Mongolian Archery: from the Stone Age to Naadam

Out in Mongolia, a storm is coming. By Dr. Antonio Graceffo

Every year, a major festival called Naadam in Mongolia celebrates the “three games of men”, the manly pursuits of archery, wrestling and horse racing.

At this year’s competition, I spoke to Luvsannorov Munkh, experimental archaeologist, Mongol bow researcher, and archer who detailed the Mongolian archery tradition that continues to today, most notably with standing competitions held during Naadam Festival each summer and horseback competitions in which the world is invited to compete.

He gave me a fascinating insight into the world of Mongolian traditional archery; still driven today by legends of the past.

From the Stone Age to the invasion of Europe

As an archeologist and former employee of the national museum, Luvsannorov Munkh was well-versed in the entire history and development of Mongolian archery. He claimed that stone arrow heads have been found in Mongolia dating back 85,000 years, and that humans have been using bows for much longer than previously thought. 

In the 13th century, the Mongolian bow was one of the most advanced weapons on the battlefield, allowing Genghis Khan to build the largest land empire up until that time. The 13th century witnessed the next great movement from Asia to Europe when the Mongol empire invaded Russia, bringing about a tremendous exchange of technology. 

Genghis Khan: the warrior king who still dominates Mongolian culture to this day

The 13th century Mongolian bow was the latest version of a technology which had been developing for 3,000 years. It is a composite bow made of leather, horn, and wood. The outside is animal sinew, held together with fish glue and covered with tree bark to protect against water.

The sinew comes only from the hind legs of long-legged animals such as the horse, because the hind legs are more powerful. The fish glue makes it strong and flexible. 13th century bows were said to be able to shoot 700-800 meters accurately.

The bow which Munkh typically uses has a 78-pound pull; this is the bow he shoots in target competitions. There are also long-distance, fly shooting, competitions where he and others might use a much more powerful bow and where winning distances can be extreme.

He won the Mongolian flight competition twice. The first year, he used a 78-pound bow and shot 486 meters. The second time he shot 512 meters with an 85lb bow which had shorter limbs. 

There have even been archeological findings of bows that they believe had up to a 140lb draw weight. Munkh held out his hand, which was heavily muscled. The huge muscle at the base of his thumb looked like a bicep. “A wrestler,” he said, “would be able to pull the bow, but not hold it steady or release it cleanly.” A trained archer, on the other hand, has a very specific muscular development.

“The main prowess of the Mongolians was the bow and arrow.” explained Munkh, “They generally didn’t fight with swords.” According to Jack Wetherford, author of Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, Genghis Khan had no infantry. He just used ranks of talented archers who could shoot up to 500 meters accurately, either from the back of a horse or on the ground. 

Hun-style wooden bow with extra-wide limbs

The well-documented terrors of Genghis Khan have carved a furrow in history. Even when an entire village or kingdom was slaughtered, the artisans and weapon makers were spared, to work in the weapon forges of the great Khan. “As the weapons improved the growth rate of the empire also improved.” declared Munkh. 

Munkh recounted a legend about the second son of Khan’s younger brother Hasar, known as Yesüngge, who in 1225 won an archery competition shooting a dinner plate off of a man-sized target at 546 meters. He is considered to be the greatest Mongolian archer of all time.

In Poland there was a story of a guard standing at a small window, on the top story of a high building. When he saw the Mongols attacking, he blew the warning horn. A Mongol archer shot him, through the small window, from horseback, over 600 meters away.

European battle bows were said to only reach 200-300 meters at that time. In 1230 there was a battle in Poland, where a Mongol army, led by Ogedei, the third son of Genghis Khan, the second Great Khan, defeated an army four to five times their size due to the greater range of their bows. 

Recreating the Mongol history

Munkh made all of his archery equipment and clothing himself, from old pictures and archeological findings from the Qing dynasty. He shared a collection of the pictures he used, some coming from as far away as Iran, depicting the Persian Mongolians from 13th-14th Century.

Munkh shooting from horseback

From the artwork and artefacts found in these various regions, he was able to reconstruct his country’s ancient weapons and history. 

Mongolian boys begin riding horses at age three. By age five, they begin shooting arrows from horseback and hunting small game. There is an expression in Mongolia “If you can see it, you can shoot it.” Hunting has always been an integral part of the training for Mongolian archers and warriors. 


Horse archery

The average height of a US quarter horse is 14-16 hands (56-64 inches, 142 cm-162.5 cm). The average height of a Mongolian horse is 12-14 hands (48 to 56 inches, 122 to 142 cm).

Although the Mongolian horses are considerably smaller than their American cousins, just like the soldiers and wrestlers of Genghis Khan, they are hearty, powerful, and fearless. Bilguun an entrepreneur from Ulaanbaatar warned, “Mongolian horses are half-wild. They will test you.” 

Learning to ride a Mongolian horse is a very specific skill. The saddle contains a great deal of wood, or may even be made entirely of wood. Your whole foot does not go into the stirrup, for fear you will get trapped. So, only the toe of the boots should go in.

The reins are held in one hand and that hand holds the pommel. While riders can use their heels or knees to signal the horse to move, they can also reach back with their free hand and swat his hind quarters. 

There are several types of horse archery games, all of which involve riding and shooting, obviously. At the 2019, Spirit Mongolia Open Horseback Archery Tournament, held at the Chinggisiin Khuree Tour Camp, Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia one of the games was to ride as quickly as possible, along a set distance, shooting a target as many times as possible, with the scores representing a metric of speed, accuracy and number of arrows fired. In horse archery, one of the prized skills is for the archer to be able to rotate his body 180 degrees and shoot the target behind him, once the horse has run past.  


The Archer’s Clothing 

In 1860, the Manchu rulers handed down a proclamation that all of their subjects had to dress the same way. The boots became looser, and leather straps had to be tied around the tops to keep them closed. The sleeves became longer and also had to be tied up so that they did not interfere with bow shooting.

Consequently, an expert can date an archeological artefact by the length of the sleeves in the images. Until today, Mongolian archers wrap their sleeves and wrestlers tie ropes around the outsides of their boots. 

Broadly, Mongolian archery equipment used from horseback or standing is the same – only the clothing was different. The bows could shoot up to 500 meters and a Mongolian archer could supposedly not only hit a running fox while giving chase, but could call which vertebrae he would hit.

In ancient times, the Mongols wore short sleeves in summer. They also wore two layers of clothing, with the outer one decorated in such a fashion to show the status or the rank of the wearer. The armpits of the outer garment had holes in them so they could pull their arm through, shoot and then put it back in.

They wore a tight girdle wrapped around their midsection to protect their internal organs while bouncing on the horse and possibly to help if they were shot or stabbed.

Naadam-style equipment for horseback competition

Over the outside of their deel (traditional dress) they had plate armour, similar to European chain mail. It was lighter than a full suit of armour and would allow for greater flexibility and freedom of movement. A Mongolian in chain mail could easily mount and dismount his horse without assistance. 

Equipment

All archery equipment, bows, arrows, scabbards, and quiver is designed for riding a horse. The only thing that was different between standing archery and horseback archery was the clothing. The hat for riding a horse has no visor, so it does not get in the way of the bow.

The bow fit in a leather scabbard which, along with the quiver, hung loosely from the belt, free to bounce or move while riding. Munkh also had a special pouch on his belt for his cell phone.

Both, the scabbard and quiver point backwards, ostensibly so the contents would remain inside, but also because it was easier for a Mongol archer to reach behind him for an arrow or bow than to reach in front. 

The traditional belt was thick because it had a lot of equipment hanging off of it, but for modern Naadam all of that equipment is unnecessary. Consequently, the modern belt is much thinner, made of braded goat skin.

The Mongol arrow is tapered, fatter in the middle and skinnier at the two ends, so it flies straighter – one of many historical barrelled arrow designs that took us all the way to the Easton X10.

Today, the composite Mongol bows are still made by hand. Carbon fibre arrows also exist, based on the Mongol design and are mass produced. They are much lighter and thinner than the original ones. 

Grips and Games

Rather than drawing the string with three fingers, the Mongol grip is done with one thumb only, which Munkh believed yielded better accuracy. He held the bow out in front with a straight, left arm, and demonstrated a special way they had of rotating the bow, after a shot, to absorb the tremendous hand shock.

Because the Mongols wore chain mail, the face was the only target that could be effectively shot with an arrow. Consequently, when Mongols fought other Mongols, they used a specially hideous arrow head, a backward triangle where the broad part of the triangle hits the face and blows a huge hole in it.

For Naadam the targets are small wicker baskets laid out in a row. The ones in the centre are red, and these are the ones you must shoot. There are two posts, one at each end of the row of baskets, and you have to shoot between the posts and hit the centre red target.

The larger Naadam festival in Mongolia, near Ulaan Bataar

The idea was that the row of baskets on the ground represented a man lying on the ground. The red baskets were his head, and you had to get a head shot. Consequently, the game was called “destroying the hidden enemy.” 

He had several types of rubberised arrow heads for the various archery games they play today. They even have an indirect fire competition where you have to shoot up in the air.

In one of the games, each archer carries two whicker balls that represent his ears. In the old days, if you lost a competition, you had to cut off your ears and given them to the winner. Today, you just give him your wicker balls.


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