Charismatic as the longbow may be, it cannot fulfil its function without the all important arrow.
Historically it is quite likely that a form of arrow might actually have preceded the bow; even today there are parts of the world where throwing arrows are used.
Not surprisingly, modern arrows used in top competition are made from modern materials such as carbon fibre tubing and plastic vanes. They are sophisticated and perfectly matched, turned out using highly technical machines. The arrows of yore, made in their thousands for military campaigns, or carefully constructed for hunting purposes, are the ones this article will examine in more detail.
Amongst the earliest – and certainly the most complete -
Moving forwards 3,000 years there are splendid examples of Saxon arrows to engage us. Over one hundred arrows and forty bows, dated to approximately 300 -
The shafts were tapered in such a way as to form a narrower section where the feathers were to go, and grooves were made to take the four fletchings which were first glued and then bound into place. Arrowheads were of iron or bone, some socketed and some tanged, and of a similar design to the bodkin heads used in medieval times. Runic marks completed the arrows, perhaps for personal identification or of some religious significance, and the whole effect was of carefully constructed and essentially functional objects.
Apart from such exciting finds, there are few early archery artefacts available to us, other than arrow heads, and sometime tools for arrow making; there is little else to tell us of the arrows themselves.
Some indications of arrow types may be gleaned from medieval illustrations, particularly of hunting scenes. These show that the bulbous nock continued to be used, whilst arrowheads were generally either of a “broadhead” style, designed for maximum haemorrhage or a blunt head, used to kill birds and small game by impact without damaging the flesh.
Even when this country was not at war the citizens were obliged by statute to practice their archery, and one well known picture from the 14th century Luttrell Psalter shows a group of archers, apparently under instruction at the butts, whose bulbous nocked arrows are bobtailed so that the forward ends are thicker. They also have oddly shaped heads.-
It is when investigation reaches the 16th century that there is much more by way of useful artefacts to engage us. When the sunken Tudor warship Mary Rose was discovered she contained several thousand arrows, which have been extensively examined. This was the period when the great English warbow -
During the war bow’s reign, arrowheads for different purposes were developed: the thin bodkin to penetrate mail, various large broadheads for maximum damage or to bring down horses, heavy relatively blunt heads -
The nock ends of the Mary Rose arrows had been made by first cutting a long slot into which a thin sliver of horn (called a nock piece) was inserted, and then across this was cut the slot to take the string -
It has been imagined that the rise of recreational archery did not commence until the war bow had had its day; but apart from the required Sunday practice there were always those whose pleasure it was to shoot. Roger Ascham in his book Toxophilus or the Schole of Shooting 1545, has given us a detailed account of archery as a healthy activity, taking the scholar from his books so that he might return refreshed. As well as some excellent coaching advice, he also described the equipment and has much to tell us about the arrow. Crucially, Ascham says that woods which make a good bow do not make a good arrow and vice versa. He speaks of arrows made of Brasell, Turkie wood, Fusticke and Sugarchest, which in his opinion make “dead, heavy lumpish hobbling shafts,” Alder, Blackthorn, Service tree, Beech, Elder, Aspen and Salow, because of their weakness make “hollow, starting, scudding, gadding shafts”. He recommends Birch, Hardbeam, some Oak and some Ash as being strong enough to “stand in a bow” yet light enough to “fly farre” Of these woods some are identifiable, with others it is hard to say what they are called today.
“I cannot teach you” says Ascham “to make bow or shaft”, yet he does offer many points by which a good arrow might be recognised. The wood should be well seasoned and must be “as the grain lyeth” or it will not fly cleanly. Although principally speaking to the recreational archer, Ascham also suggests that the sheaf arrows for war should be made not of Aspen “as they be now a dayes” but of Ash, to “give a great stripe withal”.
Another development was the practice of footing – or ‘peecing’. The splicing in of a hard wood at the front of the arrow gives it good forward balance. Two, three or four point footings are known, and some “prize” arrows have a much larger number.
As to the feathers used, Ascham poses many rhetorical questions which tell us much of the many variations in fletching practices. Should they be of goose or some other bird ? if a goose, which kind ? the right or left wing ? a long or short feather ? three or four feathers ? Cut high or low ? Set on straight or “somewhat bowing” ? There is evidence of all these at one time or another over the years.
The arrow which accompanied the great war bow was colloquially called the “grey goose wing”, since invariably the grey lag goose provided the fletchings. Heavy war arrows carried long, low triangular feathers, set on straight. Recreational arrows might use primaries from the peacock and occasionally, in Tudor times, the swan. Nowadays in the UK it is practice to use only the left wing, but for how long this has been done is not known.
Contrary to some belief it is not necessary to set fletchings on the slant in order to make the arrow spin. Provided that each feather is from the same wing, right or left, the arrow will spin because the feather has a rough side which produces lift and a smooth side over which air flows freely.
Arrow profiles and styles changed little from Ascham’s time right into the 19th century, although complete horn nocks were introduced – probably in the 18th century -
Today, mainstream archery has gone its own technical way. But there are still numbers of archers whose delight it is to retain and use the old style equipment. The British Long-
Specialist groups go further, recreating and shooting the heavy bow in the old way – for distance, and using an approximation of the war arrow based on those recovered from the Mary Rose. These are known as Standard arrows, in recognition of 16th century competitive meetings at which a “Standard” arrow was shot by those archers who gathered to display their ability.
In 1557 the Maier (ie the Lord Mayor) issued this “Proclamacon for Shootinge in Fynnesbury Feelde”:
“……And who will come thither and take a long bowe in his hande havinge the standard therein therefore provided, and fairest draweth, clensest deliverethe, and farthest of grounde shootithe shall have for the best Game a Crowne of golde of the value of xiijs…..”
To serve those who shoot the longbow today, numbers of craftsmen have re-
There is probably much we still do not know about how the fletchers of old worked, but happily there are those today who continue in the old traditions.
A Brief History of Arrowmaking
The Worshipful Company of