The victory at Kulikovo Field demonstrates that by the end of the 14th century the Russian warlords had found effective ways of resisting nomadic steppe-style warfare. This era saw the introduction of heavy cavalry – the most important element of military force in the middle ages. The Russians and the Horde used similar armour, typically chainmail or coat-of-plates. The weapons of the time were adapted to pierce this kind of defence.
No original examples of Russian or Horde military equipment have survived from the 14th century. Today’s scientists have to base their analysis on arrowheads and spear tips, and fragments of chainmail and coat-of-plate - many of which have not survived intact. As a result, only through scientific reconstruction can we see the warriors of that time in their full glory. Scientists are currently developing ways of reconstructing medieval arms and armour using archaeological, figurative and literary sources as their guide. The founder of the Russian School of Historical Weapons Reconstruction was Mikhail Gorelik (1946-2015), who made several reconstructions for the Kulikovo Field Museum-Reserve, the Russian State Historical Museum, the Tower of London and many Russian museums.
The first helmets appeared in Rus’ at the end of the 14th century. The key feature of this headgear was its elongated shape, compared to its western European counterpart which was shorter. The Russian helmet gave better protection from blunt or hacking weapons, which slid off its smooth surface, and its height made it more difficult to strike it from above. The best form of attack was a blow from the side, to stun the recipient or give him concussion. The helmet was fastened under the chin with a strap so that it was not easily dislodged by a blow, and it was worn on top of head lining. The warriors of Rus’ would use head liners made from wolf or badger skin, or occasionally from felt.
An important part of a warrior’s defensive equipment were his arm shields, made from metal plates. These protected the lower arm from hand to elbow and were made from one or more plates. Two-piece arm shields were also common and were known by the Persian name of ‘bazuband’. They were formed from two plates bent into the shape of an arm and held together with straps. The shins were protected using armour such as greaves (plate armour for the lower leg), and the legs with cuisses and knee guards. Leg protectors were fastened to the waist with straps and tied around the hips. All of these elements of arm and leg armour were widely used in Rus’ and in the Golden Horde from the 14th century onwards.
Key elements of defensive equipment were chainmail and coat-of-plates, or ‘broni’. Chainmail was the armour of choice for the Russian warrior facing constant conflict with the light cavalry of the Mongol nomads, since it allowed him to maintain some freedom of movement. The creation of chainmail required a series of operations; it was usually made from more than 20,000 rings and more than 600 metres of wire. The weaving of chainmail began with the collar and finished with the hem. The pieces on the back and chest were strengthened with strong rings. The average weight of the mail was around 9-10kg.
At the time of the Battle of Kulikovo, chainmail in Rus’ was giving way to a different type of plate armour. One type of defensive equipment that was widely used across Europe and Asia was the ‘brigandine’. This was a combination of chest and back plate fastened onto a fabric or leather foundation.
Up to the 15th century Russian knights did not cover their armour with fabric or leather. It was thought that the gleam of metal increased the psychological pressure on the enemy. One example of such armour is the layered cuirass corset; this was formed from uniform plates made of metal, wood, bone or leather, compressed into three layers using pitch or resin
Mongol layered armour was formed of overlapping plates, which were fastened by thongs to lateral leather straps.
A vital part of a medieval warrior’s defensive equipment was his shield. This protected him from thrusting and slashing blows, and from arrows. Shields were made from boards covered tightly with fabric or leather; they were strengthened with metal strips and the rear side reinforced with lining and straps. Shields would be colourfully painted, and from the 12th/13th centuries their frame would be decorated with emblems. In the 14th century the shield lost its metal detailing, becoming smaller and lighter. This made it more manoeuvreable and comfortable to handle as a defensive weapon during combat.
The Kulikovo Field Museum-Reserve has commissioned several unique scientific experiments, to test some examples of reconstructed armour and weapons in a simulated combat situation. You can see the filmed results of these trials on screen in the museum: chainmail, coat-of-plates and helmets are put to the test by sabres, swords, axes, flails, clubs, spears and short metal pikes, and various types of arrows.
The most ancient range weapon is the bow and arrow. The bow string was made from plant fibre, silk thread or rawhide. In battle its maximum range was up to 100-150m. The bow was carried in a leather pouch, which hung to the left of the body; the quiver hung to the right. Archers wore gloves, shoulder pads and wrist cuffs to protect their hands and arms while using their bow.
In Rus’ arrows were made from wood, typically pine, fir, birch or applewood; the older the wood, the better. The length of an arrow would be 75-90cm. Feathers were used to stabilise the arrow in flight. The tip of the arrow was crucial to its penetrative force. Arrowheads from the 12th to 13th centuries came in various forms, including forked ones for close range firing at the exposed parts of the enemy or his horse, armour-piercing arrows, and crossbow bolts.
An integral part of the archer’s equipment was his quiver. These were sometimes decorated with elegant plates made of carved bone or with animal patterns. A 14th century Russian archer’s quiver would take up to 20 arrows, while that of a Horde warrior could hold up to 30. In battle they would carry two quivers: for 30 armour-piercing arrows and 30 forked ones.
Short metal spears (‘sulitsi’) were used by foot soldiers and mounted warriors alike and had a range of 10-30m. These weapons retained their full force in flight, piercing the opponent’s armour or shield.
The spear was used by mounted warriors for the attack collision. Russian foot soldiers used it against the opponent’s cavalry. The wooden shaft would be made from a whole tree and could be up to 2.5m in length. The opposite end from the tip would be reinforced with an iron counterweight. At the time of the Battle of Kulikovo spear tips were predominantly the armour-piercing type. An increase in the use of thrusting weapons during the 14th century led to the invention of special detachments of spearmen. Often the size of an army was measured by the number of ‘spears’.
Popular for their combination of relative low cost and excellent military capabilities were the mace, flanged mace, axe and chainmace. Axes were used not only by foot regiments; mounted warriors also launched them from horseback during protracted cavalry skirmishes. Light battle axes occasionally served as parade weapons inlaid with precious metals. The axe could be wielded using one or two hands.
The mace was a hand-held blunt weapon, with a round head weighing up to half a kilogram. It was mounted on a wooden or metal shaft up to 80cm long. In battle it was used to stun the opponent with a blow to the helmet, or to cause internal injury. The club was widely used from the 13th to 14th centuries, and subsequently came to be known as a symbol of power: in Europe it appears as a field-marshal’s baton, in Russia as a sceptre, and in Ukraine it is a state emblem
Another type of mace was the flanged mace. This had a round or pear shape, weighed 300-400g, and had six ribs. Its head was set onto a wooden or metal shaft. The flanged mace was used in close combat, and in addition to its striking-slicing action it could also deliver a chopping blow.
Horsemen would also use a chainmace in battle. This was designed to deliver a nimble, sudden blow at close quarters. The ornamentation on a flanged mace was made of iron, bronze or bone, and it weighed 200-250g
The sabre and sword were highly prized weapons. Under our modern day European classification system, swords can either be short (up to 60cm), long (up to 115cm), hand-and-a-half (up to 145cm) or two-handed (up to 150cm). A heavy sword designed for two hands weighed up to eight kilograms and could be 2m in length. The classical knight’s sword, which had taken on its definitive form by the 14th century, had a blade of up to 90cm and a shaft for one hand. It weighed between 1.25 and 1.8 kg. Scabbards were made of wood, covered with leather or material fastened to the sword belt.
The sabre first appeared in the Orient and became popular with the Mongol nomads. It became widely used because of its great value to horsemen in combat. It gave the mounted warrior a lot of flexibility in his movements and enabled him to strike his opponent more accurately. Depending on the shape of the blade, the sabre could be used as a hacking, stabbing or slicing weapon. Unlike the sword, the sabre always had one sharp edge.
War horse equipment
A fundamental tactical option in 14th century warfare was the cavalry charge. A war horse’s kit would include saddle, stirrups, bridle, bit, horseshoes and other items. The stirrups, together with the bridle and rein, allowed the rider to direct the horse during combat. When the rein was pulled, the bridle-bit forced the horse to turn its head and body and move in the desired direction. With his toecaps in the stirrups the rider either sat or stood in the saddle, with the stirrups taking his weight as he rode. Stirrups made a significant improvement to how a horse could be directed in battle; they enabled the rider to launch his spear with maximum force while riding at full speed. Spurs were also an effective way of urging the horse on during combat, when regrouping or in close proximity to the enemy.
Whips were also used in 14th century Russia, but with the subsequent emergence of spurs they became less commonly used.
“Mamai’s Defeat” or “The Massacre on the Don” was a battle between a united Russian army led by the Moscow prince Dmitry Ivanovich, and the forces of the Horde led by Mamai. The name “Battle of Kulikovo” was first used by the Russian historian Nikolai Karamzin. We know both a lot, and little, about this battle.
The first chronicled tales about the Battle of Kulikovo were created almost immediately after the battle, and contain only a limited amount of information about it. Literary works from the 16th and 17th centuries – “Zadonshchina” and “The Tale of Mamai’s Defeat” – are filled with disparate and occasionally fantastical details, unverifiable facts and historical errors. Nevertheless, not a single other event from medieval Russian history has been portrayed so widely in chronicles, literature and artistic tradition.
Sources cite several reasons for Mamai’s campaign against Rus’. Chronicles mention Mamai’s desire for revenge after the Horde army suffered a crushing defeat at the Battle of the Vozha River in 1378. There were also economic factors: Mamai wished to force Muscovy to pay a significant sum in tribute, as had been done under khan Dzhanibek. Mamai badly needed funds to maintain his army and attract new support in his bid for power within the Golden Horde. From 1374, taking advantage of confusion within the Horde, Muscovy had completely stopped paying the tribute.
After the defeat on the River Vozha, Mamai spent much of 1379-80 planning his campaign against Moscow. He gained an ally in Jagiello, Grand Duke of Lithuania, and also engaged in negotiations with Oleg of Ryazan, hoping to take advantage of ancient antipathy between Moscow and Ryazan. Mamai mobilised all the territories under his control on the right bank of the Volga, in Crimea and the northern Caucasus. Chronicle tales refer to Mamai’s military coalition including mercenary Italian troops, Cherkasy, Ossetians, Besermans and Armenians. At the beginning of 1380 Mamai’s Horde moved slowly from its nomadic headquarters in the lower Don into Rus’, following the river. Mamai was in no hurry; he anticipated the arrival of his allies by the autumn, when they would jointly attack Rus’. At the beginning of August Mamai’s troops reached the mouth of the river Voronezh. Oleg of Ryazan, seeing the strong Horde army on the border of his princedom, was forced to promise to pay tribute to Mamai and dispatch military assistance – which it seems never arrived.
Mamai’s incursion into Muscovy became known at the end of July or beginning of August, either from scouts or from the Prince of Ryazan. Realising that conflict with Mamai was inevitable, Dmitry Ivanovich held a council of war with his closest Moscow noblemen and his cousin Vladimir Serpukhovsky; they selected regiments and warrior hosts from across the principality of Moscow and beyond. It was then that they decided to dispatch military scouts to Tikhaya Sosna to investigate Mamai’s Horde. It was probably around this time that Prince Dmitry set out to meet Sergei of Radonezh at the Troitsky Monastery. Faced with a trying ordeal – the greatest armed conflict in one and a half centuries against the forces of the Golden Horde - Dmitry needed some moral support.
Searches and discoveries
The great battle on the Don was to become the subject of research for many generations of scholars. But the first steps towards researching the actual field of battle and gathering finds from it was not undertaken by academics, but by amateur enthusiasts – local landowners and noblemen whose ancestors took part in the battle. They obtained the items from peasants who would have been ploughing the land during the 18th-19th centuries
The first time that deliberate searches of the battlefield site are known to have taken place was in the 1730s by Russian statesman Artemy Petrovich Volynsky (1689-1740), during the reigns of Peter I and Anna Ivanovna. Volynsky’s ancestor, Dmitry Mikhailovich Bobrok-Volynsky, was one of the heroes of the Battle of Kulikovo
In 1732 Artemy Volynsky visited the Bogoroditsky state stud farm in the Tula region, where he was told that peasants on the farm had found weapons on Kulikovo Field while they were ploughing the land. Volynsky asked if these could be sent to him in St Petersburg, and even offered a reward of 5 roubles for each item found. He was not alone; there is plenty of evidence that local landowners collected many weapons and unique examples of baptismal crosses, icons, medallions and other items.
Finds from the battlefield were collected by the landowners of Epifan, whose names are closely linked to the place of battle. A significant number of finds were kept in artistic and historical collections of valuables at the estate of Krasny Buitsi on the Nepryadva, which belonged to Count Alexander Olsufiev (Alexander III’s aide-de-camp) and then his son Yury Alexandrovich. Local landowners remembered the Olsufievs’ house as “a real museum of ancient weapons”.
The most famous collection, however, was at the family estate of the Nechaevs at the village of Polibino in the Ryazan region. The founder of the collection was Dmitry Stepanovich Nechaev (1742-1820), Epifan and Dankovsky parish landowner, who established a monument dedicated to the heroes of the Kulikovo Battle
His son, future senator Stepan Dmitrievich Nechaev (1792-1860), was also actively interested in the history of Kulikovo Field and Mamai’s defeat. He was the first to accurately define the area where the battle was fought; at the beginning of the 19th century he caught the tail-end of the first and largest haul of finds discovered by peasants ploughing the virgin soil of the battlefield
We now know of more than 210 discoveries made at Kulikovo Field from the 18th to the first third of the 20th century. A significant proportion of these objects (sabres, swords, chainmail, encolpions, flanged maces, clubs, serpent-amulets, spear heads, short lances, fragments of coat-of-plate, etc) relate to the time of the Battle of Kulikovo. Other finds (such as helmets with mail, battle-axes, etc) were left after the border skirmishes with the Crimean Tatars and Nogai during the Time of Troubles in the 15th-17th centuries. All of these collections were destroyed during the Russian Revolution, and the fate of most of them remains unknown.
It was only towards the 600th anniversary of the battle in 1980 that academics developed a scientific approach to battlefield research. The first archaeologists to work at Kulikovo Field were academics from the State Historical Museum in Moscow
In 1996 a federal museum-reserve was established at Kulikovo Field. The former territory of the sovkhoz (state-owned farm) on the site of the supposed battlefield was removed from agricultural use and became protected land. In 1995-2000 the Upper Don Archaeological Expedition of the State Historical Museum and the Kulikovo-Field Museum Reserve began a reconnaissance survey on various parts of the battlefield using modern metal detectors. In 1995 the first relics were found.
Annual surveys, covering tens of hectares of land, continue to this day.