On a bright, sunny day back in 1991 two hikers, Erika and Helmut Simon from Nuremberg, Germany, were walking in the Ötztal Alps along the German-Italian border. As they walked past a rocky, water-filled gully, they made a startling discovery — a human corpse they thought was the victim of a recent mountaineering accident. The corpse lay with its chest against a flat rock, its face obscured.
Turns out this was no ordinary corpse. Instead, it was Oetzi — the oldest complete human mummy ever found. Scientists believe Oetzi was killed 5,300 years ago by another human shooting a bow and arrow.
Researchers were astonished when, upon opening Oetzi’s own quiver, they found only two finished arrows along with a dozen rough arrow shafts. The unfinished shafts are between 33 and 34 inches long and made of the shoots of viburnum sapwood. Both finished arrows had flint arrowheads affixed to the shaft with birch tar and then bound with thread. The other ends bear the remains of three-part radial feather fletching attached with birch tar and thin nettle thread. According to technical archaeologist Harm Paulsen, the two arrows could not have been fashioned by the same person; the fletching shows that one was wound by a left-hander, the other by a right-hander.
Even 5,300 years ago, bowhunters fletched arrows.
The reason we fletch our arrows today is the same reason Oetzi did — to help the shaft fly straight and true by imparting spin. The difference it that today we have a world of high-tech fletching options not available in the Copper Age.
I have watched arrow fletching come a very long way over the past four decades. Heck, when I bought my first compound bow in the early 1970’s we were still fletching our wooden and, soon the radical new Easton aluminum, shafts with natural feathers. Then along came plastic fletching and modifications in the jigs, adhesives and tools required to properly affix it to the now-dominant aluminum shaft.
When carbon shafts arrived, more changes were made in adhesives, but also the now-dominant plastic fletching changed as well, slowly becoming shorter, taller and stiffer as new research showed that longer vanes did not necessarily equate to more accurate arrow flight. It should be no surprise that these changes roughly coincided with the introduction of the new generation of low-profile replaceable-blade and mechanical broadheads that had become lighter and built to more exact tolerances.
What Does Fletching Do?
Think of fletching as rifling for your arrow, and like rifling spins and stabilizes a bullet, so, too, does fletching induce the spin that stabilizes an arrow in flight. As the shaft slices through the air the wind flows over the fletches. As it does, the rough surface of the fletch is actually “grabbed” by air molecules, which makes it spin and helps the shaft fly like a dart. Arrows most commonly are fletched with three feathers or vanes, though some archers use four to stabilize large broadheads.
Why Plastic Vanes?
For most bowhunters today using a highly-efficient compound bow and either carbon or aluminum/carbon composite shafts, the ideal solution is to use the smallest possible plastic vanes that will stabilize a broadhead-tipped shaft flying at an initial speed approaching, or slightly exceeding, 280 to 300 fps. This will help maximize the shaft’s downrange speed for flatter trajectory. The smaller fletching also offers less side air resistance, which in turn translates into less horizontal arrow drift — an important consideration for those who hunt wide open spaces where shots tend to be on the long side and the conditions breezy.
When shooting high-speed compound bows, the importance of stiffness of modern fletching cannot be overemphasized. The stiffer (and taller) a fletch is, the more drag it offers, and that increases stabilization. Then there is “flapping,” which describes the fact that as the shaft speeds through the air each fletch flexes much like a bird’s wings beating as it flies. The less the vane flaps, the more drag it creates; also, the more it flaps, the more noise it makes.
There have been some very innovative improvements in fletching over the past decade. For example, in 2004 New Archery Products introduced the first QuikSpin vanes that have a patented “kicker” that increases spin a lot. At the same time, they offered a “Shrink Fletch” system that morphed into the popular QUIKFLETCH product line that enables you to fletch a dozen arrows in a few minutes time using nothing more than boiling water. Similarly, Extreme Archery has its Shrink Fletch line that can be installed the same way. Another “rapid fletch” concept is affixing a molded fletch sleeve to the shaft using a bit of glue. Bohning’s Blazer Stretch Fletch and Blood Vane fletching from Outer Limit Archery work that way.
An interesting fletch design is offered by Firenok’s Aerovane, the first-ever vane to employ airfoil technology. Aerovanes are not flat, but instead shaped like an airplane wing and, like a wing, use Bernoulli's principle to initiate arrow rotation. And in the world of small, stiff vanes there are several choices, including Pine Ridge Archery’s 2-inch Nitro Vane, AAE’s Pro Max 1.7x.46-inch vane designed for mechanical broadheads and 3D shooting, VaneTec’s 2.88x.45 inch Swift Series and Norway Industries extensive lineup of short, tall, stiff vanes including Duravanes, the Fusion series, R2 and Predator.
Are Feathers Still Relevant?
The answer is a simple … yes, and no. Like many firearms hunters who choose to step back in time and use more traditional calibers, rifle actions, propellants and iron sights, traditional archers like to go old-school in their equipment choices, too. And it is with traditional recurves and longbows using wooden or aluminum shafts that feathers still have a home.
Feather fletches are typically made from the primary flight feathers of a turkey wing. Feathers impart more drag and spin on the arrow, along with being lighter and more flexible, than vanes. This flexibility is crucial for traditional archers who shoot arrows directly off the shelf of the riser (with no arrow rest), which leads to fletching-to-bow contact. For that reason, they mostly choose feathers, which easily give way to that contact without causing erratic arrow flight and inaccuracy like stiffer vanes would with that same direct contact.
However, there are some traditional archers who add an elevated rest, like a rest-and-plunger combination or a stick-on style rest to their bows. They may choose vanes because of the greater arrow clearance afforded by the elevated rest. The vanes would be preferable in rainy conditions, because feathers can get soaked to the point that they simply lay flat and become useless.
Also, some bowhunters who choose recurve bows and add an arrow rest have gone to using carbon arrows with plastic vanes. For them it’s a bit of the best of both worlds — handicapping themselves with a traditional bow, but loading it with a modern arrow shaft that helps them maximize accuracy.
Some Things Never Change
For the bowhunters of the Copper Age like Oetzi, long natural bird feathers helped stabilize the slow, heavy arrows they had in their quivers. I cannot imagine how the ingenious archers of that time figured that out, but once they did, the effective range of even their primitive bows and arrows had to have increased immensely. And, though the stakes were much higher for them, their goal was the same as ours — being able to place the shaft precisely where it needs to go.
Indeed, some things never change.--Bob Robb