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"Chained cavalry" Topic

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Father Grigori01 Sep 2019 2:26 a.m. PST

I just stumbled across this clip on YouTube. Apologies if it's featured here previously, but it's quite interesting to see the use of chains on horsed troops. A few Asian steppe armies feature heavy cavalry chained together, usually an elite unit. Although this is a historical drama, and the unit probably didn't behave as in the clip (I always understood it was more mounted firepower than shock) seeing the chains used in this way is certainly eye opening. Does anyone have any more information on the use of chains by cavalry?
YouTube link

Personal logo Swampster Supporting Member of TMP01 Sep 2019 3:32 a.m. PST

There are different explanations. One is simply that it is a simile for troops in very ordered ranks. The chained cavalry (guaizi ma) of the Jurchen/Jin are probably a simile of this soort, rather than being chained in twos or threes as often read. See for a discussion – seems even in the Qing dynasty it was doubted.
The Xianbei under the Murong are supposed to have chained together horse archers to make a static formation able to withstand enemy I've seen this explained as forming beihind a chained together fortification rather than the horsemen being chained together.
As well as being mentioned in Chinese histories, a general named Murong uses chained cavalry in the story of the Water Margin.

Puster Sponsoring Member of TMP01 Sep 2019 3:36 a.m. PST

Seems singularly stupid to chain horses. The first horse casualty in a line would bring down the whole advance, with the casualty dragging down its neighbours, and cascading from there on. Any disorder at all also will stop the whole line, so a stumbling first line would stop the whole attack for good.

In the movie the archers were spectacularly unsuccessful, though. Just one hit at a horse in leg or head…

That said, I cannot imagine that this tactic would have worked, nor have I ever heard of an application of this. If done, the chains certainly need a breaking point to prevent an avalanche of horseflesh in front of the enemy positions.
It may be that some stupid general has tried it, though. I have heard that drafted infantry – often former enemies – was sometimes chained, in China or with the Mongols, but I am not sure how accurate these reports are or wether I simply mix this up with Game of Thrones. Chaining men together certainly makes them immobile the first time one falls a casualty, so this does not seem a sound idea at all… (well, apart from galley slaves)

Dogenes01 Sep 2019 4:25 a.m. PST

The video is from The Water Margin.

Come In Nighthawk01 Sep 2019 6:18 a.m. PST

Better'n Scythed Chariots!! But watch the related clip!! Sort of a combination "airborne scythes n' caltrops" provided an answer much more successful against the "catafracts" than were the archers.

wmyers01 Sep 2019 8:12 a.m. PST

Maybe Father Grigori should explain the sources of his knowledge of steppe armies chaining cavalry.

I've not heard of it either.

Pictors Studio01 Sep 2019 8:32 a.m. PST

That clip was pretty funny. I laughed out loud in a few places. I liked how the arrows looked like they were being shot from crickets in the grass a couple of times.

Like Puster the first thing I thought when I saw them was that if you could just shoot down a couple of those horses in the middle you'd drag that whole line down, unless they had some sort of quick release where they could unlock dead horses.

It would look cool for a fantasy unit.

Roderick Robertson Fezian01 Sep 2019 8:55 a.m. PST

One stout post or tree trunk would spell catastrophe for the unit.

CeruLucifus01 Sep 2019 9:51 a.m. PST

Were the riders even armed? I forgot to look and I won't watch that twice.

Seems like as depicted you could duck under the chains and swarm the horses and pull down the riders. Easier said than done, but as others point out, you only have to disrupt one or two horse/riders and you've immobilized the formation. Note the following rank can't ride up into the gaps to assist against this, because they'll be held back by their chains.

Of course these are magic horses impervious to arrows, so perhaps the same magic protects them from hand to hand.

jdginaz01 Sep 2019 1:24 p.m. PST

Then there is the fact that added the weight of the chains would tire the horses. Not to mention the effect of multiple impacts of 120+ pound objects would have on the horses.

GurKhan02 Sep 2019 4:26 a.m. PST

Maybe Father Grigori should explain the sources of his knowledge of steppe armies chaining cavalry.

I've not heard of it either.

The Murong Xianbei incident with the chained mounted archers is taken from "The Stirrup and Its Effect on Chinese Military History" by Albert E. Dien, in Ars Orientalis Vol. 16 (1986) – link there used to be a free online version somewhere but I can't find one now. It seems to have been very much a defensive formation.

For the Jurchen guaizi ma, see

GurKhan02 Sep 2019 5:06 a.m. PST

I lie it's at link

In another battle the Murong fastened together five thousand of their best mounted archers in a square formation by means of iron chains! In this case it is said that Ran Min led the attack with a double-bladed lance in his left hand and hooked halberd in his right, but despite his beheading three hundred of the enemy, their line held and Ran Min was captured. The utility of the iron chain for a force of archers is not clear, but it would seem that in this battle we have an example of cavalry being used both as chargers and as bowmen.

Pictors Studio02 Sep 2019 7:19 a.m. PST

His arms must have been super tired.

MichaelCollinsHimself02 Sep 2019 10:14 a.m. PST

Is this like "chained infantry" who actually were wearing chainmail ?

gregmita202 Sep 2019 11:07 a.m. PST

His arms must have been super tired.

From the same primary source, the Jin Ji, Ran Min's horse was called Red Dragon and could travel a thousand li in one day. According to the Jin Shu, another traditional Chinese history, when he was captured and executed, all the trees dried up and died for seven li around the area. A plague of locusts came up on the land, and it did not rain for five months. When he was posthumously recognized as a god, the drought finally broke and it snowed that same day.

Traditional Chinese histories should be read with the same amount of literalism as the Old Testament.

Father Grigori03 Sep 2019 2:29 a.m. PST

Gurkhan: Thanks. I've been going through my information to try to dig out my references. I can't find it in Grousset, and most of my other references are split between the UK and Japan. Nicolle's book on steppe nomads might have referenced it. Another referece is in Whiting, "Imperial Chinese Military History 8000 BC to 1912 AD" (yes, those are the dates it gives…). On page 223 it notes the Xienbei as chaining their cavalry together in a square to repel cavalry charges.
As a defensive tactic, perhaps…. However, I think the only offensive use of chained cavalry I know of is in the Water Margin stories as seen in the video.

Father Grigori03 Sep 2019 2:30 a.m. PST

Found a link


Puster Sponsoring Member of TMP03 Sep 2019 8:50 a.m. PST

So they practically used live horses as static barricades, and chained them to ensure they stayed put.

A pretty desperate tactic, and one that certainly does not lend to repeated battles (well, unless you do not move at all). I am also quite sure that the archers were not mounted at that engagement. If the alternative is extermination in the field it may be a valid alternative…

dapeters03 Sep 2019 11:08 a.m. PST

Stikes me as pretty hoaxy, kill one horse and their done.

Mithmee Supporting Member of TMP04 Sep 2019 5:26 p.m. PST

Yup, there was 100's of Archers shooting and no one got hit.

All it would have been just one and they whole group would have ended up in a huge pile.

Plus I can come up with many ways to counter it.

Looks good in a movie but in real life they would have been wiped out.

gregmita205 Sep 2019 10:15 a.m. PST

Thanks Gurkhan and Fr. Grigori for the English language secondary sources. It seems both are talking about the same event – the final battle between the Xianbei general Murong Ke of the Former Yan dynasty and Ran Min, ruler and general of the Wei dynasty. The primary source for both appears to be either the Jin Shu Book 107, or the Jin Ji Book 21, which describe the same event. Unfortunately I don't think either primary source has an English translation easily available online. Both primary sources talk about the 5000 elite archers and chained horses in a square formation, but are very vague about whether the archers were riding their chained horses or just using them as barricades.
The English secondary sources seem to ignore the second part of the battle from the primary sources, which is that while Ran Min charged fiercely into the square chained formation, and presumably did the 300 beheadings, the rest of the Yan army (also cavalry) swept in from the flanks and encircled his force, giving him a major defeat. A reasonable interpretation of this would be that the Xianbei army, lacking solid heavy infantry, decided to resist the enemy's initial charge with a block formation of chained horses as barricades, and when the enemy charge got mired in that, encircled them with cavalry from the flanks.
As for the original video, others have mentioned that it's from the Water Margin, an entirely fictional novel. Considering that the novel starts with 108 demons reincarnated into the human world as the protagonists, we might as well analyze the Battle of Helms Deep for historical tactics.

The Last Conformist06 Sep 2019 8:31 a.m. PST

Using chained horses as a barrier would be similar to (if perhaps less effective than) the Moorish use of camels described by Prokopios.

dapeters09 Sep 2019 11:25 a.m. PST

I see maybe if it was meant as a static obstacle.

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