Mounted Archery

 Timurid dynasty (1370-1507)

Timurid dynasty (1370-1507)

A cavalryman armed with a bow, able to shoot while riding from horseback, was known as a horse archer. Mounted archery changed warfare during the Iron Age and had a termendous impact on nomads like the Scythians, Sarmatians, Huns and the Turkic peoples. In East Asia, horse archery came to be part of the samurai tradition of Japan, where mounted archery is called Yabusame.

In battle, light horse archers typically use ‘hit and run’ techniques; they move swiftly to avoid close combat where they would be out armed. ‘Retreat’ though had its benefits, a rider would retreat from the enemy while shooting backwards. Due to their speed, riders were hard to defend against and the constant harassment of the enemy often resulted not only in casualties but also a drop in morale. Unfortunately, in tight quarters, horse archers lose their effectiveness, becoming vulnerable to foot archers and crossbowmen.

Heavy horse archers had mail or lamellar armour and sometimes even their horses were armoured. Heavy horse archers formed in disciplined formations and units and shot as a group instead of shooting as individuals. Heavy horse archers could usually outshoot their light counterparts, and wearing armour, could stand their shooting. The invention of ratchet cranequin allowed the mounted crossbowmen to use heavy crossbows on horseback.

During the 16th century warfare with guns began making the mounted archer ineffective although they continued to fight until repeating firearms became popular. The American Indian was especially effective with the bow and continued to use it into the 1800s.


The Recurve Bow

    Hun asymmetric reflex recurve bow, as used by the Hun archers.

    Hun asymmetric reflex recurve bow, as used by the Hun archers.

  • A recurve will permit a shorter bow than the simple bow for a given arrow energy and this form was often preferred by archers in environments where long weapons could be cumbersome, such as in brush and forest terrain, or while on horseback.
  • By contrast, the traditional straight longbow tends to “stack”—that is, the required draw force increases more rapidly per unit of draw length as the string is drawn back.
  • Recurve bows made out of composite materials were used by, among other groups, the Scythians, Hyksos, Magyars, Huns, Greeks, Turks, Mongols, and Chinese.

Composite Bow

  • The laminated or layered composite bow uses horn on the belly and sinew on the back of a wooden core.
  • Some Mongolian composite bows are known to have been able to produce a draw weight of nearly 160 lb (72.5 kg).
  • Small size with high power
  • Invented first by the nomads of the Asiatic steppe
  • Coincides approximately with the adoption of the horse to draw chariots or as a riding animal
  • Central Asian nomads such as Scythians, Sakas (see warrior of 300 BCE, and Sarmatians were skilled horse archers.
Reproduction of a Ming dynasty Kaiyuan bow by Chinese bowyer Gao Xiang. This is a horn, bamboo, sinew composite.

Reproduction of a Ming dynasty Kaiyuan bow by Chinese bowyer Gao Xiang. This is a horn, bamboo, sinew composite.

The military practice eventually turned into an equestrian sport but was practiced primarily in Korea and Japan. In Europe, the sport was brought to life by Kassia Lajos, a Hungarian. Today, mounted archery is benefiting from a resurgence. Mounted archery is not only a ancient martial art but also a sport. Participants combine the skills of the traditional archer and the trained equestrian. As mounted martial art it is often practiced by many along with the spear, sword, double sword, hyapdo, masangjae, and Gyeokgu (Korean polo). Some also practice it as a form of medieval horse game. Throughout Asia, Australia, across Europe and the Middle East, all the way to South Africa and the Americas mounted archery is thriving.

Interested in learning more?

The British Horseback Archery Association
The Mounted Archery Association of the Americas