- This article is about the weapon.
An arrow is a pointed projectile that is shot with a bow. It predates recorded history and is common to most cultures. Bows and arrows have been used for hunting animals and also as weapons in combat.
The history of use of bows and arrows can be traced as far back as the Paleolithic. Evidence indicates that they were used in Schleswig Holstein, northern Germany, between 8000 and 9000 B.C.E. It appears that hazel was the preferred wood for making arrows, and a flint arrowhead was attached to each shaft using pine resin and sinews of nettle stems. The wood of elm and yew trees was chosen for making bows.
The remains of a prehistoric man (from the Neolithic period) discovered in the Alps showed that he was carrying an unfinished bow. The bow appeared to be made of yew, and the bowstring, of flax.
A normal arrow consists of a shaft with an arrowhead attached to the front end, with fletchings and a nock at the other.
Arrow sizes vary greatly across cultures, ranging from eighteen inches to five feet (45 cm to 150 cm). However, most modern arrows are two-and-a-half to three feet long (75 cm to 90 cm), similar to the length of English war arrows (which were made to be half the height of the man who shot them). Very short arrows have been used, shot through a guide attached either to the bow (an "overdraw") or to the archer's wrist (the Turkish "siper"). These may fly farther than heavier arrows, and an enemy without suitable equipment may find himself unable to return them.
The shaft is the primary structural element of the arrow, to which the other components are attached. Traditional arrow shafts are made from lightweight wood, bamboo or reeds, while modern shafts may be made from aluminum or carbon fiber reinforced plastic.
The stiffness of the shaft is known as its spine, referring to how little the shaft bends when compressed. Hence, an arrow which bends less is said to have more spine. In order to strike consistently, a group of arrows must be similarly-spined. "Center-shot" bows, in which the arrow passes through the central vertical axis of the bow riser, may obtain consistent results from arrows with a wide range of spines. However, most traditional bows are not center-shot and the arrow has to deflect around the handle in the archer's paradox; such bows tend to give most consistent results with a narrower range of arrow spine that allows the arrow to deflect correctly around the bow. Higher draw-weight bows will generally require stiffer arrows, with more spine (less flexibility) to give the correct amount of flex when shot.
Sometimes a shaft will be made of two different types of wood fastened together, resulting in what is known as a footed arrow. Known by some as the finest of wood arrows, footed arrows were used both by early Europeans and Native Americans. Footed arrows will typically consist of a short length of hardwood near the head of the arrow, with the remainder of the shaft consisting of softwood. By reinforcing the area most likely to break, the arrow is more likely to survive impact, while maintaining overall flexibility and lighter weight.
The arrowhead or projectile point is the primary functional part of the arrow, and plays the largest role in determining its purpose. Some arrows may simply use a sharpened tip of the solid shaft, but it is far more common for separate arrowheads to be made, usually from metal, horn, or some other hard material. Arrowheads are usually separated by function:
- Bodkin points are short, rigid points with a small cross-section. They were made of unhardened iron and may have been used for better or longer flight, or for cheaper production. It has been mistakenly suggested that the bodkin came into its own as a means of penetrating armor, but research has found no hardened bodkin points, so it is likely that it was first designed either to extend range or as a cheaper and simpler alternative to the broadhead. In a modern test, a direct hit from a hard steel bodkin point penetrated Damascus chain armor. However, archery was not effective against plate armor, which became available to knights of fairly modest means by the late 1300s.
- Blunts are unsharpened arrowheads occasionally used for types of target shooting, for shooting at stumps or other targets of opportunity, or hunting small game when the goal is to stun the target without penetration. Blunts are commonly made of metal or hard rubber. They may stun, and occasionally, the arrow shaft may penetrate the head and the target; safety is still important with blunt arrows.
- Judo points have spring wires extending sideways from the tip. These catch on grass and debris to prevent the arrow from being lost in the vegetation. Used for practice and for small game.
- Broadheads were used for war and are still used for hunting. Medieval broadheads were made from steel, sometimes with hardened edges. They usually have two to four sharp blades that cause massive bleeding in the victim. Their function is to deliver a wide cutting edge so as to kill as quickly as possible. They are expensive, damage most targets, and usually not used for practice. There are two main types of broadheads used by hunters. One is the fixed-blade, while the other is the mechanical. While the fixed-blade broadhead keeps its blades rigid and unmovable on the broadhead at all times, the mechanical broadhead deploys its blades upon contact with the target, its blades swinging out to wound the target. The mechanical head flies better because it is more streamlined, but has less penetration as it uses some of the kinetic energy in the arrow to deploy its blades.
- Field tips are similar to target points and have a distinct shoulder, so that missed outdoor shots do not become as stuck in obstacles such as tree stumps. They are also used for shooting practice by hunters, by offering similar flight characteristics and weights as broadheads, without getting lodged in target materials and causing excessive damage upon removal.
- Target points are bullet-shaped with a sharp point, designed to penetrate target butts easily without causing excessive damage to them.
- Safety arrows are designed to be used in various forms of reenactment combat, to reduce the risk when shot at people. These arrows may have heads that are very wide or padded. In combination with bows of restricted draw weight and draw length, these heads may reduce to acceptable levels the risks of shooting arrows at suitably armored people. The parameters will vary depending on the specific rules being used and on the levels of risk felt acceptable to the participants. For instance, SCA combat rules require a padded head at least 1 1/4" in diameter, with bows not exceeding 28 inches (710 mm) and 50 lb (23 kg) of draw for use against well-armored individuals.
Arrowheads may be attached to the shaft with a cap, a socketed tang, or inserted into a split in the shaft and held by a process called hafting. Points attached with caps are simply slid snugly over the end of the shaft, or may be held on with hot glue. Split-shaft construction involves splitting the arrow shaft lengthwise, inserting the arrowhead, and securing it using a ferrule, sinew, or wire.
Fletchings are found at the back of the arrow and provide a small amount of drag used to stabilize the flight of the arrow. They are designed to keep the arrow pointed in the direction of travel by strongly damping down any tendency to pitch or yaw. Some cultures, for example most in New Guinea, did not use fletching on their arrows.
Fletchings are traditionally made from feathers (often from a goose or turkey) bound to the arrow's shaft, but are now often made of plastic (known as "vanes"). Historically, some arrows used for the proofing of armor used copper vanes. Flight archers may use razor blades for fletching, in order to reduce air resistance.
Artisans who make arrows by hand are known as "fletchers," a word related to the French word for arrow, flèche. This is the same derivation as the verb "fletch," meaning to provide an arrow with its feathers. Glue and/or thread are the main traditional methods of attaching fletchings. A "fletching jig" is often used in modern times, to hold the fletchings in exactly the right orientation on the shaft while the glue hardens.
Fletchings may be straight or helical, i.e. arranged with a slight offset around the shaft of the arrow to provide a slight rotation which improves accuracy. Most arrows will have three fletches, but some have four or even more. Fletchings generally range from two to six inches (152 mm) in length; flight arrows intended to travel the maximum possible distance typically have very low fletching, while hunting arrows with broadheads require long and high fletching to stabilize them against the aerodynamic effect of the head. Fletchings may also be cut in different ways, the two most common being parabolic (i.e. a smooth curved shape) and shield (i.e. shaped as one-half of a very narrow shield) cut. Whenever natural fletching is used, the feathers on any one arrow must come from the same side of the bird.
With conventional three-feather fletching, one feather, called the "cock" feather, is at a right angle to the nock, and is conventionally placed so that it will not contact the bow when the arrow is shot. However, many modern target archers have no "cock" feather on their arrows, thus improving accuracy. Four-feather fletching can have the advantage of no cock feather, so making nocking the arrow slightly easier, though some four-fletched arrows are not evenly placed in order to make the fletches towards the bow closer to vertical.
A flu-flu is a form of fletching, normally made by using long sections of full length feathers, in most cases six or more sections are used rather than the traditional three. Alternatively two long feathers can be spiraled around the end of the arrow shaft. The extra fletching generates more drag and slows the arrow down rapidly after a short distance, about 30 m or so.
Flu-Flu arrows are often used for hunting birds, or for children's archery, and can be used to play Flu-Flu Golf.
The nock serves to keep the arrow in place on the string as the bow is being drawn. Nocks may be simple slots cut in the back of the arrow, or separate pieces made from wood, plastic, or horn that are then attached to the end of the arrow.  Modern nocks, and traditional Turkish nocks, are often so constructed as to curve around the string or even pinch it slightly, so that the arrow is unlikely to slip off.
- History of bow and arrows. newarchaeology.com.
- Brenda Fowler. 2001. Iceman: Uncovering the Life and Times of a Prehistoric Man Found in an Alpine Glacier. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0226258238.)
- George Cameron Stone. 1934 (1999). A Glossary of the Construction, Decoration, and Use of Arms and Armor in All Countries and in All Times. (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications. ISBN 0486407268.)
- Paul E. Klopsteg. 1987. Turkish Archery and the Composite Bow. (Manchester, UK: Simon Archery Foundation. ISBN 9780950319933.)
- Gene Langston. 1994. "Custom Shafts" in Tim Baker. 1994. The Traditional Bowyer's Bible - Volume Three. (New York, NY: The Lyons Press. ISBN 158574087X.)
- Armour-piercing arrowheads. Royal Armouries. Retrieved November 8, 2008.
- Saxton Pope, Hunting with the Bow and Arrow. Project Gutenberg. Retrieved November 8, 2008.
"To test a steel bodkin pointed arrow such as was used at the battle of Cressy, I borrowed a shirt of chain armor from the Museum, a beautiful specimen made in Damascus in the fifteenth century. It weighed twenty-five pounds and was in perfect condition. One of the attendants in the Museum offered to put it on and allow me to shoot at him. Fortunately, I declined his proffered services and put it on a wooden box, padded with burlap to represent clothing.
Indoors at a distance of seven yards, I discharged an arrow at it with such force that sparks flew from the links of steel as from a forge. The bodkin point and shaft went through the thickest portion of the back, penetrated an inch of wood and bulged out the opposite side of the armor shirt. The attendant turned a pale green. An arrow of this type can be shot about two hundred yards, and would be deadly up to the full limit of its flight."
- M. Strickland, and R. Hardy. 2005. The great warbow: from Hastings to the Mary Rose. (Thrupp, UK; Stroud, UK; Gloucestershire, UK: Sutton Publishing. ISBN 9780750931670), 272.
- Glenn Parker, 1992. "Steel Points" in G. Fred Asbell. 1992. The Traditional Bowyer's Bible - Volume Two. (New York, NY: The Lyons Press. ISBN 1585740861.)
- Robert Gardner. 1969. Gardens of War: Life and Death in the New Guinea Stone Age. (London, UK: Deutsch. ISBN 0233961402.)
- Charles Ffoulkes. (1912) 1988. The Armourer and his Craft. (New York, NY: Dover Publications. ISBN 0486258513.)
- Jay Massey, 1992. "Self Arrows" in Steve Allely. 2000. The Traditional Bowyer's Bible - Volume One. (New York, NY: The Lyons Press. ISBN 1585740853.)
ReferencesISBN links support NWE through referral fees
- Allely, Steve. 2000. The Traditional Bowyer's Bible - Volume One. New York, NY: The Lyons Press. ISBN 1585740853.
- Asbell, G. Fred. 1992. The Traditional Bowyer's Bible - Volume Two. New York, NY: The Lyons Press. ISBN 1585740861.
- Baker, Tim. 1994. The Traditional Bowyer's Bible - Volume Three. New York, NY: The Lyons Press. ISBN 158574087X.
- Ffoulkes, Charles. (1912) 1988. The Armourer and his Craft. New York, NY: Dover Publications. ISBN 0486258513.
- Fowler, Brenda. 2001. Iceman: Uncovering the Life and Times of a Prehistoric Man Found in an Alpine Glacier. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0226258238.
- Gardner, Robert. 1969. Gardens of War: Life and Death in the New Guinea Stone Age. London, UK: Deutsch. ISBN 0233961402.
- Klopsteg, Paul E. 1987. Turkish Archery and the Composite Bow. Manchester, UK: Simon Archery Foundation. ISBN 9780950319933.
- Stone, George Cameron. (1934) 1999. A Glossary of the Construction, Decoration, and Use of Arms and Armor in All Countries and in All Times. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications. ISBN 0486407268.
- Strickland, M., and R. Hardy. 2005. The great warbow: from Hastings to the Mary Rose. Thrupp, UK; Stroud, UK; Gloucestershire, UK: Sutton Publishing. ISBN 9780750931670.
All links retrieved August 15, 2023.
- What's the Point?: Identifying Flint Artifacts (OPLIN).
- Dr. Ashby's reports on broadhead penetration.
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