The September 2018 feature “Barbarians at the Gate” was excellent. One minor oversight: Author Tang Long notes, “Unlike traditional recurve bowmen, crossbowmen required minimal training to achieve proficiency. Within 10 days of instruction a peasant farmer could become a competent crossbowman.” A recurve bow has a similar learning curve. What is near impossible to gain proficiency in is to ride on horseback and shoot arrows competently. One has to be raised riding and shooting at the same time to achieve this skill. Once achieved, it is frighteningly effective in battle. This was the technique used by my ancestors the Magyars (Hungarians), cousins of the Huns. And of course, as noted by the author, the Huns are descendants of the nomadic Xiongnu. I was taught that in ancient times a Magyar 5-year-old boy was expected to be able to ride all day with only a mouthful of milk as sustenance.
Imagine an open field battle. The Chinese or Roman armies are bunched together in formation. The Huns and Magyars are circling their troops, riding fast, raining arrows on the enemy. Each has four horses they rotate, thus never ceasing to attack. In addition, some arrows have built-in whistles, so field command can be signaled quickly and easily, facilitating tactics such as attack, withdrawal, right, left, center, etc. The withdrawal techniques worked well, as once the enemy broke ranks on the (fake) retreat, the horsemen would turn and could easily pick them off. Also, note that anyone who has shot a bow knows how hard it is to hit a target, much less a moving one. Yes, the enemy had archers too, but they were stationary—not very effective, as they were shooting at darting targets in space, while the bunched up enemy archers were themselves vulnerable.
The crossbow was effective because it was shot not in open field battle, but from ramparts above. Because it has much faster airspeed than a recurve, one does not have to be as accurate an aimer. It is like a rifle—one with more speed per second that is easier to shoot.
Levente “Lee” Orth
Editor responds: Thank you for expanding on the use of bows in ancient military history. The Parthians, a warlike ancient Iranian tribe, perfected the technique you mention of firing a volley from horseback during a feigned retreat, and from them derives the expression “parting (Parthian) shot.”
Beasts of Budapest
Nicholas Smith’s article “The Beasts of Budapest” (September 20l8) brought back memories for me. I was born in the United States, but both of my parents were Hungarian. My dad came to America as a teenager in l912 (barely missing the Titanic and World War I). My mother came over several years after the war, also as a teen. I was only 11 years old at the time of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, but I remember my dad being glued to the radio. My dad was an American first, but he still had relatives and feelings for his homeland. He’d have tears in his eyes and would cuss out the Soviets in English and Hungarian.
Dad not only hated communists but also hated Russia in general; his grandparents remembered when Hungary rose up against Austria in 1848, and Russia came to Austria’s rescue. Like my dad, I am an American and served a tour in Vietnam (a little revenge against the commies, I guess), but I’m always interested in articles concerning my ancestral home country. Your research director and onetime editor of Military History, Jon Guttman, shares a Hungarian background with me.
At any rate, it was a well-written and detailed article. While the young Hungarian rebels didn’t gain their freedom in 1956, the revolution did prompt a more liberal policy from the communist government. A republic would have to wait until free elections in 1990.
Tom R. Kovach
I am continually pleasantly surprised when you keep coming up with stories I was not aware of, and you find a writer who makes it compelling and understandable in the context of the time and place in the world. “War in the ‘Green Hell,’” by P.G. Smith, in the July 2018 issue, was terrific and helps explain the Bolivian political situation today. Thank you.
Palm Harbor, Fla.
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