Large numbers of arrows were shot during medieval battles. And while arrows were recollected after that battle was over and either immediately reused or repaired, all these arrows had to be built at one point in time. But how were arrows built in the Middle Ages? And how were the arrow shafts straightened?
Arrow shafts were made by splitting Aspen, Ash, Cedar, or Poplar boards along the grain into rectangular staffs. These were then shaved down, straightened, and rounded with a jig, a plane, and dogfish skin (as medieval sandpaper). The fletching (3 goose half-feathers) was attached with glue and a thread. The point was attached by sliding the shaft into the arrowhead socket and ideally also gluing both parts together. Experiments show it took 2 hours to make one arrow but practiced medieval craftsmen probably needed way less than 2 hours for one arrow.
Let`s take a closer look!
How were arrows made in the Middle Ages?
A medieval arrow basically consisted of three parts. The shaft, the fletching, and the arrowhead. Throughout the Middle Ages, the production of arrows became more and more organized with different trades delivering the individual components and the fletchers then putting the arrow together.
In this article, I will not go into the production of the arrowheads and the production of Iron and Steel in the Middle Ages since I have already dedicated an entire article to that topic.
So let`s now look at the individual parts of the arrow and how they were made.
How were arrow shafts made & straightened in the Middle Ages?
First, I would like to start out with the shaft.
The first thing needed for an arrow shaft was lumber. Medieval arrow shafts were made from Aspen, Ash, Cedar, or Poplar. And there were basically two ways to harvest the lumber for the arrow shafts.
The first way to get the lumber for the arrow shaft was to cut off one-year-old tree shoots. Even today, there are old trees in the English countryside that have one low main branch from which each year tree shoots are harvested. Nowadays these are used for fences, but in the Middle Ages, they would have been used for arrow shafts.
The other – and probably more common – way was to make arrow shafts from wooden boards. For that, the Aspen, Ash, Cedar, or Poplar was cut down, dried, and milled into boards that were a little thicker than the arrow would be.
The boards were then split along the grain into rectangular, somewhat straight staffs.
To turn the rectangular and only somewhat straight staffs that were split out of Aspen, Ash, Cedar, or Poplar boards into round straight arrow shafts, they were put into shooting jigs and shaved down with a plane until they were almost round and straight. Then the skin of a dogfish was used as sandpaper to give the shaft its final round & straight shape.
The jigs that were used for that were pretty simple and just had to hold the staff in place. First, one edge was shaved down, then the staff was turned, the next edge was shaved down, and so on until the shaft was pretty round.
Today, we would then use sandpaper to finish the shaft. However, in the Middle Ages people didn`t have sandpaper as we do. So the skin of the dogfish was used as sandpaper in the Middle Ages.
To make sure that the shaft would have the same thickness at both ends another tool was used. First, a hole that had the same diameter as the wanted thickness of the arrow shaft was drilled into a block of wood. Then the block of wood was cut in two, the dogfish skin was put in, the block was closed and the unfinished arrow shaft was pulled through until it had a consistent thickness.
Now the nock at the rear-most end of the shaft had to be added. Ideally, the end of a medieval arrow was reinforced by cutting a slit into the end of the shaft into which a sliver of a hard material like horn was put and glued. The arrow was then rotated 90 degrees and the nock, a second, shallower slit was cut into the reinforced end.
After that, the arrow shaft was ready for the fletching.
How were arrows fletched in the Middle Ages?
Goose feathers were used in the Middle Ages for fletching arrows. In medieval England, peasants could even pay parts of their taxes in goose feathers which were then used for fletchings.
In order to attach the 3 half-feathers to the back of the arrow, a jig was used. The goose feathers were cut into shapes with a sharp knife or scissors before they were attached to the arrow shaft with glue and thread.
There were several types of glue available in the Middle Ages and glue was also used for making robust shields. Here you can find out more about medieval glue and the sophisticated process of making a medieval shield.
Last but not least, the damaged fletching had to be repaired. For that, the end of the arrow was held over a pot with boiling water so that the ascending steam pushed the fletching back into shape. Then the fletching was completed. Generally, the idea behind the fletching is to aerodynamically stabilize the flight of the arrow.
After that, the shaft was fletched and only the arrowhead was missing.
How were arrowheads attached to the arrows?
The forging of arrowheads and the production of Iron and Steel in the Middle Ages will not be mentioned in this article, but I would like to recommend you my article here for more information on these topics.
So for this article, I would like to assume that the fletcher had received finished arrowheads, which he then had to attach to the finished arrow shaft.
Ancient and medieval arrowheads were either attached to the arrow shaft by just sliding the shaft into the socket of the arrowhead or by additionally securing the arrowhead by adding glue into the socket and gluing the arrow shaft and arrowhead together. Arrows that did not have a glued-on point were easier to produce but had a massive downside when it came to removing such an arrow from a wound. It could happen that the arrowhead separated from the shaft and remained in the wound after the shaft was pulled out of the wounded soldier.
That was really bad news and made the invention of highly sophisticated medical tools necessary. Here you can find out more about how arrows (and lost arrowheads) were removed from wounds.
So there we have it. That is how medieval arrows were made and arrow shafts were made straight.
But one question remains. How long did it take to make such an arrow?
How long did it take to make an arrow in the Middle Ages?
I think it has become clear that making an arrow was not that easy and needed multiple steps, but also highly skilled craftsmen. And yet large numbers were necessary for medieval warfare.
Here you can find out more about how many arrows one singular archer needed during a battle. And here you can find out more about how medieval archers carried their arrows (and whether or not they really stuck their arrows in the ground in front of them during a battle).
But how long did it take to produce one arrow? Well, that is difficult to say.
In experiments, it took about 2 hours (50 minutes for cutting & shaving down the shaft, 30 min. for fletching, 25 min. to make the arrowhead, and 15 min. for attaching the arrowhead) to reproduce one arrow under realistic medieval conditions. However, skilled and practiced medieval craftsmen were most certainly able to produce an arrow in way less than two hours.
So there we have it. The production of medieval arrows. But how effective were arrows, especially against armor? Could an arrow really pierce chainmail or plate armor? You can find the answer to that question in my article here.
And here you can find out more about the longbows that were used to shoot the arrows.
Take care of yourself because you deserve it. You really do.
Until next time
Erik Roth: With a bended bow: Archery in Medieval and Renaissance Europe (Stroud 2012).
Richard Wadge: Arrowstorm: The World of the Archer in the Hundreds Year war (Gloucestershire 2009).