Today we will take a look at horse archers and why they were one of the most formidable units on the battlefield for thousands of years. You will see the most common tactics they used against larger armies facing them.
And we will also examine the weakness of horse archers on the battlefield.
Here is the main takeaway of the article.
As a general rule horse archers were effective on the battlefield because they employed two main principles:
- Mobility on the battlefield
- Long range firepower
These two principles were the backbone of any army employing horse archers. By using these two principles an army using horse archers could create disorder within the enemy’s ranks and exploit any openings that occur. While simultaneously making it really hard for the opposing side to catch them.
As you will see the decimal system employed by the nomadic hordes on the Asian steps also played a major part in the effectiveness of Turkic and Mongolian horse archers.
The 3 Main Reasons Why Horse Archers Were Effective
As it has been established, horse archers were long-range military units on horseback (or camel) that are able to hit enemy forces from afar and quickly move away before the enemy could reach them.
Every unit of horse archers employed 2 main principles to increase effectiveness, while the Asian tribes added a third element. So, let us examine the 3 principles in detail.
Mobility On The Battlefield
Horse archers rely on speed and mobility. That is the main reason for their success. If an enemy could negate that advantage then they had a fighting chance.
Horse archers gained their mobility by using horses to get close enough to the enemy to fire their shots and then move out of the danger zone as fast as possible.
The Mongols added another element with this by having their riders use several “remounts”. This in effect means that every Mongol archer usually took with him on campaign 3 to 5 of his own horses.
This enabled the horse archer to move extremely fast over long distances. He rode one horse on one day. And the next day he rode another horse allowing the first horse to rest for several days before the archer decided to ride him again.
The fact that every soldier had several additional horses also played a part in Mongol tactics as you will see in a moment.
Long Range Firepower
Horse archers gained their long-range firepower by using composite bows. These bows were strong enough to shoot arrows at an enemy at effective distances of 100-200 meters, yet small enough to be fired from a horse.
The maximum penetrative firepower is achieved when fired from smaller distances of 30-70 meters. So, it is rare that they were fired from larger distances.
The composite bow gets its power from the fact that it is made from several materials glued together. Animal horn is glued to maple or bamboo wood using animal glue, while on the opposite side animal sinew is glued to the wood.
The addition of animal horns and sinew enables the bow to store a lot more energy. Without increasing its size. This energy in turn is used to propel arrows at greater distances without increasing the size of the bow.
Aside from the massively powerful composite bows, any horse archer had with him several quivers filled with arrows. This in turn enabled them to fire massive volleys of arrows without having to be resupplied.
To see how a Turkish composite bow is made then go here for an article on just that.
Now, let’s continue with an invention in a military organization that made the Asian horse archers even more deadly.
The Decimal System In Horse Archery
The decimal system in horse archery describes the way that nomadic tribes in Asia organized their horse archers.
While it is not a Mongol invention it is most commonly associated with them.
The Mongol Decimal System
Arban: A unit of 10 horse archers.
Jagun: Unit of 10 Arban’s was named a Jagun (100 horse archers).
Minggan: 10 Jaguns made a Minggan (which had 1000 horse archers).
Tumen: And 10 Minggans comprised a Tumen, which had 10.000 horse archers.
So, a Tumen was a Mongol army that was led by either Ghenghis Khan or one of their generals like Subutai.
This decimal system was incredibly powerful. If you take an Arban (a unit of 10 horse archers) and one of the archers deserted, that automatically meant the other 9 were put to death.
These harsh punishments created an incredible bond between members of individual units. This organization of horse archers also played a key role in logistics.
An army of 10.000 horse archers needs a lot of food, not just for the soldiers but for the horses as well. And if it was found that a certain area or town could not support an army of 10.000 horse archers, they got instructions to spread out. Meaning they all got instructions to gather at one particular city but they all got there through different roads.
This meant that units were able to be semi-independent that they could forage through the wide expanse of the countryside. And when the time came they all coalesced on a single point on the battlefield.
This was the exact approach the Huns used with their horse archers when they invaded Roman Gaul in the 5th century B.C.
The Tactics Horse Archers Used To Make Them Almost Invincible On The Battlefield
Let’s examine each of the tactics used by horse archers from the Parthians, the Huns, and the Mongols.
This tactic involved units of horse archers riding toward enemy lines and firing their arrows. When they got close to the enemy lines they turned around and rode away firing their arrows on the approach to the enemy while they were riding away.
When the first unit came to their own army a second unit repeated the process. So, the units of horse archers took turns shooting arrows at the enemy.
The feigned retreat was a battlefield tactic employed by Asiatic horse archers. With this tactic, a unit of horse archers engaged the enemy and after a short volley, they moved away from the enemy. The hope was that the enemy would pursue them.
While the enemy was pursuing them the retreating horse archers would lure them into a pre-prepared ambush.
The Mongols were famous for employing this tactic. It is said they also used this tactic with sieges. They pretended to move away from the town walls thus trying to entice the besieged to either follow them or try to loot the Mongol camp.
In both cases, the enemy was outside of their walled protection. This made them a perfect target for horse archers lying in wait for them.
The Nerge was a hunting tactic used by the Mongols and then adapted for use on the battlefield. With this tactic, a Mongol unit (usually a Tumen), encircled a town in a wide radius.
After the encirclement, the horse archers on every side of the city were given a timetable as to when they had to reach the central point (which was the city). And on their way to the city they pillaged and burned surrounding villages.
This forced civilians to seek refuge in the walled city. The defenders took in the refugees, which meant they had more mouths to feed and were quicker to deplete their food supplies.
And the more crowded the city was the more likely it was that disease would start to spread during the siege.
This was an insidious tactic. They used civilians to shorten the length of a potential siege.
If the enemy was stupid enough to not extend their lines then they were in trouble. if the terrain allowed it the horse archers would ride around the enemy lines firing arrows along the way. The most famous example of this was the battle of Carrhae.
The Parthians surrounded a Roman formation and shot arrows at it without stopping. The Romans assumed they will run out of arrows eventually but the Parthians had camel runners with arrows going from archer to archer replenishing the arrows they spent.
This meant they could fire at the Romans without stopping.
A Visual Demonstration Of Tactics By The Horse Archers
You can see below in this short video all of the tactics I described above. For a more visual explanation, just check it out.
The Weakness Of Horse Archers
Horse archers, while effective, had a few drawbacks.
If horse archers ran into a well-defended city with ample food supplies and access to water then they were in trouble. Their mobility and long-range firepower counted for nothing.
Without siege weapons, they could not do much. This was a problem in the early days of the Mongol expansion before they got access to engineers able to build siege weapons.
- Employ a feigned retreat and hope the enemy falls for it
- Cut out any access to outside supplies and wait them out.
- Burn the surrounding countryside and hope the defenders come out in order to stop them
- Use a nearby river to try and flood the city walls if they were made from dirt
These were the most common outcomes when horse archers tried besieging a well-defended city.
Armies that rely on horse archers need a lot of food for their horses. And I do mean a lot. Now, if horse archers try occupying modern-day Syria or Egypt for example they will run into problems.
There is not a lot of grasslands that are able to support large armies that rely on horses. Mongols themselves found that out when they reached Syria. So, they had to proceed with smaller units that were able to live off the land.
This was one of the reasons the Mamelukes were able to stop the Mongol advance. They fought a smaller number of horse archers.
Other Horse Archer Units
The success of horse archers can be attributed to the fact that they were more mobile than their slower-moving enemy. That difference in mobility was a major factor in their success. Now, if the opposing side was just as mobile because they were using horse archers as well then this advantage was negated.
Other horse archers were also far less likely to fall for tactics such as feigned retreats. And even if they did they had the means to run away quickly if they spotted an ambush.
Remember those composite bows? Well, they were built using animal glue made from the fish’s bladder. This means the glue that held the bows together got dissolved if the bow was exposed to a humid environment.
This reduced the effectiveness of horse archers since their bows did not work as well as they did in drier environments. Mongols found that out when trying to invade the kingdoms in modern-day India.
Now, let’s continue with another common question.
Did England Use Horse Archers?
England did not use horse archers because they did not have the necessary bow-making technology to build bows that are able to be fired from horseback. The English longbow is a self-bow, which means it is too large to be effectively shot from horseback.
The English and many other European Kingdom had humid environments which made the use of composite bows unrealistic. And the self-bows used in the region were just too big to be shot from horseback.
Horse archers were effective because they were more mobile than the opposing force and they were able to damage the enemy from further away.
Having these two key advantages was a key factor in their success throughout history. And the enemy that was able to deny them these advantages was often successful in their fight against them.
Thank you all for reading. To see the complete history of Archery I suggest taking a look at this article where discuss the Complete History of Archery.