The Most Astonishing Weapon Capable of Flight

The bow is one of humanity’s most remarkable achievements. Most scholars date its appearance to the early Neolithic era, while others trace it back to the Paleolithic period. Indeed, it is from the Paleolithic that ideographic symbols – a hunter, an archer, an arrow – begin to appear and gradually develop in Armenian rock carvings.

After a sharp increase in the population of Homo sapiens, hunting large animals with spears and darts became much more challenging – large herds were partially driven away, or migrated to more distant or inaccessible places.

The invention of the bow allowed ancient people to hunt smaller game – hares, deer, birds – and thus compensate for the emerging meat shortage. However, it is entirely possible that the bow was invented as a musical instrument, as a tightly stretched bowstring produces a distinctive singing and vibrating sound (after all, what is a harp if not a bow with multiple strings?).

Interestingly, in world mythology, the shape-image-structure of the bow is suggested and given by the celestial rainbow. The bow and the archer are directly associated with both the sky and the earth – with the ancestral deities.

From this perspective, the conclusion of A. A. Martirosyan is valuable: “…the ancestral archers, associated with the moon and sun, luminaries, and the celestial vault, could also have been connected with constellations, such as the legendary Aik with Orion or the Sasun demigods with Aries” (from the article “Primitive Hieroglyphs of Armenia and their Urartian-Armenian Doubles”).

Almost immediately after its invention, the bow transformed from a tool into a weapon. And since then, its development has been truly rapid. Not only the bow itself was improved, but also the methods of handling it – different ways of stringing were developed, arrows became more differentiated: for hunting birds, large and small animals, fish, etc. The bow, as a weapon and tool, spread all over the world, or rather – was invented simultaneously in many places.

However, I have always wondered why there are two words for ‘arrow’ in the Armenian language. The first and most common is “nēt,” and the second, also well-known but rarely perceived as a weapon, is “slak.”

To the ear, “nēt” is perceived as something throwable: to throw or to cast in Armenian is “nētel.” However, the ancient Armenians threw not only arrows but also darts, which had its own specific name – “tēg.”

At the same time, “slak” implies something more swift than “nēt” – perhaps, by analogy with the verb “slanal” – “to rush”? Besides, since the hands of a clock are also called “slak” in Armenian, logically one might assume that “slak” is smaller than “nēt.”

(By the way, the Armenian word for spear – “nizak” – I associate with the Russian verb “to string, to thread,” the Armenian “sakr,” from which “sakravor” — sapper, — with “axe,” and “tapar” — with “axe.” Could the roots here indeed be common Indo-European?)

Where does this difference come from? Why? Again, if we think logically, the world is well aware of arrows of different sizes and purposes. The first thing that comes to mind are arrows for a bow and bolts for a crossbow.

However, I don’t recall a proper Armenian name for a crossbow or self-bow – it is not proper to consider the modern word “inknadzik” or the one given in the Russian-Armenian dictionary “dzkazenk” – a tension weapon, which is even more absurd than “inknadzik”…

Moreover, I would like to remind once again of the almost complete absence in Armenian historical science of such a field as arms study. Stepan Yesayan’s monographs “The Armor of Ancient Armenia” and “Weapons and Military Affairs of Ancient Armenia, III-I millennia BC” were published in the 1960s.

The works of Emma Astvatsaturyan “The History of Arms and Silver Production in the Caucasus in the 19th – Early 20th Centuries”, “Weapons of the Peoples of the Caucasus”, “Dagestani Weapons”, “Turkish Weapons in the Collection of the State Historical Museum”, “Masters of Arms and Silver Work of the North Caucasus and Transcaucasia”, “Index of Marks of Masters of Arms and Silver Work of the North Caucasus and Transcaucasia” are even less accessible and relate not so much to Armenian arms studies as to general Caucasian realities. Moreover, with rare exceptions, they focus on the era of firearms.

Other publications on the history of Armenian weapons can also be remembered, for example, the article by Ripsime Janpoladian-Piotrovskaya “Medieval Saber with Armenian Inscription Found in the Polar Urals”.

In addition, isn’t it surprising that the study of weapons, even if general Caucasian, is primarily conducted by women in our country? However, it should be said that some historical forums have had quite lively discussions related to the military affairs of ancient and medieval Armenia.

However, unfortunately, these discussions themselves were largely amateurish (and the author of this article is no exception), and the forums themselves have withered. Moreover, since many of the aforementioned sources are practically inaccessible due to their rarity and age, and some are completely absent, people have to dig around the internet, look for analogies, and operate with not entirely adequate, and even alien concepts and terms.

Regardless, in Armenian history – both ancient and medieval – bows and arrows, as well as the archers themselves, hold a very respectable and significant place. So significant that even arrows had two names!

But what do we actually know about the bows of Armenian warriors? If we judge by the monument to Hayk the Forefather, our ancestor was armed with a simple long bow. The same kind of bows we see in the petroglyphs of Armenian mountains. These are the earliest types of bows, consisting of a bent stick with a string.

This traditional representation of Armenian bows, surprisingly, has survived to this day. They were made from the wood of yew, ash, juniper, maple, elm, acacia, hickory, walnut, or red cedar – tree species that are quite common in the Armenian Highlands.

These bows, as a rule, were quite large in size (simple bows of smaller size were almost exclusively used for hunting). For example, in a burial ground north of Khanlar (despite the Turkic toponymy, the affiliation of these territories to historical Armenia does not change), E.A. Ressler found a vessel with a depiction of hunting for wild goats. On the vessel, there are two extremely schematically executed figures of hunters, holding small bows with arrows already set.

By the way, judging by the images, the bow of Eastern Transcaucasia, unlike the Central Transcaucasia, was relatively small in size. Such are the bows depicted on black pottery (Kirovabad region), as well as on a bronze belt from the excavations of V. Belka in the Shamkhor region.

But on the battle belts of Central Transcaucasia, we encounter large bows, almost the height of a person – predominantly for combat. This fact, by the way, finds its confirmation in documentary historical evidence.

As Horenatsi reports, Armenian bows were large (up to 2 meters) and wide, and the arrows were three-feathered and very long, which ensured the range and accuracy of shooting. These arrows were so long that if they fell into the hands of the enemies undamaged, they used them as darts.

Apparently, it is these arrows for such bows that were called “net.” The arrowheads were also improved – they were, so to speak, designed to be “non-removable” – one of the feathers of the arrowhead was made weak, and it broke in the wound, hindering healing.

“Yet the enemies suffered no harm,” Dion Cassius sadly states regarding the rout of Lucullus’ army by Armenian cavalry at the Battle of Tigranocerta on September 15, 68 BC, “but as they retreated and shot at their pursuers, they killed many and wounded others.

And the wounds were severe and difficult to heal, for they used arrows with such tips that, being fastened together, quickly killed, whether they remained in the body of the wounded or were pulled out, as one of the iron tips, which was not attached, remained in the wound.”

(In another translation, it is explicitly stated that the arrows had two tips, and one always remained in the wound. In another, more modern translation, the translator, apparently unable to grasp the subtleties of Dion Cassius’s terminology, simply wrote that the tips were smeared with poison…

Yet in another – that “the arrows had two ends, specially connected to each other”…)

Mastery of all types of weapons was an essential condition for the upbringing of the nobility. Mastery of the bow was also mandatory for Armenian kings.

“Handsome in appearance, a skillful and courageous archer Vagarshak” – this is how Horenatsi describes King Vagarshak. By the way, the rulers of the Kingdom of Urartu were also not averse to archery.

A cuneiform inscription preserves the testimony that Argishti, son of Rusas, shot a distance of about 476 meters – almost half a kilometer! There is also evidence that Armenian archers would anchor the lower end of their bows in the ground and press them down with their foot – their weapons were so powerful and large.

And here is another confirmation of the recognition of the skills of Armenian warriors: “Let the Armenians with Vasak and Arbel be positioned behind the right wing, occupying the very edge of the wing, for they are all archers” (Disposition against the Alans. Flavius Arrian).

The awareness of the importance of archer troops in the army of ancient Armenia is evidenced by the fact that the Armenian army, marching with Cyrus, consisted of 4,000 cavalry, 10,000 archers, and 10,000 peltasts (warriors armed with darts and slingshots).

In one of the Arab-Byzantine wars, Armenian archers in the Byzantine army shot so accurately with bows that most of the Arabs were struck by arrows in the eyes. This battle was named the “Battle of Blindness.”

However, let us return to large and small bows. Ancient reliefs and medieval miniatures show that large bows – which Horenatsi called “laynalich” (a typical example is the Gaike bow) – were used primarily in defense, on fortress walls or in protected locations, where handling them was easier, and it was necessary to hit the enemy at a possibly greater distance.

We see these large bows in Egyptian, Hittite, and Assyrian depictions of battles with chariots as well. The fact is that usually archers in chariots didn’t shoot while moving, when aimed shooting could hardly be possible (unless at a dense mass of troops), but approached closer and shot at the enemy from short stops.

In these situations, a large bow was not a hindrance. By the way, in the early stages of cavalry development, mounted archers also shot either from stops (and in these cases, they had special grooms holding the horse so that its movements wouldn’t “throw off the aim”), or they simply dismounted.

All of this was because stirrups had not yet been invented, so the horse was not yet a reliable mobile “platform.” And here again, a large bow was not much of a hindrance.

As for small bows, according to reliefs and miniatures, for a very long time, they were not simply a bent stick with tied string ends, like large bows, but a composite weapon with one or two bends in the limbs and special horn plates enhancing the strength and elasticity of the bow.

And such bows were already professional weapons. It is quite natural that complex or composite bows required shorter arrows, as the practice of using bows and arrows showed that the shorter and lighter the arrow, the more accurate and further it will fly.

However, its penetrating power is less, and it is effective only at a short distance. So why did the short composite bow in the East – both Far and Near – almost immediately gain such popularity and become the main weapon, especially of the cavalry?

Everything here (as is the case with swords and sabers) comes down to such an epoch-making discovery of its time as the invention of stirrups. This led to the fact that the horse not only ceased to be merely a means of delivering warriors to the battlefield but also became an integral part of the combat complex called a mounted warrior.

The short bow turned out to be extremely suitable for a horseman: with it, it became possible to shoot not only forward, but also to the left and even behind – the lower limb of the bow no longer pressed against the side of the horse.

Strengthened with horn or bone overlays and covered with tendons, the small bow was no less powerful than the large one, and the speed of the relatively lighter arrow, complemented by the speed of the galloping horse, increased its penetrating ability, especially at relatively short (50-100 meters) distances.

From such an arrow, especially one equipped with a faceted armor-piercing tip, neither chainmail nor any other protective armor could save. (Let’s add in parentheses that the Japanese, for example, took their own original path here. To ensure that the large Yumi bow did not interfere with shooting from a horse and at a gallop, they simply reduced the lower limb of the bow, making it asymmetrical).

Our conclusions, derived purely logically, unexpectedly found their confirmation in a very informative article by Anzor Ostakhov “Circassian Shooting Weapons (13th – 16th centuries)”. (Again, let’s not forget that the martial arts of the peoples of the Caucasus and Transcaucasia developed largely in the same direction, and in the Middle Ages almost all of them had the same set of weapons).

So, let us quote: “…The Circassians had two types of bows – large and small. The sizes of large bows were approximately 130-140 cm, and arrows – 70-75 cm; in turn, the sizes of small bows and arrows were 90-100 cm and 40-50 cm. …According to data from E. G. Astvatsaturyan, the Adygs also had needle-like tips for piercing chainmail.

Moreover, arrows with a small tip had a greater flight range than arrows with a wide flat tip; this was due to their weight: the former were light, and the latter were heavy. …

Large bows were used in a dismounted state for shooting at long distances from safe positions. We came to a similar conclusion based on a number of facts. Firstly, the large bow is inconvenient for mounted shooting, as it greatly limits the movements of the rider and makes aiming difficult…”

It seems clear now why our ancestors had two names for arrows. And no matter how much I dug around here and there, I haven’t found a single nation where arrows for long and short bows would have different names (although I might be mistaken)… And – a note to remember: the command to fire a bow in many nations sounds like “Fire!” – even among the English! But in the Armenian language, this command is “Zark!”, which means “hit!”

The small composite bow has another advantage over the simple large one. Due to its design, the composite bow retains its elastic properties much longer. The string of a simple bow had to be removed as soon as there was no need for this weapon (otherwise the bow loses its shape and elasticity, and an equipped large bow is quite cumbersome).

By the way, modern rules recommend removing the string even during a half-hour break in shooting! But composite complex bows can be kept with a drawn string for several days.

This was especially important for swift cavalry, since, according to historical evidence, putting a string on a bow is not a matter of one and not even ten seconds: not every man was capable of bending a powerful composite bow (recall the bow of Odysseus!).

By the way, the draw weight of modern sports bows is 22–25 kg for men and 16–18 kg for women, while even the simple large English bows (longbows) reached 100 pounds, which is up to 45 kg, so for archers of ancient times, even today’s male version would seem exceedingly “childish”…

…Well, since we have smoothly moved from bows and arrows to cavalry and mounted archers, perhaps it is time to tell the story of the famous Armenian cavalry – ayrudzi. For it was noticed in antiquity: the side on which the Armenian cavalry fights is the side that wins. But more on this next time.

by Nelson Aleksanyan

Translated by Vigen Avetisyan

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