Wooden Arrow Folklore

A less than helpful guide for the beginner, and a familiar home for the rest of us


Sarcasm. If you believe it is the lowest form of wit, then this probably isn’t the book for you. If you don’t understand it, then you’re really going to get this book. Personally a sentence without it makes me nervous.

Why do we bother?

The saying goes ‘it takes any old stick to make a bow, but a damn good stick to make an arrow’. They never mentioned the archer, presumably because we’re all nuts for chucking pointy bits of wood through the air with something that’s on the verge of exploding in our faces. There is also a misnomer that ‘it doesn’t matter for longbow arrows as they don’t score very well anyway’. It is certainly true that it’s unusual for us to be comparable to recurve archers (though fantastically smug-building on the rare occasions when we are), but with everything else we have to deal with, eliminating as many variables as we can must surely be the way forward. A good set of well matched arrows rules out half of your excuses (though we will deal with creative and scientific ones later), and as a bow generally does the same thing every time, it is then down to you, the archer, to balls up the shot on your own.

Arrows are respectful creatures, and not particularly adventurous. Should an arrow see two of its fellows snuggled up close on the target (known to the longbow archer as a ‘group’), it will respect their privacy and keep an appropriate distance away with its gaze averted. This leads to that common longbow end of 9,9,m. The truth of the matter is that the third arrow knows full well that the first two are having a bit of ‘private time’, and makes it clear from the moment it is taken from the quiver that it would really rather not be shot. Some of the pine and cedar woods are in fact telepathic, and wrestle with your subconscious to make sure that at the point of release, your arms flail about like an epileptic spider.

Energy – the journey of alcohol to the arrow

When you draw the bow, energy is transferred from your muscles into the limbs of the bow. Alcohol is a well known source of bow-energy, which is why sherry and mead can be found in abundance at longbow shoots; it is purely for scientific and performance reasons. When the string is loosed, all that energy needs to be transferred into the arrow, so the arrow needs to have sufficient weight to take it, otherwise the bow (and your hand) will have to absorb a lot of it in the form of shock and vibration. Wood doesn’t like that very much. Neither does my hand particularly. General rule... heavier bow = heavier arrow. Imagine shooting a 120lb warbow with dried spaghetti for arrows. The chef will be annoyed at having to pick up his splinters of spaghetti from all over the place, but at least your bow can now be used as chopsticks to eat it with (I may be confusing national dishes here).

Arrow psyche

I trust that none of you reading this are so body-conscious as to be worried about me using the word ‘weight’. To be honest if it does worry you, you’d be better off going for a jog than sitting down with this in your hand. Either way, you’ll be pleased to hear we are only going to talk about the weight of the arrow, which as mentioned before communicates telepathically, and so would be above such peasant-like things as ‘reading’ anyway. It’s not therefore likely to be offended.

We have already said that a heavier arrow will take more of the energy from the bow, which also results in a smoother shot. Great, so we’ll all shoot big fat heavy arrows. Imagine pushing a car, it takes all your energy, starting slowly, but smoothly it gains momentum and rolls away largely unaffected by the wind or small children in its path. Compare to hitting a ping-pong ball, small amount of energy, fast and jerky acceleration, slowed quickly by the air and will not get as far as the car. Extreme examples, but it demonstrates the logic behind a heavier arrow shooting smoothly and more controlled, but more slowly than a lighter one.

Arrows are panicky creatures, and the shock of being suddenly kicked out of a bow into the air makes them flap and wobble in a way only otherwise seen in older ladies discovering a mouse on their shoe. This is called the archers paradox (the flexing of the arrow, not the mouse; though it would make a great name for a mouse). As an archer this presents us with the problem of the arrow hitting the bow as it leaves on its journey. This is why it important to choose your arrows carefully with the correct bravery or ‘spine’ (I’m rather proud of this analogy). Too brave (strong spine), and it will be too defiant to respectfully bend before the string, and bump into the bow when shot, heading off to the left (or right for left-handed archers). Too cowardly (weak spine) and it will flap way too much catching the bow and hurting itself as it wiggles ever onwards through the air to the right. In extreme cases, living with constant fear of tortuous flight, such arrows can develop suicidal tendencies, emotionally and literally falling to bits.

As you’ll remember from those cringing discos you were dragged to in your life, shaking and wobbling takes energy (again the reason for alcohol at such events). This valuable energy is lost from propelling the arrow forwards, so too cowardly an arrow will fall shorter than a brave one. As with everything in longbow archery, it is about finding that balance (I understand Goldilocks has set herself up as an arrow spine advisor, though it’s hard to get a reply as she’s always either eating breakfast or sleeping).

Ever watched a bird in flight? Calm as anything. Best thing to soothe a nervous, wobbling arrow just shot from a bow? Feathers are the arrows equivalent of breathing into a paper bag, and the bigger the feathers the faster the arrow stops flexing and concentrates its energy on going forward. But (can you sense one of those ‘balance’ things coming up again?), big feathers cause a lot of drag and slow the arrow faster than little ones. Great if you are only shooting shorter distances and need the arrow to straighten quickly, not so great if you are trying to reach that out of focus flag at 180 yards against a headwind, without a hip flask. It seems the secret for distance shooting is to use feathers that are as small as possible, but still straighten up the arrow fairly quickly. This is made much simpler by having the spine well matched to your bow and the general rule of thumb is to choose a spine 5lb to10lb lighter than your draw weight. Thumb however was a rubbish scientist, and his so called ‘rule’ often wildly inaccurate. I hope that helps.

Why it’s clearly not your fault

We can tolerate the snide remarks and eye rolling glances of our modern-fangled brethren at the shooting line, but unless talking to a fellow stick-flinger, others are never going to understand how all those misses are clearly beyond your control. Quite frankly you’re a masterful hero for simply shooting with a bit of wood and twine in the first place (all be it quite special twine). No doubt our ancestors would have praised you for attempting to shoot away from the locale of an appropriate henge, vital to counteract the affect on your arrows from those pesky ley lines. Wonder why you can find stone circles in clearings across the countryside? Clout targets, set up to block the formation of dimensional vortices that would otherwise play havoc with your grouping. They knew what they were doing back then.

We’ve already discussed how calmly birds can handle themselves in flight, and whilst the pilfering of their feathers to soothe our arrows through the sky certainly helps, away from the bird they fail to have an aptitude for dealing with thermals. Why else would you shoot so badly on a perfectly warm, dry and still day? Except for that same bright sunlight that brings out those shiny-bowed, fair-weather archers, creating a superheated pocket of high pressure air above the arrow, causing it to nosedive into the dirt, seconds before striking what was clearly destined to be a gold. Ever noticed how the top longbow archers always have extrashiny varnish? Reflects the sun, eliminates the problem; something our lesser companions with their shiny metal-shafted arrows have never had to concern themselves with.

Whilst there are any number of other reasons why a bad shot is so obviously not your fault (reasons usually ‘eureka’d with the aid of brain-energy giving alcohol), my final mention on the matter is insects. Flies are easily startled as you’ll know if you’ve ever tried to swat or catch one (best to creep up on them; easier if you’re quite small... possibly Japanese... using small implements... like chopsticks). As a collective they long ago decided enough was enough with archers surprising them by chucking bits of wood through the air they were so happily meandering around in. This is why they can often be caught in acts of what can only be described as mild terrorism, such as bouncing off your eyeball at the point of release. That’ll teach us. That and siding up with the butterflies, with their synchronised wing-flapping (apparently common in China). It’s amazing that with all of that we can even get an arrow in the air, so no wonder we give such praise for hitting that mystical prize... anything.

Essential arrow components

I was once forced to shoot a round with a set of arrows insistent on shedding its feathers (bad choice of glue). At 60yds, compared to the two arrows with three feathers on, their twofeathered kin flew... exactly the same. Another time shooting indoors at 20yds, I had to conclude that I must have shot an arrow without a point after some time digging around in the boss. To test the theory I shot it again, pointless (as are many of my shots, though in a different way). It flew.... exactly the same, and stuck firmly in the target. Conclusion... everything in this book is rubbish, and I will now be buying bare shafts, gluing a nock on the end and shooting them. Until the nocks fall off and I find they still shoot the same. Good night.

Thank you

Before you get on with the business of thinking about all the productive things you could have done with the time spent reading this waffle, I’d like to thank Microsoft Word for reviewing my work by underlining all its favourite bits in green, and the really good bits in red.

Geoff Fisher, May 2016

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