Have you been shot with an arrow? Don’t yank it out like you see in the movies!
OK, you probably haven’t been shot with an arrow… At least, I hope not. Unless maybe you’ve been practising with friends for the zombie apocalypse. If you are currently experiencing an arrow wound, skip forward a few paragraphs.
Who am I kidding? Go to the emergency room!
But the point remains that what you see on-screen is for dramatic effect rather than accuracy. Even if the person is dead and you are only retrieving the arrow for re-use, yanking it out of a corpse is likely to give you nothing more than a stick with pretty feathers on one end.
The definitive source of information on arrow wounds is the notes of one Dr Bill who lived during the American Civil War, and I came across it after I shot one of my characters with an arrow and then realised I had no idea how life-threatening the wound was.
Interestingly, arrow wounds could be more dangerous than gunshot wounds, largely because a gunshot was more likely to pass through the body, and even if it didn’t, the shot could be safely left in the body to be encased in bone or tissue. Arrow heads, on the other hand, are sharp and continue to injure and inflame the tissue around them – ultimately resulting in infection and death. As you might imagine, removing the head was therefore vital.
So why can’t you just yank it out?
Arrow-heads were secured to the shaft using gut, which would begin to loosen when it got wet – such as from your blood soaking into it. This meant that yanking on the shaft was likely to rip the head free and leave it in the body. Once detached from the shaft, locating and removing the head was much harder and caused more trauma to the wounded.
A shaft could, however, be carefully ‘twirled’ to determine if the head was lodged in bone. Alternatively, the doctor could enlarge the wound and use a finger to follow the shaft to the head to check if it was stuck. Ugh. Pass the whisky.
If the head was not trapped in bone, the arrow could be safely pulled free after enlarging the wound. But what if it was lodged? In this case, a larger incision was required, and much force would be applied to pull it free. A loop of wire could be used to apply traction, alternatively the esteemed Dr Bill used dental forceps, and later forceps of his own design. The force required to pull the head free was so great that in one instance Dr Bill reported bending the forceps, and in another that he would have fallen to the ground if someone hadn’t caught him.
An additional worry was that arrows that struck close to the bone might have their tip bent into a ‘fish-hook’ shape. Such arrows couldn’t be safely drawn from the body without additional precaution. The tip always needed to be checked, and if it was bent, it first needed to be pushed deeper into the body to pull the bent tip free, and then the doctor must cover the tip with his finger as he pulled it out to ensure it didn’t snag anew.
So if you are shot by an arrow, what are your chances of survival?
Ask your doctor! Go now!
But for a man wounded by arrows pre-modern medicine, the answers vary. To start with, it was unusual for a wounded man to have only one arrow wound, given that an experienced archer could shoot six arrows or more a minute. Dr Bill reported an extreme case of three men with a total of 42 arrow wounds amongst them. I’m guessing they all died… And I’m not sure the experience of having that many arrows removed, without anaesthetic, would be preferable to a quick death either…. So the more arrows you have stuck in you, the worse your chances.
Injuries to the chest were most common, with large numbers of fatalities associated with lung punctures. If there was no lung involvement, the wounded had a good chance of survival. Nearly all wounds to the abdomen were fatal owing to the risk of blood vessel and intestinal damage. It was fairly typical for a gut wound of any kind to pretty much be the end of you, owing to all the icky stuff in your bowels and intestines encouraging all kinds of infection, and there being no protection to the abdomen from ribs or other bones.
Wounds to arms and legs were more likely to have the arrow pass clean through, in which case the majority would heal within a week with minimal complications. Sounds like your best outcome to me. Wounds to the head were rarely fatal unless it was a shot to the eye as an arrow would not generally penetrate the skull except at extreme close range. Uh… but please don’t take this as encouragement to go around aiming bows at people’s skulls!
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