The modern Mongol bow
is a recurved composite bow
used by the Mongols
and renowned for its power, accuracy and range. Mongol bows are still used and were common into the early 20th century. The modern Mongolian composite bow
used at most Naadam festivals today differs in design from those used during the Mongol conquests. Archery was outlawed in Mongolia after they were conquered by the Manchu
dynasty. Centuries later, the Mongols adopted a style of composite bow similar in design to the Manchurian
bows used by by the Chinese military during the Qing Dynasty
. Though similar in construction, it is much larger than the old Mongolian bow that was used during the times of Genghis Khan.
This composite bow
is usually constructed from birch
or bamboo wood
, ibex horns
and animal tendons
bound together with an adhesive
made from animal hide and fish bladder. A wrapper of birch bark helped to protect it mechanically and from moisture. Less traditionally leather
is used with ash
wood. The bow may be decorated with engraving or with falcon
or eagle feathers
The principal difference between the modern Mongol bow and other composite bows
is the presence of a "string run" (or "string bridge") - an attachment of horn or wood used to hold the string a little further apart from the bow's limbs. This attachment aids the archer by increasing the draw weight in the early stages of the draw, thus slightly increasing the total energy stored by the draw and available to the arrow. String bridges are not attested at the time of the Mongol empire
, appearing in Chinese art during the later Manchu Qing dynasty
. The armies of Genghis Khan
would have used the composite bows
typical of their various nationalities at the time.
The backbone of the bow is a wooden core, typically birch because it was resilient and easily available. The total length of the core was typically 150-160 cm (59-63 in
), unstrung. It appears as a semi-circle, but when strung its limbs are bent inward.
After the point of string attachment, the ends are bent away from the archer thereby forming a double curve. This double curve delivers extra acceleration and velocity to arrows. Between these bends the frame is covered with long and flat pieces of horn. This adds power to the "snap" of the frame, because these materials have a high compression strength. These hard layers cover the whole area called the "belly" (the side of the bow facing towards the archer) from grip to the limbs.
The exact arrangement of horn, wood and sinew elements varied from region to region. The bone elements are minor and are ornaments or talismans.
Glue and sinew
A layer of specially prepared birch bark was applied to protect the bow against moisture. Sinew
, typically taken from deer
or other game animals
, provides additional tensile strength to the "back" of the bow (the side of the bow facing away from the archer). Domestic animal
tendons were also used, but materials taken from wild animals like deer, moose and mountain sheep
were considered strongest and best. A layer of ungulate horn is used on the belly of the bow. Sinew stores energy well when stretched, as does horn when compressed.
The traditional substance used for the curing of both leather and bows was fishglue. Fish glue, used for moisture protection, was readily extracted from the air bladders of freshwater fish, by soaking in hot water to remove the protein, and then boiling the resultant soup for an extended time.
The usual procedure employed in the production of a traditional Mongolian bow is as follows:
- The wooden core is shaped and dried,
- The horns and/or bone to be used are boiled to soften them then attached to the frame.
- The tendons have to be dried, then crushed to form a mass of loose fibres.
- The fibres are soaked with fish glue and applied to the back of the bow. The sinew is applied in a multi-stage process with some days in between. A thin layer makes the bow weaker, and a thick layer of sinew makes it stiffer. The layer of sinew could be as thick as a human finger before drying.
- All parts are secured in place with fish glue. The horns and wooden sections, that are glued together are first grooved with a toothed tool to increase the gluing surface and the strength of the bond.
- The final step is the application of protective birch bark layers, which are first boiled until soft, to ensuring a proper fit before being glued to the finished bow.
- The bow is then wrapped tightly in ropes and placed to dry and harden in room temperature for one year or more for strength and durability.
The bow is usually stored in a leather case for protection when not in use.
The bow strings
are made from animal hide. The fat is removed and the hide is stretched out and twisted. As a result of this it will not stretch any further, but remain taut. While the skin of many fur-bearing animals could be used, horse skin is the preferred choice for its suppleness in the low winter temperatures of Central Asia
. Intestines of animals as string material could also be used but such strings are not water resistant and thus only suited for use in dry and hot weather. Silk and cotton, and mixes of these, have also been used.
To string the bow, the archer could sit, and using both feet to press against the bow bend the limbs to attach the string. Another technique while standing upright is to keep the bow bent under one leg while the other leg holds the outer end. On horseback, the Mongol archer strung the bow by placing one end of the bow between the foot and the stirrup while the arms pressed against the bow.
Arrows are typically constructed of birch wood. The normal length of an arrow is between 80 and 100 cm (31 and 39 in), and the shaft's diameter is around 10 mm (0.4 in).
For fletching arrows, crane's tail feathers are favoured, but tail feathers of other birds are usable as well. Eagle feathers make a particularly unusual arrow, but eagles are rare. Feathers taken from the wings are said to flow less smoothly through the air, so if given the choice tail feathers are picked. The Mongols characteristically paid close attention to the minutest of details. The placement of the fletchings in relation to their size, and what part of the bird they were taken from, is of great importance for correct rotation and good balance in the air. Consequently these factors are painstakingly considered when making arrows after the Old Mongol standard.
The arrowheads, or points, can vary depending on the purpose. Wide metal blades are used for hunting big game and were used in war, while bone and wooden points are preferred for hunting birds and small animals, killing by impact shock. In addition to these kinds of arrows, whistling arrows are useful during hunting, because the effect on animals of an arrow whistling away high above the ground is often to make it stop, curious to see what is in the air. This gives the hunter time to launch a second arrow, this time with a game head to kill the animal. The whistling arrows are made by inserting an arrowhead of bone in which air channels have been created. Such arrowheads whistle as they fly.
Composite bows, especially the Turkish bow
using specially light arrows, had the longest range for hand-held weapons until the invention of the modern breech-loading firearms
in the early 20th Century. Estimates for the Mongol bow give it a draw
force comparable to the English longbow
(41-81 kg / 90-180 lb
) of about 45-70 kg (100-160 lb). However, the Mongol bow has a range of 290-320 m (320-350 yards) or more, a range longer than that of the longbow (225 m / 250 yards). A more contemporary review by Hildinger suggests that it was only accurate at up to 75 m (80 yards) when shot from horseback, but shooting at 45 degrees allowed for much greater ranges. Modern champion archers maintain that you cannot 'guarantee' a hit on an individual target at more than with any bow whatsoever, but could always hit an army of thousands of individuals.
Traditional usage by Mongols
The Mongolian tradition of archery is attested by an inscription on a stone stele that was found near Nerchinsk in Siberia: "While Chinggis Khan was holding an assembly of Mongolian dignitaries, after his conquest of Sartaul (East Turkestan), Yesüngge (the son of Chinggis Khan's brother) shot a target at 335 alds (536 m)." The bow played a large part in the Mongol coming of age ceremony. After a Mongol boy brings down his first kill in a hunting expedition, the fat and flesh of the kill is rubbed on his thumbs. This ritual is to ensure that he would always be a fortunate hunter, and that his arrows would always fly true.
Even today, archery with traditional composite bows is part of Naadam, the annual festival of the three virile sports (Wrestling, Horseriding, Archery). In the historical novel "Khökh Sudar" Injinashi, the Mongolian philosopher, historian and writer, imagines the competition amongst all Mongolian civil military men in about 1194-1195: five archers each hit the target three times from a distance of 500 bows (1 bow = at least 1 metre).
Mongol horse archers
would typically carry two bows, a stronger bow for long-range and the other, weaker one for closer targets. The pull force of a Mongolian bow could vary from 100 N to 160 N. The archer carried two quivers
with different types of arrows - armour-piercing heavy arrowheads of tempered steel, incendiary
arrows, whistling arrows for signaling as well as ordinary arrows with adjusted arrowheads and shaft lengths for more typical ranges. Usually, one quiver of arrows would be placed within quick reach of the horseman, while the other would be sealed, to protect it from the elements.
The technique used for shooting is known as the "Mongolian release." The Mongols, if right-handed, keep their bow in the left hand, pushing it forward as the right arm pulls the string behind the ear. With the left arm fully extended, they prepare to release. A special technique to hold the string is used. During the drawing of the bow and before the arrow is released the string is held by the thumb, since this is the strongest finger and the thumb is supported by the index finger curling around atop the outermost joint, at the base of the nail. The other fingers are also curled, forming a fist. The thumb is usually protected by a thumb ring of leather, agate, jade, metal, bone, or other material.
Horse archers achieve accuracy by shooting at the gallop, aiming and loosing during the phase when all four hooves are off the ground. In this phase, horse and rider are in free fall, without unpredictable acceleration which would spoil aiming.
Medieval Mongol battle tactics were similar to Parthian
methods of maintaining distance, shooting, and manoeuvring: this included the ability of the archers to shoot accurately while at a gallop, and while facing backwards on the horse. They generally approached in a loose crescent
formation typically used in the steppes
, with each flank attempting to encircle the enemy. If encirclement was not possible, they would employ the feigned retreat ruse. The army was divided into units called toumens
and was trailed by spare horses. Each soldier had as many as three or even four spare mounts. Mongol horses tended to be closer to the size of ponies, and able to survive by grazing in the wild. Flaming arrows were also employed by Mongol troops, alongside coloured lanterns for communication: lastly, whistling arrows were used to create terror in the enemy ranks.