The Archers, as in The Archers, is not ‘an everyday story of country folk’! Let me explain – Hurriyet Daily News recently published some terrific photos of young Turks keeping alive their traditional skills as archers on horseback. These Archers are probably the best light cavalry the world has ever seen! My village being called Okçular in Turkish or Archers in English and this blog being ‘Archers of Okçular’ why wouldn’t I be fascinated?
both images Hurriyet Daily News
Skills that greased the explosive expansion of the Mongol Empire that by 1279 CE had it hammering on the doors of Western Europe. The storm troopers of this empire were the highly mobile and deadly efficient mounted bowmen with their small (by European and Chinese or Japanese standards), extremely powerful, recurved, laminated bows.
These images instantly transported me back in time to the Army Museum in Istanbul where I first saw the amazing craftsmanship that goes into the Turkish bow and began to get some inkling of how it delivers such terrific striking power to the arrow that it would penetrate European style plate-armour and have much-vaunted European armies fleeing the field of battle in total disarray.
showing the lamination and final lacquering together with two thumb-rings
What also flashed into my mind’s eye was meeting the national champion archer of Mongolia and her husband and child on a visit to that country a few years ago. They were both using traditional recurved composite bows not dissimilar to those the Turkic archers used to aid Genghis Khan in his empire-building.
National Champion of Mongolia
and her husband – also a champion
They were kind enough to let a few of us tourists have a go and so I promptly stepped up. I well remember the embarrassment when I failed to draw his heavy bow more than a few inches! His wife offered me the lighter bow that she was using and with much huffing and puffing I managed to flight the arrow about 15 feet and strip the skin off the inside of my arm! I realise that technique counts for a lot in archery, but so does a back like a barn door full of muscle tissue! That was when I realised just how powerful the Mongolian-Turkish laminated bow really was. By way of comparison with my 15 feet, in a 1910 archery contest held on the beach at Le Touquet, France, a chap by the name of Ingo Simon was able to shoot an arrow 434 mts using an old Turkish composite bow! Heavier Ottoman flight bows have reached distances of around 900 mts.
Back to the Ottoman archers’ ability to penetrate the plate-armour much favoured by European armies – with a direct, head-on strike the arrow would penetrate plate and heavy padding but if the plate was curved or angled away then the arrow would likely glance-off. To overcome this the Ottoman horse archer or Sipahi would affix a small ball of bee’s wax to the tip of the arrow. This would prevent the arrow glancing-off and concentrate all of the kinetic energy at one point – in many ways similar to the principle of the modern HEAT (High Explosive Anti Tank) round. The effects of a needle-sharp war arrow head weighing between a quarter and half a pound travelling at speeds in excess of 200mph can be imagined. That said, the mounted archer’s target was often the enemy’s horse as a heavily armoured fighter brought to ground would be near helpless against massed infantry.
Ottoman mounted archer at full speed
Ottoman arrowheads and fletching
The Turkish bow is a recurved composite bow that was brought to perfection in the time of the Ottoman Empire. The construction is similar to that of other classic Asiatic composite bows, with a wooden core (maple was most desirable), animal horn on the belly (the side facing the archer), and sinew on the front, with the layers secured together with Animal glue. However, several features of the Turkish bow are distinct. The curvature tends to be more extreme when the bow is unstrung, with the limbs curling forward into the shape of the letter “C”. With some bows, the rigid tips of the limbs (“kasan”) even touch. The grip area is not recessed like other Asiatic bows and is fairly flat on the belly, while the front of the grip bulges outwards.
The dramatic curvature of the bows makes stringing them very different from straighter bows found in Europe. There is an old saying in Turkey that there are “120 ways to string a bow,” though the most common methods involve sitting on the ground with one’s feet pressed against the grip. Heavier bows usually require the use of a long, looped strap called a “kemend” to pull the limbs back and hold them while the string is seated. Seasoning aside, these bows took more than a year to construct with much ‘resting’ between each lamination. Arrows would need even longer with seasoning and drying taking more than five years.
Ottoman, Persian, and other Asiatic archers who all followed similar traditions would also extend the power of their weaponry by using a device called a majra or a siper. These devices are used to draw arrows past the bow’s front limb where the arrow would normally rest. The siper is a type of shelf strapped to the archer’s bow hand, which allows the archer to pull the bow back to extreme lengths in order to get the maximum amount of force behind the arrow. They are most commonly used to achieve the greatest distance.
The Majra is a thin piece of wood with a channel cut in it and small loop for the archer’s draw hand. The device allows the archer to pull back arrows that are much shorter than were intended for the bow. It is believed that this device was designed to shoot arrows that were too short for the enemy to pick up and shoot back, or it may have been a way to reuse bolts fired from crossbows.
Finally, there are the Zihgir or thumb-rings used by Mongol and Ottoman archers to draw and release the bowstring. Ottoman Sipahi were recruited exclusively from free-born Turks. They always fought on the flanks of the army with the Janissaries in the centre and were considered an elite that, unlike the Janissaries, never had their loyalty brought into question. The Zihgir was recognised as the mark or symbol of great distinction, rather like a masonic ring, and the horse-archer would tend to wear it at all times. Such was the prestige associated with it that it developed into a fashion statement and eventually some became so ornate that they were incapable of serving their original purpose.
Alan Fenn, Okçular (Archers) Köyü (Village)