What is Mongolian Traditional Mounted Archery?

Everything you need to know about traditional Mongolian mounted archery. Including 5 quick facts, the history, and how to join a training camp and channel your inner Mongol warrior.

5 Quick Facts About Mongolian Horseback Archery:

  1. Women have always been taught horse archery and were even allowed to join the Mongol army during the days of Genghis Khan.
  2. Mongolian bows are made from ten different materials including birch bark, fish glue, bamboo, deer antlers, natural silk threads, and animal tendons all found in Mongolia.
  3. The Mongolian draw, or thumb draw, uses only the thumb, the strongest single digit, to grasp the string.
  4. Tournaments of the three manly sports, which include horse racing, wrestling, and archery, date back more than 800 years to the days of Chinggis Khaan and are celebrated as the Naadam Festival today.
  5. The most important contribution the Mongols made to the development of archery was the invention of the whistling arrow.

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There’s no way around it, Mongolians are some of the fiercest, most intimidating people I know. Just watch them on a horse for 10 seconds and you’ll understand what I mean.

Surviving is in their blood. From having to survive -40 C temperatures to defending (and conquering) their lands, Mongolians are the definition of resilience.

That resilience is mostly thanks to the traditions, rituals, and sports that have been passed down through the generations. One of those sports being traditional mounted archery.

Originally to hunt food, Mongol archers soon channeled this skill to become the most feared warriors in the world. Chances are you’ve heard stories of Mongol warriors and the sturdy and steadfast Mongolian horses.

Almost lost during Manchurian and Soviet times, this popular sport is seeing a resurgence in popularity today. People from around the world are taking notice of this difficult and fascinating cultural heritage with roots in ancient times.

I’ve been lucky enough to have the chance to watch Mongolia’s mounted archers in person and even try my hand at this sport myself. Do not be fooled, it is not easy to do what these archers are doing! To watch the Mongolian release of the arrow while covering great distances at full gallop is as dangerous as it is mesmerizing to watch.

There are a few different types of archery practiced by the Mongolian people today, and what travelers see at Naadam Festival is different. Below I explain what traditional Mongolian mounted archery is and go into more detail around traditional Mongolian bows, whistling arrows, and more.

If you’re interested in learning how to become a horseback archer, join this 6-day training camp →

The History of Traditional Mongolian Archery

Archery dates back thousands of years in Mongolia, as far back as the third century BCE. First to hunt food, keep herds safe, and protecting the tribe from outside dangers. Archery was their main weapon, and their greater accuracy helped them survive a harsh nomadic life in Central Asia.

Amazingly enough, women were also taught this skill and were eventually allowed to join the Mongol army. It wouldn’t be uncommon to see women fighting on the front line as archers alongside their male counterparts.

Soon enough, however, Mongolians understood the strength of being able to ride and shoot with incredible accuracy and this is how they quickly found so much military success. Shooting this style means letting go of the reigns with both hands, something that takes an incredible amount of skill to do. They could also shoot an arrow more than 300 meters and Mongol marksmen were revered for their accuracy. They would also carry two bows with them, one for long-range shooting and one for fighting at close range. This allowed them to have the most powerful arrows ready at all times.

Thanks to this Genghis Khan and his army, horseback archers were able to mobilize quickly, and this is how they were able to build the world’s largest land empire. Thanks to the stamina of the Mongolian horse and these newfound archery techniques, the Mongol army became unstoppable.

While other cultures struggled to shoot as quickly and accurately, Mongolians excelled at this. They could gallop at full speed and unleash several arrows quickly, destroying everything in their path with a salvos of arrows. While this sounds brutal, read Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World or the Secret History of the Mongols and you’ll get a better understanding of how things really went down. While the Great Khan was a ruthless king, he also gave villages the chance to surrender before attacking.

Although archery was the Mongols main weapon, it was also a form of entertainment. Tournaments of the three manly sports, which included horse racing, wrestling, and archery, were held regularly in the nomadic camps and at the courts of the Khans. Even today, as we celebrate more than 800 years of the Naadam Festival in Mongolia, archery competitions continue to be an integral part of this celebration.

What is Mounted Archery

Mongol Bow, Quiver, and Arrows

Simply put, Mongol composite bows are a work of art.

A few bow makers still make these bows by hand, and a real bow will cost you several hundred dollars. It takes a bowmaker six months to a year to shape a bow properly using natural materials, including animal glue.

The Mongol bow design is very slim in shape, which allows for easy handling while riding. They are made from ten different materials including birch bark, fish glue, bamboo, deer antlers, natural silk threads, and animal tendons. All these various materials are found in Mongolia.

In the days of Genghis Khan, warriors would carry two or more quivers with them. Each quiver carried different types of arrows. Including arrows that could pierce thick armor using metal tips measuring 15 cm long and 3.5 cm wide. Other arrows were more suitable for short-range or long-range, or were double-tipped, or could be lit on fire.

The Mongolian draw, or thumb draw, uses only the thumb, the strongest single digit, to grasp the string.

The most important contribution the Mongols made to the development of archery was the invention of the whistling arrow. A whistling arrow has holes in the tips that make a whistling sound while in flight. The sound was meant to intimidate enemies and was also used while hunting. The whistling sound of the arrow shot high in the air would distract the animal, making it look up with curiosity, giving the hunter time to shoot a more powerful arrow to bring down the stationary prey.

The Mongol bow can be dismantled and reassembled in seconds for easy carrying. Mongolians wear their bows and arrows at the side of their hips, not behind their back. This helps shoot faster and with less movement while riding a horse.

Traditional Mongolian Bow

Take Mounted Archery Lessons in Mongolia

For anyone who is interested in taking mounted archery lessons, it is possible to join horseback archery training camps and learn this ancient sport.

For anyone who is interested, I’m hosting this 6-day Mongolian mounted archery camp →

Author: Breanna Wilson

Hi! Sain uu! I’m Breanna, an American travel writer and adventurer living in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia for more than 5 years. I’ve written for and been featured in Condé Nast Traveler, CNN, Forbes, and the New York Times, among others. Read more of my Mongolia travel articles here.

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