Holding and Throwing Atlatl Darts

I was thinking about throwing and holding style recently and happened upon a couple of good articles I wanted to share…

The image above is a pretty good representation of the problems of teaching people how to throw with an atlatl without a dart rest. As you can see in the picture, as the throwing motion begins, the dart flexes upward. The most common mistake people using an atlatl without a dart rest make is to hang a finger over the top of the dart (like a saddle on a horse) and not let go soon enough. Even a person who rightly just holds the dart with the tips of a finger and a thumb can hang on too long. The person above waited to long to release the dart. She should have let the dart loose before her elbow passed her face or more to the point, just as soon as she started the forward throwing motion. To the good, she is not dropping her elbow.

Source: http://heritageedu.wordpress.com/

The “Right” Way to Hold a Dart with a Non-Dart Rest Atlatl

Hold Dart Atlatl Rest

Note the dart itself is resting on the three fingers and held in place using the tips of the one finger and thumb. The trick is to hold just tight enough to be able to keep the dart on the spur until the forward motion begins … then let go, let the dart slip out from between the tips of the finger and thumb as soon as the forward throwing motion begins.

Source: http://www.lancasterarchery.com/index.php?cPath=38_77

Atlatl Kit

For Christmas, Atlatl Ray, my father, gave me some wood blanks cut and taped together in the form of an atlatl. Over a month, I carved, sanded, glued, shined, and tied it up.  I hope spring gets here soon so we can try it out.  Check out my progress below.

STEP 1  // UPDATED 01/23/2011:

Glueing up a mess

The basics are:

Take off the tape, glue, sand, sand some more, and eventually treat the wood (I think?).

At no surprise to myself, I’ve already had some trouble with the basic gluing and sanding. But, overall, it still looks nice and the progress — half an hour, half an hour there — is encouraging.

This is Dad’s “keyhole” style. At least, that’s what I call it. The minor troubles I had were gaps in the glue filling and just … sorta … not knowing how much to sand where. But it looks good! 😀

STEP 2  // UPDATED 01/30/2010:

Carving and Sanding

I spent some time in the “solarium” grinding away away at my atlatl kit this fine Sunday afternoon. Previously, I had fixed the spur head to the shaft and the shaft to the handle with PC-7 glue and sanded … and sanded … and sanded. Today I whipped out the shinto rasp, bastard file, and PC-7 glue to prep and fix the nook and spur to the atlatl. That glue will set overnight and maybe next weekend I’ll do some final sanding and brush on some lacquer. Not sure I have the expertise to tie a river stone weight onto the shaft with tendon (or waxed hemp twine or whatever) the way my dad does it, but we’ll see.

Hear are some photos from today’s progress with the atlatl kit:

Atlatl Nook - Make an Atlatl

This is the nook of the atlatl. You set the middle of the spear here. My dad gave this to me as a separate block with a peg on it and a hole in the atlatl handle. I simply rasped the base a little, smeared glue on the peg, and shoved it in the hole. The duct tape is holding a little wedge of wood against some leather strips against glue against the crotch of the wood block. After the glue dries, I’ll take the tape off and file down the excess leather.

As you can see above and below, crappy gluemanship is a recurring theme of this project.  Probably should have learned this the right way back in kindergarten but I shall brave on …

Bottom of Atlatl Handle - Making an Atlatl

This is where the little peg sticks out of the bottom of the atlatl handle.  I’ll sand the protruding nub and mess of glue off next time.

Atlatl Spur - Making an Atlatl

This is the spur of the atlatl.  I used the bastard file to run a channel in some layers of wood I’d previously glued onto the end of the shaft.  Then I just smeared glue in that channel like a five-year-old with a handful of pudding and plopped the peg in on top of it at a 30 degree angle.  I think I’ll sand its rear end off next time — maybe saw and sand.

Atlatl Spur - How to Make an Atlatl

Another view of that dirty, dirty spur.

Atlatl Shaft and Handle - How to Make an Atlatl

You can see here the crap job I previously did gluing the shaft to the handle.  I’ve since sanded it furiously to no avail.  The unsightly seam of PC-7 runs deep.

Atlatl Handle, Nook, Shaft

This image shows that the atlatl handle, shaft and nook are roughly in line.  I’m worried that the nook will be offset a bit and will make the dart fly off in one direction or another.

STEP 3  // UPDATED 02/11/2010:

Shellacking and Stone-Tying

Tonight I finished the atlatl!

OK, it’s not as good of a job as I my dad would do but it’s my first kit.

The really fun part for me was applying the polyurethane stain or whatever you want to call it.  I used wipe-on polyurethane after I sanded multiple times with multiple grits, stepping up from 50 – 220.  There was a lot of fine-tuning with the Shinto rasp too but I really should have done that earlier.

It took me a few days to get four coats of polyurethane on the atlatl.  Soon as I had a gloss I liked, I tied a stone weight near the spur with some waxed twine.  The twine I used was really thin so I would recommend something a little thicker than what’s shown in the image below.  Also, I tied it the only way I could figure.  My dad has a different way of doing that looks a lot better but I couldn’t get it right.  I’ll post his method soon.

Tied atlatl weight

Tied atlatl weight

STEP 4  // UPDATED 02/12/2011


PC-7 Glue Playstation

Here’s the mess I made with a screwdriver and my PC-7 glue.


This is a blurry photo of a bastard file.  I used this to file a channel in the spur head.  The bastard file has a cool name and looks like a wizard’s wand.  Woodworkers everywhere are shaking their heads in embarrassment.

There’s my shinto rasp.  The shinto rasp is a pleasure to use.  It makes quick, clean work of anything.  The beer is Dogfish Head’s Chicory Stout, my beer of choice for sanding work.  I also recommend NPR and loud music for sanding.  It’s boring work!  Today I listened to reporting on the unrest in Cairo, Egypt, and Fire in My Bones: Raw, Rare & Otherworldly African-American Gospel.

Bicycle by Ritchie

This is a bicycle that my friend Ritchie helped me restore (or, rather, I helped him restore it) for my girlfriend’s birthday present.  I’m making the atlatl a present for Ritchie to thank him.

Carbon Tubing Atlatl Dart Construction

Saw this great Carbon Fiber Tube Dart How-To.

These instructions are good for anyone wanting to make a dart with arrow shafts made of carbon tubing. However, as followed, the dart will only be two arrow shafts long.  The instructions can be amended by the reader just by adding a third 1/2 section of carbon tubing to make a 6 foot or even 7 foot long dart.  I believe that would be a better construction.

Aluminum Atlatl Dart Construction

I saw this great Aluminum Dart How-To at Thud’s Cave.

These instructions are good for anyone wanting to make an aluminum dart out of aluminum arrows.  However, the dart made will be short.  To make a longer dart, the reader merely needs to use the same instructions and add a third half section of aluminum arrow shaft to make a 6 or even 7 foot long dart, which would be better for an adult.  The darts made following the instructions as written would be a good length for school age children ages 6 to 13.

NYT: Hunting with Atlatls

Cory here.  Go read this story in the U.S. section of The New York Times today about hunting with the atlatl.

Brief interviews therein with Arron Hendershott (Missouri Deparment of Conservation), Ron Mertz (Missouri Atlatl Association), John Whittaker (anthropologist at Grinnell College), Gene Morris (museum curator in Alabama), and Ray Madden (somehow killed a squirrel with an atlatl) target the issues of hunting with the atlatl and the possible heritage of spear dart throwing.  We’ve pondered atlatl hunting on this blog before.  Funny headline too.  I’m not sure what “heritage” there is to atlatlism either.  But, sadly, Malcolm Gay didn’t provide much description of atlatling as a sport of accuracy or sculpting craft. Those are the biggies for us, at least.

Oh well, maybe next time!  Dear pioneers of journalism — we’re happy to provide high-resolution images and rambling interviews.  Just let us know.

Atlatl Dart Questions from a Reader

How did you settle on the 6’10” darts?

Ray here: I found out by trial and error that longer darts are easier to control as regards accuracy.  Its a matter of kinetic flexibility.  Shorter darts are springy, flex out, flex back in a hurry.  This means any slight change in throwing speed results in an immediate hyper reaction with dart flex.  Longer darts are less kinetic and tend to allow slight changes in throwing motion to have little effect in their flexing motion.

Aluminum and carbon darts are hyper kinetic compared to bamboo and river cane.  Bamboo is slightly more kinetic than river cane.

How do you match weight/lenght? I take a river cane about the right size, put duct tape on for fletching, put on a point and start throwing it. They are almost always too limber, so I start cutting them down little by little til they fly good, then I feather fletch. I guess that is what I meant by tuning.

Ray here: I choose dart shaft stock (bamboo or river cane) first by length, then by diameter at the base and rear end. Total length of the dart shaft is about 6 feet long with a foreshaft 12 inches long (with two inches of the foreshaft inside the cane), thus 6’10″” overall length.

I look for the base to be a little less than 5/8 of an inch in diameter (narrow enough that when string and glue is added it can still slide through the WAA’s maximum allowable diameter for the ISAC competition).  The rear end needs to be 3/8 of an inch in diameter.

If you start with a 7 foot or 8 foot length of bamboo or river cane, you can probably get exactly what you need for a 6 foot length.

River cane and bamboo grow naturally into a dart shaft that is thicker and heavier at one end than the other and therefore, after adding a 12 inch foreshaft and 1 1/2 long 1/4 inch diameter copper point, I don’t need to adjust the dart shaft for balance as mother nature has already done the work for me.

Bamboo and river cane are not cloned, therefore each is a little different.  I like my darts to be a little stiff. The way I check the dart for the right amount of stiffness is to hold the dart shaft horizontally chest high,  hold the narrow in of the dart in one hand, reach out about two feet with the other hand and wag the loose big end up and done briskly but not wildly.  If the loose end travels up and down between 12 to 18 inches, that’s what I want.  If it wags greater than 18 inches, its too limber.  If it wags less than 12 inches, its too stiff.

Mine are all under 5′- 6′. I have trouble matching them weight/lenght, I know this is important for consistancy. Mine all weigh 3-4 oz.

Ray here: I think I pretty much described how I choose dart lengths and diameters above. As far as matching, I may straighten 12 dart shafts (all the same length and diameter)  before I find 3 that are a matched set as far as stiffness and overall balance and weight are concerned. That is just the nature of beast. Seek and straighten and ye shall find. Out of the 12 dart shaft, if I am lucky, I will find 2 or 3 sets of 3 dart shafts that are well matched.  My darts are on average about 6 ounces in weight.

Also is there a picture of how you grip the atlatl with the hole in the handle?

Ray here: Check it out here:

Hand Grip for single hole atlatl
Hand Grip for single hole atlatl

“Tuning” an Atlatl Dart Shaft

One does not actually “tune” a dart shaft. Many people feel that a dart has a “spine” and that it is important to establish where the spine is and align the bi-face point and the fletchings to the spine.

First, the “spine”.  Think 2 X 4 board. A good carpenter will tell you to align the 2 X 4 stud “crown up” when laying out a wall, meaning, you hold one end of the board up to your eye, look down the board and determine which edge side is curving.  (All 2 X 4 boards curve a little.) The object of this game is to put the curve on the outside of the wall.

The same is true with river cane or bamboo darts. Try as you might, you can never get them perfectly straight. They will always curve a little.  This curve is the “spine” and you should always load the dart into your atlatl with the curved or spine side up. Most people use three feathers on their darts, sometimes with two of the same color and one different. The single different feather should be placed on the curved spine side of the dart so that you know right off the bat which way to load the dart onto your atlatl.   Likewise, the two bladed dart point should be attached so that blades are perpendicular to the “spine”, or so I am told.

The Atlatl and Dart Throwing Sequence

Below is a sequence drawing of the relationship of the dart to the spur of the atlatl during the throwing motion. Here, the launch is pictured from right to left.

How to Throw Atlatl - Atlatl Throwing Sequence
How to Throw with An Atlatl - Atlatl Throwing Sequence

At the start of the throw, the tip of the spur is inside the cup in the rear the dart. As the atlatl is pulled forward and levered upward, the spur rotates out of the cup in the rear of the dart and the dart is connected to the atlatl only because the atlatl is moving faster than the dart.

The rear of the dart actually slides across the top surface of the spur tip until that brisk, downward, wrist flick simultaneously, with great torque, pushes the dart away and the dart slides off the back of the spur.

This is why I have advised people making their first atlatl to:

  1. Think ball and socket as it relates to the tip of the spur and the cup of the dart. A sharp pointy spur is not a good thing. The tip of the spur should be dull and rounded. Small enough to fit inside the cup of the spur but blunt enough to easily rotate into and out of the cup without digging into the inside wall at the rear of the dart. When a sharp pointy spur tip digs into the wall of the dart, it can cause a misfire (hooking the shot) and split the dart open like a can opener.
  2. Trim excess wood beyond the end of the spur. The rear end of the dart needs to slide right off the end of the spur and not get slapped by any excess wood sticking out beyond the spur during that brisk downward wrist flick at the end of the throwing motion.

I would go so far as to advise that the top surface of the spur should be flat rather than rounded. If the spur is round, there is a possibility that the rear of the flexing dart may slide off one side or the other during the throwing motion. I actually have carved a groove in the top of my spurs to guide the rear of the dart straight off the back of the spur. This eliminates that one in ten misfire.

If you have any questions about atlatl or dart design, contact Ray Strischek.

Kids and Atlatls

Check out this TV news story about some kids in Wisconsin learning about the atlatl.

My dad has received more than a few emails from people running school programs in Alaska and Canada asking about how to teach children about the atlatl (or where they can get their hands on one).  I think a number of them are actually teaching kids with Native American ancestry but, in our humble opinion, the atlatl is a great learning tool for any class, and for a number of reasons:

  • The atlatl is an important tool in world history
  • The atlatl demonstrates the physics of the fulcrum and lever
  • The atlatl is as simple a machine as you can get — OK, maybe the wheel and digging stick take the cake … but everyone’s already heard of those!
  • The atlatl is way easier to build than the bow and arrow 🙂

If you teach a park or school program like Native History, physics or even shop class, buy one of our simple, inexpensive atlatl models and build your own from the prototype.

Thanks to Thunderbird Atlatl for the link.  (Their atlatls and darts are featured in the clip.)

More on Atlatl Targets

Previously, Cory showed off an atlatl target he set up in a driveway in Washington, DC.

Since then, readers have been asking where we get our target backings, etc … and I thought it would be good to do a little atlatl target brain dump:

Ray’s Atlatl Targets

I make my atlatl targets out of ISO board (“closed-cell synthetic rubber foam”) — preferably the black, squishy (but rigid) kind.  It’s about 3 3/4 inches thick.  I get mine at a place called Knapps Pools and Spas in Michigan but you can probably find it at a roofing store or straight from the manufacturer.  If you, humble reader, know where I can this substance delivered straight from the manufacturer (for cheap), please let me know!

I hold this foam up with a simple plywood structure but a few stakes would probably suffice.

For practice at home, we don’t put a face on these targets.  But taping a simple target up is a good idea as it’s much easier to focus on and hit a target than a blank spot.

“Official” Atlatl Targets

FITA Archery Target from Wikimedia Commons

For the Ohio Atlatl Accuracy Contest and the International Atlatl Society Accuracy Contest we use a standard 120 cm FITA archery target (with 2 white, 2 black, 2 blue,  2 red, and 2 yellow cirlces).  120 cm needs a cardboard backing of 50 inches by 50 inches. Use 3M spray adhesive to glue the target face to the cardboard. Get the cardboard from furniture stores that import from overseas.

You can get these 120 cm target faces for $6 to $10 each through Lancaster Archery (www.lancasterarchery.com) or any other large archery store with a web page.  They print them on regular paper, paper with nylon webbing reinforcement, and also on thick poster board stock which accounts for the price difference. I find the cheaper paper target faces last as well as the nylon web and poster board so why pay more?

International Standard Accuracy Competition target faces (white and black circles only) can be purchased through the World Atlatl Association web page. Last time I checked, WAA referred everyone to Jack Rowe for target sales.

The Alternatives to the Foam Rubber Atlatl Target Backings

A lot of people don’t have the time to drive to the middle of Hell, Michigan, to buy black foam from gypsies…

1. Bales of hay (straw, actually)

Consider the target, whether its the 5 color 120 cm standard FITA archery target (50 inches by 50 inches) used for Ohio Standard Accuracy Competitions or the WAA’s black and white ISAC target (48 inches by 48 inches), you will need 6 to 8 bales of hay (straw actually) depending on the size of the bales available at your local feed and grain or landscaping store.
Remember, the bullseye of the target must be waist high off the ground, so the stack of hey bales must be such as to allow for that.

Hey, bales are for horses … not to mention bulky and difficult to transport without a pick-up truck. You will need rope to tie them all together and stakes to anchor them to the ground so they don’t fall over.  The upside of using bales of hay is that if your atlatl site is permanent, you can cover the hey with a tarp when not in use as a target backing and the bales will last a whole season.

2. Cardboard boxes

Go to the import furniture store.  The furniture they get comes with assembly required so often you can find boxes that are 50 inches wide by 6 to 8 feet long by 6 to 8 inches thick.  Stuff the card board box with more cardboard. Use 6 foot long stakes to anchor the thing to the ground.  Such a target backing will last a day or so and then the center will be shot out but that can be fixed by replacing the shot up cardboard inside with more cardboard.

3. Old carpets

I have been to atlatl events (Indiana comes to mind) where the target face is glued to a single sheet of cardboard which is then tacked to two vertical stakes. Behind this, about 6 inches away from the cardboard, a tarp or old carpet is loosely hung. The dart passes through the cardboard but does not go through the tarp or old carpet because the hanging tarp or old carpet provides no resistance.  The tarp or old carpet lasts a lot longer than the target face on the single sheet of cardboard.

MORE Atlatl target ideas…

If you’ve made it this far, congratulations.  Here are some more links … Read all that and you’ll be the world expert on Atlatl targets.  You know, back in the day they just aimed at the mammoth.  Oh, how things have changed.