Archery, Art of my Ancestors

“A sagittis Hungarorum libera nos, Domine”

Lord, save us from the arrows of the Hungarians.

The above medieval latin prayer (or maybe a different wording, I am not a Latin expert) was found dated from the 10th century A.D. . At that time, the Hungarian people had come in to Europe from the East, conquered a decent patch of land in central Europe (~900 A.D), and following that decided to consolidate their position and intimidate/weaken neighboring powers by launching a series of raiding campaigns against them in all directions (~until 980 A.D). Said neighbors were not happy about that and, while they initially had difficulty defending themselves, managed eventually to increase the pressure in a joint venture. As a result, the risk of attack from many sides became too high. After a lot of internal conflict and civil war, the converted Christian heir to the throne, king István (maybe known as Saint Stephen to the rest of the world) defeated the Pagan warriors with the help of Bavarian knights, and Hungary became a Christian kingdom, fitting in with the diplomatic balance of Europe.

…I digress. What the Hungarians “imported” from the East, that allowed them to resist the efforts of the European powers for quite long, was horsebows, archery skills and tactics to go with it. In the analysis of military situations, skill, combined with a tactic that exploits the strengths of the skill while covering for the weakness, is one of the best things one can have. If, with that skill+tactic combination, the weakness of the enemy can also be exploited, and the strengths of the enemy are neutralized, it’s almost perfect.

The typical enemy (from the Hungarian point of view) would be classic European medieval military: The bulk of the muscle would be knights, heavily armored cavalry, armed with swords/similar melee weapons. They would be supported by infantry, armed with melee weapons or bows. This setup is built to fight by clashing with the opponent, either head on, or from the side/behind as a surprise. The knights would lead the charge and run them down, while the infantry would take on a lot of the fighting afterwards. Archers were considered artillery, launching heavy projectiles from a distance.

In contrast to this, the Hungarians, consisting mostly of light riders, would do the following: The riders would at first feign an attack, grabbing the attention of the enemy and triggering their usual tactic of charging towards them. They would then turn around, making as if to flee, perhaps even allowing the heavy cavalry to close some distance and gain on them…

…then the riders would look back while the horses continued to run forward, and launch a storm of arrows on the pursuing enemy. They might have been under heavy armour, but the old combat arrows are nothing like target or even hunting arrows of today. They are much heavier, like small spears with shorter shafts. The armour plates were not adequate protection against arrows most of the time. After the enemy was sufficiently weakened and immobilised the riders would switch to spears and sabres and attack, running down the infantry and cleaning up the rest of the cavalry.

As long as the light riders were not cornered or hindered in some way in playing the same game over and over again, the opponents had little more than a prayer to get them through. What made this tactic possible was the special horsebows of the Hungarians, which were relatively unknown in Europe until they were “imported”, whereas they were rather common in the east, in Asia and the Middle East.

typical traditional Hungarian bow.
typical traditional Hungarian bow.
another traditional Scythian bow, variation without "horns"
another traditional Scythian bow, variation without “horns”

The reflexed shape of these bows allow them to be much shorter than the longbow family, which was most widespread in Europe, while still retaining good draw strength. The “horns” on the first bow give the arrow extra speed without increasing draw stength. Short bows could be taken on horseback without problem.

With some clever engineering, my ancestors fabricated the instrument with which they could conquer, and comsolidate their hold on their land of choice in Europe.

Now, 1000 years later, practicing traditional archery feels not just like a sport and a pastime, but also a return to my roots, a connection to the ancestral people, and a great way to honour them. As I am training, putting a lot of effort, and going through victories and disappointments, I know that 1000 years ago there was someone of about the same age as me, who had some familiar features and shared my blood, doing exactly the same thing.

hope you enjoyed my reading historic article as much as I enjoyed writing it. :3 In the undefined future I plan to write a *part 2* about technical details of the historical horsebows.

I wish all present-day archers awesome shooting~ 😀

kitty hugs to all~


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