How Did They Do It? Masters of the Steppe: Armed to the Teeth with Weapons and Poison—Part II
Much is known about the ancient Mongol military and their incredible victories on the battlefield, but little is ever discussed about their arms, armor, horses, and logistics. What gear did they use? How did they deal with their wounded? How did they partner with horses to become masters of the steppe?
The Mongolian soldier’s bows and arrows are perhaps their best-known weapons – their famous riding and archery skills were a sight to behold, as long as they weren’t targeted at you.
A Deadly Rain of Arrows, Piercing and Slicing
Enemies of the Mongolian armies feared a deadly rain of arrows. (CC BY-SA 2.0)
The arrows the Mongolian military used varied in size, weight, and function. When it came to length, the arrows were roughly over two feet (0.6 meters) in length. Wood used to make the shafts was usually willow, birch, and juniper. The shaft of the arrow thinned out towards the notch of the tip. To make an arrow, the Mongol archer would take an iron tanged arrowhead and carefully hammer the point of the tang into the shaft without splitting it. If the top of the shaft split due to the tang, it would be bound with cord. To further strengthen a damaged shaft, the surface was layered with birch bark.
When it came to feathering the arrow, the Mongols used a variety of bird feathers. Eagle feathers were the most commonly used but the Mongols also used the feathers of geese, kites, blackcocks and woodpeckers. On an interesting note, when using feathers, if a feather taken from the right wing was used, the arrow would spin to the right during flight, if taken from left wing, it would spin to the left.
Kazakh-Mongolian Hunter and his Eagle. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Traveler Marco Polo placed arrowheads in two classes: light ones with small sharp points for long-range shooting and pursuit, and heavy ones with large, broad heads used in close quarters. Carpini states that the arrowheads cut two ways, and were hardened by dipping them while red-hot into brine, after which they were so rigid they could pierce armor. A general by the name of Meng-Hung, who served the Sung Dynasty and who put up a strong resistance to the Mongols in 1230s mentions three type of arrows: the sounding arrow, the camel-bone arrow, and the armor-piercing arrow.
The type of arrowheads used consisted of bone, steel, horn, and iron. Bone arrowheads could do next to nothing against armored opponents but still do considerable damage against other lightly or non-armored adversaries. Iron or steel arrowhead points were designed punch through armor, such as the tapered, spiked arrowheads or those that were tempered and chiseled. Other arrowheads were broad and flat with a horizontal blade. Based upon its design, the Mongol cavalrymen would select this type of arrowhead to fire indirectly at the enemy troop intervals. This would inflict tremendous damage to both man and animal, as the arrowhead would slice its way through the ranks. In other words, "death by a thousand cuts" as the ancient Chinese phrase goes.
A modern Mongolian archer. “An absolute essential part of a Naadam (Festival) is archery. Mongolians use their thumb to draw the bow. Also, see how he controls his breathing at the last picture.” (A. Omer Karamollaoglu/CC BY 2.0)
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By Cam Rea