Whistling Arrows

by E. McEwen and D. Elmy

This article was first published in the Journal of the Society of Archer-Antiquaries, volume 13, 1970.
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Although the whistling-arrow is said to have been invented by the Chinese, it is much more likely to have been the invention of the nomads of Central Asia, or perhaps of the Eastern Asiatic Steppes. The Chinese have been accredited with the invention of the composite bow by some authors, but even the Chinese themselves acknowledged the superiority of the Nomads in things to do with archery by calling them "The Nations of the Bow and Arrow" and calling the Hann "The Families of the Hat and Girdle". A letter from the Chinese Emperor Wen Ti [son of Lao Tsu] to the chief of the Hiung-nu ran thus:

"The first emperor of this dynasty1 has adopted the following policy: All to the north of the Long Wall [the Great Wall of China], comprising the nations of the bow and arrow, to be subject to the great Captain: All within the Long Wall, namely the families of the hat and girdle to be subject to the House of Han. Thus, these peoples would each pursue their own avocations: Ours, agriculture and the manufacture of cloth: Yours, archery and hunting, in the acquisition of foord and raiment."

Students of Asiatic archery are no doubt familiar with the story of how the whistling-arrow was first introduced. It is, however reproduced again here because of its direct bearing on this subject. Various authors use different names and locations but all agree that the Asian scene is the setting for their story.

The principle of the whistling arrow:

(A) Current of air being split by the edge of the hole.

(B) Metal pin

(C) Walls of the sound chamber

(D) The arrow-shaft

(E) The sinew binding which seals the whistling chamber

A legendary prince of the Hiung-nu, called Megdher, was given in hostage by his father to a neighbouring tribe and barely escaped this captivity with his life. Although on his return to his tribe, he was restored to his princely rights,, nevertheless, nursed a bitter hatred for his father. He was given command of a large body of archers and these he trained to obey his slightest wish and it is said that, at this time, he invented the whistling-arrow. He commanded that whatsoever he shot at so must they, and he summarily executed those who did not. Eventually, when he was satisfied that he would be obeyed, he and his men joined in one of the gigantic hunts that were such a feature of nomad life. It was during the hunt that Megdher shot at his father with the whistling-arrow and, at this signal, the king was immediately pierced by hundreds of arrows, some versions of the story said sat his body could not lie on the ground because of the shafts bristling from it.

In other accounts he (Megdher) is called Mothé, but the story is the same and gives him credit for the invention of the whistling-arrow.

From observations made while examining original specimens, it would seem that the majority of the heads themselves were constructed in the following way. A piece of solid material [in many cases, horn] was fixed in a lathe and turned to the desired shape, after which the body of it was hollowed out from one end to form a sound chamber. Next the holes were drilled and shaped to allow the air to enter the sound chamber, and these and the shape of them partly governed the whistling sound. The head was then set upon the shaft and its base, through which the shaft passes, was sometimes sealed with a binding of sinew.
Although the whistling heads were, in the vast majority of cases, round in cross-section, other shapes were used. Our illustrations show a Mongol head which is of a wedge shape and there could have been other shapes of which we have no present knowledge.

The problem of breakage on impact was one which could not be ignored if the archer wished to use his whistling-arrow more than once. The Chinese made a small whistling head of iron, but this was an exception rather than the rule. Occasionally an arrow-head might be added to the shaft, and this, projecting beyond the whistling-chamber, no doubt afforded some protection to the head and enabled the arrow to double as a signal and a war shaft. Generally speaking, the Chinese and Mongolians added either iron piles2 or moon-shaped heads to their whistling-arrows, while the Japanese arrows usually carry the bifurcated head (Karimata) in one form or another. The Japanese also tipped their whistling-arrows with an iron stud which had a short tang, and this, inserted down the hollow centre of the bamboo shaft, was probably used to hold the head tightly in place.

The Chinese and Japanese made the largest heads of all. There are Ming-ti3 measuring 6 inches (I5 cm) in length and 4 inches (10 cm) in diameter, while some of the Japanese Hika-ya are almost as large. The shafts and flights which supported these huge heads were commensurate in size, and some of the whistling-arrows used at the Taku Forts during the Siege of the Legations in the Boxer Rebellion were four and a half feet long (145 cm), with a shaft diameter of 7/8 of an inch (22 mm). These huge arrows could only be used in conjunction with very powerful bows of, say, 80 to 100 catties weight. That is, 104 to 130 lb. or 47 to 58 kilos.4 The Japanese Hika-ya5 could measure anything up to 8 1/4 inches (21 cm) in length with a diameter of 3 3/4 inches (96 mm) and there is a specimen in the temple of Atsuta in Japan with these measurements. An arrow with a head of this size would, of course, require the use of a two-man bow6 in order that some distance and velocity be achieved.

archer holding arrow with whistling arrow head A drawing of a Turkish archer from the time of Selim the Ist (early 16th century),
He is holding a whistling arrow which the Turks called Chavush, which means messenger.

Probably the smallest whistling-heads of all are those which can be seen in the Ingo Simon Collection at the Manchester University Museum. They are Turkish and are so small that they seem to merely be an extension of the shaft itself. Two are of bone or ivory and one is of black horn. One of us (E.M.) has made a replica of this type of head and, although the whistling holes are only drilled from side to side the note produced is high and shrill, illustrating that size is not the prime factor with these arrows.

Another small head is the iron one of Chinese manufacture, perhaps one inch (25 mm) in length and 7/8 inch (22 mm) in diameter, which also served as a useful head in war. The Chinese also used a curious type of whistling-head made from deerhorn. A deerhorn pipe with two holes was fastened to the shaft behind the head and in line with it, and apparently this device worked well enough.

Many of the heads which can be seen in museums and in private collections are quite roughly made, probably by the archer himself. Others are neat and polished, showing the work of the professional arrow-smith. The somewhat fanciful shapes were not, as might be supposed, for show or for ornamental purposes, but rather to produce a louder whistle or perhaps a different note.

The whistling-arrow is easy to make, once it is discovered just what makes it whistle. The principle is the same as a flute. However, in recent years when exact copies of these heads have been made and shot they have remained disappointingly silent. In fact, when sonle of the original whistling-arrows have been shot they, too, have not worked either and we have not yet found an answer to this last problem.

When a whistling-arrow is shot this is, briefly, what happens. The air current is directed across the face of the whistling-hole by the speed with which it is moving through the air. These holes are so placed that the angled surface of the head directs the air across the hole so that the airstream hits the edge at the far side. This splits the airstream into two directions, and it is this splitting of the airstream which vibrates the air in the sounding-chamber and creates the whistle.

The better made heads usually had some form of waterproofing. The Japanese used lacquer, and paint may have been employed elsewhere. It should be pointed out that some heads which appear to be painted in "bands" of colour are usually heads made in laminated form. The earlier method of making the head in one piece was later improved upon by making it of flat rings of horn, born or ivory interspaced with wood. The advantages of this method were obvious: the laminated head was a great deal stronger and the tedious hollowing-out of the head was largely eliminated.

1 and 2, Chinese, wooden. 3, 4 and 5, Mongol (after W. Heisig). 6 and 7, Japanese. 8, Chinese.

We read that, in olden times, the Chinese divided the night into four parts, the first portion ending at midnight, the last at daybreak. These divisions were further marked by the shooting of whistling-arrows from one sentry to another to prove their alertness. In warfare, and at other times, messages (called Ya-bume by the Japanese) were wrapped round the shaft of these arrows, for their prime role was military signalling and message carrying. Another role in which this arrow was used was that of psychological warfare. The Japanese are said to have used massed archery formations to shoot hundreds of whistling-arrows against the enemy and this must have been very effective.

The use of the whistling-arrow has almost died out of course, though in recent years there have been enough photographs of archers in the Asiatic and Eastern countries using this arrow to make us suppose that it is still in use. The Japanese use the Hika-ya for the opening arrow in their Hike-me ceremony, and, prior to the last Chinese invasion of Tibet, the monks at Shigatse monastery practised a form of short range shooting with whistling arrows Korean archers do not seem to use them at the present time, and the Mongols who still hold archery contests at their annual Nadom (sports festival) at Ulan Bator, do not either.

We do not regard this subject dealt with conclusively here and we hope to write more about it in the future.*


* Further notes on this subject could well include reference to the use of whistling arrows among the Indians of South America. The ceremonial use of whistling arrows at funerals has also been noticed. -Editor