Mounted archery

Mounted archery
Horse archer presentation in Hungary

A horse archer, horsed archer, or mounted archer is a cavalryman armed with a bow, able to shoot while riding from horseback. Archery has occasionally been used from the backs of other riding animals. Mounted archery was a defining characteristic of Steppe warfare throughout Central Asia, and throughout the prairies of America after the adoption of the horse, used by peoples including the Scythians, Sarmatians, Parthians, Sassanids, Huns, Byzantines, Bulgars, Cumans, Kipchaks, Magyars, Japanese, Mongols, Turks, Russians, Rajputs, Comanches, and others. It was also adopted by other peoples and armies, notably Chinese and Romans who both suffered serious conflict with peoples practising horse archery. It developed separately among the peoples of the South American pampas and the North American prairies; the Comanches were especially skilled.[1] Horse archery was also particularly honoured in the samurai tradition of Japan, where mounted archery is called Yabusame. In some places, such as in Germany, Scandinavia and Portugal, the crossbow was favoured over composite bow. Horse archery was never widely used south of the Sahara in Africa, where the ecosystem was less suitable for domestic horses. This was presumably due to factors such as the tsetse fly and lack of suitable fodder. Though some African kingdoms south of the Sahara used horses, they were less useful and had a high mortality rate in these regions.


Basic features

A Timurid drawing of an Ilkhanid horse archer. Signed (lower right) Muhammad ibn Mahmudshah al-Khayyam Iran, early 15th century. Ink and gold on paper

The natives of large grassland areas developed mounted archery for hunting, and for war. The buffalo hunts of the North American prairies may have been the most spectacular and best-recorded examples of bowhunting by mounted archers.[2] Since using a bow requires the rider to let go of the reins with both hands, horse archers need superb equestrian skills if they are to shoot on the move. It is thought that the Ancient Greeks invented the mythical Centaurs as the perfect union of an archer and a fast moving horseman.

Horse archers may be either light, such as Scythian, Hun, Parthian, Cuman or Pecheneg horsemen; or heavy, such as Byzantine kavallarioi, Russian druzhina and Japanese samurai. Some nations, like Medieval Mongols and Hungarians, fielded both light and heavy cavalry. In some armies, such as Parthians, Teutonic Order and Palmyrans, the mounted part of the army consisted of both super-heavy (cataphracts, knights) and ultra-light cavalry.

In battle, light horse archers were typically skirmishers; lightly armed missile troops capable of moving swiftly to avoid close combat or to deliver a rapid blow to the flanks or rear of the foe. In the tactic of the Parthian shot the rider would retreat from the enemy while turning his upper body and shooting backwards. Due to the superior speed of mounted archers, troops under attack from horse archers were unable to respond to the threat if they did not have ranged weapons of their own. Constant harassment would result in casualties, morale drop and disruption of the formation. Any attempts to charge the archers would also slow the entire army down.

An example comes from an attack on Comanche horse archers by Texas Rangers who were saved by their muzzle-loading firearms and by a convenient terrain feature. Captain John Bird rode up the Little River with fifty Rangers. They met some twenty Comanches hunting buffalo, and attacked them. The Comanches fled, easily keeping clear of the Rangers, for several miles across the open prairie before Bird noticed that he was now chasing some two hundred Indians. He immediately retreated, only to discover his classic error in fighting mounted archers. The Comanches pursued in turn, screaming and loosing what seemed like clouds of arrows. Bird's command happened across a ravine where they could shoot from cover. They fired carefully to keep the Indians at long range, always making sure they kept a few of their rifles loaded in case of an assault. The horse archers did not charge, but kept the Rangers under siege until seven of them, including Captain Bird, were dead or dying. The Rangers retreated to the east and claimed victory. Comanches set out on large-scale raids, destroying and torturing over a wide area.[3]

Heavy horse archers, such as Byzantine kavallarioi, Turkish timariots or Japanese samurai, instead fought as disciplined units. Instead of harassment, they shot at volleys, with intention of weakening the enemy before charging him. The heavy horse archers intended to contact the enemy in melee. In addition to bows, they often also carried close combat weapons, such as lances or spears.

Appearance in history

Parthian Horse archer, now on display at the Palazzo Madama, Turin.
Muscovy cavalry in XVI cent.
Hungarian warriors (oil on canvas)

Early horse archery, depicted on the Assyrian carvings, involved two riders, one controlling both horses while the second shot.

One of the few commanders who won his first battle against horse archers was Alexander the Great. He defeated Scythians in 329 BCE at the Battle of Jaxartes (the Syr Darya river). Even so, the Jaxartes marked the north-easternmost border of Alexander's realm in Asia, and he never ventured beyond into the heartlands of the horse nomads. Other commanders of heavy troops with few or no archers of their own had often disastrous experiences, including Crassus at the Battle of Carrhae. The medieval Battle of Liegnitz is a classic example of horse archers contributing to the defeat of armoured troops, via demoralization and continued harassment. The Mongol armies used similar tactics to create the enormous Mongol Empires from China to Eastern Europe.

Skirmishing requires vast areas of free space to run, manoeuvre and flee, and if the terrain is close, light horse archers can be charged and defeated easily. Light horse archers are also very vulnerable to foot archers and crossbowmen, who can easily outshoot them by shooting on volleys.

The heavy horse archers first appeared in the Assyrian army in the 7th century BC after abandoning the chariot warfare and formed a link between light skirmishing cavalrymen and heavy cataphract cavalry. The heavy horse archers usually had mail or lamellar armour and helmets, and sometimes even their horses were armoured. Heavy horse archers, instead of skirmishing and hit-and-run tactics, formed in disciplined formations and units, sometimes intermixed with lancers as in Byzantine and Turkish armies, and shot as volleys instead of shooting as individuals. The usual tactic was to first shoot five or six volleys at the enemy to weaken him and to disorganise them, and then charge. Heavy horse archers often carried spears or lances for close combat, or formed mixed units with lancers.

Heavy horse archers could usually outshoot their light counterparts, and wearing armour, could stand their shooting. The Russian druzhina cavalry developed as a countermeasure for the Tatar light troops. Likewise, the Turkish timariots and qapikulu were often as heavily armoured as Western knights, and could stand the Hungarian, Albanian and Mongol horse archers.

An army could also consist of both heavy and light horse archers, such as the Mongol armies.

The German and Scandinavian Medieval armies made extensive use of mounted crossbowmen. They would act not only as scouts and skirmishers, but also protecting the flanks of the knights and infantry, and chasing away the enemy light cavalry. When the battle was fully engaged, they would charge at the enemy flank, shoot a single devastating volley at point-blank range and then attack the enemy with swords, without reloading. The invention of ratchet cranequin allowed the mounted crossbowmen to use heavy crossbows on horseback.

Decline of mounted archery

Mounted archery was usually ineffective against massed foot archery. The foot archers or crossbowmen could outshoot the horse archers with sheer fire volume by shooting on volleys, and a horseman and a horse provide a larger target than a man alone. The Crusaders countered the Turkoman horse archery with their crossbowmen, and Genoese crossbowmen were favoured mercenaries in both Mamluk and Mongol armies. Likewise the Chinese armies consisted of massed crossbowmen to counter the nomad armies. A nomad army that wanted to engage in an archery exchange with foot archers would itself normally dismount. The typical Mongol archer shot from a sitting position when dismounted.

Horse archers were eventually rendered obsolete by the development of modern firearms. In the 16th and subsequent centuries, various cavalry forces armed with firearms gradually started appearing. Because the conventional arquebus and musket were too awkward for a cavalryman to use, lighter weapons such as the carbine had to be developed, that could be effectively used from horseback, much in the same manner as the composite recurve bow presumably developed from earlier bows. The 16th century Dragoons and Carabiniers were heavier cavalry equipped with firearms. Pistols coexisted with the composite bow, often used by the same rider, well into the 17th c. in Eastern European cavalry, including Muscovites, Kalmycks, Turks and Cossacks.

Mounted archery remained an effective tactical system in open country until the introduction of repeating firearms. The Comanches of North America found their bows more effective than muzzleloading guns. "After... about 1800, most Comanches began to discard muskets and pistols and to rely on their older weapons."[4]


The weapon of choice for horse archers was most commonly a composite recurve bow, because it was compact enough to shoot conveniently from a horse while retaining sufficient range and penetrating power. North Americans used short wooden bows often backed with sinew, but never developed the full three-layer composite bow.

Modern revival of mounted archery

Lajos Kassai on the Competition Course in traditional Magyar dress

Mounted archery and associated skills were revived in Mongolia after independence in 1921 and are displayed at festivals, in particular the Naadam.[5] Horseback archery has also been revived by Kassai Lajos and other modern Hungarians.[6] European horseback archery as a growing sport and equestrian skill is principally based on the Kassai, or "Hungarian" system. There are several competitions and meetings around the world in any given year – mostly in Hungary, Germany and other Central European countries, but also in Canada (Mt Currie, BC), the United States (notably Fort Dodge in Iowa){The last International Horse Archery Festival in Ft. Dodge was held in 2006, and at the present time there appear to be no plans to revive it} and also in South Korea. Amongst participants of this growing sport there is a dream of one day finding acceptance as a Olympic equestrian event.

The Korean and the Hungarian styles of competition are the two most widely practiced forms.

It is also interesting to note that while the Mongolian horse archers were probably the most feared and successful of all horse archers, the sport is very limited in Mongolia itself today and at most Naadam festivals the archery and horse-riding competitions are conducted independently; the horses are raced with one another, and the archery is traditionally practiced from a standing position rather than mounted. In the past five years a desire to revive the tradition seems to have been addressed with the foundation of the Mongolian Horseback Archery Association whose members have competed in South Korea and Europe.

Kassai school of horseback archery

A horseback archery competition course, as defined by Kassai, is ninetynine meters long. There is one target with a rotating face on the course at its centre point – its diameter is ninety centimeters. An electronic timing system gives the archer a maximum of 20 seconds to cover the course; to encourage speed as well as accuracy, the number of seconds less than 20 is added to the score reached on the targets. Any traditional bow or a modern fiberglass replica can be used, and with the exception of the nocking point, use of any other devices is strictly forbidden.

Please see here for a pictorial presentation of the Competition Course.

Hungarian technique

Originally the Scythians, Mongols and some of the Turkish archers, all used variants of a thumb ring and they released arrows from 'inside' the bow. (e.g. for a right-handed archer holding the bow in their left hand, the arrow sits across the left hand's thumb and on the right side of the bow). Kassai however uses the later, Western method of shooting 'around the bow' and a three-fingered release (for a right-handed archer, the arrow rests over the back of the left hand holding the bow, and is released round the left side of the bow).

The bows are generally fairly light (from about 30 – 40 lbs) and Kassai uses carbon arrows rather than the more traditional wooden shafts. The 'release' has been significantly modified from a traditional Western release and involves a rather emphatic extension of the release hand (the right hand in the case of a right-handed archer) after releasing the arrow. This helps balance on horseback by allowing a slower adjustment to the transfer of momentum as the arrow leaves the bow.

For fast shooting, Kassai has developed a technique of holding up to a dozen arrows in the bow-hand from which the archer can reload quickly. Kassai's research has shown that the process of pulling arrows from a back quiver or saddle quiver is too cumbersome and slow - it is not known how the Mongols or their predecessors managed the task as no records remain. Kassai places great emphasis on this technique and can shoot up to 12 arrows in 17.80 seconds, while mounted.[7]

Kassai places great emphasis on horsemanship. The aspiring horseback archer must practice first 'bare-back' (without any saddle) to promote good balance. Once past a certain level the archer may graduate to use a specially modified Eastern Saddle. Previously it was thought that the optimum time to release the arrow was rising in the stirrups at the height of the horse's rise in the canter, but as is regularly demonstrated the archer can shoot without stirrups (although generally the top of the rise, when all four horse's hooves are out of contact with the ground, is still the best point for release.)

Traditional Korean school of horseback archery

Korea has a fine tradition of horseback archery. In 2007 the Korean government passed a law to preserve and encourage development of traditional Korean martial arts - including Horseback Archery.[citation needed]

In Korean archery competitions there are 5 disciplines that are competed separately. The major difference in Korean archery is that all arrows must be stowed somewhere on the archer or horse - unlike Hungarian style where the archer can take the arrows from the bow hand. Traditionally this is a quiver on the right thigh, but it may also be through a belt, a sash, a saddle quiver or even held in a boot or arm quiver.

The first competition is a single shot to the side. The track is 90 metres long (as in the Hungarian method) but carries only one target set back around 5-10m from the track. This has a unique facia - consisting of 5 square concentric rings which increase in point score from the outer to inner, with the inner (often decorated with a 'Tiger' face) being worth the maximum 5 points. Each archer has two passes to complete, each run has to be completed within 16 seconds (or penalty points are incurred).

The next competition is very similar but is known as the 'double shot' which features one target in the first 30m, slightly angled forwards, and a second target in the last 30m, slightly angled backwards.

The final competition for the static targets is the 'serial shot' which consists of 5 targets evenly spaced along a 110m track - approximately one target every 20 metres or so. In all 3 static target competitions additional bonus points are awarded for style and form.

Please see here for a pictorial presentation of the >> Korean track.

Another major difference in Korean archery style is the 'Mogu' or moving target competition. This consists of one rider towing a large cotton-and-bamboo ball behind their horse while another archer attempts to shoot the ball (with special turnip-headed arrows which have been dipped in ink). The archer attempts to hit the ball as many times as possible. A second 'Mo Gu' event consists of a team of two trying to hit the target towed by a third rider. Points are awarded for how many arrows strike the ball (verified by the ink stains on the Mogu).

Traditional Japanese horseback archery

Yabusame Archer on Horseback

The history of Japanese horseback archery dates back to the 4th century.[8] It became popular in Japan, attracting crowds; because of its solemn and sacred nature the Emperor found this inappropriate and banned public displays in 698.[9] Horseback archery was a widely-used combat technique from the Heian Period to the Sengoku Period.[10] Nasu no Yoichi, a samurai of the Kamakura Period is the most famous horseback archer in Japan. Three kinds of Japanese horseback archery (Kasagake, Yabusame, and Inuoumono) were defined.

When the arquebus was introduced to Japan in the 16th century, archery became outdated. To maintain traditional Japanese horseback archery, Tokugawa Yoshimune, the eighth Tokugawa shogun, ordered the Ogasawara clan to found a school. Current Japanese horseback archery succeeds to the technique reformed by the Ogasawara clan.

Traditionally, women were barred from performing in yabusame, but in 1963 female archers participated in a yabusame demonstration for the first time.[11]

See also


  1. ^ T.R. Fehrenbach. Comanches, the history of a people. Vintage Books. London, 2007. ISBN 9780099520559. First published in the USA by Alfred Knopf, 1974. Page 124.
  2. ^ Comanche Indians Chasing Buffalo with Lances and Bows. George Catlin 1846-1848. Western Landscape [1]
  3. ^ T.R. Fehrenbach. Comanches, the history of a people. Vintage Books. London, 2007. ISBN 9780099520559. First published in the USA by Alfred Knopf, 1974.
  4. ^ T.R. Fehrenbach. Comanches, the history of a people. Vintage Books. London, 2007. ISBN 9780099520559. First published in the USA by Alfred Knopf, 1974. Page 125.
  5. ^ Mongolian National Archery by Munkhtsetseg.
  6. ^ Open days in Kassai Lajos' valley
  7. ^
  8. ^ Nihon Shoki volume 14 "大泊瀬天皇 彎弓驟馬(horseback archery) 而陽呼 曰猪有 即射殺市邊押磐皇子 皇子帳内佐伯部賣輪"
  9. ^ Shoku Nihongi volume 1 "禁山背國賀茂祭日會衆騎射(horseback archery)"
  10. ^ Turnbull S. The samurai, a military history. Page 19 "At this time [about 1000 CE] the bow was the most important weapon and the mark of the samurai... The samurai was essentially a mounted archer."
  11. ^ Kishagasa, by Alice Gordenker. Japan Times Tuesday, May 16, 2006.

Further reading

Schreiner, Robert. "Horseback Archery New Zealand". Retrieved 2005-04-30. 

External links

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