Naadam: Archery

This post is part of a four-part series on Mogolian Naadam (Three Manly Sports). Naadam is a festival traditionally held within the first half of July every year in Mongolia. You can read the other sections here: Horse Racing, Wrestling, Ankle Bones.

“Archery has as ancient a history as wrestling; both are mentioned in the Secret History of the Mongols, and an inscription in stone, a little older than the Secret History and also of the thirteenth century, records an arrow shot of 335 ‘spans.'”

-Owen Lattimore (Nomads and Commissars, p. 22)

The three manly sports build better soldiers. Since the Mongolian armies were well known and feared for their horse-back archery skills, it should come as no surprise that archery is the last of the trio. The archery is standing, however, and not done on horseback for Naadam.

The most important piece of equipment for this sport is the Mongolian bow. You cannot simply buy yourself a bow from a shop; you must have one custom made for your stature. Each bow is built specifically for its archer, so you cannot borrow a friend’s bow unless you want to struggle with firing it correctly. The bow is usually made of wood (although there are some made exquisitely from the horns of animals), with a removable thread that slips into Y-shaped joints at the end of the bow. I believe the correct term is a compound bow. While I am not skilled enough to describe proper firing techniques, or how the bow and shooting differs from other regions, the more die-hard archers out there can possibly discern these differences from the photographs in this post.

Men, women, and young people can all participate in the archery competition. Men only compete with men, women with women, and so forth. There are lines set up for each group, while a small set of cylinders is set up in a pyramid-esqué formation at the opposite end of the field. Archers take their stance and shoot an arching shot, so that the arrow rises and falls onto the ground-level targets (unlike raised bulls-eye targets you see frequently in archery competitions). You accumulate points based on the number of cylinders you can knock over.

Hit these.
Hit these (not the boys).

Some families have a long tradition of archery. One such family, in the village I lived in for training, has three generations of archers. The grandfather, now retired, set up a horn-bow factory. The father and mother both compete on the national level, competing in the prestigious Ulaan Baatar Naadam. There is also, of course, their little girl, who while still quite young, is learning the family trade.

It's never too early to start.
It’s never too early to start.

Previous Posts

Grapple (Poetry)

Naadam: Wrestling (Prose)

Next Posts

Men of the Bottle (Poetry)

Naadam: Ankle Bones (Prose)


3 thoughts on “Naadam: Archery

    1. Thanks for the positive comment on the picture! It took me forever to get the right shot of her. As for the archery question, they all have different distances: The young girls are the closest, followed by the young boys, but then all the adult men and women shoot from the same distance.


  1. I’m not an archery expert by any means, but I do have a little bit of experience in the field. The bows are recurves, not compounds; a compound bow has a complicated system of pulleys and cams that increases the force with which the string propels the arrow, and the draw has a breaking point where the draw weight drops precipitously. Recurves are curved in a direction opposite the one in which the bow is bent, which increases both the draw weight and the force of propulsion. I learned to shoot on a recurve, though the shape of an Occidental recurve is a little different from that of a Mongolian one. The counter-curvature is more gradual, and the bow is shorter, so you don’t have to draw the string past your ear as the adults pictured above are doing.

    The other main difference is the way the bow is drawn. The little girl has one finger above the arrow and two below it, which the Western hold used by Olympic-style archers. The boy at the top has all three fingers below the arrow, which is how bare-bow archery is usually taught in the West. But if you look closely at the adults, you can see that they’re holding the string between the thumb and forefinger, which is typical of Oriental archery. The way they point the bow upwards while drawing and then take aim is also an Oriental characteristic.


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