Practical Skills: Atlatl

The atlatl or “spear thrower” is easy to make, easy to learn to use, and is one of the more effective “primitive” weapons available to man. The longest recorded throw was nearly 850 feet (or over 2.8 football fields), and while wooden versions of the atlatl do not have quite that distance, very few targets are going to be 850 feet away. The force of the atlatl dart has made the weapon legendary, at least among people who are not overly enamored with the bow and arrow. The Aztecs used the weapon to great effect against the Spanish conquistadors, who were shocked to learn that not only would their Spanish-made armor not stop the dart, but the dart would often continue through the solider and hit the man behind him! The Plains Amerindians of North America made great use of the atlatl, taking down buffalo in single shots.

The two major disadvantages of the atlatl over the bow and arrow is that, first, the atlatl dart is of far less forgiving construction than the arrow. An arrow must be straight. A dart must be straight, of an even consistency, and the spear head cannot be either too heavy or too light. The exact weight of the spear head will vary depending on the length of the dart, the atlatl itself, and the person wielding it. To help make up for this, the construction of the atlatl is easier than that of the bow. The second disadvantage is that the person wielding an atlatl must be standing and swing overhead in a gross movement. This means that it is impossible to use a atlatl without making yourself very plain to every animal paying even the slightest amount of attention.

An atlatl’s construction is based on several key features. The spur, the neck, the handle, and the counter weight.

The spur is simply a small point on the atlatl on which the notch of the dart rests. Since the spur cannot be very large this is the most likely part of the atlatl to break.  To help prevent this some people have been known to make spurs out of claws or shaped stones.

The spur is connected to the handle by a neck, which is narrower than the remainder of the atlatl. This part of the atlatl is designed to bend when the dart is thrown. Because of this atlatls that are intended for use rather than show are often made of a hardwood or bone. Reenforcing this part of the atlatl with sinew is not necessarily a bad idea, although the counter-weight will have to account for it.

I would tend to argue against conventional wisdom and suggest that the handle is actually the most important part of the atlatl. If everything else was made perfectly, but the handle was neglected, the atlatl would be nearly worthless. The handle should be crafted to the individual caster if possible, in order to prevent blisters and strain. I also strongly recommend a strip of leather be connected to the handle that can be wrapped around the wrist. A number of atlatls have been accidently cast with their darts by designers who have neglected this aspect.

The last part of the atlatl is the counter-weight. While not strictly necessary, it will increase the power of your atlatl, assuming it doesn’t break your atlatl. The purpose of the counter-weight is to further flex the neck of the atlatl, so it straightens out with more force. The counter-weight is typically a stone attached to the end of the atlatl below the spur. Whether or not it is placed directly below the spur it is important for the weight be evenly distributed. Hence, it would be acceptable to place two equally weighted stones on either side of the spur, but not only on one side of the spur.

While the dart is not strictly a part of the atlatl itself, it is ultimately the point. The atlatl dart should be of solid construction, but thin and flexible. The butt of the dart should be notched so that it can nestle around the spur. The tip should either be carefully weighted or be simply carved out of the dart itself. Fire-hardening such a point would be a necessity.

Construction materials for atlatls have included hardwoods, bone, sinew, leather, tortoise shells, sea shells, sandstone, soapstone, claws, and even jade. Although the jade atlatls were more for ornamentation than for use.

The atlatl, once completed, works like this. The thrower stands with his feet spread at shoulder’s width facing the direction of his target. Advanced throwing techniques include a running step before casting. The thrower holds the dart against the spur as he throws in an overhand motion similar to throwing a baseball. At the top of the arc the thrower releases the dart, but not the atlatl. The atlatl will flex with the force of the throw, assisted by the resistance of the counter-weight and the carefully crafted spear head. As the throw ends the atlatl snaps back into shape and the dart is propelled forward with exceptional force. This causes the dart to flex as it moves forward. The dart will continue to flex, or wobble, back and forth until it strikes a target. At that point the dart will release the potential energy built up in the flexing motion into its target. The flexing also improves the range of the dart.

The atlatl can be a very effective hunting tool, or a very effective weapon of war. It’s construction is easier than that of the bow, although the dart is harder to make than the arrow. It is also effective in humid and wet environments, where the bow becomes nearly worthless. And the atlatl dart will strike a target with greater force than an arrow. It is very easy to learn, and a dedicated student of sufficient athletic inclination could reliably hit large targets at distance after an afternoon of instruction. This last is something I can personally vouch for, having used an atlatl several times.

The exact design of atlatls is so varied that it was easier for the purposes of this article to explain the fundamental theory of the atlatl rather than give specific designs. Take this as a challenge to your creative side. Design an atlatl of your own making. If you email a picture or diagram of the design to I will post it with your commentary (assuming the commentary isn’t a string of profanity, of course).

-Benjamin Shender


1 Comment

  1. Barry Jensen said,

    November 27, 2015 at 3:54 pm

    The most important feature of an atlatl dart is it must be flexible. If it is too rigid, you lose all the power. The dart does not really need to be all that straight. I have thrown some pretty warped darts and they still fly straight. Warped darts tend to break though. The length of the dart makes little difference. Shorter lighter darts (4-5 feet long) tend to go further, longer ones (7 feet long) are more accurate. There is a video online where the worlds top atlatlists tried to pierce metal armor. They all failed. It is highly unlikely Aztecs pierced not only armor, but also hit the next man. More likely they managed to hit the conquistadores in gaps in their armor. Atlatls are not that accurate at distance, but sometimes you get lucky. Just throw a lot of darts. You can learn in an afternoon, but you will not develop accuracy at range for a long time. Accuracy is very hard to develop. I started atlatl last summer. I throw at home on a regular basis, so I have probably thrown darts several thousand times. A typical target is a bale of hay. At 5 to 15 yards, I will usually hit 90% of the time or better. At 20 to 25 yards it drops to about 1/2 to 1/3 of the time. Once in a while I might hit 7 out of 9 times. At 30 to 40 yards I can hit the bale half the time or less, it really varies with the day, I am not sure why. At greater distances accuracy declines, although I once hit 7 of 9 at 60 yards. That had to be mostly luck because usually I get 1 or 2 of 9 at that distance at best (more often zero). Sometimes, but rarely, I miss all 9 shots at 10 and 15 yards, it is very inconsistent. More accuracy than simply hitting the hay bale somewhere is nearly impossible beyond 15 yards. If you stack 2 hay bales, I increase my accuracy about 50% or more because most of my misses go over the top rather than off to the side. Maybe I will get more accurate over time. I seem to be improving with ever 300 or so throws, but then sometimes I backslide. I played an atlatl game where one of the best/most experienced atlatlists was playing. He missed every shot at 40 yards. (It was either 4, 6 or 8 shots at that distance) Keep in mind, atlatlists were normally throwing at a large target like a Mammoth or Bison, a crowd of warriors, or a man on a horse. The spur on my atlatl is made of antler. It is pretty large, it just comes to a point. The best darts are composite and engineered, next best is bamboo, then ash or pine. I mostly throw ash/pine darts. I once threw a shortened bamboo dart (about 3.5 to 4 feet long) supposedly 210 yards. I am not sure the measurement was accurate, I did not measure personally.

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