‘A VILE, UGLY AND DEGENERATE PEOPLE’: THESE ARE THE words of Ammianus, writing from within the Roman empire, the epitome of civilization in his own eyes and those of his readers. No wonder he was prejudiced; he was describing the most effective enemy ever to assault the empire. We, with the privilege of hindsight and security, should set prejudice aside, show some respect, and seek to understand why Attila’s people had such an impact.

Their power lay in four elements:

• an ancient skill, mounted archery;

• a new version of an ancient weapon, the recurved bow;

• a new tactical technique;

• leadership.

The man himself is the subject of later chapters. What we are interested in right now is his raw materials: the skills and ambitions of mounted pastoral nomads armed with bows. Mounted archery was the military technique that could hold to ransom urbanized cultures across all Eurasia for the best part of 2,000 years, until gunpowder blew the horseback archer from history as utterly as it blew the Japanese samurai and the Swiss pike-man. Within a very short time, the skills that had defined nomadic warriors from Manchuria to the Russian steppes had fallen from use and almost from memory, enduring only in the accounts of those who had been on the receiving end of nomad arrows and in the minds of armchair strategists. The mounted archers themselves left no manuals. No-one after they vanished had a clue about how actually to do mounted archery – how to slide arrows from quivers, load them and fire them, time after time, while sitting on a galloping horse, let alone doing so in formation. No-one tried it.

Until now. Mounted archery is back, bringing a new understanding of how these warriors gained their supremacy – and there is more to it than that skill alone. Almost all Eurasian pastoral nomads were master-horsemen and master-bowmen, and none matched the Huns in their destructive ability. Nor was leadership enough on its own to explain Hun success. Attila had something extra to underpin his victories, something particular to the Huns. Only with the revival of mounted archery has it become possible to say what that magical element was.

* * *

The revival of the old skill is entirely due to one man: Lajos Kassai, who is, I suspect, the first true mounted archer in Europe since the departure of the Mongols in 1242. The Mongols left from Hungary; it was in Hungary that Attila had his base; so it is fitting that Kassai is a Hungarian – and particularly fitting that he is based a day’s gallop both from the Mongol line of advance and from Attila’s fifth-century headquarters. What follows is the story of his life’s work: as you read, track the tight interlocking of skill, toughness, dedication and self-assurance. This is what mounted archery gives now, and what it once gave the Huns. Kassai jokes about being Attila reincarnate – ‘I feel I was born in the twentieth century by some administrative error’ – but it’s not entirely a joke, if it’s young Attila under consideration, rather than King Attila.

I heard of Kassai because anyone who knows anything about Huns and mounted archery mentions him. If I had been in the world of horses and bows, I would have heard of him in Colorado or Berlin. As it was, I first heard the name from museum people in Vienna and in the northern Hungarian town of Gyimager, and again from a lover of Andalusian horses in northern Hungary who knew Kassai was shortly to demonstrate his skills at a sporting festival in Budapest. Kassai Lajos – if you put the given name second, in the Hungarian style – comes out as Cosh-eye Lah-yosh: the rhythm and the soft sh sounds turned the name into poetry. By now he was becoming an obsession with me.

I and my interpreter Andrea Szegedi found him at the fair on Margaret Island in the Danube. He was dressed in a simple wrap-around costume, nomad-style, a Hun reborn, with three assistants selling his own brands of bow. Could we have a word? A nod, that was all, not even a smile. In a refreshment tent, he fixed me with intense, steady blue eyes in a face blank of expression. I was unsure of myself, not knowing anything about mounted archery, or how long we had, or whether I would see him again. He might have tried to put me at my ease with some polite phrases. Not a bit. It was unsettling – and became more so when I tried for some soundbite responses.

Where, for instance, did his interest in mounted archery come from?

‘Something inside me.’ He replied in halting English, nailing me with a fierce gaze. ‘What do you mean?’

‘Well, just, why the interest?’

He switched his gaze to Andi, and went on in Hungarian, just as abruptly. ‘It was from the inside. I have to do it. That’s all.’

‘I understand interest from others is growing?’

‘They come from everywhere, from the US, from Canada, to learn.’

‘Why do people love it?’

‘If I can’t tell you why I do it, I can’t tell you why they love it.’

I saw why he had no patience with me. I was an outsider, the questions were dumb, and he was fiercely concentrated, not on me, but on what he was about to do, on its brutal physical and emotional demands. It was like approaching a top tennis player just before a Wimbledon final and expecting deep answers about the inner game of tennis. Besides, there was much more going on, which I was too busy with camera and tape-recorder to notice. Andi was a medical student: short-cropped hair, good on a horse, tall, lithe as a thoroughbred herself, and thoroughly, impregnably professional – or so I thought, until she talked later about the impression he made.

‘Yes, he could look scary. But his mood changed in a second. He has this nice smile. Then he was really funny. He swore. Like something was “bitchily good”, as we say. Then sometimes the way he looked . . .’ She was driving us along a flat, straight road over the puszta, but her mind was not on grasslands. ‘We have an expression, that when someone looks at you like that they can see your bones. That was how it felt. He could see my bones. He just looked at me and asked me a really simple question, and I had to think really hard, because he was looking into my eyes, and he was amazing.’ She paused. ‘He really was. Honestly.’

Clearly, there was more to Kassai than the scattered responses that came my way during that interview. It took me another meeting on his home ground, more talk, and respectful observation to understand. Mounted archery is his life’s work. To explain it to me would have taken weeks. Fortunately, he has already taken the time by writing his story in a book, Horseback Archery. But even that tells only half the story. The other half emerges in action, in teaching, in the commitment that others give him. There could be no real understanding of him except in action, any more than there can be a real understanding of what it takes to be a mounted archer unless you become one.

He is a man whose life perfectly matches what he feels is his destiny. From this flows a steely self-assurance, a rock-solid sense of identity and purpose, hard-won in a world that he sees as obsessed by change, growth, novelty and ambitions which, once realized, must be replaced by new ambitions. Kassai, like a monk, heard the call, followed, and arrived at his goal. But, unlike a monk, he did not find the way and the goal through a teaching, or an organization, or a Master. They are his alone. And both have involved an extraordinary combination of physical and mental work. There is something of the Zen warrior in him, the fighter who achieves internal balance to hone his martial skills – except that he had to become his own Master, invent his own religion, as it were. It has taken him over 20 years.

I asked again: Why? He says he has no choice in the matter, as if mounted archery were in his very genes. Of course, it couldn’t be, because the skills of the mounted archer were not around long enough to work their way into the genetic code. For nomads, the roots lay not in nature but in nurture, in skills implanted in childhood and perfected over decades. Kassai did not have that advantage. He grew up in a world of collective farmers and city-dwellers and factory-workers. Perhaps, as a child, he experienced another sort of nurture, some unconscious need to escape the oppression imposed by the Soviet-backed counter-revolution, the drabness of communism.

Escape lay in his imagination, sparked off in his childhood by a novel about the Huns, The Invisible Man, by Géza Gárdonyi. It is the story of a Thracian slave, Zeta, who travels to Attila’s court with the Greek civil servant Priscus (the invisible man himself, whose real-life eye-witness account of the journey in 449 is the subject of a later chapter). Zeta has many adventures, falls in love with a flighty Hun girl, rejects another who loves him despite rejection, campaigns with Attila, fights in the great battle of the Catalaunian Plains, witnesses Attila’s funeral, and finally flees to safety with the girl he recognizes at last to be his own true love. It’s all rather overblown, with a great many exclamation marks, but it’s a good, quick, vivid read for children, and is justly famous in Hungary. Never out of print since its publication in 1902, it reflects and intensifies Attila’s popularity and the widespread belief that the Huns were the Hungarians’ true ancestors, never mind that everyone also knows perfectly well that their real ancestors arrived as Magyars over 400 years later.

Here’s a taste of it, in its English translation, unfortunately entitled Slave of the Huns, describing in lurid and exaggerated terms Attila’s hordes preparing for their advance westward:

Young people exercised out in the fields in huge swarms. Horns blared out signals. A long falling note meant a retreat. Two long rising notes meant an about-face in mid-gallop and shoot. This manoeuvre I simply could not master. The Huns had been practising from childhood on; when the horses were galloping so fast that they were swimming through the air, the riders would turn themselves round, lie on their stomachs and shoot their arrows far behind them. Some even shot lying on their backs.

For weeks, the hordes continue to arrive, the Alans with their javelins, Nubades in wolfskins, bearded Blemmyes, painted Gelons armed with scythes, the thundering carts of the Bastarnes, Akatiri with bows half again as tall as themselves, haggard, large-boned Skirians, and Heruls and Kvads and Ostrogoths, and on and on for pages,

ten thousand here, twenty thousand there, fifty thousand of the Jazyges alone, eighty thousand Gepids, sixty thousand Goths. We counted them for a week, just by taking their leaders’ word for how many there were. When we passed the half million mark, we left off. To this day I don’t know how many people were gathered . . . there must have been more than a million horses and thousands upon thousands of carts.

Heady stuff to a boy yearning for action and freedom, happy to be swept along by a novelist’s exaggerations. ‘Yes, our ancestors the Huns were the greatest horseback archers of the world,’ says Kassai. ‘I imagined the wild gallops, the horses foaming at the mouth, the drawn bows. What a sensation! I wanted to be like them, a terrifying, fearless warrior.’

The first step was to become an archer. As a child and then as a young man, living near Kaposvár, 40 kilo-metres south of Lake Balaton, he made bows by the dozen, gathering information and experience. He tried different types of wood for their power and speed of reaction, the best ways to laminate tendons (on the back of the bow, to resist stretching) and horn (on the belly, to resist compression), arrows for weight and rigidity, arrowheads for their penetration. He became a good shot, building up on rapid fire as well.1 This is demanding enough in itself. The muscles and sinews of the forearm and shoulder must turn to iron. The three fingers of the firing-hand must get used to the bowstring’s constant abrasion, for in the heat of battle mounted archers could not use either the protective leather tab of modern archers or the thumb-ring employed later by Turks. If you train from childhood, the fingers adapt by growing calloused skin, but Kassai did not have that advantage; he binds his fingers with tape.

But all of this was mere archery. He still had not ridden. Having tried a few formal riding lessons, he realized that there was no-one from whom he could learn to ride like a nomad. Practically the only place he could have learned today is Mongolia, where children as young as three are tied onto horses until the two become one. It was too late, and Mongolia too far away, for Kassai; he was grown up, and would have to teach himself. This he did in his twenties with the aid of a spirited creature called Prankish, who baptized him with fire, sweeping him off by galloping under low branches, dragging him by the stirrup, and falling on him in mud. ‘The only time I sensed the countryside was when I had my head buried in it.’

One day, a wild gallop ended at a steep hillside. Prankish stopped. In unexpected stillness, Kassai looked around. He was in a dead-end valley, with sides so steep and close it seemed that if he reached out he would touch them. It felt like finding his place in the world, a place where, in words that are emotive even in translation, ‘accepting the sweet solitude of a voluntary exile, I could retreat from this noisy century and develop mounted archery to perfection’.

Not that it was yet a place to live or ride in, for it was densely forested, its open spaces overgrown with weeds, its lowest area a mess of mud and reeds. It belonged to a state farm, but as farmland it was useless; so he rented 15 hectares and set about adapting it for horseback archery.

This was a long, slow process. A valley like that, where nature ruled, deserved the respect due to a sovereign entity. A man might befriend it for the brief term of his earthly existence, but he must cause no permanent damage. He must attend to the winds, the waters, the plants, the movements of animals and people. How does the wind blow around the contours of the hills? Which way does the water flow? What happens when there is a lot of rain, or a long drought? Where does the snow melt first and last? Which way do horses walk, and where do they like to lie? Where do they graze in the day and where at night? When people come, where do they stop spontaneously to talk or to make fire? Where, in particular, do they like to shoot? It took him four years to absorb all this, and the smell of the pastures in the changing seasons, and the feel of each hilltop and each marshy area, and to decide how best to realize his dream.

Everything about this ancient, forgotten skill had to be rediscovered from scratch. The landscape gave him a natural 90-metre course, along which targets would be placed. He acquired a second horse, a poor limping creature he saved from the knacker’s yard, and therefore cheap. Over months of tender, loving care, Bella became sleek, gentle and sensitive. With her, Kassai discovered how to accustom a horse to the lunge-rein, the saddle, the peculiar feel of a mounted archer. Bella learned to gallop evenly along the course, then do the same thing without reins, then accept the odd noises and sensations of sticks, ribbons, bags, balls being whirled and thrown above her head, until finally she was ready for the twang of the bow, the zip of the arrow and the feel of a rider firing time after time, with nothing to indicate a turn or a change of pace but small movements of the legs and shifts of bodyweight forward and back.

The first experience of mounted archery was a revelation. His target was a bale of hay, but even galloping right past, no more than 2 or 3 metres away, he could fire only one arrow every pass, and hardly ever hit the mark. In particular, he found it almost impossible to perform the most famous action of the mounted archer, the over-the-shoulder ‘Parthian shot’, named after the Parthians and then distorted in English into the ‘parting shot’. He practised for weeks, doing fifteen to twenty gallops a day. Bella became stronger and stronger; but he – already an expert archer, with numerous wins in competitions – remained as hopeless as ever. There seemed to be no way to overcome the combinations of movements, the forward motion and bounce of the gallop, the shock of hooves, his own leaping body, the arms flailing in automatic response. It seemed quite impossible to aim and then fire accurately, let alone reload.

He almost despaired. There was something he was not getting, something that Attila, that every Hun warrior, every mounted archer from time immemorial, must have learned in late childhood, until it was so much part of them that it was never mentioned to the few outsiders who recorded their ways. He stopped riding, not to abandon his dream, but to search for the essence of the skill he sought, the barbarian artistry hidden away by the obscuring cloud of civilization.

Kassai turned inwards. He would abandon the effort that dominates standard archery, the rational focus on accuracy, the route that has led to the stabilizers and targeting devices of the competitive sport. Technology and reason did not provide the way. He turned instead to Zen archery, which relies on internal harmony, achieving success by trying less. It is, at heart, the same approach with which a child learns to ride a bicycle, or the ‘relaxed concentration’ by which an athlete in explosive events – javelin-throwing, high jump, pole-vault – produces a seemingly effortless record.

He returned to the basics: horse and rider. He abandoned his saddle to ride bareback. He wanted to feel the body of the horse, the muscles, the sweat, the breathing, become at one with it. Pain became a way of life. He fell constantly. His urine had blood in it for weeks from the battering. He learned this: that pain and suffering are not the same. This was not suffering, because nothing had been imposed on him, and he was free to face more pain, in the certain knowledge that he was making progress. Wounds heal quickly, as he says, and we can continue on our way to meet the next obstacle, always moving in the direction of the greatest resistance. He had chosen this route as monks once chose hair shirts and flagellation, and it filled him with the fierce joy of approaching salvation. Was this obsessive, a little crazy, perhaps? It was, and he welcomed the madness.

For from this madness came renewed sanity, and success. He learned to separate upper from lower body. He imagined the track made through the air by his extended left hand, until, holding a glass of water, he could keep his hand steady while riding bareback at a trot. He acquired more horses, and practised on them all. He explored the worst conditions – rain, mud, snow, frozen ground. He worked in particular at the ‘Parthian’, the ‘parting’, the over-the-shoulder shot, keeping the waist forward while the body turned through 180 degrees. He would turn himself into a centaur, the half-horse, half-man invented by the Greeks as a symbol of the Scythian mounted archer.

Meanwhile, he perfected the techniques of firing. A major stumbling block was the need to fire one arrow after another, at speed. This is not something that your average unmounted archer ever does, so even an expert does not have to feel the way to reload. An arrow has a nock in its end which slots onto the bowstring, but, as any amateur knows, it takes many seconds and many actions to load an arrow – you lower the bow, turn it flat, reach for the quiver, extract an arrow, turn the arrow to the correct orientation with the ‘lead-feather’ pointing away from the string, fiddle the slot onto the string, get the tips of three fingers hooked round the string, grip the arrow between first and second fingers to keep it in position against the bow, raise the bow, pull the string, refocus your attention on the distant target, aim, and at last fire. The whole thing takes perhaps half a minute, which is about the time it takes to read the foregoing instructions.

It took Kassai months, and much experimenting, to work out how to fire quickly. For a start, forget the quiver. That’s only to store arrows; it is not for the arrows you are about to fire, because it is hopelessly slow to reload by reaching down to your waist or over your shoulder to pull an arrow from your quiver.

This is how it’s done: hold a bunch of arrows in the left hand against the bow, making sure they are spread like an array of cards; reach between string and bow; grip an arrow with two fingers bent double so that they form firm supports either side; place the thumb just so; pull the arrow back so that the string slides along the thumb straight into the nock in the arrow; and pull, while raising the bow, all in one smooth set of actions. But these are mere words. To put them into action is to perform crucial gestures as minute and fine as learning Braille (for example, to make sure the nock in the arrow is oriented correctly, you check with your thumb – and without practice you can hardly feel the nock at all, let alone make any correction, let alone do so on a galloping horse). After a year –

he could fire three arrows in six seconds.

Say that out loud, three times, fast: that’s how long it takes him to load and fire the three arrows.

Now it was time to apply his new skills. He began loading and drawing at the gallop, aiming in all three directions consecutively, to the front, to the side, to the back. Then, at last, it became reality: a gallop past his bale, firing three arrows – failure after failure, as usual, until one day all three arrows ended up in the bale. It was, of course, a lucky break; but if it could be done once, it could be done again, a thousand times, a hundred thousand times, given perseverance. That was the moment he first truly felt like a horseback archer.

It had taken four years to get that far, and it was only a beginning. New discoveries lay ahead. Standing archers draw the bow to the cheekbone or chin, often kissing the string, and sighting along the arrow. Kassai tried this for months, until forced to admit that, for archery while on a galloping horse, it was hopeless. All that tension, the bow drawn, the muscles of the arms and shoulders rigid, the whole body wracked by different motions – how on earth in these circumstances could the rider choose the right moment to release his missile? At one point, he tried to use technology to help him focus. He attached a small laser to an arrow, and tried to keep the spot of red light on the target as he galloped past. To his astonishment, he failed utterly. He couldn’t even get the jiggling spot to remain within a metre of the target, let alone on it. ‘The experiment proved that I knew absolutely everything there was to know about horseback archery,’ he says wrily, ‘with the minor exception of how the arrow manages to hit the centre of the target.’

The answer was first to try drawing the bow, not to the chin, but directly along the line of the outstretched arm, bringing the arrow back to the chest, to the heart, to the seat of the emotions; and second to let the unconscious choose the moment of release. For there is a right moment in the chaos of movement. It comes at that point in the galloping stride when the horse’s four feet are all off the ground at once, a split second in which to find peace. In Kassai’s words, the moment comes ‘at the top of the dead centre of the galloping leap, during the moment we float through the air before the horse’s hoof connects with the ground again’. But the brain has no time to bring this moment into conscious awareness. There can be no thinking, no analysis. There is only action.

How do you aim? You don’t, you can’t, because there’s no time. You leave your mind behind, and you respond by pure feeling.

But to do that demands the right experience, the right information for the brain to work with. As with painting and poetry, feeling is nothing without the technical foundation, the years of experiment and pain and failure and despair. There was in Kassai’s struggle with this unfolding process something of the medieval mystic wrestling with the long, dark night of the soul.

Then he came through, into a sort of paradise.

At dawn I rode my horse at a gallop on the crystal carpet laid by drops of dew and shot arrows damp with the morning mist at my target. The water thrown off the damp arrow almost drew a line through the air. Then I suddenly noticed the fiery rays of the sun burning my face red, everything around me was crackling with dry heat, and the yellow slope of the hill was reverberating with the noontime bells of the neighbouring village.

I was awake in my dreams, dreaming awake. Time melted like sweet honey in morning tea. How much I had searched for that feeling! I had chased it like a little boy who wants to catch a butterfly in a flowery meadow. The wonderful insect zigzags in flight like a sheet of paper blown by the wind, then lands on a fragrant flower. The child catches up with it, panting with the effort and reaches towards it with a clumsy move to hold it between finger and thumb, but the butterfly flits away, and the boy is running, stumbling after it again.

I had the butterfly in my hand. I enclosed it between my palms, careful not to hurt its fragile wings. The winds of change flowed through me as I awaited the moment when I could turn all my powers towards a new challenge.

The challenge was to be totally serious about mounted archery, which was now life itself – literally: he would, he says, die without it. To fund his obsession, Kassai needed income; so he would have to make his personal mission into a business, which meant inventing a new sport, and all the rules to go with it. His valley gave him the dimensions. A 90-metre course, with three targets, each 90 centimetres across, to be shot at once each – forward, sideways and backward – from a gallop that must take no more than sixteen seconds, with expert riders taking eight or nine seconds. But the first shot cannot be fired until 30 metres into the course, and the final target must be hit as quickly as possible with the ‘parting shot’ as the rider gallops away. Three shots in six seconds, a shot every two seconds. To establish his new sport, he needed to make a name for himself, using his own expertise to show what could be done.

His next big idea was this: to ride his horses – he now had eleven – in relay, along the course he had set himself, firing continuously for twelve hours. He closed the valley, shut out the curious, ‘the unfaithful companions, tenacious enemies, two-faced lovers’ – hints here of how difficult it must have been for others to deal with this demanding, uncomfortable zealot – and trained for six months. ‘There was not a single day I did not imagine myself to be in a battlefield. Despite being alone, I was not lonely for a minute. My imagination peopled the valley with comrades in arms and deadly enemies.’ The challenge opened up new levels of success and freedom. ‘I think life tries us all, but the really lucky ones are the people who choose their own trials, and make them as big as they can possibly bear.’ This was not all for the sake of spiritual exercise, of course: Kassai’s marathon would be used to build up the business side of his operation. It was time to let the world know of the rebirth of mounted archery.

So it happened. The Guinness Book of Records, TV and newspapers were informed, helpers and friends called back to hold horses and collect arrows. One June day, at five in the morning, he started, first using the slow horses, firing five arrows in the ten or twelve seconds it took them to gallop the course; then, as the heat built and the hours passed, he switched to the faster horses, which covered the course in less than seven seconds, firing three arrows in each pass. By five in the afternoon, he had galloped 286 laps and fired something over 1,000 arrows. Kassai was catatonic with fatigue, in some altered state of consciousness. Assistants and students tossed him in the air to celebrate his achievement. ‘I shall be forever indebted to them for their enthusiasm,’ he writes, with heavy irony. ‘It took another two hours for me to awaken. Then suddenly, the accumulated fatigue of a decade hit me like molten lead. I showed little sign of activity at the evening dance.’

* * *

Fifteen years on, Kassai has honed his performance to something approaching perfection. The sport, using his scoring system, is well established and growing. Since the early 1990s several hundred men and women, more every year, have been practising this gruelling skill, first in Hungary, and now also in Germany and Austria, with a few passionate disciples in the United States. At some point these adepts are going to push for the sport to be included in the Olympics.

Todd Delle, from Arizona, discovered Kassai when he conducted a training session in the United States. Suddenly, a long-term interest in archery and riding acquired a new intensity, because he saw that this was more than just a sport. It was a fusion of body and mind, the two reflecting each other, a foundation for dealing with the successes and failures of life itself, ‘for you cannot fully understand success without first understanding failure’. But it’s not just about individual achievement; it’s also about the group, with everyone encouraging everyone else – a collaborative spirit rare in competitive sport. This is as it should be for a skill that underpinned individual and group survival in battle. There are now others who claim to teach horseback archery. ‘Some of these I have met,’ Delle explained. ‘What makes Kassai different is that what he teaches is not simply the mechanics of how to shoot an arrow from the back of a galloping horse. What he teaches is the heart and soul of a warrior.’

There you have it. If Kassai is Attila the archer, he is also Attila the leader, in this respect: he has created a group dedicated to a particular end. In Kassai’s case, the work is all positive, with nothing but a creative effect on both individual and group. He speaks of being a warrior, but is well removed from the brutalities of a warrior’s life. In Attila’s case, there was a whole other dimension. However gruelling the physical hardship, however uplifting the spiritual training, however ecstatic the teamwork, it all led on to conquest, killing, destruction, rape and pillage.

Kassai’s valley is now the centre not simply of a sport but of a cult, of a way of life, and of a self-sustaining business.

The sweeping curve of the valley now holds Kassai’s house – simple, circular, wooden, with furniture carved from tree-trunks; a barn, sweet with the smell of hay, for the two dozen horses; a covered riding school and an arena; two training runs for mounted archery and two butts for standing archery; and, up on a hillside, a Kazakh yurt, where local children come for lessons in living history. With judicious ditching, the marsh has become a lake. In the nearby town, workshops make bows, arrows and saddles. The whole estate is underpinned by trainees – several hundred of them, mainly Hungarian, but also German and Austrian, with a scattering of English and even a few Americans – and their need for equipment.

You can see him at work on the first Saturday of each month. When I was there, the 35 students ranged from near-masters down to a six-year-old boy. There were eleven women. The Huns, after all, had women in their ranks, as the Scythians did, and one of his most adept pupils is Pettra Engeländer, who runs courses of her own near Berlin. Kassai masters his world like a sergeant-major teaching a martial art. With a crowd of a hundred watching from the arena’s banked sides, the day starts with rigorous drill-work, with three dozen trainees in lines following his actions, stretching arms and necks, moving on to mock-shooting, left leg and arm extended, the other arm pulled to the chest then thrown back in a mock-release to a yell of ‘Hö!’ from Kassai, and an answering ‘Ha!’ from his trainees, then a single pace, a 180-degree turn and the same again, left and right reversed.

‘It’s important to shoot with both hands, to preserve the symmetry. This is not like your English longbow,’ he explained later as we walked across the valley. ‘We have to be prepared to attack equally well from either direction.’

There follow more variations on the same theme – mock-shots in lines, forward, to the side, backwards, with full squats, now to the tap of a shaman’s drum, with Kassai moving up and down the lines – until, after almost an hour, the trainees run to the stable, change into kimono-like warrior robes and reappear with their horses to ride bareback. First they toss bags of hay to each other; then they use the bags to pillow-fight, and staves to slash at posts and spear wooden cut-out figures.

All this is pretty spectacular; but it’s Kassai’s demonstration that the audience has been waiting for, and it is astonishing. Three men stand along the arena, each holding a pole on which is a circular target 90 centimetres across. Kassai gallops the length of the arena. As he passes, the man starts to run, holding his target aloft a metre or so above his head. Kassai takes six seconds to pass the first running man, during which time he shoots three arrows. Then on past the next – three shots – and the next – another three shots. Eighteen seconds, nine arrows, each released with a Ha!, and all strike true. And then, as an encore, the same gallop, the same men, except this time the men each have two unattached targets. As they run and Kassai gallops past, they throw the targets over their shoulders. Six flying targets, six shots, all within a metre of the runners, and not a single miss. The final runner falls on his knees, as if thanking the gods for his survival, and all line up for a round of applause. Kassai remains as grim as ever.

Later, walking the valley, I saw five trainees firing at targets tossed in the air. I watched for several minutes. Not one of the five scored a single hit. And they weren’t even firing at speed, let alone on horseback.

It was Kassai, then, who was able to answer that crucial question: if the Huns were mounted archers, living the same sort of lifestyle as dozens of the other nomadic tribes, why were they so much more successful than their neighbours? It was not all down to Attila. The Huns’ conquests started two generations before his, when Alans and Goths fled before them.

The technical key to Hun success – literally, their secret weapon – was the Hun bow. Now, the bow certainly looks different, because it is asymmetrical, like its Xiongnu prototype; that is, when strung its upper limb is longer than its lower limb. Whether or not the Huns inherited the design from the Xiongnu, the design had been in existence for several centuries; it also spread eastwards, to Japan. Oddly, asymmetry does nothing at all to the power, range or accuracy of the bow; so its purpose remains controversial. Perhaps the length of the bottom limb was reduced to ease handling, as it would when you whip it over the horse’s neck to fire to the right (or, if you are a real master, to fire left-handed). Perhaps it was easier to fire when kneeling; but when would you need to kneel? Kassai, playing the mystic, wonders if, when drawn, the bow became a symbol of the Hun tent, or the overarching deity, Heaven above, but it doesn’t really add up. I prefer to think of it as a matter of identity, for the details of common objects often contain elements that emerge randomly or for trivial reasons, and endure simply because they become traditional and there is no good reason to change them. Perhaps Hun bows were asymmetrical because they always had been, from the time when a stave newly cut from the tree was more likely to be asymmetrical than symmetrical. Perhaps if you’d dared to ask Attila why Hun bows were bigger at the top, he would have said through his interpreter: That’s the way we Huns make bows.

But Hun bows were also different in two other respects, adding up to a third that really did matter: they were bigger; they had a more pronounced recurve; and finally, crucially, their size plus their shape gave them more power. The design evolved in response to the changing environment of steppe warfare. The little Scythian bow served well enough for 2,000 years until, in the third century BC, the Scythians’ eastern neighbours, the Sarmatians, developed a defence against Scythian arrows. They covered their warriors and horses with armour and taught them to fight in close formation. There were various possible ways to counter this – with swords, lances, javelins, heavy cavalry. But the most effective was a bow that could punch arrows through armour. This was the bow the Huns brought with them from the east – as we know from those found in Xiongnu graves: a bow with a little ‘wing’ of horn, some 3 centimetres long, which curved away from the archer. It was this, not the wooden frame of the bow itself, that held the bowstring. The ‘wings’ provided the weak ends with a rigidity that wood on its own cannot match, as fingernails do things that bare fingers could not. They also extended the length of the bow by a crucial few percentage points; and the extra length increased leverage. This allows the archer to bend a heavier bow with less effort, because the curving ear acts as if it were part of a large-diameter wheel. As the archer draws the bow the ear unrolls, in effect lengthening the bowstring. On release, the ear rolls up again, in effect shortening the bowstring, increasing the acceleration of the arrow without the need for a longer arrow and a longer draw. It was an invention that foreshadowed the system of pulleys used in modern compound bows. In effect, it gave the Hun archer longer arms, allowing him to shoot with slightly more penetration, or a slightly greater range: a few metres only, but a few crucial metres, enabling Hun arrows to be fatal while those of their enemies died.

This beautiful and complex instrument had another advantage. Making one demanded a level of expertise amounting to artistry. This was no Kalashnikov, which could be churned out by some Central Asian bow-factory. Recurved bows of any sort take a year or more to make, but in addition the Hun bowyer had to be a master in carving and applying the horn ears. Each bow was a minor masterpiece, and no other group had the expertise to produce its match.

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 favour was their nomadic lifestyle, which gave them the ability to fight year-round, unlike western armies, which camped in the winter and fought in 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. Though they can ride bareback, they have saddles and, I think, stirrups made of leather or rope. 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 metres 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 metres 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 metres, 300 metres. It has been less than half a minute since the last call. Now the two regiments are at full gallop, something like 30–40 kilometres per hour. At 200 metres, a cloud of arrows arises from the enemy, but the range is great, the arrows fired at random. Almost all are wasted. At 150 metres, the first few hundred Huns fire straight ahead, concentrating on a narrow 100-metre 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 kilometres per hour – and these are arrows with small, three-flanged iron tips filed to needle sharpness, with the penetrating power of bullets. At 100 metres, 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, for this is the equivalent of Kassai’s 90-metre course in which he can fire six arrows, while 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 metres, 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 for 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-metre 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 sun-scorched steppes. A modern image comes to mind. That first go-around has sliced down men as grass falls to a garden strimmer. In the space of 45 seconds, which is a slow time for a galloping horse to cover 400 metres, 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 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-metre front. Now, recall that this is one of two contra-rotating whirls, with one regiment firing right-handed on the left side, the other the opposite. Between them, they are covering 200 metres of battlefront. It only needs one man to fall and a gap opens, into which arrows pour, and the dam breaks apart.

Of course, some enemies were better protected than others. Persians, Sarmatians, Goths and Romans all had cavalry with armour, and armoured infantrymen carrying shields, spears and javelins, backed sometimes by catapults. It might be necessary to break wellarmoured ranks by other means; so the Huns had other tactics, in particular the feigned retreat, which would, with luck, draw the opposition forward far enough to break the rigid line of their defence, so that gaps would open, allowing the Huns on yet another go around to ride in with drawn swords to slash open the body of the enemy army. At close quarters they also used lassos, a natural weapon for herders. In Mongolia today, country-dwellers use lassos on the end of long poles to catch sheep and goats. ‘While the enemy are guarding against wounds from the sword-thrusts,’ wrote Ammianus, ‘the Huns throw strips of cloth plaited into nooses over their opponents and so entangle them that they fetter their limbs and take from them the power of riding and walking.’

All this gave the Huns an advantage in open country. The technique was stupendously effective on the steppes as they came up against more static groups of Sarmatians, Alans and Goths. But by the time of Attila’s birth, when the Huns were in possession of the grasslands of eastern Hungary, there were no more steppes to be conquered. Traditions based on pastoralism, horsemanship, fast movement and a simple lifestyle had reached their limits. Now the Huns were up against forests, mountains and cities, and would soon face strategic and tactical problems of which they had no inkling.

1 Establishing a tradition since taken to an extreme by one of Kassai’s friends, an Italian, Celestino Poletti, who, using one of Kassai’s bows, holds the world record for firing as many arrows as possible in 24 hours. This must be one of the craziest of human achievements. He stood there firing one arrow every 5 seconds, 11 arrows a minute, 700 an hour, round the clock until he had shot 17,000 arrows.

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