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How did Smaller folks fight back in the day?

Discussion in 'Non-Firearm Weapons' started by Corpral_Agarn, May 13, 2014.

  1. Corpral_Agarn

    Corpral_Agarn Well-Known Member

    So I just found the Viking axe and sword thread (http://www.thehighroad.org/showthread.php?t=751761) and it got to me wondering...

    In any kind of combat back then (sword and axes swinging about) I would expect it to be highly beneficial to be a larger combatant using larger, longer, and heavier weapons.
    But based on my own Irish heritage, it is my understanding that many of my ancestors were of smaller stature.

    I know they were tough as nails but how did they fight? What weapons would the smaller combatant favor? How would they go about attacking a larger opponent with larger, heavier weapons? Say, for instance, a Scandinavian Viking?

    I wonder if, because of men's strength back then it didn't matter so much. I have read that the spartan warriors were not all that large of people either, yet still wielded heavy bronze shields (some 30lbs) and long spears (7-9ft).

    I know the spear has forever been a popular choice, and in my limited experience of being a smaller combatant and facing off against folks with clubs and sword length sticks, the spear was a huge benefit.

    Maybe the historians here can help me out, or maybe I have answered my own questions...

    Thanks for reading!
  2. Sam1911

    Sam1911 Moderator

    I read a book a while back that had a very interesting analysis of the Biblical David and Goliath story. The analysis explained some of the more knotty text of the passage in terms of the types of soldiers and armament prevalent in that day. And basically explained how heavy infantry was doomed when faced with light infantry, one-on-one, because they could be so easily out-maneuvered and picked to death with lighter weapons with longer reach, and range...like the sling which could kill from many times farther out that the heavy infantryman could reach with his sword, axe, or club.

    So that account is really of a circumventing of convention. The tradition was for each side to send out their heavy champion, and the two men would slug it out toe-to-toe. When the battle was instead joined, not by another heavy, but by a maneuverable light warrior, the Philistines had lost.

    (Also worthy of note is that there are passages which suggest strongly that Goliath suffered from some afflictions that would be commensurate with the sorts of glandular/hormonal disease that causes "giantism", probably manifested as sluggishness and poor eyesight along with his excessive height and size.)

    Anyway, just as in most other periods of warfare, changing and different technologies helped one type of warrior defend another while being supported by yet another. Light, heavy, cavalry, then archers, the phalanx, pikemen, etc., etc. Each had vulnerabilities to some types of attack, each was really good against others.
  3. Sam Cade

    Sam Cade Member

    Human height is closely tied to diet and environmental factors.

    I'm about the same height as your "average" dark age northern European warrior. A towering five foot six. ;)

    Speed kills.

  4. Sol

    Sol Well-Known Member

    Mixed unit tactics. Centurions in the front, Hoplites behind the front lines, ranged behind them.

    Pardon any historical mix ups of ancient Roman/ Greek military units.
  5. Gordon

    Gordon Well-Known Member

    well back then one on one the guy with the most skill usually won. If both guys were equally skilled the strongest/fastest usually won. "Northmen" of the age were bigger and tougher than the western europeans generally. When Roman tactics were not adhered to they conquered their way thru Europe until inbred into local populations.
    Big men of old used heavier weapons and smaller men used lighter quicker weapons or became bowmen.
  6. Sam Cade

    Sam Cade Member

    I figure it would be more accurate to say that folks used whatever weapon they could afford or were issued and performed whatever battlefield role they were instructed to.
  7. rcmodel

    rcmodel Member in memoriam

    Never under estimate a small man.

    Some of them are quicker then a snake, and twice as mean.

    They had to be growing up.

  8. Carl Levitian

    Carl Levitian member

    When the other guy is bigger, stronger, and you think you're no match, then you become a cheating, low blow inflicting, sneaky sunofafemale dog. You use a light fast weapon that you learn to use with maximum effect. You get the first sucker punch/blow, stab/slash in, that then run like 'ell.

    Or join his lordships army as an archer and use projectile weapons, and kill the big guys in the heavy armor like the English army did at Agincourt.
  9. Nom de Forum

    Nom de Forum Well-Known Member


    Respectfully I must disagree with some of your premises and conclusions.

    First off, the David and Goliath story is not a historical event, it is a biblical event that may or may not be a historical event. There just is not enough supporting documentation to do anything but speculate, such as the author in your link does, why the events of the story unfold and conclude as they do. The author certainly makes as good and believable an argument as anyone else. Personally I think the David and Goliath story is the most misleading example of Sling use in warfare ever created. While it is certainly possible for a slinger to do what David supposedly did to Goliath, is not something likely to succeed against an Iron Age elite Heavy Infantryman. Armies were well acquainted with the capabilities of the sling after centuries of facing them. Slingers did not determine the outcome of battles. A Heavy Infantry Soldier using his shield properly to defend against David’s stones would have resulted in David being trapped or forced to flee. Being trapped would be fatal to David. David fleeing would be considered defeat. The term Heavy Infantry is misleading because it implies slow and ponderous soldiers. At the ranges of the David and Goliath fight, very close direct fire range for a sling, an elite Heavy Infantryman would be capable of closing the distance quickly enough to force David into retreat. If the David and Goliath story is an actual event, I doubt the range between them was more than that when a typical Roman Infantry charge occurred. Goliath was either very unlucky, a fool, or a physically impressive looking but inferior soldier.

    Heavy Infantry was not “doomed” when faced with Light Infantry. The opposite was true. Light Infantry that dared to face up with Heavy Infantry was doomed. An example is Greek Hoplite versus Persian Immortal at Thermoplyae. It required maneuver, combined arms, and fatigue for the Persians to defeat the Greeks. Light Infantry cannot hold ground against Heavy Infantry. Light Infantry’s only chance against Heavy Infantry is to avoid close engagement, and even when using missile weaponry they cannot succeed against Heavy Infantry that withstands the assault until missile weaponry is exhausted. Even against the Horse Archer, primarily Heavy Infantry Armies with mixed weapon auxiliaries often prevailed. Sure there were some disastrous defeats, such as Carrhae in 53 BC, but Roman armies composed mostly of Heavy Infantry succeeded in occupying the political and economic major cities of their primarily Horse Archer opponents. Other factors, politics, logistics, etc., doomed those occupations. What dooms Heavy Infantry is attack by a combined arms Army using good tactics.

    In addition to the effects diet would have on the size of combatants what the diet consisted of was important. A diet such as the Roman soldier ate promoted physical endurance. Roman soldiers were often of smaller stature than their opponents. Endurance often determined the outcome of battles.

    With regard to the Vikings, they were pirate raiders initially and when challenged by prepared foes far less impressive. Even when the Norseman became organized armies they were not invincible. Look at the events of September/October 1066 and you will discover the defeat of one Norse Army and the near defeat of another. If the first army had not required defeat the second army may have been defeated. History would certainly be very different if that had happened.
    Last edited: May 14, 2014
  10. Sam1911

    Sam1911 Moderator

    Nom, I don't disagree, nor have studied the background fully enough to form an argument.

    Though this...
    Was certainly part of the accounting. Hence some of the quizzical details of the tale that could be explained by various congenital problems attendant to the gigantism that would explain his stature.

    I think that the author's suggestion there was that the introduction of the "wrong" party into that challenge was a bit of a dirty trick. Not expected, nor expected to succeed. Beyond that, all speculation.

    However, as you suggest, the whole legend is so far distant, and so highly unlikely to be directly related to any one factual event, that little but suggestions should be drawn from it.
  11. j1

    j1 Well-Known Member

    Stab the bigger guy in the knees.
  12. Nom de Forum

    Nom de Forum Well-Known Member

    In the age of muscle powered armies physical strength was certainly an advantage to have but only one of many. Endurance was a very important advantage. You can read about larger Celts attacking smaller Romans and quickly becoming exhausted and then slaughtered. Superior strategy and tactics used by an army composed of physically smaller soldiers with comparable and even less effective weaponry can bring victory.
  13. Nom de Forum

    Nom de Forum Well-Known Member

    Very good technique. I don't recall the name, but one famous Viking named his sword "Leg Biter". Those relatively small Romans in comparison to the Celtic and Germanic warriors were famous for disemboweling their opponents with the short stabbing sword known as the Gladius.
  14. Sol

    Sol Well-Known Member

    ^Hamstring-ing.... Hamstrung?
  15. Corpral_Agarn

    Corpral_Agarn Well-Known Member

    There is wisdom/truth here.
    this has always been my experience. I am certainly not a fighter, but fights in school (or otherwise) had always ended within a few seconds. Either I got my backside beat bad, or I got my point across.

    First paragraph makes sense, especially the cheating. What do you think a "light fast weapon" would be? Knives? short swords? spears? How would you apply such weapons without getting killed by the larger stronger combatant, who, I assume has longer arms and more power behind his attack?
    oh, and I have always been an excellent runner. :D

    archery and other projectiles was always what I assumed that smaller combatants favored (David vs Goliath). I guess i was more curious on what melee or "bad breath distance" tools the smaller combatant had at his/her disposal.

    Tactics and discipline (and ambush) have proven to be a winning strategy.
  16. Nom de Forum

    Nom de Forum Well-Known Member

    I tend to doubt the Philistines would risk all on a “paper tiger”. If I recall correctly Goliath was known to be a formidable soldier. This is were I suspect if the story is true Goliath was more likely unlucky or foolish. The Heavy Infantryman was an elite. He had to be because of the cost of his panoply. Slingers and Archers were often treated with contempt. If Goliath contemptuously dismissed David as a threat he could have gotten sloppy using his shield. The sling was primarily an indirect fire weapon. They could be used for direct fire but became increasingly vulnerable to Archers, Peltasts, and infantry charge. The biggest value of the sling was its greater effective range than the low powered bows of the ancient near and middle east. The best slingers used cast lead bullets of uniform weight that could inflict deadly head wounds and disabling body wounds at hundreds of yards if armor protection was lacking.
  17. Nom de Forum

    Nom de Forum Well-Known Member

    Something to consider about the "big" Norsemen being able to use heavier weapons is that the weapons were not heavy. The swords were light and fast for the time as were the axes. A Viking sword is light and fast at around 3lbs in weight typically and the battle axes light and almost delicate in design. Don't pay attention to the ridiculously large and heavy swords and axes you see on TV and in the movies. Where Norseman size is a benefit is during the pushing against an opposing shield wall and having a greater length of reach than smaller opponents.
  18. Fred Fuller

    Fred Fuller Moderator Emeritus

    Some interesting perspectives on the question at

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d43qH9w5Dow and other videos

    Skill and speed were as much an advantage as size and strength. Legs and feet took a beating, and everything was a weapon. Shields, pommels of swords, butts of spears, you name it.

    Even back then though, TRAINING and PRACTICE were critical. :D
  19. WestKentucky

    WestKentucky Well-Known Member

    As a believer of the book, a person could easily simply say that greater forces were at play. When looked at from a inquisitive point of view though there are great odds working against the sling-wielding man. His only hope would be to score very quickly an effective hit. After that his only option is to outrun and outmaneuver his opponent. Either way there are odds. Even if 1 in a million, in a million random attempts you could expect David to come out on top once.

    To the point of the original post, I too have wondered this same thing. Simply put a man knows his strengths and weaknesses. If a man is an incredible archer then he would be a bowman. If a man were good wielding edged weapons he would do so. Likewise if a man couldn't run or move due to perhaps a leg injury he certainly wouldn't be fighting up front. So looking at smaller statured guys who are built very muscularly they would be most likely fighting in a light infantry "stick and move" type force aimed at quick strikes to the flanks and skilled in maneuvers designed to separate portions of a larger force, overtake that force and then hit the regrouping force again. I suspect their weapons would be slightly longer than the average warriors to keep them just out of reach but still give great speed and maneuverability of the weapon specifically in addition to speed and maneuverability of the fighting force as a whole. It seems the weapon of choice would be a spear or perhaps a long handled light axe, possibly even weapons similar to what was shown in braveheart where people had basically taken stag antlers and tied them to a long straight stick. Depending upon the nature of the opposition it may be better to poke through small holes in armor, or slice through from behind a shield. I suspect few shortswords were regularly employed except in fierce hand to hand large scale battles. The majority of the work would be archers, pikemen, and light infantry with light weaponry.
  20. rcmodel

    rcmodel Member in memoriam


    Ever been in anyones big military?

    If a man were an incredible archer?
    The military would make him a cook.

    If he was exceptionally skilled with a sword?
    They would probably issue him a shovel for digging the slit trenches for all the other troops to use for going #2.

    Doesn't matter who's military, or when.
    Thats the way it usually works out.


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