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The Parthian shot was a military tactic made famous 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 could also be used during feigned retreat, with devastating effect.
You wound, like Parthians, while you fly,
And kill with a retreating eye.
This tactic was used by most Eurasian nomads, including the Scythians, Huns, Turks, Magyars, and Mongols, and it eventually spread to armies away from the Eurasian steppe, such as the Sassanid clibanarii 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" is also used to describe a barbed insult, delivered as the speaker departs.
A common opinion holds that, in a case of folk etymology, the term parting shot, used similarly, developed as an eggcorn-like re-interpretation of "Parthian shot", meaning the term was corrupted through common parlance.
However, the two phrases have separate histories. The first record of the phrase "parting shot" was by John McCleod, surgeon on board His Majesty's ship Alceste contained in "A narrative of a Voyage to the Yellow Sea" (1818):
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 actually separately derived 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 Mundy, ADC to Lord Combermere on a hunting trip in India:
...I made a successful Parthian shot with my favourite Joe Manton (shotgun).
The figurative use of the phrase "Parthian shot" appeared later in The Times (1842):
They have probably enough dealt a Parthian shot to British interests...
If chronology were to be the source, it would appear that the English usage of "parting shot" preceded the use of the phrase "Parthian shot". "Parthian shot" is less often used. "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.'
- An Heroical Epistle of Hudibras to His Lady, e-text, at exclassics.com
- "parting shot". Dictionary.com. Dictionary.com Unabridged. Random House, Inc. Retrieved 25 Mar 2010.
- Clarke, Sean (12 May 2006). "Backwards thinking". culture vulture blog. Guardian Unlimited. Retrieved 25 Mar 2010. "It's been a good week for parting shots..., but what interested me was that the Collins entry comes under 'Parthian shot', not 'parting shot'."