Survival Technology: How to Make a Bow and Arrow

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Last Updated on August 3, 2021.

The bow is an ancient hunting weapon and battle implement that is still in use today. While modern bows can be sophisticated, the underlying design principles are simple.

Survival Technology How to Make a Bow and Arrow

Why Make a Bow and Arrow?

As a general rule, you should never plan to improvise. Improvisation is an invaluable skill, but you should always prepare by selecting the appropriate equipment ahead of time. This includes suitable weapons for self-defense and hunting. 

If you lose your rifle, shotgun, or professionally made bow, it can be to your advantage to construct a bow using materials collected from your environment. This is part of bushcraft or woodcraft and can play a vital role in wilderness survival. 


How to Make a Bow and Arrow

One of the first things that you’ll need when learning how to make a bow and arrow is 8-10 ft. of cordage for your bowstring. Paracord can fulfill this purpose. 

A fixed-blade knife is a critical multi-purpose survival tool. The ideal survival knife has a full tang. This is ideal for chopping wood, batoning, and precise carving. If you typically carry a multitool with a saw-tooth or serrated blade, that can also be useful for cutting bowstring notches. 

Wood Selection

As part of the bowstave creation process, you’ll need to select an appropriate type of wood. A hardwood tree or sapling is an ideal source, such as ash, maple, hickory, beech, or eastern red cedar. When selecting an appropriate tree, find a section that is free from branches and straight. Ideally, this should be about 6 ft. long and 1–2” in diameter. 

Harvesting the Wood

Using your survival knife, machete, or axe, fell the tree. If you’re using a knife, the process of batoning can improve your efficiency. However, always ensure the knife blade can safely perform this task without breaking.

Crafting the Bow

Trim the ends of the bowstave, so its overall length corresponds to the height of your chin when vertical. Cut the ends evenly. Next, you can begin the carving process of crafting your bow. 

For the most part, you shouldn’t remove material from the back of the bow — i.e., the side facing the intended target. However, if you must remove material from this face, exercise caution. Minor cuts or flaws can weaken the bow structurally, increasing its risk of snapping when drawing the bowstring.

Begin by removing material from the limbs on the belly side. The belly is the side of the bow facing the archer. You can use a chopping or batoning technique to remove wood from the belly until the limbs begin to flex. 

Once you notice they can bend when you apply pressure, you can start removing thin strips of wood slowly and methodically. While this method increases the amount of time you’ll be working on your bow, it can help you avoid costly errors. Taper the limbs toward the ends. 

Bow Tiller

Bow tiller is the distance between the bowstring and the upper and lower limbs at the initial points of curvature. Tillering involves removing material from the limbs until they are symmetrical, storing and distributing energy equally. 

You can test the tiller by applying pressure to the limbs in the field. A good tiller ensures uniform performance from the upper and lower limbs, maximizing the efficiency of the bow for its specific draw weight

Once you’ve tillered the bow to your satisfaction, use a sawtooth blade, if available, to cut two notches for the bowstring — one at each end. It’s preferable to cut these notches on the sides and angle them downward toward the center to ensure that the bowstring is securely fastened.

To string the bow, tie a permanent knot at one end with your cordage. Place this end on the ground and rest it against your foot. Step over the bow with your other leg, and bend the bow toward your body so that there’s tension against the bottom of your thigh. Tie the other end of the string to the opposite end of the bow. 

Place the back of the bow on the ground, place your feet on the belly, and pull the string upward from the center to determine whether the limbs flex symmetrically. If the limbs do not flex evenly, remove the bowstring and continue removing material until you achieve a satisfactory tiller.

Adjust the string length to achieve the correct tension. Place your fist on the inside of the bow, between the belly and the bowstring. If the bowstring rests on the tip of your extended thumb, the length is adequate.


Crafting Arrows

The question of how to make a bow and arrow has two parts. To make an arrow in the wilderness, you’ll need to harvest wood for the arrow shaft. The ideal arrow shaft is relatively lightweight, stiff, and straight. The straightness of the arrow shaft is one of the most important factors governing its behavior in flight. 

A species of bamboo common in the United States, called river cane or giant cane (A. gigantea), is useful for this purpose. However, if you’re unable to locate river cane, or it isn’t available in your region, you can use your survival knife to harvest a branch from a hardwood tree or sapling. This branch should be about ¼” in diameter and between 28 and 34” in length.

You can also straighten an arrow shaft by heating it above an open flame. The heat makes it pliable, allowing you to straighten the arrow. When the branch cools, it will retain its new shape.

Next, carve the front end of the arrow into the shape of a field point. This is sufficient for hunting varmints — e.g., rabbits, squirrels — and takes less time. Harden the point over an open flame to increase its durability.

The nock is a slot in the rear of the arrow shaft into which the bowstring rests. First, harden the end of the shaft the way that you made the point. Next, cut a slot into the center of the end using your knife or saw.

Fletching the Arrow

Finally, you’ll need to fletch the arrow. Fletching increases stability in flight, improving accuracy and range. A simple method of fletching involves using duct tape. Start by cutting three strips of duct tape, each 5” in length. Fold them, leaving ⅛” of the adhesive side exposed. 

Using a feather template, cut feather-shaped fletchings out of the duct-tape strips. Leave approx ½” tabs behind and in front of the feathers.

Place the first duct-tape “feather” on the top of the arrow, approximately 1½” forward of the nock. The feather should be at a 90° angle relative to the direction of the nock. Next, place the other two feathers on the shaft, in the same manner, ensuring that they’re spaced evenly apart. When you nock the arrow, there should be no feather on the bottom of the shaft. 

Cut three thin strips of duct tape, about 1” in length, to wrap around the front and rear tabs of the fletchings. Wrap the last strip around the rear of the arrow to prevent the nock from splitting.


The Takeaway

The process of crafting your own bow and arrows takes time, patience, and focus. However, knowing how to craft your own bow and arrows can save your life if you are stranded in the wilderness.