How Space-Age Fabrication Keeps the World’s Oldest Missile Flying

Hunter with bow and arrow

The business end of the bow and arrow is, of course, the arrow. For centuries, arrow technology has kept pace with the bow, producing shafts of increased spine (rigidity) and decreased weight.

Modern hunting arrows are commonly composed of two materials: carbon graphite and aluminum. Each has properties that give it certain benefits as well as drawbacks. Wooden arrows are still on the market of course, but they have few practical purposes outside of recreation.

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The Aluminum Arrow

The aluminum arrow is a bit heavier than many of its carbon counterparts and as such, will sustain greater kinetic energy after release. Greater kinetic energy means a higher force of impact (and deeper penetration), but the weight also means a decrease in its effective range, as well as a more rapid drop in inertia and trajectory after a certain distance.

The aluminum arrow also has the irritating tendency to sustain tiny bends in its shaft from repeated use. These bends are often too small to see with the naked eye, but are enough to grossly affect its flight trajectory. The small kinks in the arrow are detectable – and to a degree, correctable – using a truing device, which spins the arrow rapidly enough on its axis for small anomalies to be noticeable.

Perhaps the greatest advantage the aluminum arrow boasts is its price. Several aluminum shafts may be purchased for the cost of only one carbon.

The Carbon Graphite Family: Pultruded, Cross-Weave and Composite

Since its inception, the carbon graphite arrow has quickly become the modern archer’s projectile of choice. This shaft type is itself available in one of three subtypes currently on the market: pultruded, cross-weave and carbon/aluminum composite.

The pultruded shaft is composed of carbon graphite fibers arranged in a parallel fashion, which run the length of the arrow. This design is simpler to manufacture, and thus less costly to purchase, but the fibers lack the strength to support any internal components.

Basically, this means that the standard receiver apparatus for an arrowhead, called an “insert” cannot be inserted into the body of the arrow. The force of the arrow slamming into its target would exert too much force in the “equal and opposite direction” on the arrowhead/insert assembly for the single-direction carbon fibers to withstand, causing the shaft to split lengthwise.

Consequently, a different type of receiver must be used which slips over the front end of a shaft, allowing the arrowhead to be attached. This “outsert” adds both weight and diameter to the carbon shaft to the point where its encumbered performance more closely equates that of an aluminum arrow than it does other carbons.

The cross-weave carbon shaft solves the structural problem of the pultruded shaft by arranging its fibers in a multi-layered interlace configuration. This fiber arrangement functions, on a microscopic level, like a spring which recoils to absorb the shock of an impact. The increased strength afforded by this design allows an arrowhead to be inserted within the shaft body.

Some of the latest developments in arrow design involve a synthesis of the two main shaft types. The carbon/aluminum composite arrow has in recent years made its debut on the archery stage as the premier shaft in terms of performance – and naturally also as the most expensive shaft available.

The composite shaft capitalizes on the best features of both its constituent materials. Its design consists of an outer sheath of carbon graphite reinforced from within by a thin layer of aluminum. The carbon acts as protection against crimping in the aluminum, while the aluminum lends the carbon graphite added resistance to shattering. The complementary nature of these two materials also means that less of both can be used, resulting in a lighter, faster arrow.

Safety Features of a Carbon Arrow

Carbon graphite has one other noteworthy feature which sets it above aluminum in the archer’s quiver: carbon will not allow a permanent bend in its structure. If the force of impact upon the arrow is too great (or the arrow is shot at a substance too hard for it to penetrate), the material will split or shatter.

This may seem like a disadvantage at first, but the observable demise of a carbon arrow actually has safety benefits. Remember: the small structural defects sustained by an aluminum arrow may not be easily visible. Any archer – no matter how skilled – to unknowingly use a dented aluminum arrow will be inaccurate. An inaccurate arrow is not only a wasted shot, but a serious potential safety hazard. A split carbon arrow can obviously never be used again, but at least it removes any guesswork regarding its usefulness.