The Writer’s Guide to Arrows: Part 1

Types & Construction

I’ve been spending a lot of time discussing bows but of course the bow is pretty worthless without arrows, which we will be diving into today. Just like bows, modern arrows differ significantly from historical arrows.

As always, magic is the exception to the rules. Because magic.

Arrow Terminology

Shaft – The wooden dowel that makes up on the body of an arrow. Modern arrows are also made of aluminum.

Nock – A notch in the back of the arrow that allows it to be set on the string. To nock, means to put an arrow on the string in preparation to fire, basically “loading” the bow.

Fletching – The feathers at the back end of the arrow that help steady it in flight.

Index or cock feather – On an arrow with three fletches, the one that faces the archer when nocked. It’s common for it to be a different color from the other two.

Arrowhead or Tip – The metal end of the arrow that penetrates the target.

Arrow Shafts

The average length of a modern arrow is 28 inches (71 cm). When Henry VIII’s flag ship, the Mary Rose, was discovered, it carried over 3,500 arrows. [1] They ranged in length from 24-33 inches (61-83 cms) with the average being 30 inches (76 cms).

Most modern arrows are around 5/16 – 11/32 inches or roughly 0.32 inches (0.81 cms) in diameter. By comparison, the war arrows or livery arrows found on the Mary Rose ranged from ½ – 3/8” inches (1.27-0.95 cms). Imagine that coming off a 185 pound (84 kg) bow! It would definitely have some punching power.

Types of Arrowheads

Most arrowheads were made of iron, which wasn’t good at keeping a sharp cutting edge. However, making arrowheads of steel got expensive. There are medieval records talking about “steeled” arrowheads. While historians aren’t totally sure what that means, the general consensus is that they were case hardened. The process of case hardening involves baking metal at high heat for hours which impregnates the iron with a layer of carbon, making it substantially harder. [2]

There were multiple types of arrowheads during the Middle Ages, each designed for a different purpose.

Probably the most widely known one is the broadhead, which has been used since ancient times for hunting. It usually has two to four broad blades, which make it ideal for cutting. Another benefit to this shape was that pulling it out caused even more damage. A swallowtail is a larger version of the broadhead used against game and horses.

With the advent of better armor, the bodkin became more widely used in warfare. It’s a needle-shape arrowhead which gave it a better chance of finding a hole through chainmail. Later into the Middle Ages, the bodkin became thicker and shorter as plate armor became more common.

Leaf-shaped arrowheads are an ancient design that was still in use throughout the medieval period. They are similar in shape to a broadhead but lack the “wings.”

There is some documentation of whistling or signal arrows from the Middle Ages.

I recommend this video by Tod’s Workshop in which he discusses six types of arrowheads.

Types of arrowheads. Bodkins (1-4). Leaf-shaped (5, 6 & 9). Broadhead (7-8). Photo source.

How They Are Made

How arrows were made in the Middles Ages varies somewhat from how traditional arrows are made today.

The body of the arrow began as a square section of wood which was turned on a jig to round them into dowel-like shafts. Then they were sanded until smooth. Types of wood used included black popular, beech, ash, and hazel.

The arrowheads were forged with a cap that slipped over the end of the shaft. It was held in place with hide glue. [3]

Fletchings were made from swan or goose feathers since they were the only feathers long and strong enough to withstand flight. [4] Today, turkey feathers are the standard. The fletching was attached using the same hide glue, sometimes mixed with beeswax or other components. Today a fletching gig is used to hold the feathers in place while the glue dries. However, there is little historical evidence that fletching gigs existed in the Middle Ages. It’s possible but we just don’t know. However, we do know that the fletching was normally wrapped with linen or silk thread to keep the feathers in place. This was important since hide glue is not water resistant. [4] There were several popular shapes for fletching including triangular, parabolic and parallelogram.

Lastly, a notch would be cut into the end of the arrow to form the nock.

Two fletchers at work with finished arrows packed in barrels. Alexander Romance, 14th century. Photo source.

I hope this was helpful. Let me know if you have any questions or suggestions by using the Contact Me form on my website or writing a comment. I post every Friday and would be grateful if you would share my content.

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Let’s get writing!

Copyright © 2020 Rebecca Shedd. All rights reserved.

[1] https://leatherworkingreverendsmusings.wordpress.com/research/arrows/mary-rose/#:~:text=Over%203500%20arrows%20were%20found,was%20810mm%20(32%20inches).
[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=McnKrV0aDjo
[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arrowhead
[4] https://www.bow-international.com/features/arrows-in-the-middle-ages/#:~:text=Arrow%20shafts%20from%20the%20high,wood%20with%20a%20small%20saw.

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