The Devastating Power of Mongol Bows and Archery

mongolian-on-horse-painting

The Mongols were unmatched in their skills as mounted archers. Riding swift, sturdy horses, Mongol warriors could shoot their bows with extraordinary power and accuracy while galloping at full speed. This combination of horsemanship and archery allowed them to conquer massive territories across Asia and Eastern Europe.

The Secret of the Mongols’ Deadly Archery

The Mongols used a specialized type of recurved bow known as a composite bow. Made by laminating together slices of bone, horn and sinew on a wooden frame, composite bows were smaller and more powerful than the longbows used by other armies. Their recurved shape allowed Mongol archers to shoot arrows with greater force, achieving ranges of up to 350 yards compared to 250 yards for European longbows.

Mongol composite bows were expertly crafted and customized for each archer. Every Mongol warrior made their own bow and arrows, protecting them under their clothes from the elements. This personal care resulted in extremely accurate and reliable weapons.

The Power of the Mongols’ Composite Bows

The composite bow’s compact size enabled Mongol cavalrymen to shoot while riding at full gallop. Mongol saddles and stirrups stabilized the archer, allowing deadly accurate shots even at speeds of 37 mph. The mobility of Mongol mounted archers gave them a lethal advantage against slower-moving enemy forces.

The smooth draw and recoil of the composite bow enabled a rapid rate of fire. Mongol archers could loose several arrows when it took other armies to shoot one. They used various specialized arrows for long range, short range, poison, signaling and heavy impacts. This versatility allowed Mongol archers to overwhelm enemies under a literal hail of arrows.

The smaller size of Mongol arrows meant they could be fired from captured enemy bows, while foreign arrows were often too large to fit Mongol bows. This asymmetric advantage allowed the Mongols to replenish their ammunition from defeated foes.

Legendary Feats of Mongol Archery

Stories abound of the incredible feats performed by Mongol archers. The warrior Jebe supposedly could hit targets from over 900 alda, around 450 yards. Other accounts tell of Mongol cavalry leaning sideways to shoot arrows while hanging off their galloping horses, using the horse’s neck to stabilize their bow. This “Parthian shot” allowed devastating volleys even while rapidly retreating.

The Mongols strategically coordinated the horse archers with their other forces. Charges by lancers and siege engines would fix enemies in place as mounted archers circled around to rain arrows on their vulnerable flanks and rear. This combined arms doctrine amplified the horse archers’ devastating potential.

The Role of Archery in Mongol Conquests

The Mongols’ mastery of archery was central to their ability to carve out history’s largest contiguous land empire. Their composite bows outranged all opponents, while their mobility remained unmatched until modern times. Entire armies were routed under storms of Mongol arrows before their horsemen charged in for the kill.

Yet archery was only one component of the Mongol fighting force. Their success also stemmed from strict discipline, intelligence-gathering, adaptation of foreign technology, and a brilliant command structure that gave field commanders extensive autonomy.

The feared “horse archers from hell” may have captured imaginations, but the full military might of the Mongols came from the interplay between archery, cavalry skills, strategy and organizational power. Together, these elements made the Mongols virtually unstoppable until their empire eventually fractured from internal power struggles.

Legacy of the Mounted Archers

The Mongols demonstrated how a highly mobile force wielding the dominant ranged weapon of the era could defeat numerically superior foes. The Mongol composite bow marked the pinnacle of ancient archery technology and tactics. Their skills on horseback remain almost mythical today.

While gunpowder weapons eventually rendered archery obsolete, the Mongols showed how proper application of technology, training and tactics defines military success as much as weapons themselves. Their integration of archery with mobile cavalry set a standard of combined arms operations not surpassed for centuries. The devastating charges of Mongol horse archers still echo through history as a testament to the power of the bow in skilled hands.

Further Reading

  1. The Secret History of the Mongols. This 13th-century text offers invaluable insights into the life and times of Genghis Khan, including the role of archery in Mongolian society.
  2. Warfare in the Mongol Empire by Timothy May. A comprehensive account of military techniques, including archery.
  3. Archer’s and Bowmaker’s Treasure by Galsan Gungaa. This book specifically focuses on traditional Mongolian bows and archery techniques.
  4. Mongolian Cloud Houses: How to Make a Yurt and Live Comfortably by Dan Frank Kuehn. This source offers contextual information on the lifestyle of Mongolian archers including the types of yurts they lived in, which often influenced the design of their bows.
  5. Marco Polo’s Journals. Though not strictly academic, they offer a firsthand account of Mongolian life during the 13th century, including references to archery.
This video is about the making process of a Mongol Horn Bow, also known as the Caagan Chad or Tsagaan Khad Bow. The bow handle and tips are crafted from mulberry wood. V-splices are used to join the wooden core of the bow. The horn and wood are carefully scraped and checked for thickness using a scraper. Ostrich leg sinew, which is sold as food in Vietnam, is used for the bow. The finished bow weighs 80 lbs at 31 inches, which is the standard poundage for a war bow.
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