longbow arrows


Basics on Arrow Characteristics

Arrows used in longbow shooting have to be made out of wood and have natural feathers, but in the UK, bamboo arrows are not yet permitted.

It’s not hard getting hold of arrows for longbows – you can pretty much shoot any wooden arrow from the majority of bows, from cheap and nasty woodies off Ebay through to the most wonderfully crested Victorian style barrelled or tapered target arrows, but few people make them really well. Many professional archery shops sell sets of arrows of reasonable quality, but as with any of these things – they’re built to a price. If you want really good arrows, expect to pay over the shop price quoted or have to make them yourselves.

And finding the information is difficult – If you go up to the average person in a bar and say “Can I discuss the thickness of your shaft, and its length and stiffness?” you are, at best, likely to get some funny looks and most likely to get  forcibly ejected from the bar onto your nose into the gutter….but there is one exception however, which is where the bar is full of longbow archers who will happily discuss matters such as these for days (or so it will seem) ……or at least hours.

Finding the exact combination of that works best for you is trial and error, but once that magic black art has your result, it will stay with you forever. medieval archers made their own arrows and all of their arrows were interchangeable, in fact there is evidence that villages pooled knowledge and that you could identify archers who all came from the same area because their arrows were almost indistinguishable.

A good set of arrows will also take a week or so to make, with often anything between 4 to 10 hours of work so there’s a list at the bottom of this article of top bowyers who will make arrows for you.

Woods are various, but currently the most common is pine.
Cedar is a traditional favourite because it  is lighter and holds its straightness better than pine. 
Ash and oak were particularly suited for making military arrows, which have to weigh between 1000 and 1500 grain to have knockout ability.
Other popular woods are Ash, Birch, Poplar, Hazel, Beech, and Oak are seen throughout the UK. 

Usually made of brass, iron or horn. (Also called “piles” by some people, but if you walk up to an archer and say you’ve got a problem with piles, don’t expect them necessarily to understand you’re talking about “points”). Having the right sort of points (piles) is critical, but alas, like many  things it is a black art similar to trial and error. Weight is measured in grains and the longer the points are, the heavier they are and also  meaning that the overall weight of the arrow increases and therefore the apparent spine value decreases making the arrow whippier and tending to make it fly right (for a bowman drawing with the right hand). 
So as part of the black art there is an adjustment for both pile weight

Just increasing the point weight by 25 grains reduces an arrow dynamic spine by 3.5lbs. 

This means another adjustment to the charts set out here. It does this because it slows the arrow down a little and decreases the dynamic spine (it has more inertia so keeps the point going in a straight line better as the arrow flexes round the bow and therefore increases the kinetic energy of the arrow, and the more energy in the arrow the less susceptible it is to wind (all other things being equal) and a smaller percentage of the total energy is lost in drag.)

Increasing your piles also moves the centre of gravity or balancing point of the arrow forward of centre meaning the arrow will fly off the bow higher and then dip down sooner that a comparable arrow with a lighter pile so distance is reduced. (In fact the balancing point should be as much as 2″ in front of the centre of the arrow length because as the centre of gravity moves towards the rear of the arrow so there is a reduction in the range of the arrow. 

As a rough guide, arrows are spined 10lb lower than your actual bow weight at draw will shoot OK but for great arrows see the calculations below and under-spine is better than over-spine as they may just waggle a little more before setting, whereas too stiff an arrow will kick left for a right handed archer.

Nocks are usually made of horn or hardwood although increasingly plastic is both allowed and used.

The fletching creates a drag on the arrow which is a good thing in keeping the arrow straight but it is the overall size of the fletching that makes the key difference and this is because the fletching  comes into play only as the arrow tries to go sideways so the profile has much less effect on the flight of the arrow than its overall size..
For clout you will want the smallest feathers that you can find.

Parabolic feathers are the most common and have the best flight characteristics with length varying from 1 and 1/4 inch to 5 inches (3.2 to 12.7cm). 
Shield feathers have a slightly more “authentic Hollywood look”, but wind resistance is a little greater than for parabolic and they’re usually between 4 and 6 inches long (10.2 to 15.2cm). 

As we established above, the size creates the degree of stabilisation and as the fletching only comes into play when the arrow tries to move sideways, it makes sense that  two entirely different profiles of the same overall surface area are likely to have almost identical effects on the arrow. There is a minor effect due to differing profile, but that said, the most common “parabolic” shape will have less drag than a “shield” fletching and that is because the eddy drag off a parabolic shape is considerably less because of the gradual curve of the parabol and this probably accounts for why the shield is favoured for indoors and U14 outdoor arrows (causing quicker stabilisation) and the parabola favoured for clout and most outdoor targets.

In practice, unless you’re scoring purple scores all the time, fletching shape will make no difference. (In fact, many top longbow archers prefer “shield” even outdoors, and this is because within the black art, greater eddy stabilises certain structures of arrows better).

It remains however the case that if you shoot clout or target shoot at 100 yards you will want to have as little drag as possible and you really DON’T want large fletchings

The feathers or “fletching” can be
a) glued onto the arrow-shaft (the most usual method), using superglue or epoxy
b) glued onto the arrow-shaft with archery tape, which works poorly with oiled and untreated shafts but works very well with painted shafts;
c) bound with thread as well as glued, (the Middle Ages style, but in practice, target arrows are not bound with thread as this affects flight.

There is a difference between the feathers of a flight (clout or military) arrow and an ordinary target arrow. 

Fletchings on target arrows are typically 4 inches long and 1/2 an inch high (10.2 x 1.3 cm) so that the arrow will stabilise quickly in flight (usually under 25yards (23m)).

Flight arrows with smaller fletchings typically  1 7/8″-2″ (4.8cm-5cm) long and 1/4″  (0.6cm) high take over 50 yards (46m) to stabilise. If you are shooting at 100 yards you will want to have as little drag as possible and you don’t need large fletchings as there is plenty of time for the arrow to straighten out

Many longbow shooters who make their own arrows fail to get them spine matched and weight matched and tests show that many a set of 12 shafts can have a range of over 150 grains. A good store should provide matched shafts within 30 grains and in some cases as tightly matched as 10 grains.
(If your shop doesn’t offer this then you have only one other option buy in bulk and match them yourself!

Lots of people are obsessed with shaft thickness and stiffness, but it’s a grey art as a 5/16 and a 11/32 can have exactly the same spine value.

In the Longbow there is usually a choice between
(i) 5/16 (10/32) inches (used for outdoor, field and clout archery) where arrows have to go further and therefore faster;
(ii) 11/32 inches (used for indoor target archery) where speed is less critical; and
(iii) 9/32 inches for juniors although these are a pain because no-one makes a 9/32 cutter! and some juniors use 5/16 for this reason.

What is critical to remember is that the larger the diameter the heavier and stronger (and stiffer) the arrow will usually be, although the type of wood and the care of the arrow will affect this too.  

Make sure your arrows are spine matched (correctly – to both your bow and your draw weight – to within around 5lbs)
Make sure that the set is weight matched to around 30grains or less for the set, otherwise they’ll be drifting high and low. (The Longbow shop in Liverpool often matches batches of 12 arrows to less than 5 grains!)

These are suitable for archers as a first set of arrows and will allow shooting to a good level of accuracy. 
Spine match   +/- 2.5 Lb AMO or better
Weight Match +/- 10 grains or better
The higher level of weight and spine match provided by Tournament matched arrows can provide tighter groups (particularly for distance shooting). 
Spine Match +/- 1.5Lb Spine
Weight Match  +/- 5 Grains  ( often better )  
(usually provided with matched balance points)

[See TheLongbowShop.com who can supply tournament matched arrows by arrangement]

Firstly calculate your spine using the table below:

US Wooden Longbow Chart  (Note: US Longbow charts need to be adjusted for
the English Longbow and should be reduced by about 10lbs ).

or …….if you’d rather, then look at the Dynamic Spine Calculator, found at http://heilakka.com/stumiller/.
This Excel calculator was developed to aid the traditional archer using formulas derived from modern deflex/reflex longbow and recurve designs based on actual shooting experience coupled with basic engineering principles.

The ideal is to get each arrow in your set to match each other. This is done by
a) having a spine strength within one or two pounds of a median;
b) having a balancing point within half an inch of a median;
c) having an overall weight that is almost identical for each arrow.

and remember that even if all three (or six) arrows were exactly matching, the arrows would behave in different ways because wood is a natural material, varying in moisture content from arrow to arrow, having differing wood grain patterns, differing thickness of the varnish, cresting that is not exactly similar even if it looks it, different fletchings and imperceptably different fletching fixation etc. ……Anyway if you wanted perfect arrows you would have chosen to shoot Compound bows, not the longbow.

OK – so you’ve got it ……..not quite

Common sense and the application of the above, says that a heavier arrow will fly a shorter distance than a heavy one …..but no …..the science of flight doesn’t apply common sense! 
A lighter arrow will leave a bow with greater velocity so it should go further, but only in space! (As the Apollo astronauts proved).  Here on Earth, air friction slows arrows, and the lighter an arrow, the less momentum it has and therefore air resistance will slow the lighter arrow more quickly and therefore it travels for a  shorter distance. 

When you are able to master the dark black art of arrow selection and making for the Longbow, it will be the same for you every time.


Rule 1: Get the right spine for your bow and for your draw, having regard to the weight of your points/piles and their length. Preferably hand-pick the shafts for your competition target arrows, matching them to within 3lbs of adjusted spine value (preferably +/- 1lb) 
Rule 2: Each arrow in your set should  match each other. An entire set should be within 4-8 points of the average.
Rule 3: The balancing point should be within half an inch of each other, and if you’re trimming an arrow, this will depend on where you cut it. 
Rule 4: Point weights should be as close as possible
Rule 5: Size fletching to the intended use of the arrow
Rule 6: keep your arrows together, this way they’re less likely to vary in moisture levels which affects flight; 
Rule 7: Use screw-on piles/points that screw onto the wood as they won’t come off
Rule 8: Use slow-set epoxy. Fast-set epoxy as used by many shops doesn’t bond points properly…. AND when putting on the piles/points, hold them down until set. (If you simply push them on, as soon as you release the point/pile, the air trapped inside the point/pile will push out the pile – it’s only a fraction, but it’s enough to see and that’s enough to mean the bond of pile/point to arrow is only partial).
Rule 9: Wood bends – carry an arrow straightener.

Even if you do this, the arrows would behave differently when shot because
a)  wood is a natural material;
b) the  moisture content will differ from arrow to arrow;
c) the wood grain will vary;
d) the thickness of the varnish will vary;
e) the thickness, evenness and weight of the cresting will vary;
f) the points (grain weight) will vary;
g) the bow is in an awkward mood today; 
…the list is endless.

For those needing expert help:

TheLongbowShop – leading longbow arrow parts supplier.

Adrian Hayes – a great bowmaker, whose wife makes the arrows and is a great arrow-maker.

Carol Archery – Carol Edwards has been making arrows for many years, and sells arrows, shafts and even her own design of fletching jig. Boyton pine and poplar.

Sylvan Archery – Hilary Greenland has also been making arrows for years, with expertise in historic and flight arrows.

The Fletcher – We work with these guys, so we’re biased! They make some great cheap love ’em and lose ’em arrows for reasonable prices which are all spine and weight matched so they actually shoot well, but they also have an enthusiasm for strange woods and historic arrows. Pine, Spruce, Birch, Ash, Bamboo, Poplar – if it’s worth making it into a shaft – they’ll try it.

HiForce – These guys come with an enviable reputation for competition arrows, including tapered shafts and a matching service to arrows you’ve had previously – they’ll even try to replicate your favourite arrow. Pine and Spruce

Little John Arrows (John Catley) – John has now regrettably retired and we wish him a happy and peaceful retirement