Using a bow and arrow is no longer the preferred method for hunting or attacking an enemy combatant, but for thousands of years, simple projectile weapons were the most effective tools that humans had! To this day, many hunters prefer archery to the use of firearms.
For the non-hunters reading this, perhaps you can summon an image of Legolas from Lord of the Rings, Robin Hood or Merida from the Pixar movie Brave. All of these legendary archers, aside from being fictional characters, also used arrows with feathers attached to the back! While feathers aren’t attached to every modern arrow that is produced, feathers were a critical part of arrow construction for thousands of years, but why?
The development of bows and arrows was likely a step up from clubs, spears, and other projectiles that offered less control or accuracy from a distance. It would be thousands of years before bows and arrows were used as weapons of war, which is also when more complex bows were developed (i.e., composite bows, recurve bows, etc.).
The design of arrows, on the other hand, has always been extremely simple, and consists of three parts—the shaft, the point and the fletching. While the first two elements are generally understood by most people, the fletching is where much of the confusion lies. The fletching is the collective name for the three or four fin-shaped structures attached to the back of an arrow. In fact, fletching is a catch-all term for any aerodynamic stabilization device that is attached to a projectile, whether that is a rocket, a spear, an arrow, a throwing dart or a Nerf Vortex!
To understand why a fletching is important, we need to look at the physics of an arrow in flight. Imagine that an archer is pulling back an arrow that is nocked in the bowstring. The tension that is generated by pulling back on the bowstring represents potential energy. You are not stretching the string, but rather changing the shape of the bow stave, making the bow into a spring. When the archer releases the bowstring, the potential energy will be converted into kinetic energy moving in the forward direction.
Depending on wind conditions and the straightness of the shot, as well as the force being applied by the archer, a number of forces could begin to act on the arrow, causing it to veer off course, or even tumble end over end. Considering that the purpose of an arrow is to penetrate a target with as much force as possible, straight and unwavering flight is desired.
Having a sharp projectile point and a straight arrow shaft is critical to this purpose, but the fletching is perhaps the most critical variable. The fletching helps to stabilize the arrow while in flight, correcting any small variations that could take it off course or cause it to not hit a target directly.
The fletching generates a small amount of drag, which slightly slows down the arrow, but also ensures that it flies straight. If the backend begins to wobble or if the arrow starts to move end over end, the drag on the back portion of the arrow should keep the projectile moving on a predictable parabolic arc.
Fletching: Past and Present
Until the 20th century, the fletching on the back of any arrow was traditionally made of avian feathers, often from a cock or hen (in English archery), though goose and turkey feathers are also popular. Wing and tail feathers are the most popular choices, as they are more rigid and are easier to manipulate, trim and adhere to an arrow.