In the 13th century, the Mongol horsemen of the Asian steppe were some of most effective warriors in the world in those days. Under the leadership of Genghis Khan and his successors, they created an empire that stretched from China and Korea to the eastern edge of Europe. Totally without humane sentiment, the Mongols had a well-earned reputation for massacre, using terror systematically to weaken the resolve of their enemies. But the foundation of their success lay in traditional military qualities: rapidity of movement, disciplined battlefield maneuver, and the ruthless pursuit of decisive victory. Every Mongol tribesman was a warrior. From early childhood he learned to fire an arrow and ride a horse, the two essential skills of steppe warfare. The harsh life of the Asian steppe taught toughness and endurance, while the disciplined mass maneuvers required for an effective war of movement were learned on tribal hunting expeditions.
Organized into army groups 10,000 strong, the Mongol horsemen swept across Eurasia at a speed of up to 60 miles (100 km) a day. Each man had a string of horses, so he could change mount when necessary. The horses were also a mobile source of food as warriors drank their milk and their blood. Advancing in columns preceded by scouts, the Mongols sought to destroy enemy armies. Most of the horsemen were archers, using their composite bows in hit-and-run warfare familiar to all steppe nomads—closing in to release their volleys of arrows, fleeing before the enemy could engage them, and ambushing any foe foolish enough to pursue them. After the archers had done their work, the Mongols’ elite fighters, armed with lances, maces, and swords, would close in to finish off the already decimated enemy. Over time, the Mongol armies adapted to siege warfare and even naval operations, exploiting the skills of conquered peoples, Muslim and Chinese. But their political skills were never equal to the task of retaining the power won by their military prowess.
Most Mongol warriors fought as light horsemen, wearing leather body armor and, if possible, a silk undershirt —allegedly offering protection against an arrow shot. Their minority of heavy cavalry, however, were sometimes equipped with Chinese-style metal armor. Made of overlapping plates, usually sown onto a backing garment, this is a replica of a mongol armor that was flexible and offered good protection in close combat.