The Real Story of Shooting from Horseback

For thousands of years, depictions of warriors and soldiers shooting from horseback have been a part of history. How accurate are the stories, though? How realistic are Hollywood's movies of the Old West, where galloping heroes, like Rooster Cogburn in True Grit, dispatch the outlaws with ease? Let's look at the history of shooting from horseback and try to determine how difficult it really is, then separate the real story from legend.

The Origins of Shooting from Horseback

For the early Eurasian nomadic people, archery from horseback was a necessity for survival. It made protecting their herds, hunting, and warfare possible. The earliest recorded depictions of shooting from horseback date to the 9th century BC. Middle Easterners had developed the chariot during the Bronze Age, but it gave way to more mobile cavalry archers by the 1st century AD. Scythians, Hittites, and Persians all used mounted archers to expand and maintain their territory. The half-man, half-horse, bow wielding creature called the centaur by the Greeks, may have been based on encounters with the Scythians, a nomadic tribe of horsemen who were deadly accurate with bows from horseback.

One of the most famous adaptors of warfare from horseback were the Mongols, particularly during the reign of Genghis Khan. The Mongols had several advantages in their campaigns that spread their control throughout Asia and into the Roman Empire. First, they were nomadic, so they were used to horses and long periods of riding. Their horses were hardy, but small and fast, so hit-and-run was a staple component of battle for the Mongols. The Mongols developed bows that could shoot farther than the longbows that were being used in Europe. They had saddles that allowed the horses to bear riders' weights more easily. In addition, the saddles had a stirrup that allowed the Mongols to maintain stability and balance while riding, which meant shooting further with greater accuracy than otherwise possible.

Japan's tradition of horseback archery dates back more than 3,000 continuous years, and up until the 1900s, all Korean army officers had to be qualified in horseback archery.

Does Hollywood Get It Right?

Many grew up watching Western serials at the movies, or cowboy stars on television. Roy Rogers, Tom Mix, Gene Autry, and others, would chase after the bad guys while mounted on their equally famous horses—blazing away with their revolvers. Hitting a moving target while riding a galloping horse is about as difficult as it can get when trying to be accurate. Not only that, but horses don't like gunfire, and their natural instinct is shy away or bolt. Competitors in mounted shooting competitions today have to train their horses to be more tolerant. The movie heroes may have been shooting, but in reality, the number of bad guys knocked from their horses by gunfire would have been drastically fewer than Hollywood depicted—if any of them would have been hit at all.

What Hollywood did get right is the way the cowboys shot. Elmer Keith was a rancher, cowboy, expert shooter, and was responsible for the development of Magnum revolvers. In his book, Sixguns, Keith wrote that when shooting from horseback, it's not possible to truly aim the gun. The firearm is raised up, then snapped down, and the trigger pulled when the barrel is roughly pointed towards the target, which is exactly as the movie cowboys fired their revolvers.

In one of the iconic scenes from the movie True Grit, Rooster Cogburn put his horse's reins in his teeth and galloped towards an outlaw gang with guns blazing in both hands. The Smithsonian Channel attempted to recreate the feat to see if it could have actually been done. A champion competition shooter rode through a course with seven balloons, firing her competition single-shot revolvers (similar to the type used by Rooster) while controlling her horse with the reins in her teeth. The first time through, few of the balloons were hit. Given a second try, all seven balloons were burst. As the Smithsonian Channel video noted, however, the balloons were closer than the outlaw gang in the movie, the balloons were stationary, and the balloons weren't firing back. Still, this demonstrates that, however improbable, it could have happened as it did in the movie. It was also noted that a real cowboy probably would have gotten off his horse and used his rifle to pick off the outlaws.

So, like many things depicted by Hollywood, liberties are taken in scenes involving shooting from horseback at the expense of complete truth. Then again, truth doesn't always make for good theater—or movie scenes that are remembered for ages.

One of the fastest growing equestrian sports is mounted shooting. Organizations with competitions include the Single Action Shooting Society (SASS), the Mounted Shooters of America (MSA), and the Cowboy Mounted Shooting Association (CMSA).