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Swords, Cutting and Military History

Oddities of archery: Medieval arrowheads with twisted sockets

Oddities of archery:  Medieval arrowheads with twisted sockets

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One of the more unusual and perhaps unpleasant forms of arrowheads used in Medieval Europe was found in Poland between the 8th and 12th centuries.  In general, these arrowheads are mainly of the barbed variety, although both regular and armour-piercing arrowheads are sometimes seen;  the metal shaft which connects the actual head of the arrow to the socket is literally twisted several times, so that spiral grooves appear to be running up the connecting shaft.  These arrowheads are most often found in areas which were dominated by Slavs — the south and west region of what is now Poland.  They have also been recovered at sites in central/southern Germany, Bohemia, Moravia, Slovakia, Slovenia and Croatia.


Twisted arrowhead diagrams


There have been many theories as to why these form of arrowhead were used.  In this article, we’ll examine the research of Michał Stąpór of the Wroclaw University of Technology, Poland, who puts forward several unpleasant theories of the precise function of these weapons:  Early Medieval arrowheads with twisted sockets discovered in Poland: Concepts of Purpose.

The follow map depicts the locations with the arrowheads in Fig. 2 were found;  the colour of the dots shows the approximate period they were used in;  I’ve included a text rendition of the colour chart to make reading the map easier.


Map showing where arrowheads were found.

Distribution by time colour chart: Red: 8th century. Light Red: 8th-9th centuries. Yellow: 9th century. Dark Green: 9th-10th centuries. Light Green: 10th-12th centuries. Black: Unknown.

History shows the Slavs entered this region in the early 8th century, and slowly expanded eastward and northward, following the Wisla and Warta rivers, over the next two centuries.  Interestingly, Stąpór notes that no arrowheads of this type were found east of the Wisla (easternmost) river.

The arrowheads pictured above comprise the total 25 twisted heads found in Poland as of the date of this paper.   Due to the extra metal in the head, all of these would have required bows of unusual power to launch.  Indeed, two of the arrows are so heavy (25 grams / .89 ounces) that the author estimated they would have required of bow of 100lbs or more pull to be effectively fired;  either very heavy “warbows”, otherwise known as longbows, or an early crossbow seems likely .  The heads range in length from 51-125mm (2-4 1/4 inches).

Noting that other researchers had identified a correlation between weight and length, Stąpór breaks the collection down into two groups:  Group A are those between 51 and 73 mm length, Group B are those between 74 to 90 mm, and Group C are over 90mm.  He then charts them according to the century they were used in.  This breakdown showed significant usage of the heavier heads in early periods, with the lighter arrowheads being found in later periods.  Stąpór found a sharp geographic division in where the various heads were found:  None of the lightest grouping of twisted heads were found in southern Poland, while none of the heavier heads were found in the northern regions of the country.

Timechart of arrowhead groupings

He then goes on to discuss the time periods of most interest illuminated by this chart:  the 8th century, when the use of bows in combat (rather than hunting) was spreading, and the 9th-12th centuries, when the use of the heaviest twisted arrowheads declines, replaced by the lightest ones.  He does note that other cultures saw a replacement of normal arrowheads with armour-piercing heads, and concludes this may be the reason for the final discontinuance of twisted arrowheads.

The question remains, what was the purpose of this form of arrowhead?  Was it solely meant for hunting, or was it a weapon of war.  He notes that historically, Polish warbows were presumed to have a draw of some 70 pounds, and not being less than 153 cm (60 inches) in length.  Unfortunately, the vast majority of ancient bows found in Poland have been identified as either children’s weapons, or as hunting weapons.  Only one warbow was found, but that was lost during WWII.   Another researcher, however, showed that Polish arrowheads of 10 grams or less weight were used only for hunting, thus even the lightest of the twisted heads would be far too heavy for normal hunting purposes.

He then explores the Slav culture and military tactic;  in this, he finds: “Tactics used by Slavic warriors which dominated the entire early Middle Ages can be described as “guerrilla.””  Indeed he quotes the 6th century Roman Emperor Maurice:

“The Slavs use the bows with short poisoned arrows. If the injured did not drink the antidote before… should immediately cut the wound around, preventing the spread of the poison… ”

Finally, he looks at several previously existing theories as the the use of the twisted heads.  Of several listed (simple decoration, or a heavier head to be used in indirect fire during a siege) , he settles on two as being more likely.  The first suggests these heads were used to wrap incendiary material around the head, the groves of the twist providing natural binding points;  these would have been used in a siege.  He discounts this theory, since the bows found in Poland would have been too weak to launch such arrows (even heavier with the soaked incendiary material) the required height / distance.

The second theory is that the twists were designed to hold a substantial amount of poison during flight , with the barbed head ensuring the arrow would remain in the wound long enough for the poison to spread, which he believes is much more likely.   He then created a practical experiment to show whether these arrowheads would have been used for war, or just in hunting.  In another test, he uses two modern-made twisted arrowheads on a block of ballistic gelatin to see the effectively of the twist grooves in disseminating poison.

In the hunting vs war test, he used two 50 pound pull bows, of both modern and ancient design, to fire 12 arrows, each with an ascending weight of head, to see the effect on the range of the arrow.  Unsurprisingly, the modern bow outperformed the ancient one overall.  To quickly sum up, the lighter arrowheads (5 grams) had the greatest range.  At medium weights, the modern bow saw a 10% reduction in range, but the ancient bow had a 20% reduction.  The heaviest heads (23 grams) saw a 30% decrease in range for the modern bow, but a 50% decrease in range for the ancient bow.  This makes it unlikely that the majority of these twisted heads were used for hunting.

In his experiment with twisted heads for penetration, he again used a 50 pound pull bow, this time with a block of ballistic gelatin as the target.  The block was covered with a wool blanket, to provide material which might stop poison from entering (by friction or absorption).


Arrowheads and bow for penetration test


Two arrows with 8 gram heads, coated with a liquid medium with metal in it, would be fired into the block;  one arrow would have the twisted head, the other a straight head. The block would then be X-rayed to determine the amount of “poison” (liquid medium) which would enter the body from each head.


Xray of block

The “poison” shows as white-ish cloud around shafts in the X-ray. This clouds appears on both sides of twisted shaft, while it is only seen on one side of straight-shafted arrowhead.  Stąpór’s conclusion reveals that considerable poison “leaked” from the twisted shaft into the ballistic test medium, something the X-ray is not capable of showing.

In summary to his experiments, Stąpór concludes:

The diagram shows a greater decrease in efficiency of a traditional 50 lbs bow for the arrowheads with the weight of 8 g. However, a modern bow can be effectively used with arrowheads of all weights.


The results confirm the previously adopted classification of the arrowheads. If among the largest number of barbed arrowheads with twisted sockets there were items with the weight between 7 and 9 g, it can be certainly said that the Slavs had bows which were more powerful than 50 lbs already at the end of the 8th century. Probably they knew even then the strongest battle bows.


The diagram also shows that the arrowheads with twisted sockets, known from the Polish territory, were mostly used for military purposes. On the X-ray photo it can be clearly seen that most of the poison that got into the gelatine was from the arrowhead with the twisted socket. A lot of poison found its way into gelatine in the cavities of the socket. Unfortunately, we cannot see this on the picture. This confirms that the arrowheads were twisted to be effectively used as poisoned arrows. A considerable amount of poison which remains in cavities of the socket will not be washed away by the flowing blood.


The disappearance of arrowheads with twisted sockets in the 13th century probably has two causes. The first is the spread of armour, which they could not penetrate. This is further shown in Opole where from the first half of the 12th century there is a large number of arrowheads designed primarily for piercing armour (Wachowski 1982 p. 169, fig 1). Another reason is the spread of Christianity in the Polish territory at this time, which destroyed all forms of paganism, including production of poisons as an expression of paganism…



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