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by David Nicolle

An extract from The military technology of classical Islam by D Nicolle

Part Two - Muslim Military Equipment.




       Muslim archery is the only aspect of medieval Middle Eastern military technology that can compete with Muslim swords in the interest it has aroused among scholars.1 This clearly reflects the importance of archery in the military history of early Islam, although such importance may, in certain respects, have been exaggerated.

       The composite bow dominated early medieval Middle Eastern archery, both Muslim, Byzantine, Mongol and west-Mediterranean. In its simplest version this weapon had probably been known in all these areas long before the coming of Islam. The archers of the later Roman Empire, many but not all of Middle Eastern origin, seem to have adopted such weapons after meeting composite bows on the bloody battlefield of Carrhae.3 Recurve bows of a
1. A. D. H. Biver, "Cavalry Equipment and Tactics on the Euphrates Frontier", Dumbarton Oaks Papers, XXVI (1972); E. McEwen, "Persian Archery Texts: Chapter Eleven of Fakhr-i Mudabbir's Ādāb al Harb (early 13th century)", The Islamic Quarterly, XVIII (1974); J. F. Haldon, "Some Aspects of Byzantine Military Technology from the 6th to the 10th centuries", Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies, I (1975); J. D. Latham, "The Archers of the Middle East, the Turco-Iranian Background", Iran VIII (1970); J. D. Latham and U. F. Paterson, Saracen Archery, (London 1970); H. Rabie, "The Training of the Mamluk Faris", in War, Technology and Society in the Middle East, V. J. Parry and M. E. Yapp, edits., (London 1975); A. Boudot-Lamotte, Contribution à l'étude de l'Archerie Musulmane, (Damascus 1968); N. A. Faris and R. P. Elmer, Arab Archery, (Princeton 1945).

2. Von H. van de Weerd and P. Lambrechts, “Note sur les Corps d'archers au Haut Empire", in Die Araber in der Alten Welt, I, F. Altheim and R. Stiehl edits., Berlin 1964).


later, Hunnish, style were standard among Byzantine archers until the 12th century.3 Nor is there any reason to suppose that composite bows, if not of the Hunnish variety then at least of the late-Roman type, disappeared from the western Mediterranean area in the so-called Dark Ages.4
       The only major difference between the eastern and western Mediterranean was, perhaps, that the former was in closer contact with central Asia. It was, of course, from there that almost all new developments in techniques of composite bow construction and use were to come. How far and how fast such changes spread westwards, both within the Muslim zone and along the Christian northern shore, is, however, unclear. To chart the development of the composite bow within its Asian homeland seems to be easier. Mr. E. McEwen has summarized this process as follows:5 One may start with the Scythian bow (Typological forms, Type D, Fig. 666) which, though useful for a horse-archers probably had limited armour or shield piercing capability. The next vital improvement is generally associated with the Huns, Such Hunnish bows had long "ears", often partially of bone (Types A and E), although it is important to note that here the bow-string did not rest against the base of such "ears". One may have to await the arrival of the Mongols before finding the "ears" of such angled composite bows set forward

3. Haldon, "Some Aspects of Byzantine Military Technology from the 6th to the 10th centuries", p. 39.
4. A. O. Hoffmeyer, Arms and Armour in Spain -. a short survey, vol. I, (Madrid 1972), pp. 131-133.
5. E. McEwen, "Nomad Archery", PDF Colloquy no7, The Arts of the Eurasian Steppes, (SOAS 27th June 1977), pp. 188-202.


so that their bow-strings rooted on a bridge where the "ears" met the "arms" of the weapon. In all probability the form of composite, partly wood partly goat horn, bow known in early Islamic Arabia was of the Hunnish "eared" form rather than the earlier Scythian style, since the Arabs were considered noted and effective archers even by their Byzantine foes.6
       There were, of course, many less pictorially obvious improvements in composite bows between the Hunnish and Mongol invasions. Similarly, other types of bow continued to be made and used in various Muslim and neighbouring regions. Unfortunately, pictorial sources are rarely detailed enough to show such minor aspects of construction. Nor may it be correct to assume that simpler bows (Types B and G) must necessarily have been as simple in construction as they were In shape. The very fact that these weapons appear in situations where one might otherwise expect to find composite bows seems to deny any such assumptions (Figs. 206, 215, 256, 404, 502, 504, 528 and 606). Equally, this is not to suggest that all bows must, under such circumstances, have been of composite construction. The only reliable limitations one could impose on the spread of the composite bow are those of climate, and thus of geography. These weapons apparently lost their effectiveness and may indeed have become dangerous to their users in extremes of heat, cold or humidity.7 This would seem to be indicated in a detailed list of bows given by the early 13th century Ādab al Ḥarb.8 Composite
6. M. Reinaud, "De l'Art Militaire Chez lea Arabes au Moyen Âge”, Journal Asiatique. (Sept. 1848), p. 209,
7. Faris and Elmer, op. cit., p. 86.
8. Mubārakshāh, op. cit., 242-243.


types were stated to have been made in Khwarazm and Shāsh, plus Parvān and Ghazna in Afghanistān, Karūr in Balūchistān and in Lahore. Similarly, this source mentions simple bows of horn that came from the present North-West Frontier region of Pakistan and others of bamboo that came from India.9
       Another region of somewhat extreme climate, and perhaps backward technology, included Nubia, the Sudan and Ethiopia. Once again simple wooden bows were characteristic of this region from the 9th to 14th centuries,10 as they were said to be of the pre- and early Islamic Ḥijāz.11 If this were the case, then the noted archers among the Arab tribes are likely to have come from the Fertile Crescent rather then the Arabian peninsula at this time. The African simple wooden bow was, incidentally, notably long and may even have approximated to the later European longbow.12 Comparable longbows were recorded in the mid-13th century among the Khalj Turks of western Tibet,13 where they were made of bamboo, and among the European Crusaders outside ʿAkkeh in the late 12th century.14 In the latter case, they may well have been bows of the type soon to become famous in the hands of a later generation of English archers. Longbows do, in fact, appear in a variety of sources, most of which come from or near the frontiers of Islam (Figs. 70, 280, 302, 485 and 610).
9. Ibid.
10. Leo, op. cit., Inst. XVIII; al Masʿūdī, op. cit., vol. II, pp. 382-383; al ʿUmarī, op. cit., pp. 25-26.
11. Rainaud, op. cit., 209,
12. Al Masʿūdī, loc cit.; al ʿUmarī, loc cit.
13. Minhāj al Dīn op. cit., p. 565.
14. Bahā al Dīn, op. cit., p. 261; ʿImād al Dīn, op. cit., p. 351.


       One feature of the Central Asian style of archery was the thumb-draw as opposed to the normal European finger-draw. While this draw was not necessarily limited to those archers using composite bows it is, in fact, generally associated with this form of bow. The differing thumb and fingers draws are normally quite obvious in the more detailed forms of pictorial representation. Only rarely, however, does the tiny thumb-ring that is almost invariably linked with the thumb-draws appear in such sources. Its purpose was to protect the inside of the thumb. Most surviving such thumb-rings also have a small decorative stud on the opposite side to their extended thumb-protecting lips. Mr. W. Reid of the Royal Army Museum, London, who is a noted collector of and expert on oriental archers' thumb-rings, believes that such studs, known as dīmak, could have acted as a sort of back-sight when pressed against a particular spot on the archer's face as he drew back the cord of his bow.15
15. W. Reid, Thumb Rings of the Eastern Archers, lecture to the Arms and Armour-Society, (HM Tower of London, 3rd April 1980); A. S. M, Lutful-Huq translates dīmak as the spot where the arrow passes the bow as it is shot, A Critical Edition of Nihayat al Su'l, (Unpub. PhD thesis, London University 1956), p. 146.

from page 122 to page 128


       An arrow might seem to be a small and relatively simple object, but there are more terms relating to this one piece of equipment than to any other single item in the Muslim arsenal. Most terms are, of course, descriptive, while a great many refer to a multitude of specialized arrowheads used by Muslim archers, particularly in the latter part of the period under review. One particularly interesting form which is also well represented in nomad grave-sites from Mongolia to Hungary, is the two-pronged or forked arrowhead. While it has appeared in an Islamic archaeological context,68 such arrowheads were, almost entirely, reserved for hunting since they would have been largely ineffective against any but a naked foe.
       As far as the shaft of the arrow was concerned, this was either of wood, reed, or a combination of both materials. Such variations reflected the different tasks arrows were expected to perform, just as much as they reflected available local materials.
68. L. Duprée, "Shamshir-Ghar: historic cave site in Kandahar province", Anthropological Papers of the American Museum of Natural History, XLVI (1958), plate 32.


       Both types of arrow were clearly used in many areas before the coming of Islam, although the limited archaeological evidence seems to suggest that shafts of reed or cane were more popular. Such arrows alone were found in 3rd century Dura Europos.69 In the 8th century Transoxanian castle of Mug, by contrast, arrows both of reed and of mixed construction, in which reeds formed the forward part of the shaft and solid wood the rear, were found.70
       An apparent increase in the weight of arrows might indicate an increasing need to penetrate armour. Certainly Transoxania was making and exporting both wooden khalanj and lighter wakhī "flight" arrows of reed in the 10th century.71 In the early 13th century, however, bīd willow and khadang poplar arrows were being made in this area,72 while kilk reed arrows were now described as only suitable for long-range "flight" archery as they were otherwise inaccurate.73 In Saljūq Rūm a short while later, arrows were only described as being of hornbeam or of beech.74
69. F. E. grown, "Arms and Armour", in The Excavations at Dura-Europos, Preliminary Report VI, (New, Haven 1936), pp. 453-455.
70. I. B. Bentovich, "Nakhodki na Gore Mug", Materiali i Issledavina po Arkheolooii SSSR. LXVI, p. 380.
71. Anon., Ḥudūd al ʿĀlam, V. Minorrsky, trans., (London 1937), pp. 118 and 121.
72. Mubārakshāh, op. cit., p. 244.
73. Ibid.
74. Anon., The Book of Dede Korkut, pp. 56 and 143.


from page 130 to page 138


Arrow-guides, Pellet-bows and Crossbows
       In the early Middle Ages the Muslim world seems to have made almost as much use of various mechanical and pellet-bows as did Europe. Many seem to have had eastern origins, but there is, nevertheless, little evidence to suggest that they came to Europe


via Islam. Indeed, in many cases the Europeans seem, perhaps only marginally, to have made the first widespread use of such weapons. An exception to this general oriental origin for unorthodox bows may be the pellet-bow. Naturally, such a weapon is generally only recognizeable in illustrated sources by the fact that its users carry bags for pellets rather than quivers for arrows (Fig. 177 H) or, in much later sources, by the very detailed nature of the art (Fig. 646 ). The pellet-bow shot small stones or lead pellets and was primarily a hunting weapon. It was, in fact, employed by Muslim warriors from al Andalus for just this purpose while raiding Sardinia in the 8th century.149 Only later does the pellet-bow appear in some boisterous horse-play in mid-9th century Iraq,150 and for hunting in the Ḥamdānid Jazīrah.151 Meanwhile pellet-bows remained popular in al Andalus at least until the 11th century.152
       If the pellet-bow was a hunting weapon of perhaps western origin, the arrow-guide was definitely a war-weapon of eastern invention. It may, perhaps, have first been mentioned in the hands of those Sassanian troops who faced the Muslims in Iraq in the mid-7th century.153 Known as the nāwak in Persian and the ḥusbān in Arabic, the arrow-guide perhaps had an Iranian origin. Traditionally, this weapon
149. Ibn ʿAbd al Ḥakam, op. cit., pp. 100-101.
150. Al Masʿūdī, op. cit., vol. VIII, p. 17.
151. Canard, "Quelques aspects de la vie sociale en Syrie et Jazīrah au dixième siècle d'après les poètes de la cour Ḥamdānide," p. 187.
152. Pérès, op. cit., pp. 350-359.
153. Al Balādhurī, op. cit., vol. I, pp. 362-363.


was believed to have been invented on the Transoxanian frontier, though by Muslims, for use against Turkish raiders who would otherwise pick up their foes' arrows and shoot them back.154 Certainly, the arrow-guide-could only have originated in an area where the thumb-draw was normally used, for in this style of archery an arrow passed to the right of the bow, rather than the left as in the European finger-draw. Thus an archer's left hand could hold both his bow and his arrow-guide.155
       The nāwak or ḥusbān continued to be used in eastern Islam and was, by the late 12th century, certainly employed by horsemen among whom it was considered by one author to be too common to warrant a detailed description.156 Such weapons may, of course, have been used in this manner for centuries.
       The true hand-held crossbow poses a more difficult question. It was almost certainly invented in Asia, perhaps by the aboriginals of southern China157 many centuries before the period under review. Crossbows were being used as infantry weapons on China's Central Asian frontier in the 8th century,158 and may even have been known in the ʿAbbāsid Caliphate and Sāmānid Khurāsān a century or so later,159 Thereafter the weapon was recorded, under its various
154. Faris and Elmer, op. cit., pp. 124-126.
155. McEwen, op. cit., p. 76.
156. Al Tarṣūṣī, op. cit., pp. 110-111; al Tarṣūṣī, in Boudot-Lamotte, op. cit., p. 144.
157. B. Laufer, Chinese Clay Figures, part 1, Prologomena on the History of Defensive Armor, (Chicago 1914), p. 215.
158. Cahen, "Les Changements techniques militaires dans la Proche Orient médiéval et leur importance historique," p. 118.
159. Cahen, "Djaysh," pp. 504-509; al Khaṭīb al Baghdādī, in Vasiliev, op. cit., vol. II, p. 78; Firdawsī, op. cit., pp. 1280 and 1327-1328.


names, in most parts of Islam, and by the 12th century even in Byzantium.160 Nevertheless, there are problems stemming not only from terminology but also from the obvious fact that a form of heavy, mounted crossbow for use in siege warfare had been known in the Hellenistic and Roman worlds. Various forms of large, frame-mounted siege crossbows were subsequently used in Islam, such as the qaws al lawlab, zanbūrak, ziyār and perhaps also the nīm charkh kushkhanjīr, although the earliest Muslim references to such weapons that I can find date from the late 12th century. These mention the zanbūrak161 and ziyār162 (Figs. 167 A to 167C). Were the first hand-held infantry crossbows of western Europe, and most importantly of Iberia, developed from Romano-Hellenistic heavy types, or did they spring from lighter crossbows of more immediate Asian origin that were already in use in Islam? This is a question that has yet to be adequately answered,163 Similarly, the available pictorial evidence does little to clarify this issue, either in an Islamic or a Mediterranean context (Figs. 83, 131, 167C-D, 287, 513, 531, 544, 545, 572, 610 and 661 ). That Islam was fully capable of improving upon the basic crossbow concept seems to be demonstrated by the above-mentioned ziyār siege-bow. Here the arms of the bow, made in two separate parts, are reinforced by "skeins" of silk and horsehair which are themselves mounted across a large oaken frame.164
160. Anon., Itinerarium Peregrinorum, pp. 47 and 53.
161. Bahā al Dīn, op. cit., p. 251; ʿImād al Dīn, op. cit., pp. 227-228.
162. Al Tarṣūṣī, op. cit., pp. 108-110 and 121.
163. J. F. Haldon, "Solinarion - the Byzantine Crossbow?" University of Birmingham Historical Journal, XII (1969-70), p. 15.
164. W. F. Paterson, “The Skein Bow,” Journal of the Society of Archer Antiquaries, VII (1964), pp. 24-27.


       It would, in fact, seem likely that lighter crossbows were favoured by Muslim warriors as they were more suited to their open and manoeuverable style of warfare. Certainly this would account for the appearance of crossbows in the hands of specifically Muslim shock-cavalry in the mid-14th and perhaps also 13th centuries.165 Such a tactical development may have been made easier by an already well-established use of the arrow-guide by Muslim horsemen.

165. Latham, "The Archers of the Middle East: The Tūrco-Iranian Background," p. 102; al ʿUmarī, Masālik al Abṣār fī Mamālik al Anṣār, pp. 146-147.

from page 142 to page 145

See also XLIII. On shooting with the ḥusbān, dawdan, and ‘uṣfūri arrows through the hollow of a guide
in an Arabic manuscript of about A.D. 1500 “Book on the Excellence of the Bow and Arrow”
and Appendix 14. The majra or Arrow Guide

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Index of Illustrations of Costume & Soldiers