The Deadly Weapons that Powered the Mongols Across Medieval Battlefields

Posted by Julian Wymanton on Friday, December 1, 2023

The Mongol Empire army conquered the largest contiguous land empire in history in just 25 years. Their military dominance stemmed from mastery of formidable weapons paired with speed and discipline. Their primary weapons included the composite bow, saber, and lance, augmented by siege engines capable of relentless assault.

The Composite Bow - Their Main Weapon for Assault

The Mongols were highly skilled mounted archers. Their primary weapon and main advantage in combat was the composite bow. This smaller recurve bow provided greater range and penetrating power compared to longbows of the era. Its unique construction lent great force to arrows.

Mongol archers

A composite bow combines materials - horn on the belly, and sinew on the back wrapped in birch bark. Animal tendons provide elastic energy storage while bone handles compression. This layered combination imparts much greater velocity to arrows. The design concentrates more energy forwarded to arrows compared to simple materials like wood or bone.

The short recurve shape also accelerates mechanical efficiency. The Mongols used the finest composite materials for strength, flexibility, and energy transfer. The small size provided superb maneuverability for cavalry archery.

Mongol bows achieved ranges over 350 yards at high velocity. This greater reach allowed deadly standoff attacks not possible against European longbows or crossbows before opposing forces could engage or find cover. Maximum range for longbows of that era was just 160 yards.

Sabers Optimized for Slicing Damage From Horseback

Once within striking distance, the Mongols bring their close combat weapons to bear. This included battle axes, maces, and daggers, but their most popular melee weapon was the saber. In particular, their curved Ild sword optimized for mounted attacks.

These single-edged backswords concentrated damage from wider slicing arcs compared to double edged straight swords. The wider blade angle imparted most energy on a smaller area to maximize cutting potential.

mongol sabers

Mongol sabers employed softer folding techniques from Damascus steel forges absorbed from the Middle East. Their metallurgy injected carbon and other hardening alloys while hot folding to produce flexible, resilient layered steel. The high quality steel retained sharp edges through repeated clashes.

Turkish and Persian sword masters taught Mongol blacksmiths advanced smelting techniques. The craft combined high carbon crucible steel with specialized quenching across clay molds. This created durable yet flexible alloy steel optimized for slicing attacks from galloping war horses.

Sturdy Lances to Pierce Armor in Charges

In addition to their saber sidearm, Mongols wielded sturdy lances with elongated steel tips designed specifically to penetrate armor in cavalry charges. These robust spear-like weapons combined sturdy hardwood shafts up to 12 feet long with spearheads of tempered spring steel or Damascus steel.

The length provided reach to impale opponents first. The hardened steel or alloy points could drive through chain mail, padded cloth or leather armor across knightly accouterment. Mailed knights had less defense against downward angled lance attacks compared to lateral sword strikes. So galloping cavalry charges lead with these sturdy piercing weapons before closing in with sabers on recoil.

mongol lancers

The combination of composite bows for range and advance force attrition, paired with Ild sabers and lengthy lances for close quarter penetrative power made Mongol cavalry charges remarkably effective. The paired strategy of standoff bombardment advancing into decisive galloping drives inflicted massive damage against armored foes.

Siege Weapons Adopted for Merciless Barrages

The Mongols also applied robust siege weapons against protected targets. Their integration and improvement of counterweight trebuchets, gunpowder explosives, and bombardment tactics overwhelmed fortified defenses.

Upon founding the Chin dynasty, Genghis Khan absorbed Chinese expertise with incendiary formulas and artillery design. His conquests connecting China to Persia and Europe allowed the Mongols to adopt siege technology from across Eurasia.

They integrated triangular trusses from Roman walls, Damascus steel production techniques, counterweights for force projection, and gunpowder explosives dispersing fragmentation. This combination enabled dramatic bombardment capabilities and revealed weaknesses across numerous strongholds.

Mongol battlefield doctrine focused on maneuverability and speed. So their engineers optimized catapults, ballistae, grenades, and cannons by crafting machinery and ammunition from local materials on site for immediate assaults. Their rapid siege engine construction and merciless barrages quickly broke stalemates against walled fortifications.

mongol trebuchet

Combined Doctrine Multiplied Weapon Effectiveness

No individual weapon provided the key advantage for the Mongols in isolation. Instead, their carefully coordinated combined use of ranged and close quarter arms amplified by precise cavalry maneuvers is what powered them to conquer heavily fortified regions in months instead of years.

Standoff bombardment from composite bows advancing into armored lancer attacks followed by saber cleanup charges made combat engagements remarkably one-sided. Simultaneous siege engine bombardment preventing fortification repair or regrouping compounded the assault.

It was this tightly woven doctrine combining weapons technology, cavalry maneuvers, and siege craft that enabled the speed and dominance across the Mongolian Empire’s conquests through Asia and Europe.


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