Don’t Drop Yer Elbows, Folks

Recently I received a couple of emails from people just starting out with the atlatl and they complained of hitting the dirt in front of the target, or, low shots.

1. The most common source of hitting the dirt in front of the target is the result of lowering your elbow during the throwing motion. Your throwing elbow should start off shoulder high and remain shoulder high throughout the entire throwing motion. When you let your drop down during the throwing motion, your dart drops down with it.

2. If you lever the atlatl upward too soon during the throwing motion you raise the rear end of the dart above the point end of the dart, thus the dart is pointed down hill when you throw and that is exactly where the dart will go, down hill, hitting the dirt in front of the target.
At the start of the throwing motion, the atlatl and dart must be pulled forward horizontally until the atlatl handle is about a foot in front of your face before you start to lever the atlatl upward.

3. Bending over at the waist during the throwing motion will like wise lower your dart point. You might as well drop to your knees during the throwing motion because the effect will be the same,,,, loss of altitude, dart hits dirt in front of the target. Stand up straight and tall, don’t bend over during the throw.

Don’t drop your elbow.
Pull, pull, pull the atlatl past your face before you lever.
Don’t bend over.

Ray Strischek
Athens Ohio

The Atlatl Weight as I Know It

I use atlatl weights or rather I use an atlatl weight on my atlatl.  I love it. I would never use an atlatl in a competition without one.

One day long ago, my father Martin Strischek showed up at my house with a bunch of stones he had gathered from a walk along Mill Creek near where he lived at the time.  He had taken the time and burned through a lot of drill bits to drill holes through these stones and insisted that I try them out.  So I did, starting with the light weights, throwing 20 or so darts, switching to a heavier weight, throwing 20 or so darts, and so on, all the way through a half dozen or so.

The effect was immediate, though it was not what I would have suspected having read up on all the theories at the time which were:

  1. The weight would increase the force of throw, thus gaining distance and/or penetration.
  2. The weight would act as a silencer.
  3. The weight would balance the dart on the atlatl so a thrower could stand at the ready for a longer period of time and not get tired.
  4. The weight was just a fetish, a good luck charm.

I found none of these things to be true.  Well ok, the bit about it being a good luck charm is impossible to prove one way or another.

What I found was that the weight aided accuracy because the weight provided centrifugal stability during the throwing motion.

Example:   take a piece of string 3 feet long, hold on to one end and whirl it around vertically.  The string just goes all over the place.  Now tie a weight to one end and whirl it around vertically, the string stretches out in a straight line and you can actually control the direction of the whirl.  That’s centrifugal stability.

The throwing motion using an atlatl is inherently jerky.  You are using your wrist joint, elbow joint, shoulder joint and all the muscles in between in a whacky momentum building dance to first pull forward and while pulling forward, levering upward, and then at the very end, briskly flicking the wrist downward to hopefully send a 6 foot long flexing dart in a straight lined, arcing flight to a small circle down range.

Now during the throwing motion, before the dart separates from the atlatl, the dart is already flexing and that flexing tends to have its way with the spur end of the atlatl which is about 18 or so inches away from where the hand is holding and trying to control the atlatl.  That flexing causes the spur end of the atlatl to wobble and not maintain a straight line travel throughout the entirety of the throwing motion. Exactly where off line the wobble has the spur when the dart separates from the atlatl determines how far off the intended direction the dart will venture.

The atlatl weight’s centrifugal stability counters the wobble caused by the flexing dart. And assuming you can get your wrist joint, elbow joint, shoulder joint and all the muscles in between to get with the whacky momentum building dance to first full forward and while pulling forward, levering upward, and then at the very end, briskly flicking the wrist downward to hopefully, and actually send the dart towards that small circle in the target down range in the right direction to begin with, you will stand a much better chance of actually hitting it.

Some of my friends use more than one atlatl weight.  Some have atlatl weights evenly distributed all along the atlatl shaft.  Most people get by pretty well with just one.  Some locate it right behind the handle, others mid way along the atlatl shaft. Others still, myself included, park the weight close to the spur.

I have no opinion on the number or placement of the atlatl weight on the atlatl shaft.  I will say that how much weight you use is a health issue you need to take very seriously. My own experiments have proved to me that too much weight will give one “atlatl elbow.”

I use a stone that is generally disc shape, round, and has had its edges rounded off by wave action so that it looks to be about 1 ½ inches long, by 1 ½ inches wide at its widest point, and about ¾ of an inch thick at the thickest point.  I don’t know how much the stones weigh because I never bothered to weigh one, but I reckon them to weigh about 2/3 that of my darts.

I have found these fairly flat round symmetrical stones in fast moving streams, along the beaches of Lake Erie, in piles at stone quarries everywhere, and used in landscaping around hotels and rest stop buildings.  So, they are not all that rare or hard to find.

I use waxed, fake sinew to lash my stones to the atlatl.  I put a small piece of leather between the atlatl shaft and the atlatl weight to be, wrap sinew around stone and atlatl shaft 20 or so times and then leave about two feet of sinew dangling from each side.  I then use a series of half hitches to cinch up the wrapped strands between the atlatl and the top of the weight on both sides.  This binds the wraps very tightly and I have never had a weight slip or slide.  I will use a double half hitch to end up with, and leave about an inch of sinew dangling on each side.

Because the sinew is fake and made from oil based products, I can use a lighter to start the dangling end burning and as it burns toward the last double half hitch I will blow out the flame which leaves a bubble that will not unwind.

In summary, the purpose of the atlatl weight is to provide centrifugal stability during the throwing motion and is thus an important aid to improving accuracy.  Too much weight will kill your elbow. All other theories about the function of the atlatl weight are bogus because they are not mine.  (Although, good luck charm, yeah maybe that one’s ok.)

Ray Strischek
Athens Ohio

Workshop Update 2014

Atlatl Ray’s been busy in the workshop.

[UPDATE: $80 Master Atlatls are done!]

$80 Master Atlatls

Contact me via my form if you’d like to buy one.

$80 Master Atlatls, Flexible and Weighted with dart rests, single finger hole style. Hardwood handles, hardwood flexible shafts, hardwood dart rests, oak spurs.

From bottom to top: Walnut handle with Osage flexible shaft. Next is Cherry Handle and Rose Wood flexible shaft. Middle is Elm handle with Rosewood Flexible Shaft. The top two are Walnut with Brazilian Cherry flexible shafts.

I am currently working on three of Walnut handle with Rosewood Flexible Shafts. I like Walnut and Cherry best. I like Rose Wood flexible shafts best. I have been using the same Walnut and Rose Wood atlatl for 10 years. Very dependable, very durable.

The weights are river smoothed cobbles and are lashed on (no glue) in such a way as to not slip. The rocks sit on a piece of leather and I wrap several winds of fake sinew around the stone and atlatl, leaving two feet of sinew dangling on both sides. I then use a repeated half hitch from stone to wood on both sides. This bunches the wrappings together making them even tighter than I can do by pulling with my hand. The weight I have on the atlatl I have been using for 10 years has never slipped. In fact, the bindings get tightened so much that on two occasions in the last 16 years the tightness gained from this method put so much pressure on the stone that it split the flexible shaft.

$40 Weighted, Flexible Atlatls — See pics below. A cross between beginner atlatls and master atlatls, a way to give someone an affordable opportunity to experience the flexible weighted atlatl.

$20 Beginner Atlatls — See pics below. A 1 inch diameter poplar shaft, oak dart rest and oak cross bar set at 5 1/2 inches from the front.  The spur is oak.  Atlatl is 22 inches long.

$20 Atlatl Darts —  See pics below. Approximately 7 feet long, with bamboo or river cane shafts, 3 feather tied on, not glued, water proof reinforced front and rear ends to  avoid splitting, and copper points also using water proof glue. All my darts have a 12 inch poplar foreshaft that holds the point and is permanently glued into the dart shaft. Upon request, I can make dart foreshafts that will hold a regular arrow insert so that a customer can buy hunting points from an archery store for use in hunting.

Beginner Atlatls
Beginner Atlatls
Fletching Style for Atlatl Darts
Fletching Style for Atlatl Darts
Beginner Atlatls
Beginner Atlatls
Atlatl Darts
Atlatl Darts

Until such time as such time as my son drags my 66 year old carcass kicking and screaming into the 21st Century all sales must be via check or money order.  Someday I will figure out pay pal but for now, while we still have one, lets use the US Post Office.

Please contact me via my form to let me know what you’re looking for…

Archaic Stems

This is a review by Ray Strischek of the book Stone Age Spear and Arrow Points, by Noel D. Justice, and the differences between Paleo, Archaic, and Woodland spear and arrow point styles.

Conventional intellectual shorthand reduces the differences between Paleo, Archaic, and Woodland eras as follows:

  • Paleo: 18,000 BC to 7,000 BC, HUNTING!!! and gathering.
  • Archaic: 7,000 BC to 1,000 BC, HUNTING and Gathering.
  • Woodland: 1,000 BC to 1,250 AD, Hunting and GATHERING!!!

Researchers believe that, in Paleo times, hunting was the all-consuming activity.  People gathered to add spice to the meal or to ward off starvation when hunting was poor.

In Archaic times, hunting anything that walked, crawled, swam, or flew was still a priority, but gathering became a close second with an increase in labor away from hunting and directed towards teasing or encouraging  more productivity from existing forage resources. People intentionally eliminated competitor plants wherever desired food stuffs grew — tree nuts, berries, edible green leafy things, seeds, or root plants. Some called this “horticulture.”

The Woodlands era (except in Buffalo country) saw hunting reduced to a level more or less subservient to gathering, which becomes actual “agriculture,” notably an increase of time spent away from hunting and instead directed towards the planting of corn, squash, and beans in North America.  People continued to gather tree nuts, berries, seeds, green leafy things, and root plants.

Some writers like to point out that the difference between Paleo and Archaic is the introduction in Archaic times of the celt and ground stone axe. They claim that pottery in the Woodland era separated it from its prior.

Other milestones include:

  1. Paleo:  All the mega fauna go extinct and people exploit quality flint.
  2. Archaic: Population increases cause restriction of movement, birth territorialism, and  increase dependency on local flint sources.
  3. Woodlands: Religious or spiritual groups (mound builders), regional centers of influence and trade networks, specialization of tasks (flint point-making and pottery) with outlying areas somewhat to completely isolated from the trade networks and completely dependent upon local flint sources. (Have and have nots.)

Stoneage Spear and Arrow Points by Noel D Justice is one of the better Bibles for the collector out there. It is meticulously and chronologically detailed and wonderfully illustrated.  Through those details and illustrations, the author makes the differences between Paleo, Archaic, and Woodland era points immediately and visually perceptible.

  1. Paleo:  Absolutely exquisite overall craftsmanship, addiction to high-quality flint from far afield and hardly a stem to be found. OK, Scottsbluff has a stem, but that’s about all and it is considered late Paleo, even “Paleo Archaic.” In Paleo, the hafting section of the point is most often a continuation of the point form.  It’s slightly modified (thinned out at the base and dulled on the edges) with the use of flutes or heavy abrasion.  Apparently, hunting the big boys left plenty of time for Paleo Americans to sit around honing their craft, because exquisite examples far and away outnumber the crude.
  2. Archaic:  All that time redirected away from hunting and spent gathering,  the increase of population that led to restricted movement and increased dependency on local flint sources seems to have had an effect on the quality of craftsmanship overall.  In no way can the overall level of craftsmanship in the Archaic hold a candle to the Paleo.  In the Archaic, stems on points becomes the norm:  square stems, rounded stems, ovate stems, diamond shaped stems, dove tail, turkey tail, beaver tail, side notched, corner notched and that bifurcate thing that looks all the world like a pair of balls dangling from the bottom of the blade.  In the Archaic, the hafting element of the point becomes a distinctly separate design entity from the blade.  This does not mean that there are no flashy, well executed points. There are, but they are the exception to the rule.
  3. Woodlands:  Craftsmanship gets even worse except in those regional centers (like Cahokia or Hopewell) where stability through agriculture creates specialization.  However, it appears that quality flint sources fall under the distribution and control of these regional centers and leave the outlying and smaller communities stuck with crappy chert. If you are not part of the trade network, if you have nothing to trade, you get nothing. You certainly do not have access to quality flint.  And apparently, the necessity to spend much more time away from hunting and directed to gathering just to hustle up the day’s meal leaves little time to master the art of flint knapping. Simply paging through Justice’s book, you can see the de-evolution of Woodland Era — a time of crude, lumpy, shapeless, and stylistically impoverished examples of workmanship. There were apparently no truly innovative adaptations of design.  Points appear as poor distant cousin of previous eras, something flint knapping expert Charles Spear of Peru, Indiana, would call “survival points, better than nothing.”

“Atlatl Flex: Irrelevant”: A Review by Ray Strischek, Editor, The Dart

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.

The authors:

“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

Thud’s Cave Recommendation

For those of you who want to make your own atlatl, you would be hard pressed to find a better, more informative site than “Thud’s Cave”.  The plans are fine line drawings with all necessary measurements given.  The tools you would need to make any of these designs are:

  • Table saw
  • Band saw
  • Drill press
  • Belt Sander or at least an oscillating electric sander
    Electric hand drill
  • Wood Rasp  (I prefer the shinto rasp.  Look it up on the internet.)
  • Round Bastard File – 1/2 Diameter – (I found mine on the internet. Local hardware stores, even the big box ones don’t have it.) I use this file exclusively for making a 30 degree channel in the rear of the atlatl to receive  a 1/2 inch diameter oak dowel rod spur.
  • Lots of sandpaper,  40 grit, 60 grit, 80 grit, 100 grit, 150 grit, 220 grit.   (You’ll be pleasantly surprised how well 40 grit sandpaper can make your worst cutting mistakes disappear  Then its just a matter of sanding your way through the grit levels until you reach baby bottom smooth at 220 grit.
  • Duct tape.  You can back long strips of paper back sandpaper with the duct tape and “shoe shine” the atlatl while its in a vice.
  • A good glue.  I prefer PC-7 glue. Its two cans, white and black, mix it on a piece of cardboard with a flat stick. it has a fudge consistency.  It does not run, it does not shrink. Takes 12 hours to cure so you got plenty of time to work with it. When it dries, its as hard as wood but sands easily.  (You can find it on the internet.)


Ray Strischek, Athens Ohio

Atlatl Weight Found in Florida

This article is about an unusual atlatl weight found in Florida.  It has two through and through holes.  One down the center to slide on to a rod-shaped atlatl shaft, and then another through and through hole from the side for a pin to act as a wedge to hold the atlatl weight in place on the atlatl shaft to keep it from slipping and sliding.

The author of the article went to current atlatlists to get an opinion on whether atlatl weight size has any relationship to dart weight and size.  The atlatlists all responded saying, “why, of course it does.”

I stand by my own opinion that the atlatl weight provides centrifugal stability  during the throwing motion to keep the spur end of the  atlatl from wobbling from side to side as it is levered up and forward, pushing against the flexing and bucking dart. Therefore, the atlatl ‘weight’ must have enough weight to counteract the force of the flexing dart. Smaller weights for smaller darts, bigger weights for bigger darts.  Nothing is more distracting than having a dart so light (or an atlatl so heavy) that you can’t feel the weight of the  dart while holding the dart and atlatl ready to throw.

I personally like to feel a little dart weight hanging off the front end of the atlatl.  As the distance to the target increases, the dart is angled up and the weight hanging of the front end decreases (actually, the balance point of the dart retreats to the rear as the dart point is angled upward).  This difference in the feel of the weight at different distances (as the point end of the dart is raised higher) is an aid in accuracy.


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.

A Different Kind of Dart Rest

The dart rest is made of two pieces of rawhide or one big piece doubled over and held together with a wrapping of string or sinew part way to the ends. The dart is slip into between the two unwrapped ends which grip the dart just enough to hold it in place but not tight enough to prevent its release during the throwing motion. These atlatls are attributed to “Mike” but his last name is not given on the web site. Hell, Mike could be the dog. I left a comment on the web page with my email address. Hope I get a response.

From Baggis, on Flickr

On “Atl atl replicate study” by Jim Dunbar

This article explores various dart foreshaft/point assemblies and their ability to hold up (or not) being propelled by an atlatl into a palm tree. Of interest is the sticking of the foreshaft inside the dart shaft on humid days.  The purpose of the socket-ed foreshaft was to allow the dart shaft to slip off the foreshaft when it hit an animal so that the hunter could retrieve the fallen dart shaft and insert another foreshaft for another throw, thus be able to go on the hunt with a light load of only two or three dart shafts and a half dozen extra foreshafts.

“Atl atl replicate study” by Jim Dunbar