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Imagine an arrow, but instead of the traditional arrowhead (thick and pointy) it uses a much thinner and sharper razor-like head. I am thinking such an arrow could be used for delivering death to unarmored targets at high range (at which point a conventional, less-sharp arrow no longer has the strength to penetrate clothing or fur, but a super sharp razor head can).

Do the lightness and fragility of such an arrowhead cause issues when firing it? Are there any other possible advantages or disadvantages? Obviously, if such an arrow were good someone somewhere would already be using it, but given that we didn't have the tech for disposable razor blades when arrows were en vogue, maybe there's something to it beyond impractical but scary looking weaponry.

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    $\begingroup$ You mean, something like the broadhead? $\endgroup$ – Frostfyre Nov 28 '16 at 15:42
  • $\begingroup$ Think en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Safety_razor#/media/File:Razor_blade.png $\endgroup$ – SPavel Nov 28 '16 at 15:44
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    $\begingroup$ Prehistoric microliths (tiny pieces of flint) used on arrows and harpoons might be close to what you want. So archaeology websites may have some answers. This one has some replicas of microlith arrowheads: paleoplanet69529.yuku.com/topic/50833#.WDxSq7KLSUk Flint is very sharp but very brittle. $\endgroup$ – DrBob Nov 28 '16 at 15:55
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    $\begingroup$ Obsidian is sharper than steel razors, and it has been used to make piercing points for something like 100000 years. These have generally been replaced by metal because how much cheaper it is to retrieve and think about sharpening a metal point than having to probably re-work a stone one if it hits anything harder than flesh. Always weapons have been as sharp as it is practical to keep them, but is it worth it to hone an arrow for the time it would take to make another reasonably sharp ones? $\endgroup$ – user25818 Nov 28 '16 at 19:58
  • $\begingroup$ Another point (no pun intended) is that you don't want your arrow to be too light. Think of throwing a paper airplane vs a baseball. $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Nov 29 '16 at 4:41
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You have just described a modern hunting broadhead. And there are more variations than you can imagine. Its worth noting that they can penetrate kevlar body armor. I suggest typing "modern broadhead" in a google image search.

hunting broadhead image

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    $\begingroup$ It would be good to add some text to the question explaining why these are used in hunting. The traditional target point makes a wound no wider than the arrow shaft, which is not very effective at killing unarmoured prey. The razor sharp broadhead shown above cuts a really nasty hole in prey, killing much more effectively and humanely. $\endgroup$ – Leliel Nov 28 '16 at 19:20
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    $\begingroup$ I can't find a picture at the moment (google is letting me down) but it's not all that uncommon for even squirrel sized prey to survive with a target point in them for weeks. $\endgroup$ – Leliel Nov 28 '16 at 19:31
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    $\begingroup$ @Leliel not to mention wounds that have 2 edges are generally very good at holding themselves together (given small amounts of pressure) . the 6-edged wounds caused by the triple point cannot reliably hold together, and have much more surface area than a 2-edged wound, thus causing more bleeding, and less chance of a recovery. $\endgroup$ – tuskiomi Nov 28 '16 at 21:33
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    $\begingroup$ @tuskiomi, even without reading the treaty, I know they aren't. The Geneva Conventions are about treatment of various non-combatants (civilians, neutral parties, POWs, etc.). You may be thinking about the Hague Convention of 1899 (banned expanding bullets and poisonous gasses), the Geneva Protocol to the Hague Convention (banned biological warfare and all forms of chemical weapons), or the Saint Petersburg Declaration of 1868 (banned exploding bullets). $\endgroup$ – Mark Nov 28 '16 at 22:59
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So, a couple other answers have already mentioned that this can actually be a thing. I think I'll focus in on the actual pluses and minuses.

One potential issue is that this thin, light arrowhead is a lot more fragile. It will break far more easily, especially if it runs into something more solid (like a bone. or if it misses, and hits a tree or a rock. Or even armor). It is a lot easier to sharpen your thick arrowhead than craft a new one because the thin razor-sharp thing broke. Also, thick sturdy arrowheads can stand up to a lot of sharpening and other use and abuse, while even if carefully maintained a thin razor-sharp arrowhead will just run out of material to sharpen much faster.

Another issue is that it will not cause as much injury, making it generally less effective as a weapon. Arrows generally don't depend on their sharpness to injure nearly as much as their kinetic force, and a bigger arrowhead is better at dumping that force into the target, and tearing the target up more, instead of slicing cleanly through and leaving a smaller injury behind. Sharpness means you need less force to make the same cut - but the force in this case is constant, so the razor arrow is more likely to slice more cleanly instead, and generally do less damage.

The razor sharp broadheads shown in the other answers use a lot of empty space to counterbalance this problem, which give a bigger profile to shred with to counterbalance the sharpness and the thinness of the actual blade portion of the arrow, which a) takes a lot more time and effort to make, and is really only practical with modern manufacturing and b) is a lot harder to maintain, so makes the most sense when arrowheads are discarded when dull or damaged, not repaired and reused (imagine trying to re-sharpen that curvy one!).

As for your idea that razor arrowheads will do more damage at range, I'm not sure of that. Especially not the ones pictured in the other answers. Like I said, arrows generally depend on their kinetic force to do damage, to the point where sharpness is, not irrelevant exactly but certainly much less critical. If you look at padded arrows, they need to have such a big, padded flare because even a dull, flat-ended fletched stick with no arrowhead can do a lot of damage with the force of the bow behind it. The point is, if the situation is actually that the arrow's sharpness makes a difference between the arrow puncturing or not, means you just don't have enough force behind it in general. Your sharper razor arrowhead might penetrate just a little more, but it is still likely to be a shallow little slice with the arrow's tip, because the person is too far out of range. If there isn't enough force for a regular arrowhead to penetrate, there isn't enough force for the razor arrowhead to kill. Also, at that range the arrow's lightness (with a lighter razor tip) will also make a difference, both in how far it goes and how deep it penetrates what it hits.

Really, you probably want a heavy, narrow, needle-pointed head (bodkin, I think) for better puncturing power, not a flat thin razor sharp arrowhead... and you can make it heavy enough (by adding length to the point) to add to your arrow's kinetic force, instead of lighter to take some of that force away. Actually, what you really want is a stronger bow, or at least some method of extra mechanical leverage (crossbow or something), but a narrow needle-tip will probably work in the meantime.

A bodkin, which will do what you want even if it isn't what you asked about.
Bodkin

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  • $\begingroup$ Unlike bullets, arrows don't rely solely on kinetic energy to cause damage. A hollowpoint bullet is designed to mushroom out to make them as blunt as possible, so that they transfer maximum momentum to the target and thus cause more damage. A broadhead arrow has a broad head because that shape maximises cutting surface, which creates a greater wound surface area, which causes more bleeding and thus kills faster. A sharper arrowhead means it will cut further before slowing to a stop, which will also create greater wound surface area and would therefore be more lethal. $\endgroup$ – anaximander Nov 29 '16 at 16:33
  • $\begingroup$ @anaximander - arrows don't rely just on kinetic energy, true, but they don't work without it... it is needed for the arrow to pierce its target and cause wounds. A broader and wider arrow will cut more, but penetrate less as the force is transferred to the body, a sharper narrower arrow will penetrate more, but leave less damage behind, its a trade-off. And I didn't say a sharper arrowhead wouldn't cut further, I said that if there isn't enough force for a regular arrow to even penetrate clothing, as OP mentioned, a sharper arrow wouldn't do much more than that. $\endgroup$ – Megha Nov 29 '16 at 16:57
  • $\begingroup$ @Megha Arrows absolutely rely on sharpness and cutting to inflict significant wounding. The lack of wounding ability in narrow arrowheads is the whole reason that they're illegal to use for hunting in all jurisdictions that I'm aware of. A broadhead is simply far better at killing an unarmoured target at any range where a hit can be achieved. Bodkins were traditionally used only on heavily armoured targets where the greater penetrating power meant they were the only thing that could reliably inflict any wound at all. $\endgroup$ – Leliel Nov 29 '16 at 17:33
  • $\begingroup$ Of course, the head has relatively little effect on absolute range. That's mostly a function of bow power. In short, bodkin heads fell out of use in all forms except target shooting because broadheads are in all ways better at what is needed without hard armoured targets. Something like a bodkin is used in target shooting to limit damage to the target. $\endgroup$ – Leliel Nov 29 '16 at 17:34
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Your question immediately made me think of a variety of modern broadheads with near-razor thin blades. Note that the blades are always attached around the shaft and there's no way to eliminate it.

Swhacker

Swhacker makes a modern retractable broadhead that opens on impact with 2 or 3 blades. The blades are thinner than most knives but thicker than razor blades.

Swhacker

Their website describes the blades as:

Blade: .032" thick, stainless steel, honed razor sharp

Toxic

Also the "Toxic" broadhead has comparable (though fixed) blades. It's not poisoned as the name suggests, but it's still deadly. It's hard to describe the blade combination and design, so I'll include an image:

Toxic Broadhead

Conclusion

Shot from a (60lb) compound bow these will have a release speed of around 400 km/h and, a well placed shot should be able to kill any animal up to a rhino or elephant (and maybe them too).

In ballistics gel they'll get around 20-30cm of penetration. That's in and out most parts of most humans. I've seen them go in, out, in again and out again of small game - it's hard describe but youtube some fox bow kills.

They're not as fragile as you think and can be treated pretty rough without being damaged. They'll smash through bone without becoming damaged.

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  • $\begingroup$ The moniker "Toxic" probably due to the biohazard-sign-like aspect when viewed head on? $\endgroup$ – bukwyrm May 30 '18 at 8:03
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With a wooden shaft the thin light arrowhead would not have enough weight to fall tip first. You would have to add some weight to the tip. Romans used lead to balance their sling darts and javelins, you could do the same thing. Or you could shape the shaft so it has more weight in the front. like this

With a carbon tube this problem shouldn't occur because it will almost always be lighter than the tip.

If you want more range you need to make heavier arrows so they lose their kinetic energy slower. But to shoot heavier projectiles you need more powerful bow.

So it is an endless struggle of balance that the weapon makers must figure out.

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You could use something similar to an injection needle and cover it in poison. Otherwise a smaller point will likely do less damage

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