did not always have the bow and arrow. It was not until about A.D.
500 that the bow and arrow was adopted in Iowa some 11,500 years
after the first people came to the region. Primary benefits of the
bow and arrow over the spear are more rapid missile velocity, higher
degree of accuracy, and greater mobility. Arrowheads also required
substantially less raw materials than spear heads. A flint knapper
could produce a large number of small projectile points from a single
piece of chert. Even with the gun's many advantages in the historic
era, bows and arrows are much quieter than guns, allowing the hunter
more chances to strike at the prey.
Indians used arrows
to kill animals as large as bison and elk. Hunters approached their
prey on foot or on horse back, accurately targeting vulnerable areas.
The choice of materials and the design of arrows and
the bow were not random. Some materials were generally more readily
available than others. Environmental conditions also affected the
choice of materials. Humidity affects wooden bows, and temperature
affects horn and antler. The intended use of the system, on foot
or horse back, for instance, affects the final design. Bows used
while mounted on horseback tend to be shorter than the bows used
when on foot. Since the length of the bow determines the stress
placed on the bow when drawn, shorter bows tend to be made of composite
materials while bows used when on foot can be made of wood.
Indians used a variety of materials to make the bow
stave, relying on materials that met certain
requirements, most important of
which is flexibility without breaking. Several species of plants
and some animal materials met these requirements. Ash, hickory,
locust, Osage orange, cedar, juniper, oak, walnut, birch, choke
cherry, serviceberry, and mulberry woods were used. Elk antler,
mountain sheep horn, bison horn, and ribs, and caribou antler also
were used where available.
Bow construction techniques included a single stave
of wood (self bow), wood with sinew reinforcement (backed
bow), and a combination of horn or antler with sinew backing
(composite bow). Hide glue was used to attach the backing.
Bow strings most frequently were made of sinew (animal back or leg
tendon), rawhide, or gut. The Dakota Indians also used cord made
from the neck of snapping turtles. Occasionally,
plant fibers, such as inner bark of basswood, slippery elm or cherry
trees, and yucca were used. Nettles, milkweed, and dogbane are also
suitable fibers. Well-made plant fiber string is superior to string
made of animal fibers because it holds the most weight while resisting
stretching and remaining strong in damp conditions. However, plant
fiber strings are generally much more labor intensive to make than
animal fiber strings, and the preference in the recent past was
for sinew, gut, or rawhide.
Arrow shafts were made out of shoots, such as
dogwood, wild rose, ash, birch, chokecherry, and black locust. Reeds
from common reed grass were also used with some frequency throughout
North America with the exception of the Plains where
reeds did not grow. Shoots were
shaved, sanded, or heat and pressure straightened. Tools made of
bone or sandstone were used to straighten the shaft wood. Because
they are hollow and light, reed-shaft arrows typically have a wooden
foreshaft and sometimes a wooden plug for the nock end of
the arrow. If a foreshaft was used, it could be glued to the main
shaft, tied with sinew, or fit closely enough to not need glue or
Prehistoric points or heads were made of stone, antler,
or bone. Thin metal, bottle glass, and flint ballast stones also
were used to make points in the historic period.
Points were attached
to the arrow shaft with a variety of methods. Most frequently, the
arrow shaft would have a slit cut into the end to accept the point.
Sinew would then be wrapped around the shaft to pinch the slit closed.
Points could also be hafted directly by wrapping sinew around the
point and the arrow shaft. Metal points generally were attached
using the same techniques and only infrequently attached by means
of a socket.
Indians made many types of arrowheads. In addition to
the traditional triangular stone arrowhead, carved wood or leather
points have large, broad surfaces. Different types of arrow tips
were used for different purposes, such as for large game versus
small game. Small triangular stone points are not bird points: large,
blunt-tipped wooden points were used for birds. Harpoon-like points
also exist and were used in fishing.
of bird feathers was sewn to or inserted in the shaft. Feathers
of wild turkey were preferred but many other birds, including eagle,
crow, goose, hawk, and turkey, were often used. Sinew was generally
used to attach the fletching by first stripping some of the feathers
from the front and back of the vane and then tying the vane to the
shaft in front of and behind the remaining feathers. Sometimes plant
twine was used to sew through the quill. Hide glue was used with
or instead of sinew ties. Animal products like sinew have the advantage
of tightening as they dry.
The fletching balances the weight of the arrowhead to
prevent the arrow from tumbling end-over-end in flight. When fletched
properly, an arrow may spin in flight producing an ideal trajectory.
A similar effectiveness is gained by placing grooves in the barrel
of a rifle to cause the bullet to spin. In fact, until the invention
of rifled guns, bows generally proved to be more accurate and could
shoot arrows further than powder-thrown missiles.
The bow and arrow is a complex technology. Each element
must be balanced in proportion to the others and to the user to
make an effective tool. The bow acts as a pair of springs connected
by the grip or handle. As the string is pulled the material on the
inside or belly of the bow limbs compresses, while the outside
or back is stretched and is placed under tension. This action
stores the energy used to draw the string back. When the string
is released, the limbs quickly return to their state of rest and
release the energy stored by drawing the string. Therefore, the
power of a bow is measured in terms of draw weight.
The height and strength
of the archer determines the ideal draw weight of the bow. A combination
of the length of draw and the draw weight of the bow determines
the cast (propelling force) of the bow. Adjusting either
or both of these features allows the arrowhead to be made larger
or smaller as needed.
The draw weight of the bow also determines the ideal
weight and diameter of the arrow shaft. Even a bow with a high draw
weight can only throw an arrow so far. If the arrow is too heavy,
it will not fly far or fast enough to be very useful. A shaft that
is too thick or too thin will also lead to problems. It must compress
enough to bend around the bow stave as it is launched by the string.
If it does not bend, the arrow flies to the side of the target.
If it bends too much, it will wobble (reducing the striking force)
or even shatter.
The length of the draw,
also determined by the body of the archer, determines the length
of the arrow. The maximum cast of the bow determines the maximum
weight of the point. This is how we know that certain "arrowheads"
can not really have been used on an arrow, at least not to any good
effect. A general rule of thumb is that a stone arrowhead will be
less than 1 1/2-x-3/4-inch in dimensions and will generally weigh
less than one ounce. Larger "arrowheads" probably would
have been spear, dart, or knife tips.
For further reading...
|Ackerman, Laura B.
Bow Machine, Science 85, July/August, pp. 92-93.
|Allely, Steve, and
of Native American Bows, Arrows & Quivers: Volume I: Northeast,
Southeast, And Midwest. Lyons Press, New York.
|Allely, Steve et
Traditional Bowyer's Bible, Volumes 1-3. Lyons & Burford,
|Hamilton, T. M.
American Bows. Special Publications No. 5, Missouri Archaeological
Society, Columbia, Missouri.
& Arrows of the Native Americans. Lyons and Burford,
New York. [Guide to construction.]
A Social and Military History. Lyons and Burford, New York.
[Appendix has detailed description of bow and arrow physics.]
|McEwen, Edward, Robert
L. Miller, and Christopher A. Bergman
Bow Design and Construction, Scientific American, June
1991, pp. 77-82.
|Pope, Saxton T.
and Arrows. University of California Press, Los Angeles.
Lightening Stick: Arrows, Wounds, and Indian Legends. University
of Nevada Press, Reno.
Against Steel: The History of the Bow. Mason Charter, New
York. [Discussion of effectiveness of the bow compared to firearms.]
Pamphlet text and illustrations
by Tim Weitzel.
Cover art by Pranik Saiyasith.
This pamphlet is made possible through a grant from the ISF administered
by the Iowa Academy of Science.