If you have a saw and axe, or even a hatchet,
excellent arrow shafts can be made out of douglas fir, cedar, pine, spruce, and even redwood. Split the dry, seasoned, straight-grained
logs up into 3/8-inch squares and plane them round with a pocketknife. You can use a Bowie knife as a froe (also called a
shingle-maker) for the splitting into the 3/8-inch squares. A froe works better than either an axe or a hatchet. Finish them
by holding the end of one square between the thumb and forefinger of your left hand (if you are right-handed), and lay the
square over your right knee (in a sitting position) with your knife on top of the wood. Then, draw the square up towards you,
smoothly and carefully shaving or planing off the corners. Reverse the ends and round off the lower portion. The knife blade
remains stationery; the square of the wood moves. This method works better than trying to whittle off the corners of the wood.
And, lay a piece of leather or something over your knee, or you will soon wear a hole in your pants.
By carefully planing off the corners, you
will soon have some round dowels. Use a piece of grooved sandstone to smooth them. Make up a dozen or more at one time, and,
if possible, from the same general area of the log. This way, your shafts will have similar spine, or stiffness, and will
shoot more consistently.
Before doweling machines were available,
we all made our shafts in this manner. We used a small froe, a hand plane with a long “V” block on a bench, and
The Indian way is to choose straight new-growth
shoots of natural wood. Willow wands are excellent, as are wild rose shoots. Ishi preferred witch hazel shoots. Other woods
used by Indians for arrows included “arrow-wood” (Viburnum bush), dogwood, river reeds, “arrow weed”
(a type of cane growing in marshes), choke cherry, service berry, currant, plum, and wild cherry.
The important characteristics are straightness
and stiffness. Some of the best shafts are found deep in the forest where it is dark and the young shoots must grow tall and
I have tried the stems of cattails—that
dry and hard portion just below the cattail itself. I found them too light and fragile, though it might work for a child’s
My favorite is wild rose shoots, despite
the thorns. Scrape off some thorns first so you can grab them before you cut them. Wild rose shoots are often perfectly straight
and do not taper too abruptly. They are dense, hard, and take a fine polish. They stay straight. Best of all, they are strong
and tough and do not split or smash up the way other woods do. Since they are stiffer than shafts of the same thickness made
from other woods, they can be used with heavier hunting bows. Some of the finest arrows I have ever made were cut from wild
Willow also makes good shafts and willows
are everywhere. Choose them for straightness, freedom from knots and irregularities, and uniform thickness.
If you are stuck out in the mountains and
really have to get meat with a bow and arrow to survive, cut your shafts first. You probably will not be able to find good
straight, seasoned dry branches. You will have to settle for green shoots, which is okay. Cut a bunch of them—20 or
more. They will not all end up as arrows. Many will split, warp, break in straightening, or otherwise have defects.
Peel them. Put half of them in the sun to
dry and the other half in the shade. Then go to work on your bow.
In the sun, they dry quicker and split more.
In the shade, they split less, but dry slower. Take your choice, or try some each way.
They will straighten easily when green. Every
day, straighten them with your hands. By the fifth day, they will be straight and hopefully will remain so. When dry, you
will have to use heat to straighten them.
Eventually, you will have about a dozen or
more shafts—clean, unsplit, and straight. Your bow will be finished. Try to match up your shafts by spine or stiffness—they
will shoot more uniformly that way.
Next, cut your shafts to length. To determine
the correct length for you, stand erect and put the end of one shaft against your breastbone or sternum, and hold the shaft
out horizontally in front of your body, between the open palms of your two hands. Where the tips of your fingers come on the
shaft, make a mark and cut it there. Cut all the others to that same length.
Short arrows are better than long arrows.
Why? They are easier to make, stay straighter, require less spine, take less fletching, fly better, do not break up as readily
as longer arrows, and are easier to carry. I shoot short arrows.
Now you have got a dozen or more shafts.
Line them up and look at them. The smaller narrow ends will take the arrowheads and the larger butt ends will take the nocks.
(The arrowheads go on last). Your nocks will vary, depending on what kind of release or draw you use. If you use the Continental,
three-fingered, European, or Mediterranean draw, you must cut a deeper nock, like Figure 1.
If you plan to use the primary, pinch draw,
augmented pinch draw, or the Sioux release, then you only need a shallow nock, as in Figure 2, or Figure 3.
Cut or scrape the nocks any way you
wish. I use a sharp knife. Ishi used a sliver of obsidian.
If you use a deep nock, you should reinforce
it with sinew or thread to keep it from splitting. Shallow nocks generally do not need reinforcing. And, since wild rose shoots
are hard and dense, they generally need no binding at the nock.
If you are going to craft a true Indian arrow,
you may want to cut, scrape, and sand in the “bulbous nock,” commonly found on authentic Indian arrows. See
The best feathers are those primary, pinion, or leading
wing feathers from eagles, wild turkeys, buzzards, big hawks, peacocks, whooping cranes, Canadian or snow geese, blue herons,
or trumpeter swans.
However, in a survival situation, you must
make-do with any feather. A good feather is stiff, strong, and will stand up in the rain and under hard use. But, like most
things in life—what you want and what you get are often two very different things.
Feathers in the field are hard to come by.
Gather up what you have and match them. Do not mix left wing feathers and right wing feathers. It will not work—it makes
the arrows plane off and fly crazy.
Now, hold a feather by the quill between your front teeth, with the vanes vertical. Hold the
tip of the smaller, thinner vein from underneath with your left hand. With your right hand, grab the tip of the larger vane
and pull sharply but gently up and back towards your face. If done correctly, this larger vane will peel off the rib and come
away in one long strip. This is called “stripping.”
Stripped feathers are a little harder to
work with than ground, split, or cut feathers, but they lie closer to the shaft and hold up better in the long run.
Practice stripping with chicken feathers.
When you have several vanes prepared, match
them up in sets of three (by length, width, stiffness, and color) and get ready to lash them onto the shafts. You will need
sinew, dental floss, fine thread, or some artificial sinew. I like real sinew, since it will make its own glue if chewed correctly.
Put one shaft under your armpit with the
nock end sticking out in front where you can work on it. Lay one feather on the shaft at right angles to the nock. See Figure
5. Then lash the rear end of the feather to the shaft, as in Figure 6.
Now add the other two feathers at equal
intervals around the shaft.
When all three feathers are attached, secure
the other ends. Pull each vane out tight, lash it, and then do the others.
An alternative method used by many Native
Americans is to lash the three vanes to the shaft in a reverse fashion, backwards and upside down, one at a time. See Figure
7 and 8. Once so attached, you fold the vanes back again towards the nock. Pull each vane tight and then lash it.
Lastly, trim the feathers. Most Indian arrows
were trimmed surprisingly low: 1/8 to ¼-inch at the front end, and 3/8 to ½-inch at the rear. However, on survival arrows,
in order to compensate for a probable imbalance between bow weight and arrow spine, irregular shafts, etc., you may want to
maintain higher fletching, like ¼-inch in the front and 5/8 to ¾-inch in the rear. It is better that your first arrows fly
straight and maybe whistle a bit, rather than fly silent but crooked.
Before you attach any points to your arrows, take them out and shoot them. Out of a dozen arrows,
you will be doing good to have 3 or 4 that shoot accurately and consistently to the same spots. Those arrows are your friends.
These are the ones you keep.
Now the hard part—the projectile points
or arrowheads. If you have a hard wood shaft, you can simply fire-harden the shaft tips for hunting small game such as rabbits
Pressure-flaking arrowheads is a tricky process,
and without a mentor, you will find it to be an unproductive, discouraging, finger-cutting experience. Learn how to do this
first before you get lost, or before you go into the woods to play “survival.” There are several excellent books
and teachers for learning to knap arrowheads.
Bone is a lot easier to work than stone.
Find some thick thigh or leg bone of deer, elk, etc, and work it into an arrowhead by rubbing them onto stones. It is a slow
and laborious process, but you can end up with some good arrowheads this way.
If you are near an old deserted and falling-down
cabin, look around for those old hand-forged square nails. They can be pounded flat and sharpened into excellent arrowheads.
The Apaches in New Mexico and Arizona territories did this, and they shot at my grandmother with them over 100 years ago.
Arrows constructed in the field out of natural
materials and with primitive tools can be precisely and delicately crafted. They can be things of beauty. And the combination
of an ordinary bow, a perfect arrow, and a patient, careful hunter can be deadly.
To me, arrows are pure, perfect, beautiful,
and functional works of art. They have a distinctive feeling and sound like nothing else. When I hold a handful together with
the feathers “whuffling” softly against each other and the shafts quietly clacking together, it takes me into
another world. I love arrows.
Take your time and craft each arrow as perfectly
as you can. Then look at them, and be quietly proud of them. They are part of you.