The Art of making Target and SCA Blunt Arrows
by Mynjon du Jardin
1. Fletching is both an art and a science. Part of it is a scientific calculation of angles, lengths distances and physics, and some of it is aesthetics, judgment and eye for style. It is only when both of these are combined that a truly great arrow is made.
2. This article has been written within the Kingdom of Lochac and contains some SCA Combat rules and specifications that are specific to that kingdom. Always refer to your local Kingdom rules prior to taking any form of weapon onto an SCA war-field.
3. This article will look at medieval recreationist arrows for use on period authentic target bows. It will also discuss SCA blunts for combat archery and the options available taking into consideration authenticity, budget, tools, safety and resources. In the same manner as skinning cats there is more than one way to construct an arrow. This article will only explain the methods I choose to use with it's strengths and weaknesses which the reader may judge for themselves.
Arrow Point or Pile
4. The tip/point/head is referred to as the pile and is the front end of the arrow that makes contact with the target. Depending on the effect desired different piles are used. There are a variety of medieval pile types that could be used depending on the application.
5. Target Piles. There are a variety of options available for target piles depending on budget, authenticity and effect. The bodkin point, as shown in the far left of the image below was for punching though armour by reducing the contact area of the head and increasing the probability of penetration. These point types were not as effective for hunting as the small impact area did not do widespread damage to the target, such as severing veins, arteries or vital organs on the way. Without barbs the bodkin point could also fall back out after penetration. Bodkin points are a reasonable target arrow to use on modern archery butts. If you are using a high poundage bow and are slamming the shafts a long way into the target they penetrate a long way and can be a pain to get out, but then again so are most point types.
6. For hunting the large barbed broad-head was used. The razor sharp blades of the broad head cut muscle, arteries and veins as it penetrated the animal and the barbs anchored the head in the flesh, continuing to do more damage if the animal was still moving. This brought animal down more quickly though muscle damage or blood loss and reduced the probability of the quarry escaping. Broad-heads were not as successful against armour because the increased surface area of the wider blades on the point reduced the probability of the point penetrating plate armour and increased the probability of the arrow glancing off a curved surface. Broad-heads are not really suitable for target archery because they have to be cut them free of the butt to get the barbs out, which would very quickly make you very unpopular with the target owner and other target users.
7. Modern target points are not as authentic as they are spun or lathed rather than forged but are quite workable for re-enactment purposes. Their head shape is also designed to allow reasonable penetration of the butt while still being fairly simple to remove.
8. To attach a target pile use a taper tool to shape the end of the shaft to fit in the socket of the pile. You can also whittle the end of the shaft or use a pencil sharpener but for best results nothing beats the purpose made tool designed for the specified shaft diameter.
9. There are specific hot glues made for attaching piles to shafts and other epoxy resins. There are pros and cons to both, hot glues are harder to use and some claim epoxies are not as strong. I have had success and failure with both and currently use a hot glue that comes in a small amber stick and I melt with a small blowtorch. It's a pain to use but holds like a rock.
10. SCA Blunts. For SCA blunts there are only two legal blunts in Lochac, the Mark 1 and Mark 2 Riverhaven blunt designs (Kingdom of Lochac Combat Handbook para 8.10.4). Not doorstops, not rubber caps, not half squash balls but the specifically made for purpose blunts that are designed to perform effectively in the SCA Combat environment. New Riverhaven blunts should have no issues but if you are using older blunts or blunts that have received a lot of usage check the head for splitting or the face of the blunt for 'punch through' of the shaft. After a period of time the shaft of the arrow can damage the head of the blunt though repetitive striking from the inside of the blunt socket as the shaft drives forward when the blunt stops on a solid object. If the blunt is anything less than 100% functional throw it out, it just is not worth the risk.
11. This is the body of the arrow upon which all other things are placed. As the body of the arrow it is one of the most significant components of the arrow and it's characteristics can have a significant effect on the performance of the arrow.
12. Spline. Apart from the diameter the most significant characteristic of a shaft is the 'spline.' All wood is unique depending on how the tree grew, how the tree was cut and how the dowel was formed. As a result shafts of equal diameter and length will have a different level of flexibility. This is called spline and is a measurement of flex that is used to match the flexibility of the particular shaft to the inertia of the shaft and the force of the bowstring. The spline of the arrow must be matched to the poundage of the bow or the arrow may flex too much when the energy of the bow is applied to it on string release. Alternatively if the arrow is too rigid it will not flex around the bow stave in a natural manner, again effecting the release.
13. For target arrows spline is very significant. The higher the poundage of the bow the more effect spline can have. There is a device specifically designed to gauge spline which many archery stores will have access to and target arrows should be grouped with matching splines so they all display similar release and flight characteristics.
14. The second aspect of spline is the direction of the spline. Some say this is a myth whereas other fletchers swear by it, so it will be discussed here briefly. When a tree grows the wood in the core or centre of the trunk is far more dense and called the heartwood. The wood to the outside, called sapwood, is less dense and more flexible. When a dowel is cut from a trunk one side will be denser than the other depending on which side was closer to the heartwood. Some fletchers claim this is a myth because over the very small diameter of an arrow the difference in density would be so minuscule as to be insignificant. The theoretical result is that the arrow, when under longitudinal stress (pushed in from each end), will have a tendency to flex in the direction opposite the heartwood. When the energy of the bow string release is applied to the end of the arrow and the inertia of the tip resists the push the arrow will theoretically always flex in the same direction. If that direction is into the bow, or up or down it will throw the arrow in a strange direction on release. If the direction of the spline is away from the bow it will assist the arrow in curving around the staff of the bow on release. The easiest means of testing spline direction is to place the shaft vertically on the ground and push down on the end several times to cause it to flex. Make note of the most common direction of flex and that is the direction of spline. Mark that side and place the cockfeather on that side when fletching to ensure it faces away from the bow stave when the arrow is constructed.
15. Spline is not as significant for SCA blunts because they usually only travel a relatively short distances and are used at relatively low poundages. Unless the arrow is splined ridiculously light (droops when you hold it horizontally by the nock, which would be downright dangerous) spline should not have as great an effect on the arrow performance as the huge, heavy, fat blunt that is on the end of the arrow.
16. Target arrows. In period a variety of woods were used for arrows but now cedar has become the most popular wood target arrows for target arrows. Three and a half thousand arrows were recovered from King Henry VIII's ship the Mary Rose, mostly of poplar but also of beech, hazel and ash. Cedar is light strong and readily available, which keeps cost down. Other heavier, more dense woods, such as Tasmanian Oak can also be used. A lighter wood travels further for target archery purposes. The heavier woods, such as ash and poplar evident in the Mary Rose excavation probably used the extra weight to increase their hitting and penetrating power when being released from very high poundage bows. Increasingly ramin is also becoming a popular wood for target shaft construction because it is light-weight and robust in structure.
17. From the Mary Rose find the arrows were 61 to 81cm in length with the majority having a draw length of 76cm (30 inches). For target arrows the shaft should be personalised and cut for the length that suits your draw.
18. There are only so many colour combinations available in fletching and if you are going with traditional white feathers it can become harder to identify you arrows from those belonging to other archers. To individualise target arrows coloured rings are painted below the fletching called crests. For archers who use a variety of bows the crests can also be used as colour code for the spline of the arrow to ensure they are used with a matching bow. This has not been identified as a period practice but does save confusion at the butts. Luckily there are a variety of other characteristics to identify an arrow so cresting is really for decoration purposes only.
19. After a target arrow is fully constructed it is advisable to seal the wood of the shaft with a paint, varnish, lacquer or wax. This is not a documented period practice but does avoid the wood soaking up moisture that can cause warping or a change in arrow weight which will cause it to have different flight characteristics to other arrows it was previously matched to. A simple rub down with a furniture wax or floor polish should suffice. If painting or varnishing the shaft ensure it is a thin coat because it is adding weight to the arrow. Painting with boiled linseed oil will also achieve the same effect. When selecting a paint colour be mindful that painting an arrow green or dark brown does not make it any easier to find in the grass.
20. Shafts for SCA Blunts. An SCA Blunt shaft must be 28" (711mm) from the end of the nock to the joint between the shaft and the blunt (Kingdom of Lochac Combat Handbook para 8.10.3). To get a shaft the correct length there must be extra shaft cut to allow for the length inside the blunt socket and reduced shaft if plastic nocks are used. All shafts must be 5/16" (7.9mm) diameter, which is a fairly standard dowel diameter (Kingdom of Lochac Combat Handbook para 8.10.2). Increasing shaft diameter increases the rigidity of the shaft and subsequently increases the impact power of the arrow, which is not desirable from a safety perspective.
21. Ramin is the most common wood used for blunts but cedar may also be used (Kingdom of Lochac Combat Handbook para 8.10.2). Ramin is a Malaysian swamp wood with some very significant characteristics. In a similar manner to rattan, the long stringy fibres or ramin do not form shards when they fail structurally. They snap into a more 'fuzzy' end, which poses less risk to combatants. Cedar on the other hand shatters to shards. Other woods are either too rigid, heavy or prone to shattering on direct impact. Wrapping the shaft in fibre tape later in construction mitigates the risk of cedar shattering.
22. Unlike a target pile the point and shaft passing into the target does not absorb the kinetic energy of the arrow's inertia when a blunt strikes a target. Any energy not absorbed by the compressing of the rubber blunt is transferred back down the shaft as shock. If the shaft is too rigid the shaft will fairly quickly drive its way through the blunt from the back of the socket and out through the face of the blunt. It also results in too much energy being passed into the target and not absorbed by the shaft. As a result these blunts feel like they hit too hard. The same can be said of dense heavy woods if used as shafts. Ramin and cedar are the only woods presently deemed suitable for use in SCA Light Combat.
23. Before taping an SCA Blunt ensure the end going into the blunt socket is squared off (Kingdom of Lochac Combat Handbook para 8.10.6). If the there is any sort of tapering or point on the shaft inside the blunt socket it increases the probability the shaft will eventually drive through the blunt, therefore reducing the life of the arrow and increasing the probability of an accident.
24. An SCA blunt must have fibre tape from the start of the fletching to over the end of the shaft (Kingdom of Lochac Combat Handbook para 8.10.5). Tape the arrow after fletching and nocking but before adding the blunt. There can be no wood showing in the centre of the shaft. The reason for this is that if the shaft snaps the fibre tape will contain splintering from and stop it from becoming a safety hazard.
25. After applying the blunt wrap tape around the bottom >13mm of the blunt head and the >25mm on to the shaft (Kingdom of Lochac Combat Handbook para 8.10.7). This prevents the blunt coming off the shaft for any reason.
26. Once the arrow is completely constructed it should be marked with your name. This is not only to return your arrow to you but also if your arrow is flawed in construction in some manner the issue can be raised with the individual responsible. (Kingdom of Lochac Combat Handbook para 8.10.8) The traditional place to write your name is between the fletches at the rear of the arrow. An additional recommendation is you mark your Barony on your arrows. Not everyone in Lochac will recognise your name but if your arrow makes it as far as your Barony you have a much better chance of getting it back.
27. The feathers at the rear of the arrow stabilise the arrow in flight. Arrows can be fired without fletching but they are considerably less stable and can oscillate and tumble while in flight. Fletches should be attached to the shaft 1"-1.5" up from the end of the shaft. There must be enough room for the archer's fingers to curl around the bowstring and clamp the arrow without crushing the fletching.
28. Number of fletches. Arrows can be fletched with 3 fletches at 120 degrees to each other or four fletches at 90 degrees to each other, depending on application and preference. Traditionally arrows had three fletches in period which minimised the contact between the fletching and the bow as the arrow passed the bow stave because of the greater angle between the fletches. The drawback of three fletching is that the arrow can be only nocked on the bow one way up. If the arrow is nocked 'upside down' this results in the cockfeather facing inwards rather than outwards. As a result the fletching will interfere with the arrow's release from the bow or possibly strip off the cockfeather as it passes the bow stave.
29. The advantage of four fletching is that it does not matter which way up the arrow is nocked. As a result this is a more common fletching type when speed of nocking is important and/or the archer does not want to have to look down at the arrow to check it is the right way up when knocking. The disadvantage of four fletching is that there is more contact between the arrow and the fletching on release which could effect the flight of the arrow. Four fletching is mostly used in SCA Light Combat where the blunt head on the arrow has already completely unbalanced the arrow so the minor difference of four fletching over three is mostly irrelevant.
30. Fletching Jig. A fletching jig is a small machine that you place an arrow into in order to align the fletches and hold them in place while the fletching glue is drying. Jigs are also calibrated so they place the correct angle between fletches for four or three fletching. Fletching jigs are not cheap at over AS$100 (Jan 2005) but within any group there should be an archery enthusiast who may lend you one. If you are considering fletching enough arrows it ultimately becomes a worthwhile investment.
31. It is more than reasonable to fletch by hand in the traditional manner but it requires patience and a good eye to judge the angle between the fletches. The fletch must be held against the shaft until the glue is firm enough to leave it in position unsupported. If the fletch is bent or has a natural curve of its own it must be held firmly along its length to ensure a straight fletch. If the fletch is not parallel to the shaft or the angle between the fletches is considerably wrong the airflow over the fletching will be unstable and as a result will destabilise the arrow in flight.
32. Straight or Helical. Fletching can be applied either straight or helical depending on the type of fletching jig used. Straight fletching runs parallel to the shaft and is commonly regarded as the more authentic way of fletching an arrow. Helical fletching puts a twist in the fletching as it is fixed to the shaft. As a result the arrow spirals as it travels through the air which gives it greater stability over distance. Rodger Asham in his 1545 book Totxopilus on archery describes how an arrow should be fletched so it spirals in flight. This suggests that period fletchers were aware of the stabilising properties of helical fletching and it was a period practice. However a single reference is just that, a single reference. Helical has proven to be the more popular method of fletching arrows in modern archery practice. Helical fletching is quite important when using broadhead piles because the blades of the broadhead act like a wing at the front of the arrow and will 'steer' the arrow from the airflow over the blades if the longitudinal spiralling in flight does not stabilise the arrow. Straight fletching jigs are less commonly available due to this popularity of helical fletching but some older straight jigs should still be about and there are still some straight jigs available on the market.
33. Fletch Shape and Length. If you cut your own fletches you can make them any shape you like. If you purchase commercial fletches they come in two basic shapes: Round Back and Shield Back. Both perform the same way and this is just a question of aesthetics. Many will argue shield backs have a more medieval 'feel' but it is mostly a question of personal taste.
34. Commercial fletches can be reshaped to taste by trimming which is very much an individual choice.
35. The longer the fletch the more stability it will impart to the shaft. Medieval fletches varied in length depending on what was required to balance out the heavier or lighter pile. Fletches could vary up to 10" and 7-8" is not an uncommon length. Wider and longer fletches impart more wind resistance and will rapidly slow the arrow after release. Arrows with 1" and wider fletch are called flu-flus and are used for shooting at aerial targets to avoid the arrow ending up miles away. The drag of the broad fletch allows the arrow to rapidly leave the bow and cover the initial distance and then suddenly drop rather than losing energy in a long slow curve. Flu-flu arrows tend to have similar aerodynamic characteristics to a badminton shuttle-cock. Flu-flu fletching is not suitable for target arrows or SCA blunts.
36. Adhesives. Fletching can be fixed on in using an assortment of adhesives. Two part epoxy resin and balsa glues have been proven to work in the past. There are a variety of commercial products currently available from archery stores under such names as 'Fletch-tite' which claim to be specifically designed for fletching. They are effective although how much better they are than other superglues is debatable.
37. The period method is to both glue and tie the fletch on using string bound around the arrow through the fletching. Although with modern adhesives is probably unnecessary to also bind with thread some re-enactors will still do this over the top of their glued fletches to increase the authentic aesthetic.
38. Feathers, fletches and vanes. Feathers are, as the name says, from a bird and cut to length and shape. Commercial fletching feathers are hard to come by and you will quite possibly end up cutting your own. Feathers are the optimum in authenticity but are less robust and less available than other fletching options.
39. Fletches are an artificial feather that have the characteristics of a feather but are stronger and purpose made. Fletches come in a variety of colours and sizes that become a question of personal choice. The longer the fletch the more air that will flow over it and the move stable the arrow will be. Longer fletches are better, to a point, but are also more expensive so it also becomes a question of budget.
40. Vanes are a fletch-shaped piece of rubberised plastic. They are not authentic and some archers will claim do not leave the bow as cleanly as a fletch will, but they are extremely cheap, robust and long-lived. Fletches weigh up to 700% more than fletches which can make a significant difference to a finely tuned target arrow. Vanes are mainly seen on blunts where they can expect a rough life and weight is not as significant an issue.
41. Colours. Theoretically any colours authentic for dying cloth in the period you recreate would be theoretically authentic for fletching as goose feathers could be dyed. Having said that it was far more common for the fletch to be the colour of the feathers that were used for the fletching, which for the most part in period England these were white goose or swan feathers. Mostly the pinion (flight) feathers from the outside of the wing were used. Turkey feathers were also reasonably common but considered to be inferior in archers circles.
42. In modern archery the cockfeather is a different colour to easily identify which way up the arrow should be nocked. Feather colour is also a means of arrow identification and the more unique the better. Fletching can be made more unique by 'splicing' which is cutting up individual fletches and mixing and matching the colours in a single fletch. It is not hard, it is a little time consuming and is completely undocumentable from what I have been able to find.
43. Fletching colour is also one of the primary means of finding stray arrows because the bright colour of the fletching stands out against the background. Dark brown, green and black fletching should be paired with whites, yellows and reds to make location and retrieval easier.
44. The nock is one of the weakest parts of the arrow and one of the most prone to dangerous failure. The sides of a nock are thin and have a large amount of strain applied to them each time an arrow is released. Nocks are often also struck from behind by other arrows while they lodged in a target which can damage and weaken them. If a nock fails it is usually at the point of release next to the archer's face. Conveniently the energy is travelling away from the archer and the probability of injury is significantly reduced.
45. There are two primary forms of nocks: traditional and plastic. Traditional nocks are cut into the shaft to form the notch the bowstring rests in. They can be either straight slots or shaped to grip onto the string. Some nocks were reinforced with bone or horn to make them stronger. If cutting nocks in the shaft ensure the slot is at 90 degrees to any evident grain. If the nock is cut with the grain it greatly enhances the probability of the shaft splitting along the grain under the force of the bowstring. Authentic nocks must also be parallel to the shaft to ensure it does not throw off the arrow at a strange angle when it breaks contact with the bow string.
46. Plastic nocks are completely non-authentic and are no less prone to failure than authentic nocks. Their primary benefit is that they are cheap and replaceable. Especially for SCA Blunts, which are frequently stepped on, the ability to replace a nock can significantly increase the life-span of an arrow. To apply a plastic nock the shaft is first tapered to fit the socket in the nock and then smeared with superglue. Two part epoxy, hot glues or the fletching glues are recommended for this application. For blunts it is not uncommon for the nock to be shocked off, when the shock of the arrow striking the target is transferred back down the shaft it can literally pop off a weakly secured nock so strong joining is critical. As with the authentic nock ensuring the nock is parallel to the shaft is critical to ensuring the arrow has a clean release from the bow.
Target Arrow Sequence of Construction
47. The following is a possible sequence of construction for a Target arrow:
a. Select a shaft and ensure it suits your bow in terms of spline and diameter.
b. Cut to an appropriate length.
c. Apply a nock to the shaft by tapering and gluing a plastic nock or cutting an authentic nock.
d. Paint the shaft if desired.
e. Place the shaft in a fletching jig and apply the fletches 1"-1.5" from the end of the shaft.
f. Taper the tip and apply the desired pile type.
SCA Blunt Sequence of Construction
48. The following is a possible sequence of construction for an SCA Blunt:
a. Select a shaft and ensure it meets SCA regulations for material, length and diameter.
b. Ensure the pile end is squared off prior to cutting to length.
c. Apply a nock to the shaft by either tapering a gluing a plastic nock or cutting an authentic
d. Place the shaft in a fletching jig and apply the fletches 1"-1.5" from the end of the shaft.
e. Fibre-tape the shaft from the fletches and to over the blunt end. As an option to help keep the
fletches on some archers also tape around the base of the fletch to avoid them being stripped
f. Insert the shaft in the blunt socket and tape onto the shaft.
g. Write your name on the bare wood between two of the fletches for identification. Writing your Barony between two of the other fletches is also not a bad idea as it increases the probability of your blunt making its way home one-day.
49. Fletching is not brain surgery but it is a craft. Your fletching skill improves with time, practice and experience. Starting with SCA blunts is a good idea because they are a less demanding arrow, in terms of the precision required in construction. With a few simple tool, either borrowed or bought anyone can mass-produce arrows.
50. The amount of time, money and effort you put into constructing an arrow should be a reflection of the use of that arrow. For SCA blunts that are going to be used in combat, safety is the fist concern followed by performance and authenticity. Also take into consideration that SCA blunts will probably be broken, damaged or lost at some time in their career when deciding how much to invest in the arrow. For a target arrow or A&S competition submission the time, effort, materials and financial investment in the arrow may be considerably different.
51. Nothing beats firing the arrow you made yourself and also helps when you can only blame yourself if it won't fly straight.
Mynjon du Jardin
For any comments or questions on this article please do not hesitate to contact the author
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