Ascham’s arrow – mid-16th-18th C target arrow

I will let them pass, and speak of those shafts which Englishmen, at this day, most commonly do approve and allow. A shaft hath three principal parts, the stele, the feathers, and the head; whereof every one must be severally spoken of.

Steles be made of divers woods: as,

Brazil, Service-tree,
Turkey wood, Hulder [Alder],
Fustic, Blackthorn,
Sugar-chest, Beech,
Hardbeam, Elder,
Birch, Asp,
Ash, Sallow.

These woods, as they be most commonly used, so they be most fit to be used : yet some one fitter than another for divers men’s shooting, as shall be told afterward. And in this point, as in a bow, you must trust an honest fletcher. Nevertheless, although I cannot teach you to make a bow or a shaft, which belongeth to a bowyer and a fletcher to come to their living, yet will I show you some tokens to know a bow and a shaft, which pertaineth to an archer to come to good shooting.

A stele must be well seasoned for casting, and it must be made as the grain lieth, and as it groweth, or else it will never fly clean, as cloth cut overthwart, and against the wool, can never hose a man clean. A knotty stele may be suffered in a big shaft, but for a little shaft it is nothing fit, both because it will never fly far; and, besides that it is ever in danger of breaking, it flyeth not far because the strength of the shoot is hindered and stopped at the knot, even as a stone cast into a plain even still water, will make the water move a great space ; yet, if there be any whirling plat in the water, the moving ceaseth when it cometh at the whirling plat, which is not much unlike a knot in a shaft, if it be considered well. So everything as it is plain and straight of his own nature, so is it fittest for far moving. Therefore a stele which is hard to stand in a bow without knot, and straight, (I mean not artificially straight as the fletcher doth make it, but naturally straight as it groweth in the wood,) is best to make a shaft of, either to go clean, fly far, or stand surely in any weather.

Now how big, how small, how heavy, how light, how long, how short, a shaft should be particularly for every man, seeing we must talk of the general nature of shooting, cannot be told ; no more than you rhetoricians can appoint any one kind of words, of sentences, of figures, fit for every matter ; but even as the man and the matter requireth, so the fittest to be used. Therefore as concerning those contraries in a shaft, every man must avoid them, and draw to the mean of them, which mean is best in all things. Yet if a man happen to offend in any of the extremes, it-is better to offend in want and scantness, than in too much and outrageous exceeding. As it is better to have a shaft a little too short than over-long, somewhat too light than over-lumpish, a little too small than a great deal too big; which thing is not only truly said in shooting, but in all other things that ever man goeth about; as in eating, talking, and all other things like; which matter was once excellently disputed upon in the schools, you know when.

And to offend in these contraries, cometh much, if men take not heed, through the kind of wood whereof the shaft is made; for some wood belongs to the exceeding part, some to the scant part, some to the mean, as Brazil, Turkey wood, fustic, sugar-chest, and such like, make dead, heavy, lumpish, hobbling shafts. Again, alder, blackthorn, service tree, beech, elder, asp, and sallow, either for their weakness or lightness, make hollow, starting, studding, gadding shafts. But birch, hardbeam, some oak, and some ash, being both strong enough to stand in a bow, and also light enough to fly far, are best for a mean, which is to be sought out in every thing. And although I know that some men shoot so strong, that the dead woods be light enough for them, and other some so weak, that the loose woods be likewise for them big enough, yet generally, for the most part of men, the mean is the best. And so to conclude, that is always best for a man which is meetest for him. Thus no wood of his own nature is either too light or too heavy, but as the shooter is himself which doth use it. For that shaft, which one year for a man is too light and scudding, for the self-same man the next year may chance to be heavy and hobbling. Therefore cannot I express, except generally, which is best wood for a shaft; but let every man, when he knoweth his own strength, and the nature of every wood, provide and fit himself thereafter. Yet, as concerning sheaf arrows for war, (as I suppose) it were better to make them of good ash, and not of asp, they be now-a-days. For of all other woods that ever I proved, ash being big is swiftest, and again heavy give a great stripe withal, which asp shall not do. What heaviness doth in a stripe, every man by experience can tell; therefore ash being both swifter and heavier, is more fit for sheaf arrows than asp : And thus much for the best wood for shafts.

Again, likewise, as no one wood can be greatly meet for all kinds of shafts, no more can one fashion of the stele be fit for every shooter. For those that be little-breasted and big toward the head, called, by their likeness, taper fashion, resh grown, and of some merry fellows bobtails, be fit for them which shoot under-hand, because they shoot with a soft loose, and stresses not a shaft much in the breast, where the weight of the bow lieth, as you may perceive by the wearing of every shaft. Again, the big-breasted shaft is fit for him which shooteth right afore him, or else the breast being weak, should never withstand that strong pithy kind of shooting: thus, the under-hand must have a small breast to go clean away out of the bow, the fore hand must have a big breast to bear the great might of the bow. The shaft must be made round, nothing flat, without gall or wem, for this purpose. For because roundness (whether you take example in heaven or in earth) is fittest shape and form both for fast moving, and also for soon piercing of any thing. And therefore Aristotle saith, that nature hath made the rain to be round, because it should the easilier enter through the air.

The nock of the shaft is diversely made; for some be great and full, some handsome and little; some wide, some narrow, some deep, some shallow, some round, some long, some with one nock, some with a double nock, whereof every one hath his property. The great and full nock may be well felt, and many ways they save a shaft from breaking. The handsome and little nock will go clean away from the hand; the wide nock is naught, both for breaking of the shaft and also for sudden slipping out of the string, when the narrow nock doth avoid both those harms. The deep and long nock is good in war for sure keeping in of the string. The shallow and round nock is best for our purpose in pricking for clean deliverance of a shoot. And double nocking is used for double surety of the shaft. And thus far as concerning a whole stele. Piecing of a shaft with Brazil and holly, or other heavy woods, is to make the end compass heavy[12] with the feathers in flying for the stedfaster shooting. For if the end were plump heavy with lead, and the wood next it light, the head end would ever be downwards, and never fly straight. Two points in piecing be enough, lest the moistness of the earth enter too much into the piecing, and so loose the glue. Therefore many points be more pleasant to the eye, than profitable for the use. Some use to piece their shafts in the nock with Brazil or holly, to counterweigh with the head ; and I have seen some for the same purpose bore a hole a little beneath the nock, and put lead in it. But yet none of these ways be any thing needful at all: for the nature of a feather in flying, if a man mark it well, is able to bear up a wonderful weight; and I think such piecing came up first thus : when a good archer hath broken a good shaft in the feathers, and for the fantasy he hath had to it, he is loth to lose it, and therefore doth he piece it. And then by and by, other, either because it is gay, or else because they will have a shaft like a good archer, cutteth their whole shafts, and pieceth them again ; a thing, by my judgment, more costly than needful. And thus have you heard what wood, what fashion, what nocking, what piecing, a stele must have. Now followeth the feathering.

Phi. I would never have thought you could have said half so much of a stele; and, I think as concerning the little feather, and the plain head, there is but little to say.

Tox. Little ! yes, truly: for there is no one thing in all shooting so much to be looked on as the feather. For, first, a question may be asked : Whether any other thing beside a feather, be fit for a shaft or no? If a feather only be fit, whether a goose feather only or no ? If a goose feather be best, then whether there be any difference as concerning the feather of an old goose and a young goose ; a gander or a goose; a fenny goose or an uplandish goose ? Again, which is best feather in any goose, the right wing or the left wing; the pinion feather or any other feather : a white, black, or grey feather; Thirdly, in setting on of your feather, whether it is pared or drawn with a thick rib or a thin rib, (the rib is the hard quill which divideth the feather,) a long feather better or a short, set on near the nock or far from the nock, set on straight or somewhat bowing; and whether one or two feathers run on the bow? Fourthly, in couling or sheering, whether high or low, whether somewhat swine-backed (I must use shooters’ words) or saddle-backed, whether round or square shorn ? And whether a shaft at any time ought to be plucked, and how to be plucked ?

Phi. Surely, Toxophile, I think many fletchers, although daily they have these things in use, if they were asked suddenly, what they would say of a feather, they could not say so much. But I pray you let me hear you more at large express those things in a feather, the which you packed up in so narrow a room. And first, whether any other thing may be used for a feather or not ?

Tox. That was the first point indeed; and because there followeth many after, I will hie apace over them, as one that had many a mile to ride. Shafts to have had always feathers, Pliny in Latin, and Julius Pollux in Greek, do plainly show ; yet only the Lycians I read in Herodotus to have used shafts without feathers. Only a feather is fit for a shaft for two causes; first because it is leath, weak to give place to the bow, then because it is of that nature that it will start up after the bow. So plate, wood, or horn, cannot serve, because they will not give place. Again, cloth, paper, or parchment, cannot serve, because they will not rise after the bow; therefore a feather is only meet, because it only will do both. Now, to look on the feathers of all manner of birds, you shall see some so low, weak, and short, some so coarse, stoore, and hard, and the rib so brickie, thin and narrow, that it can neither be drawn, pared, nor yet will set on ; that except it be a swan for a dead shaft, (as I know some good archers have used,) or a duck for a flight, which lasts but one shot, there is no feather but only of a goose that hath all commodities in it. And truly at a short butt, which some men doth use, the peacock feather doth seldom keep up the shaft either right or level, it is so rough and heavy ; so that many men, which have taken them up for gayness, hath laid them down again for profit: thus, for our purpose, the goose is the best feather for the best shooter.

Phi. No, that is not so ; for the best shooter that ever was, used other feathers.

Tox. Yea, are you so cunning in shooting ? I pray you who was that ?

Phi. Hercules, which had his shafts feathered with eagles’ feathers, as Hesiodus doth say.

Tox. Well, as for Hercules, seeing neither water nor land, heaven nor hell, could scarce content him to abide in, it was no marvel though a silly poor goose-feather could not please him to shoot withal; and again, as for eagles, they fly so high, and build so far off, that they be very hard to come by. Yet, well fare the gentle goose, which bringeth to a man, even to his door, so many exceeding commodities. For the goose is man’s comfort in war and in peace, sleeping and waking. What praise soever is given to shooting, the goose may challenge the best part in it. How well doth she make a man fare at his table ? How easily doth she make a man lie in his bed? How fit even as her feathers be only for shooting, so be her quills fit only for writing.

Phi. Indeed, Toxophile, that is the best praise you gave to a goose yet; and surely I would have said you had been to blame, if you had overskipt it.

Tox. The Romans, I trow, Philologe, not so much because a goose with crying saved their capitol, and head tower, with their golden Jupiter, as Propertius doth say very prettily in this verse,

Anseris et tutum voce fuisse Jovem,
Id est,

Thieves on a night had stolen Jupiter, had a goose not a kekede [cackled], did make a golden goose, and set her in the top of the capitolium, and appointed also the censors to allow out of the common hutch yearly stipends, for the finding of certain geese;-the Romans did not, I say, give all this honour to a goose for that good deed only, but for other infinite mo, which come daily to a man by geese ; and surely if I should declaim in the praise of any manner of best living, I would choose a goose. But the goose hath made us flee too far from our matter. Now, Sir, ye have heard how a feather must be had, and that a goose feather only; it followeth of a young goose and an old, and the residue belonging to a feather; which thing I will shortly course over; whereof, when you know the properties, you may fit your shafts according to your shooting, which rule you must observe in all other things too, because no one fashion or quantity can be fit for every man, no more than a shoe or a coat can be. The old goose feather is stiff and strong, good for a wind, and fittest for a dead shaft: the young goose feather is weak and fine, best for a swift shaft; and it must be couled at the first sheering, somewhat high, for with shooting it will settle and fall very much. The same thing (although not so much) is to be considered in a goose and a gander. A fenny goose, even as her flesh is blacker, stoorer, unwholsomer, so is her feather, for the same cause, coarser, stoorer, and rougher; and therefore I have heard very good fletchers say, that the second feather in some place is better than the pinion in other some. Betwixt the wings is little difference, but that you must have divers shafts of one flight, feathered with divers wings, for divers winds; for if the wind and the feather go both one way, the shaft will be carried too much. The pinion feathers, as it hath the first place in the wing, so it hath the first place in good feathering. You may know it before it be pared, by a bought which is in it; and again when it is cold, by the thinness above, and the thickness at the ground; and also by the stiffness and fineness which will carry a shaft better, faster, and further, even as a fine sail-cloth doth a ship.

The colour of the feather is least to be regarded, yet somewhat to be looked on; for a good white you have sometime an ill grey. Yet, surely it standeth with good reason, to have the cock-feather black or grey, as it were to give a man warning to nock right. The cock-feather is called that which standeth above in right nocking; which if you do not observe, the other feathers must needs run on the bow, and so marr your shot. And thus far of the goodness and choice of your feather : now followeth the setting on. Wherein you must look that your feathers be not drawn for hastiness, but pared even and straight with diligence. The fletcher draweth a feather when it hath but one swap at it with his knife, and then plaineth it a little, with rubbing it over his knife. He pareth it when he taketh leisure and heed to make every part of the rib apt to stand straight and even on upon the stele. This thing if a man take not heed on, he may chance have cause to say so of his fletcher, as in dressing of meat is commonly said of cooks; and that is, that God sendeth us good feathers, but the devil naughty fletchers. If any fletchers heard me say thus, they would not be angry with me, except they were ill fletchers; and yet by reason, those fletchers too ought rather to amend themselves for doing ill, than be angry with me for saying truth. The rib in a stiff feather may be thinner, for so it will stand cleaner on; but in a weak feather you must leave a thicker rib, or else if the rib, which is the foundation and ground wherein nature hath set every cleft of the feather, be taken too near the feather, it must needs follow, that the feather shall fall and droop down, even as any herb doth which hath his root too near taken on with a spade. The length and shortness of the feather serveth for divers shafts, as a long feather for a long, heavy, or big shaft, the short feather for the contrary. Again, the short may stand farther, the long nearer the nock. Your feather must stand almost straight on, but yet after that sort, that it may turn round in flying.

And here I consider the wonderful nature of shooting, which standeth altogether by that fashion which is most apt for quick moving, and that is by roundness. For first the bow must be gathered round, in drawing it must come round compass, the string must be round, the stele must be round, the best nock round, the feather shorn somewhat round, the shaft in flying must turn round ; and, if it fly far, it flieth a round compass, for either above or beneath a round compass hindereth the flying. Moreover, both the fletcher in making your shaft, and you in nocking your shaft, must take heed that two feathers equally run on the bow. For if one feather run alone on the bow, it shall quickly be worn, and shall not be able to match with the other feathers; and again, at the loose, if the shaft be light, it will start; if it be heavy, it will hobble. And thus as concerning setting on of your feather. Now of couling.

To sheer a shaft high or low, must be as the shaft is, heavy or light, great or little, long or short; the swine-backed fashion maketh the shaft deader, for it gathereth more air than the saddle-backed; and therefore the saddle-back is surer for danger of weather, and fitter for smooth flying. Again, to sheer a shaft round, as they were wont sometimes to do, or after the triangle fashion, which is much used now-a-days, both be good. For roundness is apt for flying of his own nature, and all manner of triangle fashion, (the sharp point going before) is also naturally apt for quick entering ; and therefore saith Cicero, that cranes, taught by nature, observe in flying a triangle fashion always, because it is so apt to pierce and go through the air withal. Last of all, plucking of feathers is nought, for there is no surety in it; therefore let every archer have such shafts, that he may both know them and trust them at every change of weather. Yet, if they must needs be plucked, pluck them as little as can be, for so shall they be the less unconstant. And thus I have knit up in as short a room as I could, the best feathers, feathering, and couling of a shaft.

Phi. I think surely you have so taken up the matter with you, that you have left nothing behind you. Now you have brought a shaft to the head, which, if it were on, we had done as concerning all instruments belonging to shooting.

Tox. Necessity, the inventor of all goodness (as all authors in a manner do say), amongst all other things made it of strong matter, to last better : last of all, invented a shaft head, first to save the end from breaking ; then it made it sharp, to stick better; after it made it of strong matter to last better : last of all, experience and wisdom of men hath brought it to such a perfectness, that there is no one thing so profitable belonging to artillery, either to strike a man’s enemy sorer in war, or to shoot nearer the mark at home, than is a fit head for both purposes. For if a shaft lack a head, it is worth nothing for neither use. Therefore, seeing heads be so necessary, they must of necessity be well looked upon. Heads for war, of long time hath been made, not only of divers matters, but also of divers fashions. The Trojans had heads of iron, as this verse, spoken of Pandarus, showeth;

Up to the pap his string did he pull, his shaft to the hard iron.

The Grecians had heads of brass, as Ulysses’ shafts were headed, when he slew Antoninus and the other wooers of Penelope.

—-Quite through a door flew a shaft with a brass head.

It is plain in Homer, where Menelaus was wounded of Pandarus shafts, that the heads were not glued on, but tied on with a string, as the commentaries in Greek plainly tell. And therefore shooters, at that time, used to carry their shafts without heads, until they occupied them, and then set on an head ; as it appeareth in Homer, the twenty-first book Odyssei, where Penelope brought Ulixes bow down amongst the gentlemen which came on wooing to her, that he which was able to bend it and draw it might enjoy her; and after her followed a maid, saith Homer, carrying a bag full of heads, both of iron and brass.

The men of Scythia used heads of brass. The men of Inde used heads of iron. The Ethiopians used heads of a hard sharp stone, as both Herodotus and Pollux do tell. The Germans, as Cornelius Tacitus doth say, had their shafts headed with bone; and many countries, both of old time and now, use heads of horn. But, of all other, iron and steel must needs be the fittest for heads. Julius Pollux calleth otherwise than we do, where the feathers be the head, and that which we call the head, he calleth the point.

Fashion of heads is divers, and that of old time : two manner of arrow heads, saith Pollux, was used in old time. The one he calleth greekdescribing it thus, having two points or barbs, looking backward to the stele and the feathers, which surely we call in English a broad arrow head, or a swallow tail. The other he calleth greek having two points stretching forward, and this Englishmen do call a fork head; both these two kinds of heads were used in Homer’s days; for Teucer used forked heads, saying thus to Agamemnon:

Eight good shafts have I shot sith I came, each one with a fork head.

Pandarus heads and Ulysses’ heads were broad arrow heads, as a man may learn in Homer, that would be curious in knowing that matter. Hercules used forked heads, but yet they had three points or forks, when other men’s had but two. The Parthians at that great battle where they slew rich Crassus and his son, used broad arrow heads, which stuck so sore that the Romans could not pull them out again. Commodus the Emperor used forked heads, whose fashion Herodian doth lively and naturally describe, saying, that they were like the shape of a new moon, wherewith he would smite off the head of a bird, and never miss : other fashion of heads have not I read on. Our English heads be better in war than either forked heads or broad arrow heads. For first, the end being lighter, they fly a great deal the faster, and, by the same reason, giveth a far sorer stripe. Yea, and I suppose, if the same little barbs which they have were clean put away, they should be far better. For this every man doth grant, that a shaft, as long as it flieth, turns, and when it leaveth turning, it leaveth going any further. And everything that enters by a turning and boring fashion, the more flatter it is, the worse it enters; as a knife, though it be sharp, yet, because of the edges, will not bore so well as a bodkin, for every round thing enters best; and therefore nature, saith Aristotle, made the rain-drops round, for quick piercing the air. Thus, either shafts turn not in flying, or else our flat arrow heads stop the shaft in entering.

Phi. But yet, Toxophile, to hold your communication a little, I suppose the flat head is better, both because it maketh a greater hole, and also because it sticks faster in.

Tox. These two reasons, as they be both true, so they be both naught. For first, the less hole, if it be deep, is the worse to heal again : when a man shooteth at his enemy, he desireth rather that it should enter far, than stick fast. For what remedy is it, I pray you, for him which is smitten with a deep wound, to pull out the shaft quickly, except it be to haste his death speedily? Thus heads which make a little hole and deep, be better in war, than those which make a great hole and stick fast in. Julius Pollux maketh mention of certain kinds of heads for war, which bear fire in them, and Scripture also speaketh somewhat of the same. Herodotus doth tell a wonderful policy to be done by Xerxes, what time he besieged the great tower in Athens : he made his archers bind their shaft heads about with tow, and then set it on fire and shoot them ; which thing done by many archers, set all the places on fire, which were of matter to burn; and, besides that, dazed the men within, so that they knew not whither to turn them. But, to make an end of all heads for war, I would wish that the head-makers of England should make their sheaf-arrow heads more harder pointed than they be : for I myself have seen of late such heads set upon sheaf-arrows, as the officers, if they had seen them, would not have been content withal.

Now as concerning heads for pricking, which is our purpose, there be divers kinds; some be blunt heads, some sharp, some both blunt and sharp. The blunt heads men use, because they perceive them to be good to keep a length withal; they keep a good length, because a man pulleth them no further at one time than at another; for in feeling the plump end always equally, he may loose them. Yet, in a wind, and against the wind, the weather hath so much power on the broad end, that no man can keep no sure length with such a head ; therefore a blunt head, in a calm or down a wind, is very good, otherwise none worse. Sharp heads at the end, without any shoulders, (I call that the shoulder in a head which a man’s finger shall feel afore it comes to the point,) will perch quickly through a wind; but yet it hath two discommodities; the one that it will keep no length; it keepeth no length, because no man can pull it certainly as far one time as at another: it is not drawn certainly so far one time as at another, because it lacketh shouldering, wherewith, as with a sure token, a man might be warned when to loose; and also because men are afraid of the sharp point for setting it in the bow. The second incommodity is, when it is lighted on the ground, the small point shall at every time be in jeopardy of hurting, which thing, of all other, will soonest make the shaft lose the length. Now, when blunt heads be good to keep a length withal, yet naught for a wind; sharp heads good to perch the weather withal, yet naught for a length ; certain head-makers dwelling in London, perceiving the commodity of both kind of heads joined with a discommodity, invented new files and other instruments, wherewith they brought heads for pricking to such a perfectness, that all the commodities of the two other heads should be put in one head, without any discommodity at all. They made a certain kind of heads, which men call high-rigged, creased, or shouldered heads, or silver-spoon heads, for a certain likeness that such heads have with the knob end of some silver spoons. These heads be good both to keep a length withal, and also to perch a wind withal. To keep a length withal, because a man may certainly pull it to the shouldering every shoot, and no further; to perch a wind withal, because the point, from the shoulder forward, breaketh the weather, as all other sharp things do. So the blunt shoulder serveth for a sure length keeping, the point also is ever fit for a rough and great weather piercing. And thus much, as shortly as I could, as concerning heads both for war and peace.

Phi. But is there no cunning as concerning setting on of the head ?

Tox. Well remembered. But that point belongeth to fletchers ; yet you may desire him to set your head full on, and close on. Full on, is when the wood is bet [beat] hard up to the end or stopping of the head; close on, is when there is left wood on every side the shaft enough to fill the head withal, or when it is neither too little nor yet too great. If there be any fault in any of these points, the head, when it lighteth on any hard stone, or ground, will be in jeopardy, either of breaking, or else otherwise hurting. Stopping of heads, either with lead or any thing else, shall not need now, because every silver spoon, or shouldered head, is stopped of itself. Short heads be better than long: for first, the long head is worse for the maker to file straight compass every way ; again, it is worse for the fletcher to set straight on; thirdly, it is always in more jeopardy of breaking when it is on. And now, I trow, Philologe, we have done as concerning all instruments belonging to shooting, which every sere archer ought to provide for himself. And there remaineth two things behind, which be general or common to every man, the weather and the mark ; but, because they be so knit with shooting straight, or keeping of a length, I will defer them to that place; and now we will come (God willing) to handle our instruments, the thing that every man desireth to do well.

This reproduction

Ascham Arrow
Ascham Arrow

Australian Mountain ash, no doubt Ascham would consider it a dull heavy shaft as well.

Early 17th century target arrow based on Ascham’s description of the ideal arrow. Long type 5 head by Medieval-Fightclub, linen thread from Long Branch Reenactment, straight mountain ash shaft (Ascham would hate that choice of timber), horn cross-nocked, goose feathers with black cock feather, rosin/beeswax glue.


Ascham, Roger, Toxophilus—The ∫chole of ∫hootinghe conteyned in tvvo bookes 1545


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.