Throwing Arrows, Ouneps and Amentum

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.
Since then, I have discovered several of my original articles are preserved on this site.
The spear article, in turn, referenced an article I wrote on throwing arrows, so I have updated that and reposted it here.

Throwing arrows, or at least javelins that resemble arrows, have been used by several cultures, including the Romans and the Plains Indians.
One form of Roman weapon, the plumbata, is described as being about 10 inches long with an iron head, lead or lead‑weighted shaft and tin fins. There are references to legionaries carrying a rack of such missiles on the inside of their shields, at least in some regions or periods of the empire.
The Celts are known to have used a hardwood and iron weapon of about 21 inches length. (These are the weapons termed “Irish darts” in “Slash and Thrust” by John Sanchez. Sanchez claims these were the inspiration for the lead, iron and tin Roman dart. The example of the latter that he illustrates differs from most modern reconstructions.)
By the Middle Ages, such short spears or darts were also popular in other regions, particularly with the Arabs and Spanish (no doubt with the latter due to Moorish influence). “Spanish Darts” were one of the many weapons Henry VIII was proficient with. “Top dartes” were thrown from the rigging of warships.
Hand‑thrown arrows are sometimes referred to as “dutch arrows”.
This article will deal with less conventionally thrown arrows.
In his book “The Art of Attack”, H.S.Cowper refers to a class of weapon that he calls “javelins”, although he concedes the term is also used for conventional spears.
Cowper uses the term javelin to define "“…short pointed missiles flung by the wrist, not propelled straight by the forearm, but twirling in the air end over end before striking the object aimed at”. In other words, something that looks like a spear but is thrown like a knife.
Most of these weapons he describes are between one and three feet in length.
Obviously, this use of the term “javelin” has fallen into disuse.
Cowper suggests such a javelin was the type of weapon Saul threw at David: sitting around the throne room with a full size spear and throwing it a such short range seems to him unlikely.
Cowper describes several examples of javelin:
The Persians used an all metal weapon 2.5 feet long, and sometimes carried two or three in the same sheath. The Arabs used the “mizrak”, which had a 15 inch head, 23 inch shaft and a spiked butt.
The Greek version had a head at each end, but then so do certain much longer Greek spears.
The Knights’ Armoury at Malta had large stocks of sticks with a spear point at each end. These two foot long weapons were intended for throwing from the walls.
Most of the two‑pointed weapons have one head smaller than the other. It is true that this is a feature seen on many double pointed throwing knives, but it is just as likely the lesser point is for close combat or sticking the thing in the ground.
Short throwing sticks with a point at each end date back to prehistoric man.
Two‑pointed examples certainly exist, but the majority of these weapons are single‑pointed, and single‑bladed tumbling weapons seem to have seen very little battlefield use .
Cowper's javelins resemble short spears or throwing arrows, but are thrown end over end like a throwing knife. Pretty obviously, it is hard to tell by looking if a short spear was thrown knife fashion or spear fashion, and in many cases the answer may be either.
I have seen suggestions that the Roman plumbata may have been thrown like a German stick grenade.
Short, spear-like throwing weapons
The best evidence for such missiles being used that I have found comes from Japan. The “uchi‑ne” resembles a short stocky arrow about 12 inch long with a 4 inch head. naga-yari and uchi-ne
The “nage‑yari” (“thrown/throwing spear”) is a short spear about 17 inch long with a 5 inch head. Often tassels are fitted behind the head, which may aid drag stabilisation.
According to some books, these short missiles are used in the defence of palanquins.
Michael Finn's book “The Art of Shuriken” plainly shows an uchi‑ne being thrown in the same way as a knife, but holding the bottom of the shaft just above the vanes. Finn’s illustration appears to show an uchi‑ne brought up to touch the shoulder and then flipped forward by straightening the arm.
Throwing uchi-ne from Michael Finn's "Art of the Shuriken"
Don. F. Draeger, in “Comprehensive Asian Fighting Arts” lists “uchi‑ne jitsu” as a skill practiced by samurai.
Shirakami Uchi-ne
In Shirakami Ikku Ken's book “Shuriken‑Do”, there is also an illustration of uchi‑ne throwing, but this arrow is about two and a half feet long, and obviously thrown as a spear. Interestingly, this illustration also shows a retrieval cord, and the text mentions that some uchi‑ne are fitted with these. Shirakami tells us that for long ranges the uchi‑ne is thrown like a spear, but for shorter ranges it is gripped differently and thrown in a turning style.
Interestingly, Shirakami precedes this description with a few words on more conventional Japanese throwing spears, which he terms “uchine” (spelt without a hyphen).
Most illustrations of uchi‑ne that I've encountered have been of the shorter variety, however.
The uchi‑ne was obviously intended to fly point first, and there is some indication that the nage‑yari was drag stabilized: the shaft appears to be tapered and there seems to be a tassel behind the head.
The question that intrigues me is were nage‑yari thrown like spears or like knives, and did they have enough drag stabilization to fly point first or did they tumble as Cowper assumes?

These weapons pose several questions which are worth investigating.

  • How long a shaft is needed to get a knife to fly point first? This will of course vary with head length and mass. Could a formulae to predict the length needed be found?
  • Will adding a shaft to a knife significantly increase its range?
  • Will adding a shaft to a undersized or too light knife turn it into a more effective missile?
Sadly, I don't have the room nor resources to experiment with these ideas at the moment, but would like to hear from anyone who decides to give them a try.
In addition to wood, a good shaft material may be plastic pipe.

Throwing with Strings

In his book “The Crossbow”, Sir Ralph Payne-Gallwey describes arrow throwing as it was practiced by pitmen of the West Riding region, Yorkshire.
Where the Yorkshire technique differs from most arrow throwing is that it uses a length of string.
This string had an overhand knot tied at one end and this end was attached to the arrow by means of a half hitch. Hitching point was 16 inches back from the head, just behind the centre of gravity. The other end of the string was wrapped around the index finger of the throwing hand.
The arrow was then grasped just behind the head with the thumb and second and third fingers, the index finger keeping the string taunt.
The arrow is thrown like a spear, but the string increases the efficiency/duration of energy transfer. (I'll leave it to a physics teacher to explain this better!)
As the arrow leaves the thrower, the half hitch unties itself and so the string stays with the thrower.
The arrows used were 31 inches long, with an ogival tip and 5/16 of an inch wide at the head end. The arrow tapered to a point 3/16 of an inch wide at the back end.
Centre of balance was 13 inches from the head.
The entire arrow would have weighed only a little more than half an ounce. Usual material was hazelwood with a pith core. This would be dried for two years before being used to make an arrow.
A good arrow was highly prized by its owner.
The purpose of this arrow throwing was for amusement and competition.
An typical throw ranged from about 240 to 250 yards, although the better throwers may manage 280 to 300 yards.
The longest recorded throw was 372 yards.
As an experiment, Payne-Gallwey asked a thrower to use this technique with a flight arrow from a bow. A range of 180 to 200 yards was achievable. Given Payne-Gallwey's other interests, I suspect that the arrow used was a Turkish arrow which would have weighed 7 dr, or 7/8th of an ounce.
The arrows used in Yorkshire were not used for hunting or war, but the technique of throwing a missile further with a length of cord was used in a more belligerent manner by other cultures.
Natives of the New Hebrides, New Caledonia and New Guinea used a device called the “ounep” by Cowper.
The only difference between the ounep and the Yorkshireman's string is that the ounep was used on full‑sized spears and the hitch was tied at the centre of gravity rather than the butt.
The finger end of the cord might have a loop tied rather than just being wrapped around the finger.
The ounep allowed a spear to be thrown further, and theoretically a thrower would not be in danger from a return cast unless the enemy had a ounep of his own.
Throwing spear with amentum
The principle of the ounep was known to the Greeks and Romans, although they used a loop of cord tied permanently to the shaft. This was known as the “amentum” (thong or strap) to the Romans and the “ankulé” to the Greeks. This device was used by the javelin armed pelasts of the Greek world.
A comparison of hand‑throwing, ounep, amentum and atlatl spear‑throwing would be interesting.

Spears: One Handed

The other week I saw a photo of a model of an ancient warrior holding a spear.
A familiar image but this time something about it got me thinking. I don’t have the particular picture but the drawing below shows the same pose in the left figure.
What occurred to me was this.
Why is the warrior holding the spear in the middle?
Why carry a spear eight or nine feet long and only use four foot of its reach?
Some of you will have said “for balance” and I will deal with that in a moment.
Note that when the fighter holds his spear single handed in this way about a metre projects behind him.
Ancient warriors often fought in close formations so the length of spear behind a warrior is going to be a hindrance to the rank behind.
Often the butt of a spear was fitted with a spike such as the “sauroter” (lizard killer) used on some Greek spears and this would prove a real hazard to the ranks behind.
My favourite way to use a fighting staff is for my rear hand to grip it about a foot from the butt.
This gives me a length of material below my hand to defend or attack with which is not so long that it cannot be moved past my torso in certain movements.
Since the staff is a long homogenous cylinder this grip point is nowhere near the balance point.
The staff is mainly used two-handed but some moves just use the rear hand.
This is practical because when I make such moves the bottom part of the staff presses up against my forearm above, counterbalancing the greater length of the forward part.
I don’t know any ancient spearman, but I do have a friend who was a pikeman in English Civil War re-enactments.
I ran some ideas past him.
One thing I learnt was the balance point of a Civil War era 16 foot pike was a third of the way up from the butt. Grasping at this point it should be possible to hold the pike single-handed at chin level.
Given how pikes were used, it is logical their balance point should be more towards the user.
My friend also observed that my five foot fighting staff was actually heavier than many longer spears. He also observed that pikes and indeed many spears had their shafts tapered towards the head.
Unless the head fitted was very heavy, tapering a spear shaft would shift its balance point rearward.
We know that some spears such as those of the Persians were fitted with counterweights at the butt. Fittings such as the sauroter may have had an additional role in adjusting the spear’s balance.
There are therefore a number of techniques a spear maker could use to construct a spear that could be wielded while gripped closer to the butt end.
In Cowper’s book “The Art of Attack” he mentions spears with a swelling or other arrest near their butt and describes that these were so the spear was not lost when darted through the hand to provide more reach.
It is obvious from this statement that spears were sometimes gripped below their middle.
Gripping a spear about a cubit from its butt would give more reach and allow comrades behind to fight with less hindrance and hazard.
Rearward ranks could also move closer to the forward ranks so be able to offer more support to the forward warriors.
This source, and “Hunting Weapons” p.97 by Howard Blackmore confirms that lances and spears for “pig-sticking” were held either at the end, or two-thirds down from the point.
“The Oriental form of lance, used for sport or war, varied in length from 6-10 ft. The shaft of male bamboo was often decorated with lacquer, brocade, or silver and gilt, and was noticeable for its heavy metal butt which had a ball pommel ending in a spike. This acted as a counterweight when the lance was held well back towards the butt to give the maximum reach. The point was usually a small triangular or leaf-shaped blade…
European pig spears were rarely decorated and were fitted with much simpler types of blades and butts. There were, in the main, two sizes or types of spears.
The long spear was from 7-8 feet long and weighed about 2-3 lb. It was used ‘underhand’, grasped about two-thirds of the way back from the point, with the knuckles turned downwards and the thumb pointing along the shaft. In this fashion, with the arm hanging loosely at full stretch there was free play for the wrist, elbow, and shoulder. The boar was also kept at a safe distance and the whole impetus of man and horse came behind the thrust. The disadvantage of the long spear, like that of the lance, was its unwieldiness amongst bushes, trees, and long grass.
These snags were avoided by the short spear, which had a stouter shaft, 6½ ft. long, with a lead weight on the butt. This was used ‘overhand’. Grasped near the butt end, with the knuckles to the front and the thumb upwards, it was wielded from the elbow and plunged downwards through the back of the boar in a deadly, perpendicular stroke.”
“p.100: Roman mosaics in the British Museum show horsemen with short spears with leaf-like or arrow-shaped blades, either using them as a stabbing weapon held 'overhand' near the butt, or throwing them like darts.”
Here is a video on the single handed use of spears.