Wednesday, October 25, 2017

The Native American Bow and Arrows

Recently, I discovered an article on the process of making the bows and arrows the Native American cultures used for both hunting and war back in the day. I found the process interesting, and I hope you might also.

An Apache with bow and arrows

The Bow

The making of an archer’s bow was a time-consuming process. The men didn’t just walk into the woods, pick a thick stick, and shave/whittle it down to the right shape. No, there was more to it than that. First, they had to know how the bow would be used—while on foot or on horseback. This would determine the type of materials used. A bow used on foot would typically be made of a single piece of wood about five feet long. A bow used while mounted was often made of composite materials—wood, horn, antler, and/or sinew. For our purposes, we’ll focus on the wooden bows.

A bow-maker would seek a flexible piece of hardwood, usually about as thick as a sturdy walking stick. The best woods were ash, willow juniper, cedar, walnut, hickory, oak, or birch. The warrior would strip the bark and whittle and sand it—thicker in the center, thinner on either end. He would then “stretch” the wood, or use heat/steam to bend the wood into a rough bow shape. Stretching the wood could take upward of a week, depending on the amount of shaping needed. It must be done slowly so not to crack the wood. The bowstring notches would then be cut into each end, and the wood was coated in animal fat to protect and season the wood. The properly-shaped, bent wood piece would be left to dry slowly over a fire for a good length of time to finish the seasoning process. The final step before stringing the bow was to wrap the handle with leather to form a good, comfortable grip.

The bowstring could be made from plant fibers, rawhide, or sinew. Sinew was the most readily available, taken from the back or leg tendons of large animals—often buffalo. Rawhide was the next most available. Plant fibers, most often made from nettles, milkweed, or the inner bark of certain types of trees, was the highest quality of the three choices since it wouldn’t stretch out over time. However, the plant fibers took the most work to attain. No matter the material, the fibers would be twisted into a sturdy string and looped around the bow’s ends. 

Sioux warrior Kicking Bear teaches his son to use a bow and arrows

Making a quality bow could take several weeks. In cultures where life depended on the ability to hunt for food or fight in battle, a bow was a highly prized and carefully crafted item.

The Arrows

If you thought the bow-making process took time, you’ll be surprised at the truth about making arrows.

The first step in the process was to find a number of fairly straight sticks—either branches from a tree or woody reeds. If branches were used, they would start with a branch about as thick as the human thumb. The arrow-maker would rub animal fat over the batch to slow the drying process, then bundle the sticks together. And then…he would place them in a dark place for three to eight months to dry properly.

With the drying process done, the arrow-maker would then straighten the wood. If the sticks were bundled properly, they wouldn’t need much straightening. The arrow shaft would be run through a low flame to heat the wood, then manipulated by hand to straighten any bent places. With the significant bends straightened out, the arrow-maker would sight down the shaft and straighten the less obvious imperfections. As the wood cooled, the bark was removed and the shafts sanded until smooth. A nock would be cut into one end where the bowstring would fit.

Seneca woman Pretty Flower holding a bow and several arrows
circa 1908

On the shaft’s other end, the arrowhead would be attached. Depending on the Native American tribe, materials available, and what point in history you were talking about, arrowheads might be made of bone, stone, glass or metal. Most commonly, they were made of stone—often flint—which had to be carefully chipped and shaped into a razor-sharp projectile point. This process is known as “flintknapping.” The arrowhead was attached, usually by tying it in place with sinew.

The final piece of the process was to fletch the arrow—or attach the feathers. The feathers would give the arrow its spin, which would make it fly straight, and would also counterbalance the weight of the arrowhead so it wouldn’t tumble end over end. Turkey feathers were most commonly used, although crow, eagle, and other large bird feathers were suitable alternatives. The three feathers would be glued in place with animal hide glue, then carefully tied down with a delicate piece of sinew.

Quality arrows could take anywhere from six months to a year to make, and as I’m sure you can imagine, these arrows would easily be lost, damaged, or stolen in the heat of a hunt or battle. A large part of a Native American’s time was spent on making the arrows he would need to keep his family fed or protected.

It’s your turn: Have you ever given thought to the time-consuming processes it took to make the everyday tools of life in times gone by? If so, what process most impressed or amazed you and why?

Jennifer Uhlarik discovered the western genre as a pre-teen when she swiped the only “horse” book she found on her older brother’s bookshelf. A new love was born. Across the next ten years, she devoured Louis L’Amour westerns and fell in love with the genre. In college at the University of Tampa, she began penning her own story of the Old West. Armed with a B.A. in writing, she has won and finaled in numerous writing competitions. In addition to writing, she has held jobs as a private business owner, a schoolteacher, a marketing director, and her favorite—a full-time homemaker. She currently writes historical novellas of the American West for Barbour Publishing and works as a Content Editor for Firefly Southern Fiction. Jennifer is active in American Christian Fiction Writers and lifetime member of the Florida Writers Association. She lives near Tampa, Florida, with her husband, college-aged son, and four fur children.


  1. The assisted living facility where my mother-in-law lives has a nice display of antiques. One of those is a handmade bow and arrows from the 19th century. The arrow points are actual arrowheads. My son and I were looking at it just last week. :) Susan Page Davis's husband makes--or maybe repairs--arrows.

    1. Very cool, Vickie! I love looking at antiques like these! What fun to be able to see them any time you visit your Mother-in-law!

  2. Wow! That was way more work than I thought!! So I imagine that every single shot would be carefully thought out and placed.

    1. Knowing the detailed and lengthy process sure gives you a whole new respect for what seemed like a fairly simple thing, doesn't it? That's why I was so excited to share this post! I had no idea it took so long!

  3. Great post about the Native American bow and arrows. We take so much for granted as to how the original bow and arrows were made.

    1. Absolutely, we do, Marilyn! Thanks so much stopping by and for sharing your thoughts.

  4. I had no idea it took so long to make a bow and arrows. That was very interesting. Thank you for sharing.

    1. I'm glad you enjoyed the information, Susan.

    2. I can't imagine losing an arrow after investing so much time to make it. Thanks for sharing this post!