Archery is just simply awesome. To this day, the image of a bow and arrow makes us think of iconic heroes like Robin Hood, Hawkeye, and Green Arrow. It’s a weapon system that fills the pages of literature and the scenes in movies. Some of the movies you’ve seen probably featured archers firing arrows from horseback. Mounted archery is not only historically accurate, but also a highly effective battlefield tactic. Quite literally, empires were forged on horseback and spread through the draw of an arrow.
(Demonstration of Hungarian/Mongol style mounted archery)
Like all inventions, mounted archery was developed to address a need: the need to be able to attack, retreat, and maneuver swiftly in the open battlefield. To accomplish this, mounted archery takes advantage of two major innovations. One was obviously the bow, one of mankind’s earliest weapons. This is a tool for hunting and warfare that allows individuals to strike out of range while minimizing risk to the warrior. This is the beginning of projectile weaponry. The second is the horse. Nomadic horsemen began to realize that domesticating horses could not only be a means of travel, but actually serve as a weaponry platform. By applying horsemanship to warfare a fighting force could now perform faster maneuvers than could be done by mere foot soldiers, taking advantage of the horse’s speed and power. Mounted archers would literally overwhelm and scatter their opponents, bombarding them with arrows as they harrow them ride after ride. This attack and retreat, or attack and flank tactic is still used in modern warfare! This style of fighting gave an alternative to soldiers fighting in tight formations, introducing instead a much more dynamic war machine that utilized movement and the whole landscape to accomplish objectives.
As with other forms of mounted combat, you can’t look at the rider and horse as two separate entities, but rather a single unit. As the horse charged the enemy, the rider would be free to shoot volleys of arrows into the enemies’ ranks as they circled around for another attack. This combination of speed and rapid fire was the key to the mounted archer’s success. Being mounted also allowed riders a full 360 degree range of attack. In addition to sheer volume of arrows, riders could fire into the enemy directly and even as they passed.
Mounted archery was a honed skill for both man and horse. Cultures like the Mongols and Huns who featured mounted archery often revered horses in their culture: learning to ride was valued the same as walking. Young children were taught the discipline of archery at a very early age as well, and then how to shoot while riding. In kind, horses would have been conditioned to riding without major direction (kind of like western riding) that allowed for riders to be alert of their surroundings in order to pick out targets.
This versatile and innovative form of combat was used by several cultures and throughout different time periods, from the Assyrians in the ancient near east to the plains Indians of the western U.S. Our next post will delve further into various horse cultures and investigate how mounted archery first developed. We’ll look at some of the technology that developed as a result of mounted archery and even discuss the lasting impressions this form of horsemanship has left!