Genghis Khan began the Mongol invasions but it was the powerful composite bow which carried their civilization out of the steppe.
The Mongol tribes of the Eurasian steppe exploded out of a little known part of the world with surprising suddenness in the thirteenth century. While it is indisputable that Genghis Khan cemented the various mercurial clans of the steppes together by the force of personality, he was also able to tap into the existing military capabilities of the Mongolian tribesmen. Principal among these capabilities was the composite bow.
Harshness of Mongol Society
The Mongol tribesmen were born into a society whose language did not have separate words for “soldier” and “man”. Both words were synonymous. His world was one of constant tribal conflict and its attendant strife. The Mongol male was perfectly attuned to a natural cycle of raids on other tribes and requisite attempts at defending their own tribal possessions from others. They had no fixed domiciles; nothing to tie them to any one piece of terrain in the vast northern steppe. Their lot was one of constant wandering.
The raiding and need to defend their possessions required that they become proficient in the one weapon which was most effective in a treeless and expansive land: the composite bow. These elements of steppe living made the horsemen natural and skillful predators and virtually all of the males became soldiers, not by profession, but simply by virtue of being born a male and Mongol.
Construction of the Composite Bow
In Warriors of the Steppe, Erik Hildinger gives details on how these composite bows were made. The construction of each of the composite bows required an average of four months. This was because the bows required three or four different materials for construction which included certain types of wood, pieces of horn and sinew crafted together. This process produced a shorter bow capable of producing a draw weight the same as larger bows but with more energy being transferred to the arrow, instead of being wasted in the pull and release of the bowstring as in simple bows.
Some historians claim that these bows required a pull weight of one hundred sixty pounds but Hildinger is adamant that a pull weight of beyond seventy pounds would have made them too unwieldy on horseback. Various chroniclers of the period record that the average Mongol horsemen possessed two or three of these bows and there were also different types of arrows developed for various purposes, somewhat akin to special purpose ammunition in use today.
Qualities of the Bow Were Enhanced By Steppe Ponies
Considering that these bows were in the hands of skilled archers mounted on the sturdy ponies bred for the harsh life on the steppe, it is easy to see how the deadly qualities of the composite bow were enhanced by the Mongols’ extensive mobility. The warriors each had three or four relief ponies. The horses themselves were able to subsist on the sparse forage of the plains as well as tolerate the extremes of climate in Central Asia. The possession of such extensive herds enabled Mongol units to travel two or three times the distance that even the best infantry units of the day could march.
Genghis Khan forged a new Mongol nation from the disparate tribes of the steppe which would wreak havoc on other civilizations for several generations. He did this through the force of his personality but also through the co-opting of existing weapons technology in the form of the composite bow. The weapon in the hands of highly mobile and skilled Mongol archers coupled with purposeful leadership shaped Asian and European history for at least the next three hundred years.