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Battle Wounds: Never Pull an Arrow Out of a Body

This is a pretty fascinating article ( in my opinionation) about battlefield treatment of arrow wounds.


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Often in western films there is a scene where an arrow is yanked from the body of a fallen comrade.  As dramatic as that may be it is definitely not the recommended method for removing an arrow.

Battle wounds in the American Revolutionary War were of a wide variety, none of which were easy to treat medically.  One of the worst was when the victim was struck by an arrow.  While the vast majority of combatants carried muskets or rifles, bows and arrows were used, sometimes along with a musket, by Native Americans.

Medical texts during the Revolutionary War period are silent regarding the treatment for arrow wounds.  The most complete and detailed account of arrow wounds and treatments is Dr. Joseph Howland Bill’s “Notes on Arrow Wounds,” which is considered the “definitive work on American arrow wounds.”[1]

Dr. Bill did not practice during the American Revolution.  He served during the Civil War.  However, the wounds he dealt with would have been comparable to those of the 18th century.  Bill was originally from Philadelphia and attended Jefferson Medical College. After graduation he joined the U.S. Army, was commissioned 1st Lieutenant, and in 1860 was assigned to Fort Defiance, New Mexico. There he wrote his 22-page essay, “Notes on Arrow Wounds,” published in the American Journal of Medical Sciences, 1862.  In less than a year Bill was transferred east.  He continued to serve in the Army until his death in 1885.[2]

Bill states arrows inflict wounds “with a fatality greater than that produced by any other weapons — particularly when surgical assistance cannot be obtained.”[3]  Bill understood the importance of recording his observations for the Army and future settlers as well as documenting his experiences and findings, from both living and dead arrow wound victims, for history and medicine.

Arrowheads could be made from stone, antlers, shells, hardwood, bone, or metal.   The arrowheads Dr. Bill most encountered were filed metal while the shaft was usually made from a dogwood branch.  For the shaft the dogwood branch was soaked, all the bark removed, and then the limb was straightened using a twisting method. This whole straightening process took about three days.[4]  Feathers were also an important part of the arrow.  The size and type of feather used determined the speed and rotation of the arrow.  The heavier the arrowhead the larger the feathers needed to spin the arrow.[5]

Once the shaft was ready, the arrowhead was attached using tendons and sinews.  This kept the head secure, until the tendon got wet.  Once wet, the arrowhead would become loose and easily separate from the shaft.  So, when the arrow penetrated the body the arrowhead would loosen from its contact with blood and other bodily fluids.  Dr. Bill explains the worst thing a friend could do was to try to remove the arrow by pulling on the shaft, which would cause the arrowhead to be left behind forcing the doctor to search for the projectile.[6]

In some situations the arrow proved more destructive to the victim and more difficult to treat for the doctor than a gunshot wound.[7]  The problems came from the nature of arrow warfare and the shape and texture of the projectile.  Dr. Bill estimates an “expert bowman can easily discharge six arrows per minute.”[8]  In one of Dr. Bill’s cases three soldiers suffered a total of 42 arrow wounds between them. Although this number of wounds was extreme, Bill states he rarely saw someone with a single arrow wound.[9]

Read the rest at the link below.

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