Exotic ancient weapons: (I) Majra

One ancient weapon fascinated me more than all others lately; the simple, yet tricky majra.

A majra (Turkish and Arabic word for it) is an arrow-guide for use with a bow, dominantly with a Turkish composite recurve bow, the most advanced of all ancient bows (only modern bows with non-natural materials and rollers surpassed its quality). There floats also the designation "nawak", I think that means the majra-equipped bow.

The Turkish composite recurve bow was made of wood, horn, natural glue and sinew and both fascinating in its exploitation of material properties and mechanics. Forget the crude English longbow, it was crap by comparison. Longbows are most of the time not ready for combat because the permanent stretching by the sinew would quickly degrade the wood. A composite recurve bow could be held ready for combat for days if need be.
Turkish composite recurve bow
The production and maintenance of a composite recurve bow was never really accomplished by European armies (even though in antiquity the people of Cretes used recurve bows and the Turks were able to maintain the Turkish composite recurve bow in the Balkans). The standard excuse was that it wasn't good in more wet climates, while the real reason was more likely the advanced construction and especially the production of a suitable natural glue.

An arrow guide like the majra turned such a Turkish composite recurve bow into an even more refined weapon. This add-on part (not permanently attached) allows to shoot darts instead of arrows. A dart is smaller, lighter - yet gets about the same stored energy from the bow. The result is a faster projectile that has a much straightened trajectory. The projectile was hardly visible in flight - dodging it was in practice impossible even at long range and hidden shooters could avoid detection at times.

An enemy without majra and without crossbows couldn't pick up darts and shoot them back, too.
The dart's small size was furthermore an advantage in itself: It was possible to carry about twice as many darts as arrows in a container of identical weight and bulk.

Turkish warrior with bow and majra

There was also a significant flexibility advantage in a bow with a majra: Crossbows were rather impractical for mounted troops, and had a disadvantageously slow rate of fire for dismounted troops on a battlefield. A majra user had the best of both worlds; crossbow ballistics, ability to use all battlefield pick-up ammunition and both dismounted and mounted utility.

A disadvantage of the majra was that accidents could happen if the arrow left the guide rail. Bows of all kinds were more training-intensive than crossbows and the latter were more demanding than firearms (a heavy crossbow was much more expensive than a an arquebus because of its mechanics). That's likely the main reason why the first crude and terribly inaccurate firearms were adopted over bows and crossbows (the scary noise being another great reason).

A true light crossbow has an arrow guide permanently attached and uses a bow for storing energy (unlike heavy crossbows, which use the principle of torsion). It's more bulky and heavier than a bow with majra, less multi-role and its only great advantage was the use of a trigger mechanism (in addition to safety of use). This allowed to wait or aim slowly without tiring the arms. This advantage was most pronounced in sieges when siege troops and besieged troops were waiting for an opportunity to hit someone careless. The more powerful and expensive heavy crossbows were preferred for this over light crossbows, though.

Coming soon: Exotic ancient weapons: (II) Nagamaki


edit 2014-05:
edit 2018: Apparently, the Byzantines called their equivalent to (copy of ) the majra "solenarion".
About picking up munitions; arrows need to be matched to bows for accuracy, of course. So battlefield pick-up arrows are poor quality arrows even if undamaged. The shorter arrows or darts for the majra did likely not require all that optimisation, and probably no skilled fletcher; they were too stubby to bend much during the shot anyway. This and the inability to dodge or actively block single shots (which was a real thing with bow arrows) may have been the most important reasons for the majra's existence.


  1. "the real reason was more likely the advanced construction and especially the production of a suitable natural glue"

    It was dismissed because the (western) european warrior elite - just like any other that lacked direct contact to steppe people - dismissed bows as weapons of war all together. It was a cultural thing but no matter of aptitude. Most of all western europe lacked the landscape necessary for optimal employment of horsed archers. For foodsoldiers on the other hand, a longbow, or a crossbow is just fine.

    Eastern europeans (magyars, propably poles) used composite bows.

  2. The Austrians were often in contact with such bows, Hungary had perfect terrain for mounted archers - but afaik even the border irregulars didn't adopt it en masse. Archers were generally part of European forces till the 15th century, but only so with rather primitive bows (even less advanced than 400 BC Cretan recurve bows).
    Bow archery was a national sport in England up to the king, but they never adopted the superior composite recurve bow despite their crusade experiences.

  3. Hungary is the homeland of the Magyars, that used composite bows. But when they invaded central europe in the 10th century they were smashed by an heavy armored cavalry. The Mongols, the only steppe people invasion until the late middle ages, couldn't use their steppe tactics when they invaded silesia in the 13th century but had to fight a pitched battle. They then turned east for internal reasons and left little effect in western military culture. I conclude that the composite bow offered only marginal advantage.

    When the Ottomans entered the eastern european plains in the mid-15th century they adapted firearms and battles were won by the newly achieved steadfastness of the infantry against cavalry charge, not by archery.

    I conclude that there was no need for a complex weapon as the composite bow, at least not big enought to change the preference of the aristocracy for cold steel. Esp. so as there was a compromise to be taken: the increasingly heavy armour (esp. of shoulders, neck and the head) hindered the use of bows.

    The longbow on the other hand was a good weapon for the footsoldier, because it was that simple, and bore little disadvantages over the composite bow except size. Complexity bears no value in itself.

    There is nothing that could convince me, that medieval europeans did not adopt the composite bow because they were not able if they wanted.

  4. Archery requires talent, training, and skill acquired over long years. There is an interesting study on the skeletons of English archers found at battle sites of the 100 years war, and the effects the year long training had on bone structure and all.

    One should also not forget the social aspect of firearms. Just look at the North American tribes, they were really eager to get their hands on those usually crappy trade guns. Btw, the issue of archery vs guns was one of the central ideological points Tecumseh made during his rise and his Indian renaissance movement.

    A gun even a trained monkey can bring to effect, especially against massed targets. And one really should not underestimate the adverse effect of humidity on compund bows.

    The natural glue thing is certainly interesting. Still back in WW2 getting the glue for plywood right was an art. I remember reading that Persian sturgeon was best.

  5. Yew longbows (which were often shaped to be reflex-deflex, btw) are natural composites. The differential characterisics of the heartwood (strong in compression) and sapwood (strong in tension) pretty well duplicate the effect of the laminated composite.

    The yew bow had a number of other advantages. The ballistic properties are quite similar.

    Above all, it was easy to make (a good bowyer could turn one out in an afternoon) and it was cheap -- about the price of a sheep, or two week's wages.

    The Turko-Mongol bow was better on horseback and it was highly efficient in general but it was relatively much more expensive and took a lot longer to make -- months to a year, including time for the glue to set. It also required much scarcer artisanal skills.

    An English longbow army could carry spare bows and seasoned staves to replace a high rate of loss, and English archers could afford to drop the bow if they needed to wade in with their personal weapons. Loosing one wasn't an irreparale disaster, the way loosing one of those marvelous composite bows was.

  6. @Stirling;
    almost every janissar was a bowyer,they were able to produce and maintain their bows. The skill was certainly not scarce in the Ottoman Empire.

  7. A very interesting weapon.

    However I agree with the others regarding cost and effectiveness.

    Every Ottoman Janisary may have been a bowyer
    Every Marine may be a rifleman
    But every English *man* was a Longbowyer

    Maintaining thirty thousand composite recurve bows is a different prospect than maintaining several million long bows.

    The Ottoman bow has little benefit to a man on foot fighting a pitched battle, yet its wildly more expensive.

    Could the European Kingdoms have equipped a few thousand men with super bows, probably, but at what cost? And for what purpose?

  8. You seem to forget that yew became very scarce and valuable over time. The English national sport "longbow shooting" wasn't sustainable because yew bows wore out too quickly and yew was not produced/consumed sustainably.

    Besides, most of Europe wasn't on an island and most of Europe maintained professional forces during the Middle Ages. The practical limit for an army on campaign was from ancient times till well into the enlightenment era 25,000-30,000 personnel. Larger armies existed, but became quite cumbersome and were not good for most purposes. The limit was imposed by logistical and control restrictions.

    This army should better be equipped to a high standard to get the best performance.

  9. SO
    I'm afraid I dont know a great deal about the armies that resisted Ottoman expansion, beyond that in Spain and Austria and Russia, they generaly did so successfully.
    Without complex bows, against complex bows.

    I dont dispute the Compound Bow is technicaly brilliant, but the advantages did not make up for the costs involved, and primarily seem geared towards raiding rather than warfighting.

    History is littered with "wonder weapons" that simply didnt justify the costs.

  10. Spain wasn't attacked by Ottomans, ever. The Ottoman expansion destroyed the thousand years old East Roman Empire, conquered much of Europe and basically stopped its expansion for logistic reasons. Its demise came only after the Renaissance Age when European iron body armour had advanced to a point where even shields became unnecessary and arrows were finally overmatched.

    For centuries, the compound bow's quality was the reason why nations were crushed by Ottoman armies.

  11. what about Vlad Tepes 1431-1476. He crushed several ottoman armies on his own without renaissance equipment.

  12. ...and his most notable battle was a night battle.

    Besides; nobody claimed that Turkish composite recurve bows were an I-win-button.

  13. SO
    Rather my point, the Ottomans were only effective in the Balkans and Turkey.
    And the Balkans, were never really pacified, hence the logistical problems.

    The Ottoman bow was a very effective weapon for a horse archer.
    But a horse archer in an extremely expensive and limited tool.

    The horse archer is great raiding on an open plain, as the Americans learnt 500 years later.
    But thats it.

    Take that away, and its merely a very expensive longbow.

  14. I meant a different thing with "logistical problems". Maltese Order, Venetians, Papal State, Spain and Genoa denied free use of the seas for transport (see battle of Lepanto) and the Ottomans had the habit of keeping their army near Istanbul over winter. That's most of the military explanation why they didn't expand even further.

    Again; Yew longbows became very expensive, too. Suitable yew wood became scarce, thus expensive.
    Yew longbows were furthermore quite useless for foraging and raiding parties because it wasn't practical to keep them ready for battle much of the time. This also induced a huge vulnerability against surprise cavalry attacks.
    The length of a longbow made it more difficult to give the longbowmen a proper melee capability.

    By the way; "Balkans and Turkey" is mostly hilly to mountaineous terrain. Horse archers are supposed to be of rather limited value ins such terrain. The terrain was certainly not the reason for why the Ottomans didn't expand further.

  15. In was getting at the same thing.
    Despite "controlling" much of the balkans, the Ottomans had little luck supplying an army there.
    I hadnt really thought much of them buggering off home for winter, but, without the sea, it makes heading much further north, except as a light raiding party, very difficult.

    But equaly, this is what I have been getting at.

    The Bow was a technical marval, but in much the same way the Bismark was, or the late model tanks.
    Extremely effective, but not even remotely cost effective.

    You are very correct with your points on the longbow, but they are all basicaly irrelevent, because the longbow was a weapon of war.
    Its effectiveness on raids wasnt its selling point. That you could give one to every man in the country and that they could kill a knight at range with it was the important bit.
    I thought central Turkey was generaly flat, just the coast was hilly?

    As I said, the bow was technicaly marvellous, but the Ottomans would have been far better served with lesser bows and better fleets, or something.

  16. What are you trying to argue? The Bismarck was also a "weapon of war", why don't you apply your waiver to it as well?

    The longbow was furthermore no weapon of the masses - national sport or not. Only the best longbowmen were recruited into the army, and the only country that elevated the longbow to a fetish was an island country that didn't get invaded in that period.
    The composite recurve longbow was all-round superior, not just for mounted archers. The longbow was about even in power, but superior in nothing but production speed. Bows didn't need to equip huge masses of troops either; practical limit for armies was about 25k-30k personnel, and most medieval armies had much less combatants.

    About Turkey and mountains:

  17. I had never heard of an arrow guide. That's a fascinating bit of old technology.

  18. Longbows and Compound bows are both effective weapons. Compounds bows for a given draw weight are probably about 10% more powerful due to how the energy is passed onto the arrow but does have more maintaining issues and was certainly more expensive and time consuming to make but so is a sword compared to a longbow. Compound bow also has a big advantage on foot in that archers can crouch or nearly lay down while still able to loose which lowers their profile and makes someone else aiming at them have a more difficult time.

    Dart guide is necessary because less stable flight path would offset any gain in range due to lighter weight. The shorter length would mean less power could be passed to the dart from the bow but range would be quite impressive with lighter darts as well as in the hands of raiding party or assassin the faster flight path would be useful.

    Lower weight and longer range don't mean much against armored foes however so while majra is interesting it had limited usefulness into the 1300s when most civilizations could afford to armor their warriors to some degree or other.