Genghis Khan’s Secrets of Success

Genghis Khan’s Secrets of Success

By Timothy May
11/1/2018 • Military History Magazine

Widely feared for extreme brutality, the Mongols also mastered more subtle and sophisticated tactics.

In Bukhara, one of the great cities of the Khwârazmian Empire, the Friday mosque was filled one day in the year 1220, the throng gathering to listen to the man who had just captured their city. The warrior who climbed into the pulpit after dismounting from a small horse was a foreigner, with clothing and armor indicating that he had come from a distant land. The audience of religious leaders, doctors, scholars and other eminent men waited for the strange warrior to speak. Finally he did, speaking through a translator:

O people, know that you have committed great sins, and that the great ones among you have committed these sins. If you ask me what proof I have for these words, I say it is because I am the punishment of God. If you had not committed great sins, God would not have sent a punishment like me upon you.

The self-styled scourge of God, however, did not come simply to lecture the citizens of Bukhara. His soldiers had plundered the city in a highly organized fashion. Then the people were herded into groups, and those who were not killed immediately were forced to march with the conquerors. These events bewildered the inhabitants, for many of those assembled in the mosque had little idea of who the warrior was or why his army had appeared before the walls of Bukhara. Shortly afterward, their conqueror and his army of Mongols would conquer the rest of the region, and much more. He was called Chinggis Khan.

The Mongol Empire founded by Chinggis Khan (also known as Genghis Khan in the West) became the largest contiguous empire in history, stretching from the Sea of Japan to the Mediterranean Sea and the Carpathian Mountains. At its peak, more than a million men were enrolled in the armies of the khan, or emperor of the Mongol Empire. The Mongol khans were determined to conquer the world, and indeed, with the resources at their disposal, there was little reason for them to fail. The empire did eventually collapse, partially under its own weight, but for more than a century the Mongol khans came close to conquering the world, thanks to their leadership and to the efficacy of their tactics, weapons and strategies.


While many of the tactics used by the Mongols were common on the steppe, the Mongols transformed them into sophisticated operational concepts that were characteristic of a permanent army. The tactics and strategies they developed enabled them to fight on several fronts and allowed a planned, steady expansion of the Mongol Empire rather than haphazard conquests over vast territories. As the Mongols’ methods of war and conquest became increasingly well-organized, the Mongol army evolved from a tribal force into a true army.

Like most steppe armies, the Mongols were primarily light horse archers. Their tactics exploited their abilities with archery and their mobility: They usually stayed out of reach of their opponents’ weapons and used hit-and-run tactics in waves while showering the enemy with arrows. Like the Turkic troops the Crusaders encountered in Anatolia, the Mongols initiated combat at bowshot range. They closed for combat only for the decisive encounter once the enemy’s formation had broken. Often they retreated before the enemy, utilizing the famous “Parthian shot” (a shot fired during a feigned retreat). At the right moment, normally when the enemy forces were drawn out, the Mongols wheeled around and annihilated them. These methods of war were augmented with surprise attacks, ambushes and encirclements, and such tactics ensured the Mongols did not require superior numbers to gain victory.

Arrow Storm and Rolling Barrage

The arrow storm was the most common tactic practiced by the Mongols: They enveloped their enemy, then shot a hail of arrows in such numbers that it seemed a phenomenon of nature. The range at which they attacked in this way varied: At 200 or 300 yards their shooting was still accurate enough to disrupt an enemy formation, and once it broke, the Mongols charged. In the course of an arrow storm, archers did not aim at a specific target, but loosed their arrows at a high trajectory into a predetermined “killing zone” or target area. While this practice probably caused few mortal wounds, it undoubtedly impacted morale as soldiers had to watch arrows wound their comrades while being unable to retaliate.

Concentrated Firepower

While the practice of concentrating firepower certainly existed prior to the Mongols, they were perhaps the first to use it to maximum effect in all aspects of war, from the arrow storm to batteries of siege weapons. At the siege of Nishapur in 1221, the Mongols amassed enough weaponry to overawe its defenders, who were reportedly defended by 300 ballistae and catapults, along with 3,000 crossbows. While those numbers are probably exaggerated, they indicate that the Mongols deployed a large number of siege weapons to demolish walls and pound cities or fortresses into submission.

Caracole Tactics

The Mongols combined the arrow storm with hit-and-run tactics: Approximately 80 men in each jaghun, or company, participated; the remaining 20 acted as heavy cavalry. Each jaghun sent 20 men per wave of attackers. The waves fired several arrows as they charged and then circled back to the Mongols’ lines after completing their charge. They loosed their final shot roughly 40 to 50 meters from the enemy lines before wheeling around. This distance was close enough to pierce armor, but distant enough to evade a countercharge. While circling back, the Mongols often used the aforementioned Parthian shot. They changed horses frequently to keep their mounts fresh. Since each man was equipped with 60 arrows, the Mongols could maintain this barrage for almost an hour, and perhaps longer.

They used this technique throughout their era of dominance, as Marco Polo observed in the late 13th century:

When they come to an engagement with the enemy, they will gain the victory in this fashion. [They never let themselves get into a regular medley, but keep perpetually riding round and shooting into the enemy. And] as they do not count it any shame to run away in battle, they will [sometimes pretend to] do so, and in running away they turn in the saddle and shoot hard and strong at the foe, and in this way make great havoc.

Feigned Retreat

The feigned retreat was a classic tactic of steppe warfare practiced since ancient times: A token force charged the enemy and then retreated, pulling the enemy after them in pursuit. The retreat might extend a great distance in order to stretch the enemy’s ranks and formations. Then at a prearranged location, other Mongol forces attacked from the flanks while the initial force wheeled around and attacked the enemy’s front.

Perhaps the most renowned use of the feigned retreat took place in 1223, when Mongol generals Jebe and Sübedei encountered a combined army of Kipchak Turks and Rus’ along the Dnieper River. The Mongols retreated, luring the Kipchaks and Rus’ several days deeper into the steppe until they reached the Kalka River. Here the main Mongol force waited and promptly destroyed the allied force.

Marco Polo also remarked on the effectiveness of the feigned retreat:

Thus they fight to as good purpose in running away as if they stood and faced the enemy, because of the vast volleys of arrows that they shoot in this way, turning round upon their pursuers, who are fancying that they have won the battle. But when the Tartars see that they have killed and wounded a good many horses and men, they wheel round bodily and return to the charge in perfect order and with loud cries; and in a very short time the enemy are routed.

Fabian Tactics

At times the Mongols avoided combat with the enemy until they found an ideal location for battle or had regrouped far-flung forces to confront their opponent. This tactic differed from the feigned retreat; Fabian tactics involved the avoidance of all direct contact with the enemy. The Mongol army often divided into small groups to avoid being surrounded, but then they regrouped and launched a surprise attack on the enemy at a more opportune time. Fabian tactics also exhausted the enemy through avoidance of combat, particularly when the enemy forces maintained a strong defensive posture, whether in the open or in a fortress. As long as the Mongols remained in the vicinity, the constant stress of anticipating an attack wore down the enemy.

When the Mongols were confronted by an enemy who, for instance, planted spears in the ground to prevent cavalry charges, they responded by withdrawing the bulk of their forces, leaving behind a few detachments to harass the enemy. Eventually, their enemy—having either decided that the main Mongol force had withdrawn for strategic reasons or had moved away because of hunger or thirst—emerged from their defenses. Then the main Mongol force would return to destroy them.

Flanking Tactics and Double Envelopment

Chinggis Khan used encircling tactics on several occasions. He sought to encircle his enemies, especially if their flanks and rear were exposed or, in the case of sieges, if the defenders were weak. When he was confronted by an enemy army that was using features of the terrain—a river, for instance—to its advantage, he attempted to encircle it on both sides of the riverbank.

The Mongols sometimes confused their enemy by feinting at the front and then unleashing the main attack on their rear. By attacking from several directions, the Mongols gave the enemy the impression that they were surrounded. By leaving a gap in the encirclement, the Mongols allowed the enemy what looked like a means of escape. In reality, the gap served as a trap. In their panic and desire to get away, the enemy rarely maintained their discipline and often discarded their weapons to flee faster. The Mongols then attacked from the rear much like they did to the Hungarians at Mohi in 1241. Mongol scholar Dalantai called this the “Open-the-End Tactic” and noted that the Mongols used it if the enemy seemed to be very strong and might fight to the death when trapped.

The practice of double envelopment or even encirclement, while a traditional method employed on the steppe, also stems from the Mongols’ training in the nerge or the battue style of hunting. Just as in the nerge, the warriors gradually tightened their circle around their prey, forming a dense mass from which it was difficult to escape. The Mongols did not always require large numbers of troops to achieve this; their archery skills and mobility allowed them to encircle an enemy force even when they were outnumbered.

The nerge used in military operations essentially served as a double envelopment tactic, in which the wings of the Mongol army would wrap around an opposing army. At times the Mongols used it as a strategy on a broader front during an invasion, as they did when they attacked the Rus’ lands. After the capture of the city of Vladimir in 1237, “They turned back from there and held a council, deciding that they would proceed tümän by tümän in järge formation and take and destroy every town, province and fortress they came to.” In this fashion the Mongols encircled an area, then gradually closed in so that avenues of escape narrowed as they would in a battle.

In some instances, the Mongols sent a force of prisoners and conscripted levies to attack the enemy front, backed of course by Mongol troops to ensure the levy performed its duty. Meanwhile, Mongol columns marched out of sight until they reappeared on the flanks or in the rear of the enemy.

Siege Warfare

In the early days of the Mongol conquests, siege warfare was a weakness that Chinggis Khan and his generals had to overcome if they were to hold territory. As their success grew against their sedentary opponents, the Mongols incorporated engineers—either conscripted or volunteers—into their armies. For the entire existence of the Mongol Empire, they were dependent on Muslim and Chinese engineers who manned and manufactured artillery and other siege equipment.

The Mongols delayed sieges until the later part of a campaign. They began a campaign with the reduction of smaller outlying places before concentrating their armies on a greater target. Thus they ensured that they had sufficient manpower to besiege the larger towns. When they came up against an inaccessible city or fortress, the Mongols set up a blockade in order to starve an enemy into surrendering. They also dealt with strongholds by bypassing them; once these were isolated, they lost their strategic importance. If the Mongols found they could not reduce the city or fortress, they often built a counter fortress to blockade it and waited until the enemy succumbed to hunger or agreed to a diplomatic settlement.

Prior to a siege, the Mongols collected numerous captives and conscripts from previously conquered cities and villages. These people served as forced labor and arrow fodder. After seizing a city, town or village, the Mongols divided the population into units of 10, and each Mongol soldier received a unit. These levies gathered grass, wood, earth and stone. If any of the captives fell behind during the march, the Mongols executed them. When the levies arrived at the city that was to be attacked, they filled the moat or defensive trench quickly with stones and other materials they carried—bundles of straw, wood and debris—so the Mongols could reach the walls. Captives were also forced to dig trenches and erect defenses and to undertake any other tasks that were necessary.

During a siege, the Mongols compelled prisoners to build siege engines, presumably under the direction of their Chinese or Persian engineers. With these engines and their own bows, the Mongols maintained a constant barrage on the city in order to prevent the enemy from resting. The Mongols also used naphtha and possibly Greek fire, and the Franciscan friar John de Plano Carpini noted a more gruesome fuel. According to him, “They even take the fat of the people they kill and, melting it, throw it on to the house, and wherever the fire falls on this fat, it is almost inextinguishable.”

Prisoners were forced to take an active part in the sieges. They carried battering rams which were operated under the cover of a canopy or perhaps a more hardened shelter. If the captives tried to run away, they were put to death. Thus they had a choice of certain death at the hands of the Mongols or probable death at the hands of the defenders of the city.

In addition to using catapults and rams to weaken the walls of a city, the Mongols dug tunnels to undermine them. If a river ran near a city—as in Xixia, for instance—they would dam it and flood the streets. The conscripted levies did most of the dangerous work, and the Mongols only exposed themselves when they were required to engage in combat. During a siege they tended to stay out of the range of fire from the city, thereby conserving their own troops while letting auxiliaries and local levies perform the most perilous jobs. Finally, once the wall was breached, the Mongols donned their armor and attacked, often at night.

These tactics were standard operating procedure for the Mongols throughout their conquests. The campaign in Russia demonstrated the sophistication and efficiency of their siege-warfare techniques; the siege of Vladimir is a particularly good example: The Mongols isolated the city by surrounding it with a wall before bombarding it with catapults, arrows, fire arrows and attacks by levies with battering rams. Once they had breached a city wall, they mounted a quick assault at night to reduce casualties.

Psychological Tactics and Means of Deception

The Mongols realized it was more efficient to convince a city or fortress to surrender without resistance rather than to be drawn into a siege. As a consequence, the Mongols gained a notorious reputation for massacres. According to some chroniclers, most notably Jûzjânî and the Rus’ chroniclers, the Mongols rarely left a living soul wherever they conquered. Their massacres generally were not carried out in wanton blood lust—but served several purposes: The first was to discourage revolts by hostile populations behind the Mongol armies. Second, as news of the massacres spread, particularly in cases where the defenders had put up a determined resistance, other cities and peoples were intimidated and chose to surrender to the Mongols. Finally, a massacre served as a powerful deterrent to rebellion. According to anthropologist Thomas Barfield, the Mongols

…were extremely conscious of their small numbers and employed terror as a tool to discourage resistance against them. Cities…that surrendered and then revolted were put to the sword. The Mongols could not maintain strong garrisons and so preferred to wipe out whole areas that appeared troublesome. Such behavior was inexplicable to sedentary historians for whom conquest of productive populations was the goal of warfare.

In addition, the Mongols used propaganda and often spread rumors in advance that exaggerated the size of their army. In 1258 Möngke invaded Szechuan with 40,000, but spread rumors of 100,000. The Mongols resorted to other subterfuges to confuse and intimidate their enemies. When he fought the Naiman in 1204, Chinggis Khan ordered his soldiers to set up camp on the Sa’ari Steppe in western Mongolia, and in order to hide the true size of his army, he commanded that each soldier should light five campfires, giving the impression of a more numerous army. When confronting numerically superior forces, the Mongols often sent troops back to stir up dust behind their own lines by means of branches tied to the tails of their horses, to create the illusion of approaching reinforcements. They also mounted dummies on their spare horses, and rode in single file to mask their numbers at a distance.

The Mongols sought to weaken their opponents by promoting discord or rebellion and by courting the support of oppressed minorities (or majorities). While the Mongols made good use of their reputation for extreme brutality, they also pains to portray themselves as liberators when circumstances warranted. They also played rivals off against one another. As the French knight Jean de Joinville once wrote, “Whenever the Mongols wish to make war on the Saracens, they send Christians to fight against them, and on the other hand employ Saracens in any war against Christians.”

Supernatural Tactics

The Mongols resorted to supernatural means to assure their success. They asked Tenggri, or Heaven, for favor on the battlefield in the same way Muslim and Christian armies appealed to their god before battle. The Mongols also employed other supernatural tactics, the most important of which was weather magic conducted by a shaman known as the jadaci. The jadaci used special rocks, thought to be imbued with the power to control weather and known as “rain stones,” in order to summon rainstorms, or even snowstorms in the summer, which caught the enemy ill-prepared. During the storm, the Mongols, who had lured their opponents away from their base, would take shelter and then attack while the enemy was disoriented.


The most effective strategies in war exploit the strengths of the army, and for the Mongols this meant a strategy of high mobility. The horses used by the Mongols were surpassed in strength and speed by those of sedentary armies, but they were superior in endurance, and the Mongols had more of them. The average trooper in the Mongol army possessed three to five mounts, so he could remain mobile even if one or two of his mounts were lost or exhausted. In consequence the Mongols engaged in a highly mobile style of warfare that was not employed again until the 20th century, when armies were mechanized.


When preparing for war, the Mongols took several steps. First, they conducted a census in order to organize the mobilization of their troops. They also accumulated intelligence on their opponents. Only after sufficient intelligence had been obtained did they make a declaration of hostilities. The declarations of war varied, but by the peak of the empire, they outlined why the Mongols were invading and gave the enemy a few options such as surrendering and providing tribute and troops when requested—or facing destruction. At a quriltai, or Mongol assembly, the strategy for the upcoming war was agreed on and the commanders were chosen. Points of rendezvous were established, and mobilization began in earnest.

According to Denis Sinor:

Mongol strategy at its best was based on a very careful planning of the military operations to be performed, and the essence of it lay in a very rigid timetable to which all Mongol commanders were expected to adhere strictly.

While timetables were important to Mongol armies, they were not afraid to alter their plans in order to take advantage of favorable weather and other environmental conditions. They sought to attack when their enemies least expected it, even when their own horses were lean or weak, or in the middle of winter. Although campaigns were meticulously planned, the Mongol generals maintained a high degree of independence. They could fulfill their objectives in their own way so long as they abided to the overall timetable.

Travel by Columns

Invading Mongol armies usually followed several routes of advance. Against the Khwârazmian Empire, Chinggis Khan used at least four and perhaps five routes, one of which ran through the Kyzyl Kum desert. During the invasion of Russia, generals Sübedei, Batu and Möngke approached from three directions. Ultimately, as in modern warfare, these columns converged upon a single target, usually the center of power. Against the Khwârazmian Empire it was Samarqand; in Europe, Budapest. With their preplanned schedules and their skillful use of scouts, the Mongols marched divided, but fought united. Because their forces marched in small detachments, their advance was not slowed by large columns that stretched for miles, and their opponents were not able to concentrate their forces before the Mongols appeared on many fronts at the same time. While the Mongols were quite capable of concentrating their forces at a critical point in an enemy’s defenses, such as at a strategic fortress or a field army, instead they often overwhelmed their opponents by applying pressure to several points simultaneously.

Annihilation of Field Army

A multi-pronged invasion plan suited the Mongols’ favored method of engaging the enemy—that is, to destroy the opposing field army before moving deep into enemy territory. Screens of scouts ensured that the Mongols could rapidly locate enemy armies. After defeating an army, the Mongols pursued it until it was destroyed. Assaults on enemy strongholds were often delayed by this effort to put the enemy field army out of action. Of course, small fortresses and ones that could be surprised easily were taken in the course of the advance. The Khwârazmian campaign is perhaps the best example of this—smaller cities and fortresses were taken before the capital Samarqand was captured. This strategy had two obvious advantages. First, it prevented the principal city from communicating with other cities that might have come to its aid. Second, refugees from the smaller cities fled to the last stronghold. Reports from the defeated cities and the stream of refugees not only reduced the morale of the inhabitants and the garrison of the principal city, but also strained its resources of food and water. Upon destruction of the field army, the Mongols were then free to lay siege without interference.

Pursuit of Leaders

Once an enemy field army had been defeated, the Mongols concentrated on destroying their opponent’s capacity to rally. They targeted all the enemy leaders and harried them until they were killed. Chinggis Khan first pursued this policy during the wars of unification in Mongolia. In his first few campaigns his failure to eliminate the opposing leaders allowed them to regroup their forces and start the conflict anew. He learned from this experience, and in his later campaigns the merciless pursuit of the enemy commanders evolved into a standard operational procedure.

Key to Success

Altogether, the Mongols possessed a highly developed and complex military structure. This provided them an edge in warfare over their opponents, but a key to Mongol success in war and conquest was the melding of traditional and still effective steppe tactics with new tactics and forms of warfare they encountered. Throughout the expansion of their empire, the Mongols remained pragmatic and open to incorporating new methods of waging war and adopting new weapons and tactics. They ensured their soldiers were properly trained to execute the appropriate tactics when ordered. Finally, due to their extensive planning, the Mongols were better informed about their opponents than most medieval armies. The outcome was that for more than 150 years of conquest from Asia to Europe they suffered no serious defeats.


Originally published in the August 2007 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.  

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