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What was the point of an Egyptian-style war chariot?

Originally published under Ask Mr. History. Published Online: August 30, 2012 
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What was the point of an Egyptian-style war chariot? Apparently they were a very important part of New Kingdom's way of waging war. I find it very hard to see how this could be remotely cost efficient. It's two horses, one archer, one driver and a chariot. Let's say training and equipment cost as much as eight ordinary archers. The chariot has the advantage of moving faster, perhaps twice as fast, as the eight archers on reasonably flat ground. Apart from that, the eight archers have all the advantages: they have eight times the firepower, are stealthier, need less water and food, can cross much more difficult terrain, can take cover in terrain, can spread out, can probably carry more equipment and food and perhaps most importantly they are way more resilient. Kill one of the horses, the archer or the driver and the chariot stops working as a chariot. Kill one of the eight archers and the remaining seven can keep fighting. I do not think New Kingdom Egyptians spent a lot of resources this weapon for frivolous reasons (they were competent at war and had a serious, fairly modern attitude to it), yet I cannot see how it is cost efficient.

—Dag Stålhandske

? ? ?

Dear Mr. Stålhandske,

I know 4,000 or so years of hindsight is 20-20, but until the time of the New Kingdom light chariots on six-spoke wheels drawn by two horses seem to have suited Egyptian tactics quite nicely. Granted, they were not cheap and required training and teamwork on the part of their two-man crew, but given the aristocrats who shot their arrows, threw their spears or wielded their swords from them, the elitism they represented was part of the point. It should also be noted that the two-wheeled Egyptian light chariot was like an armored car compared to the heavier, tank-like, three-man chariots that the Hittites and others used as shock vehicles, which was only effective with a large, flat plain on which to gather some momentum. In contrast to that, the Egyptians used their faster, more mobile chariots to outmaneuver the enemy chariots on a variety of terrain and keep them off the infantry, which remained the mainstay of their army. When attacking in line abreast, the Egyptians maintained enough of an interval to keep the enemy's chariots from breaking through, while still giving each of their chariots room to turn as necessity dictated. If the enemy broke, the Egyptian chariots, like light cavalry in a later era, gave chase and turned his retreat into a confused rout. Eventually, around 1,000 BC, chariots gave way to more conventional cavalry on horseback, but the light chariot continued in use for some time by the noblemen as a vehicle for hunting.




Jon Guttman
Research Director
Weider History Group
More Questions at Ask Mr. History 




2 Responses to “What was the point of an Egyptian-style war chariot?”

  1. 1
    Robert Kapanjie says:

    The ancient Egyptians were fast learners. They did not even have horses before they were introduced by the Hyksos in the second intermediate period—1700 to 1500 B C E. The Hyksos were semitic people who were located in the delta but not upper Egypt. Whether they invaded Egypt or just grew in numbers to dominate that locale is not known. Under any circumstance they were driven out of Egypt by the 18 th dynasty which was the beginning of the new kingdom. By that time the Egyptians were proficient in the use of the light chariot which enabled them to conquer and expand beyond the Nile into Syria in the North and into Nubia in the south. This was Egypt's golden age.

  2. 2
    TL Rouhier says:

    A few years ago I saw a special on the Egyptian war chariot. They showed how the archer could loose 8-10 or more arrows at the enemy by going towards the enemy then turning and retreating. Then repeting the process. The compound bow the archers used kept them out of the range of the enemys archers. The Bows were very costly to make. It took a year to make and cure a bow, but they were worth the cost. The chariot and bow made the Egyption army superior to their enemys at the time.

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