Because the Old Mongols lived in an environment where survival skills were always of the utmost importance, it was a matter of course that they should develop excellent tools, both civilian and military. One piece of equipment that was of great significance in war as well as in the daily life of the Mongols was their composite bow. Perhaps this bow is not quite as well-known in the West as the English longbow, which was the best bow ever to emerge in Europe.
Yet the Old Mongolian bow was incomparably superior to everything seen in the West. Not until the advent of breach-loading firearms in the 1800's was the Mongolian bow decisively surpassed as a long-range shooting tool. Still the original Mongolian bow remains a formidable tool for targeting, war or hunting, and the people around the Bajkal sea regularly used these bows for hunting at least up to the twentieth century.
When we are talking about Mongolian bows, the first thoughts go the their military use, although hunting and target practice certainly were more prominent activities. Every day was not filled with war, but hunting and the training of skills were part of the daily routine. However, we will start with the military aspect.
In the military, each soldier carried two bows on horseback. One bow was for long-range shooting, another for shooting at close distances. Also, each soldier had two quivers with arrows for different purposes. To mention but a few of these, there were armor-piercing arrows with a particularly heavy arrowhead of tempered steel, there were incendiary arrows for setting buildings afire and spreading fear in the enemy ranks, as well as whistling arrows for signalling. Of course, the most arrows they carried were ordinary arrows where the arrowhead and length of the shaft were adjusted to the normal range at which the particular type arrow was to be used. The standard, according to James Chambers, was that each soldier should have at least sixty arrows with him or her. Yes; it merits mention once more that the strongest and most courageous Mongolian females rode along with the men and fought bravely. Also, the women who did not ordinarily participate in military activity nevertheless had to learn how to wield the bow, a necessary skill for self-defence as well as hunting.
We are now going into the details of the Mongolian bow. As already mentioned, it was the best bow in the world, and probably still is. Even though the modern high-tech compound bows are in some ways more convenient to use and can be made equally powerful, the sheer simplicity of the Mongol composite bow with its complete indepencence of foreign equipment and complicated parts that the archer cannot easily repair or replace makes the Mongol bow on balance a superior solution. In order to show the Mongols and their extraordinary bow the proper respect, the story is mostly told in the present tense, which also serves to emphasize the salient point that these things can be done today as well.
The Mongol bow is not as large and long as the English one, but it is vastly more powerful. The draw weight of an English longbow averages around 70-80 pounds, whereas the Old Mongol bow had a pull that, according to George Vernadsky, averaged at around 166 pounds. Chambers states that the pull varied from 100 to 160 pounds. This seeming discrepancy certainly reflects the fact that draw weight varied with the strength of the user, and with what use the bow had been made for. As could be expected, there was a considerable difference in shooting range. Whereas the English longbow could shoot at distances up to 250 yards or around 228 meters, the Mongol counterpart can hit its target at 350 yards or 320 meters and, if the archer is well trained for the task, even beyond that.
There are people who claim that the Old Mongols could shoot and hit their target over truly astonishing distances. Gongor Lhagvasuren, Deputy Director at the Mongolian National Institute of Physical Education, has written an article called "The stele of Chinggis Khan." There, Lhagvasuren refers to an ancient inscription on a stone found in the basin of the river Kharkiraa, a left tributary of Urlengui river which flows into the trans-Bajkal river Erdene. The text of the inscription, supposedly dated from 1226, may be interpreted as follows: "While Chinggis Khan was holding an assembly of Mongolian dignitaries, after his conquest of Sartaul (East Turkestan), Esungge shot a target at 335 alds" (536m). Lhagvasuren draws the conclusion in his article that such feats were rather common for Mongolian archers during the 1200's, and writes: "This case illustrates the strength, accuracy and sharpness, physical prowess of the Mongolians who lived more than 700 years ago." Whether or not we find it likely that Mongolian archers could regularly hit their targets at the distances Lhagvasuren claims they could, there is no question that they and their and bows are outstanding in all of archery's history.
When we take a closer look at the Mongolian bow, we see that it is an intriguing construction indeed. The backbone of the bow is a wooden frame, which will typically be birch, because that wood is resilient and is also readily available. The total length of the frame is 150-160 cm. When the bow is unstrung, it looks like a semi-circle with a beautifully curvaceous shape, but when a string is attached the whole thing is stretched out so that its limbs are bent inward. Even so, these limbs with string attachments are bent slighly away from the archer, forming a double curve. It is this double curve that delivers explosive acceleration and awesome velocity to the arrow. From these limbs or bends of the bow behind the string attachments where the impact is greatest, the frame is covered with elongated and flattened pieces of mountain sheep's (or other wild or domesticated ungulate's) horn or/and bone which adds snapping power to the resilient wood in the frame. These hard parts form a layer that covers the whole area of the so-called belly, which is the part between the grip and the limbs. Chambers describes how the back parts of the bow, nearest the archer, were those covered with horn and/or bone while the sinew layer was applied to the outer side.
The reader will have noticed that I use the term horn and/or bone. This is because the precise details of how the bows were built could vary over the Siberian area, although the main features are clear. The bone elements, when added, are no more than a small part at the center of the bow, and may originally have served mainly ornamental and possibly magical purposes.