Observations on the Returning Arrow

by Lt.-Cdr. W.F. Paterson


This article was first published in the Journal of the Society of Archer Antiquaries, volume 21, 1978.
Reproduced with permission. Please read the copyright notice and the disclaimer

In that rare book, Arab Archery, translated and edited by N.A. Faris and R.P. Elmer (Princeton University Press, 1945), by an unknown author c. 1500, there is a chapter devoted to unusual forms of shooting. Pages 138-9 concern 'the returning arrow' which 'suddenly returns to the point whence it was shot, and may even hit the archer himself'. It gives details of construction and adds that, 'if it should fail to return to the place where you were standing when you shot it, know that you were not exact in its construction'. The author adds that 'the purpose of such an arrow is to deceive an enemy who happens to be at your side, and to shoot him while he is unaware'.

Appendix 16 of this book describes an effort to achieve this effect, which was a failure but, some years ago and undiscouraged by Elmer's results, I successfully constructed an arrow that behaved in the manner described.

The importance of this experiment, in my opinion, is that it is often easy to deny the accuracy of the statement of some old author on the meagre grounds of a single test, but if one persists, different conclusions may result.

The first experimental arrow was constructed from a 27.5 in. length of aluminium alloy tubing, with plastic plug nocks fitted at each end. The cusps of the leading nock were cut off, while the front end of the rear and proper nock was drilled to take a 0.2 in. steel ball bearing, secured with glue.

Four feathers were fitted at either end and at 90 to each other. They were all right-handed and set straight with no spiral. The feathers at the front and rear ends of the shaft were in line with each other and set the same way round.The resulting arrow had a point of balance half an inch in rear of the centre and weighed 285 gr.

Shooting trials were carried out with a bow having a draw-weight of 43 lb. at 28 in. However, the draw-length was restricted, due to the fletching on the foreshaft, to about 25 in.

At an elevation of about 35, both the normal three-finger loose and the oriental thumb loose produced similar results, with the arrow traveling in a semi-circle to the right of about thirty yards in diameter, where it landed, vitually completely checked.

Noting that Elmer had reduced the size of the rear fletchings on the advice given by T. Roberts in The English Bowman (London 1801), p. 163, n. 19, and met with no success, the opposite was tried by removing the leading half inch of the fore, or pile, end feathers.The fletchings used in these trials were of a straight, triangular cut, three inches in length and half an inch high at their rear end. What may be more important than the size of the feathers is their relative balance of surface area in relation to the centre of the shaft, but without extensive experiment this factor is uncertain. The modification proved a success.

Initially, when shooting in the normal manner, the alteration appeared merely to increase the diameter of the semi-circle through which the arrow flew, but when holding the bow horizontally, instead of vertically, the first attempt resulted in the arrow landing some 40 yards behind the point from which it was shot.By decreasing the elevation to about 20 and shooting directly into a wind of about 10-15 m.p.h., a degree of control was achieved.

On two occasions I even caught the arrow by hand as it glided past me. If the correct flight pattern can be achieved, this is not difficult as the arrow travels slowly toward the end of its path.

Howsoever the Arab version of such an arrow may have been constructed, this experience suggested that the original author's idea of shooting an enemy is incorrect. It can be little more than an amusing device to entertain others.

It is important to note that one needs to shoot into the wind, and a light breeze is ideal for this purpose. Shooting with the wind proved a complete failure. The arrow started to circle, but then the wind took charge, and it dropped to the ground not very far from the direction in which it had been launched.

Understandably, some archers may write off this account as a triviality and I would agree that it serves little purpose. However, this experience taught me two things. First, some of our ancestors in the field of archery knew what they were talking about and second, the experience of one individual, such as Elmer - a most competent and experienced archer - does not necessarily prove that some particular aspect is either wrong or right.

While engaged in the draft of Saracen Archery, with Dr. Derek Latham, I endeavoured to put all the teachings of Taybugha al-Ashrafi to the test, though I must confess that I avoided action on horseback.

Even accepting this limitation, I found that certain aspects, which I profoundly doubted on reading the admirable translation could, in fact, be achieved with a little effort and perseverance. Often this was most revealing.

May I therefore encourage all engaged in archery research to persist in their endeavours and not to accept the findings of others, which may be shallow investigations, but to persist until they are satisfied with their results.


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