Robyn Hode, my boyhood hero

Robin Hood – the hero of my youth.

Robyn Hode –

An hundred shefe of arowes gode,
The hedys burneshed full bryght;

And every arowe an elle longe,
With pecok wel idyght,
Inocked all with whyte silver [or silk];
It was a semely syght.

A Gest of Robyn Hode, lines 523-8


English Popular Ballads, 1922 edition

England, ca. 1450 A.D.



Some Thoughts on Making Arrows, an Underappreciated Art –

I have been making my own arrows from scratch for a couple decades (since 1987 to be precise) and thought I’d showcase some I have made over the past few years.  I don’t generally make them to sell and I rarely hunt these days but there is something very satisfying and meditative in gathering the materials and constructing something so practical, with such fine tuning and narrow parameters in functionality.  I learned many tough lessons along the way, having no actual teacher, but I gleaned all I could from the historical resources I could find.  Most cultures of the world have a martial tradition of archery and each have their advantages and limitations.

A set of seven hand-turned poplar arrows in the English tradition.

The poplar arrows above were made from aged, straight-grained wood that was split along the grain then turned in a dowel cutter.  The nocks are reinforced with Bois d’arc (Osage orange) wood for added strength.  The heads are conical bodkins, fletchings are prime turkey wing secured with glue and silk binding.

A “primitive” set of cane arrows with hardwood foreshafts tipped with a variety of point types.

Making matched sets –

I sometimes come across beginning arrow-makers (fletchers) who only produce “one-offs” without attempting a matched set.  This is fine as an experiment or as a learning tool but does not suffice for someone who plans to actually use them for precise or regular use.  The minimum I make is three but I try to produce arrows in sets of six or twelve.  Since the plank used for the the arrows above worked out to produce exactly seven shafts, I kept the group together.

I believe it was a writing by Arthur Young where I first learned that to have a truly great set that sometimes you had to sacrifice a few as imperfect.  With all the work that goes into an arrow, it is painful to cull one out but sometimes it must be done.  The weights may match, the spine may feel the same, but one may just not fly as perfectly from the bow as the rest.  In the past, I have marked these and they become stump shooters of ones that you don’t mind risking on a long or difficult shot.

Finding a perfect set of rivercane shafts can involve a lot of looking, sorting, and luck.  People who want to purchase these hand-crafted materials and products rarely appreciate how much work goes into just gathering the materials.  A dozen matched cane shafts may come from sorting a hundred plants, then aging, curing, and straightening before the arrow can even be started.

Rivercane (Arundinaria) arrows with reinforced self nocks.

Fletchings –

To produce enough fletchings for the above, one has to acquire three feathers per arrow, matched by side (all rights or lefts) and placement on the wing of the bird (e.g., second or third wing feather).  This could mean wings from seven to fifteen animals depending on how picky one is just to produce five sets of fletchings.

Antler point.

Points –

Finally, the points are considered based on the needs of the archer.  Will these be for hunting large or small game, target shooting, or just all around fun shooting?  I use bone, antler, stone, wood, and steel depending on the intended use of the set.  Although I purchase most of the metal points I use, a lot of time can go into making matched heads from natural materials.

More thoughts to come…

Primitive Arts

Today I’m prepping to present some primitive skills on Saturday, from raw materials to finished goods. I’m also getting some kid’s activities together to draw in the latest generation.

An assortment of stone-age technology laid out to take to the public.

Trade Card from a Bow and Arrow Maker

An advertising card from when people appreciated hand made archery equipment.  No training wheel, gizmos, releases, or sights.  There is no date on the image but I suspect that late 18th century or early 19th century would not be too far off.  Apparently javelin throwing was in vogue at the time as well.  Now we have television, video games, and the internet.  I feel fortunate to live at a time when primitive technology is making a resurgence.  We felt very alone 20 years ago doing these things but an upside to the world-wide-web is connecting people with so much to teach each other.

Click the image to access the British Museum page for this item.

Mongolian bamboo arrows

More bamboo arrows from the leatherworking reverend.

The Reverend's Musings

Reproduction 14th C Mongolian Arrows

I’ve been doing a little consulting to my nephew*, who has been making a Mongolian bow for a school history assignment. His theory is that the Mongolian bow gave the advantage to the Mongols during their invasion of China in the 14th century, so he’s making one and testing it out. I disagree in a greater part, but it’s more important that he can research, develop and coherently defend a theory. I offered to make him some contemporary bamboo arrows to go with the bow, partially because I knew he wouldn’t have time, and partially because it was an opportunity for me to learn some new skills working with bamboo. He’s also going to be a little more forgiving than a paying client if I make a couple of mistakes while I’m learning, or take some shortcuts.

Paleotool has an excellent two parter on making bamboo arrows, I…

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In a spin about fletch wrapping

arrow_anatomyFinding “handedness” in archaeology… using the fletching of arrows as an example. As a professional archaeologist AND primitive technologist I am very skeptical when someone claims they can determine which hand of a maker is dominant on an ancient tool or weapon. One reason for the distrust is that the archaeologist may not have experienced creating the object in the same way the original maker did. I think the Leatherworking Reverend has a valid point in the following article (and not just because it affirms my own experiences).

The Reverend's Musings

At most find-sites that have arrows there will be a non-equal mix of S- and Z-wrap on the bindings. The dig report will assert that left-handed fletchers were responsible for those that aren’t the majority direction arrow binding, probably without mentioning whether it’s the Z- or S- that they are talking about. I can’t find where it was written down the first time, but it has been repeated until it became lore. Consider the Ötze website:

According to technical archaeologist Harm Paulsen, the two arrows could not have been fashioned by the same person. The fletching shows that one was wound by a left-hander and the other by a right-hander.

and the Mary Rose Trust:

Hopkins (1998) studied 408 shafts from chest 81A2582 (O9) and recorded that, in every case, the binding thread had been wound in a clockwise direction from the tip end of the shaftment (ie, the portion of the arrow…

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Don’t Let Your Arrows Droop With Feathers Low

LutrellArcher2A sheef of pecok arwes, bright and kene,
Under his belt he bar ful thriftily,
(wel koude he dresse his takel yemanly:
His arwes drouped noght with fetheres lowe)

Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales, Prologue, The Yeoman, lines 104-7.

Bamboo Arrow Instructable

I just posted a “how to” for bamboo arrows on Instructables.  It is impossible to teach a complete class in this way but I’ve done what I can.

fletchIf you have an interest in arrowsmithing, have a look by clicking the arrows above.

Tartar Arrows from the Grayson Collection

Something for an arrow maker to aspire to.  There is much to learn from the old masters in their fields.  Wonderfully tapered shafts, great fletchings, and good use of paint.

Crimean Tartar Arrows

Turkey, 18th–19th centuriesFour military arrows for use with Crimean Tartar bow. Straight wood shafts. Hawk feather fletching, three fletches, radial form, glued on. Bulbous self nocks, painted red on inside of notch. Hand-forged steel broadhead points, ridged at the base and thickened towards the tip; sinew reinforced. Decorated with red and gold paint.

86.5 cm long, shaft diameter is 0.8 cm.

MAC 1994-0745

Click here to access the Grayson collection, Museum of Anthropology, at the University of Missouri.


Took the new arrows out for a little shooting last night.  The bodkins are too much for the lightweight straw bales I have right now.  The arrows shoot very straight and true but pass through the bales as if they weren’t even there.  At least with broadheads you get some drag as they cut the straw.  I’ll have to get a new setup this weekend or put some regular target points on.  As can be seen above, they have a first coat of red ochre painted on and are waiting for a coat of oil tonight.  Next, polish the heads and call them done.  Then… start the process of slowly destroying them by shooting.

Archery Artisans

The arts and crafts of bow-making and arrow-making are alive and well.  If anything, they have grown in quality and quantity in the 30 years I have been involved in archery.  I, like most of the other bowyers I know, learned in relative isolation with very little printed information available.  After a few successful bows, I was lucky enough to find a copy of James Duff’s 1932 classic Bows and Arrows which explains the English Longbow in great detail.

After making a couple dozen bows of various styles, I began to make arrows and realized that this is where the real magic happens.  A bow is simply a leaf spring that stores energy applied slowly by the archer and (hopefully) returns that energy very quickly to launch an arrow.  On the other hand, an arrow is a work of art and craftsmanship that undergoes tremendous force during acceleration and should be able to survive the trauma of slamming into a target at speeds approaching 200 feet per second (135 mph or 220 km/hr).  On top of this, a good arrow must have some weather-proof qualities to handle massive temperature fluctuation, damp grass, heat, sun, and possibly rain.

I mention this because to many people I speak to just getting interested in archery, that to make a bow is the holy grail of primitive technology.  For me, it is that creation of a matched set of 12-24 arrows that work well for me and my bow and will hold up under hard use.  Yes, there is something cool in making a great bow, but building a good arrow is far more important.

On that ramble, here are a couple of good links I recently stumbled across on the internet.

Bow Explosion is a German website from a bowyer working in the Black Forest with and interest in flight shooting.

Ashbow has an excellent Picasa Web Album documenting some excellent archery and other primitive technology skills.

And I cannot say enough good about the ATARNnet.  The forum of the Asian Traditional Archery Network.  There is a load of great information there about Asiatic archery, from Scythia to Japan and everything in between.