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Would Humans stand a chance against Orcs?

Hypothetically if a human and an orc were facing each other of at the battlefield would humans really stand a chance against orcs with their superior strenght and ferocity?

Shad has an excellent youtube channel called Shadiversity, about all things medieval in particular, weapons, armor, castles, buildings and battle.

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Shad’s coverage of orcs vs humans on shadiversity youtube channel.

Shad has covered what kind of weapons Orcs would likely use and how they would fare in combat against humans.

While I usually love Shad’s insights and thoughts around weapons and tactics, I would have to disagree with a number of his points.

The main reason for this is that I will take a slightly different approach to how to analyze the problem. Shad takes as starting point how Orcs are depicted in fantasy stories. E.g. he points out that Orcs don’t ride on horses and make conclusions about how humans would fight them based on that.

Instead I like to combine the fantasy depiction of orcs with what we know about tradeoffs in nature and among humans with respect to strength and endurance.

In nature little comes for free. There are almost always tradeoffs. Bigger muscles require more energy and oxygen. That means a body builder type of hunter would need to hunt more prey to provide enough energy for his bigger muscle mass. If those muscles did not improve his chances of hunting prey, then they would be wasted.

Shad basically presents the argument of orcs vs humans as if orcs are simply like humans only physically superior in every way, in particular in strength. He uses this to argue towards orc usage of weapons which benefit from strength. E.g. being strong is a big benefit in archery, as it allows you to fire arrows further, and it gives them more impact and hence damage.

The problem with this analysis is that it makes a very common mistake, which is to assume humans are merely smart but in all other ways physically inferior to most other animals of similar size.

That is simply not the case. Human physical attributes are superior to other animals in several areas. It is worth nothing however that these physical traits really only benefits an intelligent animal.

Humans throw better than all other animals. While an ape or gorilla has superior strength to a human, they can’t throw remotely as accurate or far as a human. This is down to human bone structure and muscle as well as development of eye-hand coordination.

I like to think of neanderthal humans as a sort of proxy for orcs, since they were stronger and more robust than homo sapiens but less intelligent. That is essentially the difference between humans and orcs.

While neanderthals has superior raw strength to humans and would kill a human in a wrestling match, they could not throw as well as humans. Neanderthals use spears on close range to kill their prey. Homo sapiens in contrast could throw spears and shoot with bows. This is not merely due to better developed brains for hand-eye coordination but also physical differences. Homo sapiens have arms better suited for throwing.

How fast or far your can run or do any other task is not merely down to the amount of muscle you have, but also about the design of your joints. Neanderthals were better at walking and jumping than homo sapiens but not as good at running.

In the whole animal kingdom humans are the superior endurance runners. A human can outrun a horse e.g.

Most mammals can sprint faster than humans — having four legs gives them the advantage. But when it comes to long distances, humans can outrun almost any animal. Because we cool by sweating rather than panting, we can stay cool at speeds and distances that would overheat other animals. On a hot day, the two scientists wrote, a human could even outrun a horse in a 26.2-mile marathon.

This means prey could not easily escale a human even if they run faster, because a human would eventually catch up.

Shad doesn’t spend much time on the implications of orcs being dumber than humans. His argument is basically that judging by fantasy stories orcs can pick up and use human tools and implements. My impression from watching his video is that he deems intelligence mainly as an issue of your ability to do more high brow things like tactics and strategy. However I would argue that what a good fighter does is strongly correlated with intelligence. Being a good soldier or fighter requires a lot of training, practice and understanding of what you are doing.

Using weapons and armor require understanding of how to use them, maintain them, equip them, etc. Without proper dexterity it would be hard to put on plate armor. Do we believe two neanderthals would have been able to fit each other with full plate armor? Do we have reason to believe orcs would have been capable of equipping more than the most rudimentary form of armor?

As Shad himself explain, there is a lot of thought that goes into medieval weapons, armor, shields and tactics. Sure orcs could pick up human weapons and use them, but would they be able to understand the finer points of how to use them effectively? Would orcs have figured out how to fight in formation, organize a roman shield wall?

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Roman shield wall, effectively protecting against enemy arrow volleys.

Crossbow men in medieval times had large shields called a pavise which they could put down on the ground and stand behind while firing, while being mostly behind cover. Would an orc have figured out how to use such tactics?

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A crossbow man with a pavise shield. These were maid to stand up by themselves giving the crossbow man two hands to operate his crossbow, while being able to take cover when reloading.

Weapons need to be maintained, sharpened oiled, etc. It is not without reason that AK47 is so popular in developing countries among poorly trained soldiers. It will function well even with poor maintenance. Orc would more likely fail to keep their weapons in good condition, resulting in rusting, blunter blades etc.

If you look at human boxers or MMA fighters or most soldiers, they don’t look like body builders. That gives a hint that raw muscle power is not all that it is made out to be. In fact a body builder would easily lose to a MMA fighter. Big muscles for lifting doesn’t necessarily give you explosives muscles suited for hard punches. It also requires more oxygen. A body builder might have an edge early on but will quickly wear out, struggling with his breath. An MMA fighter can easily wear out the body builder and win.

Being a good fighter is a combination of having proper endurance and the right kind of muscles and technique.

Human Tactics Against Orcs

The superior usage of range weapons is a key reason homo sapiens came to dominate other species of humans and animals. I would assume likewise that while orcs are stronger than humans they would not have the joints to be well suited for this. So unlike Shad I would speculate orcs would be worse at using bows. They would also not have the joint configuration for throwing effectively. Nor would they have as well developed hand-eye coordination. Development of those capabilities would naturally go along with your actual physical ability to perform those tasks effectively.

If we assume orcs are more like apes or other animals, then humans would have superior ability at running. Humans could then simply keep their distance from orcs and utilize their superior ability with range weapons. They could use:

  • Slings
  • Throwing spears
  • Bows
  • Crossbows
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At close range humans might be at a disadvantage, the ferocity and strength of the orcs could be dangerous. However as with body builders all that muscle would likely wear them out far quicker. Humans will simply have to keep them at a distance until they are worn out enough that humans can go in for the kill.

Humans would hence likely benefit from using a good deal of armor, shield and poleaxes and similar that will help maintain distance as well as keep you alive for a longer time to wear your opponent down.

Another human advantage would be the ability to form effective military formations. Think e.g. of the Greek phalanx, Roman shield walls, Swiss pikemen etc. An army advancing in tight formation would be more effective than a ragtag lose formation that orcs are more likely to employ.

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Examples of the effectiveness of formations used by a well trained army. Would orcs be able to create effective formations against human cavalry? I don’t think so.

Orc Tactics Against Humans

Not being able to organize well, orcs should avoid meeting humans on flat terrain, where humans can easily outrun them to keep distance if they need to as well as form tight formations. Orcs would more likely benefit from fighting in more difficult terrain like forests and mountains, where tight formations can’t be used effectively against them. Range weapons would also be less effective in dense forests.

Surprise raids would also be a benefit, since humans will have less time to get properly armed, such as getting on armor which can be time consuming to fit. Humans likely also benefit more from being in organized groups than orcs and hence will be weaker in a chaotic situation where they have not been able to form up.

Orcs want to be able to be in close combat where humans can’t outrun them or use range weapons. Encircling a village or fighting inside houses would likely be to their advantage. In proximity they can utilize their superior ferocity and strength.

With less intelligence than humans orcs will not be able to train and perfect mastery of a weapon as well as humans. Hence they should avoid weapons which require extensive training to be effective. That excludes:

  • Swords. We seldom see orcs use these in fantasy, but that also makes sense. Swords are very versatile weapons which require a lot more training to master than say a spear.
  • Bows. I counter Shad, here as he would recommend bows due to their strength. But we also know that english longbow men trained since childhood. In fact the king mandated archery competition and training. It is hard to see any training regiment like this happening for orcs.

Orcs lack fines but are strong and likely quick, so they should be effective at using spears and axes. I am not entirely convinced they would use more sophisticated weapons such as poleaxes. While requiring less training than swords, they are more complicated to understand effective usage of.

Geek dad, living in Oslo, Norway with passion for UX, Julia programming, science, teaching, reading and writing.

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