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Delicate but Deadly: Hunting with the Gunther Barbed Point
By Billy Berger

Gunther points were hafted with pine sap glue and deer sinew, just like this example made by the author. A sinew wrap goes over the edges to provide additional strength. Museum examples were secured the same way

Gunther Barbed points are a unique type of stone arrow head made and used by Native American tribes who lived and hunted in northern California and southern Oregon. Gunther Barbed points first show up in the archaeological record around 1100 A.D. and were used into the late 1800’s. They were usually made of colorful jasper, chert, and agate and were formed by heavy pressure flaking that rapidly thinned the points prior to final shaping. Gunthers are characterized by very long barbs that extend well below the base, finely serrated edges and a small stem for hafting the point to the arrow.

I was first introduced to Gunther points when I met artist and master primitive archer Steve Allely. He showed me some authentic Gunther’s he had, as well as several he’d made. I was immediately captivated by their delicate features and wickedly sharp edges. But making Gunthers is no easy feat. Their unique design requires perfect support and meticulous edge preparation so each flake is removed cleanly and with precise control. One wrong move will destroy the point’s intended shape. The challenge was the same for the original makers of Gunther points, as Allely also showed me numerous prehistoric examples of failed points that were broken during manufacture. I was truly inspired by seeing Steve’s work. With over a decade of knapping experience at the time, I returned home to make my own Gunthers, fully confident that I’d crunch some out in no time. I was to learn otherwise.

Gunther Barbed points require considerable skill to make. Because Gunthers have delicate features like long, fragile barbs, serrated edges and a needle-sharp tip, they must be made slowly and finished in carefully controlled stages. My excitement to make my own Gunthers was palpable, and it would be my undoing. Numerous attempts ended in defeat as I snapped the barbs off every point I attempted.

Gunther points require you to slow down, set up your edges carefully and not cut any corners. Being in a calm, methodical mindset when knapping Gunthers is a big part of being successful. If you get in a hurry, you’ll most certainly break them. Slow, careful knapping combined with a calm, no-rush mindset proved to be the key. By forcing my mind to slow down and practicing the finer points of pressure flaking, I was finally able to make my own beautiful Gunther Barbed points…though each one represents about one hour of careful, meticulous work.

The Upper Gunther Barbed points are authentic artifacts from northern California. The bottom Gunther points were made by the author.

But what did the Indians use such delicate points for? Many people assume they were fishing points due to their long barbs and yes, they would certainly be effective for holding fish if used as harpoon points. But modern science reached a different conclusion. Several old Gunther points found in village sites were tested for blood protein residues. The results showed a majority tested positive for deer and elk blood and a few even tested positive for bighorn sheep. These weren’t fishing points…they were actually used for hunting big game.

I was in disbelief when I read that. A simple triangular stone point would work just as well. Why create such a beautiful and delicate Gunther Barbed arrowhead when simpler side-notched points were equally effective? Gunthers would be more fitting as jewelry or coveted examples of flintknapping skill, not shot at game to be ultimately smashed or lost. The delicate features only left me puzzled. Surely the needle-sharp tip would break the moment it hit bone. The long, delicate barbs would snap off the instant it encountered a deer’s tough hide, right? Cultural influence was surely a driving force in their design, but why they used such a seemingly delicate point for a heavy task ate at me.

But the blood protein tests proved they were used for hunting. Perhaps these points weren’t as fragile as it first seemed. How did they fare in real hunting scenarios? To answer that question, I had to put my own Gunthers to the ultimate test by actually hunting with them.

The next fall found me sitting in a drainage ditch next to a food plot, waiting for a deer to wander within range. My arrow was made of rivercane with a dogwood foreshaft inserted into the front. The tip of the foreshaft was graced with a milky white, translucent Gunther point of heat treated agate that was secured with pine sap glue and a wrapping of deer sinew. The size and shape of the point was identical many authentic Gunthers I’ve seen, about ¾ of an inch wide by 1 inch long. It was a very light weight point at only 12 grains.

By most traditional bowhunting standards my arrow was also somewhat light at only 440 grains, but it flew like a laser from the 52-lb Osage self bow that lay across my lap. The ditch where I sat was a perfect ambush spot for a primitive hunter who needs a shot at close range. As the sun sets, the sinking air currents pull my scent down the drainage the same way water flows, making it impossible for the deer to smell me. I’d had numerous close encounters with deer at this spot in the past and I hoped an opportunity would present itself this night.

As the sun worked its way closer to the horizon I only saw two squirrels and a few small birds as they searched for the last of food before dark. Two deer were silhouetted as they walked along a field edge 80 yards away, but they never came nearly close enough for a shot. I was running out of shooting light when I noticed the faint movement of a deer’s front leg as it stepped into view only 13 yards away.

The surge of adrenaline tightened every muscle in my body as the deer moved forward and another one followed behind. They were both yearlings, but they were very healthy judging by their slick coats and round, well-fed bodies. As the lead deer inched forward and fed on the succulent greens, I slowly brought my bow up and readied for a shot. When the lead deer took one last step forward and exposed its ribs, I pulled the string back slowly while aiming for the spot I wanted to hit. The dim light and the deer’s perfect camouflage made it difficult to determine the deer’s exact edges from the brushy background, but I was confident I could place the arrow on the perfectly broadside deer. A split second after I hit full draw the string snapped forward and the white fletching zipped through the air, spinning the arrow at high-speed as it streaked toward the target. Unfortunately the deer also heard the snap of the string and was in motion before the arrow got there. The deer squatted as it loaded its legs, then came back up and turned slightly away from me at the moment the arrow struck its mark. Both deer rocketed out of the food plot, kicking up leaves as they ran up a grassy path to the top of a small hill. I could see the white feathers of the arrow violently jerking up and down as the deer fled. Its partner stopped and looked back, but my deer kept going over the hill and disappeared from sight.

Archery shots happen so quickly that it’s difficult to determine exactly what happened at the moment of impact. My shot looked good and I saw the white fletching being carried away as the deer ran, but I couldn’t be certain of penetration due to the dim light. I waited another 20 minutes until the woods were silent, then I slipped out under total darkness. Two hours passed before I returned with flashlights and my brother’s extra set of eyes.

We found the first drops of blood a few yards up the grassy path. Its bright red hue indicated a lung hit. Though not heavy, the small blood drops were consistent enough to retrace the deer’s path of escape to the top of the hill. In the open grass the deer then took a slight left turn as it paralleled the edge of the woods. Upon cresting the hill my brother swung his flashlight forward…and there was my arrow flipped up in the grass. The white feathers were standing straight up like a flag, clearly visible against the tawny brown surroundings.

The agate Gunther Barbed point brought down this young whitetail within seconds.The author’s deer as it was found after fleeing only 60 yards.

As we got closer we realized why the arrow was standing straight up…because it was still embedded in the deer’s side. The deer fled only 60 yards before collapsing mid-run. I was shocked when I tried to withdraw the arrow…it wouldn’t budge, having firmly embedded itself in the far shoulder blade. I didn’t want to disturb the arrow so we very carefully loaded the deer into the truck and brought it back to the house. I very carefully field dressed the deer and waited until morning to perform a more detailed examination.

The agate Gunther Barbed point brought down this young whitetail within seconds.

I always perform autopsies on every animal I kill to better understand how stone points behave when striking living animals. And this morning would be no different. As my examination progressed, I was quite surprised at what I discovered.

The Gunther point’s sharp, serrated edges sliced gaping holes through both lungs, and the width of the wound channel revealed the barb s didn’t snap off upon cutting through the deer’s hide and entering its body. In addition to the lung trauma, the point nearly severed the dorsal aorta (the main artery that feeds both femoral arteries of the rear legs), then cracked a rib on the far side before slamming into the shoulder blade and punching through it, finally coming to rest in the shoulder muscle just beyond the shoulder bone. The point suffered heavy damage as its tip, one barb and the small stem were snapped off upon striking the shoulder blade. But by then the Gunther point had already done its deadly work and the deer was running on borrowed time.

The Gunther point was found in the shoulder muscle after completely penetrating the shoulder blade.

The inside of the right shoulder shows where the point impacted the bone.

Despite its fragile design, the Gunther Barbed point proved its deadly efficiency with that one shot. Despite their fragile design, Gunthers are amazingly effective for taking down big game. It’s wonderfully exciting to examine artifacts from the past, test them, and discover just how effective they really are. I now look at my own Gunther Barbed points in a very different way. They are exquisite, beautiful, and deadly. And they have earned their place on my hunting arrows. I’ll definitely be using them again.

The Gunther point immediately after being recovered from the deer. It did suffer some damage but surprisingly didn’t shatter, even after being driven completely through the shoulder blade.

References: Stone Age Spear and Arrow Points of the Great Basin and California, Noel D. Justice, 2002.

Billy Berger is a primitive bowhunter with a passion for researching and testing the weaponry of Stone Age people. He lives in Marietta, GA.

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