In centuries past, military skills were of great significance and it was considered necessary for Mongolians to develop abilities that were useful on the battlefield. One instrument that was of particular cultural and practical importance was the composite bow. It is often considered superior to bows produced in the West due to its ability to hit long-range targets.

CUT ABOVE THE REST: The bow’s double-curve shape delivers extreme acceleration and velocity, ensuring the arrow is able to hit targets over large distances. Compared to the English longbow, which reaches distances of up to 230 metres, the Mongolian bow is able to hit its target at up 365 metres, which would have provided ancient warriors with distinct advantage on the battlefield. Soldiers carried two bows on horseback during military campaigns, one for long-range shooting and another for shorter distances.

UNRIVALLED ACCURACY: G. Lhagvasuren, the former deputy director at the Mongolian National Institute of Physical Education, authored an article called “The stele of Ghengis Khan”, where he refers to ancient inscriptions on a stele found in the Kharkhiraa River basin. According to the article, the stele dates back to 1226, and includes much relevant cultural, historical and linguistic information. One section reads: “During an assembly of Mongolian dignitaries, held by Ghengis Khan after his conquest of Startaul [East Turkestan], Esungge shot a target at 335 alds [536 metres].”

The ancient record is similar to more modern records of targets hit with a Mongolian bow, which “illustrates the strength, accuracy, sharp eye and physical prowess of the Mongolians who lived more than 700 years ago.” Regardless of whether archers were capable of regularly hitting targets at such distances, there is no question that archery was an important skill and that the craftsmanship of the bows was taken very seriously. “One could even consider the inscription as historical proof of the outstanding archery skills, training methods and techniques which flourished in Mongolia at the time,” the article reads.

UNIQUE DESIGN: The secret of the Mongolian bow’s superiority is how it is made. The frame is 150-160 cm and the bow itself consists of layers of different materials. The backbone is a wooden frame, typically made out of birch, a resilient material that is readily available.

The frame is covered with elongated and flattened pieces of mountain sheep’s horn and/or bone, and the third layer is made of specially prepared birch bark to protect against moisture. The final layer is made out of sinew, which is taken from deer, moose or other game animals. The bow then has to be glued together, with fish glue being the preferred and traditional substance used for impregnating the leather. Fish glue has proven to be extremely resistant to moisture. Moreover, it is durable and lasts longer than modern epoxy resins, which are prone to molecular fatigue. Once the layer of birch bark has been added to the composite construction, the whole bow is wrapped tightly in ropes and placed in a mould, where it is left to dry and harden at room temperature for at least a year. This technique ensures that the bow becomes extremely stiff and strong and that it keeps its shape and snappiness even after years of frequent shooting.

The final part of the process involves the placement of the string, which is traditionally made of animal hide.

Every trace of fat is removed from the skin, which is then stretched and twisted. Although the skin of many fur-bearing animals can be used, the preferred choice is horse skin as it maintains suppleness in the extremely harsh winters common in Siberia and Central Asia, where temperatures can dip as low -40° C.

LIVING TRADITION: Today archery is one of the three games featured during the summertime Naadam festival, which centres on the “three games of men”, with the other two being wrestling and horse racing. An archer born in the year of the tiger, a symbol of strength and marksmanship typically leads the opening ceremony of the Naadam festival. In 2010 Naadam was included on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.