Russian soldiers first used firearms in 1382, against the Mongols (it is not mentioned in the article whether the Mongols also had guns). This would prove to be an insufficient advantage at the time, but a century later the firearms helped secure victory and break Mongol power in the West - according to Muscovite chronicles, the Mongols did not have any guns during the Great Stand, which contributed to their retreat.

However, according to this answer gunpowder got to Europe through the Mongols, or through the Silk Road (of which the Mongols controlled large sections), originating from China (which the Mongols controlled). The Mongols even used gunpowder weapons in their invasion of Korea, and used rockets against the Magyars in 1241.

Why then, many years later, did the Mongols lose access to firearms and gunpowder weapons, while their subject Russians gained them?

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    I'm rather skeptical that firearms is what made the difference in 1480 tbh. Is this claim made anywhere?
    – Semaphore
    Commented Jan 26, 2018 at 18:54
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    @Semaphore The contemporary Russian account of the battle describes that hand cannons were instrumental in repelling Mongol crossings, which is what made the stand a stand and not a pitched battle. It's possible that the Mongols would have been unable to cross even in the face of just arrows, but that is speculation.
    – SPavel
    Commented Jan 26, 2018 at 19:16
  • "did the Mongols lose access to firearms" - did the mongols ever have access to firearms? Gunpowder yes, but an actual firearm is a different invention than simply loading spheres with black powder, lighting a fuse, and throwing.
    – Twelfth
    Commented Jan 26, 2018 at 19:48
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    @Twelfth Wikipedia says ' Several sources mention Chinese firearms and gunpowder weapons being deployed by the Mongols against European forces at the Battle of Mohi in 1241." and cites three sources (24, 25, 26)
    – SPavel
    Commented Jan 26, 2018 at 19:59
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    Of course Wiki posts the contrary in the line right after your quote "Timothy May points out that "there is no concrete evidence that the Mongols used gunpowder weapons on a regular basis outside of China."[28]". The article on the Battle of Mohi has "speculation" and nothing confirmed. Interesting question nonetheless
    – Twelfth
    Commented Jan 26, 2018 at 20:48

5 Answers 5


Question: Why then, many years later(during the great stand 1480), did the Mongols lose access to firearms and gunpowder weapons, while their subject Russians gained them?

I don't think losing access is the right way to think about it. The Mongols used gunpowder creatively for a long time prior to the Great Stand. They were experienced in fighting with it and against gunpowder weapons going back to the 13th century decades long war with China. But this experience wasn't necessarily with fire arms. They used arrow bombs, flame throwers, rockets, catapult dispersed scrape metal bombs and even crude artillery. They used more siege weapons which could be used in conjunction with their base package which was the horse and bow.

So why didn't the Mongols(Tartars) develop/experiment more with fire arms?

  1. The Mongols were quick to see advantages of others technology and copy it; however, they were not the ones to innovate new technology. In the war with China it was the Chinese to innovated, and the Mongols who copied. Technology of the Song Dynasty in China

  2. The Mongols/Tartars army was based on Archers and horseback. A Mongol bow reportedly had a range of 500 meters(548 yards, or 0.3 miles). 15th Century Firearms struggled to shoot 50-75 yards. And the bow could be used from horseback with a much higher rate of fire than could primitive fire arms also with much more accuracy. Even if the Mongols had seen primitive fire arms it would be easy to imagine they would dismiss them as inferior to the Bow. The Bow was ingrained in their culture, so it would be easy to understand their bias given all the advantages of the Bow.

  3. It wasn't just the fire arm at the Stand which got the Mongols/Tartars. It was massed fire all firing at the same slow moving target. That's the only way non rifled early flint locks were effective. Volley Fire. The Russians used the River to slow down the Tartars. This Massing of infantry defending with fire arms would have been a kind of blind spot for the Mongols who's horseback attack was based upon speed and not organized around massed infantry which they typically devastated.

  4. The primitive firearms could not be used from horseback. Could not be fired very accurately from horseback. Could not be reloaded from Horseback. The fire could not be concentrated by troops on horseback.

Perhaps another way to view this question would be why didn't the Russians use bows at the Stand in 1480. This is likely because bowmen were far more difficult to train. It took a lifetime to train a bowman. This wasn't an issue for the Mongols who where taught bow skills from birth, both boy and girl Mongol children. For the Russians, they would not have the time to train bowmen for an impending engagement.

Also I would argue the Stand, with the Russian defensive line along the Ugra River was tailor made for fire arms. The infantry with the fire arms could mass on one shore without fear of fast moving mongol calvary falling upon them. The mongols had to cross the River, would be both grouped together and slowed. Slow moving close in targets being shot at from defensive troops who had the ability to be entrenched. 4 days of that. The Russians had a good plan, and picked the perfect weapon for it.

As for Mongols vs Tartars. The Tartars were essentially Mongols. It's just what Europeans called the Mongols. The same groups of nomadic people we know as the Tartars fought with Genghis Khan's army in China in the 13th century. Yes the Tartars at the Stand were two centuries and thousands of miles removed from Genghis Khan, but they were still lead by a Khan, still organized into a Horde, still used Horse and the Mongol bow formations; and most importantly were directly descended from the combined peoples who fought China in the 13th century.

The Golden Horde
As various nomadic groups became part of Genghis Khan's army in the early 13th century, a fusion of Mongol and Turkic elements took place, and the invaders of Rus' and the Pannonian Basin became known to Europeans as Tatars or Tartars (see Tatar yoke). After the breakup of the Mongol Empire, the Tatars became especially identified with the western part of the empire, known as the Golden Horde.

Primary Sources:
Technology of the Song Dynasty in China
The Mongol Bow
Wiki: Great stand on the Ugra river
The Stand Off
Wiki: The Tartars.
Wiki: Wings of the Golden Horde
Early FireArms
Wiki: Volley Fire

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    Perhaps another reason the Mongols didn't use firearms (much) is the logistics train. If you use guns, you have to have a reliable supply of gunpowder & bullets, which is not something a highly mobile army can easily manage. Arrows can be more easily made, and can often be reused.
    – jamesqf
    Commented Feb 19, 2018 at 18:46

First of all I agree with Semaphore's first comment: it is unlikely that in 1480 firearms could make much difference. Second, the adversary of the Russians in 1480 were not Mongols. They were called Tatars, and they were remote descendants of the original Mongol empire. The technology of Mongols in the 13th century was based on Chinese technology. By the 15th century, Tatars who fought with the Russians had little connection with China, and if there is any connection between them and the original Mongols it is mostly historical. And who can tell for sure that Tatars did not have firearms in 1480?

With all this a broader question remains. It is a common opinion of historians that gunpowder, firearms and rocketry were invented in China. Where did all this disappear? When the Europeans came into direct contact with China, and other countries in the far East, they hardly mention any Chinese artillery and rockets. Probably they were not too impressive, even if they existed.

What existed from the older times was probably not very effective, and it did not develop. One can ask why it did not develop, but perhaps a more reasonable question would be why everything developed so fast in Europe.

EDIT. Regression in technology actually happens, and there are many examples. "Greek fire" was a terrifying weapon if we believe the contemporary descriptions, but we hear nothing of it when the Turks besiege Constantinople. It is lost and we even do not know what it was. Let me also mention the huge regression in technology which happened in Europe in the late Antiquity. Medieval (spring) artillery was inferior to Hellenistic artillery. Roman warships were (probably) inferior to Hellenistic warships (if we believe their contemporary descriptions). But it also happened in other times and places.

  • If gunpowder weapons made a difference, I postulate that the noise and powder upset horses unfamiliar with it; slowing the crossing and emphasizing missile casualties. Commented Jan 26, 2018 at 21:45
  • Good edit. Another good example of a regression in technology is concrete. Commented Jan 26, 2018 at 23:40
  • As regards the Mongols, one must note that they already had the world's most effective missile armed troops (English longbowmen, being an unmounted arm, were slightly less effective overall). Their might not have been a perceived need for a noisier, less effective, adjunct that could not fire or load from horseback. Commented Jan 27, 2018 at 0:49

The issue is not that Russian "guns" gave them the advantage over the Mongols (or Tartars). The issue is that Russian guns equalized them with Mongol bowmen.

The Mongols (and English) were able to field armies with 60% bowmen because these bowmen were subjected to "continual" practice over a period of years. No other medieval armies trained such large percentages, or even large absolute numbers of men who could use missile weapons.

Guns, unlike bows, were something that "average" soldiers could learn to fire in a matter of days, or weeks. Now the Russians could also arm their troops with "range" weapons. This, in turn, neutralized the speed of the Mongolian horses.

Because they were fighting on their home ground, and enjoyed larger numbers, the Russians enjoyed "draw odds" (a draw counts as a win).

Put another way, "guns" represented at most a small upgrade over existing Mongol weaponry, but it represented a vast upgrade over Russian swords and spears, giving them the "equality" they needed to beat the Mongols, given superior numbers.


The answer to this question lies in a combination of two things: a certain level of specificity (i.e. details) and, by simple happenstance, why the Rus' had guns whilst the (Tartar)-Mongols did not.

On details: Specifically, the question is on guns (not fire-bombs, fire-lance, etc.) and Great Horde (not Golden Horde).

On timing: The standoff at Ugra River in 1480.

I will try to answer this: "Why then, many years later, did the Mongols lose access to firearms and gunpowder weapons, while their subject Russians gained them?" (last sentence by OP).

Development of the Modern Gun

First, the the modern gun was developed specifically around this period, late-15th century:

The classic handheld firearm emerged in Europe at the same time that classic artillery did — in the last decades of the fifteenth century. In illustrated chronicles of the 1480s, soldiers fire guns that look recognizably modern (Figure 12.1). They have long, thin barrels, and they are held close to the cheek, one eye peering down the barrel to aim. Although it’s not clear in Figure 12.1, these firearms had a lever mechanism that allowed a burning fuse to be lowered into the flash pan by means of a simple movement of the finger. This mechanism, known as a matchlock, was a significant advance because it enabled a soldier to hold the gun at eye level. With its butt resting against his shoulder, he could steady the gun with one hand and fire with the other. In the following decades, trigger mechanisms gained springs and other refinements, and the guns became even more convenient.

Having achieved this classic form, firearms began to appear more regularly on European battlefields. In the 1480s, gunners were still vastly outnumbered by bowmen, swordsmen, and pikemen, but their numbers were growing steadily. Spanish records show that the proportion of matchlock units to crossbow and bow- and- arrow units increased significantly in the late 1480s and early 1490s, a process driven by the constant experimentation of the Granada Wars (1481– 1492). Spanish gunners brought their new techniques to Italy during the devas- tating wars that started in 1494, to decisive effect, as in the famous 1503 Battle of Cerignola. Thereafter arquebusiers became increasingly prominent in Europe, so that by the late 1500s they had become a core component of European armies, reaching proportions of 40 percent of infantry forces.

Source: Andrade, Tonio (2016), The Gunpowder Age: China, Military Innovation, and the Rise of the West in World History, Princeton University Press, p.167.

A simpler way of putting this, Wikipedia's timeline on the gunpowder age states clearly, "(in) 1480 ... Guns reach their classic form in Europe". From here, we can presume Ivan the Great imported them for his army.

Allow me to digress and point out, with particular focus on Ivan's enemies on the Ugra River in 1480, the so-called Mongols ... again the details matter. The correct term should be Tartar-Mongols (also known as the Great Horde, and not to be confused with Golden Horde of the Jochids). The importance of this distinction will be explained in a moment.

Mid-15th century: Guns from Europe, not China

Second, one key element of the question "... (why) did the the Tartar-Mongols lose access to firearms ...?" The short answer is, they never had it in the first place, because guns (the instrument itself, not gunpowder) were developed in China and Europe, and it was improved dramatically in the latter (Europe) during mid-15th century (a few decades just before the standoff at Ugra River):

In fact, guns in China were developing along a similar trend to those of Europe, growing longer relative to muzzle bore. But the development slowed in China about a generation before the development in Europe of the classic cannon. Why? The reason probably has less to do with to do any putative cultural ingenuity on the part of Europeans than with the frequency of warfare. After 1449, China entered a period of relative peace, while Europe entered a period of sustained, intense, existential warfare. By existential warfare I mean conflict that threatened the very existence of the states involved. Chinese guns had evolved quickly between the late 1200s, when the first true guns seem to have emerged, and the early 1400s, a period during which China was wracked by existential warfare. The century from 1350 or so to 1449 was especially turbulent, as the Ming strove to establish and consolidate their empire, and during this time the evolution of guns, toward longer barrels, seems to have been proceeding along quite similar lines in China and the West. In the middle of the 1400s, this evolution stopped in China and accelerated in Europe, precisely when warfare decreased in China increased in Europe.

Source: ibid., p.105.

Great Horde (non-Chinggisid, therefore no support from other Mongols)

Finally, the important distinction of the Great Horde, as opposed to the Golden Horde, comes down to this, the Great Horde was merely one of many different 'hordes' after the disintegration of the Golden Horde in late-14th century. Most important, they were not related to Genghis Khan (i.e. non-Chinggisid).

A short paragraph on the many subsequent hordes (or khanates), post-Golden Horde:

With Toqtamish’s overthrow in 1395, a new clan, the Manghit (see quote below), under the non-Chinggisid commander in chief Edigü (d. 1420), emerged between the Volga and the Emba. Edigü maintained something of the Horde’s unity until 1411, but by 1425 independent regimes were ensconced throughout the Golden Horde’s territory. Khanates of Blue Horde origin formally pro- claimed themselves in Crimea (1449), Kazan’ (or Bulghar al-Jedid “New Bulghar,” 1445), and Kasimov (1453). The Crimean khanate finally dispersed the “Great Horde” (Ulugh Orda), composed of the right-hand Sanchi’ud (Turkish Sijuvut) clan, in 1503.

Source: Christopher P. Atwood, "Encyclopedia of Mongolia and the Mongol Empire" NY: Facts On File, Inc, 2004, p.208.

The Mangghud, Manghud (Mongolian: Мангуд, Mangud) were a Mongol tribe of the Urud-Manghud federation. They established the Nogai Horde in the 14th century and the Manghit Dynasty to rule the Emirate of Bukhara in 1785. They took the Islamic title of Emir instead of the title of Khan since they were not descendants of Genghis Khan and rather based their legitimacy to rule on Islam.

Source: Wikipedia

To end, even if the East Asian Mongols wanted to help provide guns to the Great Horde, it would have been a stretch simply because, by this stage, China was no more under the Yuan dynasty, it had shifted to the Ming (1368–1644).


Here is a technology-based answer. I admit that I don't know the historical reason why the Russians used guns and the Tatars did not, however, I can provide reasons why it would make much more sense for the Russians to use them than the Tatars.

Guns, before the widespread adoption of flintlock in the late 17th century, were close to useless in the hands of cavalry.

Guns before the 16th-17th centuries couldn't be just taken out of a holster or saddle-bag and fired at the enemy. They had no priming mechanism. You had to ignite them with a burning piece of rope called a match cord. Take a look at matchlock muskets: Even if the gun was already loaded, you had to insert the match cord into the serpentine, adjust the position of the burning match so that it would strike the pan (as it burned it got shorter so you had to keep re-adjusting it), then open the pan, then blow on the smoldering matchcord to make it light up, and only then could you pull the trigger.


And if we are talking about even earlier times, like 14th and 15th century, it was even worse, because you didn't even have a trigger: you had the gun in one hand, burning matchcord in the other hand, and you touched the match to the ignition hole manually. Good luck doing that while riding a horse! (Even on foot it was close to impossible to aim while holding the gun in one hand and match cord in the other, so often two men were used, one to aim and the other to ignite the gun) Even reloading would be troublesome, on horseback where would you put that burning piece of rope while you reloaded? Also lighting a fire wasn't easy back then, especially while galloping. Often both ends of the match cord were on fire, because firing the gun might extinguish the end you used.

Infantry had no such problems, they could even rest the musket on supports.

Note: there were guns optimized for cavalry, the wheellock. However, it was a very complicated, expensive and maintenance-intensive piece of equipment, suitable for knights, not so for steppe nomads. And it wasn't invented yet in our timeframe.

So, to sum it up: guns in that time period were only suitable for infantry, not for cavalry. The Tatars used almost exclusively cavalry. It's much easier for an army already composed mostly of infantry to adopt a weapon well suited for infantry, than for an army and culture composed mainly of horseman to abandon horses and become infantry.

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