A Brief History of Arrowmaking

Article by Veronica-Mae Soar, Clerk to the Craft Guild of Traditional Bowyers & Fletchers

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 - examples available to us are those recovered with the “Iceman” in the Alps in 1991 along with his complete archery equipment. Fourteen arrow shafts were found within his quiver, some apparently not yet finished and two deemed ready to be shot. One was 85cm long, the other 90.4cm and they were made from long shoots of Viburnum lantana (the wayfaring tree) a favourite source of arrow wood in pre-historic times. Birch tar had been used to attach three suitably trimmed feathers, which had then been spirally bound onto the shaft with very fine hair. At the back end a notch had been cut to receive the string. The leaf shaped flint arrowheads were tanged and fitted into slots using wood pitch after which that part of the arrow was bound with a thin thread, possibly of animal sinew. After much scientific examination this find was dated at somewhere between 5,300 and 5,200 years old.

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 - 400AD were found in 1863 within a sunken longship, buried in the silt of a long gone sea inlet at Nydam, Schleswig, Germany. The straight-grained arrows seem to have been from split rather than sawn timber. They were barrelled and had a bulbous nock. This type of nock has been associated with the ‘pinch’ draw, using the thumb, although it is possible to use the ‘standard’ three finger draw with which modern archers are familiar. Another reason for the thick nock may have been to accommodate a thick string, and the wide slot seems to suggest this; but since no strings survive the thought must remain academic. Arrow lengths showed a surprising variation from 29” to 37”- today we would not find this unusual, since modern archers have arrows of the correct length for their draw. Was this perhaps the case at Nydam?

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.- for which one can only guess the reason. Perhaps the thickened end was to prevent the arrow penetrating the butt too deeply, whilst the slight spike made sure that it did not fall out altogether.

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 - although approaching the end of its regular use - still formed an important part of the country’s armoury. The arrows can therefore be said to be indicative of what would have been used in battle for some 300 years. The Mary Rose arrows, some still in the spacers which kept the feathers from being damaged, were generally from about 29” to 31” in length and a significant number were barrelled. Each one was sharpened to receive the head, although no heads survived the long submersion. It is said that divers observed the indentations in the mud left behind by the rusting heads, and these appeared to be of a certain shape; but with movement the shape was gone forever. Clearly the type of head would have been suitable for ship to ship fighting against lightly clad sailors, rather than the needle bodkins or horseheads used in land battles. It is generally thought, therefore, that they would have been of a design known as London Museum type 16 or something similar - a flattish leaf shape with small close barbs.

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 - rather like small cold chisels - for dealing with plate armour.

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 - quite different from the earlier bulbous nock. Just below the nock can be clearly seen the marks of the thread which had held the three 6½” long fletchings in place. There was even residue of a greenish substance, thought at first to be fish glue. A later suggestion has been that it was an application of verdigris to prevent insect damage whilst they were in store.

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”.

As arrow making developed a number of different profiles appeared, for specific types of shooting: barrelled, bob-tailed or rush grown, breasted or chested, and of course parallel.

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 - to replace the nock piece. However, with changes in archery practice from the long distance Roving and Clout to shorter butt and target shooting arrows did became lighter, to match the less powerful bows, and with smaller fletchings. Archers would have their personal colours marked upon them, called cresting, and manufacturers kept books recording each customers’ cresting colours.

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-Bow Society perpetuates the use of the recreational longbow and its feathered wooden arrows, which would otherwise have disappeared.

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-discovered the old skills, almost lost in the rush to adopt new materials and mechanical manufacture. The Craft Guild of Traditional Bowyers and Fletchers was formed in 1986 with just 17 members and now has over 35, plus a number of apprentices who are learning to select their timber, to shape and weight and spine the shafts; to foot them and make the horn nocks; to strip the feathers, glue them in place and sheer them; to fix the piles or arrow heads; to match a set to each other and to the bow.

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.


© Veronica-Mae Soar 2007 & 2014