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

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.

LINK: http://paleoenterprises.com/research11.htm#_edn1

How and Why to Rig an Atlatl Weight

Got a comment from a reader about how to attach an atlatl weight to the shaft of the atlatl.

Well … Nothing initiates a spirited discussion among atlatlists as does the use of an atlatl weight so I thought I’d give this its own post.

Got a comment from a reader about how to attach an atlatl weight to the shaft of the atlatl.

Well … Nothing initiates a spirited discussion among atlatlists as does the use of an atlatl weight so I thought I’d give this its own post.

This is a little detailed, as usual, so click here if you just want to know how I do it.

A Little Atlatl Weight History

In the archeological record, atlatl weights vary wildly from plain old stones worn smooth by river action to fancy sculpted rocks, bone, or wood,  fashioned to look like birds and other critters. They vary just as wildly in weight from seemingly too small to make a difference to too large to be of any use. Think in terms of tying an acorn on to your atlatl versus tying on a concrete block.

Why you should know about Atlatl weights

My own experience in atlatl weights (the heavy kind) gave me a nine-month (and very painful)  bout of “atlatl elbow” which was only cured by switching grip styles from hammer grip to basketmaker grip. I have since been able to go back towards hammer grip by using a single finger hole grip and lighter atlatl weights without getting another round of atlatl elbow.

I would now never use an atlatl without an atlatl weight.

1. The most common explanation for the use of the atlatl weight is to increase the length of time of the throwing motion as in theory, longer connection to the atlatl  is supposed generate more dart speed.

2. The second most common explanation is the atlatl weight balances out the amount of dart weight hanging off the front of the atlatl, thus allowing the atlatlist to hold the dart at the ready without getting tired.

3. My experience with atlatl weights suggests that the weight generates greater throwing motion control (think centrifugal force) preventing the rear end of the atlatl from wobbling at the top of the throwing motion, and, when using a flexible shaft atlatl, the weight acts as a shock absorber, again, at the top of the throwing motion, allowing for a smoother follow through.

The Nuts & Bolts of Atlatl Weights

As far as what how much weight to use, I recommend no more than two ounces or an egg-shaped rock of no bigger than 1 1/2 inches long by 1 inch wide and 1 inch thick. For the best-ever read on atlatl weights I suggest you look up archeologist Anan Ray’s article about the function and performance of atlatl weights. In my opinion, it is the first and last word and most accurate statement about atlatl weights.

Overall, I believe the use of the atlatl weight is a mixture of 1, 2, and 3 above.

Now, about where to attach them … I park one about two inches from the atlatl spur. Other people put it everywhere else and even load up as many as three or four all along the shaft. Look up the work of William Snyder Webb of the University of Kentucky on the subject of atlatl weights. During the WPA days in Ohio County Kentucky, Webb dug up 1000 midden burials in which altatl weights were found. Through the passage of time, he noted that the weights started out close to the handle of the atlatl and ended up back by the spur. He surmised that over time, Native Americans found it more efficient to put the weight to the rear of the atlatl. My own experience compels me to agree though a zillion practicing atlatlists will beg to differ, each with their own varying opinion.

Attaching the atlatl weight. How?  Many examples of atlatl weights in the archeological record have a groove in them so that they can be tied on to the atlatl shaft without the string or sinew slipping off. Some people today use small wedges of wood to help keep the string or sinew tight to avoid having the atlatl weight slip and slide away. The wedge also allows the atlatlist to move the atlatl weight on purpose, supposedly to give the atlatl more efficiency at different distances.


Exactly How I Attach an Atlatl Weight

I use common river smoothed stones which could present the problem of the string or sinew slipping off. To avoid slippage, I place a small rectangle of leather between the stone and the atlatl shaft. I then tightly wrap fake sinew (heavily waxed nylon available in tan or black from threeriversarchery.com) several times around the stone (be very generous) leaving about one end 18 inches dangling to start with and ending with another 18 inches dangling at the end.  So now, I have two pieces hanging 18 inch long, one on eacg side of the stone. Tie the two ends in a knot at the top of the stone.

Starting with one side, I thread a hanging end underneath the wrapping and do a simple half hitch, pull tight towards the top of the stone fartherest away from the atlatl shaft,  repeating the half hitch process until until the half hitch wind meets the wood of the atlatl, then doing the same half hitch process on the other side of the stone.

This process pulls the mass of windings together causing a super tight grip and is the same process the Mayans used to tighten the cabling of their suspension bridges.  They made their “rope” out of river cane.

I cut the remaining dangling fake sinew about one inch away from the stone and using a lighter, I set the end of the fake sinew on fire and watch the flame move toward the wood, blowing it out before it touches.  This leaves a little tiny bulb of melted nylon which prevents the fake sinew from unwinding.

Using this process, I have never had an atlatl weight slip or slide and the windings have never come unwrapped. Because the nylon is heavily waxed, it is very resistant to rain and weathering although, after a year or so, it does start to fray and I will do a re-wrap.

Great Atlatl Weight Article

bc-atlatl-weight

I recently found this article “Atlatl Weights in the Collection of the Royal British Columbia Museum” By Grant Keddie, Curator of Archaeology.

Great pictures of weights in the BC collection … and good answers to the question, “Why are weights used on throwing boards (atlatls)?”

“[T]he stone weight tunes the atlatl flex in relation to the spine of the dart. This results in the dart being propelled foreward with greater control […] The purpose of some decorative atlatl weights is, of course, also symbolic – with meanings that vary among culturals. Some preserved wooden atlatl boards have been found with small ornamental attachments. Some look like mini atlatl weights, but due to their light weight, can only be symbolic or purely decorative.”

Check out the full article here. (PDF Download from British Columbia site)