Tribesmen from the Eurasian steppes found significant success in their conquests between the 13th and 15th centuries. Beginning with the Mongol invasions between the 13th and 14th centuries, nomadic tribesmen conquered much of Russia, Europe and China at their greatest extent. Timur the Lame would later reprise their success using similar tactics (cavalry-based armies with bows) and forged an empire stretching from Turkey to India.

By 1368AD China had expelled the Mongols, in 1480AD the Battle of Ugra marked the end of the Golden Horde's threat to Russia. Tamerlane, who died in 1405AD, soon saw his Empire crumble and today he is sometimes known as the Last Great Nomad Conqueror.

Why were nomadic tribes from the Eurasian steppes a much reduced threat across Europe, Russia and China after the 15th century?

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    The Chinese maintained their Great Wall until mid-17th century and kept their capital in the north. So they seem to have perceived those steppe nomads very much as a threat.
    – Jan
    Commented Dec 1, 2022 at 15:51
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    Should it be characterized as "the other nations were much better able to counter the threat" instead?
    – o.m.
    Commented Dec 1, 2022 at 16:41
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    You could ask this question from a different perspective: when did Russians finally have the force to settle into the plains in a definitive fashion? One could argue it took until the late 1870s for that to occur.
    – Smith
    Commented Dec 1, 2022 at 21:14
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    This question seems good, but the context is a little off. What exactly began in the 13th century? Migrations and invasions from the Eurasian Steppe go back (at least) to the Indo-Europeans in he early 3rd millennium BCE, followed by Iranian groups like Cimmerians, Scythians, Alans, the Huns (whoever they were), Turkic peoples like Bulgars, Khazars, Pechnegs, Cumans, the Ugric Magyars, etc.
    – Juhasz
    Commented Dec 1, 2022 at 22:43
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    Tamerlane, who died in 1405AD, soon saw his Empire crumble : source needed for life after death.
    – Evargalo
    Commented Dec 3, 2022 at 6:05

4 Answers 4


My source for this answer is mostly Devereaux's discussion of "the Fremen Mirage" and other writing on his site about steppe nomads, which goes in-depth into what made the Mongols so powerful for their time - and why that time came to an end.

The answer has remarkably little to do with weaponry. The steppe nomad composite bow is an incredibly powerful weapon that strikes at long range, especially combined with Mongol skirmish doctrine that could break up formations. There's a reason that the major firearm users of this time period were Western European, rather than the people fighting the steppe nomads, and it's not because Western Europeans were smarter.

Gun-wielding armies had the same big weakness as bow-wielding armies: logistics.

Mongol armies could move many times faster than military formations organized by agrarian states - up to 60 miles per day compared to 10 miles for infantry armies. This is not only explained by their horses but also by their source of subsistence - soldiers could drink mare's milk from their mount, and when moving together with their herds, slaughter sheep to stay on the move for months. Meanwhile, an agrarian army can only carry about 10-20 days worth of rations for soldiers and animals. The steppe pony can survive on just grass; the larger European horse (to give one example) must be stall-fed. If you want to use firearms, you have to bring wagons of gunpowder and spare parts (it's much harder to fix a damaged musket than an axe in the field) further reducing your range.

So a Mongol army seemed like it could appear anywhere, while to attack the Mongols (either to chase their armies or to strike their civilian population and resource base) required taking an army into a steppe that could not sustain it for more than a handful of days. Mongols could therefore engage in battle pretty much on their own terms, and if they ever lost they could retreat, come back and try again with most of their strength intact (battles were won or lost based on morale and cohesion, rather than killing everyone, and wars were won through sieges and holding ground). The agrarians' slow-moving armies could not follow the Mongols into the steppe, and could not pull the same trick off with their own assets (farms and towns) for obvious reasons.

The Mongols were defeated when that logistical advantage was overcome. Partly this was due to the development of an Early Modern centralized state that could organize supply dumps, long-distance transportation, and more effective mobilization & training of its soldiers rather than relying on vassals to ride out with whoever they happened to have on hand. The firearm becomes useful only in this context - in the hands of a state able to organize manufacture, issue, doctrine development, training, and logistical support. But such a state does not need guns in order to win battles because its troops are already much higher quality. Its superior organization also means that it can hold ground in the steppe, and eventually settle it, to deny the Mongols pasture land in the long term and therefore win strategic victories that can meaningfully add up over time, which is how Muscovy was able to turn the stalemate at Ugra into eventual domination of former Mongol lands.

Meanwhile the Mongol pastoral way of life was about as optimized as it could be for their circumstances. Their bottleneck was not logistics or equipment, but population: every adult male is already a soldier, and already using the best weapon available. Even if they could increase their population, you can only graze so many horses (and sheep) on one plot of grassland before they eat all the grass (consider that every mounted rider needs several horses). The Mongols could not innovate their system to overcome the loss of their logistical advantage.

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    Interesting answer, and not the one I would have expected (something closer to Jan's). I'm now curious if the Mongols ever faced units of trained musketeers, and what the result was.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Dec 2, 2022 at 0:18
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    This seems like a piece of the puzzle, but it can't be all. It's also true that as the West recovered from the Black Death it developed a much more productive society with higher population density -- while the nomads had reached their limit. Also, I don't think you can dismiss guns. It may be true that a nomadic bow was better than a 14th century gun, but the increasingly rich West could produce a lot of guns.
    – Mark Olson
    Commented Dec 2, 2022 at 1:02
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    @MarkOlson How many expeditions did the "increasingly rich West" organize against the Mongol steppe in the time period of the question? Why is Western firearm manufacture relevant to China in 1368?
    – SPavel
    Commented Dec 2, 2022 at 8:01
  • many logistic problems with guns could be solved a LOT later when the term "gun" is more of what we consider a gun nowadays: a cartridge of bullet+powder that you can load into a needle-point musket. these where invented MUCH later in germany than the early muskets, for which you'd need lots and lots of gunpoweder and bullets.
    – clockw0rk
    Commented Dec 2, 2022 at 11:41
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    I hate to break it to you, but rapid firing guns need more bullets rather than less.
    – SPavel
    Commented Dec 2, 2022 at 13:05

After a day of thought, I think the real answer is that nomadic people from the Steppe continued to be a major threat until at least 1700.

For example, the Mughal Empire was founded in 1526 by Babur, a warrior chieftain from what is today Uzbekistan.

In an even more important example, the Jurchen people from Manchuria conquered China from 1618-1683. They continued to rule China as the Qing until 1912 - thus, one could say that "steppe nomads" played an important geopolitical role until very recently.

FWIW, the Qing and Mughal empires were two of the largest, most "successful" empires in history.

In the 1700's, Russian expansion met the borders of the Qing, and the Qing Empire and the Russian Empire subsequently dominated the region until industrialization made the concept of a nomadic empire not feasible.

Edit: Comment from Jan says we shouldn't forget that the Qajars also came from the steppe to control Iran in 1789, and ruled Iran until the 1900's.

  • Qajars in Iran might also be relevant here.
    – Jan
    Commented Dec 2, 2022 at 18:26

My discussion follows the presentation in "Johan Söderberg, 2020", "Vår världs ekonomiska historia, den förindustriella tiden" used as course material in Stockholm University (as well as other Swedish universities).

The "late phases" of the conquests describes a number of reasons for the declined influence of the Mongols: over time they moved from plundering and imposing impossibly large taxation to becoming settlers. As settlers they became involved in the local economy. Examples include the invasion of China (completed in 1279) where the first Mongol emperor in China, Khubilai Khan, settled and unified the country into a period of peace and prosperity. The Mongols could not sustainably exploit the farming parts of the world outside the steppes without leaving their traditional lifestyle.

Add to this the plague that swept over large parts of the world in the middle of the 14th century which reduced the farmer populations that the Mongol hordes had thrived on. Large areas of farming were abandoned, and sensitive watering systems came into disuse. The Mongols was assimilated into varying local settlements. The remaining nomadic tribes whereas well divided and not held together by any central force.


Once it became possible to field large armies with gunpowder weapons, nomads got into a disadvantage because the nomadic lifestyle only allows for artisanal production of weaponry, not for the complex industrial-scale production that settled societies with cities could afford.

Above is the more long-term answer. In the short term after the 14th century other factors may be more important, which can be described as adaption to the threat from beyond the border. E.g. China was a unified state and remained very aware of the continued Mongol threat. They constructed the Great Wall as we can see it today, they kept the capital very close to the northern border, and they maintained a very active diplomacy north of the border.

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    Industrial-scale production of firearms seems to postdate the period of interest by some 200 years: " At the beginning of [the late 17th century], British gun makers could make roughly tens of thousands of guns per year. By the end of the period, 1815, they could make millions per year " (source)
    – njuffa
    Commented Dec 2, 2022 at 2:57
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    @njuffa: The period of interest is anything after the 15th century. One or two centuries of relative quiet on the steppe front (e.g. 12th century?) can always be explained away by the usual disunity among nomadic tribes.
    – Jan
    Commented Dec 2, 2022 at 10:55
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    @njuffa Japanese armies were able to field ten thousands of guns at the same tome by the late 16th century. I admit that I am not really sure how complicated the production of a single gun is, but my assumption is that it is fairly complex and requires a fairly high degree of division of labour, compared to a composite bow?
    – Jan
    Commented Dec 2, 2022 at 11:06
  • @njuffa In the same way that Russia can simply acquire western weapons?
    – Jan
    Commented Dec 2, 2022 at 11:09
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    "Can" and "did" are two different things from a historical perspective. Contemporary depictions of e.g. the Stand on the Ugra show mostly archers on both sides, and few or no muskets/artillery with Ivan III's host.
    – SPavel
    Commented Dec 2, 2022 at 18:19

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