The three types of arrow head in the analysis and the table of results.

Armour-piercing arrowheads

The question

One difficulty with arrowhead studies is identifying the types used in warfare for piercing armour. Documentary records are not sufficiently specific, but do suggest the need for hardened heads. Could metallography help identify which of three likely types were made for this purpose:

Results of analysis

Even within the small group of arrowheads which have been studied metallographically, one type stands out as being unusually carefully constructed using the relatively expensive material, steel, for points and cutting edges and usually being quenched to achieve maximum hardness. This is the Type 16 (B above) compact barbed and socketed head.


Despite claims that bodkin and quarrel heads were suited to the attack of armour, there is no evidence that these were normally constructed of materials that would provide sufficient mechanical strength to overcome metallic plate armour. By contrast the care and expense expended on the “high-tech” hardened composite iron/steel Type 16 heads suggests that these were intended for such a purpose.


After the findings were originally presented at the International Medieval Congress in Kalamazoo, Michigan, the text was published as Chapter 12 in a volume entitled De Re Metallica: the Uses of Metals in the Middle Ages.

Through this and other routes, the previously widely held view that bodkin points were the main type of armour piercing warhead has gradually given way to greater acceptance of type 16s in this role. Meanwhile, research has continued and now, with the support of Simon Richardson, is looking at arrowheads recovered from the site of the Battle of Towton, 1461.

Did you know?

Finest Sheffield steel

The Royal Armouries holds one of the finest pairs of Colt 1861 navy revolvers in the world: both in mint, unfired condition. They were originally presented to Mark Firth, the Sheffield steelmaker who supplied Samuel Colt with steel.