Trenches, Firearms, and Chemical Warfare: How the Kazakhs Waged War Against the Dzhungars

Our ancestors were among the first to employ revolutionary tactics and strategies in warfare.

01/08/2023 - 21:27

During the war between the Kazakh Khanate and the Dzhungars, revolutionary methods of combat were employed, ultimately leading the Kazakh army to triumph over its adversaries. The way our ancestors fought, the weapons they used, and their innovative military practices are deconstructed in detail by correspondent.

Throughout the history of Kazakhstan, dating back to the era of the Turkic Khaganate, nomads of the steppe had to fight for their self-determination. Consequently, they were involved in numerous military conflicts, using different military tactics and types of weaponry to achieve victory.

The military art of the Kazakhs continued the traditions of military affairs among Eurasian nomads. However, with changing geopolitical circumstances, the Kazakh nomadic society gradually witnessed shifts in the forms and methods of warfare. The emergence of firearms and the gradual transition to a settled lifestyle, fostering agricultural centers, significantly influenced these changes.

Starting from the mid-15th century, Kazakh nomadic tribes had to resist various peoples, defending their rights to the steppe, often engaging in direct military confrontations with enemy warriors. To succeed in resistance, Kazakh commanders developed tactics of defense and attack.

Poisonous Smoke and Trench Tactics

For example, historical sources from the 16th-17th centuries contain information about the tactical formations of Kazakh troops. Typically, their battle formations consisted of "dzhangar" or "maisar" - the left flank, "barangar" or "maimana" - the right flank, "gula" - the center of the army, and "mungalai" - the vanguard. The vanguard had the largest number of warriors and played a decisive role. Additionally, the Kazakh army had detachments of spear throwers and military units responsible for digging trenches under fortresses, which were particularly effective during sieges.

From the early 17th century until the mid-18th century, our ancestors engaged in a bloody war with the Dzungars, whose army was known for its iron discipline and order, leading to their success in battles. However, at the beginning of the confrontations, the Kazakh army acted in a fragmented manner, providing the Dzungar warriors with an advantage despite their iron discipline. Nevertheless, none of the Kazakh warriors yielded to their adversaries in bravery or skill.

In the history of the Kazakh-Dzungar confrontation, there were hundreds of small and large battles. One of them served as a vivid confirmation of the skillful conduct of war demonstrated by our ancestors. This battle is known as the "Orbulak Battle" (1643). In this encounter, Kazakhs, under the leadership of Khan Janibek, confronted a massive Dzungar army. At the time of the decisive battle, the Kazakh army consisted of 600 soldiers, while the enemy's force numbered 50,000.

During the battle, the Kazakh army, displaying their martial character, managed to lure the Dzungars into mountainous terrain, thereby slowing down the enemy's progress. This battle is also notable for the new strategies applied by the Kazakhs. For the first time, trench warfare was employed by Kazakh warriors, catching the enemy off guard. Additionally, the Kazakhs used the power of firearms in this battle, causing panic among the Dzungars. Another innovation was the use of a form of chemical warfare, where Kazakh warriors burned cloth soaked in a special liquid with herbs, emitting poisonous smoke. To protect themselves, the Kazakhs wore masks or smeared goat fat.

Cavalry in Combat

Overall, the tactics employed by Kazakh warriors were characterized by surprise, which disoriented the enemy's defensive formations. Various strategies were utilized in Kazakh warfare, including flank attacks, unidirectional armored assaults on specific targets, flanking strikes, encircling enemy flanks, feigned retreats, and constant maneuvers with regrouping along the frontlines and in the rear. A family banner inserted next to the leader's yurt served as a signal for military gatherings.

Horses played a crucial role in nomadic life and were actively involved in armed conflicts. Many researchers consider Kazakh horse breeds particularly well-suited for combat in harsh steppe conditions. Due to their strength, bravery, and courage, Kazakh warriors gained a formidable reputation in the eyes of neighboring rulers. Moreover, during constant conflicts with nomadic peoples of various states, Kazakh warriors acquired invaluable military experience.

As a part of the training and preparation of a Kazakh warrior, significant importance was attributed to their skill in the saddle, known as the "Three Bends" seating position. In this position, the rider's body formed three zigzags: the torso inclined over the front bow, the thigh forming an angle with the torso, and the shin parallel to the torso. Such a seating position prevented the rider from being immediately thrown off the saddle.

In addition to horse riding, the training of steppe warriors included archery and wrestling techniques. A Kazakh warrior had to be proficient in using a spear, saber, sword, mace, axe, and other types of weapons.

The military art of Kazakh warriors was shaped by the peculiarities of nomadic livestock breeding and was interconnected with new types of weapons and equipment at each stage of its development. By the end of the 19th century, nomadic military art was in decline, primarily due to the growing influence of firearms and the appearance of regular armies in neighboring states. The gradual transition to a settled lifestyle also played an important role in this matter.

Weapons of the Batyr 

The earliest evidence of Kazakh warriors' armament dates back to the 17th century. Today, an extensive collection of nomadic weaponry is housed in the State Military History Museum of the Armed Forces of the Republic of Kazakhstan.

The history of weaponry among the great steppe warriors is inseparably linked to the development of nomadic civilization and culture, spanning millennia. Consequently, the craft of weapon-making evolved in tandem, expanding the horizons of its application.

The peoples inhabiting the territory of ancient Kazakhstan made significant contributions to the invention of weapons. For instance, the ancient Turks devised the compound bow, capable of shooting arrows over long distances. Meanwhile, Kazakh craftsmen invented a clever weapon called the "qamshy-pyshaq" (sharp blade), which was concealed in the handle of a whip.

In the vast majority of cases, the steppe nomads used various types of cold weapons. Close-combat armaments of the nomads can be divided into several categories: 1) Medium-range weapons (spears, pikes), most effective during the initial phase of mass cavalry combat. 2) Striking weapons (maces, clubs, knuckle-dusters). 3) Striking and chopping weapons (axes, hatchets). 4) Chopping and thrusting weapons (sabers, swords).

One of the most common types of ancient Kazakh weapons was bows and arrows. As mentioned earlier, the folding bow invented by the Turks gained great popularity. Additionally, ancient nomadic warriors acquired bows from the Mongols, China, and Central Asia.

Arrows were crafted from reeds (1.5 arshins in length) or birch wood. They had four-sided feather fletchings and an iron or bronze tip with various shapes, including two-edged for hunting and four-edged for war. The quiver for arrows and the bow's case were worn on a waist belt.

Perhaps the most widespread arrows used by the steppe nomads in military encounters were those with four-edged iron tips capable of penetrating the enemy's armor. They were aptly called "armor-piercing arrows." Kazakh warriors also utilized another type of arrow with a four-edged tip called the "lamb shoulder blade." It resembled an actual shoulder blade and was designed to knock the enemy rider off their saddle. Additionally, a combat club was employed for the same purpose, often used by the nomads in battle and feudal conflicts.

Spears, usually made from pine wood and measuring 195 cm in length, were among the ancient national Kazakh weaponry. The Kazakh spear had a trident-shaped iron tip with a silk or horsehair brush at the junction of the tip and the shaft, with a loop on the other side for convenient carrying. By the early 19th century, a spear with a pointed and charred tip became prevalent among the Kazakhs. However, with the cessation of wars, the Kazakh spear was gradually replaced by other types of weapons suitable for hunting.

Swords were part of the Kazakhs' armament for a long time and were a fairly common type of weapon. Sabers and swords were depicted on stone sculptures found in the Irtysh and Semirechye regions. These were curved sabers with handles slanting to the side of the blade or straight with a rectangular or slightly curved tip and a single-sided projection.

The steppe nomads also wielded curved sabers, mainly of Turkish or Bukharian origin. Persian "isfakani" sabers, which the Kazakhs called "narkesken," were the most widespread.

The "chekan" is a small, peculiar axe with a long handle and a sharp rounded iron blade shaped like a crescent. It was one of the national types of weaponry. Additionally, Kazakhs widely used various knives. Among them were straight semi-sabers of different lengths (selebe, zhekeauiyz), self-made daggers, and knives with horn handles, known as Khiva (Uzbek) knives. All these knives were worn on the belt in special scabbards.


Regarding firearms, cap-lock guns were particularly popular among the Kazakhs. They served as both combat and hunting weapons for the nomads, although firearms were quite rare in the steppe regions. Often, they were handed down from generation to generation.

Typically, these guns were flintlock, with limited range. Only sultans possessed heavy and long-range guns, which could reach distances of up to 700 steps. Therefore, it must be noted that firearms did not prevail over other types of weapons. Furthermore, using firearms was a cumbersome process. For example, to fire one shot from a cap-lock gun, a horseman had to hurry and shoot exclusively in good weather.

Combat armor forms an integral component of weaponry. Among the Kazakhs, various protective gear was known, such as armor, chainmail, and helmets. The most ancient protective gear among the Kazakhs is considered to be the "scale armor," a garment composed of small metal plates.

Metal armor for the nomads was forged from iron and high-quality steel. Such armor was worn by noble warriors. Nomadic warriors not only armored themselves but also their horses.

Kazakh helmets were structurally linked to earlier types of head protection used by Turkic-Mongol nomads. Completing the appearance of a 17th-18th-century nomadic warrior was a special waist belt and a horn cartridge case.

In general, the steppe nomad warriors utilized various types of weapons suitable for combat while on horseback. Moreover, for each warrior, their weapon held a sacred significance. It was thanks to the power of their weaponry and their indomitable spirit that the Kazakh people managed to defend their sovereignty and freedom.




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