They did both, depending on the circumstances. Mounted archers had the advantage of being light and fast. They had small horses and small composite bows made of wood, horn, and sinew. They were too fast for infantry or heavier cavalry to catch up to them, they could shoot a lot of arrows in a short period of time, they caused fear and disorganization, and they could trick an opposing army by faking a retreat.
Mounted archers existed in the ancient world – the “Parthian shot” was used against the Romans at the Battle of Carrhae in 53 BC. The Roman Empire had mounted archer units up to the early Byzantine period at least, when they still existed in Justinian’s army. But by the 9th century, emperor Leo VI complained that
“The fact that archery has been completely neglected and fallen into disuse among the Romans has caused a great deal of harm nowadays.” (Taktika, pg. 85)
Many groups of Asian nomads settled in Byzantine territory and used horse archery effectively against the Byzantines, who had by then forgotten how to use it.
The Turks of central Asia were also known to the Abbasid caliphate as expert horse archers. In the 9th-century century, the Abbasid author al-Jahiz described them in his essay “The Virtues of the Turks”:
“The Turk shoots at wild animals and birds, a target on a spear, people, a bird on a pole, and raised images. He shoots while his mount is galloping backwards and forwards, right and left, up and down. He shoots ten arrows before the Khariji [Arab soldiers, who al-Jahiz was comparing to the Turks] can notch a single one. He races his mount down a hill or into a valley bottom faster than a Khariji on level ground. The Turk has four eyes, two in his face and two on the back of his head.” (Hutchins, pg. 195)
There isn’t much written evidence from the Turks themselves about how they trained for this, but there is some evidence from a much later Mamluk manual from the 14th century. The Mamluks were originally slave soldiers, and many of them were from the steppes. The manual describes how to train a horse and rider for this kind of combat:
“Holding the reins with middle finger and ring-finger, the archer should grasp the bow with the whole hand…When charging, he stands in the stirrups and leans forward ever so slightly, taking care not to lean over too far. It is a half, and not a full, standing position that is required as the rider rises in his stirrups…” (Saracen Archery, pg. 73)
There are 500 years between this manual and al-Jahiz, but presumably this is how mounted archers fought throughout the Middle Ages.
In the Muslim world, horse archers sometimes fought against Arab armies, and sometimes opposing armies both had units of mounted Turkic archers who fought against each other. In the 11th century, the Turkic sultan Mahmud of Ghazni wondered how to defend against them, and an advisor suggested cutting off the archers’ thumbs so they would no longer be able to use their bows. (Mahmud refused, he thought this would be too cruel!)
The best examples that I can give are from the crusades, when western European armies encountered Turkic horses archers for the first time. Mounted knights in Europe were heavily armed and armoured shock troops, and were meant to charge at an organized group of soldiers (cavalry or foot) who would either be broken by the charge, or resist them. If necessary, foot soldiers could then engage, with bows and crossbows, or with weapons in melee combat. They were relatively mobile, at least compared to the archers and other foot soldiers, who were less mobile or not mobile at all.
But compared to Turkic cavalry, European knights were very slow. There wasn’t really an organized mass of cavalry or foot soldiers for a crusader army to charge at. The lighter and faster Turks were constantly charging at them, loosing their arrows, retreating, regrouping, and repeating. Advantage #1: an army of heavy cavalry was too slow to catch Turkic light cavalry. Archers on foot could shoot at them, as long as the Turks stopped in one place, which they usually didn’t.
The Turks did practise precision, as noted in the Mamluk archery manual. But from a distance, accuracy was not too important, and their arrows may not even have been lethal. At least among the crusaders, heavily-armoured knights might not be killed by arrows, but arrows would get stuck in their armour – it may have looked amusing in hindsight, but at the time it was probably terrifying, never knowing whether the next arrow would pierce the armour or not. The Turks quickly realized that European knights were pretty ineffective without their horses, so they targeted horses if they could.
“The tactical use made of this archery was to destroy the cohesion of the enemy, and this could be achieved by inflicting upon him the loss not only of men, but of horses…The Franks relied for victory in battle on the mounted charge, and the Turks were well aware of the value of destroying their horses.” (Smail, pg 81)
Advantage #2 – wearing down an army of heavy cavalry and infantry, causing fear, panic, and exhaustion, and targeting horses to ruin the formation and effectiveness of the enemy army, before the enemy could react.
Another tactic was to pretend to flee the battle entirely, a “feigned retreat”. The Turks could drag this out for hours, or even days sometimes – retreat just far enough for the slower army to catch up, and then retreat even further. Eventually, enemy knights be separated from their foot soldiers, and they would be exhausted. The Turks would turn around and charge at them for an easy victory. Europeans fell for this all the time, even when they had experienced it several times before and should have known better. Advantage #3: pretend to be losing!
If the battle did turn into a hand-to-hand melee, the Turks would sling their bows over their shoulders, and use their other weapons – shields, clubs, and small swords. Ideally, by this point the enemy would already be terrified and exhausted.
Here’s a description of one of the first times that European crusaders encountered these tactics, at the Battle of Dorylaion in 1097:
“As the Turkish lines hurled themselves upon our forces, they let fly a shower of arrows which filled the air like hail. Scarcely a man in the Christian franks escaped without a wound. The first shower had barely ceased when another no less dense followed. From this no one who had haply escaped from the former attack emerged unscathed. This method of fighting was strange to our men, and because they were unaccustomed to it, it seemed harder to endure. They saw their horses falling, yet were powerless to help, for they themselves were perishing as the result of blows coming from an unexpected and inescapable source. Nevertheless, they continued to charge the foe with sword and lance and tried to drive them back. But the Turks, when unable to withstand the force of the onset, purposely opened their ranks to avoid the clash, and the Christians, finding no one to oppose them, had to fall back deceived. Then as soon as our people returned to their own ranks unsuccessful, the Turks again closed their lines and again sent forth showers of arrows like rain. Scarcely a Christian escaped without receiving serious wounds. Protected by their breastplates, helmets, and shields, our men resisted as well as they could, but the horses and those who had no arms were felled to the ground without distinction…The ranks of the infidels kept growing stronger, and those of the Christians began to weaken. The Turks now attacked with swords at close quarters. Meanwhile the bow, hanging from the shoulder, neglected its office.” (William of Tyre, pg. 170-171)
The crusaders ended up victorious in this case because another part of the crusader army arrived unexpectedly. But a few years later at another battle in 1104, the Turks used the same tactics, and successfully faked a retreat. The crusaders fell for it, chased them, and were destroyed.
In 1260, in the early Mamluk period, only ten years after the slave soldiers had revolted and taken over Egypt, they successfully used these tactics at the Battle of Ain Jalut against the Mongols. The Mamluks pretended to retreat, the Mongols chased them, and they were ambushed by a larger hidden Mamluk force. The Mongols were fellow central Asian nomads so they probably should have expected it, but even they were tricked.
So, precision targeting at close range was an important skill, but it wasn’t as important as speed and cunning. Individual archers could have shot single arrows, or the entire army could have loosed a full volley. They could stop and aim first, or they could shoot at full gallop. Either way, they would demoralize a slower enemy, instill fear and confusion, and separate enemy cavalry and infantry. If successful, mounted archers could then easily pick off an exhausted and disorganized army.
2. R.C. Smail, Crusading Warfare, 1097-1193 (Cambridge University Press, 1956, 2nd ed., 1995)
3. Christopher J. Marshall, “The use of the charge in battles in the Latin East, 1192–1291”, in Historical Research 63 (1990)
4. A.C.S. Peacock, The Great Seljuk Empire (Edinburgh University Press, 2015)
5. John Haldon, Warfare, State, and Society in the Byzantine World, 565-1204 (Routledge, 1999, repr. 2003)
6. William of Tyre, A History of Deeds Done Beyond The Sea, trans. E. A. Babcock and A. C. Krey (Columbia University Press, 1943).
7. William M. Hutchins, Nine Essays of al-Jahiz (1989)
8. Saracen Archery: An English Version and Exposition of a Mameluke Work on Archery (ca. A.D. 1368), trans. J.D. Latham and W.F. Paterson (1917), p. 71-85
9. The Taktika of Leo VI, trans. George Dennis (Dumbarton Oaks, 2010)