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 inquiry 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. 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 5092): 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.[2]

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 18th 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."[3] 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.[4]

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.[5] 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 an inch or two shorter, but they were not tiny people."

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

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] Komlos, "On the Biological Standard of Living of Eighteenth-Century Americans."
[3] Williamson, Elements of Military Discipline, 5-6, note on page 6.
[4] Spring, With Zeal and With Bayonets Only, 60.
[5] Duffy, Military Experience in the Age of Reason, 5.

3 comments:

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

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

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  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.

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