The Gear and Guts of the Mongol Military—Part I

Much is known about the ancient Mongol military and their incredible victories on the battlefield, but little is ever discussed about their arms, armor, horses, and logistics. What gear did they use? How did they deal with their wounded? How did they partner with horses to become masters of the steppe?

Indeed, it’s said there was no separate word for ‘soldier’ in the Middle Mongol language, meaning that the society was so adept at survival and conquering that there was little difference in preparedness between a civilian and a warrior. This may have been one of the keys to their adaptability, and ultimate success.

Here we take a detailed look into the Mongol military apparatus (Arms, Armor, Supplies, Horses, and Medicine): How did they do it?

The Lightning-Quick Light Cavalryman

The attire of the Mongol light cavalryman was no different from his everyday outfit. The Mongol warrior’s attire was practical, in the sense that its main function was to protect him from the harsh conditions of the climate he traversed. His undershirt was long with wide sleeves. His attire consisted of a heavy, double-breasted knee-length coat called deel or degel.

A Mongolian coat, or deel

A Mongolian coat, or deel (CC BY-SA 3.0)

This coat was secured with a button a few inches below the armpit and was fastened by a leather belt at the waist. Furthermore, the Mongols utilized two types of coats. One was a heavy coat for the colder seasons but they also wore a coat to keep them dry from the rains during the warmer seasons. As for material, Flemish Franciscan monk, William of Rubruck (1210-ca. 1270) said that the “poor make their outside (gowns) of dog and kid (skins).” As for pants, Rubruck mentions that they “make also breeches with furs,” and “line their clothes with cotton cloth, or with the fine wool which they are able to pick out of the coarser.”

When it comes to armor, many Mongols did not wear much, particularly lamellar. The reason was that the role of the light cavalryman was to be light, flexible, agile, and above all, fast.

This Japanese lamellar cuirass was typically too heavy for light cavalry

This Japanese lamellar cuirass was typically too heavy for light cavalry (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Other items that a light cavalryman would have used, as well did the heavy cavalryman, were “two or three bows or at least one good one, and three large quivers filled with arrows” along with a sword, which hung from his belt. He may have carried a dagger, axe, or both. His coat pocket possibly consisted of a sharpening stone for weapons and arrowheads, or perishable items, such as dried meat, dried curds, perhaps berries.

Steadfast and Indomitable Heavy Cavalrymen

William of Rubruck describes heavy cavalry as wearing the same clothing as light cavalry underneath their armor when they went on military campaigns. However, most heavy cavalrymen were wealthy and could afford, particularly later on, better clothing to wear.

The voyage of William of Rubruck in 1253–1255. Franciscan missionary and explorer, he documented details of the Mongol Empire

The voyage of William of Rubruck in 1253–1255. Franciscan missionary and explorer, he documented details of the Mongol Empire (Public Domain)

“Of their clothing and customs you must know, that from Cataia [China], and other regions of the east, and also from Persia and other regions of the south, are brought to them silken and golden stuffs and cloth of cotton, which they wear in summer. From Ruscia, Moxel, and from Greater Bulgaria [a region in the middle Volga, not to be confused with minor Bulgaria mentioned above] and Pascatir [a region between the upperl Volga and Ural R.], which is greater Hungary, and Kerkis [Kerghiz], all of which are countries to the north and full of forests, and which obey them, are brought to them costly furs of many kinds, which I never saw in our parts, and which they wear in winter. And they always make in winter at least two fur gowns, one with the fur against the body, the other with the fur outside exposed to the wind and snow; these latter are usually of the skins of wolves or foxes or papions; and while they sit in the dwelling they have another lighter one.”

Mongols cavalry outside Vladimir presumably demanding submission before its sacking

Mongols cavalry outside Vladimir presumably demanding submission before its sacking (Public Domain)

Besides clothes, John of Plano Carpini describes the type of armor the Mongol heavy cavalrymen wore:

“Some have cuirasses and protection for their horses, fashioned out of leather in the following manner: they take strips of ox-hide or the skin of another animal, a hand’s breadth wide and cover three or four together with pitch, and they fasten them with leather thongs or cord; in the upper strip they put the lace at one end, in the next they put it in the middle and so on to the end; consequently, when they bend, the lower strips come up over the upper ones and thus there is a double or triple thickness over the body.”

The cuirass they wore consisted of small scales of iron, leather, or bone known in lamellar armor. As for the description provided by Carpini, it appears that the Mongol warriors he encountered were wearing lamellar armor made of leather scales. Softening leather by boiling and afterwards coating the leather with a lacquer made from pitch made it waterproof. The cuirass weighed roughly 20 lbs (9 kg). To add further protection, the rider might have worn his heavy coat under the cuirass, and reinforced it with metal plates or perhaps leather, depending on what was available at his disposal.

Statue of an armored Mongol warrior with a cheetah

Statue of an armored Mongol warrior with a cheetah (Enerelt/CC BY-SA 3.0)

Mongols who owned lamellar preferred it to mail, even though mail armor was rare. The reason for this was that lamellar armor provided better protection against arrows than mail. According to David Nicolle, “Test have shown that mail can absorb arrows shot from a reasonable distance, but it could not prevent them causing minor wounds. Lamellar armor, however, was much more effective against arrows.” To add further protection, the Mongols learned from the Chinese of the stopping power of silk. Heavy cavalrymen would wear a heavy protective silk undershirt underneath their armor. Even if the arrow penetrated the lamellar or mail armor, it might not penetrate the silk. Instead, the arrow might become twisted in the silk as it entered the body, thus cleaning the wound, or perhaps even treating it with the plant dyes (such as turmeric) used in the dyeing process of the garment. Furthermore, wearing a silk undershirt made it easier to extract the arrow from the body without doing further damage.

Drawing of a mobile Mongol soldier with bow and arrow wearing deel. The arms could be uncovered in hot weather.

Drawing of a mobile Mongol soldier with bow and arrow wearing deel. The arms could be uncovered in hot weather. (Public Domain)

As for horse armor, the Mongol heavy cavalrymen would outfit their horses in five parts:

“they put one piece along each side of the horse which protects it from the tail to the head and is tied to the saddle, behind the saddle on the back, and at the neck. Over the horse’s back they put another piece where the two parts of the harness are joined and they make a hole in this piece through which they expose the tail, while in front of the chest they place a piece that protects every-thing from the knees or the knee joints. On the forehead they put an iron plate which is tied on each side of the neck.”

Boots for Riding

Boots were also crucial to the rider. The Mongol boot was designed for standing in the stirrups, which provided the rider a platform to fire at a quick gallop. Mongol cavalrymen wore sturdy, thick inflexible soled heelless boots, with the rigid toe turned upwards, and was made from leather and felt that provided protection from the bitter cold of the steppes and their legs from chafing due to rubbing against the horses back. The source of the leather comes from horses according to Rubruck in which he states, “With the hind part of the hide of horses they make most beautiful shoes.” Even though heavy, the boots were comfortable enough for the rider to tuck his pants in before tying the laces. To absorb perspiration, the Mongols wore socks made of felt, which kept his feet warm, especially since the boot was lined with fur, making it unlikely that his feet would get cold.

Mongolian boot style, for a child and adult.

Mongolian boot style, for a child and adult. (Public Domain)

Practical Headgear

Headwear of the Mongols came in two types; The majority of horse archers donned the fur cap. The fur cap was conical in shape and made from quality material. It had reversible earflaps and brim for the summer and winter.

Portrait of Ogedei Khan with a fur cap.

Portrait of Ogedei Khan with a fur cap. (Public Domain)

Those who were heavy cavalry also wore a conical helmet made of harden leather or one of iron. According to Carpini, “The Tartar helmet has a crown made of iron or steel, but the part that extends around the neck and throat is of leather,” which had been harden and was composed of various sizes of iron and steel plates, and probably lined with fur. Unlike the fur cap, earflaps on the iron helmet were optional. The heavy cavalryman’s helmet had two slots where the flaps could be attached to better protect his ears. To add further protection, iron plated lamellar neck guard was included.

The helmet of a Mongolian soldier

The helmet of a Mongolian soldier (CC BY-SA 3.0)

While the Mongol helmet was conical in shape, it was thought to be taller and pointier than the traditional Chinese helmets. For a long time, no helmets were known to have survived Mongol China. However, Randall Sasaki in his book The Origins of the Lost Fleet of the Mongol Empire mentions that five “well-preserved iron helmets were discovered” and that the “diameter of these helmets is 22 to 23 cm, and their height is 12 to 15 cm. A few helmets appear to be thicker at one end. All of the helmets seem to have had an attachment at the top where a pointed protrusion was located.”

The Might of the Sword

When it comes to swords, the Mongols had a variety of types. In both of the modern-day nations of Russia and Mongolia, archaeologists have found swords belonging to the Mongols. The swords varied in design as some were broad and straight, like European blades, while others had a slight curve. Both types of swords were single edged, roughly one meter (three feet) in length, and were designed for cutting rather than stabbing.

The sabre [left] and the scimitar [right] were curved swords of a type as used by the Mongol military

The sabre [left] and the scimitar [right] were curved swords of a type as used by the Mongol military (CC BY-SA 3.0)

The majority of Mongol soldiers never carried swords during the early stages of the Empire. It appears that swords were reserved for the elite during that time. Much later, western writers like Carpini and Rubruck described the Mongol warrior as carrying bows, arrows, and axes. Thomas of Spalato describes the Mongols in a similar fashion but that they carried swords as well. Sibt ibn al-Jawzi mentions that the Mongols were using swords during their engagements against the Khwarazm Empire from 1219-1221. Marco Polo also describes their use of swords along with maces and shields during his time among them.

Overall, swords were not a weapon so desired by the Mongols like those in the rest of Eurasia. To the Mongols, the sword was a symbol of power only reserved for the elite. As time passed, people conquered, territory expanded, and the Mongols slowly adopted the sword. They were now in charge of large urban areas which effectively took them off their horse and placed them in the streets.

The Famous Bow

Of all the weapons utilized by the Mongols, the bow stood forefront in their war arsenal. But this should come to no surprise since it was steppe peoples’ weapon of choice throughout their history. The bow used by the Mongols was the composite bow.

Hulagu Khan with the older composite bow used during the time of the Mongol conquest. It is smaller in size and has no string bridges.

Hulagu Khan with the older composite bow used during the time of the Mongol conquest. It is smaller in size and has no string bridges. (Public Domain)

The composite bow consisted of horn, wood, sinew, and glue. The wood used for constructing the core of the bow was made from a variety, such as larch, birch, and elm. Of the woods considered, bamboo, (which is not a wood but a strong grass), was most desirable for its lack of grain and strength. With grain absent, bamboo reduced the risk of developing twists in the limbs and was desired due to being stronger than wood. Bamboo would have to be imported, however.

Bamboo was preferred in Mongolian bows

Bamboo was preferred in Mongolian bows (Manfred Heyde/CC BY-SA 3.0)

When Genghis Khan conquered northern China, he had direct accesses to the commodity. Once the material for the core had been selected and cured, ibex horn was used, or sometimes bone. In order to apply horn or bone to the core, it had to be softened by boiling. As for the backing, sinew was used (from an animal, possibly ibex), and the Achilles tendon was preferred. To prepare the sinew, the tendons had to be dried and crushed to a mass of loose fiber. Once this was done, the sinew was mixed with an adhesive made from boiled-down animal tendons or fish bones. The bowyer had to be careful when applying the sinew mixed with glue to the core— as to little would be weak and too much made the bow stiff. Once the sides were glued to the core, the bow was set aside to dry. As it dried, it began to harden and form. The total process from beginning to end may have taken up to a year to finish and once complete, the bow was ready to be personalized by its owner with decorations, and then stored in a leather case.

A Timurid depiction of a Mongol archer, 15th century

A Timurid depiction of a Mongol archer, 15th century (Public Domain)

With the quality makeup of the bow came its power.

The shape of the Mongol bow was a flattened and curved shape of an “M”. The general range of the Mongol bow was 300 meters (984 feet) with a tremendous range of 500 meters (1640 feet). Overall, it’s believed a Mongol horse archer could hit his target from point blank to potentially 550 yards. ‘Potentially’, because a thirteenth century report says that one of Genghis Khan’s master archers made a 428-yard shot (1284 feet). Of course, it becomes more difficult to hit the target from a great range unless that target is a moving mass of soldiers.

The size of the bow was roughly 120 centimeters (48 inches) in length. The draw weight of the bow had a tremendous pull between 100-170 pounds (45-77 kg). Of course, this depended on the strength of the archer. However, pulling the bow to its maximum potential was rare. Instead, the Mongol horse archers relied on rapid fire. He would do this by rapidly pulling the bowstring back only a short distance before release, and only did so when the hooves of the horse were off the ground. This allowed the archer to concentrate on his target.

In combat, the Mongol cavalry punished enemy forces with a constant barrage of arrows at 200 paces and penetrated armor at 100 yards (300 feet). Furthermore, the Mongol archer would carry two bows with him on campaign. One bow was used for long range and the other for short distance shots. Some suggest that the use of the bow for short distance shots was utilized when the soldier had dismounted.

To shoot the composite bow, the Mongol archer would wear a thumb ring and draw the string with his ring and forefinger, known as the Mongolian Draw. The thumb ring was developed by Steppe peoples in order to shoot faster and effectively from horseback at full gallop.

7th century Mughal thumb ring made of walrus ivory.

7th century Mughal thumb ring made of walrus ivory. (Public Domain)

The thumb ring was made from a variety of materials such as horn, bone, metal, leather, stone, and ivory. The thumb ring provided two advantages to the archers. The ring eased the pressure of the string on the thumb, which allows the archer to fire arrows faster upon release and with better accuracy since the placement of the arrow was on the same side of the shooting hand. As well, the Mongolian Draw was said to be superior to the three-finger release.

A ‘Mongolian Draw’ [left] versus a ‘Mediterranean Draw’ [right]

A ‘Mongolian Draw’ [left] versus a ‘Mediterranean Draw’ [right] (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Overall, the Mongol cavalryman and his composite bow delivered a devastating punch. Latham and Paterson in their book “Saracen Archery” mention the bow’s tremendous power and elegant design:

“Since such composites can withstand an enormous amount of bend, shortness of length could be achieved in design, and this feature made them very suitable weapons for the mounted archer.”

Mongol cavalrymen during the time of the Mongol conquest used a smaller bow suitable for horse archery.

Mongol cavalrymen during the time of the Mongol conquest used a smaller bow suitable for horse archery. (Public Domain)

“In a well-designed bow the weight should increase quickly during the first few inches of the draw, after which the rate of increase should diminish as the draw progresses. This quality was achieved in the East by fitting of a rigid end-piece (in Arabic, siyah, pl. siyat) to each end of the bow. When they bow was about half-drawn, the siyat began to act as levers so that the draw could be continued with less increase in the weight than would have been the case without them … For a given weight at full draw – this quantity depending on the archer’s strength – the composite bow stores a great amount of energy, which is then available for transfer to the arrow when the string is loosed.
When the siyat project away from the archer before the braced bow is drawn, as in the case with the Manchu and Mongolian bows … a string-bridge is fitted to prevent the string from slipping past the knee of the bow; for should this happen the latter would violently assume its unbraced shape and virtually turn itself inside out.”

Top Image: Painting depicting the Battle of Cheoin (Korea) between Goryeo and Mongol Empire forces in the Korean peninsula in 1232; Deriv. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

By Cam Rea


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