So, this question was triggered by my reading Stephen Turnbull's book on the Gempei War, when he says that he thinks that the yumi, or Japanese longbow, had an effective range of 10 meters against armor, 20 unarmored. Which seemed horrifyingly low to me.

I mentioned this to a friend who knows a good deal about the Crusades, and he said that, yes, he thought war bows in the middle east at the start of the Crusades were also very weak, and they didn't become dominant in the region until the fourteenth century.

And a second friend mentioned the weakness of the bow in the classical mediterranean area, with slings being superior for military purposes.

But the wood-horn-sinew composite bow - the 'Hunnish Bow,' as I've heard it called, or 'steppe bow' - dates back to, according to Wikipedia, at least the second century BC, and some versions apparently more than a millennium further back. It was certainly terrifying Europe in the 5th century CE when the Huns arrived, and I assume that when the Seljuk Turks came off the steppe to take over Persia, they were using it, too. And it was, by all accounts I've read, a terrifyingly powerful, long-range, armor penetrating weapon of marvelous efficiency, with people claiming it can penetrate armor at a hundred meters and hit an unarmored target at four hundred meters or more.

So why wasn't the rest of the world, the world off the steppe, using it? I mean, maybe it didn't reach the classical world until the Huns brought it there, but why weren't the Japanese and the Ayyubids and the Byzantines and everyone else in the faintest contact with the steppe using steppe bows, instead of their apparently-inferior weapons? In particular, even if the common soldiers couldn't afford them, why weren't their aristocracies using them, if they were using bows anyway and the steppe bow was so much better?

References with regards to quality:

Vegetius, writing in the 4th century:

A third or fourth of the youngest and fittest soldiers should also be exercised at the post with bows and arrows made for that purpose only..." and, later, "Soldiers, notwithstanding their defensive armor, are often more annoyed by the round stones from the sling than by all the arrows of the enemy.

But Maurice, writing in the 6th century, after the Hunnish wars:

Apart from the foreigners, all the younger Romans up to the age of forty must be required to possess bow and quiver, whether they be expert archers or just average... unskilled men should use lighter bows. Given enough time, even those who do not know how to shoot will learn, for it is essential that they do so.

Quoting Stephen Turnbull, "The Gempei War 1180-85: The Great Samurai Civil War", location 353 on my Kindle:

For all its length the Japanese longbow had nothing like the power of the bows wielded by the mounted warriors from the steppes of Central Asia. The maximum effective range of a Japanese arrow was unlikely to be more than about 20m, and the preferred distance for inflicting a wound or killing an opponent through a weak point in his armour was little more than 10m.


The questions (answered separately below):

So why wasn't the rest of the world, the world off the steppe, using it? I mean, maybe it didn't reach the classical world until the Huns brought it there, but why weren't the Japanese and the Ayyubids and the Byzantines and everyone else in the faintest contact with the steppe using steppe bows, instead of their apparently-inferior weapons?

Question 1: "So why wasn't the rest of the world, the world off the steppe, using it?"

Short Answer: Due to materials used to construct these steppe bows, it would break apart (literally disintegrate) when used outside of dry steppe environment. The humidity of, say Europe or tropical Southeast Asia, will cause the bow to split apart.

This is a passage from Strategikon by the Byzantine Emperor Maurikios (r. 582 - 609), who had fought successfully against horse archers (p.87):

If the enemy has a very strong force of archers, watch for wet weather, which affects the bow, to launch our attack against them.

Question 2: "... maybe it didn't reach the classical world until the Huns brought it there, but why weren't the Japanese and the Ayyubids and the Byzantines and everyone else in the faintest contact with the steppe using steppe bows, instead of their apparently-inferior weapons?"

Actually, composite bows were used by warriors outside of the steppe. Given the effect of humidity on the steppe bow (more below), it can and was used effectively by non-steppe nomads, as long as it was within the 'correct' ecological zone or adjustments were made in composite materials.

In ancient Korea, during the Goguryeo period (37 BCE– 668 CE), composite bows were used in the Korean peninsula. The Korean bow ("Gakgung"), more often associated with the subsequent Joseon Dynasty (1392–1897 CE), where it was perfected, was first introduced during the Goguryeo period (i.e 1st centurty BCE).

Longer Answer

Clarification 1: "... why weren't ... everyone else in the faintest contact with the steppe using steppe bows, instead of their apparently-inferior weapons?"

Actually, the steppe bow is merely a type of composite bow. The composition of the Scythian-type and Hunnic-type bow in Central Asia/steppe region is made from and for its environment. Although cheap to make with readily available materials, it was not suitable for other regions. The composite materials that failed were the sinew and glue due to wetness/humidity.

Clarification 2: "... instead of their apparently-inferior weapons?"

No one bow type is superior for all regions and all types of warfare. There are many types of composite bow used by different warriors for different periods (in addition to the Korean bow, and Scythian-type and Hunnic-type) are:

Horse Archers

Much of the praise focused on steppe bow (actually, it should be called Scythian-type and Hunnic-type) is slightly misleading. It wasn't so much the bow but the actual military tactics and strategy of these predatory nomads. In other words, not just the bow, but a combination of many other factors that made them so terrifying beginning with the Cimmerians (1000 BCE).

Simply put, the nomadic horse-archers were unique in their time and that's why some many other tribes/dynasties were so fearful of them. Their advantage was superseded by gun-powder and better small-arms from about mid-15th century.

Addendum I just noticed you tagged this question with "medieval-Japan", and gave a few reference to the Japanese, so perhaps you might following additional info useful:

  • Japanese archery is called "Kyūdō", especially relevant during Gempei Wars (as I'm sure you've read),
  • Japanese archery is somewhat influenced by Chinese archery, who in turn learnt their value from the steppe nomads, during late Spring and Autumn period (& Warring States). The leading Chinese military manual on archery is by Gao Ying (Chinese archery), who wrote the "The Way of Archery" in 1637 (late Ming). Instead of a compilation of monographs, as is often the case with many Chinese philosophical works where one work is based on curation of another, this manual/book is considered truly original.
  • A very good recent book on Chinese military archery (with good details how the historical Chinese influence on Kyūdō came about), is Chinese Archery by Stephen Selby (Hong Kong University Press, 2000).
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  • interesting. but, if those bows were degraded by European weather, how did the steppe nomads end up being such a threat to Europe with their favored weapons out of action? periodic re-supply of new bows from the homeland? – Italian Philosophers 4 Monica Jul 4 '18 at 3:38
  • You write "Joseon Dynasty (1392–1897 BCE)" but should have written "CE" or "AD" or something. – kimchi lover Jul 5 '18 at 2:38
  • @ItalianPhilosopher - That's a separate question, but I'll try ;) (ask it). – J Asia Jul 7 '18 at 2:57

Question: Why didn't the Steppe bow spread further?

Short Answer:

  1. Compared to other types of bows, the Mongol bow was especially labor and skill intensive to produce. It took significant collaboration of skilled craftsmen to manufacture over a long period of time (up to two years). Compared say to an English long bow which could be turned out in a number of hours the preparation and time which went into the Mongol bow was not typical of other bows.

  2. The glue that held the composite of bone and wood, which gave the Mongol bow it's strength, was subject to deterioration in moisture. It took a trained person significant discipline to maintain the weapon. Special storage, wrappings, containers and handling or the delicate weapon would be ruined. If one captured the weapon and didn't know how to take care of it the weapon could literally disintegrate in some climates. Again compared to the English long bow which only needed to be oiled occasionally the Mongol bow was especially demanding in the care necessary to maintain the weapon. This would not be intuitive to many of the enemies who the Mongol's fought.

  3. The bow was not very useful removed from the specialized and uncommon set of skills present in the Mongol soldier. It took special training to shoot, which did not translate to other kinds of bows. The grip, draw and release were unique to the mongol style of archery. Thus an experienced archer from a non mongol tradition would not be able to easily translate his skill to this new weapon. In modern archery just moving from a recurved to a compound bow is enough to entirely change ones proficiency with the weapon. That's using the same draw, same release, and the primary difference being the strength required to hold the weapon while aiming changes from compound to recurved. Think about what it would mean to change the grip, double the draw pull, use different and foreign hardware, and a different fingers to hold and release the string and arrow! The Mongol bow was just so powerful, and so hard to draw that if other archers tried to fire using traditional techniques they would either be unable to draw the bow and or risk serious injury when the bowstring was released.

  4. The Mongol soldier wasn't just an expert archer, he was also an expert horseman who could use his bow as proficiently mounted as he could standing. This unmatched combination of skills by the Mongol soldiers made the mongol bow significantly more deadly in their hands. These diverse skills would have been difficult for another culture to cultivate. The Mongols were a nomadic people who lived on horseback. Culturally non nomadic peoples would have been at a disadvantage in trying to reproduce the same skills even if they could begin at birth as the Mongols did.

More Detailed Answer.

The answers are:

  • Expense
  • Knowledge
  • Access to Materials
  • Opportunity
  • Skill

Expense - The Mongol bow took a skilled craftsman up to a year to manufacture and an additional year to tune. The multiple pieces (bone, antler, wood, sinew ) all had to be glued and completely dried and then the bow had to be tuned (tillering). The tuning was done iteratively where the bow was test fired, reheated and balanced until it would shoot consistently without warping. Once manufactured and and tuned the delivered bow had to be preserved using special containers to keep it moisture free or the glue used to make the composite would weaken and the bow would be ruined. A typical Mongol kept 3 bows. Compared that to a typical European bow (English long bow) which could be manufactured in just a couple of hours, and once manufactured required relatively little maintenance. (oiled from time to time to keep it from drying out).

Knowledge Many cultures in the east used military formations organized around the bow. Many Mongol contemporary eastern cultures even used composite bows. The mongol's specific manufacturing recipe was unique and difficult to master, much less copy. It was time consuming and tedious to perfect. Even if you captured one of their bows without knowing how to take care of it, it would soon warp or fall apart completely without proper maintenance. So difficult was the Mongol bow to manufacture that even the mongols eventually lost the technology in the 17th century.

Mongolian Military Tactics
the Mongolian bow making tradition was lost during the Qing Dynasty(1644 to 1912).

Access to Materials The wood(bamboo) and the types of antlers and animal bones used in the composite by the Mongols were not readily available to many people who the Mongols fought.

Opportunity The Mongols were a nomadic people who lived on horseback. This was part of their motivation for creating such a small powerful bow which was easier to use mounted. Mongols were always mounted so it was natural for them to put a premium on mounted use. Other cultures even those that used mounted archers like the Japanese, didn't put the same importance on the demands of horseback on the bow technology. Other cultures who used composites were less motivated to innovate for the same combination of power and size because the utility wasn't given the same importance.

Skill The Mongol bow was extremely difficult to master. A trained skilled archer from a different culture would find it a completely different experience from what he was accustomed too. The "Mongol release" was counter intuitive to other archery disciplines. The left hand pushes the bow as the right hand draws the sting. Because the bows were so powerful the string could not be held like other bows with two fingers on the string hand. The Mongols used their thumb to pull the string back as it was the strongest finger. The thumb supported by the index finger held both the string and arrow with the other fingers curled to keep out of the way. Beyond this a special ring worn on the thumb, crafted both to protect the thumb and further support the drawn string before release.

Now all that had to be done on horseback at a gallop, and the release of the arrow had to be timed when all four hooves of the horse were in air so the animals movements would not jeopardize the aim. It took a uniquely trained archer, and an expert horseman, and a lifetime of practice to produce a mongol soldier. Without that soldier the bow was not nearly the same weapon.

If you heard rumors the Mongol horde was planning to invade your territory in the next decade; it was already too late for you to train and equip your defenses to the Mongol's standard.


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  • "A full-size Mongolian composite bow made of sheep’s horn and wood had a normal range of about 325 meters (350 yards) but could reach more than 530 meters (575 yards) with a strong archer under optimal conditions." Christopher Atwood, Encyclopedia of Mongolia and the Mongol (2004), p.349. – J Asia Jun 24 '18 at 3:05
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    Your answer is really detailed, with good exposition on Mongolian archery. It'd be even better if you just insert the sources (of your research), even if just a list at the end. – J Asia Jul 9 '18 at 6:12

By definition, "steppe bows" were good only on the steppe. They were used over large land areas, but by relatively few inhabitants of the steppe.

These bows were "composite" bows made of multiple pieces of wood,horn and sinews held together by animal glue. As such, they were slower-loading but more powerful than e.g. long bows used in Europe.

Their problem was that as "composite" bows, the glue would fall apart once the archers left dry "steppe" land. The plains of Hungary, Ukraine and Poland were "close enough" to steppe weather conditions for this not to happen, but once the Mongols got to the forested parts of Europe, all bets were off. In this kind of terrain, long bows were more useful. (Besides, the forests were not good for Mongol horses.)

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