National Hunts and War-Games
The yearly war-games and the cultic, national hunts and chases played a significant role in maintaining the hunters’ battle skills. The Kitaj hunts opened with a specific ceremony, a prayer addressed to the great Sun God.
The territory selected for the ritual games had already been marked out the day before the event. After the prayer the huntsmen were divided into two groups.
At certain points in the hunts, there were were ritual libations. The manoeuvres and exercises carried out in files were conducted by commanders. Since the hunts and war-games served as military exercises as well, no subjugated people were allowed to take part.
The war-games upheld and developed the warfare skills of the warriors. Among the Kitaj, for instance, the equestrian archery contest was held on the 5th day of the 4th month. The ceremony was initiated with a ritual offering to the Gods, then willow-wands were stuck into the ground around the field, and the players attached different pieces of coloured textile to the willow rods according to their social status. The bottom of each wand, that stuck a few inches out of the ground, was stripped of its bark. Then the warriors mounted their horses and galloped one by one along the row of the marked rods in a sort of display or procession. Their goal in the game was to hit the target, the stripped part of the rod, whilst galloping on horseback. The arrows used for these war-games weren’t fletched, making it more difficult for the hunters to hit the target. If a competitor made a hit, and broke the rod with the arrow, he would slow his horse and try to pick up the broken fragment of willow-rod as well.
Those who had succeeded in both exercises, both shooting and picking up the willow fragment, were first place holders in the competition, while those who had only been able to break the rod got second place. It was a significant part of the competition that the riders had to pick something up from the ground from speed whilst on horseback. This is a recurring practice as we will see later on as well. The most skilled warriors of the empire flocked together to the great hunts organised by the ruler Genghis Khan. During these great hunts stern military discipline was imposed.
The battles were settled using long range warfare tactics. The characteristic weapon of long range warfare at that period was the bow and arrow, which had adapted to the changing circumstances: they had become more simple and practical. The stiff limbs of the bow were not covered with bone-plates any more: a solid bone-end was attached instead, which was called the “nose”. The bows thus became shorter but stouter as well—the warriors carried them in drawn state, in an open and flat standby bow-case. The arrowheads were now made exclusively of iron —except for a few specialised types of arrowheads—and they were flat and double fletched, so that they could easily fit into the flat leather-cases. The arrows were inserted into the leather-case with their heads down, therefore the winged-end stuck out of the case. The lighter and closed fitting saddle-structure and a more elaborate stirrup improved steering and simplified manoeuvres on horseback as well.
In the territories of the central and eastern steppes, an open, wooden-built saddle was in use with a type of crupper , while in the western-steppes a closed-structure saddle was common. The ornamentation of the harness became more and more elaborate with the addition of iron mountings, bells, tapestry, and silk blankets, though noble metals were not used as lavishly or as extensively as previously. Part of the wooden saddle-structure was covered by leather, but it was mostly decorated by miniature paintings.
Not only national, centralised war-games were held, but also lesser competitions. These were organised by local rulers and took place in spring time, in the height of summer, or at new year, following ancient traditions. Separate contests were held, for instance,for infantry archers and mounted archers. At the infantry archer competitions the length of the court was marked out first—approximately 20-30 arrows, that is 35-45 metres—then came the laying out of the starting-line.
The target was made of cotton or felt. The centre was marked by a round hole or a coloured circle. In the former, behind the hole in the centre of the target there was a simple arrow-counting device that made it easier to keep the scores in mind.
Among the steppe-dwelling people, even if they were infantry archers, nocking and shooting the arrow to the right side was wide-spread, which means that arrow-head was placed on the right side of the recurve bow, and while aiming it rested on the left hand’s thumb. This is reflected by the steppes’ terminology of aiming as well: the verb for nocking derives from the word ’thumb’ both in Mongolian, Manchurian and Tibetan language.
Nocking the arrow and shooting to the left, however, wasn’t unknown to these people either, though it was very rare Relying on the dictionaries containing expressions of the time, it is clear that certain archer-rings were used. They were special, finely polished rings, made of horn or bone, and worn on the right hand’s thumb. They provided a firmer grip of the string. The ring worn on the left hand had a knob that stuck out significantly—it assured a firmer position for the arrow-head while aiming, and served a function as an arrow-sight as well.
On a signal from the jury that would judge the event, the first competitor took a stance, with the left foot placed forward, onto the starting-line. He would take up the arrow into the right hand and place it from underneath onto the string of the bow that was held horizontally, in the left hand. Then, as the bow was turned from the horizontal to the vertical position, the arrow acquired its position on the right side of the bow, ready to aim and shoot. The archer then held the fletched tail of the arrow and the string and drew back. When shooting at a target, the draw was a rather slow and complicated action, since simultaneously whilst stretching back the string the archer had to aim as well. To obtain perfect aiming a good eye for proportion, distance and a profound knowledge of the bow’s characteristics were indispensable. Much more so, as each and every recurve bow was custom-made, each one having a slightly different shape and different projectile characteristics too. Nevertheless these differences were balanced out easily by the accomplished warrior: the steppe-dwelling archers used both their eyes to aim (not like the later musketeers or rifle-men, who would aim using only one eye), as they would carry out complicated comparisons between the target, the distance and the estimated trajectory—which can only be accomplished using both eyes.
Having locked on to the target, the archer would release the string with all three fingers, while with the left hand he would simultaneously turn the bow to the right. The arrow would shoot out, bouncing off the string, and— if lucky—would hit bull’s-eye, the centre of the target. After each stage of the contest the jury would evaluate the results by counting the hits. According to local customs either the arrows having hit the board, or the ones that had been left untouched, were counted. Not only the number of hits were noted, but the quality of the shots as well.
With regard to the qualification of the shots, first and foremost we must mention the so called „penetrating shot”. In this case, not only did the arrow hit the target, but it actually pierced and penetrated through the textile covering of the board. A slightly less powerful shot was the „strong shot”—it was still highly appreciated by the people of the steppes, since both in battle and huntings, in most cases, it ended with the death of the victim. In the literature of nomadic nations the shooting strength of their epic heroes is frequently exaggerated.