An arrow is one of the first purpose-built projectiles created by human hands, perhaps developed after humans thought that throwing spears didn’t have to be so large and heavy to be effective. Arrows seem to be very simple and very obvious objects when we look at them in retrospect, but it must be remembered that they were developed in prehistoric times in the full sense of the word. There is no record of when or by whom the arrow was first invented and is an object that can be found all around the world. It is one of humanity’s first application of physics before it became a concept. The arrow had to be well-calculated to be a successful projectile, which meant that our prehistoric ancestors had to learn some basic physics, aerodynamics and a degree of material competence.
Naturally, bows and arrows occured at the same time. Some of
the oldest artifacts are between 8000 – 9000 years old. It is worth noting that
bows and arrows of that age that survive to this day are an incredible stroke
of luck. Wood degrades rather quickly, so both bows and arrows that have
survived were largely preserved by lucky environmental conditions.
The arrow consists of three primary parts, the fletching, the shaft and the head. Our ancestors quickly learned that the approach to the arrow is far different from their approach to the spear. While they look like identical projectile types, just at different scale, the way there were launched was radically different. This is why the arrow is a trickier tool. The shaft, for example had to be the right mix of lightness and stiffness. Make the arrow too heavy, and it will travel a shorter distance. Make the arrow shaft light but with a bit more flex, and it will become more difficult to launch accurately – the arrow will bend under the bowstring’s force and will veer sideways. All of this while making sure that the arrow is of the appropriate length for the type of bow being used. This stiffness is called the spine of the arrow. The stiffer the arrow, the more spine it has. Materials such as reed and bamboo are some of the first to be used in arrow making as they were very light. But their use is believed to be largely limited to hunting. Military-grade arrows needed to be much more powerful.
Earliest arrows were nothing more than sharpened sticks,
with the shaft pretty much equalling the arrow. A sharp stick has questionable
aerodynamic properties, making it useless no matter how sharp it is or how much
spine it has. This brings us to the tail end of the arrow – the fletching. It
is unknown by what means fletching was discovered (probably through a happy
accident), but the prehistoric people realised that attaching a feather the end
of a stick alters the way it travels. And alters it beneficially, making the
flight pattern more stable and predictable. Almost all cultures that had bows
and arrows had some version of fletching attached to their arrows.