It is, my friends, time to return to this most ancient of chestnuts. Is a 1st level fighter a blithering mook, at the start of his adventuring life, or an already-established, decently competent soldier?
In one sense, of course, the question is moot, because the answer is entirely relative. A 1st level fighter is as tough as a 1 HD monster (say, an orc). How tough is an orc? However tough you want it to be. It could be along the lines of a Warhammer goblin, or along the lines of a Warhammer black orc; it's really up to you. And this is partly to the good, because it's one of the things that makes D&D so gloriously flexible. Your game can be at the starting power level of The Hobbit or at the starting power level of The Malazan Book of the Fallen in your imagination, but whichever it is, it will begin at the same level, with the same rules. It's just in how you imagine what 1 HD, and therefore 1st level, represents.
Take the following scene, from Mythago Wood. Which do you think is the 1st level character here - the narrator, or the man who defeats him?
And then all around us the woodland burst into brilliant fire, the trunks catching, the branches, the leaves, so that the garden, was surrounded by a great, roaring wall of flame. Two dark human shapes came bursting through that fire, light glinting on metal armour and the short-bladed weapons held in their hands. For a moment they hesitated, staring at us; one had the golden mask of a hawk, its eyes mere slits, the ears rising like short horns from the crown. The other wore a dull leather helmet, the cheek straps broad. The hawk laughed loudly.
‘Oh God no ... !’ I cried, but Guiwenneth screamed at me, ‘Arm yourself!’ as she raced past me to where her own weapons were lodged against the back wall of the house.
I followed her, grabbing up my flintspear and the sword that Magidion had presented to me. And we turned, backs to the wall, and watched the gruesome band of armoured men who emerged, dark silhouettes, through the burning forest, and spread out around the garden.
The two warriors suddenly ran at us, one at Guiwenneth, one at me. It was the hawk who chose me.
He came at me so fast that I hardly had time to raise and thrust my spear at him; the events happened in a blur of burnished metal, dark hair, and sweaty flesh, as he deflected my blow with his small round shield, then clubbed me heavily on the side of the head with the blunt pommel of his sword. I staggered to my knees, then struggled to rise, but the shield was struck against my head and the ground hit my face, hard and dry. The next I knew he had tied my arms behind my back, worked my spear under my armpits, and trussed me like a turkeycock.