The Origin of Bow and Arrow

Of course, archery in Mongolia has had a long and famous history. Our folk legends tell of Erekhe Mergen, the great archer who saved the people from a drought by shooting down six suns. And when the legendary mother of the Mongolian nation wanted to instill the idea of unity into her feuding sons, she sat them down before her and gave each an arrow telling them to snap it. Of course, they could do that easily. Then she gave each of them six arrows and told them to snap them all together. None of them could. This is how the Mongolian people first learned about strength through unity.

Before the Mongolian people were recorded in history, some of our predecessors on the steppe-lands of Asia included the Asiatic Huns and the Khitan to ruled North China in the 11th Century, and who gave China one of the names by which westerners later knew it: Cathay.

This is how the Chinese historian Sima Qian described the Huns: “[The Huns] had no written language: they governed themselves on the basis of the spoken word alone. Infants could ride on a sheep and draw a bow to shoot small birds and rats. As they grew up, they would shoot foxes and hares and these are what they used to eat. Their warriors were powerful archers, and all were armoured cavalrymen. Their custom when at peace was to follow their flocks, and thus archery and hunting formed part of their way of life. When war threatened, they practised battles and attacks so that hey could invade or make unexpected attacks. This was part of their very nature.” You can see that the Huns’ way of life was very similar to our Mongol nation later.

In the Liao and Mongol states in the 10th to 11th Centuries, our ancestors used to play a game called ‘Shooting the Willow’ to demonstate our archery skills. This is how the game was described in the official history of the Khitan Liao Dynasty: “Two lines of willow branches were set in the ground of a polo field. The archers, according to their different ranks, chose their own branch and marked it with a piece of cloth; then they whittled away the bark of the twig a few inches above the ground so that the white wood showed through. Led by one galloping rider, the others followed at full gallop, shooting with an unfletched arrow with a horizontal blade for an arrowhead. An archer who could cut through the willow branch and catch the cut end at full gallop took top marks. Second came the one who could cut the willow twig but couldn’t catch it. Those who could hit the whittled part but not cut it, or those who missed altogether, lost. When they shot, people beat drums to egg them on.”

From the time of Chinggis Khan and the Mongolian nation proper, there are many accounts of great feats of archery. In the ‘Blue History’, there is a story of Chuu Mergen who his a target from on horseback at about 130 meters.


Mongolia Equipment

Examples of equipment used in modern Mongolian archery festivals. During these festivals, traditional composite bows are used to shoot blunt-tipped arrows at a wall or a target of rows of small woven cylinders (Munkhtsetseg 1999). The bow has double nocks, birch bark on the back, painted decoration, and shagreen on each side of the handle. The arrows have birch shafts; four-feather fletchings (vulture feathers); red paint between feathers and green stingray skin over the nocks and adjacent shafts; slightly bulbous self-nocks (painted red inside); and walrus-ivory heads. The target cylinder is of woven rawhide. Bow is 172.2 cm long, 4.1 cm wide at midlimb, and 1.5 cm thick at midlimb. Arrows are 95.8 cm long and 1.0 cm in diameter; heads are 4.5 cm long. Target is 8 cm high and 8 cm in diameter.

- Bow Case and Quiver

Buryat Mongol bow case and quiver set of leather with brass decoration, Quiver has one extra pocket on back, Bow case is 41.4 cm long and 31.1 cm wide; quiver is 22.7 cm long and 17.1 cm wide

- Making of composite Bow

◦ Bow

Making of composite Bow

As we understand, a composite bow by definition has several layers. We have mentioned the birch frame, and the layer of horn/bone. In addition to this, there is a layer of specially prepared birch bark whose purpose is to protect against penetration of moisture. In addition to this again is a layer of sinew, which is taken from deer, moose or other game animals. The tendons of domestic animals may also be used, but Mongols feel that tendons from wild animals like deer, moose and mountain sheep are the strongest and best. Naturally, the bow has to be glued together. The preferred and traditional substance used for the impregnation of both leather as well as their bows is fish glue. As a matter of fact, fish glue has been proven through millennia to be highly capable of resisting moisture. Moreover, it is durable and lasts longer than modern epoxy resins, which are prone to molecular fatigue. Above all, fish glue is available in all the waters of Siberia where fish is living, among them the greatest of them all, Lake Bajkal.

How is fish glue made? The process that yields the highest quality is to take swim bladders from freshwater fish, soak them into hot water to extract the protein substance, and then boil the resultant soup for a prolonged period. If sufficient quantities of swim bladders cannot be obtained, it is also possible to make hide glue by boiling animal skins. This latter method however results in a glue of inferior quality, because it absorbs moisture, whereas glue made from ichthyic air bladders is highly moisture-resistant.

Although all materials needed to build the Mongolian bow are to be found in the immediate natural environment, the whole production process is very complex. It takes a long time to build a bow that is to meet the Old Mongol requirements. We may also assume that the selection of the best wood material for the frame requires knowledge and experience.

The usual procedure in the production of a traditional Mongolian bow is as follows: The wooden frame is cured, and the horns and/or bone to be used are boiled for softness. This makes it possible to fit the different parts together with great precision. As we understand, high-quality Mongolian bowmaking is certainly a most impressive craftsmanship. When the wooden frame, and the horns/bone parts are ready, the sinewing can take place. First the tendons have to be dried. After that, they are crushed until they form a mass of loose fibers. Next, this mass is mixed with fish glue to form a solid but not rigid layer. It is important to apply the correct thickness and amount of sinew, and it is done in a two-stage process with some days in between. Too little makes the bow weaker, too much would make it stiff. When completed the layer of sinew could be as thick as a human finger before drying. Sinew has a peculiar quality: Unlike other materials, its strength increases when subject to stretching or impact. This form of elasticity is a property stemming from the molecular structure of the protein of tendons (collagen), and can be seen as another striking demonstration of the innate superiority of natural solutions and materials. When used in a Mongolian composite bow, the effect is that as the horn plates in the front snap back to their former shape, the sinew layer in front contracts in the same split-second, adding further acceleration to the shot as the arrow is propelled forward. 

At each stage, fish glue has been applied to secure all the parts. In the horns and wooden parts, the sides that are to be glued against each other are first grafted with a toothed special tool in order to give the strongest possible hold.

The last step is usually the applying of the protective birch bark layers, which are also boiled until soft, so ensuring a proper fit before glued to the finished bow. When the layer of birch bark has been added to the composite construction, the whole bow is wrapped tightly in ropes and placed in a form where it is allowed to dry and harden in room temperature for one year or more. This ensures that the bow becomes extremely strong and that it keeps its shape and snappiness even after many years of frequent shooting. 

A Mongolian bow is stored in its own leather case, protecting the bow when not in use.

◦ Bow

Birch is a typical material for arrows. The normal length of an arrow is between 80 and 100 cm, and the shaft's diameter is around 1 cm.

As for fletchings, tail feathers of crane are favored, but tail feathers of all birds are usable. Eagle feathers make a particularly exclusive arrow, but since eagles are rare most arrows obviously cannot have fletchings from eagle's tail feathers. Feathers taken from the wings are said to flow less smoothly through the air, so if given the choice tail feathers are picked. The Mongols characteristically pay close attention to minutest of detail; the placement of the fletchings in relation to their size, and what part of the bird they were taken from, is of great importance for correct rotation and good balance in the air. Consequently, these factors are painstakingly considered when making arrows after the Old Mongol standard.

The arrowheads, or points, could be everything from wide metal blades used for big game (or in war) to bone and wooden points, which are used for hunting birds and small animals. The high impact of this bow ensures that a bony point will be lethal when hitting the body of a smaller animal or a bird. In addition to these kinds of arrows, whistling arrows are useful during hunting, because the effect on animals of an arrow whistling away high above the ground is often to make it stop, curious to see what is in the air. This gives the hunter time to launch a second arrow, this time with a game head to kill the animal. These whistling arrows made by inserting an arrowhead of bone in which air channels have been created. When shot, such arrowheads make a very audible sound through the air.

◦ The string

No bow, no matter how powerful, can be shot without a string. Traditional Mongol bowstrings are made from animal hide. First every trace of fat is removed. Thereafter the hide is stretched and twisted. After this treatment it will not stretch, but remain taut. Although the skin of many fur-bearing animals can be used, horse skin is often preferred since it is said that this material maintains suppleness in the exceedingly low winter temperatures of Siberia and Inner Asia. It is also possible to use the intestines of animals as string material, but such strings are not water resistant and thus only suited for use in dry and hot weather.

Silk and cotton, and mixes of these, can also be used. Modern archers generally use dacron and other man-made materials that require high technology to produce and therefore cannot possibly be made by the archer himself. Here we see another example that the use of primitive materials, although demanding in terms of individual skills and work, is the more reliable and sustainable strategy when viewed in a broader perspective.

When the bow is strung, the archer may sit down, using both feet to press against the bow as the limbs were bent while the string was attached. Using another technique, he or she could also stand upright, bow bent under one leg while the other leg holds the outer end. On horseback, the Mongol archer routinely stringed the bow by placing one end of the bow between the foot and the stirrup while the arms pressed against the bow.


Mongolia Technique

First the bow is strung. Mongolian composite bows are strongly recurved and cannot be strung by one person without risk of damage. Mendbayar gets his sister to slip the string loop over one string nock while he pulls the ears of the bow back against his knee. The hands grip the ears opposite the string bridges, with the thumbs keeping the string from slipping off the bridges during stringing.

Mongolia Technique

With the bow strung, Mendbayar grips an arrow near the nock with the bow tucked under his arm, the lower tip resting on his boot.

Mongolia Technique

He cants the bow to the right and prepares to set the arrow against his knuckle, to the left of the canted bow-grip. His sister regards this as un-traditional. (Their father did not shoot this way.) The traditional method is to shoot over the thumb, to the right of the grip.

Mongolia Technique

Mendbayar nocks the arrow at the serving on the string.

Mongolia Technique

He checks visually that the arrow is centred on the serving and firmly nocked. 

Mongolia Technique

Now it's time to start concentrating on the target. At this point Mendbayar will check the wind by looking at a small flag placed near the target.

Mongolia Technique

Next comes the first stage of the draw. Mendbayar breathes in. His eyes remain fixed on the target. At the lower tip of the bow you can see a piece of wooden dowel placed between the string loop and the sayah on the archer's side and taped to the limb. This will give the archer a little protection if the bow becomes unstrung when drawn. It is only needed if the limb has developed a twist (a common occurrence.)

Mongolia Technique

The pre-draw stops at this point. Mendbayar pauses for a couple of seconds to settle his breathing and aim at the target.

Mongolia Technique

Now Mendbayar is at full draw. He holds at this point for about three seconds, focussing fully on the target before he releases. His draw-hand fingers are flared upwards and outwards to put a slight twist on the string.


- Mongol’s Archery Contest

Archery competitions were among the Mongols’ traditional amusements at the Khan's court and in nomadic camps. Archery has survived, although during the Manchurian reign in Mongolia most of them were officially banned because their military implications. But for all the Manchurian invaders’ attempts to uproot the country’s ancient tradition of archery, it has survived, thus manifesting its vitality.

With the establishment of an independent Mongolia’s in 1911, it took only a few years for archery to regain its massive popularity, to the delight of its sincere admirers.

The authorities’ determined  efforts were a major contributing factor here. For instance, one of the documents issued by the War Ministry of Autonomous Mongolia says that all Aimags (provinces) were supposed to annually send 336 men to the capital city of Urga (then the name of Ulaanbaatar) for training at archery school. Russian ethnographer I. M. Maisky visited the school’s archery competitions during those years.

“An archery festival is truly gorgeous – hundreds of white gers and multicoloured, embroidered tents spread all across a huge meadow at the foot of the Bogd Mountain range: visiting archers lived there,” he said.

Competitions start every morning. There are special officials keeping score-sheets which bolster the glory and reputation of aimags and khoshuuds. Targets are installed - short wooden tubes with a little ball inside. Placed one on top another, they form a pyramid of sorts. To hit the target means to knock a tube out of the pyramid with an arrow. Still better is to knock a ball out of a tube.

“Now a signal is given, the bow is drawn and the first arrow cuts through the air. A hit! The pyramid is destroyed. Someone from among the overseers bends and adjusts it. The rest, facing the lucky archer and stretching sun-tanned hands to him, start singing a hymn of praise, matgaal.”

These days the rules of the Naadam team and individual contests in archery remain almost the same.

Teams of twelve archers emerge onto the shooting line and in turn launch four arrows each at the targets which are leather cylinders installed in the ground. The shooting distance is 75 metres for men and 60 metres for women. For those under 18, the distance is set at a rate of three to four metres per year of age.

Thirty-three hits entitle a team to participate in the next round where the targets are arranged in a more involved composition. The winning team is the one that scores the highest number of points.

The Naadam tournament is launched by an archer born in the year of the tiger - a symbol of strength and marksmanship.

The used arrows are picked up by people born in the year of the mouse, a little animal seen as diligent and industrious. Someone born in the year of the dragon, the symbol of eloquence, invariably starts singing a song a praise, the magtaal, in honour of the archers. Competition participants are normally awarded the title of ‘mergen’ meaning ‘sharpshooter’.

Depending on the number of wins and other achievements, this title is supplemented with ‘young and improving sharpshooter’, ‘diligent sharpshooter’, ‘amazing sharpshooter’ and so on. The title ‘national sharpshooter’ is bestowed on a winner in individual scoring at the national competition referred to as ‘naadam’.

- Naadam

Naadam is a traditional festival in Mongolia. The festival is also locally termed “eriin gurvan naadam” (эрийн гурван наадам) “the three games of men”. The games are Mongolian wrestling, horse racing, and archery, and are held throughout the country during midsummer. Women have started participating in the archery and girls in the horse-racing games, but not in Mongolian wrestling.


- Seven Sons

Seven Sons