The Scythians, nomadic warriors originating in Southern Siberia, flourished between 900 and 200 BC. At their peak their culture spread over central Asia from Western China to the Black Sea.
Militarily they were superlative horse-archers and at the heart of that supremacy was the design, not only of the Scythian bow, but also of other key items of inter-connected equipment.
The Scythian bow
A Scythian bow was a composite bow, made from wood, horn, sinew and glue. Although it was one of the earliest composite bow designs, it was by far the most complex, both in terms of cross-section and profile.
Its representations in art, such as the fourth century BC gold plaque showing two Scythian archers back-to-back (now in the British Museum and visible in the image below), have frequently portrayed it as especially small.
There may be practical reasons for this. Long slender bow limbs on small cast gold jewellery would be prone to breaking. Some instances of painted art, for instance on vases, also show very tiny bows; many with correspondingly tiny arrows.
Perhaps these were emblematic, signifying that the subject is an archer: the bows were an identifier but had less status than the human they defined and were therefore rendered smaller.
In many cases Scythian bows have been erroneously portrayed as too small; they were nevertheless a relatively short bow. It is the extraordinary triumph of their design that a bow of this size was able to be brought to a full, long draw.
A wooden longbow has to be taller than the man using it in order to allow the limbs to bend sufficiently that an archer can draw to his ear; otherwise they would snap. The ability of the much shorter Scythian bow to do this is partly owing to the elasticity and resilience of the composite materials and partly owing to the geometry of the design.
How powerful were Scythian bows?
There has long been a widely held perception that Scythian bows were of low draw-weight (the number of kilograms it took to bend them to full draw). This combined with the theory that they had short arrows that were only pulled to half-draw.
It was a theory that attempted to rationalize the images in art together with a belief that such narrow-limbed, extremely-curved bows could not support the forces of torsion at high draw-weights.
These beliefs defied the archaeological evidence of actual surviving bows. In addition to the one illustrated above, there was a find in the Yanghai cemetery, Xinjiang, China that unearthed bows of similar proportions.
The bowyer Adam Karpowicz made a replica of one of these bows, which had a draw-weight of nearly 55 kilograms. Similarly the bowyer Jason Beever regularly makes Scythian bows with draw-weights in excess of 45 kilograms.
Jason also shoots these mighty bows and is able to draw them back to his ear. It was once thought that the engineering of the Scythian bow would not stand these strains, but that is demonstrably false.
The bows can take it, trained archers can manage it and the length of arrows discovered archaeologically indicate that most were around 78 centimetres.
Generally speaking the stirrup is a great aid to the horse-archer because it assists him in raising his seat from the saddle and enables him to shoot, almost in suspension, removed from the undulating motions of the horse.
Above all else, the Scythians were famed as horse-archers but they existed several centuries before the stirrup was invented. However, there was an ingenious design element to their saddles that aided the optimal position for shooting a bow at the gallop.
Because many Scythian burial mounds lie beneath the permafrost, leather saddles have been preserved in remarkable condition. These saddles have padded bolsters at each corner. The author made a replica and discovered that the front bolsters enable the archer to assume a raised position, even without stirrups (see main image).
An improvement to this design was the Parthian four-horn saddle, which was subsequently adopted by the Romans.
Another distinctive piece of Scythian war gear was the gorytos, a combined quiver and bow-case that was worn on the left hip and which faced to the rear. As with all composite bows, there is a high probability that the Scythian bow was shot with a thumb draw.
When shooting with a thumb draw, the arrow is placed on the right-hand side of the bow. Having the arrows on the left hip (for a right-handed archer, holding his bow in his left hand) would normally be impossibly awkward, especially on a horse.
How could he retrieve an arrow with his right hand from a rear-facing quiver on the left? The author found that it was quite intuitive to take the arrow with the fingers of his bow-hand, which fell at a natural height to the quiver opening.
Shooting with arrows in the bow-hand is evidenced in several horse-archer cultures and it facilitates a particularly rapid shooting technique. The arrow is folded down onto the string with the left hand and the string drawn in a fluid, continuous motion.
The ergonomics of this shooting system are superb and it allows for the brief use of the bridle-hand to tweak the steering of the horse.
Many Scythian arrowheads were quite small and barbed. Whether shot into men or horses, no matter how powerful the bow, only arrows striking a few limited vital areas would prove fatal.
The Scythians ensured greater success by dressing their arrows with poison. Scythicon was produced from putrefied vipers, mixed with human blood and animal dung.
The Scythians had a coherent system of well-designed and distinctively unique archery tackle, from the bows themselves to the arrows and poison, the ingenuity of the gorytos and the bolstered saddle. It is little wonder that they won such fame on the battlefield.
Mike Loades is a respected author, broadcaster, director and action arranger who has made well over 100 television appearances as a historical weapons expert and military historian. His latest book, War Bows, (February, 2019) is published by Osprey Publishing