top of page
  • hbanziger

F - 189 : Stirrups and Bow - Innovations that Changed World History

Updated: Feb 9, 2022

Love asking questions for which you can’t easily find an answers in traditional history books. One of them is why the Seljuk and Ottoman Turks won so many battles. From Manzikert (1071) to the defeat before Vienna (1683), they were successful almost every time. Their 600 years of battle field superiority created empires that rivaled Rome. We know a lot about the Roman Legions and how they operated but considerably less about Turkish military. If more historians could speak and read Turkish, that would definitely change.

Alperen Alkan, a Turkish Athlete, who just won Gold in Horseback Archery in the World Championship in South Korea last year

So what was the secret of their success? They were fearsome worriers - so were the European Knights, they routinely defeated. The Turks used brutality to terrorize – the Europeans were no better. Christian brutality just did not make it into our history books.

The answer is surprising: innovation. Given that Turkish warriors are often describe as uncivilized, barbarian savages from the steppes, you do not automatically associate their culture with innovation. But innovative they were. The success of the Seljuk Turks was mostly the result of combining stirrups and bow. The Ottoman’s of using guns. The Seljuks first and the Ottoman later simply outsmarted and outmanoeuvred their adversaries. Am going to talk about the Ottoman guns in one of my next blog.s Today it is about stirrups and bows.

Horse Archer in a recent Competition using the Stirrups to maximum effect

As a nomadic people Turks followed their livestock. The herds of sheep, cows and camels were often spread over several square miles. Turks relied on horses to move, shepherd and protect their animals. Form an early age, all children, boys and girls, were trained in riding horses. Plus in archery. Then the two skills were combined. Horse archery was their way of life. Everybody participated in archery festivals. Hitting a target high up on a pole whilst riding was the goal. The best shooter won an animal. The sport is still a popular in Turkey.

The Yoruk in Anatolia still live a nomadic Life - albeit Cars and Motorbikes replaced Horses

All this would not have been possible without the invention of stirrups. Nobody knows their precise origin. They show up in Chinese figurines around 300 AD. They were not in use during Roman times. You only need to look at Marcus Aurelius’ statue on Rome’s Capitol Hill. He sits triumphant on his horse but without stirrups. Mongols and Turks adopted the invention. They developed it further by attaching the stirrups to a solid saddle better distributing the weight of the rider and made them from iron. A rider could now stand in his stirrups without the horse feeling uncomfortable. His legs acted as shock absorbers. For the first time in history, the horse became a stable platform for firing weapons.

Modern Archery Workshop in Turkey - it takes 2 Years to make a Composite Bow

Add to this the quality of Turkish and Mongol bows. Made from composites (animal horn on the inside glued to various woods on the outside). Turkish and Mongol bows were shorter than their European equivalent but delivered more punch due to their composite nature and the silk used for the string. Arrows could be fired at a speed of 240 km/h, had a range of over 400 yards and could penetrate chain mail, the dominant Medieval armour. An arrow covered a distance of 50 meters took in less than a second. Very useful for fast cavalry!

Chainmail and Iron Helmet were the standard Armour

of a Medieval Knight - it offered little protection against

the Powerful Turkish Arrows

Byzantium was also one of the early adopters of stirrups. But they were used primarily for the heavy cavalry. With stirrups, armoured knights could use shock tactics to break up infantry formations. From Byzantium, the concept of heavy cavalry spread west and became the standard model for the Medieval Knight in the Holy Roman Empire, France and England.

Medieval Knights during a Tournament in Europe

Despite looking awesome, Europe’s knights were no match for the Turks. The Turkish cavalry operated in swarms delivering volleys of lethal arrows from a safe distance, wearing the knights out by constantly switching between attack and retreat and eventually moved the centre of gravity to the knights' weakest point. The knight’s horses were bred for power and strength, not endurance, and were only good for one main charge. Without proper armour, knights were sitting ducks. Also, with their cumbersome command structure, they could not match the speed of Turkish operations. The powerful and independent knights all had a voice in the war council. Once a plan was adopted, it could not easily be adjusted. Not even when Turks were literally running circles around the European forces.

The Battle of Manzikert in 1071 illustrates Turkish Tactics well - have a look at the details in this meticulous chart

Only when plate armour was introduced in Europe by the 14th century, Christian cavalry stood a chance again. Albeit it would take another 100 years until plate armour was affordable and produced in sufficient quantity to make a difference. Arrows cannot penetrate plate armor. The game changed and horse archery lost its decisive impact on the battle field. But for 600 years, the combination of stirrups and bow worked extremely well and was the base of four major empires: the Seljuk Empire (Turk), the Mongol Empire, the Mogul Empire in India (Turk) and the Ottoman Empire.

This Plare Armour Replica can be ordered on the Internet -

It is still made from folded Damascus Steel (see pattern)

Whilst horse archery ceased to be decisive in battle, it remained a popular sport in many Turkish nations (basically all the -stans) and has even gained in popularity over recent years. World championships are now regularly held and the gold medal winners have national hero status. Am sure we are going to see reports in Turkish newspapers this summer celebrating a victory in some horse archery competition.

One of the International Horse Archery Competitions

It is not only horse archery that has seen a revival of its fortune. Archery is by itself a rather popular sport. All of Turkey is proud that their archery team won the gold medal last summer at the Olympics in Tokyo. There are now also a lot of young women taking up archery. Seems the old tradition that archery should be taught to both girls and boys has a revival. We are going to have the opportunity to practice archery in August in Istanbul.

Young Turkish women at an archery class

In 1479, Ottoman horse archers invaded Friuli and raided the northern Veneto. Their style of warfare and looting shocked all of Venice. Today, Turkish archers bring home Gold. In this respect, the world has become a better place - despite stirrups and composite bows.

86 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page