Much has been made in other posts about how hard it was for European armies to train and maintain large numbers of archers able to use a longbow, crossbow, or similar weapons.

Yet, the Mongolians were apparently able to do that, with the majority (six in ten) of their own (horse-riding) soldiers (but not foreign conscripts) as archers. Only the English (but not other Europeans) appeared to approach this ratio.

How was this possible? Were the Mongolian bows simpler or easier to use than the European bows? Or did their nomadic way of life, horse- and cattle-herding make it easier for them than Europeans to learn and use archery?

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    to me it appears that the mongolians raised warriors, while the europeans recruited farmers and taught them to be archers pike men ect, while the entirty of male mongolia was raised to use bow, sword, horse, much like a noble in europe would have been trained to be a knight from birth.
    – Himarm
    Apr 9, 2015 at 18:02
  • Haven't looked into it at this point, but I believe it probably was the latter.
    – T.E.D.
    Apr 9, 2015 at 18:04
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    The Mongolian bow was certainly not simpler and not easier to use. This was a composite bow which requires much more advanced technology, and much more efforts to make than a bow made of wood.
    – Alex
    Apr 9, 2015 at 21:34
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    Nomadic people could use most of their male population as soldier, and they were full time on horse using bows. Also bows are good weapon for their tactics that works for battles on open field. Settled people however were mostly busy with agriculture, majority of their foot-soldiers are untrained peasants and go to war only occasionally and cannot train regularly fro archery. Also for sieges (settled people have fortresses, castles etc), battles in more forested areas typical to Europe etc bow is not a "trumph all" weapon.
    – Greg
    Apr 10, 2015 at 6:51
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    @Greg: Very good comment. Why not make it into an answer. I'd certainly upvote, and possibly accept it.
    – Tom Au
    Apr 10, 2015 at 12:48

5 Answers 5


(from comment i turned it to answer)

Nomadic people could use most of their male population as soldier, and they were full time on horse and using bows regularly. Also bows are good weapon for their tactics that works for battles on open field.

Settled people however were mostly busy with agriculture, majority of their foot-soldiers are untrained peasants and go to war only occasionally and cannot train regularly for archery. Settled agriculture requires majority of the population busy with work unrelated to martial skills, however archery actually needs significant training (both physical and technical).

There is also a geographical difference between inner Asia and Europe. For the desert, steppes and large plans mounted fighters who can perform surprise attacks are very suitable. What is not mentioned here that mounted arches can also run away when they face larger enemy. They are also nomads, they can just move to another place and disappear. However medieval Europe is largely covered with forests and swamps, people are not nomads any more, villages will not just move away when someone stronger attacks. Light cavalry was still useful, but many wars are centered around fortifications, and permanent control over a territory can be achieved only by siege.

If you look at history, Huns, Magyars, Mongols were even able to effectively beat armies in Europe - for a while. But they are either disappeared or settled and changed fighting styles: it was not maintainable once they want to permanently control agriculturally developed territories without steppes.

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    The inverse of this is that in many of the feudal cultures of Europe, hunting (with bow or anything else) was basically a sport reserved for the nobility. (And as a feudal overlord, there are practical reasons for not wanting your serfs to be good with a bow: see e.g. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_II_of_England ) So the peasantry never had the benefit of early training.
    – jamesqf
    Mar 31, 2017 at 18:36
  • @jamesqf Hunting is reserved only for few in most populated areas for obvious reasons. Also, hunting requires practice so does being good with bows: peasants had a job to do, less time to play around, so you rarely needed a law to prevent them. Note, that Mongolian invasion mostly effected Eastern and Central Europe , much less France or UK
    – Greg
    Apr 1, 2017 at 4:26
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    Not really true. Look at the experience of America, which doesn't have that feudal legacy. From colonial times to the present day, just about any rural kid grows up learning how to hunt as a matter of course. Hunting isn't play, when you grow up poor. It's how you put meat on the table.
    – jamesqf
    Apr 1, 2017 at 5:35
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    Which shows you perhaps know little about hunting. Some of the better places to hunt for deer are the edges of planted fields, while birds, rabbits and so on can be hunted in crops or after harvest. (Many of the animals hunted are considered agricultural pests.) I also think you are greatly over-estimating the population density of medieval Europe, or even modern Europe outside cities today. However, none of this changes the fact that the peasantry were often forbidden to hunt, so had no chance to (legally) learn the use of bow & spear.
    – jamesqf
    Apr 3, 2017 at 17:07
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    Ad hominem argument? I think not: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ad_hominem Perhaps this demonstrates that you know as little about logical arguments as you apparently do about hunting :-)
    – jamesqf
    Apr 4, 2017 at 19:16

The Mongolians originally lived as a tribal culture, and all of their sons would from birth be trained on the horse, bow, and other weapons. As the Khans turned them into a war machine they would continue the training all young mongols received by incorporating tactics, and cavalry formations. "There was no such thing as a civilian population in Mongolia. War was a full job and either you were a soldier and somehow supported a soldier." mongol tactics

The mongols entire culture was devoted to war during the time of the khans, its much easier to train your army from a young age, such as the spartans did, and have such high quality troops. The Europeans were training adults, in weeks to months for wars that were already happening or about to happen, the mongols had their army trained by adulthood. When the Europeans lost a battle, or even just lost archers, they had to wait months for replacements, the entire mongol army used bows proficiently, so even if you were heavy cavalry, if you lost to many archers you could easily shed your extra armor and move into the light cavalry archer ranks. Europeans taught their soldiers just 1 form of combat, and those soldiers lived or died with just that weapon, all Mongolians would be able to wield bows, swords, spears, their entire army was interchangeable. wiki

Typically from the European stand point especially at the time of the mongols, they almost never had large standing armies. Their armies were recruited from the local populace on a as needed basis, with little to no training, which is why having skilled archers was hard as they needed to be extensively trained and most likely kept on a permanent basis. While most of the mongol population was ready and trained for war from birth.

  • who made the mongol bows? was it a specialist occupation? (this not available as a warrior?) English Longbowmen were good because they were capable and equipped to fight hand to hand.
    – pugsville
    Apr 10, 2015 at 3:26
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    all the mongolians would have had, hand to hand or close range weapon training so that was a non issue, the bows themselves were typically made my women, older warriors, or skilled craftsmen whos job it was to ready to hordes, individual warriors would have been able to do repairs, restring, ect. Depending on your tribe or isolation factors warriors may have learned to make their own bows as well.
    – Himarm
    Apr 10, 2015 at 13:04
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    and on what evidence is this speculation based on?
    – pugsville
    Apr 11, 2015 at 2:56

Tribal nomadic societies can sustain a greater percentage (around 20% which is basically all military age males) of the population as warriors. Once you have sedentary agricultural population, money based economy and specialisation the number if full time soldiers supported becomes a much smaller number (maybe 1%). Once you have cities (or other centres) supporting specialist classes you have to produce a surplus from the agricultural sector and transport it to support the non agricultural population. Sure a nomad society can mobilise a greater percentage of the population but it's structure cannot support a large number of specialists. Literate society, metallurgy, engineering, medicine, science. Sure the mongols adopted and used specialists in siege engineering, but this was a parasitic relationship as the nomad culture of the mongols was incapable of developing such things. Sure they acquired/trade metal armour and products but they did not develop such as an internal capacity.

The main point is that number of warriors in the main question and relives and society structure, the 'flat' structure of tribal society contrasted with the specialisation of cities/agriculture/monetary economy. The number of archers is another question, which you can look at the relative importance of archery in different situations.These factors dominate the question rather than methods of bow manufacture or warrior skills.

I question the Idea that Europeans soldiers were only trained for one form of combat, full time professionals had a range of skills, long bowmen proficient at hand to hand, Knights fighting on foot. The Mongols had a small range of types of warrior fielded and there was a high degree of interchange in the skills. The European armies existed in a more complex world of a much higher range of skills, were total competence across all of them was pretty unlikely to be achieved by individuals.

European armies in the main in this period were full time professionals of which there was generally an over supply. Recruiting more was generally just a matter of money which tended to run out.

I'd question exactly the interchange of light and heavy horsemen in mongol armies. Mongol heavy cavalry had horse armour and heavy per coal armour, was there specialisation of horses rather than riders? Have we got concrete documentation of heavy and light mongol warriors interchanging roles? While a lot of the skills are interchangeable they may well have been some status involved that in societal terms it simply was not done.

Bottom line European armies fielded less archers because archers were not as important in European warfare at the time. Archers typically are a large factor in warfare (pre gunpowder) when there are either large amounts of cavalry or unarmoured infantry present. In the absence of this, archery is just less important.


Bows are suitable weapons for mounted warriors because it is difficult to close with a mounted opponent. For a foot soldier a blade is needed, because it is not so easy to run away. The difficulty with maintaining a professional army is the cost, which in the case of archers is more expensive because training is problematic. Also, you must pay for both archers and foot soldiers to protect the archers. Some English kings actually started requiring yoeman to attend archery tournaments and taking other measures to basically force peasants to learn the complexities of archery. For nomadic peoples who spend their whole life mounted, they learn to use the bow from childhood and become skilled in it naturally.

The Europeans were not able to duplicate Mongolian bows because they were of extremely complex design and used materials native to central asia. What is known by scholars as the "Tatar bow" is a very complex construction. Typically it has various "arms" that are laminate and use animal bone and sinews of various kinds to maintain strength and tension at the proper points. This is called the "backing" of the bow. The joints of a Tatar bow are always carefully protected by a tight wrapping made of snakeskin or other waterproofed material. For information about such bows refer to "Der nordasiatische Pfeil." (1901) and "Die Bogen Nordasiens." (1902) by Bruno Adler, authoritative works on the subject.

To give you a sense of the complexity, there was found in Egypt a very ancient bow which apparently had been imported and eventually deposited in a 26th dynasty tomb in Thebes. At the time this bow was recovered, the archaeologists speculated for no particular reason that it was an Assyrian bow, but in all likelihood, considering its construction, it came from Eurasian plains and is a prototypical Tatar bow. To understand the complexity of this bow, consider the following cross-sectional diagram:

bow cross section

In this diagram, c and d are strips of horn and they have specialized grooves, the purpose of which is not clear; f1 and f2 are matted bundles of sinews in two distinct layers. a and b are wood of different kinds, specially prepared. The thicknesses of the various strips varies continuously throughout the bow. The joints between the arms are even more complex than the basic cross section shown above. As you can imagine the art in making such a thing is enormous.

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    This is an interesting yet tangential answer. Why not create your own question and answer? I bet you'll get more upvotes that way. Apr 10, 2015 at 3:55
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    It is false. Many European nation has nomad origin with history of mounted archery, e.g. Hungarians, however they slowly gave it up after turned to a more settled lifestyle.
    – Greg
    Apr 10, 2015 at 6:54
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    The nomads' composite bows were certainly more complicated than self bows, but I'm skeptical that they were notably superior. Compact, yes, but firing light arrows to very long distances is not necessarily better than firing heavier arrows a mere 200 m, especially if the targets are armored.
    – user4139
    Apr 13, 2015 at 17:54

There is little doubt that the Mongol or composite bow is a superior weapon. Draw weight is the test. Considering the massive worldwide distribution of this technology, it is just curious that the Europeans never mastered it. After all, the Europeans continued their use of inferior longbows for many centuries. Even archers can only use what tools they have.

  • This could do with some source references for the assertions.
    – Steve Bird
    Mar 31, 2017 at 8:58

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