Survival Spears

In my recent post about throwing sticks and stones, I mentioned that creating a good spear was not as easy as some survival manuals make out, and that the throwing stick might be a better investment of your time and energies.
I had wanted to link this comment to an article that I had written back in my early days on the internet. However, the throwing weapons group I had originally written it for had long since disappeared, and to my surprise, I had not placed a copy on my other website.
Below is the original article from many decades ago, with some minor updating and editing.
Since I wrote this, I have discovered several of my original articles are preserved on this site.

A Short Essay on Spears

Sometime ago, I started putting together notes on easily-made weapons and started off with spears since most survival books make this out to be quite simple. Just grab a length of wood and sharpen one end, and off you go!
Not quite!
Assuming that you do have a handy forest nearby, you won't see that many six foot+ lengths of timber of suitable width just growing from the ground, not anywhere I've been, anyhow.
If you do find something without needing to chop down a tree, it probably won't be straight, so you have to beath it.
Beathing involves gently roasting the wood over a fire or in hot ashes to make it temporarily supple. After this, you will probably have to hang your spear up to dry a day or so. Hanging a heavy weight from it may help the shaft stay straight. Bell towers were sometimes used to make and store pikes and spears.

Throwing Spears

For a throwing spear, just sharpening a point on one end and throwing it may not be enough. The spear will probably yaw like crazy and you may miss your mark by at least a foot.
Your spear needs flight stabilization.
Although fletching is sometimes used, most throwing spears are stabilized by drag, for which the front half needs to be heavier than the rear.
For a “self” spear (one made of a single piece of wood), drag stabilization may be achieved by tapering the shaft towards the butt, or better still. selecting a length of wood that is already tapered.
Hawaiian All Wooden Spear
Captain Cook's expedition to Hawaii acquired a very nice example of such a spear (above), which must have been the product of many hours carving, particularly since the owner was unlikely to have had metal tools.
Throwing Spears
A simpler option is to fit a heavier head or a fit a weight just behind the head.
Most spears that have a separate head have a head that is denser than the shaft material.
Flint heads are well known, but one can also carve a blade from wood, maybe gumming flakes of flint or shell to it.
Fixing a knife as a spear point will do, but the blade length handy for a knife is often too short for a good spear and any cross guard will limit penetration. Traditional boar‑spears penetrated at least ten inches, and bear‑spears more than double this.
A point can be carved from wood, and fire hardened in some cases, but if for a throwing spear, ensure it has sufficient weight.
Fire hardening is a process that is often mentioned, but not described in detail in many survival manuals. Fire hardening is “lightly toasting” the sharpened point of a wooden weapon to drive out some of the moisture. The point is then sharpened further. Fire hardening may make a wooden tip harder, but also makes it more brittle. Sometimes grease, oil or fat is applied to the treated point afterwards.
Other useful construction materials include flint, obsidian, glass, shell, slate, bone, horn, antler or metal, either on their own or added to a wooden head.
Drag stabilization may also be increased by adding cloth streamers or long tufts of grass or hair behind the head.

Thrusting Spears

Sometimes your intended meal will have other ideas and will want to come up and inform you of its differing opinion. In such a situation, a thrusting spear is useful, no matter what other weapon you were using to hunt.
Forward balance is not such a problem for a thrusting spear but penetration still is. In this situation your concern is too much rather than too little.
Some beasties have been known to impale themselves further onto a spear or sword attempting to get the hunter within reach of their horns, tusks, claws or teeth!
The solution to this hazard is some form of arrest, usually a crossbar a foot or more down the shaft.
Examples of methods of creating barred spears
A number of examples are shown in the illustration above, taken from “Hunting Weapons” by Howard L. Blackmore.
The leftmost uses a boar tusk thrust through the bindings. Several others use plates of bone or horn attached by cordage. Blackmore, p.91: “To start with, in the fifteenth century, the bar was a piece of wood or horn held firmly in position by thonging. It was then realized that if the bar hung loose it was still effective and was not so liable to cause accidental injury to the bearer or his companions. The piece of horn forming the bar, often only roughly shaped, was fastened to the haft by a leather strap passing through a hole in the socket or woven into the binding which normally criss-crossed the head of the haft to provide a grip.”
In some weapons, the arrest is not so obvious, being incorporated into the design of the blade or socket. Examples of this include the partizan and the lugged or winged spears.
Having more than one point automatically limits penetration, as can be seen with the Chinese tiger fork.
Chinese Tiger Fork
Thrusting spears are also used for hunting, usually from ambush.
A thrusting spear should lack any barbs so that it can be easily withdrawn for a second thrust or to be used against another target.

Barbs and Multiple Points

A throwing spear may be barbed, and in a hunting situation this may be done for two reasons:
Firstly, it is done to keep a poisoned blade in the animal's body long enough for the poison to take effect. Often the head detaches so that the shaft (the production of which may have involved quite a lot of work) will not be lost or damaged as the animal escapes through the brush or tries to rub the head loose. Having a wound partially plugged by a shaft reduces the rate of blood loss, but the movement of the shaft will also inhibit clotting, prolonging bleeding time.
Heads are also barbed to prevent an animal escaping from the spear head when the shaft of the spear is held or the weight of the shaft will hinder escape.
The most familiar examples of this are fishing spears (which may be more effective thrust rather well as thrown).
Sometimes the head of a spear will be designed to detach but will be on a line so that the fish/seal/hippo(!) can be hauled in once exhausted.
The drag of the detached shaft through the water may further tire the animal and sometimes a bladder or buoy is added to the shaft increase this effect.
This technique is also used with arrows.
Fishing Arrow
An very nice example (above), taken from “The Art of Attack” by Henry Swainson Cowper. The drag of the arrow shaft being pulled sideways through the water tires the prey. The barbed arrowhead is made from bone and inserts into a socket in the end of the shaft.
Because fish are often hard to hit, many fishing spears (and arrows) have multiple points, and this strategy may also be used on small elusive furred and feathered game too. For ideas for such designs, I suggest browsing Cowper and Blackmore, paying particular attention to the multi‑pointed spear, harpoon and arrow heads made from non‑metallic materials such as antler, wood and bone.

Throwing Cords

A useful trick that can be applied to spears is to tie a loop of cordage to the shaft and slip the first two fingers through the loop when throwing. This increases energy transfer to the shaft and was known to the Greeks as the “ankulé” and to the Romans as the “amentum. Cowper describes this on p.230.
A variant of this is to tie the cord with a half hitch, either near the centre of gravity or the butt. Using this knot allows the cord to remain with the thrower after the spear is cast. Cowper describes this on p.231, using the term “ounep”.
Miners in West Riding, Yorkshire, used this method to throw 31 inch long drag stabilised arrows, and ranges commonly exceeded 200 yards. Cowper describes this on p.230, the source being “The Crossbow/The Book of the Crossbow” by Sir Ralph Payne-Gallwey.
Conventional arrows can be thrown by the same method and this maybe a useful hunting technique for a bow hunter should your bow be broken.

If suitable materials are available, and the above design principles are borne in mind, quite effective spears can be made.
Spears are also useful as walking and wading aids, as carrying poles, shelter supports etc.

Bows in North America and Pellucidar

Reading through my file collection the other day I came across an old (1930’s?) article on how the North American Indians made their bows. I have some knowledge of English and Asian bows but this was a field I was less familiar with. One of the reasons that this article so interested me was that I am currently reading Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Pellucidar series. Many of the characters in these books use bows and there are frequent references to them constructing new weapons after escaping from capture. The Indians tended to favour flatbow designs and I have heard it suggested that such a bow is easier to construct under field conditions than the D-section English Longbow.
I will not bother to reproduce the entire article since there are some excellent websites on the topic available on the internet. Some interesting points from the original article were:
    • The best time to cut wood to make bows was February since the sap had not yet risen into the wood. This was defined in the article as “when the geese return”.
    • The wood of choice was Osage Orange. Where this was not available a number of other woods were used including ash, hickory and yew.
    • Like the English Longbow, the bowstave needed a considerable period of seasoning before any carving could be done. Bowstaves were hung high up in the tepee above the fire to gently season in the heat. Arrowshafts and other items were seasoned in the same way. The bark side of the stave was used for the "back" of the bow: the part that faces away from you.
    • Bow length varied with tribe, intended use and probably the individual. Bows of six foot or longer were known, as were bows of only a few feet. A suggested measure for a bow was the distance from the left hip to the right hand when the hand was held out horizontally to the side. This is about four feet. Some readers will recognize this as illustrated in Lofty Wiseman’s “The SAS Survival Guide” and doubtless this book and the article drew from a similar source. The bow illustrated in that publication is a flatbow.
    • Arrows were often marked with three lightning bolt carvings. Practical purpose of these may have been to reduce the tendency of the arrow to warp. It was also suggested in the article that the grooves might have encouraged blood loss.
    • Arrowheads were bound into the end of the arrowshaft. Some war arrowheads were constructed so that impact with the target would cut the bindings, leaving the head in the target even if the shaft was pulled out.
    • Hard sinew (from the neck of a buffalo) was sometimes used as an arrowhead. The stated advantage of this was that such heads had a tendency to deflect from the ribs of an animal and slip between them while flint or iron heads would stick, shatter or bend.
ERB does not give us any description of the type of bows his characters use, although David Innes in “Land of Terror” does tell us:
“A species of the genus Taxus is more or less widely distributed throughout Pellucidar; and I had discovered that its wood made the best bows. For arrows I used a straight, hollow reed that becomes very hard when dry. The tips which I inserted in the end of the reeds were of wood, fire-hardened.
A modern archer of the civilized outer world would doubtless laugh at the crude bow I made then at the edge of the Valley of the Jukans. If he uses a yew bow, the wood for it was allowed to season for three years before it was made into a bow, and then the bow was probably not used for two more years; but I could not wait five years before eating; and so I hacked the limb I had selected from the tree with my stone knife and took the bark from it and tapered it crudely from the center toward each end. I prefer a six foot, eighty pound bow for a three-foot arrow, because of the great size and formidability of some of the beasts one meets here; but of course my bow did not attain this strength immediately. Every time we had a fire, I would dry it out a little more, so that it gradually attained its full efficiency. The strings for my bows I can make from several long-fibered plants; but even the best of them do not last long, and I am constantly having to renew them.”

In “Return to Pellucidar” in the anthology book “Savage Pellucidar”:
“Fruit and nuts grew in abundance on the trees and shrubs of the little canyon; but fighting men require meat; and one must have weapons to have meat. These two had not even a stone knife between them, but the first men had no weapons originally. They had to make them.
Innes and Hodon went into the little stream and hunted around until they found a large mussel. They pried it open with a sharp stone, and each took a half shell. With these they cut two pieces of bamboo-like arborescent grass to form the hafts of two spears. Searching again they collected a number of stones: soft stones, hard stones, flat stones, stones with sharp edges; and with some of these they chipped and scraped at others until they had fashioned two spear heads and a couple of crude knives. While Hodon was finding the toughest fibers with which to bind the spear heads to the hafts, Innes made a bow and some arrows, for this was one of his favorite weapons.”
Since Pellucidar was constantly under an unmoving noon-day sun it presumably had no seasons and the trees would have always been filled with sap. Perhaps that was why the bow was so rare on Pellucidar!
The Boy Scout Handbook (1911) has a nice section on archery.