Friday, September 12, 2014

Worldbuilding: The Dwarven Military

When you think of dwarven warriors, the axe and the crossbow are the weapons that come to mind.
Dwarven Axe by Faradon, from Deviantart
They are the iconic weapons of the dwarves, but surely, a dwarven army cannot function with such a limited range of weaponry? Dwarves, as evidenced by the vast sweep of their history, have been successful enough in war to defend their holds and halls from many enemies, so how does the dwarven military engine really work? Well, I can’t tell you how it works in YOUR world, but I’ll tell you how it works in mine.

Based on their culture and physical bodies, dwarves have several inherent advantages, which they work to enhance, and drawbacks, which they work to minimize.

In terms of advantages, dwarves are very strong and durable, build tough fortifications, and have very good equipment and the industry and resources to manufacture a lot of it.

Their disadvantages are that they are not very numerous, move relatively slowly, and are not particularly sneaky. Also, they tend to inhabit marginal lands (mountains and hills) that are not suitable for heavy agriculture.

So, then, how do the iconic axe and crossbow fit into this picture? The axe can be a devastating weapon. It has concentrated cutting power and weight, it is relatively cheap to produce compared to a sword, and it’s effective against both armored and unarmored opponents. The drawbacks of the axe are that it is heavy and relatively slow to strike with - a perfect weapon for a heavily-armored, strong and tireless dwarf.
by heidifury from deviantart
The crossbow can also be a devastating weapon. It is powerful, relatively accurate and easy to use (compared to bows). But it is also difficult and time-consuming to manufacture, requiring specialized industry. Again, a perfect weapons for dwarves – their strength makes it easier for them to reload, it’s very effective from behind fortifications, it can be used by relatively untrained militias (helpful for bolstering numbers) and the dwarves have the industry and technology to build and maintain them.

But that can’t be all… Militaries have to be able to fight in a variety of situations, to have flexibility essentially. Axes and crossbows are effective, but aren’t flexible enough on their own, so what do the dwarves do?

The Standing Army. Most dwarf kingdoms of any size maintain a standing army. In a world with dragons, giants and orc hordes, that’s just common sense. For the dwarves in my world, there are usually 3 branches of a dwarf army, the Regulars, the Scouts and the Artillery.


Regular units are organized into “Guards” or “Watches”, with between 150 and 500 members, mixing male and female dwarves about 70/30. Most dwarf regulars are professional, full-time soldiers, equipped with high-quality half-plate or banded-style armor. A standard Guard will have a mix of roles, not unlike a pre-Marian roman legion. Front-liners carry axes, short swords (sometimes built into forearm gauntlets) and pick-backed hammers, and have round or rectangular shields. Imagine a line of 4’ high roman legionnaires with beards, and you have a pretty good picture of a dwarf front rank.

Flankers carry crossbows, and often work in teams, with a shooter, a loader and a shield-bearer (who can function as a front-liner).

Back-rankers carry polearms – glaives, halberds, Lucerne hammers, poleaxes. Often these weapons will have back hooks and spiked heads. Their job is to chew up the taller foes over the heads of the front-rankers. Back-rankers also often carry twist-bows (dwarf hand-crossbows). These are metal tubes with a powerful spring that are re-cocked by twisting the lower half of the tube and dropping a metal dart into the top. They are fired by pressing a firing stud forward.

The long life of dwarves also means that they train in a variety of different weapons and techniques. Against mobile or mounted opponents, Regular units will trade out their heavy infantry weapons for more crossbows and pikes, essentially converting into pike phalanx.

For underground operations, Regulars will switch out the round shields for more mobile bucklers, and equip more shortswords, daggers, picks and short assegai-style stabbing spears. They will also use a LOT more twist-bows.


Regulars are great in a stand-up fight, or in a dug-in position, but for other activities, the scouts come
in handy. Dwarf scouts are light troops who wear chainmail or reinforced leather armor, and carry heavy arbalests and hand weapons. Scouts are responsible for, well, scouting, but also long-range patrols, caravan guarding, underdark exploration and just about anything else that isn’t covered by the regulars. Their arbalests make them effective snipers, and scout units often work with regulars in large battles by holding rough terrain or shooting for enemy officers.

Scouts operate in smaller groups of 10-25, and are experienced at working independently for long periods of time.


Dwarves love mechanisms, and nothing says “mechanism” like a piece of artillery. My world doesn’t have gunpowder, so no Warhammer action, but dwarves still make some of the best artillery in the world. Any dwarf fortification is going to be well-stocked with artillery. Emplaced trebuchet and ballistae are common, and dwarves have the alchemical knowledge and technical skill to make flammable ammunition.

In the field, dwarves use highly-mobile field pieces, often made of lightweight steel frames. Onager and ballista-style field pieces are both used. Since dwarven armies are relatively slow, they use these pieces to support their troops and to punish more mobile enemies that might try to skirmish with them.

Artillery units in the field usually work with teams of a dozen or so, and often have flanker-style support units of 25 or so to protect them from mounted or flying foes.


Since there are relatively few dwarves compared to more prolific races, most dwarf holds maintain a tradition of extensive militia training. Again, the long life-span of dwarves means that these militia are usually much more competent and efficient than their shorter-lived counterparts, and the effectiveness of dwarf industry also means they are better equipped.

Dwarf militia units can ultimately call up to 75% of the population of a given hall, assuming it is for a limited time (like a siege or single battle). These units include both male and female dwarves. Dwarf militia wear chain armor and have round shields, hand weapons (axes, hammers and short swords) and most of them carry a crossbow, making them effective as both melee and missile troops. Some militia carry spears, and they are capable of basic military formation movement, unlike many other militia units.

Fortifications and Sieges

Dwarves are classic “turtlers” – they build extensive fortifications, defend tenaciously and rarely strike offensively, preferring to take and hold ground. They are masters of siegecraft, undermining walls, emplacing artillery and building extensive trenches, walls and traps. Read up on the Battle of Alesia if you want some examples of how dwarf armies might work in a siege.

Dwarf crossbows, artillery and stonework make assaulting dwarf fortifications a dicey proposition. Their skill in the underground environment also makes long sieges impractical, as they can bring in supplies via underground routes. Enemies like orcs often resort to irregular warfare – constant raiding of farms, trade and mines is more effective than standup warfare against the dwarves.

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