The Writer’s Guide to Arrows: Part 2

Fire Arrows & Removing Arrows

Today I’m going to be tackling two topics regarding arrows that are rife with misinformation but included repeatedly in books, TV and movies.

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

Fire Arrows

Why am I giving fire arrows their own section? Because it’s complicated.

Yes, there is historical evidence for the use of incendiary arrows. There are accounts of flaming arrows used by both sides during the siege of Lachish in 701 BC. [1] The Romans developed iron boxes and tubes which they filled with flammable substances and attached to arrows. However, they had to be shot from lighter poundage bows or the flame would go out. [2] The Spanish attacking the Moorish town of Oran in 1404 used bolts and quarrels dipped in tar according to the writer Gutierre Diaz de Gamez. [3] Fire-darts were used during the British Civil Wars in the 17th century against enemy soldiers and property. The arrows had a flammable substance attached to the shaft close to the arrowhead and were shot from a bow or musket. The Royalists used them against thatched houses in Chester and the town of Lyme Regis. [4]

The main problem with fire arrows is trying to get them to the target while still on fire all without burning the archer’s hand or bow. The primary idea shown in movies and television seems to be to wrap the arrowhead or just behind it, with rags soaked in pitch or another flammable substance. Unfortunately, most shots of any length will put out the flame not to mention the danger of the fire damaging the wooden arrow shaft. Arrowheads with cages to hold coals were developed but the biggest problem with them is that the bodkin point has to be shortened to prevent the arrowhead from being too forward heavy, lessened its penetrative power. If a thicker arrow shaft is used to compensate, the arrow can become too heavy to go far at all. For a more in depth look at these issues, I recommend Lindybeige’s video here. I will say I have seen fire arrows shot and usually they cannot go further than a few feet without going out.

Probably my biggest gripe about fire arrows in literature and cinema is how they are used. Let me set the scene: An army sneaks up on their enemy at night and decides to launch a surprise attack. Their first volley is flaming arrows which are highly visible in the dark thus alerting their opponent and indicating their location. It makes more sense to fire volleys of regular arrows, which are pretty much invisible in the dark. Think of how devastating that would be! However, I will say that if the point of the fire arrows is to set fire to highly flammable materials like thatch and the archers aren’t having to shoot a long distance then I think that fire arrows are actually a plausible option.

Writer’s Tip: I would love to see a scene in a book where regular arrows are shot at an enemy in the dark.

The Purbeck Bowmen loosing fire arrows at the 2013 opening of the Mary Rose museum.
Notice that the arrow that’s been loosed has left its flame behind. Photo source.

Removing Arrows

Of course, if arrows are being shot in your book there is a high likelihood that a character of yours will have to deal with removing one. The challenge with arrow injuries is that they have the cutting damage of a knife plus the impact and penetration damage of a bullet.

There are only two methods of removal: pulling the arrow out or pushing it through. Which methods works best is determined by the location of the arrow, the depth of penetration and the type of arrowhead. The consensus seems to be if the arrow isn’t stuck in bone or if pushing it through will not damage internal organs or other sensitive structures, especially if the arrowhead has flanges or barbs, that it’s the best option. Otherwise, it has to be pulled out, requiring the wound to be expanded.

Since most people nowadays aren’t being shot with arrows there is not a lot of modern medical literature on their removal and the treatment of the resulting wound. Although there has apparently been a rise in cases thanks to the increasing popularity of archery as a sport. If you’re interested in a modern example, I suggest this article documenting the case of a 35-year-old man shot in the base of the skull. The removal was successful and the patient had no complications. I warn you there are some disturbing images in the article.

The ancient Greek healer Diocles of Carystus wrote of both methods of extraction. He developed a tool named the spoon of Diocles, which was used to remove the injured eye of Phillip II of Macedonia. [5]

During the battle of Shrewsbury in 1403, Henry, prince of Wales, who later became Henry V of England, was struck in the face by a bodkin-tipped arrow. The arrow shaft was removed but the arrowhead remained lodged in the bone of Henry’s skull. The Physician General John Bradmore removed the arrowhead using honey, alcohol, and a surgical instrument he designed himself. For a more in-depth look, I recommend this video.

One of the best historical resources on treating arrows wounds is a 19th century surgical encyclopedia by US Lieutenant Colonel J.H. Bill. In it he discusses both the pushing and pulling methods of removal based on depth and whether the arrowhead was lodged in the bone (determined by gently twisting). All his methods are done by feel, without the help of modern imaging. Most of the causes of death in his cases are due to infection such as peritonitis from the arrow piercing the abdominal cavity but he also lists pneumonia, encephalitis, compression of the brainstem, empyema, tetanus, and shock. [6] Here is the link to Dr. Bill’s work, which is a fantastic resource.

A diagram of a pair of forceps developed by Dr. Bill. 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] Grant, p. 17.
 [2] Nossov, pp. 190–191.
 [3] Diaz de Gamez, p. 90.
 [4] Stephen Porter, Destruction in the English Civil Wars, 1997, p. 50.
 [5] "Ancient Medical Instruments". Retrieved 26 June 2015.
 [6] Bill JH. International Encyclopedia of Surgery: A Systematic Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Surgery By Authors of Various Nations. Vol. 2. New York: William Wood & Co; 1882. Sabre and bayonet wounds; arrow wounds; pp. 101–117. 

2 Comments on “The Writer’s Guide to Arrows: Part 2”

  1. Thanks for your personal marvelous posting! I quite enjoyed reading it, you will be a great author.I will ensure that I bookmark your blog and will often come back someday. I want to encourage one to continue your great writing, have a nice morning!


  2. Great blog! Do you have any helpful hints for aspiring writers? I’m planning to start my own website soon but I’m a little lost on everything. Would you suggest starting with a free platform like WordPress or go for a paid option? There are so many choices out there that I’m totally confused .. Any suggestions? Thank you!


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