In English-speaking countries, 15ᵗʰ – 21st centuries, a unit of length, = 4 inches, by the 18ᵗʰ century used only to measure the height of horses, from the ground to the top of the withers. Abbreviation, hh, (“hands high”). A writer in 1701 refers to “the measure called a handful used in measuring the height of horses, by 27 Henry VIII, Chap. 6, ordained to be 4 inches.”¹ link to table showing relationships between English units of length

The format in which the height of a horse is written in hands looks as if it were an ordinary decimal, but it is not. The number of inches is divided by 4 and any leftover inches are reported as if they were a decimal. So, for example, a measured 64 inches would be (64 ÷ 4 = 16) 16hh; 65″ would be 16.1hh (64 plus 1); 66″ would be 16.2hh (64 plus 2); 67″ would be 16.3hh (not 16.75) and 68″ would be 17hh. The only possible values are .1, .2. or .3, all indicating the number of extra quarter hands.

A few examples of actual sizes of horses in hands:

Draft 17hh - 18hh
Warmblood 15.2hh - 17hh
Thoroughbred 15hh - 16hh
Quarter Horse 15hh - 16hh
Arabian 13.2hh - 15hh
Pony 10hh - 14.2hh

Modern studies of the handbreadth of adult American males show a median (50th percentile) width of 3.4 inches at the knuckles, the metacarpal joint, while the breadth at the thumb of male airline pilots was found to be 4.1 inches.² As a body measurement, the hand must have been taken toward the back of the hand.

1. Samuel Leake, 1701,
as quoted in Edward Nicholson.
Men and Measures; a History of Weights and Measures, Ancient and Modern.
London: Smith, Elder and Company, 1912.

2. Wesley E. Woodson, Barry Tillman, and Peggy Tillman.
Human Factors Design Handbook, 2nd ed.
McGraw-Hill, Inc. 1992.

Page 570.


HAND-BREADTH; is three inches.
HANDFUL, is four inches by the Standard.

Worlidge, 1704.


How to do it:



In 17ᵗʰ – 18ᵗʰ century colonial America, hands (always plural) was a unit of capacity, the quantity contained by two hands held together as a scoop. Said to have been influenced by the Dutch geest, “shoe buckle”. This measure was used in trading with the Indians, for example for gunpowder and wampum.



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