The Development of the Arrowhead for use in Warfare

By Mark Stretton

Editors Note: This article was reproduced with the kind permission of its author, Mark Stretton. It is an extract from his forthcoming book full of details which will be announced soon

There must have been a time when the simple skills of archery were unknown to our early humanoid ancestors, and yet at some point a race of primitive people must have discovered a more advanced way to hunt than by simply using sharp pointed sticks as a crude type of spear.
We will probably never really know who actually first thought of shooting an arrow from a simple form of wooden bow, although it is obvious (from the way primitive archery later developed) that our early ancestors realised how a bow could propel an arrow with a much greater velocity and accuracy than if it had been thrown by hand. But the question is what set of circumstances led those early people to invent an arrow in the first place?
The development of the human being is a very interesting subject, especially when the rate at which our technology has progressed over such a very short space of time is taken into account.
It is now commonly accepted that animals have been able to alter their body shape through evolution to overcome physical limitations when their natural environment changed, although the time scale that was involved for fish to grow legs and walk on land is usually quoted in hundreds of millions of years.
However it is a relatively short period of only two or three million years that humans have been able to develop from a simple cave dwelling creature, to a more advanced form with a much greater learning capacity. It is from our unique ability to solve problems by making tools that overcome our physical limitations that we have been able to rise to the top of the natural food chain, and become equally efficient at hunting our prey as the skilled natural predators of the animal kingdom.

Palaeontologists have proven that by the Mesolithic period, hunter-gatherers had progressed from the simple stone tools that were used by Palaeolithic man, and were now using complex tools that combined different materials – which included the use of bows and arrows.
The arrowheads that have been found from this period were usually made from flint and were crudely fashioned to produce a basic blade shape, which had a simple tang portion that would have been set into a specially cut notch in the arrow shaft.
The head would have then been set into position with a molten type of tree resin based cement, which experts believe would have behaved similar in its adhesion characteristics to the modern “Hot-melt” type glues used in the woodworking industry today.

How and when man first discovered the existence of metal is very difficult subject to calculate, but it is basically believed that the first metals like copper and gold were discovered in Asia at around 6000 BC. It just may be possible that those early people found out by sheer accident that different types of metallic substances were locked into certain types of minerals in the form of an ore, and that extreme heat could extract the metal out of its geologic incarceration.
The ever inquisitive mind of those early people would lead to the mining of certain ores from the earth and the required metallic substance, such as copper, then being extracted out of the stone by use of a primitive type of blast furnace.

The molten copper metal that was extracted would have then been poured into a crude type of mould, which would have given the resultant solidified material a basic ingot shape.
The ingot could have then been re-melted at a later time and used in the initial production of metallic edged weapons, which was usually done by casting the material into a basic blank shape of the required item. Then, when the blank had cooled sufficiently, the metal would have been removed from the mould and then forged with a hammer to draw out the cutting edges, which would totally change the characteristics of the structure of copper by a process known as work hardening.
This process would have given the weapon a unique quality of being relatively soft in the middle to absorb a percussive impact, yet hard enough on the outer edge to cut deep into softer materials without shattering or deforming.
It must be mentioned however that copper at this stage of human development was not utilised for the manufacture of very small cutting tools straightaway, and that there was a period of time when stone arrowheads were still being used alongside much larger hand tools, which were being made from the new and superior metallic material.
Of course copper was not the only metal that was discovered by primitive smelting methods and other materials like tin were also discovered too.
The experiments in basic metallurgy by our early ancestors would lead to specific quantities of different metals being mixed together in molten form, which would produce a crude type of alloyed metal that we would know today as bronze.
This is believed to have happened around 1500 BC, and proved to be a much harder material than pure copper on its own, which would lend itself nicely to the production of more technically advanced edged weapons.

The knowledge of bronze working improved quite considerably through time, which also refined the methods of manufacture to such a degree that very fine detail arrowheads could be cast more quickly and easily than heads that were fashioned from stone by the earlier knapping method.
Once mould making was mastered, batches of identical heads could be easily mass produced and it is here that the original purpose of the arrow and its head was transformed.
Now the bow and arrow were not just personal hunting tools – they were also weapons that could be used for the purposes of war.

However I would now like to move on in time to the next important stage in the story of arrowhead development, and it is one that will focus on the important discovery of a more advanced material, which would also signal the start of a new era that is now commonly known as the Iron-age.
This period in time was a milestone in the history of human development, which opened up many new avenues in manufacturing technology for the early metal-working craftsman to explore.
However there are always certain limitations with anything that is new, which is possibly why bronze was still used for arrowhead production at that time.

There is often a common misconception that the Bronze-age came to an end when iron was first discovered, and that all weapons made afterwards were made from the new and harder material.
However nothing could be further from the truth, and in fact the production of bronze arrowheads carried on for at least another two thousand years after the accepted date of when iron working was first established – although the exact date and origins of the discovery of iron is not defined.

Archaeological evidence suggests that the beginnings of iron working probably evolved in the area we now call the middle-east region of the world from around 1700BC.
It is in Asia Minor that some of the earliest smelting techniques and artefacts have been attributed to a race of people known as the Hittites, who lived in the particular area that is known today as the country of Turkey.
For a time it made them almost invincible in warfare but, after their empire fell, knowledge of the new superior metal spread rapidly across the land and by the year1200BC western Asia had moved into the Iron-age as well.

However it was the Dorians (who founded the City of Sparta) that first brought iron along with them to the ancient civilisation of Greece, which through time developed considerably in that land and then migrated into central Europe following the expansion of their mighty empire.
Certainly the earliest iron swords were discovered in a vast cemetery in a defile of the Nordic Alps
(Austrian Tyrol) near to Noricum, which was one of the first known iron working centres in Europe.
It has been estimated that by 800BC iron bladed weapons were well established throughout the continent, yet when it comes to small delicate objects like arrowheads – there is little evidence to suggest that these were made in anything other than bronze.

Through out history the changeover period from old to new technologies has always been a very slow process, which I believe would have been attributed to people’s general reluctance to stepping into the unknown. There is often great wisdom to be found in staying with something that you know works well, and can always be relied on.
Iron did supersede bronze for use in arrowhead production, and the advantages for using iron in most applications, greatly out-weighs its faults and limitations. In fact at the time of its discovery it would have been literally worth its weight in gold, which is not an over exaggeration because it became an actual form of currency to the Celtic people – who purposely bartered and traded for goods with simple flat sectioned bars of iron.

Iron can be much more difficult to work into fine detailed objects than bronze, especially when the process of casting is involved. The temperatures that were obtained for our early metal working ancestors, to smelt the iron out of the ore, would have had to have been much higher than those used previously for the production of bronze.
This meant that those early furnaces would have needed to have been more efficient in their air flow and heat retention than previous equipment, for them to have been able to reach the required extraction temperature.
There is one major drawback with iron in its cast form however, and that is because it has a very low resistance to tension, which means it cannot be bent or twisted in any direction without the risk of it snapping.
Its makeup is so hard and brittle, that small objects will break apart very easily if they are dropped onto a hard surface, which is caused by the short grain structure of the metal being set in a crystalline formation. This type of structure is very solid and will stand incredible compressive forces acting upon it, but this does restrict and limit its uses for certain applications – especially edged or projectile weapons.
Although iron in its cast form is brittle, there is another version of the metal that it will not shatter when it is stressed and is generally known today as wrought iron.

Without going into very long winded and detailed diversions on the subject of metallurgy and the manufacturing processes of metal production – wrought iron is basically made by forging the metal as it comes out of the furnace at a specific temperature, which then alters the grain structure of the material, as it is worked, to become elongated in shape. The repeated forging of the metal into rough shaped bars (known as billets) prevents the iron from reverting back to the crystalline formation mentioned earlier.
The very name of wrought iron itself, automatically conjures up images of decorative scroll and leaf work on ornamental metal gates belonging to a bygone era. It suggests a material that can be easily hammered and rolled into many different intricate shapes without the risk of it breaking, which in effect is exactly what it is.

This improved material with increased malleability was perfect for our metal working ancestors to use for the production of every day working tools, and more importantly to this particular subject, the manufacture of edged and projectile weapons.
However one should not loose sight of the fact that the production of the smallest object made from iron would have been a very laborious task, because the earliest smiths would have had to make their own material first before even thinking of how to make it into the intended item.
As I mentioned earlier, iron became an actual currency and one can clearly see the advantages of being able to purchase the stock material for working with – rather than actually having to produce your own.

If we now return to the way that iron superseded bronze, and was incorporated into the manufacture of arrowheads – our story moves on in time. However it is virtually impossible to pinpoint when and where the first iron arrowheads were actually made, although it is most likely that several advanced Iron-age civilisations simultaneously refined their metal working skills to include the production of such items.
One particular civilisation, whose technology and culture influenced other great nations that it conquered all the way across Europe, was of course the Roman Empire.
The Roman war-machine brought with it the technology of more advanced arms and armour, which were then unknown to the barbarian tribes of Gaul and Briton.
It was in the First and Second centuries AD that the Roman Empire was at its height, which is probably when the mass production of arms and armour made from iron was first established in Europe.
Many Roman sites excavated by archaeologists all over Europe have found tools and weapons made of iron, which include swords, spears and arrowheads.
One place in particular is Chesters Fort: A cavalry stronghold situated along the extensive fortifications of Hadrian’s Wall, which was built in the years of 122 to 127 AD on the border between the countries that are now known as England and Scotland.

The mighty Roman Empire eventually became too big to govern itself properly, and became hard to defend against the attacks of the other nations who were trying to expand into new territories and lands.
This meant that when Rome eventually withdrew from the shores of Briton, a space was left open for opportunist settlers to come and exploit the rich pickings of a green and fertile land.
It is documented that the migration of the North-European tribes of Angles, Saxons and Franks brought their great skill of iron working to Briton in 407AD, which inevitably forced the Romano-Celtic people of Briton into the peripheries of the country that are now known as Cornwall, Cumberland and Wales.

The Anglo-Saxon race of people that later evolved from the blending of the tribes in the subsequent years after the first migrations, were a very ingenious race of craftsmen who excelled in their skill of making weapons from iron. In fact the very involved method of forging laminated sword blades from different layers of iron and steel is too often attributed, by the layman, to being the sole invention of the famous Japanese blade smiths of the warring days of the Samurai from the 12th to the 16th Century.
Although in truth, the Franks and the Anglo Saxons had pioneered a similar method of laminating different metals together, centuries before, in the period of time that historians call the Dark-ages.
One of the many reasons why the Anglo-Saxon race prospered for such a long period of time in the British Isles – was possibly due to their adaptability to a new land and that they did not try to establish a huge empire, which would overstretch their valuable resources.
It must be remembered however that these people were not just a warrior race – they were skilled craftsmen, farmers and hunters too. This meant that the bow became an essential tool to the Saxons that was not only used for providing food for the table, but could be used for defending farms and homesteads from attackers as well.

I find it very interesting that the majority of Saxon arrowheads, found by archaeologists in their excavations, tend to be in the form of the flat leaf-shape blade.
There could be many reasons for this, of which one may possibly be that the Anglo Saxons did not manufacture arrowheads designed specifically for use in warfare, and that they used hunting style heads for every application. Although this then asks the questions of what types of armour were worn in this period, and how well would the leaf-shaped blade arrowheads have performed against them?

Certainly Mail was very fashionable at this time, although to the Saxons, this was a very high status type of armour that was only worn by the nobles.
It was typically made by using tens of thousands of metal rings, which were all linked together in a regulated pattern. This formed a flexible mesh protection, whose main purpose was to protect the wearer from the cutting and slashing actions of hand held edged weapons such as knives and swords. However the protective qualities of mail rely heavily on the combined effect of all the rings supporting each other and, if one individual link is split open, then the strength of the whole structure is dramatically weakened.
This means that this style of armour would probably have been very inefficient at withstanding the point load impact of any arrow trying to force its way through, and would have been tested to its absolute limit in this type of situation.
Of course the lower status warriors probably made the best of what they could find for protection, which possibly consisted of simple layers of wool, linen or leather and would only form a very rudimentary type of armour.
I think that this type of personal body protection would have also been tested to its limit by arrows, especially if they were fitted with a leaf-shaped hunting head, which would have had the ability to slice through leather and cloth very easily. Although I think it is fair to say that if the bow was used by the Anglo-Saxon archers in battle at all – then any type of arrow (regardless of the head’s original intended use) would have been requisitioned and shot at their enemy with great effect.
There is another possible reason why there is such little evidence to suggest that the Saxons made arrowheads specifically designed for military use, which actually concerns the way that they fought their large scale battles.
The strategies of Anglo-Saxon warfare have been greatly examined over the years by historians and they are believed to have utilised shield, sword and spear in close rank formation. However there was a slight difference in their style to the other nations that used similar weapons and tactics, with the inclusion of skilled axe-men, known as House-carls, who wielded huge double handed axes at their attackers from behind a tight packed shield wall defence.
Archers may have defended their homesteads or villages from the attacks of vagabonds and raiders but, when it came to open warfare, there is very little mention of them being deployed at all in the records of that time.

Let us now move to another race of Northern Europeans who have become legendary for their ability to travel to distant places by sea, and who colonised the British Isles for over 250 years – The Vikings.
It is well known that the Vikings shared many similar customs and characteristics to the Saxons, such as Gods and Goddesses, farming and hunting techniques and of course social and economic structure. This however raises the question that if it is now known that the Saxons did not really utilise specific military archers in warfare, can the same be said for the ruthless and battle-hardened “Men from the North”?

Historians and archaeologists have all proven that the Vikings were an incredibly adaptive race, who came from all over Scandinavia. They shared many characteristics with the Saxons, but differed in one aspect which sets them apart – the specific use of military archers.
At home they were farmers and craftsmen, but were a ruthless fighting force when they went abroad to find and establish new dwelling places in foreign lands.
Their ferocious fighting system incorporated certain similarities to the Saxon method of hand to hand combat, although they utilised an addition of dedicated ranks of archers who were positioned behind the front line.
This new tactical development enabled the archers to shoot over the heads of their comrades in front, which would support the mighty shield wall defence and produce an element of surprise towards the attacking enemy – especially when the arrows rained down on them from out of the skies.
It is with the Vikings’ new strategy that, archers, were possibly first recognised as a principle fighting force in their own right, who were equipped with specific military archery equipment – which included arrowheads designed purposely for the act of warfare.

The military style arrowheads from the Viking period that have been found in various archaeological excavations throughout Northern Europe tend to be of a certain type, which display specific characteristics that separate them from the heads that were more likely used for hunting purposes.
They were designed to pierce through contemporary forms of armour rather than slice a gaping wound into an animals flesh and, in many ways, would have behaved in a similar manner to the Roman military arrowheads that I have mentioned earlier.

Towards the end of the Vikings’ occupation in the British Isles another great nation from Northern Europe was gaining power – The Normans.
It was their invasion of England, and by winning the ensuing battle that took place near Hastings (on the 14th of October in1066 AD) that secured their place in history for eternity.
The principle reason why Duke William of Normandy decided to fight King Harold of England at the Battle of Hastings – was largely due to him believing that he was the rightful heir to the English throne, following the death of Edward the Confessor.
His claim was very tenuous and was based around the situation that his Great Aunt’s second marriage was to King Canute of England, and that he had been previously promised the throne by the recently deceased King Edward himself, who was in fact a distant relation.
William’s birthright was probably no more legitimate than that of Harold Godwinson’s, but he felt the throne was rightfully his and that was enough for him to consider going to war with the English.

The Normans were actually the descendents of the early tribes of Vikings, who had migrated from their homeland, to populate Northern France, and in fact took their name from the term North-men.
They were great military tacticians, who used the deployment of cavalry to their maximum advantage in large scale battles.
However the passage of time altered the strategies that had been learnt from their Viking ancestors and the development of military archers in many ways became stagnant, whilst the mounted men at arms were developed into a principal fighting force that we would recognise today as the Knight in shining armour.
Although the Normans used archers in warfare, they would have most likely been regarded as a very low class of soldier by the nobles at that time. This probably meant that they were deployed in a very limited way, and would possibly have not even got a mention in the glorified tales after the battle by the chroniclers of the day.

The mounted Knight ruled supreme in Norman ideology, and was of a very high status and rank.
Again arrowheads that have been found from the early Norman period are usually a flat leaf shape blade or simple bodkin point, and show no evidence of any development from the earlier Viking form.
This may possibly be an indication that the archers were of low status and that their arrowheads matched their rank, although throughout history it has often been the case that the funding for military campaigns is usually spent lavishly on the armaments of the higher status, whilst what ever is left is spread out very thinly amongst the lower ranks.

Examples that have been found in archaeological excavations (from these three great nations) are crucial to our understanding of how the military arrowhead actually developed, and it is a known fact that earlier period arrowheads (that have been found in Britain) were made with a tang type fixing to the shaft.
What is of particular interest to the development of the iron arrowhead, is that most arrowheads that have been found from the end of the Dark-Ages show a tapered socket mounting, and it is this is simple development that nicely illustrates the next step in technology.
The socket is of great importance in establishing a possible time span for dating arrowheads that are found in British archaeological excavations, and the development of the tapered socket mounting, meant that the head was then easier to fit to the shaft, and was in its self a much stronger fixing.
Although heads made with a tang style mounting were common across Europe in the Medieval-period, it is widely believed that heads (made with a socket and found in Britain) were from the time of the Vikings demise and the start of the Norman occupation of England.
This illustrates that certain elements of the Viking’s great metal working experience was passed on, and was adopted in other nation’s arrowhead manufacturing processes, which encompassed heads that were used for both hunting and military purposes in later years.

It becomes apparent that at this period in time the Saxon style heads tend to be of the large leaf-shaped hunting type of design, and that the Viking heads (which were designed specifically for warfare) are of a square needle “Bodkin” point shape for piercing through mail armour.
I have seen some heads that are Norman in origin, and they tend to be of a small leaf-shape type design.
They share the same socket characteristics as the Saxon and Viking style heads, which all tend to have no overlap on their join.
This possibly indicates that most arrowheads that were made with sockets from this period of time were simple in their general construction, and in fact wrapped sockets are a feature that appears much later on in the 14th and 15th Century when the weight and power of the military bow had increased.
I think the Norman type of small leaf-shaped head would have been quite devastating if used on small game, although in a similar fashion to the Vikings’ bodkin point heads, it would probably be inefficient at killing the larger species of game due to its inability to cause a sufficiently haemorrhaging wound.
However I think the narrowness in width of the leaf-shaped blade would cut effectively into the body protection that was available in the Dark-age period, which could possibly be an indication that the Normans were using a simple type of multipurpose arrowhead for both hunting and warfare conditions.

One final difference to the Norman style leaf-shaped head is that they often show no signs of being riveted to the shaft, which is widely accepted by archaeologists to be common practise with heads from the Dark-age period that were of Scandinavian and Germanic origin. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that the Normans did not carry on with there Viking ancestors’ weapon technology and that they had their own style, which is amply illustrated if one examines the shape of a Norman soldiers sword against the weapons of their Viking/Saxon counterparts.

Let us now move forward to the period of time when the Norman influence had developed enormously, and the country of England had been well and truly established as a great nation by the kings who subsequently followed the reign of William the Conqueror.
This neatly brings us to the start of the Medieval-period, and is the time when the English Bowmen were truly recognised as formidable soldiers in their own right throughout the continent of Europe.
There was an enormous psychological advantage to any military tactician who deployed archers in open warfare, and even though the Knight still ruled supreme on the battlefield, there was an undeniable threat that an archer was capable of taking him out of the equation – regardless of the privileged nobleman’s rank or station. In fact years of rigorous training in horsemanship and combat were reduced to nothing by the means of a simple bow and arrow, which was expertly used by a common man of the land who had no incentive to obey the hierarchy’s chivalrous rules of engagement.

It can clearly be seen that the “Golden age” of the warbow was truly in this period of time, and both armour and arrowhead design advanced dramatically in unison.
This really was an arms race in its literal meaning, and the technology of manufacturing arrowheads to be able to penetrate through iron and steel eventually altered the way in which armour was utilised.
Not only would it become too expensive to produce armour in munitions quantities (that would stop arrows) to make it viable, but also it would be proved that the extreme thickness that was needed to make the armour effective against arrows would be an encumbrance to its wearer