Turkmen Horse Archery Tactics

by Nathan Hamm on 7/19/2004 · 3 comments

archer2I generally take everything on NewsCentralAsia with a graing of salt, but their article on Turkmen mounted archers seems plausible. The story doesn’t deliver what the title seems to promise, but it’s nevertheless worth reading.

When the nomad horse-archer was about to attack, he placed one arrow on his bowstring and held two mere in his left hand, which grasped the bow. He then advanced at a hand-gallop, leaning slightly forward, the reigns, which had been knotted, being dropped on the horse’s neck. Just before reaching effective range, the horse was spurred to full gallop and the archer stood up in his stirrups and discharged his three arrows at the enemy when galloping at full speed and from a range of about seventy yards. It is alleged that it took him only a few seconds to shoot his three arrows.


Then he wheeled away, (presumably steering his horse with his legs as he had no hand for the reins) and in doing so drew another arrow from his quiver which he shot back at the enemy over his horse’s hindquarters. The extraordinary equestrian and manual dexterity required performing all these operations within a few seconds of time and at full gallop.

The Turkmen horse-archers had many and varied types of arrows at his disposal. There were light arrows for long-range “barrage” fire and heavy arrows used to pierce armour at ranges of less than a hundred yards. A number of different arrowheads provided the archer with a wide choice of missiles for different purposes.

One of the tactics of Turkmen was that they concealed their horses behind some wooded slopes overlooking the road up which the opposing army must pass the next day. While enemy’s division was leading the march when suddenly all the plain and the spurs of the hills on either side of the road were covered with Turkmens who, uttering loud cries and encouraged by a constant roll of drums, poured down upon the column. This tactic was unknown to western armies in the age of Crusades, usually used to fighting on the front. The Crusaders were entirely nonplussed by these tactics. “Such a war was completely unknown to any of us,” admits Fulcher of Chartres, who was present in the battle in July 1097 near Dorylaeum, the modern Eskishehr.

The Crusaders’ idea of a fight was to pitch camp while the mounted knights drew up in battle order ready to confront the enemy’s formation. But when knights did this, the Turkmens did not form up in front of them. A swirling mass of horsemen raced round the knights and the camp, discharging streams of arrows into them at full gallop. If the knights attempted to charge, the enemy opposite them fled, drawing them on and away from their comrades, whereupon they surrounded them, pouring in their arrows from every direction. The Turkmen mounted archers – they had no infantry – continued to gallop round the Crusaders, shooting their arrows into the perimeter from every angle. Then wheeling away with empty quivers, they would gallop off to get more arrows, while other groups took their places.

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– author of 2991 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Nathan is the founder and Principal Analyst for Registan, which he launched in 2003. He was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Uzbekistan 2000-2001 and received his MA in Central Asian Studies from the University of Washington in 2007. Since 2007, he has worked full-time as an analyst, consulting with private and government clients on Central Asian affairs, specializing in how socio-cultural and political factors shape risks and opportunities and how organizations can adjust their strategic and operational plans to account for these variables. More information on Registan's services can be found here, and Nathan can be contacted via Twitter or email.

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Alisher July 19, 2004 at 10:42 am

I dont know if anyone here plays computer games like me… 🙂 But if you want to learn more about central Asian army units, I advise you strongly to play “Age Of Empires” strategy game. Usually, Turks, Saraceans, Persians, Mongols options roughly represent the Central Asian war Units at different times.

Nathan July 19, 2004 at 11:16 am

I love those games, man. Pretty much any game like that I always play Turks or Mongols for their superior horsemen.

Tim Newman July 21, 2004 at 4:19 am

I believe the ability to stand up in one’s stirrups and fire backwards is known as Parthian Tactics. Alisher isn’t the only one who has gleaned an awful lot of this kind of knowledge from plaing Age of Empires II. 🙂

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