Florida Bushcraft Arrows

Like Native American tribes everywhere, the people who lived in Tampa Bay before European contact (the Tocobaga) had to meet all their needs from locally-available natural materials.

The simplest arrows are made from a single length of wood, best made from a sapling about a quarter-inch thick that has grown straight in the shade. The length of the arrow shaft varies considerably, and depends on the length of the bow and the individual measurements of the archer. I like my arrow shafts to be around 24-25 inches.

A nock for the bowstring is cut into the butt end of the trimmed sapling using a sharp stone, and the fletching added just above that. At the other end is another notch (or a slit, or sometimes a hole for tanged or stemmed arrow points) which holds the point. The nock and the shaft near the arrowhead are wrapped with sinew to strengthen them. These sinew wrappings are usually covered with a layer of hide glue to waterproof them. Some modern re-enactors use fishing line instead of sinew.

These simple arrows tend towards splitting with use, especially if they are made from freshly-cut greenwood, but they are so easy to make that they are almost disposable.

Primitive compound arrows, on the other hand, are quite complex things which require a lot of practice to make well. They are constructed of four basic parts. The long straight arrow shaft, with a nock fitted into the base, is the primary structure. The foreshaft fits into the front of the arrow, and the arrowhead is fitted into the front of the foreshaft. At the back of the arrow shaft is the fletching, made from feathers. All of this was secured by glue made from boiled hide or pine pitch and then wrapped with sinew. 

One of the best materials for making arrow shafts are reeds, canes, or bamboo stems. These are strong, lightweight, and easily worked. They also have hollow areas for fitting stronger nocks and foreshafts.  

The back end of the arrow shaft must withstand a lot of force from the bowstring, so it is often reinforced by a “nock”, a plug made of hardwood that is fitted into the hollow end of the shaft. This is notched to hold the bowstring, and is usually wrapped with sinew to help prevent it from splitting.

Foreshafts are short wooden pieces that hold the arrowhead at one end and fit into the hollow arrow shaft at the other. Usually made from a hard wood like oak, they provide a strong attachment point for the arrowhead which resists splitting upon impact. And if the point becomes broken or blunted, another ready foreshaft and point can be quickly and easily re-fitted to the shaft so the arrow can be re-used. Foreshafts are usually fitted into the arrow shaft slightly loose so if the shaft protrudes from a wounded animal, it will be knocked out in the brush as it runs rather than be broken, while the foreshaft and point will remain inside the wound if the shaft is pulled out.

The most familiar arrowheads are of course those that are flaked from stone chips. The best stone for this is obsidian, flint, or chert. Because Florida lacked ready supplies of stone that was suitable for knapping (other than some places where agatized fossil coral could be obtained), the Tocobaga made extensive use of bone or shell in their arrows, and sometimes turned to specialized alternatives such as garfish scales, ground into shape and sharpened on a stone, for arrowheads. Some arrowheads were cold-hammered into shape from nuggets of Great Lakes copper that were obtained through trade. 

After European contact, many Natives made their traditional tools and weapons–including arrowheads–from iron, using metal that had been scavenged from barrel hoops, broken saw blades, or other scraps. These were usually cut out with a cold chisel obtained through trade, and then ground into shape with a file or on sandstone. Broken bottle glass was also a good arrowhead material, and could be chipped and flaked just like stone.

There is a wide variety of arrow point types made by Native Americans in North America. Some were large, some were small, some were triangular, some were oblong, some were laurel-leaf shaped, some were notched at the sides or the corners, and some were not notched at all. All of them were effective (the smaller-sized arrowheads are often referred to as “bird points”, but they were just as deadly when used against large game animals), and their pattern was more a matter of cultural tradition than anything else. The Tocobaga generally used triangular points that were un-notched.

Fletchings are the feathers that are attached to the back end of the arrow. They work by creating drag, which keeps the back of the arrow from yawing and allows the arrow to fly straight with the arrowhead at the front.

Tocobaga arrows used the two-feather fletching method that was common around the southeastern US. This differed significantly from the three-feather fletching used by most other Native people (and which is familiar to us today through its widespread use in Europe). The use of the two-feather fletch does not have any real aerodynamic advantage or disadvantage over the three-feather though—it was more a matter of cultural tradition.

Fletchings were glued into place using hide glue (made from boiled rawhide) or pitch glue (made by mixing powdered charcoal with melted pine resin) then reinforced by winding a length of sinew around one end, between the barbules along the length of the feather vane, and then tightly at the other end. Some Natives only wrapped their fletchings at the front and back ends and left the middle of the vane unattached. The sinew wrappings were usually waterproofed with a coat of glue.

A number of Natives from the southeast had a more complex method of two-feather fletching. Rather than trimming the feather vane entirely on one side, these people left about one-third of the vane attached on both sides at the rear. When mounting the fletching, the front end was placed on the sides of the shaft parallel to the point, as normal, but the double-sided back end of the feather was attached flat with the top of the feather on the top of the shaft, one quarter turn away from the line of the front of the fletching. This arrangement caused the arrow to spin in flight, which may have given better accuracy.

A variety of arrow points. On left: an un-notched “bird point” made from oyster shell, two notched metal “trade points”, an un-notched slate point, and a stemmed stone point. On right: two notched stone points, a notched bone point, a stemmed garfish-scale “bird point”, and a notched stone broadhead point.

Cutting a nock into the end of a simple wooden arrow shaft

Inserting a garfish-scale “bird point” arrowhead into the other end of the arrow shaft

Sinew wrapping

Feathers trimmed for fletching. Each pair comes from feathers on the same wing so they curve left or right.

Completed fletching

River cane arrow shafts

Carving a nock from hardwood

Inserting the nock into the hollow arrow shaft

Inserting a metal “trade point” into the wooden foreshaft

Inserting the foreshaft into the arrow shaft

Sinew wrappings

An alternative method of trimming and mounting the fletching feathers

Finished fletching

Completed arrows


Post a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s