Dragons in my setting are significantly smaller and less physically powerful than most depictions. The large males reach about 100 kilograms and just over two meters tall. This means that they absolutely cannot carry a full grown man in the air for any appreciable distance.

But despite their more subdued size they are still extremely deadly animals. They are extremely strong and fast on the ground, powerful jaws, a killing claw on each foot and of course fire. They are a highly intelligent animal, akin to a grey parrot or elephant, but they definitely aren’t the intellectual equals of humans and can’t speak.

Humans are able to tame but not domesticate them due to their imprinting instinct as chicks, and that they are easily bribed with food and shiny objects (the value doesn’t matter, they just love shiny due to supernormal stimulus).

The technology level is roughly equivalent to Europe and the Near East in the 13th century. This means the dragons have to deal with longbows, crossbows, and the occasional cannon.

How could people use dragons for warfare that they can’t fly into battle on and that aren’t as intelligent as humans?

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    $\begingroup$ If you have gunpowder, can you turn them into bombers? Raining death from above. They could be led by a dragon with a special rider like a child and then trained to release the gunpowder when shown something shiny. $\endgroup$ Feb 27, 2020 at 18:21
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    $\begingroup$ What do you supposed their difference from dogs are that they can't take a similar place? $\endgroup$
    – kleer001
    Feb 27, 2020 at 18:21
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    $\begingroup$ How do the dragons taste? A man gets tired of field rations.... $\endgroup$
    – user535733
    Feb 27, 2020 at 18:27
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    $\begingroup$ @kleer001 Dogs can’t fly or set things on fire, and aren’t nearly as deadly. But they’re definitely better boys $\endgroup$
    – user71781
    Feb 27, 2020 at 18:42
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    $\begingroup$ @user535733 The Empire doesn't want dragons with good taste! The Empire wants dragons that taste good! $\endgroup$
    – puppetsock
    Feb 28, 2020 at 21:43

10 Answers 10


1 - Messenger. Pigeons sent information but had to fear hawks. I would like to see a hawk intercepting mail when the messenger is badder and meaner than them.

Also, the intelligence would allow for training, and with some selective breeding, lighter breeds for more speed.

Use as pack animals is limited since the food would be a nightmare for logistics en masse. Yet as the occasional piece of meat for dedicated roles, would be a great boon.

2 - Attack wooden ships. You can set sails aflame with a modest strike force in the middle of the night, and then have them return.

3 - Light riders. You can make a saddle for kids and even a young boy could say "a lot of people in the woods."

4 - Rope bridges. Having intelligent flying elements enables field engineers to create structures with greater ease.

5 - Parrots and Elephants both can count. Teach them to count ships and repeat the number striking against the floor. Four strikes, four ships.

6 - Disrupting communications. Have them attack enemies using messenger pigeons.

7 - Give them ceramic pots with nasty contents. The guy flies and drops stuff. Easy-peasy to teach.

8 - Carry light supplies across positions. Give them satchels with parchment, light rations, medicinal supplies.... And relieve a regiment cut off from main supply lines on the other side of a river.

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    $\begingroup$ These are all great $\endgroup$
    – user71781
    Feb 27, 2020 at 21:52
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    $\begingroup$ Just remember to train them on something that looks like a enemy and not your own..tanks en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… $\endgroup$
    – Borgh
    Feb 28, 2020 at 8:51
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    $\begingroup$ @Borgh Every weapon system from the dawn of time had downsides and failures. Bowstrings can maim when they snap, horses can injure your own troops trampling them. And yet bows and horses have been a major staple in war from the dawn of time. $\endgroup$
    – Gustavo
    Feb 28, 2020 at 16:48

"This is Lord Mountjoy Quickfang Winterforth IV, the hottest dragon in the city. It could burn your head clean off."

Commander Vimes limped forward from the shadows.

A small and extremely frightened golden dragon was clamped firmly under one arm. His other hand held it by the tail.

The rioters watched it, hypnotized.

"Now I know what you're thinking," Vimes went on, softly. "You're wondering, after all this excitement, has it got enough flame left? And y'know, I ain't so sure myself..."

He leaned forward, sighting between the dragon's ears, and his voice buzzed like a knife blade:

"What you've got to ask yourself is: Am I feeling lucky?"

Guards, Guards - Terry Pratchett

You've got what amounts to a mobile supernatural flamethrower. Of course there will be warfare applications.

It would be limited to about the point where gunpowder started seeing general use on the battlefield, because at that point killing people with small bits of lead is way more efficient, but having an obedient tiger crossed with a flamethrower that can be deployed on a battlefield? You don't need to be able to ride that to make it effective.

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    $\begingroup$ +1 For a Pratchett quote $\endgroup$
    – user71781
    Feb 27, 2020 at 18:40
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    $\begingroup$ @NixonCranium -- Basically this answer. It would take a pretty strong man to hold steady & aim a hundred kilo dragon. If you can train the dragons to attack on command, like you could with dogs, then a line of hundred kilo flame throwers barrelling towards an enemy line ought to be enough to cause Sir Galahad himself to crap his tin britches. $\endgroup$
    – elemtilas
    Feb 27, 2020 at 19:04
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    $\begingroup$ @elemtilas And even if it dosn't kill lot of man, seeing that even Galahad flee will break the formation. $\endgroup$
    – Kepotx
    Feb 28, 2020 at 7:17

An Army marches on its stomach. That's not very far if you set the baggage train on fire.

Having large numbers of apex-ish predators supporting an army is not usually a good thing, but if you keep the force fairly small, it's not as much of a problem.

What you have is an animal almost designed for savaging pack animals and the baggage train though.

First, they can fly. Swoop in and scare the heck out of oxen and pack mules. Maybe eat them. At any rate, that's going to slow stuff down. Couple that with the ability to set the actual food on fire. Soldiers get cranky when there is nothing to eat.

So that's their role. If they fly in at night, terrorize or kill the pack animals and set the supplies on fire you do a lot of damage without ever crossing swords, and it's long term damage that is very hard to recover from. Start from the back of the baggage train and work forward, reducing reinforcement potential. If they start to throw up nets so the fliers can't get close, you still have a breath weapon.

These guys are also good for ambushes. Pile a logjam in a canyon choke point. Set of some flammable stuff in places that can be dropped in behind the incoming army. Dragons ignite the the stuff falling in the behind. That should spook any animals. Then set the stuff at the blockage on fire. Archers pick off those trying to climb out, milling panicked animals account for a bunch more. Sounds like a bad place to be...

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    $\begingroup$ Logistics are core to large efforts. Setting fields on fire would be nasty in medieval agriculture. It could threaten famine in many towns. $\endgroup$
    – Gustavo
    Feb 27, 2020 at 21:00
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    $\begingroup$ Yep. Heck, send in some auxillaries to far flung towns in the enemy nation and start setting fields on fire undetected. $\endgroup$
    – Paul TIKI
    Feb 27, 2020 at 21:31
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    $\begingroup$ +1 for how they could be excellent at disrupting logistics $\endgroup$
    – user71781
    Feb 27, 2020 at 21:53
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    $\begingroup$ @NixonCranium It's the only real role I can imagine them for. A medium sized predator is too hard to control in something like a pitched battle. They could easily do as much damage to their own side as the enemy. They could also get mobbed by enemy soldiers and killed. But hit the food supply right and it's all over but the dying. $\endgroup$
    – Paul TIKI
    Feb 27, 2020 at 22:09
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    $\begingroup$ In one of the books of Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series (I forget which book, but about the 5th or 6th in the series I think), the protagonists do just this, using a small dragon force to harass the French supply caravans. It’s horribly effective, and in the end discontinued as everyone involved agrees it’s too cruel and dishonourable. $\endgroup$ Feb 28, 2020 at 9:31

Most answers do not take into consideration one thing. If the dragons exist in the fictional world, everything changes around them. They didn't just pop into reality one day.

Rule zero: They were there from the start. The world changed greatly from our dragon-less Earth. Because of that, we must assume everyone has access to dragons, both sides.

The first change is that people don't use flammable materials in warfare. There's no wooden ships, no canvas sails, no wooden siege tower. People also developed flame-retardant materials. Asbestos armor and shields will be common, and the diseases exposure to the toxic material cause, also.

The second change is that the best thing to fight a dragon is another dragon. When combat starts, the dragon tamers on both sides either hold back their beasts fearing incoming arrows or they send their dragons after one another. They would work somehow like cavalry, in the sense they are an expensive unit best used strategically. Archers would be a good counter for flying dragons and expect a game of cat-and-mouse or find-the-dragon-unit during battles.

Third, they would fill any role a canine would but better. Expect dragon packs hiding amidst infantry with their tamers, ready to leash out at the enemy. One could also use them for infiltration and guerrila warfare.

Fourth, dragonry would be an elite pastime. Nobility and Royalty would breed and rise dragons from birth and competitions for best dragon would be common. Expect the noble Knight to go to war along his personal pack of dragons. People would have ways to capture dragons (or they would never be tame in the first place) and ransoming dragons would be very profitable.

Fifth, expect a great dragon diversity. Selective breeding for desirable traits would soon create as many breeds of dragons as we have of cats and dogs.

As a corolary to the fifth, I would challenge the idea dragons aren't domesticated. If they were tame by humans for a long time, selective breeding would, after a few millennia, bring about domesticated dragons.

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    $\begingroup$ "Because of that, we must assume everyone has access to dragons, both sides." Must we? That's certainly one possibility, but another is that only one side keeps them, breeds them in captivity, and hunts down and captures or kills any wild or escaped dragons precisely so that no one else can get ahold of them. $\endgroup$ Feb 28, 2020 at 20:10
  • $\begingroup$ You are right about canvas sails and such causing difficulties, but wood still can be used despite things trying to set it on fire. Look into heavy timber construction techniques sometime... $\endgroup$
    – Shalvenay
    Mar 1, 2020 at 0:55
  • $\begingroup$ And what are you going to replace wooden boats and sails by? $\endgroup$
    – Peter Shor
    Mar 1, 2020 at 18:17
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    $\begingroup$ @MasonWheeler If only one side has dragons, we can assume that after a long period of time the other sides lost, and then this one side split into many, each with their dragons. The advantage firebreathing 100kg fighting critters give in medieval warfare is too big. $\endgroup$ Mar 2, 2020 at 14:24

I do not see your problem. They are "extremely deadly animals", use them to kill enemy soldiers. In warfare it is not forbidden to do so.

You can use them offensively or defensively.

Lead a pack of dragons trained to work together in front of the army, point at a unit you do not like the sight of and say "Attack!", the dragons will go and attack the unit you pointed, come back and get a treat and praise. Extra points if the target is on a defensible position hard to reach for humans that dragons can easily fly to. Double extra points if the "defensible position" is a ship made from highly flammable timber.

Lead a pack of dragons in front a vulnerable unit such as archers or ballistae or to a vulnerable flank, say "Guard!". Now the vulnerable flank or unit is protected from assault from that direction. Extra points if protecting the flank against cavalry riding horses that do not like fire at all and fire breathing lizards even less. Also extra points if your dragons are colored, by nature or artifice, to blend in the terrain, so the enemy cannot see their cavalry should avoid that patch of grass before it is too late.

You can also use them as guard animals or to carry messages or point out enemies for your scouts or cause fires inside walled cities...

Dogs can do these things, your dragons are smarter and deadlier, so what is the problem?


Air Control

Your dragons are the business end of the forces that ensure that only friendly things fly anywhere near your camp. Their motto: "If it flies, it dies."

A General Nuisance to Enemy Forces

They will work well as a general-purpose harassment and sabotage force. Their job is to roam the area, testing the defenses of enemy units, and wrecking their stuff when the opportunity presents itself.

A well-prepared party can still hold their own against a mob of these things, and get from point A to point B if they are determined, so you cannot interdict all of the enemy's message traffic; but you can make sending messages much more expensive and much less stealthy.

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    $\begingroup$ BTW, that was the actual motto of an Army anti-aircraft unit that was attached to my squadron when I was stationed in Germany. $\endgroup$
    – EvilSnack
    Mar 1, 2020 at 22:46

Ultra Flankers / or ani-flanking units: Usually light calvary would be the primary flanking means. Flanking can direct approaching or retreating enemies. A line will generally try to face their attacker so as a unit moves to flank there is a strong tenancy to slow those they are flanking. Which in turn is very useful as it can mean changing timelines and giving other troops times to set up. So now that we have reviewed how useful flanking is, wouldn't it be nice if you could somehow prevent that?

Now consider trained dragons... I've seen horses knocked down by ponies and miniature mules by taking the legs out from under them. A dragon with its superior speed (as it could take leaps and flying bounds along the ground) who has a lower centre of mass and has a better ability to take a hit as well as a tail which can sweep the legs of a horse even if it tries to jump over would be able to make short work of fast moving light cavalry.

The obvious response would be to keep dragons with the light calvary so they can dispatch the dragons as required as the dragons are flankers-among-flankers (perhaps "interceptors" would be more accurate).

For some reason when I read the OPs description I imagined them performing like sheep dogs that is taking coordinated directions from drums or perhaps bag pipes. Whistles probably wouldn't have the required volume on a battle field. Further sheep dogs have been known to ignore their owners whistles (commands) if they think the command is wrong (in which the dog is usually the correct one). Also they are smart enough to take into account the location of the person giving commands so if there is a bag pipe issuing commands from two different places it would know to keep taking directions from the same commander.

Dragons if they are as intelligent as parrots could probably communicate amongst themselves for the small details as wolves might. Further banners and uniforms were difficult to produce, people from different regions (even towns) could be identified at the time by their style of clothes as such it would be reasonable that dragons with the intelligence of grey parrots could differentiate even in melee combat who was who.

High value targets: Their high speed and ability to fly would make them excellent at penetrating enemy lines and taking out commanders or drummers/pipers as without them an army can not take direction.

Spotting : A flying unit can alert of approaching enemies, perhaps on the other side of a hill. Grey parrots can count so they could emit different sound for unit size approximations. Hot air ballons were used in war so dragons would be an even more agile and valuable to the purpose.

Room clearing: Taking an building in modern warfare is generally not advised without 10x the number of defenders, in medieval times this number might be as low as 2x or 3x, regardless the defenders are in a clear advantage. This dramatically changes when flame throwers are part of the equation. Flame throwers can bounce fire off walls and spread fire under doors. The fear that it instils pushes attackers further back and the smoke it produces, causes coughing and tearing, revealing locations and reducing combat effectiveness, for those that are brave enough to hold their positions. The only down side is that given technology dragons would be the only assault members able to enter the area.


Given the limitations placed on them, I'd say the only task they could accomplish reliably would be hunting. And unless dragon taming is a very common profession and the country is lousy with dragons, there's probably not enough of them to make their impact on feeding an army worth the cost of transporting and feeding them.

As messengers, you can probably transport 20 pigeons in a wagon for every one dragon, and pigeons are far more common, safer, easy to breed, feed, and train.

You can't use them as beasts of burden, nor would you want to, since the number of people who can compel a dragon to obedience is limited to those who have imprinted them, so it wouldn't be efficient.

You could maybe use them as a kind of "war dog", commanded to attack on the battlefield strategically in "packs", but this might just be extremely wasteful depending on how rare dragons are, how hard they are to breed and raise and tame, considering they are quite killable for ordinary people. The cost of keeping a whole pack of these things might also beggar whatever lord tries to do it, considering what an animal that size eats, and the size of the facilities to keep them.

Other than hunting, I could only see them kept in menageries like leopards or other dangerous and exotic beasts.


Likes shiny things

Here's a thought: they can be partially trained to attack anything shiny. So when a bunch of men in shiny armor comes knocking on your door, just let the dragons loose and watch them get ripped to shreds! Alternatively they can also serve as "guard dogs" for female dragons. If, say, a female non-avian dragon is being used to transport heavy equipment, smaller male dragons can be used to guard the female and attack any ambushes.

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    $\begingroup$ ...and suddenly the glitter bomb becomes the most dreaded weapon on the battlefield $\endgroup$
    – David Cram
    Feb 28, 2020 at 20:19

You have the ultimate flying assassins

Why fight the entire enemy army when you can just take out his king by training a single dragon to fly into whatever castle window it's handler point at and have said handler point to the window of the enemy king castle bedroom?

Without the king to fight for surly the enemy army will either disband or at the very least be much more disorganized.


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