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.