Do beards make us better warriors?

A true warrior's beard from 'Nibelung Saga' by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld. ©Adam Woolfitt/Corbis

If you tuned in for our recent episode "The Science of Beards," then you know these glorious face rugs often make men more intimidating and possibly less-susceptible to blunt-force attacks. But do they also make us better warriors?

I ask this because a couple of listeners sent in a satirical article titled "Pentagon Study Finds Beards Directly Related To Combat Effectiveness." While the study cited in the piece is bogus, it does touch on some interesting history and science related to the bearded soldier. Military attitudes toward facial hair vary greatly over the years, ranging from mandatory mustaches to outright bans.

During Napoleonic times, the French had various facial hair regulations depending on where you served. And Alexander the Great famously banned beards for fear that enemies might grab hold to a tuft of chin whiskers and use it as a murder handle. Today, there's still a great deal of variety. Muslims and Sikhs who grow beards for religious reasons generally get to keep facial hair. Sometimes there are special rules for individuals with severe acne or shaving irritation. Sometimes beards are allowed so that special forces troops blend in more with a bearded populace and, in other cases, whiskers are permitted with a caveat demanding proper grooming.

As for a beard's possible effectiveness on the battle field? Well, we looked at a few different studies that bearded men were more intimidating to other men. And another study argued that human beards might help protect the neck from attack like a lion's mane. Here's a quick quote from that study:

Figure1 provides a very good look at the facial and neck structures covered by beards, as well as some estimation of the degree of coverage they may confer. These areas are front and center in aggressive confrontations and may be especially vulnerable to blows when weapons are not used, or to blows from the "blunt force" weapons that have been available throughout much of hominid evolution.

They paper goes on to point out how a man's hair eventually grows to cover the sides and back of the neck as well. How does this shake out in real life? Well, beards are banned in Olympic boxing, though not in MMA competition. I ran across this interesting article speculating on the fairness of Kimbo Slice's epic facial hair. The author mentions the typical punch-softening and even punch-sliding aspects of beards (all that soft hair might make a punch slide off the face rather than "stick"), but he also mentions how some fighters grow out prickly stubble as an added weapon during lock-ups.

That's right: The same sandpaper stubble that makes you a bad kisser can also help make you a better mixed martial artist.

About the Author: Robert Lamb spent his childhood reading books and staring into the woods — first in Newfoundland, Canada and then in rural Tennessee. There was also a long stretch in which he was terrified of alien abduction. He earned a degree in creative writing. He taught high school and then attended journalism school. He wrote for the smallest of small-town newspapers before finally becoming a full-time science writer and podcaster. He’s currently a senior writer at HowStuffWorks and has co-hosted the science podcast Stuff to Blow Your Mind since its inception in 2010. In his spare time, he enjoys traveling with his wife Bonnie, discussing dinosaurs with his son Bastian and crafting the occasional work of fiction.