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

8/30/2012 • Ask Mr. History

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

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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
World History Group
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