Wednesday, June 21, 2017

How Tall was the Average Eighteenth-Century Soldier?

Photo Credit: Tom George Davison Photography

Dear Reader,

One of the most pernicious and hard to eradicate myths about the eighteenth-century is that people were quite short, roughly 3/4ths the size of Americans today.  Visitors to historic sites and reenactments frequently offer it as an example of their knowledge of the period, or inquire regarding soldiers' height.

 In response to statement from a historic site employee: "soldiers often slept 4-6 men to a tent," or "in barracks, men slept 2-3 to a bunk," there is often a liturgical response of: "yes, but people were short back then...". How true, if at all, is this rumor? Or, put another way, what was the average height of soldiers in the eighteenth century?

They might have been small, or they might have slept like this:
An artists' impression of French soldiers in a tent circa 1760

Once again, I am standing on the shoulders of scholarly giants as I write this post. The painstaking work of John Komlos, Willfred Fann, Kenneth L. Sokoloff, Georgia E. Villaflor, and to a lesser extent, Matthew Spring, has allowed us to obtain a rather large sample size with which to arrive at an average.[1] When taken together, this data includes measured heights from over 13,000 soldiers between 1754 and 1783. These soldiers came from the American (Continental and Provincial), British, and Prussian armies during this era. Without further adieu: how tall was the average eighteenth-century soldier?

This individual, Jean Antoine Cüva, stood 5' 11" when he was painted in 1738.

When averaged, the height for these 13,000 men comes to 67.9 inches (roughly 5 feet 8 inches), or 172.6 cm. Although I was not able to examine the documentation for his average, the respected French historian Andre Corvisier asserts that in 1716, the average French soldiers was 5 feet 7 inches tall, rather close to the average my own research has collated.[2]The average height for Americans today is 5 feet 9 inches, so while soldiers might have been slightly shorter, they were not exponentially shorter. Let us examine the data by army and continent:

By Army:

British Regulars in the American War of Independence (sample size 1462): 65.77 inches

It should be noted that a large part of this sample (roughly 2/3rds) comes from the Royal Marines, which did not prioritize enlistment based on height to the same degree that the British army did. Therefore, this sample should not be taken as a definitive measurement of British soldiers' heights. The average for only army soldiers is 68 inches.

American Provincials in the French and Indian War (sample size 3057): 67.55 inches
Sample contains mostly men from New York.

American Continentals in the American War of Independence (sample size 5608): 68.1 inches
Sample contains mostly men from Virginia and Massachusetts.

Prussian Infantry in 1783 (sample size 3749): 69 inches

This grenadier, Samuel Meissmer von Alstaedt, was 5 feet 9.5 inches in 1738

By Continent: 

Soldiers from North American Armies (sample size: 8149): 67.89 inches

Soldiers from European Armies (sample size 5211):  68.09 inches
Despite the relative similarity in heights of fighting men, individuals in North America possessed greater height when looking at the population as a whole, thanks to the better nutrition (read protein consumption) available there.[3]

A Lange Kerl, painted in 1737
Soldiers should not be taken as a representative sample of the population as a whole , as they were often selected for their height. Taller soldiers were consistently sought in all armies of the eighteenth century, although Prussia is often cited as a particularly extreme case. During the early eighteenth-century, Frederick William I (the father of Frederick "the Great"), sought out tall men for his army. The tallest were grouped into one of his grenadier regiments, often called "the giant grenadiers" in English language descriptions, or the "Lange Kerls," colloquially in German. It is often bandied about that these men were mentally disabled as a result of the giant stature, but that comes from a few descriptions of individuals, and the unit performed very well in combat during the eighteenth century.

Would these veritable giants have stood out in the eighteenth century?
Let's be real, they might have.

In the British service, on average, the largest men went to the grenadiers, while the smallest and youngest men were placed in the light infantry. Former officer John Williamson complained about this method, saying it was impracticable for "real service."[4] Thus, when sailing for America in 1774, the 4th Regiment of Foot's tallest grenadier measured 6 feet 2 inches, while the tallest light infantrymen measured 5 feet 8.5 inches.[5]

So, based on these averages, it would seem that the height of eighteenth-century soldiers was not radically different from our own average height today. However, over the course of the eighteenth-century, average height was on the decrease, likely as a result of a rise in population without a commensurate increase in agricultural productivity.[6] So, while the myth that eighteenth-century soldiers were quite small is untrue, they were getting shorter, if ever so slightly.  In conclusion, even if modern Americans have on average, myself included, become somewhat more girthy than individuals in the eighteenth-century, they are not much taller than eighteenth-century soldiers.

So, the next time you are at a historic site, reenactment, or museum, and someone invariably points to an object and says, "wow, look at that, were people shorter back then", you now have the equipment to firmly say: "No. they might have been a couple of inches shorter, but they were not tiny people."

You could even refer them to my blog, if you like.

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Thanks for Reading, 

Alex Burns


[1] Komlos, "On the Biological Standard of Living of Eighteenth-Century Americans," Fann,  "Foreigners in the Prussian Army 1713-1783," Sokoloff and Villaflor, "The Early Achievement of Modern Stature in America," and Spring, With Zeal and With Bayonets Only, 60.
[2] André  Corvisier, L'armée française, de la fin du XVIIe siècle au ministère de Choiseul, le soldat, Vol 2, 640-641.
[3] Komlos, "On the Biological Standard of Living of Eighteenth-Century Americans."
[4] Williamson, Elements of Military Discipline, 5-6, note on page 6.
[5] Spring, With Zeal and With Bayonets Only, 60.
[6] Duffy, Military Experience in the Age of Reason, 5.


  1. Another great post and I had to laugh about the caption about the veritable giants!

    1. Yes, I was trying to be humorous there, thanks! I am glad you enjoyed the post.

  2. 'My' periods are 1812 and WWI but I am loving these posts. Actually saved the last two - Live Firing and Average Heights - for future reference. I often refer to the fact that British soldiers in WWI were a result of a centiry of industrial poverty and that Cdn and Australian born recruits were farm boys: better fed and bigger. The obvious corolllary, which you mention, is that Europeans had actually gotten smaller and less healthy between say 1750 and 1900. That, of course, goers against our common and strongly held though usually subconcious belief that 'things get better' and that there was a steady increase in the quality of life from the Middle Ages to today. Nonsense, of course, but widely held belief.

  3. One difficulty you have to account for when using primary sources that recorded people's heights during the mid to late 18th century, is that measurements taken in feet and inches were not standardized. The British foot, was different than the German foot, which was different than the foot used in France. So discrepancies in height between German, British and French military records account for this phenomena, since diets across northern Europe were pretty consistent. Southern Europeans tended to be a bit taller because they had a better diet.

    In Britain, up until about 1740 they used what we'd call standard Roman measurements. Which means the foot was roughly the same size as our current foot. In about 1740 though, (I believe it was George II) changed the measuring system. Except for land surveying equipment (which they did not want to have to recalibrate) Britain adopted a foot and inch system where the feet and inches were actually shorter than the standard Roman foot and inch we use today. Britain used this differing measurement system between about 1740 and 1790. The foot was now about 10.5 inches and the inch was now about 3/4 of an inch. The colonial measuring system was actually not standardized until 1964 when it was calibrated to the metric system.

    So in reality, your 6 foot grenadier in 1776 new British measuring system, was actually only about 5 foot 4 inches tall by today's measurement. This also correlates with heights recorded by modern archeologists measuring skeletons from the 18th century. And since we know people don't get shorter after they die, the average height for European males in the second half of the 18th century was about 5 foot 3 inches high. The average height for male American colonists was about 5 foot 6 inches high. We see a correlation here also in old buildings and clothing that has survived. This is more obvious in Europe because they have more old and older buildings and items such as clothing of royalty, military items and suits of armor, than exist in North America. Ever go in Paul Revere's house in Boston? Ever notice how short the doorways are? This is because people actually were shorter in 1775.

    The comment left by Peter Monahan is correct that poor diet does affect how tall people get. Populations tend to get shorter when they go from hunter gatherer to agrarian; and of course this is further complicated by urbanization when populations tend to congregate in cities. But the discrepancy in height between British soldiers in WWI and British soldiers in the 18th century is accounted for by the fact that Britain was using a different measuring system in 1780 then that were using in 1914. So no, your average British soldier in WWI was not shorter than your average British soldier in the American Revolution.

    And yes, people in North America tended to be taller than Europeans until about the 1950's. As we get into the late 19 and through the 20th century, the consumption of meat increases, and diets tend to go from primarily grain and starch to meat grain and starch. So yes, people do get taller from the 19th through the 20th centuries.

    Ironically though if you compare skeletons of Native Americans though out the centuries, they didn't change much in height at all. This is because they were not primarily agrarian. They leaned more toward hunter gatherers, some tribes still being primarily hunter gatherers well into the 19th century, and because they are eating more nuts and berries, along with animal protein, they tend to taller, but also healthier. Now obviously just as with hunter gather tribes in Africa, we see height variations between the different tribes, but those variations tend to be genetic not environmental.

    1. I think you raise a good point about the British height, but this does not explain why the average height in the Prussian army in 1783 was 69 inches, or why the minimum height requirement for the Austrian Army was 5ft 3inches. Moreover, the Prussian height is from later in the century, when most sources agree that height is in decline throughout Europe.

    2. I'm dreadfully late to the party, but I must say I'm very suspicious of the claim that British men averaged 5'3" and American men averaged 5'6." Surveys of medieval English skeletons consistently point to a male average of 5'7" to 5'8." While this certainly dropped off a bit in the early modern period, I have difficulty believing that it decreased by a full four to five inches, or that American men, with access to far better nutrition than those on the continent, were two inches shorter than their medieval forebears.

  4. I was going to sit this out and observe, but as someone who has worked in the historic house museum field for over 20 years, I have to say the comment by Renee about the small door=small people has been thoroughly debunked. Simply put, prior to building codes there was great variety in such things.

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