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Medieval Mountain Warfare


Hey all, I'm trying to realistically arm my human army that's stationed at a fortress at the base of a mountain. They're there primarily to keep enemy orc forces from coming across on foot and frequently travel up onto the mountain to route the enemy or chase them back to the other side. My initial thought was to have them be traditional knights, however, heavy armor and cavalry travelling up and down a mountain doesn't make a lot of sense and I'm trying to realistically portray these guys.

I'm thinking that they do have some heavily armored people who stay as a sort of guard at the fortress and some cavalry to act as quick responders to various villages attacked by the raiders who come over the mountain--at least in theory. Communication is obviously an issue there.

But what about the guys who go up into the mountains?

Does anyone have any ideas or suggestions for equipment, strategy, and tactics? I'm thinking lightly armored pikemen or spearmen coupled with archers equipped with longbows. Easier to carry and move with, and it keeps the more physically imposing orcs at a distance. That said, I feel as if I'm missing something fairly obvious.

Further, does anyone know where I could find any accounts medieval mountain battles? I can't help but think that most armies would rather stay OFF the mountains to fight, the terrain making coordination difficult, to say nothing of fighting a literal uphill battle.

As an aside--the big rule is no setting up anything big on the mountain. There's a dragon sleeping inside of it. It's actually what's created a "pass" through this mountain range, because nobody is on the mountain to stop the orc raiders, who don't especially care about waking it up aside from their immediate survival.

Thanks in advance!

Insolent Lad

I'm thinking longbows might be unwieldy in a steep/rocky terrain. Didn't the Swiss (like the legendary William Tell) prefer crossbows? Easier to unleash an arrow from behind a rock.


toujours gai, archie
14thc Swiss battles. Try Morgarten, Laupen, Naefels, Sempach. There are other examples, ranging from Edward in Scotland to numerous engagements in the Balkans. Look for stuff before 1450 or so, to remove the influence of gunpowder artillery. Unless you're looking for that, in which case look after that date rather than before.


Pretty much the same thought as Insolent Lad while reading, crossbows > longbows here, especially against orcs. Stopping power at short range, ease of use compared to extended training required for true longbowmen, which means that crossbows can be distributed among infantry if there are casualties. Longbows are easier to carry and maintain I guess, though one thing i'll mention is the bows have to be strung and unstrung in general, which makes a crossbow more ideal for ambush scenarios or coming around a bend in the pass just to find the way blocked by orcish brutes. (Not sure on common practice regarding keeping a crossbow loaded, and whether this puts strain on the mechanism... I guess not?)
(EDIT: lots of technical stuff, basically, keep the crossbow cocked but not loaded[not sure how practical when moving on mountain], don't let the quarrel get wet.)

You can always have a few experienced rangers who go on ahead with their longbows, ofc, and if the mountain in general has open slopes with good and wide visibility, the range of a longbow will have advantages. Also, a recurve bow is stockier and easier carried than a longbow, if that's a factor.

Real world examples: The Swiss, as mentioned, they made good use of pikes and the environment, holding off forces vastly superior in number. Aren't the Kozaks also adept at mountainous warfare, or at least whoever inhabits the Caucus range... The Incas ofc. had some very mountainous settlements, though I'm not sure how this influenced their warfare and differentiated it from that of the Mayans/Aztecs/Olmecs. Then you've got Hannibal and his crossing of the alps... while not a battle, it's a good read about how a general got a great army(and elephants) over the toughest terrain by carving steps in the rock etc. I'll mention the San peoples as well, though they ranged across all kinds of terrain, they did know the mountains well. They hunted with small bows, with crude, usually poison-tipped arrows.

In terms of strategy, it would depend a lot on the mountain. Is there heavy plant growth, or are the slopes bare/filled with bracken? Are there great snowy peaks, or does the mountain flatten out into a mesa? How steep are the slopes, how narrow the passes/valleys, how easy the climb? Geomorphology also plays a part, say, if it's a limestone mountain you'll probably have more caves than if it was sandstone, or you might have crags and spikes of rock running along the spine, or really unsure footing if, say, the slopes have areas with nothing but eroded slate.
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Mad Swede

Well, the first thing to consider is the geography in your setting. You need to answer some basic questions like how far north (or south these mountains are, how close to the coast the mountains are, how high the mountains are and how young (in geological terms) the mounatins are. These things will determine the shape of your mountains and valleys, the climate in your mountains and, based on these, where the snow and tree lines are. Once you've worked this out you can consider what sort of tactics would be appropriate for your defenders.

The height of your mountains will determine how much acclimatisation is needed before troops new to the area can be used. It can take several weeks, with successive moves up the mountains as the troops get used to the altitude. Note that some never will acclimatise and they either die or have to be taken down the mountains again.

As a general rule, mountain troops are infantry although they may use horses and mules to move supplies and sometimes themselves over longer distances. Weapons will usually be light, bows, crossbows and swords. However, given enough time the troops could build a series of smaller defensive positions and place things like ballistas and trebuchets in them.

Clothing will need to be layered, and metal armour will probably not be used. The reason for the lack of metal armour is that it can make the wearer very cold very quickly. Hypothermia is a real risk for all troops, especially in poor weather. Note that windy weather can be enough to bring on hypothermia. If the weather closes in the troops will need to take shelter and make camp quickly. Dehydration may also be an issue, especially in winter - cold dry weather in a snow covered area is every bit as dangerous as hot dry weather in a sandy desert. At altifitude troops will risk frostbite, especially in winter. Above the snow line your troops will need to protect their eyes to prevent snow blindness.

Tactics are weather dependent. In good weather the troops will be mobile and can cover quite large distances quickly. They'd want to have the height advantage if possible as this gives increased range for weapons and allows them to look out over a larger area. In poor visibility the chances of the enemy slipping past the troops is quite high, and you'd need a lot of troops to stop this happening. Communications in such weather would need to be some form of audible signal, like a whistle - which means of course that there also has to be a tradtion/custom of no whistling amongst the mountain troops. In good weather you could use some form of mirror (or at night, lights) as visual signals, but these are line of sight only.

In terms of a defensive strategy, I'd want my reconnaissance troops well forward, close to the top of the pass and the mountains around it and preferably with some on the other side of the pass in enemy terrain - this maximises my chances of learning about a raid in time to defeat it. I'd want some of my infantry grouped in several smaller camps in various places on the mountain, as this allows me to concentrate my forces quickly against the raiders without having to bring them up from the fortress whilst at the same time using dispersion to protect my own forces. My strategy would be to try to defeat or at least drive back any attempt at a raid before they had time to get over the pass - because once the raiders are over the pass they have the advantage of height and choice of route. Down at the fortress I'd want quite a large force of cavalry, not to go charging up the mountains but to move quickly against any raiders who do manage to get past my troops up in the pass - and this will happen in poor weather and (sometimes) at night.