Friday, February 4, 2011

Atlatl – more than just an unusual name

Photos of atlatls and darts constructed by L. Ross. Photo of Gene Cunningham in the process of casting a dart with an atlatl. Photos by L. Ross.

The atlatl is a unique weapon developed in Europe over 30,000 years ago. It eventually spread around the globe. It was the first serious weapon system developed by humans. As opposed to primitive clubs or crude hand thrown sticks and spears, it was a sophisticated weapon offering improved range, accuracy and killing power.

The bow and arrow, compared to the atlatl, is a relatively modern weapon. It was developed about 2,000 years ago. It was still used by North American natives when the first European explorers reached these shores. By then, the bow had been developed in Europe and the atlatl had fallen into disuse. It had proved to be a formidable weapon and caused the demise of many of the Spanish Conquistadors who had never been exposed to the power of an atlatl dart.

The atlatl is a wooden spear thrower. The spear is usually referred to as a dart, although in reality, it is somewhere between the size of an arrow and a hand-thrown spear. The dart has fletching to stabilize it in flight and is fitted with various types of points, depending on the end use. The atlatl is a wooden shaft that has a hook on the end that fits into a nock hole on the dart. It may be flexible to develop more power, but is also made in rigid forms. It acts as a lever to allow throwing the dart faster and farther with the minimal energy. It is reported that a dart can be thrown with 200 times the force and 6 times the range of a hand thrown dart. A dart can exceed 100 mph and equal the force of a 60 pound compound bow.

The atlatl is used in 20% of U.S. states to hunt various kinds of game and fish, up to and including deer. Montana is currently considering a bill to legalize atlatls for hunting.
Some schools today have made a sport of atlatl competition. Competition includes keeping records for distance and accuracy. Throws of 850 feet have been recorded.

Atlatls are constructed in traditional forms, some are elegantly carved and some modern ones are constructed with modern materials. Similar devices are used in the South American sport of Jai Alai to propel a ball. Many atlatls have bannerstones attached to the midsection. These date back to prehistoric times and the use is debated as to the actual purpose. Some say that it stabilizes the atlatl. Others say that it helps to “load” the atlatl and thereby increases velocity and downrange energy. Having made both styles, it appears that it does add some stability, but as to adding velocity, that is questionable.

Darts for atlatls are more slender than traditional spears and actually bend and oscillate during flight which adds to the velocity. Thick-walled species of bamboo make excellent darts. A crude atlatl is very easy to construct from bamboo. A piece of bamboo of approximately 1 ¼” in diameter can be cut lengthwise leaving about 6” for a grip and the last nodule on the opposite end. Remove the inner nodules from the halved sections and you have a crude atlatl or spear thrower.

There are other inexpensive ways to make atlatls. The most basic is to cut a sapling of approximately 1 ¼” in diameter with a limb growing at a sharp angle from the trunk. Cut below the limb and about 24” above the limb. Trim the limb to about ¾” in length and taper it to fit the nock hole in the end of the dart. This is one of the most basic forms and easy to construct in a primitive situation.

If you are interested in securing an atlatl and darts, contact Ross at or call (864) 238-1944.

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