Fighting from a moving chariot would have been difficult at best, given the bumping and jarring, not to mention the fleeting moment when a shock weapon could be brought to bear against nearby fighters on the ground or used to strike warriors in an oncoming vehicle. Thus the exceptional accomplishments attributed to racing archers may have been preserved precisely because of their uniqueness. Furthermore, even if the chariots merely served as transport to the point of conflict, fighters manning the compartment would have suffered the discomfort of confinement.
Though seemingly spacious, the approximately 32-by-48-inch compartment turns out to be highly limiting when occupied by three warriors bearing weapons and garbed in rudimentary protective leather armor. Experiments conducted over several years with martial artists well trained in such traditional weapons as long- and short-handled halberds, battle axes, daggers, and swords prove that they would have lacked the freedom of maneuver required to fend off, let alone vanquish, attackers. The driver, who faces no threat from the front where the horses block access, is mainly vulnerable to an oblique attack. However, being pinned in the center with the horses and shaft protruding in front of him, he is unable to contribute much to either the attack or defense, whether in motion or at rest. But the other two combatants are exposed from about 45 degrees right around to 180 degrees dead center at the back, where neither shields nor any other form of protection was ever affixed.
If the archer positions himself somewhat laterally on the right side so that his shooting stance puts his arm toward the outside of the chariot rather than to the inside against the driver, he can fire toward the front or out to the sides with little interference. However, swinging around to shoot to the rear is virtually impossible. Conversely, an archer standing on the left, reputedly the normal Shang position, is badly hampered by the driver (even if the driver is kneeling) as he tries to fit an arrow to his bow and fire in any direction. Shots to the rear become possible if he stands laterally facing outward and thus draws his bow on the exterior side of the compartment, in mirror image to an archer positioned on the right side aiming forward.
Wielding the era’s preferred shock weapon, a dagger-axe with a three-foot handle, is easily accomplished on the right side, particularly for blows directed to the front or somewhat alongside, but when swinging outward to counterattack perpendicular to the chariot’s forward orientation, care has to be taken to avoid striking the archer standing on the opposite side on the backswing. Blows directed to the rear that require swinging around prove impossible without dramatically modifying the motion, as well as fruitless because potential attackers, already at the limit of effective range, can easily dodge any strike.
Even if solitary attackers might be thwarted, multiple attackers, especially those bearing five-foot-long spears, would have been easily able to slay the chariot’s occupants without being endangered, unless the archer employed his bow at point-blank range. Whether armed with long or short weapons, multiple attackers create chaos because the heavily confined chariot crew, standing back to back and arm to shoulder, are unable to dodge, bend, or deflect oncoming blows and can only rely on any shields they may have carried or the protection offered by early body armor. Vulnerability would therefore have been especially acute to the rear, though presumably somewhat mitigated by the chariot’s forward battlefield motion.
A single occupant wielding a full-length saber or long two-handed weapon fared far better in these admittedly static tests. Two men, though sometimes impinging on each other or even colliding, still had sufficient freedom of maneuver to fight effectively, even if the archer occupied the left side as traditionally portrayed. Three men suffered the difficulties noted; four became an example of “close packing,” all four being totally incapable of wielding any sort of crushing weapon.
These problems apparently prompted the development of very long-handled spears and dagger-axes in the Spring and Autumn that were presumably intended for battling similarly equipped warriors in enemy chariots. However, for the three chariot occupants this additional length simply exacerbated the lack of maneuverability, particularly because the weapons tended to be held at least a quarter of the way up the shaft rather than at the very butt. (Grasping with two hands increases the power and control, but at the sacrifice of maneuverability.) Even with these longer weapons, two warriors riding fast-moving, converging chariots would only have had a moment to strike each other—making it not impossible but highly unlikely to significantly contribute to the battle’s effort. Rather than as conventionally depicted in contemporary movies, the drivers probably slowed, even halted, to allow the occupants to clash.
Experiments also revealed the height of the compartment to be not just a detrimental factor but also highly puzzling. A horizontal pole or rim that falls somewhere around the middle of the upper thigh provides adequate stabilization for a warrior to maintain a fighting stance and would have prevented falling over in sudden motion, but to provide real functional support the height should rise approximately to a man’s waist. However, though not entirely useless, Shang chariot walls would have risen to just above knee level, a height that tended to cause modern fighters to lose their balance and tumble out because the rail effectively acted as a fulcrum.
The axle’s high placement in a relatively lightweight vehicle would have resulted in a high center of gravity, making stability a crucial issue for any occupants trying to employ their weapons at speed. In addition, there were no springs or any sort of suspension mounting for the chariot box, even though late Shang models apparently began to employ the cantilevered wooden junction called a “crouching rabbit,” which was obviously designed to reduce the effects of the wooden wheels bouncing over the terrain through its tensing and bowing action. The horses loosely coupled to the front shaft and the weight of the three-man crew would have stabilized the vehicle somewhat, but the traditional chariot would certainly have been inherently unstable and rocked jarringly from side to side on the uneven terrain of natural battlefields, just like a modern lightweight SUV.
The straw and moss padding spread on the compartment’s wooden floor to provide additional damping proved to be minimally absorptive while inducing further instability, just as sponge padding might on the floor of an open pickup truck. (Comfortable when stationary, spongelike substances tend to exhibit less desirable properties when the vehicle is in motion or the fighter is active.) In some cases the floors were fabricated by interweaving leather thongs, but their effectiveness in reconstructive experiments was decidedly poor, particularly after they lost their initial tension, and they could even result in the fighter’s stance becoming more tenuous. The use of interior straps and efforts to improve the battlefield in the Spring and Autumn period confirm that stability continued to be a problem: the warriors were jostled about as the chariot moved at speed across the terrain.