There have been questions asking if rhino, hippo and other similar kinds of cavalry are feasible.

Now let's for a moment skip that and assume we have some special means, on the end of which, we get rhinos that behave almost war horse-like.

I'm asking this question for worldbuilding reasons, as I'm trying to discover standard strategies for my fantasy army.

How horribly is medieval or ancient army standing on the other side of field sc***ed by rhino cavalry charging, provided they somehow manage not to disperse in terror and hold a traditional spear or pike defencive formation?

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    $\begingroup$ Rhinos would be a devastating surprise...once...like any new weapon or tactic. After that, a reasonable enemy will adapt: More triplines, earthworks, fire arrows, stronger pikes, etc. $\endgroup$
    – user535733
    Commented Jul 2, 2020 at 22:56
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    $\begingroup$ There's a great series here on ancient elephantry, which would be a good analogue. $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 3, 2020 at 10:38
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    $\begingroup$ What does "sc***ed" mean? I am not a native English speakers and learned to recognize these (ridiculous BTW) hiding strategies for common words but that one is a mystery. $\endgroup$
    – WoJ
    Commented Jul 3, 2020 at 15:28
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    $\begingroup$ sc**ed is probably "screwed" Not really that rude. $\endgroup$
    – James K
    Commented Jul 3, 2020 at 23:11
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    $\begingroup$ Similar question about bulls. $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 4, 2020 at 7:24

5 Answers 5


The charge itself? Terrifying. The amount of food needed to feed them, the amount of care and training would be too high for any reasonable state to use them for a long time.

So if you read actual historical campaigns you will find that rarity of fodder is a huge issue and supporting even horses, big or small, was a huge issue. Sometimes you will slaughter the horses to eat them because you don't have food. Sometimes you will feed them and let your own soldiers almost starve to death.

Anyway war is won by logistics as much as pitched battles. If you need 10x more food to support an animal then the enemy can get 10x more animals to attack you with.

But anyway you also need to consider a crap ton of other elements before you start replacing horses as cavalry.

Are they comfortable to ride for long time? Most of any war is basically marching and marching.

Are they maneuverable enough?

Do they tire as quickly? This is a big point. A Cheetah runs way faster than a camel. But guess who wins in the long term?

Can you replenish them with any reasonable speed? Or are they a one usage wonder.

Can they serve other function like actual cavalry. Like mounted archers, or can they scout...etc.

And the last thing is that are they cost effective? This point is basically why 99% of technology and super duper equipment is never used for actual military usage. I won't get into into many example but I'll just write the following:

War elephants. They were awesome and fearsome. But guess what. They tended to be another tool at a general's disposal not an absolute game changer. Once faced with them you can plan and counter them. Thus they turn out to be no more different than Cataphracts or fully armored medieval knights or chariots or full plated knights or mounted archers or even gunpowder and cannons. Having a bunch of elephants used correctly can win you the battle. But so is having a bunch of cavalry, or starving your foe to death...etc

Actual warfare tend to be boring affairs with planning and marching and fighting like one battle every now and then with a surprising low number of casualties.

Now don't let that discourage you. Far be it for me to even suggest it.

All I'm saying is that the pure idea of strong=good is never a military thing.

So with that in mind you can solve most of those problems. Maybe they are trained and bred to solve most of those problem. They also got a particular logistics branch of the army that just handles them. Like trainers and grooms and transportation and usage. Heck. The story can revolve around just that! Obviously enemy commander can try to exploit your weakness. But that just same old military tactics. So perhaps your Rhinos are a bit different. Maybe your state is really into them because it's a tradition and they are useful. And on that note please understand that most warrior cultures were extremely practical otherwise they don't tend to stick around.

Anyway solve the underlying reasons why they are not used and use them if you want.

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    $\begingroup$ warrior culture extremely practical......what about gaesatae? japan samurai commander with all that elaborate equipment which only burden the wearer and tell everyone you are in charge? not including their flag banner that stuck in the back for their troops, most of the bronze warrior culture also wear horn helmet...... some warrior culture just like the rule of cool too no matter how impractical it is. $\endgroup$
    – Li Jun
    Commented Jul 3, 2020 at 6:43
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    $\begingroup$ @LiJun: Making the chain of command obvious even the confusion of battle has advantages of its own. It's not like the commander is expected to spend their time in the front lines most of the time, and even when they are in front, they'd have bodyguards; a high-level commander's value is rarely in their personal swordplay. $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 3, 2020 at 14:20
  • $\begingroup$ @ShadowRanger well thats why i use honda tadakatsu image there, since he like to goes frontline and wear that armor. iam not even bring out big ship or canon that just for bragging by the nation or kingdom. $\endgroup$
    – Li Jun
    Commented Jul 3, 2020 at 14:42
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    $\begingroup$ @LiJun, Afaik the Samurai were practical and used bows+lances to fight most of the time. The little banners at the back I think are just light sticks. They never had access to iron and steel like Europe. So maybe layering was more important, That thing on the head looks silly. But I doubt it's that heavy. Could be made of light material and that looks cool. And most helmets I saw were rather reasonable with a little piece of decoration and not much crap. And depending on the commander they might not left a spear. They could be in charge of an army or a normal soldier. $\endgroup$
    – Seallussus
    Commented Jul 3, 2020 at 18:15
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    $\begingroup$ @LiJun, The example of Gauls ended in defeat. Bow and lance as examples.Not a detailed historical list. My rule still applies. Things that are harmful to your actual army but are cool don't get passed down. like genes. Decorations don't have to be heavy. European plate armor is much heavier than that armor. Also muscle armor is a thing. Greeks! The flags I see them as an organizational thing. Also the image shows actual firing units to move away from them. The helmets are absurd. Is it certain they were used by rank and file soldiers? If you are a warlord you won't fight much. $\endgroup$
    – Seallussus
    Commented Jul 4, 2020 at 5:26

So, putting myself in the opposing army's shoes here:

The first battle is probably a rout - You've found a new weapon, no-one knows how to deal with them, the Rhino charge wins hands down.

The second battle, being a sneaky medieval commander, I show up prepared. Rhinos have soft feet, so I get my smiths making hundreds of caltrops* to scatter. I cut longer pikes, and dig indentations so the shafts can be braced into the ground. I have my bowmen carry sharpened stakes, and knock them into the ground facing forwards. I try and find boggy and marshy ground, and try and persuade you to attack me there. As I'm not the one feeding muti-tonne animals, I can probably afford to wait around there.

If we have a tradition of horse archery, I send out horse archers - the Rhinos are slower, with lower stamina. We lure them across the battlefield, and every now and then one of them goes beserk.

Without horse archers, I get my cavalry to feint - pretend to charge, and then withdraw. With any luck, the rhinos will chase them, with their riders unable to control them, and I can lure them across the battlefield until they're too tired to stand, and then deal with their riders with lances. This works even better if my cavalry have a few javelins to pelt them with.

Light siege weapons would work very well here - a ballista has very good range, and just a few crazed rhinos running back through the opponent's lines might make them question using them in future

They'd also be hit hard by the standard medieval tactic of retreating, and burning all the crops, forage etc you can find along the way.

In short, they're a terrifying weapon, but easy to counter if you base your entire strategy on them.

*A quote from Vegetius, writer of Epitoma rei militaris:

The armed chariots used in war by Antiochus and Mithridates at first terrified the Romans, but they afterwards made a jest of them. As a chariot of this sort does not always meet with plain and level ground, the least obstruction stops it. And if one of the horses be either killed or wounded, it falls into the enemy's hands. The Roman soldiers rendered them useless... they strewed the field of battle with caltrops, and the horses that drew the chariots, running full speed on them, were infallibly destroyed. A caltrop is a device composed of four spikes or points arranged so that in whatever manner it is thrown on the ground, it rests on three and presents the fourth upright.


Rhinoceroses are about twice as heavy as horses. If the hypothetical rhinoceroses used as cavalry mounts truely "behave almost war horse-like" as the question states, then standard tactics developed against horse-riding heavy cavalry will work with minimal adaptations against rhinoceros-riding heavier cavalry. They just need sturdier pikes.

Pike formations work against cavalry charges because horses will not charge a wall of pikes. Hence the importance of deciding how much do those rhinoceroses behave like horses.

On the other hand, if the rhinoceroses don't behave like horses and instead keep their typical rhino berserker behavior when charging, then the infantry won't try to use the same tactics. Ancient and medieval armies were not commanded by idiots.

What the infantry would do we can only speculate, and the question doesn't ask it.

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    $\begingroup$ Assuming the rhinos would charge into a pike formation but there is no resonable way to armor them, how much damage would a pike do to a rhino? Would they (assuming they are lucky enough to not be hit in the eye) be able to tank it and trample down the infantry or would the pike wall do enough damage to the steeds to make the attackers unwilling to charge in the first place? $\endgroup$
    – hajef
    Commented Jul 3, 2020 at 8:35
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    $\begingroup$ @hajef: That depends on the sturdiness of the pikes and the training of the pikemen, doesn't it? But generally speaking, if two ton rhinos are known to go berserk and charge the wall of pikes then nobody will try to use pike formations against them; anti-tank ditches and Czech hedgehogs will make an early entry into history. (And why wouldn't there be no reasonable way to to armor rhinos? Heavy cavalry did use armored horses.) $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Commented Jul 3, 2020 at 11:51
  • $\begingroup$ @hajef in my opinion, the pike probably snap upon contact while the rhino momentum help penetrate it deeper, so reverse lance probably and lance puncture plate armor, though the wielder probably get dislocate arms or knock back. but iam not knowledgeable about physic hence just my opinion, besides if the formation tigthly enough i think the rhino can also lose its momentum after several impact and get surrounded to get stab hence cavalry do flank or charge at enemy gap or try to scare the pikemen rather than keep forcing themselves to charge the front. $\endgroup$
    – Li Jun
    Commented Jul 3, 2020 at 14:18
  • $\begingroup$ medieval people know about buried wooden stakes as anti cavalry or something like this anyway $\endgroup$
    – Li Jun
    Commented Jul 3, 2020 at 14:30
  • $\begingroup$ @LiJun: Here is a close-up picture showing how pikes were used. The first rank of pikemen show the position for defense against a cavalry charge; notice that the pikes are set with their butts into the ground, to absorb the force of the incoming charge. Also notice how thick the pikes are. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Commented Jul 3, 2020 at 15:47

I would start by comparing them to mounted elephants rather than horses. Elephants are extremely big and scary, but not unstoppable. And logistical reasons mean that it's hard to bring a large number of elephants to the battlefield.

Armies fighting elephants would often pelt them with heavy javelins until the elephants got so scared/angry they went out of control. A rampaging elephant is a threat to anyone standing near it, so you would hope this happened before they reached your frontlines. Some elephant riders carried a special weapon to kill their own elephant in case it started trampling their own side.

Some relevant rhino facts:

Rhinos can reach speeds of up to 30mph, faster than any human (28mph for an expert sprinter) or elephant (25mph) but slower than a horse (44mph). If they're travelling at 2/3rds the speed of a warhorse, then the rider's lance (if he had one) would have significantly less impact. Fun fact: when moving at top speed, rhinos run on their toes.

Rhinos have a lot less endurance for travelling long distances than horses.

A rhino has skin two inches thick (thicker at its shoulders and at back, a little soft under its neck), similar to an elephant's, making them somewhat resistant to spears, arrows, etc. A soldier could perhaps be trained to target their weak spots.

A rhino has a good sense of smell but very poor eyesight. I suspect that unlike horses they would not shy away from infantry with spears - by the time they even noticed the spears were there it might be too late for them to stop. (Although rhinos are surprisingly good at making tight turns mid-charge.)

Rhino poachers are known to catch them in wire snares and then finish them off with a spear or machete. This suggests that a well-prepared army in a good defensive position would have a good chance of holding them off.


Medieval times?

One rhino? Terrifying. A whole platoon of rhinos acting together? Complete devastation.

Have you seen what rhinos can do to sizable animals?
WARNING Scenes of animal vs animal aggression in the wild https://youtu.be/liAdulWOWws?t=17

One-on-one, rhinos are only evenly matched by a large hippo. An elephant treats a rhino as a toy. Anything else and watch out.

The real unnerving aspect of rhinos as cavalry mounts is that, unlike horses, they have no discernible fear of anything and will attack large moving objects even if unprovoked. They don't know when they are beaten and would probably refuse to lie down even if they were dead.

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    $\begingroup$ Rhino-zombies? I like the idea. $\endgroup$
    – Erik
    Commented Jul 3, 2020 at 9:54
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    $\begingroup$ I like the bit in the video where the lion goes "Okay, okay! I'm moving." $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 3, 2020 at 18:49
  • $\begingroup$ Rhinos attack almost anything, because they have the strength and resistance, but they are not suicidal and certainly know when not to charge. They just don't encounter things strong enough to beat them very often. $\endgroup$
    – Jan Hudec
    Commented Jul 4, 2020 at 15:36

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