|How to ...
a Late Roman Plumbata
By Robert Vermaat
page is about making a basic item, the Late Roman
throwing dart or plumbata. Plumbatae were the
basic throwing weapons of the Late Roman infantryman,
from the 4th century until at least the 7th. Each soldier
may have caried up to five of them in his shield, and
more in a quiver. This is a guide how to make them.
Ball peen hammer
Drill with spare bits
Old plastic bottle
Old frying pan
Leather strips or feathers
String (or sinew)
Wooden shaft (10-15mm x 50
What you need to make a plaster cast and what you
need to make the lead weight.
A plumbata is made of a barbed steel head
with a flat, round or twisted shaft. Next a wooden shaft,
measuring between 30 and 60 cm, or what you like best.
The flights are best made of leather. Last is the lead
ball that connects head and shaft, which gives this
weapon its name (plumbum = lead).
Best start off with making a few 'raw'
missiles, i.e. adding the head to the shaft. Saw off the
length of shaft you choose (I use 50 cm myself) and
hammer in the barbed head. To prevent your shaft from
splitting, you may use a bit of thread (I use a piece of
brass wire) to strengthen the top of the shaft. See
The parts of a plumbata: head, lead ball,
A plumbata head compared to a spearhead.
What you need to make a plaster cast for your
The cast is drying..
To make a plumbata, you need a plaster
cast to pour the lead in. Such a cast can be used for
several plumbata. The material can be bought in any DIY
shop. To make a mould for the cast, you might cut the
bottom from a plastic bottle. the 'original' for your new
lead ball can either be an existing one (which is what I
used), but also a 'positive' made from wood or clay. As
long as it looks like what you want to end up with in
lead. If you use an original, best protect it with tape
from the plaster, which will get into every crevice.
Now, pour the plaster into your mould, and when begins to
harder a lttle, put in the plumbata or the 'positive'.
Now wait until the cast is hard enough to remove the
When that time comes, the first tricky bit arives:
cutting the cast in two without breaking it. This being
my first one, I sawed a groove into each side first
before cleaving it in two with a chisel. If it works out
like it should, you'll end up with two neat halves with a
'negative' imprint for your plumbata.
Next thing is chiseling out the pouring channels for the
lead and the hole at the front where the head comes.
images below will give you an idea:
When the cast is dry, carefully split it in two
parts (without breaking it!).
Take out the original form and smooth the inside
That's what the cast is supposed to look like.
Gauging the channels for the pouring of the lead.
chisel the plaster away to make two channels, but be
careful to do each half in the same spot, otherwise when
you put both halves together the channel is not properly
Making the channels symmetrical is a bit tricky.
This is how the plumbata is placed in the cast -
the wood a bit more to the front.
The front of the cast should only have room for
The backside, showing the hole for the wooden
shaft and two channels.
try and seal both halves again with the plumbata you made
earlier inside it. At this time you can still adjust it,
or seal the sides with clay if you've been
overenthusiastic with your chisel! Especially the hole in
front should leave only room for the metal head,
otherwise the lead will run through it. The cast is now
Insert the plumbata into the cast. Since the wooden shaft
is the weaker part, I would place the wood a bit more to
the front (see picture). Place the other half of the cats
on the first and make sure that it is secured properly.
Either tie rope around it, tape it or secure it with wire
(remember, if molten lead runs over the sides it will
burn through most materials). Now it's time to prepare
something to be really careful about. Lead is a vicious
metal, brutal when hot, toxic even when solid, and there's
always a danger of toxic fumes when it's heated. So, no
matter what you do, when you heat lead to melt it,
always do it outside or in a well-ventilated environment. Never let your
kids get within 5 meters of the melting spot. You should
have a bucket of water nearby should you need cooling or
extinguishing something. And, always use a wrench to hold
the pan or whatever you use for melting the lead in.
What you need to make the lead weight.
Melting the lead. Always use a ventilated place
(!), thick gloves and a wrench.
Nearly finished. The lead parts are melting into
a silvery fluid.
This is from a second melting attempt, with a
bigger (more stable) aluminium pan.
best lead for the job is new lead, to be bought in your
DIY shop; old lead will give off those toxic fumes, new
lead probably won't (it didn't in my case). The amount of
lead you need depends on the size of your weight. I use
250-300 grams of lead, but that includes the overflow and
excess lead (see below). My plumbatae are probably at bit
on the heavy side when compared to the originals, so
using less would probably be better. Cut the lead into
small pieces into the pan you're going to use. I use a
pan of my daughter's old kid's cooking set - nice and
small, and from aluminium which heats up well. Now heat
the lot and watch it all the time until it starts melting.
You may stir a bit but take care! After some time the
lead flakes will turn into a silvery fluid (which looks a
bit like mercury). If you re-use older lead, some stuff
won't melt, but float on top of the fluid mass. It won't
be poored, best throw it away and clean the pan after
This is my 'oven', where I pour the lead into the
Yes, just a big plant pot, upturned.
When cooled off, open the cast to see this shape.
This is how the plumabata looks like when you
take it out of the cast.
all flakes are gone, it's time to pour. So where do you
do that? The cast should be very stable, and you'd best
have something underneath to catch any of the spilt lead.
I use a big piece of smooth hardboard, where all spilt
lead is easily (and cleanly) recovered for future
attempts. I place the cast on top of a big, upturned,
plant pot, with a stone underneath to support the
plumbata should it move inside the cast.
the molten lead quickly into the cast. If all goes well
and you've prepared the cast right, when you pour into
one hole there should be lead coming out of the second
when the cast is filled up. Now let the lead harden,
which will happen very quickly (about 20 seconds). It may
however be very hot for a few minutes!
Then open the cast, which will (hopefully) reveal a
proper plumbata, but with two lead 'tails' (see picture).
Remove the plumbata without damaging the cast (you can re-use
it) and remove the excess lead from the plumbata. Polish
and/or hammer the lead weight; your plumbata is ready but
for the fletching of the tail.
thing needed now is flights for the tail. Without these,
the plumbata is not stable and won't be thrown the
distances that should be possible. Therefore, we need
stabilisers. Although bits of wood can be used, the most
durable solution would probably be leather.
Nearly finished. Plane the lead weight (no need
to polish it) until it's smooth.
Finished plumbatae with the heads planed and
What you need for cutting and adding the fletches.
Jeroen (5) looking on while I'm cutting the
easiest and cheapest solution would be feathers though.
These would be found anywhere and therefore the best
solution (for this was probably a mass-produced weapon),
although feathers are not as durable as leather. For this
you need some large feathers such as from a goose or
maybe a swan (sturdy ones), a sharp knife and some string
or sinew if you can get it. Cut 3 to 4 fletches per
plumbata and cut them to equal length. Then trim about an
inch from the front and back of the quill to leave space
for the string. For a good result also taper down and
thin the front end of the quill.
Three fletches of equal lenght. Trim the front
The string goes around once, then tie it twice
around the fletch.
Repeat with the second one, but keep the final
position in mind.
Look down the shaft to see if the fletches are in
the correct position.
with the shortest fletch (you'll trim them later).
Remember to to leave about 5-10 cm of shaft behind the
fletches, since this is needed to hold the plumbata when
throwing it underhand. Wrap the string around the shaft
once, then lay the front end of the fletch on top of it
and tie the string twice around it. Make sure that the
feathers are sticking right up, 90 degrees from the shaft.
Then take the second fletch, place it about 120 degrees
from the first (or 90 if you use four fletches). Look
down the butt end of the shaft to see if you do it right,
but you'll be able to move them later - eyeball it until
it looks good. Repeat with the third (and fourth) and
wrap the remainder of the string around them.
A finished one (right) with the fletching trimmed
down, left one unfinished.
A finished plumbata, with the fletches added and
you want to glue the quill down (I did), this is probably
the best time. Repeat the process with the back end of
the fletches. Check while drying and if necessary pull
the tail end to stretch the quill so it will lay flat on
the shaft. If it still won't stay flat, you can (temporarily)
tie it down in the middle. When the fletches are secured,
trim them down with a sharp pair of large scissors. Don't
make them too short or you'll add speed but loose
stability. When this is ready, the plumbata is functional.
of course leave the plumbata as it is. After all,
this was probably a mass-produced weapon, and
nothing fancy. But there is a drawing in an
anonymous source about 4th-century military
inventions (De Rebus Bellicis), in fact
it's the only contemporary picture that exists of
plumbatae! This drawing (right: Plumbatae in De
Rebus Bellicis) shows a white-red-blue color
scheme that may be accurate (or maybe the blue
represents metal). Remember that this is a
version from a Medieval copyist who did no longer
understand the details.
plumbata is now finished. Have fun with it. It will break
soon enough when thrown often.
- Barker, P. (1979): The plumbatae
from Wroxeter, in: Hassall and Ireland 1979,
De Rebus Bellicis, BAR Int. Ser., vol. 63,
Oxford, pp. 97-9.
- De Rebus
(anon.), text edited by Robert Ireland, in: BAR
International Series 63, part 2.
- Eagle, J. (1989): Testing
plumbatae, in: van Driel-Murray 1989a, Roman
Military Equipment: the Sources of Evidence.
Proceedings of the Fifth Roman Military Equipment
Conference, BAR Int. Ser., vol. 476, Oxford,
- Griffiths, W.B. (1995): Experiments with
plumbatae, in: Arbeia Journal, vol.
4, pp. 1-11.
- Sherlock, D. (1979): Plumbatae - a
note on the methods of manufacture, in: Hassall
and Ireland 1979, De Rebus Bellicis, BAR Int. Ser.,
vol. 63, Oxford, pp. 101-2.
- Sim, David (1995a): Experiments to
examine the manufacturing techniques used to make
plumbatae, in: Arbeia Journal, vol.
4, pp. 13-19.