Thursday, 12 March 2015

Weights and Measures I: coins, swords, and armour

Fantasy writers are, by definition, confronted with situations outside of our common experiences. In this series, Weights and Measures, I offer a few suggestions regarding some common fantasy measures that might be hard to find in today’s world. I hope that you will find them useful in your fantasy writing and encourage you to suggest any topics that you would like to see covered in future posts.


How many are in that hoard? The simple answer is, more than most people think (and, yes, that chest is very heavy). By coins, I am referring to bullion, the raw form of a metal valued for its own sake (coins can be worth more, depending on the stability of a government to back their currency – Roman coins were typically worth up to three times the value of their metal [1]). We can do some calculations for our fantasy coins based on current coins. A pure gold coin around the size of a penny weighs around ¼ oz (7-8g), while one approximating a 2p British coin (slightly bigger than a US Quarter) weighs twice that [2]. A South African Krugerrand weighs just over an ounce and is a nice size for a fantasy gold piece (32.77 mm diameter and 2.84 mm thick), but its value would be high, if gold in the fantasy milieu is similar to our reality. Currently (Feb., 2014), a 1 oz coin would be worth around $1300 US dollars [3]. Considering that gold coins frequently make appearances in stories (more than would be expected if they approximated $1000 bills by today’s standards) you may want to make your coins smaller than 1 oz. I followed this assumption in making my volume calculations, placing the hypothetical coins in question somewhere between ¼ and ½ oz (a note for Dungeons and Dragons fans: gold coins in 1st ed. AD&D were 1.6 oz [4] (1.5 times the size of a Krugerrand, but changed to 1/5 that size by 4th ed. [5]. Each 4th ed. coin would be just over 1/3 oz – perfect for the calculations that follow -- and worth around $380, though item prices in the Players Handbook suggest that gold is worth far less in that world). 

Assuming these to be the margins of fantasy coin size, I tossed 50 1p and 50 2p coins into a box and they displaced approximately 8.5 cubic inches. With 1728in3/ft3, this extrapolates to a whopping 20 thousand coins per cubic foot, weighing approximately 500 pounds, depending on how closely they are packed (by comparison, similar sized coins made of platinum would be slightly heavier while those made of silver, copper, and electrum would be about half the weight [6]). Yes, my measurements are approximations and, yes, there are box-edge effects and, yes, extrapolating increases my margin of error, but you get the idea. No matter what the size of your fantasy coins, we’re talking about at least 10,000 coins per cubic foot at a weight that a typical person (or wooden box) can’t manage.

So what does this mean for a pile that a dragon might be sitting on? Uggh. Consider a conical pile 20 ft. in diameter.  If it had a 35 degree angle of repose (pitch), which is typical of many particulates [7], it would be 7 feet high and the volume would be (1/3­π­r2­h), or 733ft3. If we use the very conservative estimate of 10,000 coins, that’s more than 7 million. A 40 ft. wide pile would have nearly 60 million. Maybe the brilliance of this image is more important to you than its verisimilitude (in which case, keep it!), but a few readers will be irked. I realise that I am the worst audience member, in this regard, but I couldn’t help doing the math as I watched Bilbo scuttling through the dwarfish treasure room in The Desolation of Smaug. My rough estimation of the volume of gold suggests something along the lines of four billion gold pieces (let’s not even mention the giant statue of the dwarf at the end – a subject that is covered nicely by Rhett Allain [8]). And Middle-earth only has, what, a few million inhabitants [9] [10]? If so, then the dwarves minted 2000 gold pieces for every humanoid in existence. I’m no economist, but I am guessing that they risked flooding the market.



Fantasy writing occasionally includes 30-pound swords and 50-pound axes. This one is far easier to tackle than the speculations of coinage: people have weighed ye olde weapons that are kept in museums. The truth is that a typical sword weighs around three pounds, with the largest ‘two handed great swords’ reaching around five to eight pounds [11]. Even the most delicate doe-eyed princess could lift one (though wielding one effectively might be a different story). For an excellent exploration of this subject, I recommend the work of John Clemens [11] [12], done for the Association for Renaissance Martial Arts. In fact, if you are interested in realistic fighting techniques, you would do well to spend a few hours poking around ARMA’s site ( if not paying one of their chapters a visit.


As they do with swords, most people over-estimate the cumbersomeness of armour (with the exception of some tournament armour, which could be, indeed, quite unwieldy, but would have never been worn to complete a fantasy quest). While there are many sources on this subject, I trust Dirk Breiding, who states that, “An entire suit of field armour usually weighs between 45 and 55 lbs. (20 to 25 kg), with the helmet weighing between 4 and 8 lbs. (2 to 4 kg) -- less than the full equipment of a fireman with oxygen gear, or what most modern soldiers have carried into battle since the nineteenth century” [13]. He goes on to state that an armoured combatant could also move quite well, could get himself off the ground (i.e. he was not stuck on his back if he fell over), and could mount a horse without a crane (a misconception that was “finally immortalized in 1944 when Sir Laurence Olivier used it in his movie Henry V -- despite the protestations of his historical advisers, who included the eminent authority Sir James Mann, Master of the Armouries at HM Tower of London”) [13].

While armour may have been less cumbersome than some think, remember that field armour was just that – meant to be worn on the field (of battle). It may have been manageable for a fight, but probably would have been more harmful than helpful on a quest lasting months. Breastplates and leather jerkins would be much lighter, but I am will always be suspicious of the Renaissance paintings that depict Spanish conquistadors marching through the New World tropical heat in steel helmets, breastplates, and sleeve-length bombasts. I expect that any man who did so would be a very well-protected heat-stroke casualty.

Works Cited

S. o. t. R. N. S. Robert Bracey, personal communication, London, 2014.
Royal Canadian Mint, “shop,” 2104. [Online]. Available: [Accessed 17 February 2014].
Gold Price, “homepage,” 17 February 2014. [Online]. Available: [Accessed 17 February 2014].
G. Gygax, “The Adventure: Encumbrance,” in Players Handbook, Lake Geneva, TSR Games, 1978, p. 102.
Wizards of the Coast, Dungeon Masters Guide, 4th ed., 2008.
The Engineering Toolbox, “Metals and Alloys - Densities,” [Online]. Available: [Accessed 17 February 2014].
T. J. Clover, Pocket Reference, Sequoia Publishing, 1995.
R. Allain, “Melting Gold in The Hobbit,” 24 December 2013. [Online]. Available: [Accessed 17 February 2014].
T. Loback, “The Kindreds, Houses and Population of the Elves During the First Age,” Mythlore, vol. 14, no. 51, 1987.
M. Martinez, “The World of Middle-earth - Populations of Middle-earth,” SF -, 2012. [Online]. Available: [Accessed 20 February 2014].
J. Clements, “The Weighty Issue of Two-Handed Great Swords,” October 2004. [Online]. Available: [Accessed 16 February 2014].
J. Clements, “What Did Historical Swords Weigh?,” [Online]. Available: [Accessed 16 February 2014].
D. H. Breiding, “Arms and Armor—Common Misconceptions and Frequently Asked Questions.,” in Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2004.

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