Creating a Plumbata
Since I first discovered what a plumbata is, I’ve wanted to construct my own for several reasons. I wanted to be able to throw them and at the time couldn’t find any place to purchase them. As I read more about this weapon it became clear that there were many disagreements on such things as how they were made, how long they were, what they weighed, and how far they could be thrown. I believe that the only way I could recreate this Roman weapon was to literally create them myself and adjust these variables to make as effective a weapon as possible.
In the extant versions that have been recovered there is a great deal of variability in their construction methods. I believe this to be due to a number of things including: the time period when they were made, who was making them, the available material on hand, the skill of the maker, and their intended use. My current goal is to create a weapon that will be thrown by hand and achieve maximum flight distance. To do so I will be adjusting the weapons length and weight as well as fletching size, number, material and placement on the shaft. Skills I will need to develop include learning how to forge the iron heads, make molds and cast the lead onto the shaft, and how to fletch effectively. I’m in the infancy of this learning process, the following information describes my initial attempt.
Forging Plumbata Heads
I had an opportunity to work with Master Grendel to learn to forge iron heads for plumbata. I want to start by saying this man is an amazing teacher. In the few hours I spent with him I learned more about metals and forging than I had in the other 59 years of my life. What follows is a description of how we made a barbed heads for plumbata.
We started with a piece of iron flatstock that was approximately ¾” by ¼”, heated it, and began to shape the shaft. We wanted a ¼” by ¼” shaft. In the photograph, you see us using a power hammer to do this initial shaping. This was done simply to speed up the process, the rest of the work was done by hand. We next cut the barbs by driving the heated bar onto a sharpened piece of hardened steel that was clamped into a vice. Once the barbs were formed we reheated the bar and cut it off just beyond them. Shaping the point was more complex. It required hitting the piece at an angle without the edge of the hammer hitting the anvil or flattening the barbs back against the shaft. The last steps were to make sure the shaft was straight and quench it. What we produced was a fairly decent rough cut barbed plumbata head. With some work on the grinder it could easily be sharpened and made into an effective weapon.
We made 2 barbed heads that day. I watched, learned, and photographed as Grendel made the first one. He then asked me if I wanted to try it (of course), handed me a hammer (not his good one, he didn’t trust my skill), and talked me through the process. The photograph of the completed head is my first attempt not just at making a plumbata head, but at forging as well. Again, I have to thank Master Grendel for sharing his knowledge and skill.
To construct my own plumbata I needed to learn how to cast lead which is used both as a weight for the weapon and to strengthen the connection point where the wood shaft and metal head came together. Pure lead melts at 621.5f, a temperature low enough to melt over a wood or charcoal fire. I decided that, for my first attempts, I would purchase a modern pot to melt the lead in but as I learn more about the process I’ll try it over a fire. I began with some old fishing weights that were my father’s before he passed away. These weights were pretty oxidized and dirty so I expected them to put off a lot of fumes which are very dangerous. I was not wrong on my assumption. I set up the melting pot outside on a covered deck so I was able to place the lead in the melting pot and go inside the house to watch the process safely away from the fumes. Once the lead had melted and the smoking stopped it was ready to pour.