History of Hungarian Archers

Today’s topic of historical interest is a look at archery, in particular horseback.

Hungarian Archer on horseback at Opusztaszer National Heritage Park

Hungarian Archer on horseback at Opusztaszer National Heritage Park

The Hungarian technique of shooting arrows on horseback, a trick learned from the Turks, caught the attention of contemporary witnesses.  Hungarians were thus referred to as “a species of Turks” according to Arab travelers and various notes written in the Byzantine Empire.  The horse was an indispensable work tool of migrating animal keepers.  They drove their animals mounted on it.  Therefore, men, women and children were all regarded as good riders.

The well-structured saddle and stirrup (unknown in the west) enabled them to perfect a way of fighting on horseback: supporting their legs in the stirrup, they were able to aim shots in ant direction (even behind them).

Their most significant weapon was the bow, which was stronger and shot arrows twice as far as the Western European bows of the time.  Experiments have shown that the Magyars’ bow had a range of around 300 meters; it was able to penetrate ancient armor or hauberk even from the distance of 50 meter! 

In traditional attire an archer attemps to sucessfully shoot an object thrown in the air.

In traditional attire an archer attempts to successfully shoot an object thrown in the air.

This coupled with effective tactics: the Magyars did not attack the enemy face-to-face in battle but waited until the enemy attacked, then faked retreat in fear.  When the enemy thought they won and gave chase, the Magyars suddenly turned back and rained arrows on the pursuers, throwing them into chaos.

  • Conquest-era stirrups were made with a concave base to fit soft-soled boots.  The quiver is decorated by gilded silver mountings.
  • Reconstructions of conqueror’s saddles show  pommels decorated with plates carved of bone.  Saddlers of Tiszafured made similar saddles even in the 20th century.

Another favorite trick was the following: with troops in ambush they attacked the enemy from the side and the back and surrounded them.  With their arrows, they could then attack them from a distance, with devastating results.  This required extremely fast and disciplined movements from the troops.  They practiced this at hunting games, with wild animals playing the enemy role.  The rapid movements required well-trained horses able to ride up to 100 kilometers a day.

Archers on horseback avoided close-range fighting when possible; they tried to shoot from a distance, and only when the enemies were thoroughly frightened did they attack with hand weapons (sabers, javelins, lances and hatchets).

Racing and herding were common activites for children, women and men.

Racing and herding were common activities for children, women and men.

“When these Botond, Szabolc (Sabolch) and Orkeny moved away from Chieftan Zolta, they put Bavaria, Alemania, Saxony and Turingia to the sabre again.  Then going on from here at the time of Lent, they crossed the River Rhine and with their bows and arrows they eradicated the country of the Lothar too.”-Anonymus

Kassai-type mounted archery:  The energy accumulated while straining disengages then and starts the arrow.  If loosening is natural, loose and easy, the straining hand slams backwards unconsciously and shooting becomes certain and accurate.  Straining happens in the phase when the horse raises while galloping, whilst loosening happens at the zenith.  Learning this complex movement requires a great deal of practice.  It is not incidental that Huns made children sit on ponies at a very young age and put bows in their hands.

Fortunately, among Hungarians, preserving traditions has become popular again.  More and more people take a traditional (recurve) bow of the Home-coming type into their hands to get closer to the military culture of their ancestors, not only in their “minds” but by practice as well. 

close up image of the design pattern on my recurve bow.

Close up image of the design of my recurve bow.

If your interested in traditional Hungarian horsemanship, archery, culture and history be sure to visit the Opusztaszeri Nemzeti Torteneti Emlekpark .

**I’ve included some images of my own bow.**

There are many different styles of bows ranging from Mongolian, Hun, Scythian and so forth that have been associated with Hungarian archers throughout the past.  Techniques, composition, variety of wood is also debated in the eyes of archeologist and historians.

Another close up of the tip and notch portion of the bow.

Another close up of the tip and notch portion of the bow.

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