Miniature Scales: The Complete Guide

Miniature models come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. Navigating the hobby’s terminology as a first-time buyer can be confusing, but luckily many miniatures follow scales.

If you’re trying to find a gift for a friend who is into miniature collecting or are looking for one for yourself, here are a few things to know about miniature scales. 

What are miniature scales? Miniature scales are used to describe the sizing of miniatures made for different purposes. They fall into two categories: relative scales and absolute scales. Popular games such as Dungeons and Dragons (DnD) and Warhammer use miniatures that have their own scale. 

Miniature scales fall into quite a few more categories than just relative and absolute scale, though.

A large variety of hobbies use them, and the size of miniatures will change heavily depending on what the intended use is.

All About Miniature Scales

There is an abundance of miniature scales for the large variety of hobbies that utilize them.

In general, games with a lot of minis on the table will use smaller miniatures while games with less minis tend toward a larger size.

For figuring out which scale best suits your hobby needs, it’s helpful to learn in which type of scale the leading manufacturer produced the miniature.

In general, it is essential to remember that all figure scales are based on the average human figure.

While vehicles or mounts may play a critical role in a specific hobby, manufacturers tend to stretch those proportions separately.

Relative Scale

Miniatures crafted using a relative scale are highly prevalent, especially in historical miniatures or other hobbies where accuracy is an important aspect.

Miniatures at a relative scale compare the size of the miniature to the size of a real-life object.

For instance, a mini may be listed as 1/35, meaning that the mini is 1/35th the size of the actual, real-life object. 

You should know that relative scales are not very common among games that use miniatures due to the large discrepancies that could happen between two units or characters that do much of the same thing.

A unit on a horse compared to a unit standing on its feet is going to look very different using a relative scale but could be very similarly sized using others. 

Examples of hobbies where relative scale is most common include war reenactment scenes, railroad or locomotive scenes, and expansive town setups. 

Absolute Scale

Absolute scale miniatures are much more common for games and are measured in millimeters.

Here, the method differs slightly from the relative scale. A typical size is chosen, and then other miniatures are made to match that height.

For instance, the size chosen could be 25 mm. This means that each miniature should be that height. 

Of course, there is a necessary variation in these scales as well. In a fantasy game, a dwarf miniature will still be shorter than that of a dragon.

The important thing in an absolute scale is that the average miniature size is the same across all of them.

This can create a much more unified look across a table, allowing gameplay to flow more easily using these scales.

Whether your human miniature is dressed in bulky plate armor or simply in normal clothes, they will be the same size. 

Games that use absolute scales are much more focused on how the pieces interact with the game board rather than each other, at least in terms of size.

To this end, the base of miniatures (what they stand upon while in use) is generally uniform while there is more variation in the sculpted miniature itself. 

Reading Scales

When looking at the dozens and dozens of different scales that exist, it can be overwhelming and difficult to understand the differences.

Luckily, with a quick explanation of the differences and the use of a ruler, people can get a grasp on reading scales quickly. 

Scales are listed either as fractions or in millimeters.

Often, these have a theoretical equivalent in the other form, but it is best to just use what’s given most of the time.

Scales listed as fractions tend to be on a relative scale, while scales listed in millimeters tend to be on an absolute scale. 

Fractional scales work as normal fractions do.

If a miniature is listed as being a 1/600, it simply means that the miniature is made to be 1/600th the size of whatever it represents.

Metric scales are more unified and are simple to measure. The size listed, for instance, 28 mm, simply means that this is the size of the miniature from the base to the reference point, which I’ll explain shortly.

Here are a few common sizes for some of the more popular hobbies that use miniatures:

  • 1/600 – Naval miniatures.
  • 1/285 – Modern combat miniatures (WWI & Onward).
  • 1/220 – Modern railroad miniatures.
  • 25mm – Fantasy wargames and Dungeons and Dragons.
  • 28mm – Heroic scale gaming miniatures.

Misconceptions About Size

While an important part of understanding the sizing of miniatures is the scale, there are quite a few more variables that contribute to how a model looks. 

Miniature models, especially those measured in absolute scales, are often measured using a reference point.

The topic of where the correct reference point should be, however, is often heavily debated. 

There are three common reference points for measuring the size of a miniature:

  1. To the top of the figure.
  2. To the top of the head.
  3. To eye level.

These various reference points stem from the different sculptors and manufacturers making minis, as there is not currently a universal system for measurement. 

Top of the Figure

Measuring to the top of the figure is valuable for understanding total height but can often create problematic situations, such as when tall headwear, like a plumed hat, dramatically affects the perception when placed near other models. 

Top of the Head

Measuring to the top of the head is very common and completely negates the issue of headwear.

However, finding the top of the head on a figure that is wearing complicated headwear can be a challenge, resulting in inaccurate measurements. 

Eye Level

Finally, measuring to eye level is recommended occasionally because the eyes of a miniature are almost always visible.

However, this can present issues with measuring non-humanoid figurines, as a main measurement reference simply does not exist. 

What Scale Are DnD Models?

Miniature models for Dungeons and Dragons, or DnD, are produced roughly at a 25 mm scale, although many in the community agree that the sizing seems to change dramatically at times. 

Due to the subtle changes in miniatures, mostly due to proportions, the community defines the average size by the base on miniatures instead.

The most important part of DnD models is the base, which should be 1 inch wide.

There are exceptions to this as well, depending on the size of the creature in-game and other factors. 

In case you’re wondering, one of my favorite figure packs for DnD is this 56 figure set with 28 characters. The characters are already painted and ready for immediate gameplay.

Average DnD Model Size

The 1-inch base size for DnD models is made to represent the average humanoid. This includes humans, elves, orcs, tieflings, and other creatures of that nature. 

The game has variation in the 25 mm scale, mostly due to the varying sizes within these bounds.

Elves are generally regarded as taller and thinner than humans, while orcs are meant to be much bulkier in the game.

As such, the proportions of the miniatures changes dramatically for storytelling purposes and warps the perception of scale for many of the models. 

This is acceptable because DnD is not a realistic game, and the miniatures are created on an absolute scale so that the average minis are all roughly the same size. 

Different Sizes in Game

Various monsters, people, and creatures in the game of Dungeons and Dragons have different sizes.

A miniature of an enormous dragon should be quite a bit larger than a miniature of the human hero standing next to it. 

Dungeons and Dragons represents the difference of size between these models through in-game classifications such as tiny, small, medium, large, huge, and gargantuan.

The miniature models used in-game follow a very similar classification method. 

The miniature scale of Dungeons and Dragons assumes that humans are medium-sized creatures, and thus occupy the 1-inch wide base.

Smaller models have bases that are either ¼ inch for tiny creatures, or ½ inch for small creatures. The math works the same across all sizes of DnD minis.

Here are the sizes of Dungeons and Dragons miniatures and their equivalent bases:

  • Tiny – ¼ inch.
  • Small – ½ inch.
  • Medium – 1 inch.
  • Large – 2 inch.
  • Huge – 3 inch.
  • Gargantuan – 4 inch.

For more information on Dungeon and Dragons scale, be sure to read my in-depth article on D&D miniatures.

What Scale Are Warhammer Models?

The scale and size of Warhammer models have changed over the years of the game.

Older Warhammer models were created at a 28 mm scale, and new ones tend to be around 32 mm.

However, there is more nuance to these models as well.

Warhammer miniatures are produced with heroic proportions, making heads, weapons, and several other features larger.

These parts affected by the heroic proportions are not to scale with the rest of the body and create a unique look.

Due to the skewed model sizes, incorporating humanoid Warhammer models with other models to create a full board can be a complicated issue.

In addition, there are two types of Warhammer models, which tend to have slightly different proportions and sizes.

Warhammer 40k Models

Warhammer 40k is the most popular version of Warhammer and is what most people think of when the massively popular game runs through their heads.

The miniature models for Warhammer 40k have the heroic proportions that all Warhammer models do.

Warhammer 40k models incorporate a wide range of looks.

Oftentimes, a model of a heavily armored space marine winds up near the small frame of a fast-moving elf.

Due to the scale that Warhammer uses, these models will still share roughly the same height and even width, despite the clear differences. 

Because of the heavy armor most units wear in Warhammer 40k, they tend to be even bulkier and bigger than other models.

Read this for everything you need to know to get started playing Warhammer 40k. For a great starter pack, I’d recommend the Ork Boyz pack by Games Workshop.

Warhammer Age of Sigmar Models

Warhammer Age of Sigmar is the fantasy side of the Warhammer coin. These models are roughly the same size as the 40k models with a few minor differences. 

The height of many Age of Sigmar models will change dramatically depending on armor, weaponry, helmets, and the size of the base used on the model. 

Warhammer Age of Sigmar also tends to use significantly fewer vehicles than the 40k models, so there is less to worry about when matching models to one another.

Essentially any miniature, humanoid or not, printed roughly to the 28 mm scale will fit wonderfully.

Matching Humanoids With Other Warhammer Models

Many Warhammer games use vehicles and cover systems to great effect.

Scaling buildings, rubble, vehicles, and various miscellaneous parts to the size of the humanoids can be a major issue.

Due to the heroic scaling on Warhammer miniatures, it is best to get miniature terrain that is slightly larger than normal.

Despite being technically incorrect for proper scaling, oversized terrain creates a look that is more natural and believable during play. 

This is especially relevant to vehicles, as having an enormous space marine dwarf a large van seems entirely inaccurate to many players. 

The topic of what scale most Warhammer vehicles are made is often debated in the community.

Truthfully, it seems that the makers of Warhammer themselves often warp and skew various vehicles for a variety of reasons. 

With that said, the most common size seems to be a 1/48 scale for vehicles. This is recommended by many veterans in the community as looking the best near the enormous Warhammer models. 

Miniature Proportions

Miniatures can look wildly different from each other even if they are made from the same scale. This is due largely to the manufacturer’s decisions for style, accessory, and proportion.

Depending on what the mini may be used for, the proportions are often adapted to make the miniature look more heroic, childlike, or realistic. 

This can often cause issues even within the same scale, as pairing a human meant to look heroic near one meant to look realistic will make one appear significantly larger than the other.

It is important to figure out what kind of proportions existing models have and match them to new ones.

Realistic Proportion

Realistically proportioned miniatures are meant to look as close to real life as possible.

Proportions mirror average human sizing, meaning the head of a miniature is about 1/7th the size of the whole model. The eye line will be squarely in the middle of the head. 

In addition to this, the width of the model will stick to the proper human scale as well.

This means that legs will not be much thicker, muscles will be anatomically correct, and body proportion will be average. 

This style is most often used for historical miniatures and railroad scenes but rarely for games

Heroic Proportion

Heroically proportioned miniatures are commonly used for wargames, fantasy, and science-fantasy models.

With these, body parts are exaggerated and pronounced to fit the more classic look of an action hero. 

Muscles are larger, the torso is more pronounced, and legs are wider. Weapons also have a tendency to be larger, in addition to all other accessories.

The largest mark of miniatures with heroic proportions is the width of the model.

Increasing the width of the miniature while leaving the height alone warps the scale and makes models seem larger than they actually are. 

Models scaled this way are easier to paint and customize, lending themselves to hobbyists who enjoy that part of the process more. 

Due to the increased width, sometimes as much as 50% over realistic proportions, it can be difficult to switch between heroic proportions and other miniatures without feeling like detail is lost.

Chibi Proportion

A rarer style of a miniature is the chibi proportion style, where the head is far and away the most pronounced part of the model.

The size of the rest of the body could vary between all other proportion types.

Chibi proportions make miniatures appear childlike, and are rarely used in wargames or historical scenes.

Rather, chibi proportions fit wonderfully with painters who want to practice faces or hobbyists who enjoy the more pronounced head. 

Top-Down Proportion

A sort of variation on the heroic scale proportion, top-down proportions place a heavy focus on the upper torso so that miniatures look larger than they are. 

Top-heavy miniatures can look almost ridiculous when viewed at table level, as the legs look incredibly tiny for the body.

However, this style takes advantage of the fact that most miniatures are viewed from above during play. 

From the high vantage point, these miniatures achieve the look of massive, heroic characters without physically taking up too much more space. 

Top-down style miniatures will often be used in board games as they are easier to pick up and tend to stand out from the rest of the board.

How to Measure Miniature Vehicles

Collection of six different battle tanks.

Finding miniature models of vehicles for humanoid models to interact with can be tricky.

The issues that surround sizing largely revolve around the warped proportions that many miniatures have.

In addition, various popular games warp their vehicle sizing and make it difficult to find others that work. 

Here are some measurement guidelines for finding vehicles for your miniature games and scenes.

Finding the Right Size For Miniature Vehicles

Oftentimes, when trying to find vehicles for wargames or popular games such as Dungeons and Dragons or Warhammer, the manufacturer has vehicles available.

While the scale of these vehicles may change sometimes, they are generally the best bet for matching sizing.

In the case where there are no vehicles created already, it is best to look toward other methods or third-party manufacturers for getting vehicles.

For example, EnderToys makes a nice 28 mm Broken Vehicle Bundle.

The various proportions available for miniatures will have a significant impact on which vehicles look the best.

  • Realistically proportioned miniatures are easiest. Whatever scale the miniature human uses is going to be the exact scale for any vehicles the scene needs as well.
  • Heroically proportioned miniatures are complicated but generally will require larger vehicles than the scale would suggest.
  • Chibi and top-down proportioned miniatures are the most difficult for which to find vehicles. Because these miniatures are so warped, it’s often necessary to buy from the same manufacturer to get accurate sizing.

Considering that the vehicle models must be compared to the miniature figure, there are two important aspects for finding the correct size. 

  1. How does the figure look standing near the vehicle?
  2. How would the figure look sitting inside the vehicle?

When coming up with a scale for vehicles to people, it is best to decide on a common unit of measurement. Essentially, this creates an absolute scale for the board.

For instance, if the average humanoid miniature is decided to be roughly 6 feet tall, then the average sedan should be around shoulder height. 

Finding Scale For 28 mm Figures 

The most common scale for humanoid figures, where scale is an important calculation, is the 28 mm scale.

This covers most miniatures used in wargames or fantasy tabletop situations. 

A basic assumption about the scale representing a human at about 6 feet tall can be made, so conversions are easier.

Ignoring heroic proportions for a moment, a scale of 1/64 would mean that everything would be correct. However, as was mentioned briefly before, proportions ruin this conversion. 

Due to the increased bulk of miniature models, most vehicles properly scaled look ridiculously small in comparison.

The solution here is to go larger on the vehicle size. 

Scaling at this point is generally a personal preference, but two sizes that seem to work well for miniatures of 28 mm are a 1/43 scale and a 1/48 scale.

These allow figurines to look as if they can see over cars while still providing cover and enough space for details.

Scales For Miniature Terrain

Figuring out the scale for terrain and buildings around miniatures can be a hassle in and of itself.

This is because the scale of miniatures and the scale of the terrain are often different, especially in wargames. 

Oftentimes, particularly when playing through massive battles, it is simply impossible to have the terrain on the table be on the same scale as the miniatures.

Reenacting a modern combat scene, for instance, where guns have a range of over 100 yards, is instant proof that managing a table that large is not an option. 

To fix this, the terrain scale is often compressed. The larger the scale of battles taking place on the table, the more compression needs to happen. 

The compression of terrain and buildings can be broken down into four major categories.

  • Terrain as area.
  • Terrain as obstacles.
  • Terrain as cubes.
  • Terrain as intended.

Terrain as Area

Using terrain and buildings to represent whole areas is common in extremely large scale games. This is best in games where individual miniatures represent groups in play.

With this compression, buildings, rubble, trees, and other terrain represent an abstract area. For example, one city building on the map may represent a large area, such as a city block. 

For the use of terrain like this, the scale of buildings can be very close to the miniature scale, and very little extra work is required.

Terrain as Obstacles

Using this terrain scale, buildings are used to provide cover and make gameplay more interesting but are not able to be entered.

This method works well for games where miniatures have long ranges and do not need the ability to enter into buildings for small skirmishes. 

This is a great, cheap alternative as almost anything can be placed on the table to represent buildings or forests. 

Terrain as Cubes

This terrain scale is smaller still and allows for troops to hide inside of buildings or dense forests.

Exact positioning inside of the building does not matter at all, and very often, terrain built for this scale will be barren inside. 

The representation here is still abstract, although much closer to reality than the previous two scales.

Terrain built for this purpose will need to either be roofless or modular so that troops inside of  the buildings can be seen.

Terrain as Intended

This is the smallest scale for terrain and extremely common in games such as Dungeons and Dragons. Buildings, trees, rocky cliff faces – all are treated exactly as they look. 

This is a great method for small battles, where units represent exactly what they look like.

These models will have interior detail such as separate rooms, floors, or even furniture that miniatures can take cover behind.

These can be troublesome to make due to the detail required but serve best when working at figure scale.

Miniature Scales For Fun

Miniature models serve such a wide variety of purposes and games that there are now dozens of different, popular scales.

In cases where realism is most important, it is best to find a scale and stick to it across all of the models, whether humanoid, vehicles, or terrain. 

Often, miniatures are used to simulate battles for a variety of roleplaying and board games. In situations such as these, the scale matters significantly less.

While there is an enormous amount of discussion out there and resources to look into, it’s best to remember that miniatures are there to serve the game.

If something looks good to you and other players, then it’s good enough!