The Parthian shot was a military tactic made famous in the West by the Parthians, an ancient Iranian people. The Parthian archers, mounted on light horse while retreating at a full gallop, would turn their bodies back to shoot at the pursuing enemy. The maneuver required superb equestrian skills, since the rider’s hands were occupied by his bow. As the stirrup had not been invented at the time of the Parthians, the rider relied solely on pressure from his legs to guide his horse. The tactic also could be used during feigned retreat, with devastating effect.
You wound, like Parthians, while you fly,
And kill with a retreating eye.— Samuel Butler, An Heroical Epistle of Hudibras to His Lady (1678)
This tactic was used by most Eurasian nomads, including the Scythians, Huns, Turks, Magyars, and Mongols, as well as the armies away from the Eurasian steppe, such as the Sassanidclibanarii and cataphracts.
A notable battle in which this tactic was employed (by the Parthians) was the Battle of Carrhae. In this battle the Parthian shot was a principal factor in the Parthian victory over the Roman general Crassus.
Parting shot / Parthian shot
By way of metaphor, “Parthian shot” also is used to describe a barbed insult, delivered as the speaker departs.
The consort, firing a parting shot, bore up round the north end of the island, and escaped.
In 1828., records in “The Friend, or Advocate of Truth” (a publication of The Religious Society of Friends) used the phrase in the figurative sense:
I think it would be much more becoming…, if you could separate without giving each other a parting shot.
The two phrases have rather similar phonetic soundings, but are derived separately and at different times. Although the Parthian archers of old have been famous for their shooting, the term “Parthian shot” was recorded for the first time in 1832 by Captain Godfrey Charles Mundy, who served as aide-de-camp to Lord Combermere on a hunting trip in India, in his book Pen and Pencil Sketches, Being the Journal of a Tour in India:
…I made a successful Parthian shot with my favourite Joe Manton [a shotgun named after gunsmith Joseph Manton], and slew my determined little pursuer.
The figurative use of the phrase “Parthian shot” appeared later in The Times (April 20, 1842):
They have probably enough dealt a Parthian shot to British interests…
Chronologically, it would appear that the English use of “parting shot” preceded the use of the phrase “Parthian shot”. “Parthian shot” is used less frequently. “Parting shot” is far more likely to be encountered.
With which Parthian shot he walked away, leaving the two rivals open-mouthed behind him.
His Parthian shot reached them as they closed the doors. ‘Never mind darlings’, they heard him say, ‘we can all sleep soundly now Turner’s here.’
Ali Ghoorchian is the Director of the world famous Shabdiz Horseback Archery and Trail Riding Center in Tehran, Iran. Ali is driven by a passion for horses and traditional archery. Shabdiz Clubprovides an atmosphere promoting the pursuit of excellence in true horsemanship and horseback archery. The theme of the Shabdiz Club is ‘dedication to the sport; the goal is becoming one with the horse’…
Note: Shabdiz (in شبديز) was the legendary black stallion of Khosrau Parvez, one of the most famed Sassanid Persian kings (reigned 590 to 628CE). Shabdiz, meaning “midnight”, was reputedly the “world’s fastest horse” according to ancient Persian literature.