Fantasy Armed – Weapons for Elves
Elves are often portrayed as tall and lanky, and either weaker than or of similar strength to humans but with usually much slimmer build. I will thus assume that they are graceful and gracile, but weaker than humans, as having them have same strength as humans would not provide much material for discussion. Further, while somewhat-muscular depictions of elves are not unknown, they usually top out at what, for humans, would be “moderately muscular” – nowhere close to Arnold Schwarzennegger or Julius Bjornsson. Depiction of elves as being graceful also ties into this, as the reason why humans are so much weaker than dwarves comes down to us sacrificing strength in exchange for greater levels of muscular control (that is, improved agility and gracefulness).
As a result, elves are the exact opposite of dwarves. They would be disadvantaged in a shoving match and when using strength-based weapons. Instead, elves would be best suited for weapons which utilize fine control and exploit natural in-built levers of ectomorphic build. They would also have to maximize armour protection for weight.
Long legs would make elves efficient in locomotion, which would allow elvish armies to quickly move over long distances, as long as they are not encumbered by a baggage train. As such, elves would rely – both tactically and strategically – on hit-and-run harrassment attacks, ambushes, raiding and chevauchee.
Long life of elves would be advantage and disadvantage both. It would allow them to spend much more time perfecting technically demanding skills, and achieve much greater mastery than either humans or dwarves would be able to. However, it also implies much lower birth rate, which means that elves would simply not be able to afford losses. Consequently, elves would rely on auxilliaries and allies to wage direct shock warfare, while elves themselves would try and avoid any kind of direct combat, thus reinforcing tendencies already noted.
Best weapons for elves would thus have following characteristics:
- do not require much strength
- are highly effective at certain types of terrain
- allow achieving victories without many casualties
As noted, point 3) would likely encourage dependancy on ranged weapons. Which ranged weapons, however, depends on the terrain. War bows are straight out: they do not require much skill, with most of the training spend on developing muscular and bone strength required to actually pull the damn thing. This automatically invalidates 90% of elf portrayal in fantasy.
Instead, there are several options which do not require (as much) physical strength:
Crossbows would likely be the weapon of choice if enemy has heavy armour. They achieve good penetration thanks to sharp bolts, and windlass crossbows can have very significant draw weight while still being usable by a person without much physical strength (though strength is still an advantage).
Javelin does not depend on strength very much. Acceleration is done by lever action of arm. This means that lanky and skinny build is actually an advantage here, as muscle attachment points are much closer to joints, providing very good acceleration and energy efficiency at expense of raw power (a.k.a. strength). Javelin, especially when assisted with a spear-thrower (atlatl) is very effective at penetrating mail, leather and cloth armour, as Spaniards found out in America; very likely much more so than longbow arrows.
Slings actually have the longest range of all ranged weapons. Reason why they fell out of use is mostly due to a) significant practice required and b) advances in armour. But for elves, practice time would not be an issue (as they are either immortal or – like Tolkien’s elves – live for thousands and thousands of years). Armour would be greater problem, but slings might still be used for harrassment.
When it comes to melee weapons, elves would again utilize weapons which rely on leverage instead of strength. This means that elves would not use one-handed weapon + shield combination, but would instead rely on a variety of two-handed weapons. Most prominent among those would likely be pike and/or a spear, with pollaxe and halberd being used for close combat against armoured opponents. Backup weapon would be longsword. Pike in particular would be prominent in open battlefields, as it would allow elves to keep physically stronger opponents at relatively safe distance. If that fails, pollaxe and halberd would be used, as these are again weapons which – especially pollaxe – do not rely much on strength. They would not, however, use dual daggers – that is just stupid, and would lead to them dying.
Need to maximize protection while minimizing weight would, in combination with long lifespans, likely lead to elves being first species to discover full plate armour. Even if not, they would extensively utilize it, assuming it exists in the setting at all.
When it comes to terrain, elves are often assumed to live in forrests. This would actually reduce their preference for archery, as range would be limited. Instead, elves would utilize javelins and spears much more than bows.