Five types of weapons of the warrior
The courage of batyr is judged by his weapon

Battle armor in the traditional system of arms of the Kazakhs

The traditional system of arms of the Kazakhs consists of various categories, kinds, types and groups of offensive and defensive weapons. The terminology of arms in the Kazakh language gives a correct understanding of the entire complex of the Kazakh traditional arms.

All types and varieties of Kazakh armor and their structural elements have similar names in other Turkic languages; the differences are found only in the names of more recent types of armor. This gives evidence to the fact that such a classification system was identical in all the nomadic Turkic peoples, and it has begun to take shape back in the Turkic period, together with the appearance of the main types of nomadic defense armor.

Five types of military weapons of the Kazakhs

The Kazakh epos often refers to the five types of military weapons, which the Kazakh batyrs, the representatives of the professional warriors’ class, were armed with. There is a Kazakh proverb, which reads as “Yer karauy – bes karu”, and translates as “Arms of a warrior are the five types of weapons”. This categorization of military weapons into five main types is associated with the specific way of damage that each weapon causes, determining why one type can not be replaced by another. This stipulates the segregation of military weapons into five types: the projectile weapons, the bladed weapons, the hacking weapons, the piercing weapons and the strike weapons. Every kind of ‘arms of a warrior’ (Yer karauy) has several varieties, which can, harmlessly to the combat equipment of a warrior, be used interchangeably in combat.

The projectile weapons

The main projectile weapon of the Kazakhs was the battle bow (“Zhak”) and arrows “Ok”. The Kazakh battle bow was assembled of several pieces made of various materials such as wood, bone, horn, bark, tendons and leather. Depending on the purpose and form of the tip, the Kazakhs have distinguished several types of arrows. An arrow with a broad two-bladed tip inflicting wide wounds the Kazakhs called ‘kozy zhuyryn’ (lamb shoulder blade). The arrows with triangular or tetrahedral armor-piercing tips were called ‘sauyt buzar’ and ‘kobe buzar’ (armor-piercing). In addition to the metal tips, the Kazakhs have used bone, horn and wooden arrowheads. To hit a man off a horse, or for hunting, cylindrical timber tips ‘dogal ok’ were used. And a whistler arrow was used to signal during a battle. The quiver for carrying arrows was called ‘koramsak’. There also was a separate case for the bow called ‘sadaq’. In the past, this also was the name for the entire set of a bow, quiver and a shoulder strap for carrying.

Later, the bow was displaced from the complex of projectile weapons of the Kazakhs by firearms. The Kazakhs have used matchlock, flintlock and amorce guns.

The bladed weapons

Traditionally Kazakh warriors have used three types of long-bladed cutting weapons: the straight sword called ‘Semser’, the curved saber, ‘Kylysh’, and the Kazakh cavalry sword, ‘Sapy’. In the past, the Kazakhs used to have several varieties of swords. The saber with a strongly curved blade Kazakhs called ‘Narkesken’. The saber with a forked-tip blade was called ‘Zulfukar’. The large, heavy sabers with a small extension at the tip, designed to increase the severity of impact, the Kazakhs called ‘Aldaspan’. The sheath for the ordinary and cavalry swords and sabers were called ‘Kynap’. The harness for carrying the sword and the sheath was called “Kylyshbau’. The sheath was made of wood covered with leather, velvet, decorated with metal plates, inlaid silver, gold and precious stones. Some sheaths were entirely covered with metal.

 

The short-bladed weapon was dagger, or knife, which the warrior used as an auxiliary weapon in the battle. The national knife became an attribute of the Kazakh national costume and the men's belt ‘Kise’ always had a Kazakh national knife with a sheath attached to it. The sheath and the belt loop were decorated with embroidery, applique velvet, and metal ornamented plates.


The piercing weapons

The Kazakhs had two kinds of piercing weapons - stabbing weapon with a wide tip, the spear, in Kazakh language is called ‘Naiza’, and long pike with a thin faceted tip used against armored enemy, called ‘Sungi’. The Kazakh warriors would attach various identification signs to their spears and pikes, such as horsetails, banners, flags and tassels. A banner used to be a common sign of an army, horsetail – a sign of commander, multi-colored flags used to identify military units, and tassels made of horsehair or silk cords would designate batyrs.


 The hacking weapons

Traditionally, the Kazakhs had four main types of hacking weapons, differing by the kind of damage a hack would cause, accordingly differing in shape. The first variety of this type of weapon was a battle-axe ‘Balta’ with the medium-width blade intended for chopping strokes. The battle axe with a moon-shaped wide blade, the poleaxe, the Kazakhs had called ‘Aybalta’, and this weapon was used for chopping and cutting strokes. Anther variety of hacking weapon had a narrow wedge-shaped blade and was called ‘Shakan’ (Calker); this weapon was used for splitting strokes. But the most frequent in use for the Kazakhs was the fourth kind of battle axes, the semipoleaxe, which combined the properties of the axe, poleaxe, and the calker. Often the back of the head of the axe was shaped in the form of a hammer for crushing blows.

Handles of Kazakh axes sometimes were lined with metal and covered with leather. Based on the length of the handle, the Kazakh battle-axes can be divided into three groups of axes with a long, medium and short handles. The Kazakhs most commonly used the medium-length handle axes. The small hatchet with a short handle was usually worn on a belt. The long-handled poleaxe was used for protection of the Khan's palace or the gates of fortresses.

 

The strike weapons

The oldest version of this weapon was the mace, in Kazakh called ‘Shokpar’, made of a single piece of wood in the form of a heavy club, with its head sometimes metal fettered or studded with sharp spikes. The second type of strike weapon was a heavy mace, with the head separately made of metal and impaled on the handle, called ‘Kursi’. The third type of strike weapon was a light Pernach (Shestopyer), the head of which was made of metal with several thin ribs (feathers). This kind of strike weapon in the Turkic language was called ‘Buzdygan’. The fourth type of strike weapon was the blackjack (‘Bosmoyyn’), the head of which was attached to the handle in flexible way, with belt or chain. The head of the blackjack, the bob, was made of wood, stone and cast metal.


Over the centuries the Kazakhs have developed certain traditions of use of all types of military weapons. Combats of batyrs, as tests of mastery in weapons, strength and courage of the warrior, were governed by certain rules and rituals, with only the actual service weapons used. In ancient times, same as now, the nomads distinguished the types of troops by the types of weapons. The warriors who have mastered a certain kind of weapons would form military units, i.e. of spearmen, swordsmen, archers, macemen, poleaxers. Professional warriors, the batyrs, who had mastered all five types of weapons, would compose elite guards units. For nomads, the use of these five kinds of arms determined the tactics of military battles. The battle would usually begin with shooting arrows long range; the spears (pikes) would be used during the ramming attacks by the cavalry, and then in close combat other types of weapons would be engaged.

The aforementioned special characteristics of military weapons had created a special, sacred relationship to the arms. The Kazakh warriors in the past used to have the cult of military weapons, they swore to the arms, oathed to them, gave personal names to every weapon. Nomads have developed a host of traditional rituals using military weapons. In the Middle Ages, swords or sabers were among the royal regalia (symbols of power), awarded to the rulers at the time of their coronation. The Kazakhs, in the enthronement of the Khan, would belt him with a golden sword as a symbol of authority and dignity. These five types of assault weapons were also the signs of military power, they denoted different degrees of military rank, i.e. the spear with a horsetail, a saber or mace were given to military commanders in the appointment to the post. People, who have received the right to wear a military weapon, enjoyed special privileges in the society. For example, the Kazakhs under Khan Tauke, by the Zhety zhargy law which existed at the days, would give the right to participate in the Khan's council only to the people who wore a military weapon (khans, sultans, batyrs, and patriarchs). Ceremonial weapons of war served as military awards for battle achievements. The Kazakhs included the weapons of war as valuable objects into the dowry of the bride called ‘Zhasau’, and into the wedding gifts for the bride, ‘Kalym’. Weapons would be included into the nine items of the main prize for winning competitions held on the traditional holidays and commemorative memorial services.

Honoring the military weapons in the folk tradition of the Kazakhs has survived to this day. Descendants of Kazakh batyrs still keep some military weapons left over from their glorious ancestors as sacred relics.

© Bes Qaru Association, 2010. All rights reserved.