Atlatl “One-in-Ten” Problems

Atlatl “One-in-Ten” Problems refers to any problem that can come up during a throw that will cause a miss one time out of ten. There are many problems that can come up during the throwing motion. The way to a good score is first recognizing that a problem exists and that it will recur over and over again if you do not do something about it.

1. Dropping the elbow: The elbow of your throwing arm controls elevation. If during the throwing motion, you let the elbow drop below your shoulder before the dart separates from the atlatl, the dart will hit the dirt in front of the target or very low on the target, every time. You can try to throw harder, but if you keep dropping that elbow during the throwing motion your dart will just impact deeper into the ground in front of the target.

Related problems: Bending forward during the throwing motion creates the same problem as dropping your elbow; you lower the dart’s elevation in the middle of the throwing motion. Stand up straight and tall, like a proud American. Keep that back straight all the way through the throwing motion.

Dipping the shoulder of the throwing arm at the start of the throwing motion; same effect, lowers the dart’s elevation. Bending forward and dipping the shoulder most often occurs towards the end of a day’s throwing. People get tired and they lose concentration. Dipping the shoulder most often occurs at the very start of the throwing motion. People just seem to drop their shoulder as they make that step forward into the throw.

2. Bad Spur design: Think ball and socket. A good spur sets just inside the rim of the darts cup and easily rotates in and out of the cup. During the throwing motion as the atlatl is levered up and forward, the spur will rotate out of the cup and the butt of the dart will ride on the top surface of the spur tip just before the dart separates from the atlatl.

A sharp pointy spur tip will scratch a Panama Canal into the cup of the dart and eventually cut its way through the wall of the dart. In the mean time, it is hanging on to the dart during the throwing motion and may cause the dart to hook (veer off course).

A long narrow spur tip that goes way too far into the cup of the dart will also catch and hook the dart and also (if you are using a cane, bamboo, or other hollow tube dart) may actually split the rear end of the dart open.

Atlatl extends beyond the spur: I see this often with people new to the sport who make their own atlatl. For a spur, they will simply drill a hole at about a 45 degree angle somewhere near the end of the atlatl and insert a dowel rod or bone or antler spur into the hole leaving one to two inches of atlatl shaft extending beyond the spur. What happens next during the throwing motion is as the dart attempts to separate from the atlatl; that extension of atlatl shaft beyond the spur smacks down on the butt of the dart causing a profound disruption in the oscillation of the darts flexing.

A good spur has a rounded tip, rounded so that it can rotate into and out of the cup of the dart. In hollow tube darts (bamboo, river cane, aluminum tube, carbon tube, plexiglas tube) there is no real cup. Solid wood darts generally have a cone shape or bowl shape cup carve into the butt of the dart. Solid wood darts can take a pointy spur though eventually the pointy spur will gouge out the rim of the cup and the cup will need to be reshaped. In the hollow tube darts it is essential that the spur tip be rounded, not pointed, and rounded in a size that allows it to sit just inside the tube short of the equator. The spur must also be at the very end of the atlatl with no atlatl shaft wood beyond the spur. And, since the dart butt will be on the top surface of the spur just before the dart separates from the atlatl, it would not hurt to flatten the top surface of the spur to avoid the dart sliding off one side or the other of the spur during the throwing motion.

3. Atlatl Grip: There are as many atlatl designs as there are people willing to experiment. But it all comes down to how well you can keep a grip on the atlatl and prevent the atlatl from slopping around in the hand during the throwing motion because when that atlatl is being pulled forward and levered upward, the dart is flexing and all that oscillation is causing the butt of the dart to buck the spur. Since the hand that grips the atlatl is anywhere from 12 to 18 inches away from the bucking, a wobble can occur at the spur end. That wobble can cause a misdirection of flight. A good grip can reduce the amount of wobble. It does not matter if one uses loops of leather, holes drilled into the handle, pegs of wood, or ergonomic shaping of the atlatl handle as long as these things give the atlatlist grip control.

There are basically three ways to grip the atlatl:

Hammer Grip: Hold the atlatl like it’s a hammer, all fingers on one side, thumb on the opposite side.

Basketmaker Grip: The atlatl rests between the first and second finger of the hand. These two fingers can be in leather loops, in holes drilled into a paddle shaped handle, or wrapped around pegs stuck into the sides of the atlatl handle, or simply pinching into a recess carved into both sides of the atlatl.

Single Finger Hole Ataltl: Here a single hole is drilled through the top middle of the atlatl handle into which is inserted the first finger of the hand.

Any additional loops, holes, or pegs can be made to any of the above grip styles which can further add to control of the atlatl during the throwing motion. Even in the hammer grip style, a single loop of leather on the top of the handle for any one finger or a peg on the side of the atlatl for one finger to drape over can greatly add to the control of the atlatl during the throwing motion.

4. Centrifugal Stability: (Atlatl Weight) For a real control against the wobble at the spur end of the atlatl during the throwing motion, nothing beats an atlatl weight. It does not matter if you tie on a rock or just bulk up the end of the atlatl. A little weight at the end goes a long way. Think about tying a weight to the end of a string and whirling it around. Tends to straighten out that string, does it not? Nothing stirs a debate among atlatlists like the topic of atlatl weights. Some say they silence the throwing motion, some say they increase velocity, some say they are just for looks. Some put the weight just behind the atlatl handle, others put more than one weight on all along the atlatl shaft. I am one of those who believe the weight belongs in the rear of the atlatl. I use weights that are about 1 ½ inch long, 1 inch wide, ¾ of an inch thick, just river rounded stones found along creeks, lake shores, and some motel landscaping. The fact that an atlatl weight provides centrifugal stability is an absolute aid to accuracy. Can’t be beat!

5. He who hesitates is lost: At the start of the throwing motion, it is common among North Americans to step into the throw with the left foot (if the person is right handed). Our European counterparts do not take a step forward. They shift their weight to the rear and then rapidly shift it forward during the throwing motion. The purpose (taking that step or rapidly shifting the weight of the body forward) is the same; to start momentum.

The act of the throwing motion is a continuous and increasing process of building momentum towards the brisk wrist flick at the end of the throw. The first step is to get the body and thus the dart moving forward. The atlatl and dart are pulled forward horizontally, the dart point rises, the atlatl is levered upward regaining horizontal movement forward, the atlatl and dart move pass the atlatlist’s face, and finally with the hand out forward as far as it can get, the brisk, downward wrist flick is employed, and the dart separates from the atlatl. The whole purpose of stepping into the throw or rapidly shifting the body weight forward is build enough momentum to make the brisk wrist flick EASY PEASY. Any hesitation or loss of momentum building during the throwing motion will cause the brisk wrist flick to become arduous. Most often, what happens during momentum loss (or hesitation) is that the wrist will turn or twist, causing a miss direction of dart flight. So don’t be hesitant. Take an aggressive step forward at the beginning of the throwing motion. Step into it like you mean it. Argh!

6. How do you aim this thing? Aiming at atlatl and dart is a lot like aiming a cannon. The longer the distance to be covered, the higher the end of the barrow or dart point needs to angled, and, the thrust or force behind the cannon ball or dart must go into that increased angle. One does not necessarily need to provide more force of throw, just the increase in the angle of the dangle and throwing the elbow up into that angle during the throwing motion will cover the ground of the increased distance to the target.

But, one must still aim. Since the atlatl and dart does not have a front and rear sight, how is aiming achieved? I draw an invisible line down through the target. After setting the right angle of the dangle (perfected for each distance through practice), I put the point of my dart on that line, an as I throw, I keep the point of the dart on that line all the way through the throw. One can’t just aim at the start of the throw and let fly. One must aim throughout the throwing motion. Keep the point on the line. Concentrate. Keep the point on the line.

7. Use a good dart: In the archeological record, darts range anywhere from 4 feet long to 13 feet long, feathered (fletched) or not feathered. First of all, an atlatl dart must be flexible. At the start of the throwing motion the dart needs to bend away from the oncoming atlatl which, at the beginning of the throwing motion, is moving faster than the dart. Besides that, a flexing dart helps provide its own velocity, springing as it does of the end of the atlatl shaft, like a diver springing of a diving board.

A good dart has a balance point that is forward of center. How far forward of center? The closer to center the balance point is the higher the point will fly, coming down only because the feathers act as drag, slowing the dart down, giving the heavier point end a chance to fall. The further forward of center the balance point is, the faster the point end of the dart will drop.

Most people like to be able to throw a flat trajectory at 15 to 20 meters. To achieve that, the dart is usually about 6 to 7 feet long, has three feathers about 8 inches long and one inch wide, weighs about 4 to 6 ounces and has a balance point about 6 to 10 inches forward of center. The lighter the dart (which means shorter) the flatter the trajectory can be at 20 meters and beyond.

Another way to achieve that flat trajectory is to use smaller feathers. However, smaller feathers me less stability in flight, the correction for which is more weight at the front end which means the point end will drop sooner. It’s a classic Catch 22.

However, if you plan to hit what you aim at, you absolutely must have a well balanced dart with a predictable flight stability and a predictable trajectory. So, my opinion only here: Use a dart that is at least a foot longer than you are tall, has a balance point 8 to 10 inches forward of center, weighs about 4 to 6 ounces, and uses three 8 inch feathers for fletching. The best possible thing to do is to make darts that are uniform in length, weight, and balance point so that practice can provide expertise.

8. Clutching: So, you are driving down the road in a standard shift car. You got your foot on the gas and for some reason you step on the clutch with your other foot. The motor roars but the wheels turn no faster and in fact the whells slow down because the gears are not engaged. You are “Clutching”. Something similar happens at times while throwing the atlatl. You take that aggressive step forward, pull the atlatl and dart forward, use your normal force of throw, employ that brisk wrist flick at the end of the throw and dart goes forth, and for some reason beyond all comprehension fails to make it to the target. What just happened? You clutched! What happens is that during the throwing motion, instead of putting the strength of your gripping hand and throwing arm muscles into the forward motion of the throw, you grip the atlatl extra hard. All your momentum peters out but by God you got a death grip on that atlatl. Instead of a fluid, lively force of throw forward, your arm goes all tense and stiff. Relax, chill, and mellow out. Loosen up. Shake it off. Try again. Throw that arm out, throw it away. Whip it out there. Snap it out there. Remember, you are not trying to punch a bag but rather, you are trying to throw something away.

9. Saddle Finger: This problem is for those of you who use an atlatl with no dart rest. The right way to hold a dart in place on an atlatl without a dart rest is to pinch the dart shaft between the tip of the first finger and the tip of the thumb. But what happens a lot is that people will rest the dart on top of their 2nd , 3rd, and 4th finger and then drape their 1st finger over the top of the dart shaft, like a saddle on a horse. Most of the time, as the throwing motion begins, said person will slide that draped finger off in time with no bad effect on the dart flight. But once in a while, say one out of ten times, they will keep that 1st finger draped over the dart shaft too long. What happens next is the dart in front of the finger bends up at a frightful angle, trying to get away, the finger finally lets go, and SPROING!, the dart reflexes violently and where it goes after that is anyone’s guess. I have even seen people snap the dart in two doing the saddle finger. If you are going to use an atlatl without a dart rest, remember, pinch the shaft between the tips of your 1st finger and thumb. As you start your throwing motion, LET GO!

10. Diagonal thrust: Art students know all about “diagonal thrust”. It is what artists put into a composition to give it more interest; to make an otherwise pedestrian picture come to life. However, when it finds its way into the atlatl throwing motion, it’s not such a good thing. Now some people, are really good at side arm throwing which not only has the standard arch trajectory to the target but also a sideways curve, not unlike people at the bowling alley curving that ball into the sweet spot. Most atlatlists however use the tried and true straight forward end over end approach to launching the dart, except that, sometimes, say one out ten times, they will allow the atlatl to lean outward during the throwing motion, which puts a curve into the flight direction (to the right for the right handed, to the left for the left handed). This problem, like most of the other lapses in concentration, usually happens towards the end of the throwing day, when people get tired. This problem, like all the other tired/lapse of concentration problems can become a recurring problem; can creep into your throwing motion DNA if you are not careful. I’d like to think that side arm throwers became so because they allowed diagonal thrust to creep into their throwing DNA but I know different. Mamerto Tindongan of Ohio (2010 WAA ISSAC Champion) went side arm because he developed a nagging recurring pain in his rotator cusp and throwing sidearm evaded the problem/pain. Mark Bracken (who holds the World ISSAC record) throws so much sidearm that it is nearly underhand. His darts go down hill first, almost touching the ground then rise up into the target. He is missing a finger and uses a doughnut shaped paddle handle on his atlatl to compensate. No dart rest.

So, I certainly don’t want to malign sidearm throwers and would even go so far as to recommend the technique to anyone having shoulder problems as a way to get around the pain. I just want to point out that if you use the straight forward end over end throwing technique, to watch out for diagonal thrust as it will cause your dart to take side trips to places you don’t want that dart to go, like into the tents of campers next to the atlatl range or their cars parked nearby. It can be embarrassing.

So there you are, some tips on how to avoid problems, each problem being something that will cause a misdirection of flight maybe one out of ten times, but, if you are in an ISAC (World Atlatl Association’s International Standard Accuracy Competition) where you only throw 1 dart 10 times and you have all these problems happen, you may well never hit the target, unless you recognize you have a problem and do something to fix it.