“Arrow! Black arrow! I have saved you to the last. You have never failed me and I have always recovered you. I had you from my father and he from of old. If ever you came from the forges of the true king under the Mountain, go now and speed well!”
J.R.R. Tolkien The Hobbit
The simplest arrowhead consists of fire-hardened wood, but these were quickly superseded in most cultures by worked stone tips, often in a distinctive style for a given culture. Once metal working was introduced the variety of available heads increased - the traditional "arrowhead" shape or broadhead was retained for use against unarmoured targets - and in some cases was barbed to inflict greater harm whilst improvements in armour eventually lead to the development of the bodkin and similar points - needle-like and made of hardened steel for better penetration. Other designs, of varying wierdness have appeared from time to time as well - blunt or bulb tipped arrows for hunting small game, y-shaped arrows for cutting cords and whistling heads for signalling with. Methods of attaching the head vary from splicing into the shaft with twine to gluing in place.
At the other end of the arrow the flights, also known as the fletching, are designed to stabilise the shot with aerodynamic flow and, normally, a slight spin. Traditionally all the fletching feathers on one arrow should come from the same wing of the same bird - getting the fletching right is important since small imperfections can have a disproportionately high effect on the accuracy of the arrow.
The length of the shaft has been seen to vary between about eighteen inches and five feet - for reference the English Longbow shot an arrow "a cloth yard" (thirty inches) in length. Shorter rounds - little more than darts - could be fired from a bow by using an arrow guide. This had the obvious problem that a lighter arrow carried less mass and therefore less kinetic energy at the same speed, but against that a short arrow might have more range and was a lot harder to fire back. It is important for an arrow shaft to be straight or it is liable to close to useless. As noted above, actual composition can vary, with some arrows being made of more than one kind of wood.
As ammunition goes, arrows are bulky and fragile, prone to being bent or damaged if roughly handled and fairing badly in weather that is too wet, dry, hot or cold3. Users store them in a quiver or an arrow bag, either of which should be fitted with spaces to stop the arrows banging against each other. Bulk arrows were often shipped in modified barrels.
Game and Story Use
- It was entirely normal for an archer to make his own arrows, often with distinctive fletching marks so that he could recover them from the battlefield.
- It was also normal not to - especially if you were part of an army. The English army manufactured and stockpiled thousands of arrows to feed its longbows and had a fairly efficient logistic system to deliver them to the front line.
- In most RPGs arrows are treated as though they were as homogenous as modern cartridges4 - historically, quality counted for a lot and the difference in performance between those made by a master fletcher and those recovered from the quiver of some sloppy bandit should be significant. Note however that primitve doesn't necessarily mean inferior - if those orcs rely on their arrows for hunting then they might well make a better product than those churned out of the royal arsenal by a bored journeyman on piecework.