Westerners who first made contact with the Huns reported that they were centaurs! This was because the Huns were a horse people; skilled, natural riders that learned how to ride before they even learned how to walk.

The Huns were demonized since they first appeared in Europe in the fourth century. From Guizot’s L’Histoire de France, 1870.

The Huns were a horse culture much like other steppe nomads. Hun children knew how to ride before they learned to walk. By the time a Hun reached adulthood, riding was as natural as breathing. The Huns were superior horsemen such to the extent that they were compared to centaurs. Warfare on horseback made the Huns faster and more maneuverable than their enemies.

The Hun horse was a different breed from the “civilized” Roman horse. Maenchen-Helfen writes: “The only author to give a good description of the Hun horse is Vegetius.” He then goes on to discuss the text saying “These people overlook that the horses of the barbarians are quite different from Roman horses. Hardy creatures, accustomed to cold and frost, the horses of the barbarians need neither stables or medical care. The Roman horse is a much more delicate constitution; unless it has good shelter and a warm stable, it will catch one illness after another” (The World of the Huns pg. 204). Vegetius concludes that when it comes to warfare the Hun horse was far superior, but the Roman horse was much finer looking, more docile, and had a more noble character.

Among the Huns, no weapon was more important than the bow. The bow was paramount to the Hun warrior and a Hun could shoot at full gallop and even shoot in retreat. The bow used by the Huns was a reflexed composite bow. Seven bone plaques were used to stiffen the ears and handle of the bow. Hun bows were asymmetrical. One theory for the use of asymmetric shape was that it allowed the bow to be increased in size without restricting its use from the saddle of a horse. These bows could shoot arrows at much greater distances than any Roman or European bow. The advantages of distance and maneuverability gave the Huns a great advantage in battle. (More on Hun bows later!)

Hun style ax

When the enemy had been sufficiently weakened by the onslaught of arrows, the Huns would move in closer to engage them in hand to hand combat. One of the most popular weapon used was the “Scythian ax” or “Hunnic tomahawk”. These were used along with javelins and swords to kill the remaining enemies. Like the Scythians and Sarmatians before them, the Huns used lassos in combat. The lasso could be used to dismount or entangle an enemy, or to drag him until he strangled to death. Lassos could also be used to capture the enemy alive in order to be ransomed later or sold into slavery.

Armor among the Huns was diverse and often depended on how rich the owner was. Many poor Huns were just lightly equipped with a leather cuirass. Others wore armor made from bone, horn, or horse hooves. More well equipped Huns wore metal lamellae or Roman chain mail. Huns serving under the Romans were almost always well equipped. As the Huns in Europe started to develop an economy based on warfare, armor became more important.

Some Huns served in the Roman army. Although the Huns were excellent fighters, the Romans generally believed that their “lack of discipline made them more a terror to the provinces they were supposed to defend than to the enemy.” Sidonius wrote “Again and again they broke loose with raid and fire and sword and savagery and pillage destroyed all things nearby.” Maenchen-Helfen notes that “In Gaul, the Romans had to keep garrisons in the cities to protect them from their own auxiliaries” (The World of the Huns pg. 258).

There was one known Hunnic unit in the Roman army that served the Romans very well and that was the Unnigardae. They were known for their ferocity and high status as the best troops. Helfen writes “The Unnigardae were a small corps of horsemen, excellent in lightning attacks and dashing raids, at their best as scouts and vanguards...It was true that they sometimes got out of hand, ‘like young hounds,’ but their leader ‘would take them by the throat and call them in, even before they sated themselves with their charge and their wild-beast slaughter” (The World of the Huns pg. 255).

Hunnic bows

Hunnic bows can still be found today. Master bowers still use the same materials and techniques of a thousand years ago. The process takes about a year to make not including the time it takes to dry wood. Bows are made out of wood with the inside plated in horn. The type of horn used is from the Hungarian Grey Steer. This is the breed of cattle that was bred by the early nomads. A few herds of these cattle remain today in Hungary. The wood side is strengthened by many layers of tendon strings coated in glue and then covered in birch bark. The glue used is from the air bladder of a sturgeon.

The finished product is as beautiful as it is deadly. Because Hun bows were so valuable to the nomads, a finely crafted bow was never buried with the owner but was passed down to the next generation. Bows were the symbol of ruling power to the Huns just as swords were to their European counterparts.

Hungarian Grey Steer

Hunnic bows

The Huns had women warriors in their ranks. Unlike Western armies that wore heavy armor or fought with sword and shield (where upper body strength gave advantage to males) the Huns main weapon was their bows. Hun bows were extremely powerful but very easy to draw (only 30-40 pounds). Their power was not in their draw weight but in their design. Therefore women warriors were not at a disadvantage.

What was it like to face the Huns in battle? It is difficult to imagine the epic onslaught of arrows hurled upon the enemy. To gain a clearer picture of what it was like, the following is an excerpt from the book Attila: the Barbarian King who Challenged Rome by John Man (pg. 99-103).

“A superior bow, however, was only one element in the Huns’ dominance. It would be vital for the lone warrior or the small raiding party; but to an advancing horde, small-scale victories were no more use than no victories at all. The Huns needed to become a machine for massive and overwhelming destruction. One factor in their favor was their nomadic lifestyle, which gave them the ability to fight year-round, unlike western armies, which camped in the winter and fought during the summer. Frozen ground and frozen rivers made good going for strong men on strong horses. Their other major advantage was that they learned to fight as one, and on a large scale. In their sojourn in the wilderness or their drift westwards, they evolved tactics to suit their new weapon. If Scythians could strike like the wind, the Huns learned how to strike like the whirlwind.

It worked like this.

Imagine an army of mounted Huns facing an army of well-armoured cavalrymen- Sarmatians, Goths, Romans; it doesn’t matter who for the moment, because all now shared common elements: all had bows, all carried some sort of armour, mostly made of leather, bone, or bronze scales. Their horses are similarly protected. The Huns are more lightly clad, perhaps with no armour at all. They will rely on their speed and fire-power. They each carry a bow, a quiver full of 60 arrows and a sword hanging at the waist. The front line Huns are in two regiments, each of, say 1,000 men (and women as well if need be), while behind them stand dozens of horse-drawn ammunition wagons, loaded with several hundred spare bows and over 100,000 arrows.

A trumpet brays. The horses know the form, and the two regiments- well out of range of the enemy, some 500 meters away- form into two huge masses, circling slowly in opposite directions like gathering storms, raising ominous clouds of dust, soundless but for the dull thump of hooves on grass. Another call, and each of the 2,000 men, using his free hand, picks six, seven, maybe nine arrows from his quiver, depending on skill and experience, and places them in his bow hand, holding them against the outer edge of the bow.

Another trumpet call. Now the clouds of warriors pick up the pace, trotting in circles 200-300 meters across, waiting for the moment. The horses know what is coming. They sweat as the tension mounts. The attack call sounds. From the outside edge of each swirling mass a line of warriors peels off at the gallop, heading straight at the static line of defenders. The rest follow. The gap narrows: 400 meters, 300 meters. It has been less than half a minute since the last call. Now the two regiments are at a full gallop, something like 30-40 kilometers per hour. At 200 meters, a cloud of arrows arises from the enemy, but the range is great, the arrows fired at random. Almost all are wasted. At 150 meters, the first few hundred Huns fire straight ahead, concentrating on a narrow 100 meter section of the enemy lines. At that range, the arrows are aimed low over the heads of those in front. With the added momentum of the gallop, the arrows travel at over 200 kilometers per hour- and these are arrows with small, three-flanged iron tips filed to needle sharpness, with the penetrating power of bullets. At 100 meters, the leaders have already reloaded. Their horses wheel to gallop parallel with the enemy line, the archers turn in their saddles and fire sideways- the arrows flying almost flat- reload, fire again, and again, all within a few seconds. Behind them the body of the regiment are also raining fire on the same unhappy clump of enemy soldiers. In five seconds, 1,000 arrows could hit 200 of the enemy, another 1,000 in the next five. That’s a rate of 12,000 shots per minute, equivalent to ten machine guns. Now, after 100 meters, the leaders wheel again, and gallop directly away from the enemy- but they are still firing, a shot or two each, aiming low over the heads of those behind them.

Around they come again, snatching another handful of arrows from their quivers, slotting them into their bow-hands, feeling the nocks, twisting each into the correct alignment, swinging around behind the last of the regiment. The whirlwind is in full swing, 100 riders in a rough outer circle, with another ten lines inside, all eager for the best position on the leading edge, all whirling round a 400 meter core of stillness. A whirlwind is exactly what it would seem like on the ground to country folk who would have seen dust-devils sucking dust from the sun-scorched steppes. A modern image comes to mind. That first go-around has sliced down men as grass falls to a garden trimmer. In the space of 45 seconds, which is slow time for a galloping horse to cover 400 meters, the same 200 enemy have taken hits from 5,000 aimed arrows, 25 per man. Most, of course, will be deflected, but some must find a gap between shields, or above a breastplate, or through an eye hole, or even straight through a shield, straight through iron armour. From behind, others crowd forward to take the place of the fallen, only to fall themselves.

Let’s put this in a wider context. No soldiers had ever delivered such a rate of fire. There would be nothing like them until the French faced the English longbowmen in the Hundred years War, and longbowmen were stationary, lacking the supreme flexibility of the Hun mounted archers. No soldiers would be able to come close to this speed or density of fire until the invention of repeating guns in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Even then, the first bolt-action riflemen were nothing compared to bowmen: a bowman must learn his craft and his skill from childhood and is a priceless asset; a rifleman is trained in days, and is easily replaced.

This, moreover, is the first lap of ten, with the circling warriors grabbing reloads from the ammunition holders at the rear. In ten minutes, 50,000 arrows have hit a 100-meter front. Now, recall that this is one of two contra-rotating whirls, with one regiment firing right-handed on the left side, and the other the opposite. Between them, they are covering 200 meters of battle front. It only needs one man to fall and a gap opens, into which arrows pour, and the dam breaks apart.”

Hun children learned to ride before they could walk and they learned to shoot bows soon after. By adulthood Huns were master-hosrsemen and master-bowmen. In battle they had the skill and control to ride as one; creating a whirlwind of destruction.

The Huns collected skulls from the enemy after battle. Hun chiefs would sometimes make drinking cups from the skulls of especially formidable foes. Even today artists show Huns with skulls hanging off their horses.