I have been throwing, building and studying atlatls and darts for fun and sport since the early 1990’s. During that time, I’ve watched, learned from, and taught a number of great crafters and throwers in the United States and other countries.
Much of that knowledge I log and snail-mail out in a periodic newsletter called The Dart to anyone who asks for it. I’ve also collected some ideas and observations here in two PDFs — one about atlatls and one about darts (spears):
An atlatl is a tool that uses leverage to achieve greater velocity in throwing darts, and includes a bearing surface which allows the user to transfer energy derived from muscular energy during the throw. It consists of a shaft with a handle on one end and a spur or cup on the other, against which the butt of the dart rests. The dart is thrown by the action of the upper arm and wrist in conjunction with a shift of balance of the body. An atlatl can readily cast a well made dart to ranges greater than 100 meters.
Atlatl Grips: In the course of 10 years, I started out with a rigid, hammer grip atlatl but within two years, switched to a flexible, weighted, hammer grip atlatl (which provides greater throwing control and a smoother throwing motion). However, a foolish mistake experimenting with heavier weights gave me a very painful dose of “atlatl elbow” for nine months. Desperate, I switched to a basketmaker grip, flexible, weighted atlatl, and the pain was gone in three days.
The difference between hammer grip and basketmaker grip. Hammer grip provides greater control of elevation, but less control of direction. Basketmaker grip provides greater control of direction, but less control of elevation.
Three years ago, I switched to a single hole, flexible, weighted atlatl. The single hole splits the difference between pure hammer grip and basketmaker, giving me all around better control of elevation and direction. Now when I miss, its pure pilot error.
Dart Rest: A dart rest allows you to use all your fingers and thumb to control the atlatl handle. No need to hold the dart to the atlatl with some fingers before the throw, then have to reset the fingers on the atlatl handle during the throw. With the dart rest, you hold the atlatl, the atlatl holds the dart, and you don’t get in each other’s way.
Flexible Atlatl Shaft: Think shock absorber. During the throwing motion, the dart is flexing. The atlatl shaft flexes during the throwing motion, preventing an annoying, slightly painful strain that would normally run from your wrist to your elbow. Some people say the flexing atlatl shaft provides more power to the throw. I say the flexing atlatl shaft acts as a shock absorber, providing a smoother throwing motion.
Atlatl Weight: So many theories! Some say the weight provides more velocity, or a stealthy throw, or helps balance the weight of atlatl and dart together so a person can hold same in readiness to throw for long periods of time. I think it has more to do with the advantage of centrifugal force. During the throwing motion the dart is flexing and at the top of the throw, the spur of the atlatl is no longer inside the hole in the back of the dart. The dart is resting on the top side of the spur, connected to the spur only because the atlatl is moving faster than the dart. The atlatl weight, provides enough centrifugal force to counter the forces of the flexing dart, to provide a well controled, smoother throwing motion.