John Whittaker and Andrew Maginniss
The Atlatl 19(2):1-3 (April 2006)
The above article above is 10 pages in length, too long to reproduce here. The entire text can be found at the above address.
Briefly, Whittaker and Maginniss take on a double rumor. The first rumor is that a flexible atlatl adds more velocity to a throw than a rigid atlatl. The second is that there is some sort of raging argument about the issue out there in the community of practicing atlatlists.
“With Whittaker as the atlatlist and Maginniss as the physicist, we hoped to shed some light on this question. We are in the process of working this up for a detailed publication, but since the results are interesting to other atlatlists, we will summarize them here without the details of the physics, which in the end are not so important anyway.”
They used math, digital cameras, strobe lights, and atlatls that varied in flexibility. Their math suggested that a good flexible atlatl might provide up to 10% more velocity to the speed of the dart, but the results showed:
“In spite of our mathematical models, the results of our experiments forced us to the conclusion that atlatl flex has little or no effect on the velocity of the dart.”
The authors conclude that the atlatl remains flexed throughout the throwing motion and only after the dart has separated from the atlatl does the atlatl return to rigidity. They claim that this change comes too late in the process to provide any stored up energy to the velocity of the dart.
So is there any usefulness for a flexible atlatl?
“One possible function of atlatl flex is that it could help to reduce error from human induced irregularities in the throw. It might buffer some of the jerkiness of a throw, producing smoother, more regular acceleration.”
Editor’s note: I agree. I have in previous articles explained the benefits of using a flexible atlatl. During the throwing motion, an atlatlist first pulls the atlatl and dart horizontally forward until the atlatl handle passes in front of his face, at which time he begins to lever the atlatl upward while still pulling forward. The dart has already started flexing causing the “jerkiness” noted by the authors. At a point during the throwing motion, when the atlatl has been levered into a vertical position, the strain of pushing the atlatl against the resisting flexing dart can be felt from wrist to elbow and even in the shoulder. If the atlatl is a rigid atlatl, the strain can actually become somewhat painful after an all day long atlatl event. With the flexible atlatl like a spring, the flexing atlatl acts like a shock absorber. It reduces the strain and pain caused by the resistance of the flexing dart. It provides a smooth transition from pulling and levering to pushing and levering. It allows the throw to conclude with a brisk, downward wrist flick.
If you experience pain during the throwing motion, you are apt to flinch or in some other way deviate from the preferred throwing technique. You’re trying to escape or somehow lessen the strain and pain. Unfortunately, deviation opens you up to error of technique.
Similarly, if you no longer experience pain during the throwing motion, you can pay more attention to technique and, thus, achieve better accuracy.
The atlatlists I have encountered who have suffered most from shoulder/rotator cusp problems, chronic wrist pain, or atlatl elbow problems often used rigid atlatls with a hammer grip throwing technique. The atlatl elbow problem, however, seems more often related to using heavy atlatl weights.
In my opinion, a more visible debate rages over the purpose of the atlatl weight. Some suggesting that the weight provides more velocity. I hold that the weight provides stability during the throwing motion for a smoother, more controlled arch, all of which aids in accuracy.
The authors also take up the rumors associated with darts. Some claim that the flex of the dart adds to the velocity of the throw. The authors claim that the velocity of the dart comes from the muscle in the arm propelling the dart. In regards to dart flex, they offer this:
“Perhaps dart flex does help increase dart velocity, not through releasing its potential energy, but rather by its effects on the throwing motion. Our slow motion footage shows that for some of the more flexible darts filmed, the point of atlatl/dart release is further along in the rotation than with the less flexible darts. The less flexible wooden darts from Bob Berg, which were used in the atlatl flex experiments, would be released almost perfectly straight above the throwing hand or at 90 degrees of rotation. The more flexible cane darts that Whittaker normally throws were sometimes released as far as at 105 degrees of rotation.This extra 15 degrees might increase the velocity of the dart byadding to the time that the atlatl is actually accelerating the dart, and therefore the more flexible darts may be more efficient than the less flexible darts. “
Editor’s note: These rumors — that flexing atlatls provide more velocity, that flexing darts provide more velocity, and that atlatl weights provide more velocity — are old rumors. The first to bandy them about (besides perhaps even the original inventors, of course) were trained archeologists nearly 50 years ago. Today, 21st century atlatlists competing in atlatl and dart accuracy contests around the world dig them up.
It seems to me that John Whittaker and Andrew Maginniss are on to something here and I look forward to finding the more detailed report they promised to make of this.
Ray Strischek, Editor, The Dart