Mongol Weapons

By Bloodswan


Turco-Mongol sabre

A favoured weapon of the Mongol cavalry was the sabre. This was a simple, one handed, curved blade which had been used by the Turkic and Tungusic tribes of Central Asia since at least the 8th century. Its effectiveness for mounted warfare and dispersion across the entirety of the Mongol empire had lasting effects. It spawned descendants across the continents that in turn produced even more kinds of curved swords over the years. The Persian shamshir, the Indian talwar, the Afghani pulwar, the Turkish kilij, the Arabian saif, the Mamluk scimitar, Polish and Magyar szabla, Armenian czeczuga and ordynka, Ottoman karabela and the European sabre and cutlass were all designed from the Mongol curved blade. The Yuan dynasty of the Mongols influenced China and other nations considerably, particularly in the tools and tactics of war and the sabre was no exception. The Chinese were among the first who adopted the curved blade. The sabre varied in its curvature from a slight curve to almost resembling a three quarter circle. Its primary use was for cutting and slashing and whilst it was effective on foot its real value came from its ease in which it could be used from horseback. The fact that it was adopted by so many different peoples is a testament to its simple use and effectiveness. Not nearly as heavy as many European swords the sabre is generally seen in cavalry strong armies.

Talwar sword


The Avars known in China as the Juan Juan have been credited with developing the curved sword. Although a very effective weapon it remained rare for a long time. This may partly be due with its difficulty to manufacture and military conservatism. It never spread further West than the Avars did during the 7th to 8th centuries. The Magyars were quick to adopt the sabre however straight swords were still the most commonly used throughout Eastern and definitely Western Europe. Between the 9th and 12th centuries the sabre was widely becoming more available and it quickly spread throughout the steppes and amongst the Turkic and Mongol peoples.

Before the sabre, the typical steppe sword was a straight sword. The Scythians used a short sword similar to the Persian akinakes. This was used more for personal defence or for dispatching a fallen foe than as an outright attacking weapon. By the 3rd century BC however well crafted swords well over 1 metre in blade length were known. The Sarmatians used a short sword with a blade that was typically 50 - 60 m long with some in excess of 70 cm. These blades were typically straight-sided and two-edged. The Huns favoured long two-edged and two-handed swords.

Kilij sword

Kilij sword


The Composite bow: Part one - Origins

The composite bow may have originated as long ago as 1500 BC, perhaps considerably earlier. Bow remains from Angara dated to as far back as 3000 years BC have been found that are clearly reinforced by bone and sinew. The first composite bow with bone reinforced "ears" was used around 500 BC. Despite many external differences of the composite bow throughout history and different cultures the composite bow has remained essentially a uniformed design. The first contact the western world had with the composite bow was through the Scythians. The next major encounters involved the Sarmatians and Parthians before the composite bow was redefined by the Huns. The Hunnic composite bow could be drawn at an extreme angle and was the most powerful bow of the ancient world. The Hunnic bow differed from other composite bows because it was asymmetrical, meaning the upper and lower limbs of the bow were not of equal length. The only other bow that was notably asymmetrical was the Japanese longbow. Interestingly both were used primarily from horseback. The Avars modified the Hunnic bow and it was this bow that was adopted by the Byzantines in the 6th century. The next major achievement was not in the bow itself but its use. The Mongols swept across the known world using the composite bow as their major weapon. The last great achievement was by the Ottomans in the 15th century who radically improved the flight of the composite bow. This achievement was years ahead of its time and the late Turkish composite bow outshot and had greater penetration power than the more well known English longbow used at the same time. Ottoman Sultan Selim III was once witnessed to have fired an arrow from a Turkish composite bow an amazing distance of 889metres (2917feet) though its effective range was considerably less.

The Composite bow: Part two - Making the composite bow

The composite bow was made from several different materials. These may include wood, horn, sinew, leather, bamboo and antler. The wood was used to create a light weight frame on which to build the bow. This core did not need to be particularly strong as it experienced little tension and compression. Horn was then used to strengthen the core. The horn and wooden frames were then tightly bound together to form the basic frame of the bow. Horn was an interesting material and it was somewhat better than wood. It is naturally more flexible and resilient and readily returns to its original shape once compression is released. Sinew from the back tendons or hamstrings of cows or deer were then applied in several layers after being dried and pounded. Sinew was crucial to the bow's power as it had high tensile strength. These were then all bound together by glue made from the bladders of fish. The glue could take up to a year to fully cure. Once the sinew and glue dried it tended to shrink which pre-tensioned the bow. The bow was now heavily flexed and after final shaping the bow would be bound in some suitable material such as leather or bark to protect the bone, horn and sinew from the elements. After a very time-consuming process (sometimes over a year) the bow was ready to string.

To draw a bow there must be a string between both ends and this has to be of a material that does not easily stretch. Bowstrings were therefore commonly made from sinew, horse hair and silk. The later being the norm for the later Turkish composite bows. When drawn the horn would compress and the sinew would stretch, and both would attempt to return to their original position. One was pulling, the other pushing. Te composite bow could bend very deeply without failing resulting in the draw length being longer comparative to its size. This increased the amount of energy that could be stored and therefore increased the power and speed behind an arrow. The smaller composite bow not only had the power of the larger bows but it was also smoother and more efficient. It could also be left strung for extended periods of time without the risk of weakening the bow. To increase the potential power further, composite bows were recurved in style with the limbs curved forward at their ends. This added to the velocity given to an arrow. This effect was greatly increased later by the addition of wooden or bone siha (ears) set at an angle from the limbs that acted as a lever causing the limbs to bend around and inward even further. This was most probably a Hun innovation. The siha became the norm for composite bows after their arrival.

 Composite bow - A is unstrung, B strung and C drawn

The Composite bow: Part three Arrows

Arrowheads varied in shape based on their requirements, which included hunting, distance and punching through armour. Typically they were made from bone or bronze. The Scythians are also known to have used poisoned arrows. They would take the venom from a particular snake that was mixed with decaying flesh and buried in dung until it putrefied.

Arrow shafts were commonly made from cane or reed. Reed arrows were easier to make and could travel further but arrows made from wood such as birch were also less likely to break on impact so different shafts were used. The arrows could be fletched with two or four feathers, preferably taken from ducks or geese.

The Composite bow: Part four Performance

An archer in Chinghis Khaan's army named Esukhei is recorded to have fired an arrow a distance of 335 ald (526metres or 1759feet) in a competition in the year 1225. Almost 150 years earlier a similar result was achieved by a composite bow at Olbia, a Greek Black sea colony. The man was Anaxagoras son of Dimagoras and he achieved a distance of 521.6 metres or 1711 feet. The Ottoman Sultan Selim III was once witnessed to have fired an arrow from a Turkish composite bow an amazing distance of 889metres (2917feet).

The effective range of the composite bow was however quite less. The effective range was 175 metres (575 feet) and for the best accuracy and most effective killing range 50 - 60 metres (160 - 200 feet) was probably the ideal distance. However mounted steppe archers were rarely after one shot kills. Studies show that whilst most arrow wounds resulting in debilitating injuries, only 1 in 50 were fatal (unless of course poison was used which was quite rare) and 1 one in 100 were outright fatal. This is because the steppe peoples did not carefully pick targets out but rather fired volley upon volley onto an enemy, creating almost arrow showers (raining arrows).

Steppe archers were able to draw and shoot up to 12 arrows a minute and carried anywhere from 30 - 150 arrows with them. Steppe archers almost always fired arrows from horseback and mastered a technique of shooting at a high elevation so that arrows fell down almost vertically on an enemy. This method was extremely effective on an enemy that was encamped, fortified or massed in one place. When co-ordinated with heavy cavalry charges the effects could be devastating. However at this rate of ammunition, the archers would run out of arrows so an effective logistical system like the one Surena set up against the Romans at Carrhae was vital.

The Composite bow: Part five The Mongolian draw

The Mongolian or Chinese draw was used by the majority of the steppe peoples. It used the thumb to draw the string back. Not only is the thumb the strongest digit but it is also not subject to the finger pinch of the Mediterranean draw used throughout Europe. The Persians used a different draw by using their forefingers laid across the arrow. There were too many variations used by different peoples to list here.

With the thumb draw, the arrow is usually shot from the right side of the bow. The thumb draw is also a faster draw than the Mediterranean draw. The composite bow allowed for a long draw. Eastern (Persian, Armenian, Pontic etc) and steppe archers drew from their face, whilst Mongolian archers drew further still as they would draw past their ears. When you compare this to Roman archers who only drew to their chest you get some idea as to the difference in force behind the Roman, Eastern and Mongolian arrows. Thumb rings made of wood or bone were used by steppe archers.

Mongolian Draw

The Composite bow: Part six The Parthian shot

Named after the Parthians, renowned for their mounted archery skills, the Parthian shot is the most famous of horse archer actions. Whilst riding away from an enemy, either in a feigned or real retreat the archer would turn back in the saddle and fire arrows at the pursuers. This was achieved by twisting the torso while simultaneously drawing the bow and firing to the rear in one fluid motion. A Parthian shot later became an analogy as a final hostile remark or gesture delivered in such a way that an opponent had no chance of response.

Parthian Shot


Spears, lances and other weapons

Other weapons used by the Mongols included spears and lances. These were used by the Mongol heavy cavalrymen. The best example of Mongol heavy cavalry in action can be seen at the battles of Liegnitz and earlier at the Kalka river. The Mongol heavy cavalry man was well armoured especially after the conquest of Persia. He would use a heavy lance for charging into other cavalrymen. The Mongol lance differed from other steppe lances like the Sarmatian kontos. It was usually much shorter and it also had a hook next to the head. The hook was used to drag a rider from their steed where they would soon be dispatched or enslaved.

The Mongols also used maces by the heavily armoured keshiks for close quarters fighting. The mace was similar to the maces used by the Turks and Persians of the same era and may have been adopted from them. Lassoes were also used to drag a rider of their horse and the Mongols, like most steppe peoples were experts with them due to their need for lassoes to round up horses. Mongol warriors carried axes with them too but these were more of a tool than a weapon and were quite short.

Mongolian Lasso