"Supposing I were in yonder sloping wood opposite, and in my hand a bow of red yew ready bent, with a tough, tight string, and a straight round shaft with a will-rounded nock, having long slender feathers of green silk fastening, and a sharp-edged steel head, heavy and thick, and an inch wide, of a green-blue temper, that would draw blood out of a weathercock. And with my foot to a hillock, and my back to an oak, and the wind to my back , and the sun towards my side; and the girl I love best, hard by, looking at me; and I conscious of her being there; I would shoot him such a shot, so strong and far-drawn, so low and sharp, that it would be no better there were between him and me a breastplate and a Milan hauberk, than a wisp of fern, a kiln rug, or a herring-net!"
——-from a fifteenth-century MS., the 'Tale of Iolo Goch', bard to Owen Glendower

I do not claim to be an expert on the bow. I simply did some research and my curiosity led me the rest of the way. This is not a comprehensive or exhausting pool of information by any means. I simply compiled some information that is interesting and at the same time may be helpful to make a campaign more realistic. Who knows when you may need or want to add some information about the bow's use or making?

One of the most interesting things I found about the use of the bow and arrow is information about the arrows themselves. I see a great role playing opportunity for the player and DM to add to their campaign.

So let us take a look at the livelihood of the bowyer fletcher.

I guess it may be simple enough to start out with some definitions and names of different parts of the bow.

back—is the side of the bow that is farthest from you as you shoot. It is flat or slightly rounded.
belly—is the side of the bow nearest you as you shoot.
stack—a bow is said to be 'high-stacked' when the arch of the belly is deep in proportion to the width of the bow. The higher the stack the more readily the bow will break.
handgrip—is just that. It is not in the center of the bow.
riser—a piece of wood that is fixed to the belly of a flat bow to increase the depth and strengthen it at the handgrip.
tips—are the four to six inches at each end of the bow.
whip-ended—is when the tips are weak relative to the rest of the limbs.
limbs—upper and lower, are the halves of the bow above and below the handgrip. The lower limb is shorter than the upper by an average of 1.5 in.
Set back in the handle—is when the whole of each limb has a slight forward inclination towards the back, when the bow is unstrung.
nocks—are the groves at each end of the bow which receive and retain the loops of the string.
arrow-plate—is a little piece of ivory, shell, or fiber that is stuck to the side of the bow immediately above the handgrip on the left hand side as you shoot. It prevents the arrow from damaging the surface of the bow in its passage across it. For hunting or silence, a buckskin arrow-plate has the advantage of being noiseless.
tiller a bow—is to observe the shape and character of the limbs when the bow drawn and to correct irregularities where they show themselves.
brace the bow—is to set the string in position ready for shooting.
cast—is the way a bow causes the arrow to fly.


First of all the painting of the shafts is a very personalized thing. To paint the shaft is giving a signature to the arrow. In most cases it was used to ease the finding a loosed shaft. That, in itself, is not too unusual. I am sure many players, during the course of a campaign, may have painted their arrows or used black fletchings or whatever. What I didn't know before was that during the painting it is also a good idea to number each arrow or paint them as to tell them apart when shooting.

Well, it might be obvious to some, but I was ignorant of the fact that each arrow will have different flight characteristics and therefore may need to be aimed differently. Since arrows were hand made, usually by the archer, they would be far from uniform and/or straight. Each arrow has a characteristic about it and it is a good archer that knows each of the arrows in his quiver and knows it's cast. In practice with the arrows, an archer will quickly find his favorite arrows that have the best cast and can then choose them when accuracy counts the most.

So this made me think of some ways these facts about the arrow can be used in a role playing campaign.

- Have the painting and marking of arrows more commonplace. Possibly making the arrow decor a sense of pride for the archer. Could even use it to identify arrows made by a master fletcher. The comparing of markings and arrow quality can also become a source of a slight rivalry between different archers.
- It used to be that a wizard might be studying his spell book, or a priest must go off and pray. Now the archer must have his private practice time also. Especially when he buys or makes new arrows. He must go and practice with his new arrows and find their individual flight paths and then mark them. He could have to do this so he doesn't shoot at a negative attack bonus, or possibly, he may find a couple arrows that fly true every time and can get a bonus on these particular arrows.
- Because the arrows are marked, the archer must come up with a way to keep his excellent arrows separated from the common ones. In critical battle he won't have the time to pick and choose through his quiver till he gets a good arrow.
- The buying of arrows becomes more critical. Buying a dozen arrows just doesn't hack it anymore. A true archer would most likely make his own, failing that I am certain he would be fairly picky about choosing the best looking arrows. This tedious inspection may annoy the seller and the price might be raised for the choosy archer. The archer may also be more apt to go to only known bowyer/fletchers, even diverting an entire adventure to go to a town where a famous bowyer/fletcher is said to reside.


In the old days a flight of arrows was three. The making of arrows is a tiring tedious job that is slow in process. Comparing making arrows to making a bow, many would rather make a bow than two flights of arrows. The two main materials for making a hunting arrow would be white birch and bamboo. Others include; Brasell, Byrche, Asche, Oak, Blackthorne, Beach, Elder, and Aspe.

The parts of the arrow include the shaft (stele), nock (where the string fits on the end of the shaft), vanes or fletchings (which are made of goose or turkey feathers and sometimes peacock), and the arrowhead.

The vanes have a special vane called the 'cock feather'. This is usually of a different color that helps a quick nocking of new arrow to be shot. The vanes are placed on the shaft at an exact spacing. The brush of the arrow against the bow must be uniform for each flight otherwise aim would be compromised each time a shaft is loosed. The 'cock feather' is always facing outward away from the bow causing the other two vanes to be either above and below of the bow so when the arrow is released, the vanes brush a minimum and all the arrows brush uniformly.

The vanes can be put on to either rotate the arrow or so that is does not. Both ways produce good shots but the shaft that does not rotate tends to wobble in the air, but this in no way causes an inaccurate shot. The vanes are usually placed about 1.5" away from the nock. It is possible to use arrows with no vanes for short distances. Beyond that they are very inaccurate and require a vane to guide them.


"What do we require from our arrowhead? Very simply that it shall cut deep and wide. Cutting without penetration gives merely a surface wound. Penetration without cutting gives a deep and grievous wound indeed, but not a merciful one since there is little bleeding. Such a point was the old English 'bodkin', an armour-piercing affair of square or diamond section, a terrible thing feared wherever the English archers went."
——-Adrian Eliot Hodgkin

Steel is the prominent type of material used to make arrowheads. Properly tempered steel is the best, but mild steel will work if there is no better. The mild tends to loose its edge and will bend or buckle if it hits anything hard.

Other materials are either flint or glass. The naturally fluted edges of flint greatly increase the penetrating quality of the arrow. Flint is, of course, very brittle and hard to work with. I did not find anything describing glass.


Types of Wood

There are three main types of wood that are heralded by most as the best are; Osage Orange, Lemonwood, and of course Yew.

Yew is the most popular of all and is by far the hardest to work with. They are not abundant and grow slowly. Once found, Yew is full of twists, dips, lumps, and knots. It is, however, the perfect wood for making a bow. It's heart is ideally made for the strains of the constant bending the bow does and keeps it springing back, while the sapwood that is just outside of the heart is tuff and durable keeping the bow from snapping. Once made the bow is wonderful to look at as well as to shoot.

The Lemonwood is a yellowish wood without any apparent grain. Hard to saw but easy to work with edged tools. Easy to work, it makes a very good bow. The drawback to this type is that it tends to 'follow the sting' or gain a permanent bend with use.

The Osage Orange is also claimed as a great wood. This is a horribly hard wood to work with for it is a very hard wood.

Length of Bow

The old rule for the longbow was that it should be at least equal to the height of the archer. For open field combat this rule is fine. On the other hand, if a ranger that primarily stays in the forest uses a bow, then a bow of over six feet will be cumbersome and prevent comfortable shooting.

The length of the bow depends on a few things.

The nature of the wood itself. For all wood cannot be bent without limit.
The bowman's dimensions. Your 'draw' is the defining characteristic that defines the bow size meant for you. To measure your draw stand up sideways so your shoulders point towards the target. Stretch out your left arm holding a thick stick in you hand as if it were a bow. Do not lock your elbow, but have your arm fully extended. Look directly over your left shoulder at the target. Now get somebody to measure the distance between the back of your left forefinger and the point on your jaw vertically below your right eye. A long man may be 28 inches or more. A dwarf, considerably less. The longer the draw, the longer must be the bow.

The way the bow is made. Whether it be thick (stacked too high) or thin will cause the bow to bend differently. A thicker one will not bend as easily and once bent may tend to break, while a thin one may bend too much causing a weak flight of the arrow. Longbows can then range from about 5 ft. to around 6 ft.

A couple role playing ideas that could concern the bow.

- First thing that caught me was the size of the longbow. The role playing games I play say it is a large weapon, or show a picture with no description. The actual size of it always eluded me. Having a piece of wood 6ft tall with a string bending it, running around a forest chasing goblins or whatever, it sort of puts a new twist on things. I think you would have to be very careful running around thick foliage. The last thing I would want as an archer is a tree branch or a thorn bush catching on my bowstring and fraying, or even breaking it.
- The fact that there are only a few good woods to make the bow is intriguing. How common are they? The price would sky rocket if you were far from where you could get good bow wood. Another thought is perhaps there is a new type of tree in your role playing world that makes an outstanding bow with pluses out the gazoo. Would it be worth a separate quest to get this coveted wood? Maybe even a famous bowyer/fletcher needs some adventures to get him this special wood so he can make a bow requested by the king.


'As unto the bow the cord is,
So unto the man is the woman;
Though she bends him, she obeys him,
Though she draws him, yet she follows,
Useless each without the other.'
——-Longfellow, Hiawatha

The string is made of linen (flax), silk, or hemp. Other fibers may be used but flax (made from a flower stem) is inexpensive and works well. A bowstring is made up of a number of threads laid side by side, and twisted together with a loop at one end. The ends, both of them, are thicker than the middle and are twisted differently. Each string holds about 5lbs so for a 60lb bow, 30 strings will be needed.


Apart from keeping the bow in reasonable conditions, there is nothing needed other than giving it an occasional rub with boiled linseed oil or a polish of beeswax. In frost or cold weather the bow must be warmed again to shoot properly. Little by little bring it to the fire as it is being rubbed with beeswax. Dampness is more dangerous to a bow than rain. Rubbing with wax will again fix that problem while it dries. It is best to have a case to put it in during inclement weather.

Keep the bowstring well waxed and look for any frays or irregularities. Where the string enters the nock is a place where excessive wear may take place and where the likelihood of a break is most threatening.

Arrows require constant attention. An arrow may warp and require straightening by applying a slight heat to it and bending it back straight. During rain a leather cover with a drawstring can be put over the feathers to keep them from getting wet.

A small repair kit can be easily carried and will hold necessities to repair broken parts. Spare arrowheads, bowstring thread and a spare string, a few vanes already prepared and kept between two sturdy sheets, and a piece of leather to smooth the bowstring.

A sturdy leather quiver usually about 22 in. long, 5 in. wide at the top and 4 in. wide at the bottom, flat sided, soft and collapsible. The hard rigid types are useful in the service of a noble when silence is not necessary. The collapsible quiver allows for easy removal of arrows and holds the arrows firmly to keep them from rattling when moving about.


"So let us take our leave of that tough, common man, our friend the old English archer. See him now as he sits in his little shelter of bough in a Norman field after the battle. He is humming a little song as he fits a new bowstring and watches his supper cooking. Campfires twinkle all around, and from them come, now and again, snatches of talk and gusts of laughter. The night is very quiet, and all the stars are out. Far away, beyond the firelight, some of his friends lie oddly twisted and very still on the ground, face down. He nods, and is soon asleep."
——-Adrian Eliot Hodgkin

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Addendum to glass arrowheads: Glass can be sharp as steel, if need be, but would be seldom used with arrows. It is hard to make fine arrowheads, and the usage will be expensive. For every arrow, that falls to the ground undamaged, there are two that either miss their target and break, or even hit and break almost guaranteed. If the mark is in metallic armor, there's a fair chance it will hit, but won't get through the metal. Those using such arrows have a hard time to get used to them, and finding a favourite one is almost impossible.

The frail are not always the weak, as the saying is.

A glass arrowhead, once entering a body, can on impact break into numerous shards, movement and curing attempts may worsen the situation. Even a small splinter can cause the wound not to heal, and infection is never too far on the battlefield...

So if glass was used at least from time to time, it would be considered barbaric by most nations, as some weapons are, and too expensive.

Remaining is the question who would use such arrowheads? As a fine distinction to all other arrows, the built-in cruelty of it, and the cash needed, recommended are exotic races, with little friendliness to others. The drow come to mind first.

Little need to tell the players though, as an arrowhead of GLASS (what?) can make for a fine mystery and put this whole article to good use.

Glass napping(sp?)

Plate glass can be chipped like flint to make arrow heads or even spear heads or knives. A bad guy in Neal Stephenson's book Snow crash has an assortment of glass weapons and takes advantage of them being off radar, but that's a little off subject.

Glass breaks on a mono-molecular edge. The sharpness of a glass egde is purely how sharp an angle it is. The better a person is at flint chipping, the sharper an angle they could make on glass.

The fact the glass breaks on entering is very true and quite vicous. Sounds like a perfect item for an assassin. Perhaps with a small chamber in the shaft behind the arrowhead for posion or disease causing material.

To put a bit of magic inside...

There are quite many spells of great power that conjure matter-out-of-nowhere, or others that transform materials, change shape etc.

If there is some class of a magic using archer, it may find use for this spell:

Multiply Arrow

- does not do that exactly, needs two arrows the archer knows well (knows their cast). Concentrating makes the chosen arrow slowly change its shape to a duplicate of the other one. So if you have an especially good arrow, you may multiply it this way!


- must know the cast of both arrows

- both arrows must be the same size and mass

- requires a long concentration (casting time)

Knowing all your arrows are the same can slightly reduce the time spent aiming (bonus to initiative) and gives more confidence. Problematic if you suddenly use an arrow not of that cast.

A minor note on the glass: In some settings, natural glass is the easiest material to obtain and work, especially areas with high volcanic activity, past or present. Obsidian is probably far too overlooked.

That said, the archer can be an excellent counterpoint to your normal fighters and wizards. His most deadly assault requires no mystic words, no rare and arcane ingrediants. He is silent, striking from afar like the hand of the gods. He is merciless, and his action is difficult for others to undo, the removal of the hunter's barb causing as much pain as the entry. He himself stresses acuity of the senses, all of them, as well as his ability to think quickly, rapidly. He lives by his wits, not his ability to recall trivia, nor by the strength of his blade arm. His tactics are his strength, his all-seeing eye his shield.

All this, yet he has his weaknesses. Should the foe corner him, bring him to bay, he can only strike as fast as he can draw his bow, a far more commiting action than swinging a blade. In the tightest of quarters, his chosen weapon is worthless, and he must find another way to do combat.

Archers are great fun in a good campaign, especially if the system allows him full development. Don't neglect the guy with the bow!

Thinking of arrows from another angle:

Even broken arrows, or ones without arrowhead may have their worth. Bringing back nice memories of youth ('See this burned piece of wood? It has found a softer spot on The Great Red Dragon Xaniroos! Sure, he still lives and hoards his treasure somewhere. But I tell you boy, tough hide or not, he might be killed, and this is the proof. He would have burned our village to ash, were not a few more stuck in him. When I was younger, ...') and even show how to make (or not to make) new arrows.

Yes, collectors desire many strange things. I remember from some movie a very plain-looking wooden crossbow, that has but killed a king. As a strange mark, why not make that peaceful wizard or sage a collector of arrows (or weapons), that have assasinated famous and important people?

More is possible in worlds with magic. Now, where do you get dragon blood fast (or whatever exotic and rare beasts') from, if you need it for that important ritual? And weird curses are very possible ('As it has killed your father, so shall it seek your heart... ').

I'd like to add to the obsidian comment, even though this thread is old (and yes, I know there is no ban on resurrecting threads, so leave off! I've heard it enough, otherwise I wouldn't do it! idly mutters the 'please don't kill me' chant).

I went to a medieval fair a few years back, and one of the vendors there made arrowheads and knives out of obsidian. It was all hand-made, and you could actually watch him do it in front of you. He said that it takes a good investment of time, and after obtaining a few pieces of the black glass for myself, I discovered that he was right. I looked at all the other sights I wished to see, then spent an hour or so bent over two pieces of obsidian.

In the end I was left with a chunk of glass that might make a good gouging tool, and one piece that turned out how I wanted it to be, relatively. I still have both pieces, and I like my black arrowhead, though it will never get used. Too rough.

My point in saying this is that obsidian probably is overlooked more often than not as a suitable material for bladed objects, be they knives spears or arrowheads. They aren't that hard to shape into the shape you wish (heck, I was able to do it at the lovely age of 14; that means anyone can do it!), and they really are sharper than one would expect.

Just my pair of copper. Take it as you will.

Note: magic would certainly influence the fletching of arrows. For instance, the Carpenter's Ring would make excellent arrow shafts in large quantities quickly.

Those interested in this topic may want to read a little resource named The Physics Of Medieval Archery at:

There is an account of the Battle of Agincourt and the crucial role of archers in it. Among some physics (which is not too horrible to look at), there are some interesting things about archery:

- Yew was indeed considered the best for bows.

- The maximum range of that time might be around 240 meters.

- The initial speed of an arrow might be 60m/s, the final speed 40-45m/s.

- The effect of a massive hail of fast-moving heavy arrows fired at armored target, would be very many disabling injuries, though probably few direct deaths.

The last paragraph can be quoted whole:

It is sobering to combine these facts with some historical data. Henry had approximately 5,000 archers at Agincourt, and a stock of about 400,000 arrows. Each archer could shoot about ten arrows a minute, so the army only had enough ammunition for about eight minutes of shooting at maximum fire power. However, this fire power would have been devastating. Fifty thousand arrows a minute - over 800 a second - would have hissed down on the French cavalry, killing hundreds of men a minute and wounding many more. The function of a company of medieval archers seems to have been equivalent to that of a machine-gunner, so in modern terms we can imagine Agincourt as a battle between old-fashioned cavalry, supported by a few snipers (crossbow-men) on the French side, against a much smaller army equipped with machine guns. Perhaps from this point of view the most remarkable fact about the battle is that the French ignored the very great military advantages of the longbow.