At the turn of Bronze and Early Iron Ages, the nomads of the Eurasian steppe brought about a new and progressive phenomenon in world military history: cavalry warfare. Spanning the vast distance from the Danube in the West to the Hwang Ho in the Far East, among nomadic peoples including the Cimmerians, Scythians, Sakas, Sarmatians, Xiongnu, and Xianbei, a universal mode of warfare, more or less similar in tactics, battle, arms and armor, and horse harness, dominated.
The chronological frames of the Early Iron Age are differently determined in various historiographical traditions, but for the history of steppe Eurasia the frame is customarily considered to begin in the 10th century bce and end in the 5th century ce. The main sources used in studying the military art of Early Iron Age nomads are of two categories: the literary sources (Greek, Roman, Chinese), and archaeological finds of weapons, armor, and horse harnesses belonging to the various archaeological cultures of steppe nomads. The literary sources noted the Cimmerians (10th–8th c. bce); people of the Scythian ethnic group (7th–3rd c. bce), the proper Scythians and the Sakas, Massagetians, Issedonians, and Sauromatians; the Sarmatians (2nd c. bce–4th c. ce); the Xiongnu (2nd c. bce–1st c. ce); their contemporaries the Wusun and Yuezhi, and some other peoples.
The light-armed cavalry was a basic military force of the nomads. Each nomadic man was an armed and skillful warrior. Judging from archaeological material and narrative sources, the nomadic light cavalryman was armed by bow and arrows, light javelin and/or lance, and probably lasso. The light cavalry consisted of the common nomads. Since the 7th c. bce noble nomad formed the heavy armored cavalry where the horsemen, and sometimes their horses, wore body armor and helmets.
The tactical principles and fighting methods of nomads were conditioned by the composition of their army, with light cavalry prevailing. One of the main methods was raids, which varied in duration, range, and composition of personnel involved. The battle tactics of nomadic troops developed due to a need to overcome a resistance of deep infantry formation. Since the long spears of infantry inhibited close combat, nomadic horsemen first covered the adversary with a massive and dense, although undirected, torrent of arrows. After that, light horsemen approached and threw spears and javelins from shorter distances, thus causing confusion in the ranks of the infantry. Then heavy cavalry rushed into the breach for fighting with close-combat weapons, spears, and battleaxes.