved coats of mail and remnants of Roman armor.

By the eleventh century, the best-equipped warriors wore a hauberk, a knee-length coat of mail; and a spangenhelm, a conical helmet made of four sections of wood and leather set in a metal frame and with a nasal, a metal bar protecting the nose and upper face.  Shields during this period tended to either be a few feet wide and round, or about four-feet high and kite-shaped, the latter type favored by cavalrymen.  Vikings, Normans and many early crusaders were equipped in this way.

Mail was gradually augmented with additional pieces. By the thirteenth century, it was being reinforced with coats of plates, typically cloth or leather vests with rows of metal plates sewn into them – pieces of plate metal to protect the elbows, knees and shins.  Cylinder-shaped great helms were adopted by many warriors, and the kite shield was abbreviated into the heater shield.

Armor of the fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries included many plate metal components, including breast- and backplates. Armor of this period is now referred to as transitional armor, as it represented a shift from all-mail to all-plate armor. Close helmets, which fit tightly around the head and enclosed it entirely, replaced the bulky great helms.

European body armor reached its developmental peak in the fifteenth century. Armor was almost entirely made of plate metal components and was characterized as full-plate.  Shields were either smaller or abandoned altogether because of the greater protective value of armor.

The progressive competition between weapon smiths and armorers was abruptly settled in the sixteenth century with the spread of firearms. Armorers tried to counter this by creating increasingly heavy breastplates, but eventually had to concede the contest.  Complex, expensive, highly protective suits of armor were still made for a few centuries, but used only for tournaments and pageants.  Battlefield armor was abandoned piece by piece until by the eighteenth century, even helmets were abandoned – for a time.

Since then, firearms have continued to evolve and become more and more deadly, while no effective defense have been developed to counteract their effects. Even modern bulletproof vests are not completely protective against firearms.  Such armor is really only effective against handgun ammunition or explosive fragments, and generally cannot withstand rifle fire; protects only the torso and its vital organs, not the limbs or head; and is not provided to regular soldiers in any case.  Bullet proof helmets do exist and are issued to U.S. military personnel, and some form of helmet is worn by the soldiers of most armies.  If anything, this is a reminder of the importance of head protection, one of the first and most universal forms of personal defense.

Armor Terms

Several specific sorts of helmets, shields and armor, along with various armor terms, are described below. Pieces described as being plate armor are usually worn in conjunction with other pieces to form transitional-plate or full-plate armor.

aventail: A flap of mail that hangs down from the back of a helmet to protect the wearer’s neck.

bard: Armor for a horse, which could be constructed of much of the same material as armor for humans. Individual pieces included the chanfron or champfrein, a piece designed to protect the horse’s head.

bevor (a.k.a. beaver): A piece of mail or plate armor that protected the chin and lower face, often attached to the bottom of a helmet with hinges made of plate, or part of a coif if made of mail or padded cloth.

breastplate: A metal plate designed to protect the torso. In their simplest form, breastplates may be square or round pieces, a few hands across in width and worn strapped onto the chest.  Those worn by ancient Greek and Italian warriors were of bronze and cast to look musculatured.  Steel breastplates came into use in the Europe during the 1200s to augment chain mail and by the 1500s, were one of many plate steel components of full-plate armor.

Backplates were a typical counterpart to the breastplate, but were notably absent among some armies. For example, many Greek soldiers had only breastplates, causing rout in battle to be thought of as tantamount to suicide as it left an unprotected back exposed.

breaths: Narrow slits or holes in the close helms and great helms of the Middle Ages used to breath through.

coif: A hood of mail, often attacked to a coat of mail. In India, mail with an attached coif was often referred to as ghughuwa.

couter: A piece of plate armor that protects the elbow, attached to the upper and lower arm guards by hinges.

cuisse: A broad piece of formed plate armor that protected the thighs. Such armor typically wrapped around the front and sides of the thighs but left their back unprotected.

fauld: A mail skirt worn under plate armor to protect the groin.

flutes: Corrugations in some plate armor of the Middle Ages that gave it additional strength but did not add to its weight. A characteristic of what is known as Maximilian Armor.

gauntlet: A heavy leather or metal glove. Those of the Middle Ages designed for use with plate armor often had articulated steel fingers.

gorget: A heavy piece of plate armor designed to protect the neck.

greave: A piece of armor, usually of metal but possibly of hardened leather, used to protect the shins. Greaves were used from the earliest times, from Bronze Age Greek warriors to sixteenth-century European knights.

haute-piece: A ridge of metal on plate shoulder armor designed to prevent horizontal cuts to the neck.

helm, helmet: A piece of armor designed to protect the head. There are innumerable names and variations, but a few notable ones follow.

arming cap: A padded, lightweight cloth helm worn underneath a heavier metal helmet, or by itself by troops of modest means.

barbute: A Renaissance helm with an opening for the face shaped like a round “T,” the barbute is based on an ancient Greek helmet and was revived because of the Renaissance veneration for the classical world.

close helmet: A plate-armor helmet of the late Middle Ages that fitted very closely around the head and was looked through by means of narrow sights or eye slits. Such helmets often consisted of two or more pieces that were bolted together around the head of the soldier.  Examples include the armet.

great helm: A heavy, round helm of the early Middle Ages that looked a bit like a bucket or can with eye slits. The great helms of knights often had their heraldic devices mounted on top of them.

khula-kud: A Persian or Indian helmet, traditionally consisting of a round steel cap, a noseguard extending down from the brim, an aventail and a pair of hollow metal pipes attached to either side of the front, used to hold plumes.

morion: A broad-brimmed, high-crested helmet of the Renaissance, usually associated with the Spanish Conquistadors.

lance rest: A metal hook attached to the breastplate of plate armor and used to help keep a lance level during a charge.

lorica segmentata: This characteristic armor of the Roman legions consisted of horizontal bands of iron protecting the abdomen and torso, with smaller vertical pieces to protect the shoulders. A knee-length skirt of metal-studded leather strips protected the lower part of the body.

mail: A type of armor made up of interconnected links of metal. In most examples, each ring of metal is attached to four others, creating a tough, flexible mesh, which is called the “four-in-one pattern.”  Such armor was worn throughout Europe, Asia and North Africa.

Mail is often referred to (somewhat redundant) as chain mail.

pauldron: Pieces of plate armor designed to protect the shoulders.

poleyn: A piece of plate armor that protects the knee, which is attached to the thigh and shin armor by means of pins or hinges.

sabaton (a.k.a. soleret): A piece of plate armor used to protect the top of the feet.

scale armor: Armor consisting of scales of metal, horn or leather on a coat of cloth or leather. Such armor was used by the Byzantine and later Rome armies, and was characteristic of the cataphractoi and clibinarus heavy cavalrymen.

shield: Shields are probably the earliest type of armor designed specifically for defense, and many sorts have been carried by troops through the ages. A few notable varieties are described below.

buckler: A very small shield, usually a few hands wide and made entirely of metal. Such shields required great skill to use effectively.

heater: A three-shield with a straight upper edge and two carving sides meeting at the bottom in a point, widely used during the Middle Ages.

hoplon: The large, round shield of the ancient Greek heavy infantrymen.

scutum: The large, semicylindrical rectangular body shield carried by Roman legionaries.


side wing: A piece of plate armor attached to knee guards to help defend against blows to the side of the leg.

surcoat: A loose tunic worn over armor during the Middle Ages that was usually emblazoned with a soldier’s colors or heraldic markings.

tasset: A broad piece of plate armor used to protect the thigh.

ventail: A square of mail attached to the upper chest by two corners, the other two hanging loose across the chest when not in use. In battle, the wearer pulls the ventail up to protect his throat and jaw, tying off the loose corners to the sides of his coif.

visor: A piece of a helmet covering the face, usually capable of being lifted on hinges or removed.


Writers creating armies should understand the difference between warriors and soldiers. Warriors are the combatants of primitive or nonurbanized cultures and are judged largely on the basis of individual skill and ability.  They tend to go into battle in loose mobs or grouped into warbands, and are led by warriors who lead by virtue of strong personality or hereditary status.

Soldiers are the combatants of organized or urbanized societies and are trained to fight in units rather than as individuals. Soldiery draws its strength from numbers and cooperation at every level.  Soldiers are organized into units, go into battle in formations and are led by officers that have been appointed over them by the state or promoted based on merit and experience.

Troops can be formed on the battlefield in many ways, and different eras, places and conditions have dictated various ways of doing so. In the classical world, units of troops tended to be drawn up in a straight line, with the strongest unit on the right flank.  Infantry typically formed the core of such armies.  Units of cavalry were deployed on the flanks to prevent an enemy from surrounding one end of the army.  Units of cavalry might be deployed to the rear of the army and deployed as needed once a battle began.

In battle, commanders tried to force the enemy to retreat, rout or surrender; completely annihilating an enemy was not always a desirable, necessary or possible goal. Soldiers were deployed in order to maneuver around an enemy and attack its flank or rear, or break through its lines to do the same.  Once this occurred, all or much of the breached army might break and run.  At that point, cavalry was typically deployed to harry or eliminate the fleeing enemy.

Writers interested in describing battles should read about historic examples. Almost any detailed information about a battle will be useful, regardless of the period.  The actions of the Second Punic War (218-202 B.C.), fought between Hannibal’s Carthaginians and Rome’s legions, are ideal reading for such purposes.  Reading about the first defeat of Rome at the Battle of Lake Trasimene – Hannibal’s quintessential victory with his double envelopment of the Roman army at Cannae, and his ultimate defeat before the gates of Carthage at the Battle of Zama – will make writers infinitely more qualified to discuss the actions on a field of battle.

Writers should also be aware that the vast majority of combatants have no idea what is going on around them in a battle, and even commanders might have skewed ideas of what is happening. Tolstoy captures much of this battlefield confusion in episodes throughout War and Peace, his classic novel of the Napoleonic wars.

Quality of Troops

Writers can mentally classify the soldiers of their armies according to their level of skill, training and experience. These terms might be used to describe troops of certain types.  For example, an experienced soldier might very well refer disdainfully to “green” soldiers, and a commander would certainly be cognizant of which of his troops were his veterans.

Various units might have identifying names rather than generic descriptions: one company of green levies might be identified by their village of origin and called “The Mill Village Militia”; a regiment of veteran mounted lancers might be named for their commander and called “Arikon’s Winged Lightning”; and a king’s elite palace bodyguard might be named for his mystical guardian and called “Blue Dragons.”

Regular troops will make up the bulk of most professional armies. They are soldiers with training in arms and maneuver, many of whom will have seen some limited action, such as border skirmishes or putting down urban riots.  Such troops will stand their ground in the face of all normal battlefield threats and with proficient leadership, can be very reliable.

Green troops may have little or no training, or be relatively well trained but have no experience. Thus, they may be as good with their weapons as regulars on the training field, or may even be able to march better.  However, such troops have not been exposed to real action, and without strong leadership and study units on their flanks, they are liable to break under any sort of duress; for example, during the War of 1812, Maryland militia troops at the Battle of Bladensburg broke and ran when rockets were fired over their heads.

Veteran troops have had extensive training and considerable experience. Units of such soldiers will invariably have a history and will practice rituals or pageants that recall their glories.  Such troops might also be entitled to special honors, such as wearing a special device on their uniforms, carrying silver-plated weapons or being awarded extra pay.  Most legionaries of the Roman Empire were veteran troops, and legions displayed their histories with standards that they carried into battle.  The officers in charge of a unit of regulars will usually be a group of veterans.

Elite troops are the best soldiers, which will be formed into units. Some armies may have no elite troops at all, such as those with little experience at warfare, and they will be prized component of those that do.  Elite units in history include the Sacred Band of Thebes, a two hundred-man unit that helped make the Greek city-state of Thebes formidable.  They died to a man defending their city against the armies of Alexander the Great, who afterward wept for their valor.  Elite soldiers are usually the leaders of veteran soldiers.

Heroes are unique soldiers with extensive training, experience and special abilities, like magic weapons, great strength or supernatural companions. They will lead units of veteran or elite soldiers or entire armies, or even operate independently.  Beyond them are superheroes, demigods, demons, deities…. The possibilities in a fantasy milieu are unlimited.

The above notes are useful guidelines but can be bent as needed. Historically, even elite units have broken inexplicably, and green troops have stood their ground under harrowing circumstances.  Some very dramatic scenes can be created by considering these facts.

Types of Troops

Troops can be divided into several types based on their role in battle. Many of these troop types had specific names as well, usually based on the sort of equipment they used.  For example, many classical world infantrymen were named for the type of shield they carried (Greek hoplites were named for their hoplon, a large, round shield).

Infantry.  The most versatile arm of a military force are foot soldiers.  They can operate under the greatest variety of conditions and with the least expense and equipment.  Such troops also tend to be the least glamorous or rewarded of any sorts of soldiers.

Heavy infantry are as heavily armored as possible (which may not be very heavy in some cultures) with close-combat weapons and perhaps secondary hurled weapons, and trained to fight toe-to-toe with the enemy in close formations. Examples include the Roman legionary, armed with javelins, shortswords and daggers; the Greek hoplite, armed with twelve to eighteen-foot-long pikes; and medieval men-at-arms, armed with armor-crushing weapons like battle axes, maces and flails.

Light infantry wore light or no armor, or perhaps only shields and helmets. Typically, they served as skirmishers, launching missiles at the front ranks of an enemy force before close combat, dispatching wounded soldiers on the battlefield or chasing down retreating foes.  Examples include the velites of Rome, armed with javelins; the peltasts of Greece, also armed with javelins; and the pindaris of India, armed with pikes and miscellaneous weapons.

Missile troops typically wore no armor and could not engage the enemy in close combat. Such troops were often among the most highly trained of an army.  Examples include the Balearic slingers of the ancient world and the English longbowmen of the Middle Ages.

Cavalry. The first sort of effective cavalry was chariotry.  Forces of chariot troops conquered much of Asia and India in the second millennium B.C. Chariots are even more limited than horses in the kinds of terrain they can operate on, however, and once horses were bred strong enough to carry an armored man, more maneuverable individual cavalrymen eclipsed the chariotry, beginning around 500 B.C.

Heavy cavalry used hand weapons like swords, spears and axes; wore heavy armor; and fought in close formation, often stirrup to stirrup. The horses of such units were often as heavily armored as the men, equipped with bard of quilted cloth, scales, mail or plate.  Examples include the Byzantine cataphractoi; the armored knights of the Middle Ages; and the Mamluk slave soldiers of medieval Egypt.

Light cavalry wore little armor and were used to skirmish against, harry or pursue the enemy, usually using missile weapons, such as javelins or bows. Prior to the introduction of stirrups, most cavalry were of this sort.  The best example of such troops were the Mongol mounted archers, who could fire accurately from the saddle while moving at a full gallop.

Soldier Terms

Many of the following terms are selected to help writers think about how to organize their armies, for example, the names of various types or units or ranks. In addition to general troop types, there are also listings for various ranks, types of units and specific troop types to help writers think about the special kinds of soldiers they can include in their armies.

Many of the following terms apply to the Roman and Macedonian armies, both excellent models for the armies of a fantasy world.

acies: A single Roman battle line. Triplex acies designated a three-line battle formation.

agema: A Greek term for an army in the field, and in the Macedonian army, an elite unit.

alae: The “wings” of a Roman battle line, usually formed by cavalry.

Amazon: A female warrior, this term originally referred to a tribe of woman warriors believed by the Greeks to live along the shores of the Black Sea. The term has subsequently been used to refer to any groups of female combatants.

antesignani: Roman soldiers who fought in front of the battlefield standards (i.e., usually first-rate troops) as opposed to the post-signani, troops who fought behind the standards.

Aquila: The eagle battlefield standard of the Roman legions.

arquebusier: A soldier of the late Middle Ages or Renaissance who was armed with an arquebus, or handgun, a type of matchlock firearm.

artillerymen: In ancient and medieval times, the soldiers who crewed ballistae, catapults and bombards, who were often considered mere laborers rather than true soldiers.

auxilia: Auxiliary foreign troops attached to Roman armies. Most of Rome’s cavalry, archers and slingers were auxiliaries, such troops typically being drawn from Gaul, Syria and Spain, respectively.

battalion: A unit of about one thousand men, or ten companies. From the Swiss battaile, units of axemen and halberdiers raised during the Burgundian-Swiss War (1474-1477) against the French.

berserkers: Warriors able to work themselves up into a frenzy before going to battle so as to fight more effectively in hand-to-hand combat. Such warriors might imbibe hallucinogenic or other drugs, such as the Hashashim of Syria, who ambushed and assassinated European kings on Crusade.

blunderbuss woman: A member of an elite female corps under the command of the king of Dahomey, Africa. Blunderbuss women and their counterparts, the razor women, were equal in status to men and were actually considered to be better troops.  At their peak, they numbered some 2,400 and were used not just as bodyguards, but on the battlefield.

captain: In the ancient world and Middle Ages, a general term for the commander of a force of one hundred or more men; a company commander.

cataphractoi: Heavily armored cavalrymen, cataphractoi were armored from head to foot in mail reinforced with plate; even their horses were completely covered in scale armor. A sixth-century Persian document lists the arms and armor required of each individual cataphractus: lance, sword, mace, battle-ax, two bows and a bowcase, a quiver with thirty arrows, two extra bowstrings, mail, breastplate, helmet, greaves, arm guards, buckler and bard.

Similar troops included the clibinari of the late Roman Empire.  Because the extensive arms and equipment required by such troops was so expensive, each clibinarus tended to be of aristocratic background.

centurion: In the Roman army, a high-ranking, noncommissioned officer in charge of a century. Such veteran soldiers were the backbone of the Roman army.

century: A unit of the ancient Roman army numbering eighty to one hundred men at full strength.

cohort: A unit of Roman army, numbering 480 to 800 men at full strength and composed of six to eight centuries.

company: A basic unit of troops, usually consisting of about of one hundred or more troops and led by a midrank officer or senior noncommissioned officer. Specific examples include the Roman century (c. 80-100 men), the Macedonian syntagma (c. 256 men) and the Greek pentekostos (c. 128 men).

conquistador: Spanish adventurer-soldiers who conquered much of the New World in the sixteenth century. Firearms, horses, modern tactics, ruthlessness and treachery allowed them to overcome Aztec, Mixtec and Mayan forces that were vastly superior in numbers.

cuahchic: Shock troops of the Aztecs. Such troops were al elite veterans who opted to serve in the elite assault units rather than Mohawk-style haircuts, and typically armed with obsidian-edged clubs (macahuitls), padded body suits, and shields.

colonel: Literally, the leader of a column. In western armies, a typical command for a colonel is a brigade, or about two thousand men.

crossbowman (a.k.a. arbalestier): A solder armed with a crossbow.  Such fighters began to come into use near the end of the twelfth century.

Crusader: European knights and soldiers who participated in the various religious Crusades that began in 1096, usually with the Holy Land as a goal.

engineer: Soldiers assigned the duties of constructing fortifications, field works and obstacles, or the removal of the same. Prior to the rise of modern armies, the engineer was considered a civilian rather than a soldier.  The word is derived from Latin and means ingenious, and points to the high regard in which expert engineers were held.

escrimador: Filipino warriors trained in the use of a straight fighting stick who are reputed to have defeated Magellan’s swordsmen in combat.

federati: Gothic warriors and aristocracy who were given military training by the Roman army in the third century A.D. This double-edged program meant trained Goths formed a buffer between the Romans and more fearsome enemies, but also that the Goths acquired skills (both military and administrative) that would later be used against Rome.

general: The leader of a body of at least several thousand men, a group usually characterized as an army. In armies with complex structures, a great variety of officers might serve under a general, including colonels, majors, captains and lieutenants.  In simpler armies, all the main officers under the general might simply be referred to as his captains.

handgunner: A soldier armed with a handgun or hand cannon, early forms of firearms.

hastati: The heavy spearmen of the Roman army who occupied the first line in a three-line battle formation (see Acies). Literally, someone who used a hasta, or spear.

hoplite: Heavy infantry of classical Greece, named for the large body shields they carried called hoplon.

horns of the bull: An enveloping tactic used by Zulu armies. The army would attack in a half-moon formation, fixing the enemy with the central section of the army, allowing the flanking units to encircle the enemy and closing inward like a huge pair of horns.

Huscarl: Danish mercenaries in the pay of the Saxon kings of England. The main weapon of these staunch warriors was the two-handed Danish axe, which they swung in a huge arc.  Huscarls wore the Saxon byrnie for protection, and used the Norman-style kite shield, as well as an older round shield.  Despite their skill and fortitude, they were defeated at the battle of Hastings in 1066 by Norman cavalrymen.

ile: A cavalry unit in Greek and Macedonian armies.

Immortal: A class of ancient Persian infantryman.

Jannisary: Christian child raised to be a soldier by the Ottoman empire. Jannisaries were fierce, dedictated soldiers and often used as shock troops.

knight: This was the name applied to mounted warriors of aristocracy in western Europe from the ninth century onward. The paladins of Charlemagne were among the first knights of the European ages.

legion, Roman: The basic strategic divisionof the Roman army differend in size and composition over the centuries, but at full strength tended to range from 4,200 to 5,200 men. In the first century B.C. when Julius Caesar was battling the Gauls, a 4,800-man legion consisted of ten cohorts, each composed of three maniples, one each of principles, hastate and triarii.  Each maniple was composed of two centuries of eight men, so sixty centuries made up a legion.

A legion might also have attached to it cohorts of auxiliary cavalry and infantry, many of them specialists, such as Gallic cavalrymen, Syrian archers or Spanish slingers. Some 1,200 auxiliaries per legion was typical.

A Roman field army typically consisted of four or more legions.

levy: A commoner, usually a peasant, called up for military service.

line unit: The regular units that made up the line of battle as opposed to guard or elite units.

men-at-arms: Typically, well-equipped and armed warriors of the Middle Ages of non-noble birth. Such men-at-arms were trump cards in close combat.  So heavily armored and equipped were they, however, that they often could not fight very long, and the victor was often the man who could outlast his opponent.

marines: Troops trained to fight on shipboard or to attack from a ship. They were distinct from sailors in that marines were stationed on vessels but did not actually operate them.  Indeed, in some military systems, marines are employed on shipboard to prevent sailor mutinies or to protect the ship’s officers.

militia: Municipal citizen armies began to rapidly form in Europe around the eleventh and twelfth centuries. These armies not only defended their cities, but often furthered the ends of the city abroad.  Some of them were quite puissant.  The militia of Ghent, Belgium, for example, were not only an exceptional field force armored with bows, pikes and swords, they were also widely considered specialists in siege.

mounted infantryman (a.k.a. dragoon, hobilar): A solider who moved about on horseback or other means other than his own feet, but fought on foot as infantryman rather than mounted as a cavalryman.

musician: Military musicians conveyed signals or made field calls, such as a signal to attack or retreat. In armies where soldiers were trained to march, musicians used percussion instruments to beat a cadence by which a pace was set.

oarsman: Rowers aboard oar-driven ships were most common in the Mediterranean Sea during the classical age of Greece and the dominion f Rome. Contrary to common belief, oarsmen were more often freemen than slaves and received decent pay for their services.  Outside of the Mediterranean, oarsmen were usually also warriors, for example, the Viking raiders of the ninth century onward.

orbis: A ring-shaped tactical formation used by Roman troops, especially during an emergency, such as surprise attack by a numerically superior foe.

peltast: In ancient Greece, a light infantryman, named for his light-weight shield, or pelte, and armed with javelins.

petardier: A soldier who hurled pots of pitch or other combustibles onto the enemy from the walls of a castle. During the English Civil War, such troops were referred to as grenadiers.  Eventually, this latter term took on a different meaning for an elite sort of soldier.

phalanx: Classic ancient Greek and Macedonian formation in which highly trained heavy pikemen, formed in blocks of eight- to sixteen-men deep, locked their shields into a wall and pointed their pikes straight forward. The first four or five pikes extended beyond the front of the formation, presenting a steel hedgehog to an enemy.  When phalangist charged, the phalanx hit an enemy formation like a freight train.

The phalanx could be deployed in a variety of shapes, including a straight line, diagonal line, square, crescent or wedge. Disadvantages were that it could only move in a forward direction, could not be used on the same breadth of rough terrain as other infantry formations and was especially vulnerable on its flanks and rear.  More fluid Roman formations were used to overcome and defeat the formidable phalanx.

priest: Holy men have fought alongside their flocks throughout the world. Mesoamerican priests served as elite troops or commanders; Hindu brahmins who were unable to find posts as priests took up arms as mercenary soldiers; and Buddhist warrior monks fought alongside the samurai of Japan.

Priests also fought with other soldiers during the Middle Ages. For example, during the A.D. 1066 Norman Conquest of England, a warrior bishop accompanied the invasion force, wearing a chain mail hauberk and armed with a heavy spiked club.  Christian holy men were forbidden by their religion to shed blood, so the club and mace were popular weapons with them.

principe: The soldiers in the middle rank of a Roman three-line military formation.

rank and file: Companies of soldiers parade, or maneuver, in ranks and files. Ranks go from left to right, and files go from front to rear.  In European armies, junior soldiers were called rankers as opposed to their officers, who took up their posts outside of the mass of soldiers lined up in ranks and files.

razor women: An elite force of female soldiers employed by the king of Dahomey, Africa, most notably in the nineteenth century. At times this force may have been utilized as a special bodyguard, but at one point it was 2,400 strong and apparently battle-ready.  Their main weapons were long, two-handed razors, called nyek-ple-nen-toh, which could fold into their hafts like giant straight razors.  See blunderbuss woman.

regiment: A grouping of several companies under a staff of additional officers (typically a major, lieutenant colonel and colonel). In the sixteenth century when companies or band of soldiers were so grouped and placed under a staff, they were said to be regimented.

scout: Soldiers deployed ahead of or to the sides of an army to detect the presence of the enemy. Examples include the Greek prodromoi and the Roman exploratores.

sergeant: An enlisted soldier who has achieved leadership through experience and time in service, rather than holding rank by virtue of a commission from the government. Often called noncommissioned officers (NCOs).  In the Middle Ages, sergeant was the term given to the leaders of bodies of men-at-arms.  (Roman optio, assistant to a centurion, and centurion, a company sergeant; Indian nayak, a corporal, and subadar and havildar, grades of sergeant)

shield wall: A tactic in which combatants armed with large shields stood side to side, creating an unbroken defensive wall. The Vikings were famous for this maneuver, and are even said to have charged, swords pointed straight forward, while employing it.

shock troops: Soldiers used to force a breach in an enemy line by means of rapid, concentrated assault. Such troops usually had at least veteran status, and were as well or better armed and equipped than regular soldiers.  Examples include the cuahchics of the Aztecs and the janissaries of the Ottoman Empire of Turkey.

slinger: A soldier armed with a sling. Men used these most primitive of missile weapons en masse through the thirteenth century.  A trained slinger could accurately fire a projectile more than 225 yards.

squad: A small unit, usually the smallest battlefield division, comprised of around ten men. Examples include the Roman contubernium of eight infantrymen and decuria of ten cavalrymen, and the Macedonian lochoi, a file of sixteen men.

systagma: A 256-man square of sixteen men in sixteen files, or lochoi, consisting the basic unit of the Macedonian phalanx.

testudo: A formation used in the Roman army in which shields guarded each side of a unit, including the top. Such a “tortoise” formation was used, among other things, to withstand massed sling or arrow fire.

Trabanter Guard: A ceremonial guard of troops composed of the henchmen and lackeys that surrounded a great man. A member of such a guard was called a Trabant.  From the German for “satellite.”

triarii: Roman soldiers used as the final rank in the legion’s three-line battle formation. By the time of the battle of Cannae in 216 B.C., the triarii were so rarely used in battle that it was customary to detail them to guard the Roman camp or to fall upon the enemy camp.

turmae: A unit of sixty-four Roman cavalrymen. During the second century, four turmae were attached to each legion of Roman soldiers, for a total of 128 troopers.  In the third century, however, increased cavalry needs led to an increase to twenty turmae per legion, for a total of 640 troopers, or five times as many.

Vandal: One of a tribe of Germanic peoples probably originating in Denmark who conquered Roman-held Spain and North Africa in the fifth century A.D.

velites: lightly armed Roman legionaries deployed at the front of a battle formation to skirmish with the enemy. When the enemy came within closing range of the velites, they retreated through gaps in the hastati, the next troops in the Roman line.

Viking: Viking warriors were among the most feared people of the Dark Ages, raiding coasts from Ireland to North Africa mainly in the ninth to eleventh centuries. Known for their skill and fierceness, Viking warriors went into battle wielding swords, battle axes and spears.  (They also used bows, but these were held in the lowest regard.)  Common warriors wore little or no armor, while leaders often wore chain mail, sometimes reinforced with additional pieces of metal.  Round shields and conical helmets were also common used.


From the earliest times, people have fought against animals, first as both hunted and hunter, and later upon the field of battle. Horses usually come to mind when people think of animals on the battlefield, but many other sorts of animals have fought alongside men as well.  This variety in the real world hints at the possibilities for a fantasy world, where war beasts might be magically controlled or augmented, possess supernatural qualities or be of a mythological or otherworldly nature.

Horses allow for speed and mobility in battle unparalleled by foot soldiers. Nonetheless, they have their limitations and require proper care and lots of water and grain.  Grass is not sufficient for horses expected to cover great distances, carry heavy burdens and fight.  Horses also cannot operate on the same breadth of terrain as infantry, and fare badly in rough terrain, marshlands and mountains.

Before about 500 B.C., horses did not have the strength to support the weight of an armored man and were thus yoked to chariots. Chariot-mounted forces represented a revolution in warfare and swept over less well-equipped forces, reshaping the political face of the ancient world.  The Aryan hordes that swept into India in the sixteenth century B.C. and crushed the Harrappan culture were charioteers, as were the Hyksos armies that overran and dominated Egypt for one hundred years.

Eventually, horses were bred to the point were they could support the weight of a combatant. Nonetheless, for many centuries the value of cavalry was limited and could not stand up to heavy infantry.  The invention of stirrups allowed cavalry to truly come into its own, as they allowed warriors to use couched lances and effectively fire weapons from the saddle.

Stirrups came into wide usage in Europe around 500 A.D., and issued in an age of equestrian dominance that lasted for one thousand years.

Dogs, man’s oldest friend, were used in combat from the earliest times, guarding the hearths of primitive men and accompanying them on the hunt. As armies developed throughout the ages, dogs were a part of them, from the first-known usage of large mastiffs in combat in Tibet during the Stone Age.

Assyrians, Bablyonians, Greeks and Persians all subsequently used war dogs in great numbers, typically as sentries or as forward elements on the battlefield, where they could harry enemy scouts and help alert an army to the presence of the enemy. The Corinthians even treated war dogs as heros and honored them with monuments.  The classical historians Pliny the Elder and Plutarch discussed the role of dogs in warfare several times and described how they were equipped with armor and spiked collars, and used as shock troops to break up formations of enemy soldiers.  The Huns, too, employed war dogs; mounted warriors called their dogs perched on their saddles until they were sent into the fray.  North American Indians also used dogs, both as sentries and in combat.

Elephants are the biggest and most intrinsically deadly of all creatures marched onto the battlefield. Alexander the Great witnessed such creatures in battle while campaigning in India and was so impressed with them that he added them to his own armies around 325 B.C.

Elephants were an important component of ancient armies for many centuries and were so widely used that one species, the African Forest elephant, became completely extinct. Such elephants were smaller than their Asian and African cousins, measuring less than eight feet at the shoulder (The Asian elephant is about ten feet at the shoulder and the African elephant is some eleven to twelve feet at the shoulder.)

Elephants were used in much the same way that armored vehicles are used today. Elephants could be equipped with howdahs to transport infantry or used as mobile firing platforms for archers or javelin men; they could have catapults or other weapons mounted on them (such as rockets in India) and be used to mount assaults on enemy positions; and they could be armed with iron headplates and used to batter down fortified gates or sections of wall.  Elephants were particularly effective against cavalry, causing horses to panic.  Some elephants are even purported to have been trained to wield huge swords with their trunks.

Other sorts of animals were also used for every sort of purpose. Birds carried messages from one part of an army to another, or from the defenders of besieged castles. Monitor lizards were used in ancient and medieval India to carry scaling ropes into besieged places.  And lions and other great cats were used by Egyptians as combatants on the battlefield.

A clever fantasy writer could incorporate many such beasts into his stories. Possibilities include, but are obviously not limited to, fierce predators like wolves, tigers or bears cut from their leads to tear into the fray; huge creatures like elephants or dinosaurs equipped with fighting platforms for whole crews of soldiers; or squadrons of warriors mounted on winged horses, giant bats or huge pterodactyls.

©Dodgson KingsWay 1973.


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