The case for the use of blunt arrow-heads in the medieval period

by Mark Wheatley and Ian Coote

With Mark ‘Pudd’ Wheatley’s permission, the following article outlines his research into blunt arrow heads used in the medieval period. While it is fair to say that Mark is not the first individual to discuss their use, nevertheless it is his new ideas on their use, application and design that deserve full credit being attributed to him.

As is so often the case, Mark’s initial thoughts on the use of blunt arrow heads were as a direct result of him approaching the questions that he wanted to ask from a different perspective than many had previously been looking, if indeed they had been looking at all. Indeed, he wasn’t even researching blunts until his findings directed him down that particular avenue of research. The breakthrough was accidental and due to Mark using a different skill set from any others within the English Warbow Society had previously had access to.

Along with being a re-enactor and archer within the English Warbow Society, Mark is also a very keen metal detector with a large degree of experience as well as a wide respect within that community. For a lot of people, the hobby has been unfairly criticised as more unscrupulous detectors have given the activity a bad name. However, when used intelligently such research can be an important tool in helping us uncover the past.
Once Mark had joined the EWBS a few years ago, he began to focus more on the actual archery aspect of medieval life than he had done previously. Joining the society had answered a few questions that he had prior to joining, but had still left some unanswered. Still metal detecting, he began to search for metal arrow heads, which is fairly logical, being that they are the only metallic component of the weapon and projectile. Mark had previously noted that such finds were reasonably rare given their widespread use in a military context during the medieval period. In all the years that he has been detecting, he has found nothing. This is despite looking in areas where archery is known to have taken place in primarily a recreational or practice environment. Most that have been found are predominately in areas that there has been military activity.

Anyone who shoots regularly will realise that one of the more frustrating aspects of shooting any long bow, but especially a military type is the frequency that arrow heads are lost. For this reason, the vast majority of EWBS warbow archers use cheaper machined heads that are now available in period correct half inch socket sizes and save their forged heads for best or where such a head is required by EWBS rules such as with the livery arrow. One has only to see the extent to which most archers will go to retrieve a lost head to understand that this would have been even more of a loss six hundred years ago when metal was a far more expensive commodity than is the case now.

This could give rise to the claim that any finds are rare because the medieval archer was more pre-disposed to finding a lost head than a modern day archer would be in a modern throwaway society. Nevertheless, it is fair to say that not every head would have been accounted for and if military archery is as widespread as we believe that it was, more heads should have slipped through the net than seems to be the case.
Mark began to think that maybe he was not casting his net widely enough and therefore asked his wide circle of contacts within the metal detecting community if they could inform him if they had found anything and also if they would let him know if anything surfaced in future. Again the result yielded nothing. This does not make sense if we are to believe that a weapon that formed such a large part of our martial prowess, for such a long time and was in such widespread use. It should follow that the occasional head should surface, but they don’t. Again this raised the legitimate argument that the expense of a metal head meant that great efforts were made in order to retrieve any lost heads. The counter argument from Mark is that everything else turns up, often of a comparable or greater value, so why no heads? Coins in gold and silver, buckles, elaborate broaches, knife blades, seals but no metal arrow-heads.
This led Mark to ask the question as to whether they were used at all, unless it was in a solely military application as the vast majority of attributed find have been in areas where military activity are known to have taken place, or in areas that are known to have been areas of production.
For this to occur poses a dilemma however. For archers to become proficient they must practise and if they are to use a military bow, they therefore have to have a projectile suitable for the bow that is launching it. If they were not using metallic heads, then what were they using must have had comparable characteristics to a military arrow.

With this in mind, Mark began to look back at contemporary manuscripts and illuminations of the period that archery was used in a military context, with the aim of focusing on blunt arrow heads that we know were used. Often it was thought that these were primarily used solely in areas where game such as deer were located, so that an archer could still bag small game etc. Many of us have also heard the term practice blunts, but it has often been thought that this could just have been for plinking and certainly not as a substitute for proper military type arrows in much the same way as shooting with blank ammunition can never replace live rounds today. What if they were used as a direct practice arrow that would relieve the necessity of using military arrows for training? Would this be feasible? If it were, the blunt arrow would need to have the same or similar characteristics to a military arrow and be capable of being shot from the same bows as the ‘live’ arrows.
When looking at the contemporary illustrations, the obvious starting point was the Lutrell Psalter, dating from the first half of the 14th century, which is one of the most instantly recognised medieval portrayals of archery from the period in question. Further searching threw up more images, notably those found by David Pim of the EWBS and would lead one to make the assumption that the use of blunts was far more common than many would initially be lead to believe.

Nevertheless, as already noted, for these to be used effectively as a replacement in training, they would need to at least be effective as its military counterpart in order to replicate its performance.
Previously, this was thought by many to be impossible. Mark was met by claims while researching the blunts that the heads would be too heavy or aerodynamically inefficient to be used in such a role. Many said it would be tough to beat 100 yards, but this was without any evidence that anyone had actually tried. However, tests conducted by Mark, myself and Joe Gibbs have yielded results that initially show that a well designed blunt head on a half inch, fully tapered arrow shaft will give results when shot from a 170lb Italian yew self-bow that would compare with a livery type arrow such as found on the Mary Rose. After a test in July 2013 where Joe shot six livery type arrows from the bow, they landed in two close groups of three about ten yards apart. A following blunt arrow shot immediately after showed it landing between the two groups on collecting.
Later work following on from this will discuss how this was achieved as Mark developed the blunt heads to work correctly and effectively. He initially thought that this was simply a case of turning up heads and just shooting them from a suitable bow, but as it turned out the process was more involved in order to achieve suitable results to vindicate his theory, but more of that later.

Once it can be proved that a blunt arrow can shoot as far as a metal tipped arrow, it can be reasonable to assume that it will also have similar characteristics with regards to initial velocity and kinetic energy etc. It is then also reasonable to assume that there are valid and indeed sensible reasons why they may have well been used in preference to metal tipped arrows as a viable alternative. This is not to say that these are a definitive reason for the lack of finds but rather a possible explanation for the absence of those outside areas of military activity. Hopefully it also highlights a number of good reasons why they may have been used, such as:
1. Manufacturing costs: It is far cheaper to turn out blunts than an equivalent metal head with a corresponding lack of cost if they are damaged.
2. There would be a reduced risk of archers posing a threat to those in power if metal tipped arrows were only issued in times of military necessity. It’s always been asked why the French never really adopted the bow, with the answer being that they never trusted the peasant class to have such a potent weapon. A weapon that they would have had to have with them at all times in order to become proficient. It could be that neither did we on this side of the channel unless metal tipped arrows were only issued in the field and blunts at other times.
3. Blunt arrows are easier to find when roving as they don’t bury themselves in the undergrowth at intermediate ranges as well as having a reduced risk of breakages if shot on stony ground.

These question and others will be examined in the next article. Also how Mark developed blunts that actually worked as would be required in order to confirm his theory or at the very least make it feasible. Far from being a simple task it proved to be far more involved. This will be followed by examining the brief tests that were done by Mark, myself and Joe Gibbs in July 2013 and following the tests from earlier in the year that he was also researching another link in the puzzle. That is successfully being the first person to shoot arrows out of the same 170lb self -yew bow with a natural fibre string of a diameter that corresponds with the nock on arrows found on the Mary Rose. This was initiated in early 2013 after Joe was given some Japanese Yumi bow strings by David Pim with the goal of replicating strings strong enough to work with a heavy bow. After trials on increasingly heavy bows, Joe took the chance of shooting it from the 170lb bow. Hopefully the next set of tests will see the blunts being shot with a natural string alongside a livery arrow for direct comparison through a range of tests including arrow speeds when leaving the bow through a chronograph.

Ian Coote 3rd January 2015