13th and 14th Century Russian Arms and Armor

by Sofya la Rus, mka Lisa Kies

Historical Context:

    In the 13th and 14th centuries, the land of Rus was a loose federation of principalities united by language, religion, common history, and rule by descendants of the legendary Riurik, but divided by competition for the grand princely throne, economic focus, and outside threats. Kiev, the ancient heart of Rus and still the nominal capital, was becoming more and more irrelevant in the power struggles in Rus. The southwestern principalities of Galicia and Volhynia became increasingly focused on their relationship with the expanding territories of Poland and Lithuania, while it was the northeastern principalities of Novgorod, Ryazin and Vladimir-Suzdal that were beginning to lay the foundation of the future Russian state.

    In 1200, the princes of Vladimir-Suzdal generally held the Grand Princely throne in preference to the other princes of Rus. Through the 13th century, the princes of northeastern Rus struggled determine the succession and control of the grand princely throne, work with their Mongol overlords, and to consolidate local powerbases.

    Accordingly, the military events of the 13th century were dominated by the appearance of the Mongols, but the Rus principalities spent at least as much time fighting each other, and they also had to fight off Lithuanians, Poles, Swedes and Teutonic knights.

    At the beginning of the 14th century, the principality of Moscow was starting to place its princes onto the Grand Princely throne to the virtual exclusion of the former front-runners from Vladimir, even though 100 years earlier, Moscow had been a fairly unimportant satellite of the grand principality of Vladimir-Suzdal. The princes of Tver had become Moscow's leading rivals to rule Rus, but were not nearly as successful at convincing the Mongols to give them the grand princely throne and suffered militarily for their efforts. Meanwhile, the principality of Moscow was steadily absorbing formerly independence principalities.

    In 1378 and 1380, Dmitri Donskoi of Moscow gave the Mongols their first defeat at the hands of Rus, although hopes for Rus independence were dashed in 1382 when Tokhtamish successfully retook Moscow.

    The southern principalities of Galich and Volhynia were absorbed into Lithuania in the 14th century, and then became part of Poland.

Force Structure:
    In both the 13th and 14th centuries, Rus military forces consisted of cavalry and infantry. (Sloan)

    In the 13th century, the military forces were made up of the princely retinue, the druzhina, and militia members from the town and rural citizens. (Sloan) The armies of central and northern Rus, Vladimir-Suzdal and Novgorod, had much in common with the army of Kiev that they were starting to eclipse. They were built around a core of professional cavalry, the Druzhina, supplemented by urban militias and mercenaries, and, if needed, a peasant levy. Archery was more important than in Western Europe, but crossbows were still rare compared to regular hand bows in the 13th cent. (Nicolle 1999?)

    In the late 13th and 14th cent. Russian armor and tactics evolved to deal with the advanced Mongol horse-archery and (light?) cavalry threat, a very different driving force than that facing the armies of Western Europe. However, Novgorod was more closely connected to the influences of Western Europe than the rest of Rus, and faced attacks from Swedes and the Germanic Military Orders. These factors led to the development of stone fortifications, well-equipped infantry, widespread use of crossbows, heavy cavalry tactics and some use of plate armor. The first firearms in Rus seem also to have appeared in Novgorod in the late 14th cent. possibly indicating introduction from Europe rather than the East. (Nicolle 1999?)

    Most Rus' armies were small, but forces as large as 3,000-10,000 could be gathered for major campaigns. Princes would send representatives to the areas under their control to summon help. Alliances would be cemented by public oath-taking. The Grand Prince would request help from the lesser Rus princes who were his brothers, nephews and cousins. They didn't generally personally lead the troops they sent, but placed them under Voevody army commanders, while junior princes generally obeyed the military commands of the senior princes without complaint. (Nicolle 1999)

    Cavalry armies consisted of heavily armed horsemen, kopejshchiki or lancers, and light cavalry, archers. The kopejshchiki were for attacks and decisive strikes. The archers conducted testing raids, reconnaisance, lured the enemy with feints, and served as guards. They tended to be young, men too young to serve in other capacities. (Sloan)

    The Kievan druzhina had adopted heavy cavalry techniques possibly from Byzantium. The sword and spear were the basic cavalry weapons. (Nicolle 1999?)

    Cavalry was divided into the horse-archers, and the close combat lancers. The Druzhina horse-archers probably used static "shower shooting" tactics like other non-nomadic armies' such as Byzantium and Islamic states. Rus infantry skirmishers were also typically armed with bows, much feared by their foes. (Nicole 1999)

    Infantry was traditionally important in the army of Kiev, and even more so in northern Rus, dominated as it was by forest, river and marsh land. Large infantry forces were made up of the peasant levy of voi. The infantry made extensive use of archery. Some think that this indicates Scandinavian influence, rather than Byzantine, although arrowheads demonstrate a wide variety of styles and influences. (Nicolle 1999?)

    Infantrymen, peshtsi, were used for the defense of city walls and gates, to cover the rear of the cavlary, contruction of transportation and engineering projects, for reconnaissance, and retaliatory missions. (Sloan)

    Horse-archery was provided by allied or subordinate tribes of steppe nomads. Their contribution was particularly important in the ongoing battles with other steppe peoples. They were called the "Black Hats" around 1200, and their distinctive face-mask helmets reflected the importance of archery. The importance of dealing with enemy archery was also represented by the Russian helmets with visors to protect the upper part of the face that seem to have evolved from earlier scandinavian forms. (Nicolle 1999?)

    Some urban militias adopted the crossbow, especially around Novgorod. (Nicolle 1999?)

    The most common battle formation of the Kievan army placed infantry in the center with spearmen creating a shield wall to protect the infantry archers, with cavalry forces on the flanks. Carts and wagons were used to construct field fortifications, and numerous timber fortifications along the forest-steppe frontier provided bases of operations, often manned by allied nomad tribes, or free warrior-farmers similar to the later Cossacks. (Nicolle 1999?)

    The right flank of the formation traditionally was the most important and generally took the offensive role against the generally vulnerable left flank of infantry formations. Cavalry forces were placed on both flanks with infantry in the center forming a shield wall with Kopejshchik spearmen protecting the Luchnik or Strelets archers. Rus armies used the landscape to help guard their back and flanks, particularly important for fighting nomad forces. (Nicolle 1999)

    The banner, styag, was very important in battlefield communication and movement. Before battle, the army formed up around the banner and it continued to function for orientation in the chaos of combat, indicating the progress of battle, and serving as a rally point. If the enemy "reached and hewed down the banner," defeat was imminent, and this event was usually followed by the retreat of the army - the battle's result determined by the fate of the banner. For this reason, taking the banner was a major battle objective and the most intense fighting took place around it. Originally, the banner was decorated with the prince's emblem, but by the end of the 14th century, the image of Christ was placed on the banner and about that time, the banner also began to be called the znamya. Banners were also granted to certain armies, to the voyevodes, and allied princes as marks of respect and honor. (Sloan)

    The Lay of Igor's Campaign describes Igor's banner as a white flag on a red staff, ornamented with a red-dyed horsetail in a silver socket. (Nicolle 1996). An illustration in another of Nicolle's books shows a a red banner with a gold fringe with an image of St. George, and a black horsetail. (Nicolle 1999).

    In the 13th century, Russian arms and armor began to transition from the old "Norman" style with straight swords, kite shield and simple mail shirt to incorporate an Eastern influence with sabers, round shields and eastern-style body armor. (Sloan)

    The armies of central and northern Rus, Vladimir-Suzdal and Novgorod, had much in common with the army of Kiev that they were starting to eclipse. Archery and the war-axe were more important than in Western Europe, but crossbows were still rare compared to regular hand bows in the 13th cent. (Nicolle 1999?)

    The main weapon was the sword - broad, straight, double-edged, with a grip and a small cross-guard. It was worn at the belt on the left side in a wooden, leather-covered scabbard. The saber appeared in the 11th century. Russian soldiers also used the axe, the spear (a boar-spear up to sixty cm long with a wide tip), the small metal spear-sulitsa, the pick (used by common soldiers with wooden handle up to 30 cm long and a weight hanging from it by a short chain), the oak staff with its ends nailed with iron (called oslopi), the flail (kisteni), and the bow and arrow. (Stamerov and Kireyeva)

    In the 13th cent. the Kievan druzhina cavalry used sword and saber, couched lance, lighter spear, single-edged Scandinavian seax, and Eastern mace. (Nicole 1999)

    For cavalrymen, the most important weapons were the mace and the bludgeon, to allow quick strikes and the mobility to shift the force of battle. One or two spears, a saber or sword, a crossbow or bow, a bludgeon, a mace and a battle axe were included in the warrior's equipment. (Sloan) The light cavalry horse-archers carried as their main weapon the bow and arrow, and they also carried axe, slingshot, and mace. (Sloan)

    The infantry were armed with an array of throwing weapons, slashing weapons, and striking weapons. Their equipment tended to be simpler than the regular forces, since they were commoners and artisans, not professional soldiers. Their main weapons on the march were the axe, a heavy lance, the sulitsa, a palitsa and a pike. (Sloan)

    In the 13th cent. the Kievan infantry were equipped with javelin or spear, small axe, large dagger, bows, and helmets. (Nicolle 1999)

    The infantry also made extensive use of archery, with simple longbows and large semi-composite bows covered in birchbark. Some think that this indicates Scandinavian influence, rather than Byzantine, although arrowheads demonstrate a wide variety of styles and influences. (Nicolle 1999?)

    Archers used barbed European arrows and armor-piercing Eastern arrows. Crossbows seem to have been confined to north-west Rus. (Nicolle 1999)

    In the 13th cent. the Kievan druzhina cavalry armor included tall, pointed helmets, mail aventails (barmitsa), possibly cuirasses instead of or in addition to mail hauberks, perhaps leg defenses, and kite-shaped shields. Northern Rus' cavalry were similarly equipped. Mail was used for body armor with scale or lamellar cuirasses becoming more and more common. (Nicole 1999)

    The infantry might be protected with a shield or metal armor of varying types, and a helmet or perhaps just an iron cap. (Sloan)


Arms and Armor

Offensive Equipment:

Stabbing weapons - kolyushchyeye
    konchar - 14th
    myech - sword - 13th, 14th
    nozh - knife - 13th, 14th
    sablya - saber - 14th
Striking weapons - udarnoye
    bulava? - mace
    chekan? - stamp, punch, die
    kisten' - flail - date?
    klevets? - hammer
    palitsa - club
    shestoper - mace
    topor - axe - 13th, 14th
chopping weapons - ruyashchyeye
    rogatina - spear - 13th, 14th
    sovna - spear or pike
launched weapons - metatel'noye
    drota - 14th - javelin?
    kop'yo - spear - 13th, 14th
    luk - bow - 13th, 14th
    samostrel - crossbow -
    sulitsa? - javelin
Defensive Equipment:

Head/neck protection
    barmitsa - 13th, 14th
    litchina - 13th
    misyurka -
    shishak - 14th
    shlyem - helmet - 14th
    yerikhonka -
Body armor - bronya, dospekhi, pantsir'
    baidana - hauberk - 14th
    kalantar/kolontar - armor vest
    kol'chuga - hauberk - 13th, 14th
    kuyak - 13th, 14th
    podzor - protective clothing
    buturlik - greaves
    nagavits - chausse
    nakol'nik - shoulder? armor
    nakolyennik - knee armor
    naruch - vambrace
    ponozhi - leg protection
    rukavits - gauntlets
    zarukava - vambrace
Shield - shchit
    kite-shaped - 13th
    round - 13th, 14th

COPYRIGHT (c) 1999-2007 by Lisa Kies. You may make copies for personal use and to distribute for educational purposes but only if articles remain complete and entire with original authorship clearly noted.