I'm creating an early-medieval-age-like world, in the pre-gunpowder era.

How effective would a formation of pikes (like the Swiss pike square), with archers inside, be against an enemy using strictly cavalry (based on mounted archers and lancers)?

Some further information if important:

  1. The pikemen will have to carry shields, since their armor is not advanced enough (similar to the Macedonian phalanx).
  2. The foot archers would use bows with an average draw weight of 110 pounds.
  3. Mounted archers would use bows of around 80 pounds draw weight on horseback, and have a second bow with a draw weight of 110 pounds for use on foot.
  4. Lancers would use lamellar armor.
  5. Pikemen & foot archers would use padded jackets & chainmail.

Draw weights taken from here. Both armies have similar

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    $\begingroup$ It all depends on how good their training is, how good their commanders are, where the battle ($\leftarrow$ because mixed pike and shot formations are useful only in set-piece battles) is to be fought, how many are there of the one and of the other, and so on. Which means that the question, as asked, is (1) too broad and (2) dependent of what story you want to tell. (And anyway, your mounted archers are pitiful. By the late 9th century, Byzantine cataphracts -- that is, heavy cavalry -- carried bows with draw weights of 160 pounds of so. And they shot from horseback.) $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Commented Mar 6, 2020 at 19:46
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexP Could you suggest source where 160 pounds come from, that seems very high Mary Rose were up to 180 pounds and its much easier to draw such weights on foot, because you could use back muscles. $\endgroup$
    – yirad
    Commented Mar 6, 2020 at 19:49
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    $\begingroup$ Link. And you can use back muscles atop a horse as well; it depends on how the soldiers are trained to do it. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Commented Mar 6, 2020 at 19:52
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    $\begingroup$ @Alex Mongol archers typically carried 2 to 3 bows (one heavier and intended for dismounted use, the other lighter and used from horseback) - Daily Life in the Mongol Empire", George Lane, (page 102) $\endgroup$
    – yirad
    Commented Mar 6, 2020 at 20:04
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    $\begingroup$ A pike is usually a 2 handed weapon. That's why they became so popular once good armor was invented -- you didn't need a shield anymore. Macedonian phalanx had a hacky, but effective solution -- the Sarissa. Two handed weapon right on the edge of the spear/pike boundary, but with a shield strapped to the arm/neck/shoulder area. $\endgroup$
    – Zwuwdz
    Commented Mar 6, 2020 at 21:28

7 Answers 7


Really Good.

I'd like to preface this with the fact that this is all conjecture and depends highly on the numbers of each side, but I'll base my answer on facts that we know.

Well, cavalry charges were largely ineffective against pikemen (who were employed heavily in the late medieval era), So your lance-wielding horsemen would face an extremely difficult challenge against a pike square. From wikipedia (Cavalry tactics): "Frontal assaults of heavy cavalry became considered ineffective against formations of spearmen or pikemen combined with crossbowmen or longbow archers." This points to the cavalry being highly ineffectual to your exact pike square with internal archers.

This, combined with the possibility that your shielded pikemen would have cover from the horse archers, points to the likelihood that the mounted combatants would fare extremely poorly against your pikemen.

Early Medieval historical examples of cavalry being defeated by pikemen/spearmen + archers:

  • the Battle of Stirling Bridge
  • the Battle of Bannockburn,
  • the Battle of Poitiers
  • the Battle of Crecy

In all of these examples, cavalry charges broke on pikemen OR cavalry was defeated by the bows of the archers, who were more effective on the ground than on horseback (From wikipedia, mounted archery): "Horse archery was usually ineffective against massed foot archery. The foot archers or crossbowmen could outshoot horse archers and a man alone is a smaller target than a man and a horse."

So, all things being equal it would appear based on historical examples and analysis, your pikemen and archers would likely fare quite well.

  • $\begingroup$ I was thinking in that direction. As far as I understand the best advantage of the cavalry army is its mobility so on a flat terrain, they could choose where & when to fight. If the enemy is strong retreat and try to pick off isolated units. $\endgroup$
    – yirad
    Commented Mar 6, 2020 at 20:14
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    $\begingroup$ I agree with this answer (although mostly based on the Total War series, where generally foot archers counter horse archers pretty well -- more dudes, and longer range, mitigate the horse archer advantage). I did want to note, though, that it is generally considered nice to wait a day to accept an answer. You'll get more answers if you give the whole globe a crack at you question. $\endgroup$
    – Zwuwdz
    Commented Mar 6, 2020 at 21:21
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    $\begingroup$ The one weakness in this infantry setup is if the attacking cavalry could successfully execute a feigned retreat. (See the Wikipedia article for an explanation of this term.) This would cause the infantry to lose formation as they pursued the apparently defeated horsemen, who could then whirl around & cut them down. Of course, that depends on just how eager the infantry would be to chase after enemy horsemen. (Although this tactic almost worked in one of L. Sprague DeCamp's novels.) $\endgroup$
    – llywrch
    Commented Mar 6, 2020 at 22:34
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    $\begingroup$ @llywrch Why would pikemen try to chase down horsemen? Once a horse is more than a few paces away, any half intelligent human being will simply accept that there is no catching up to it at that point. A feigned retreat would probably work a lot better with an unmounted army. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Commented Mar 6, 2020 at 22:49
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    $\begingroup$ Is a feigned retreat a particularly effective tactic (moreso than baseline) when used by cavalry against infantry? I imagine it is possible to pull it off, but if anything infantry would be more likely to say "well no way we're catching those guys" than they would be when fighting other infantry. $\endgroup$
    – Zwuwdz
    Commented Mar 7, 2020 at 1:57

You can never predict the exact outcome of any battle, but there are factors that can push it one way or the other.

In a general sense, the ground forces have a distinct advantage

Foot archers can effectively use longer bows than horse archers giving them a draw length advantage: a factor that compounds with draw weight for total bow power. This means they will be able to shoot the horse archers before the horse archers can shoot the foot archers. If the horse archers dismount to meet them with long bows, their disadvantages in armor style will still be a big problem.

If by "chainmail and padded jackets" you mean riveted chainmail and gambison (the standard European varieties of these armors) your armor will stop most arrows fired even at short range. If the horse archers are using bodkin arrows, their attacks will be able to penetrate the armor, but only at very close ranges (a few dozen feet at most). In contrast, most styles of lamellar armor suffers from lucky arrows and spears slipping between the plates; so, the lancer armor will stop some arrows, but others will penetrate even at longer ranges. Lancer and horse archers also rarely armored their mounts meaning they could be killed at very long ranges by longbows. Just having your horse killed from under you is likely to cause injuries significant enough to take you out of the fight.

As for the lancer charges, you can expect Macedonian style pikes to slaughter them. A footman can wield a long pike more effectively than a horseman can; so, the lancers will hit pikes before the lances hit pikemen. This again is a game ender for the mounted army which is already lightly armored.

Cases where the cavalry army would gain have the advantage

CASE A: The mobility of cavalry is a great for skirmishing an enemy. If the cavalry army is led by a good general who knows not to attack the infantry directly, he may be able to use his mobility to deprive the infantry of valuable logistics and reinforcements by attacking supply lines. If the infantry army is far enough from friendly cities, they could be starved out without ever being engaged directly.

CASE B: Cavalry troops have at most points in history been better trained and disciplined than their infantry counterparts. Since pikemen were just drafted peasants in most situations, it was common for pikemen to break formation at the sight of a cavalry charge not even understanding that they had the tactical advantage. Especially in the medieval period, well trained knights would charge at pikemen despite the apparent disadvantage. If the pikemen did not break formation, the knights would turn away at the last moment, but if they did break, the knights would utterly slaughter them because the routing army can't run fast enough to get away from a cavalry charge.

CASE C: Cavalry can generally choose the battlefield they fight in, even if that means it is a bad battlefield for cavalry. Archers, horse archers, pikemen, and lancers are all really meant for open field tactics, but if the more mobile horse army decides not to engage the infantry in an open field, they can force the fight to happen in woodlands. In woodlands, pikes are completely useless. You can not form a phalanx or even bring your spears down and level. Shorter cavalry spears on the other hand may still be useful meaning then even being forced to fight dismounted, the lancers may have a slight advantage in sparse woods, or at least be a fair fight in thicker woods where all spears are useless, and the fighting all comes down to sword and shield combat. Woods would also favor the shorter cavalry bows since any archery you do would be done at fairly close range where a shorter bow is just as lethal but less likely to get snagged by your environment.

CASE D: If the lancers use kite shields or long shields as many forms of mounted cavalry throughout history have done, the cavalry can dismount and effectively function like legionary infantry. Legionaries have a distinct advantage over pikemen and archers in an open field because they can testudo to protect themselves from archers, and once they get into spear range, they can trap the pikes between their shield and safely guide them between their ranks allowing them to safely close into sword or short spear range.

Cases where the infantry army would do especially well

CASE A: Wet climates. Wet climates are terrible places for both horses and the composite short bows more typically used by horse archers than ground archers. Composite bows were made using hide glue, an organic adhesive that gets eaten by bacteria in places with higher humidity. While neither style of bow could fire when wet, mono-wood longbows can get wet, then work again after drying out whereas composite bows often would often fail from extended humidity even if they are currently dry. Horses also sink more in muddy terrain than humans; so, the mud would deprive them of their mobility advantage.

CASE B: They are fighting over a place. In warfare, holding certain ground is often an important part of the greater strategy toward victory. The infantry would do better both offensively (because the cavalry has to stay still to hold the ground) and defensively (because they have better range) than the cavalry army. This becomes even more true in a siege scenario because the cavalry need to feed both their troops and their horses.

CASE C: They are fighting in a corridor. Pike formations are at their strongest when they face a frontal assault along a flat battle line many rows thick. If the battle is fought in a corridor that you can fully span like a steep-walled mountain pass or city streets, then the pikemens' flanks are protected. This means they can layer their pikes thicker and force the lancers into a frontal assault.

CASE D: They are fighting on an uneven battlefield. Similar to horsemen in the woods, this is a case of not being the ideal place for either army, but being worse for the horsemen. Pikes formations can be a harder to maintain in uneven terrain, but humans are natural climbers. They are better designed for uneven terrain than horses; so, will be perform more on par and have more flexibility in where they can go on the battlefield giving them certain mobility advantages.

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    $\begingroup$ Nice to mention the alternative scenarios. The skill of the leaders, the morale and discipline of the army, the terrain, and luck itself can often lead to different results than what you would calculate strictly from the equipment alone. Sure, the infantry army would have a great advantage. But there were historical examples of quite strange outcomes: once a tercio was defeated by a frontal charge of light cavalry one fourth of its size (while generally it would easily shrug off a charge from cavalry four times their size), because the commander of the tercio was overconfident and incompetent. $\endgroup$
    – vsz
    Commented Mar 7, 2020 at 16:29
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    $\begingroup$ "In a general since" since -> sense $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 8, 2020 at 4:52

Since no one else mentioned it

Your scenario played out in the real world.

Over in the History forum at Paradox, this thread on the Parthian Empire is very thorough and better laid out than most of the Wiki pages on the same topic. Their entire deal with Rome was mounted cavalry vs. infantry and archers. Do yourself a favor and read it sometimes for an overview of a time in Persia that most world histories skim over much too quickly.

The short version is the mounted archers usually won

because the fully mounted army, almost 100% of the time, can choose the time, location, and condition of the battle. The upvoted posters above may be right that in some kind of forced-battle simulator that good dismounted archers might fare better. In real life, the Parthians would just avoid dealing with archers with superior bows (not that the Romans had them), then just set fire to their camp at night... or harry them into a chase, wait til they were exhausted and have the sun and dust in their eyes, and ride back around... or attack their supply lines and wait for them to grow hungry and tired... or...

Now, the Romans weren't stupid. Their eastern armies began adopting pike-heavy phalanx-like strategies against the Parthians instead of the usual short swords, and it worked... well, still terribly for the most part except the first half of Nisibis. What the Romans did that worked was scorching the earth to deny grass to the horses, heavily fortifying places with good water supplies, and outlasting the Parthians' ability to keep their armies together. Societies with good horse archers (esp. societies that only produce horse archers) are generally nomadic and decentralized. They won't fight for a king's honor for longer than custom demands, and their homeland will be full of rivals and blood feuds that can be exploited by wealthy and well-informed enemies... so Rome slowly moved into Armenia and Mesopotamia in the 2nd century not because their legions did a better job in pitched battles in the open field but because they could enter better supplied and in full force (keeping anything but the full Parthian army from daring to fight at all) and fortify their new conquests and because they could foment enough civil wars to keep the Parthians occupied or to get one vassal to ask for their help against another... until, of course, Rome's own civil wars ruined its ability to keep the Persians from overrunning the Levant at will.

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    $\begingroup$ This. This should be the accepted answer. There's too much focus on what is superior in an arbitrary forced engagement when the real things that win wars is flexibility and logistics. This answer does a really good job of outlining the advantages of both approaches. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 12, 2020 at 13:38


While the foot archers have a range advantage on the cavalry units, the lancers can easier stay of range and the horse archers can attack with using their speed and mobility.

The pikemens only value is protecting the foot archers from being over run by the lancers. The pikes with lengths of 18’ are much longer than the lancer weapons.

For the foot archers to successfully attack the horse archers during their attack run, the foot archers have to aim at a point where the cavalry will be in the future. When the foot archers loose their arrows, the cavalry changes direction and/or speed and the arrows only hit ground. This pattern can be repeated until the horse archers are in range.

When the horse archers fire, their target is effectively stationary and much more easily hit. The horse archers can attack until they risk slowing down too much and being vulnerable to foot archer arrows, then they can break contact using the same strategy they used getting into range.

If the horse archers separate in to groups, they can make it more challenging for the foot archers by forcing them to either spread their fire or concentrate on one group, giving the other groups more time to make precise aimed fire.

  • $\begingroup$ I'm not sure if dodging will be so simple. With one archer against one target, it could work (cough Rickon Stark). With a group of horses though, repeatedly and quickly changing directions without collisions is harder, and will slow down the rate of advance. Meanwhile, a group of archers will have their arrows land in a pretty wide spread, dodging the correctly aimed arrows may lead you into the path of some less well aimed ones. And if the foot archers aren't firing in strict volleys, you have a constant stream of arrows that make it much harder to deliberately dodge. $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 14, 2023 at 9:36

Really Bad

In terms of an open battlefield, nothing beats a cavalry archer. They are the cheat code of the medieval battlefield, and their only downside is the fact that they can't hold positions. It's how the Mongolians beat everyone in a fight. The way you win against cavalry archers is by holing up in a fort. On land, even with formations and shields, infantry are susceptible to getting surrounded, and archers won't be able to help much.

And if the army has mounted lancers as well, they're still in trouble. Pikemen formations work against cavalry, sure. But archers don't, and the pikemen can't protect the archers and themselves from the lance cavalry while also defending themselves from the cavalry archers. In short, given two generals of equal skill and two armies of equal size, the cavalry army will win. Which makes sense, given one side is archers + spears, and the other side is (archers + spears) on horses.

To clarify, there's not really a lot of good formations that would be able to withstand mounted archers and lancers on a battlefield, because of how good mounted soldiers are.

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    $\begingroup$ The Mongols came in large numbers against the sparsely populated eastern Europe. When the forces were more balanced they were repulsed, for example in their attempt to take Vienna. As Voltaire put it, "on dit que Dieu est toujours pour les gros bataillons" (they say God is always on the side of the larger batallions). $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Commented Mar 6, 2020 at 19:54
  • $\begingroup$ Foot archers have much larger range then horse archers that's why Mongols carried two bows, smaller poundage for mounted and larger one for dismounted fight. They would be either out ranged if they fight on horseback, or out armored if they dismount. $\endgroup$
    – yirad
    Commented Mar 6, 2020 at 20:09
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    $\begingroup$ @Halfthawed Could you explain your thinking. Assuming the foot archers are inside a square protected by pikes which lancers can't break. If mounted archers have an effective range of say 100 m while foot archers have range of 200 m, (due to stronger bows, light armor of the horse archers + their unarmored horses) it doesn't matter from which side they will hit. They will still get hit while they close range, and while they run away. They could disengage and run away but I don't see them winning assuming everything else being the same. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 6, 2020 at 20:40
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    $\begingroup$ @slobodan.blazeski: Infantry cannot catch cavalry; as a consequence, infantry can never win a decisive victory against cavalry. Cavalry cannot break well-prepared infantry, but can always go around it; cavalry can always win a tactical victory, but cavalry cannot hold land. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Commented Mar 6, 2020 at 20:59
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    $\begingroup$ At any rate, horse archer will be a more vulnerable target than archer or pikeman hiding behind a shield or pavise. If neither side has numerical advantage, and both sizes play well, cavalry just can't win. $\endgroup$
    – Alexander
    Commented Mar 6, 2020 at 21:40

The pikemen will have to carry shields since the armor is not advanced enough, similar to Macedonian phalanx.

Real pikemen - including the Macedonians - didn't carry the sort of shields I think you're imagining. You need both hands for a pike. The Macedonian "shield" was actually a piece of armour - it was a metal plate worn on a strap around the neck, ie a crude breast plate - useful against horizontal pike thrusts but against falling arrows. Videogames NOT equal history...


Not good at all.

2 real world examples:

The Mongol Hoardes (mounted archers) vs. China, Iraq, Iran, & Europe. It was a slaughter. Mounted archers have mobility. Foot soldiers wielding large shields needed to defend against the archers do not.

The second wasn't mounted but shows the damage archers of any stripe can do.
In the 100 Years War, the English mowed down whole regiments of French infantry. In the Battle of Sluys (1340) the English used longbow's on ships and raked the French Navy. The French lost 16,000 and the English 600 at most.

Battle of Crecy (1346) The English bowman massacred a battalion of French knights.

Battle of Poitiers (1356) The bowman were 1/3 the entire English force.

The tortoise was invented by the Romans to counter archers. However it was only intended to function until 1 of 2 things happened.... 1) they could march up to the archers and with going against mounted archers you can't do this or 2) their Calvary showed up.


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