The Nitpicker’s Guide to Ancient Warfare: Horse Archers

By David Flin

This series of articles is the first draft of what will hopefully be a book published by Sgt. Frosty Publications

Mounted archery in Tibet. Photo by Antoine Taveneaux and shared under the CC BY-SA 3.0 licence.

Before talking about horse archers in particular, we need to understand the different types of cavalry. These get used (if they are being used properly) in different ways. Cavalry can be broken down into essentially three types: heavy cavalry, light cavalry, and horse archers. One can make further subdivisions, but those are the basic types.

Heavy cavalry are the guys in armour on seriously big horses who bunch up close together with the aim of striking and breaking through an enemy line. Generally, they will be armed with a lance or spear – a long, pointy stick that can be thrust while maintaining momentum.

Light cavalry are less well armoured and ride horses more suited for speed than for strength. Light cavalry won’t try to strike at the heart of the enemy, but will skirt around, looking for weak spots and isolated units. If heavy cavalry strikes like a fist, then light cavalry pokes and prods away looking for tender spots.

Horse archers move close, fire arrows, and move away again out of range, trying to soften up the enemy with little gnat-stings and hoping to lure the enemy out of position. They need to ride in close simply because bows lose hitting power the greater the range.

We’re looking specifically here at horse archers. The control needed to close, fire, and retreat is considerable. History is replete with examples of cavalry getting carried away as they approach, especially if they gain some success and the enemy start to flee. That never ends well. Tight control is essential, and tight control only comes with high cohesion (drink).

(Cohesion is such an important word throughout this book that I’ve decided to take a drink every time I used the word. I suspect my liver may hate me for that.)

The three elements of the basic move for horse archers are close; fire; retire.

Closing requires speed and the ability to keep formation at speed. If they don’t move quickly, the other side will have the opportunity to react, potentially cutting off a retreat, potentially getting archers to the scene. That formation needs to be one in which all the people involved will be able to use their bows without hitting someone immediately in front of them. There are several formations that enable this, the easiest being a line which enables riders to ride past sequentially. Maintaining that formation under such circumstances requires training.

There’s an additional factor. Horse archers aren’t able to attain the density of foot archers. In the space a horse archer occupies, two or maybe three foot archers can fit. This, combined with the facts that the horses are vulnerable to arrows, and that foot bows outrange horse bows, mean that horse archers need to be wary of approaching formed and ready foot archers.

Firing an arrow from horseback while moving rapidly. Good luck with that if you haven’t trained at doing it. A lot. There’s a reason horse archers were almost entirely from steppe nomadic societies where riding was central to the way of life. I have read fiction books in which farmers are inducted into the army, given a horse and a bow, and by the end of the year, they are operating as horse archers.

No. Just, no. Riding a horse without using hands is something that takes a lot of practise. Loosing a bow such that the arrow goes in roughly the right direction from a moving platform takes a lot of practise. And, perhaps hardest of all, unlike most weapons used from horseback, is the fact that in most cases, the horse is going in one direction and the rider is firing in another. Unlike chameleons, humans don’t have eyes that can operate independently, and consequently, the rider has to be able to ride without awareness of where they are going, or shoot blindly. Neither is easy.

That leaves retiring. This is the hardest of the three elements. Firstly, there is the need to maintain discipline to withdraw at the relevant time as a group rather than as individuals. It’s easy for advancing cavalry to get carried away and continue the assault. This is a bad idea. The cohesion (drink) and coordination needed to retire at the correct time is considerable.

Secondly, it’s necessary for the unit to withdraw as a group. Otherwise, reorganising will be a time-consuming business; the unit will be ineffectual while it is reorganising. The whole modus operandi is for horse archers to be a constant, nagging threat, a swarm always chipping away and always just out of reach. That precludes regathering and reorganising every cycle.

Thirdly, and perhaps the hardest to achieve, is stopping when the retirement is complete. The natural human tendency when retreating is to keep going until other people stop. If everyone acts like that, no-one is the first to stop. Controlling a retreat is perhaps the hardest task for the command structure of any unit. Such a manoeuvre requires a lot of practise.

There’s a reason why horse archers are not common outside of steppe nomads.

Young prince (later Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I) hunting for birds as a horsed archer. Woodcut by Albrecht Dürer.

Defeating horse archers

In some video games, horse archers are basically superweapons. And yet, in reality, horse archers lost as often as they won. The Romans in particular became quite accomplished at defeating them.

Why is this?

The basic principle derives from the fact that for horse archers to be effective, they have to get to close range. Forget that nonsense about firing from long range. Arrows aren’t effective at their maximum range. Even at close range, good armour and shields will block arrows.

By contrast, horses are vulnerable to archery and slingers. That indicates one tactic against horse archers: a heavy infantry base that has only limited vulnerability to archery, with archers behind them. This was the tactic most commonly used by the Romans.

The other main tactic was a heavy infantry base backed by light cavalry, melee riders. This tactic needed careful timing (and hence itself required a lot of training); as the horse archers start to retire, and if they are close enough, the light cavalry rush out to engage in melee. If they catch the horse archers, then they will inflict heavy losses – lances and spears are effective that way. Even if they don’t catch the horse archers, the horse archers will have been dispersed and will take time to reorganise.

Of course, the light cavalry need careful handling. If they pursue too far, if they charge too soon, if they are too slow closing, then they are the ones that will be in trouble.

A third countermove to horse archers is hiring your own. Horse archers are almost invariably nomads, and often have clan loyalties that are stronger than loyalties to a King. Such can be bought.

Move and countermove. Such is the nature of warfare.

There are other specialisms that also require a lot of training. Siege engineers, skirmishers, scouts, and so on and so on. It would take a longer book than this to cover each in detail, but it’s enough to know that there’s a lot of training involved.

There is one more aspect of training that we need to consider. Coordination of different arms. That will be in the final article in this chapter.


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David Flin is a writer and owner of Sgt. Frosty Publications. His books can be found there.