Here’s the first in a series of guides on how to build the perfect atlatl dart for you. I discuss dart material choices including bamboo and river cane, wood, aluminum, and others. This one should get you started choosing a basis for your spears. In the next series I’ll cover points, followed by fletching.
Dart Material Choices
The truth about atlatl darts, historically, is that wherever people were, they used whatever material was available to make darts. The archeological record has atlatl darts being made from bones spliced together, wood, weeds (like horse weed), reeds, bamboo, and river cane. These darts, as near as the material used would allow in the hands of their makers were anywhere from four to thirteen feet in length, with and without feathers.
In order to function, an atlatl dart needs to be flexible. A completely rigid dart when launched with an atlatl will go instantly vertical and fall back to earth the same way. When one starts the throwing motion with the atlatl, the flexible atlatl dart bends/flexes. In doing so, the dart is storing kinetic energy that will help self propel the dart in addition to the force of throw provided by the human muscles operating the atlatl.
A good dart has three aspects:
- A good dart has its balance point forward of center. (The more forward of center the balance point of the dart is, the quicker the point end of the dart will drop in flight.)
- A good dart is constructed in such a way as to confine the flexing of the dart to the rear two/thirds of the dart’s length.
- The forward one/third of the dart should be less flexible than the rear two/thirds of the dart.
The best material I have found for making good atlatl darts is river cane and bamboo. River cane, which grew abundantly nearly everywhere near and south of the Ohio River, and west all the way to California, was a much-used material in the Americas. River cane and bamboo are both thicker and less flexible at the base end, and thus both have a balance point that is naturally forward of center. Both are relatively easy to straighten using dry heat (using the coals of a fire in prehistoric times or a hot plate in modern times).
When I straighten cane (slang for either bamboo or river cane), I use a hot plate and a pair of leather gloves. Starting at the nodes, I hold the cane about a half-inch above the hot plate on full heat and slowly spin the cane for about 20 seconds, watching the cane sweat outward along the cane shaft from the source of the heat. Then I pull down with my fingers and push up with my thumbs to bend the heated portion of the cane, holding in place for about 5 seconds. Then I move to the next node, then the next, and the next, until I have straightened the cane at all nodes. Then its a matter of straightening the sections between the nodes by heating them and bending them over my padded and heat protected knee. It takes about 20 minutes to straighten a 7-foot length of cane. And yes, some places will need to straighten more than once. But, compared to straightening wood, cane is a breeze.
Cane (bamboo or river cane) needs to be dried for a while before straightening. I generally just lean the cane up against a wall on the sunny side of my house for about 4 weeks. When the cane turns from green to blond, its ready.
Wood is Good
Wood on the other hand requires at least a couple of months to dry out. Accounts in the archeological record indicate that primitive man hung their potential dart shafts up in the tops of their shelters where heat and smoke from their cook fires helped cure the shafts.
I have learned the hard way that wood, especially saplings which look straight and promising in the woods, dry into a cork screw shape and have the memory of an elephant and no matter how wonderfully cured they are, as soon as I have finished straightening them, the next day they return pretty much to the corkscrew condition of the previous day. I have had to straighten sapling dart shafts four and five times or more. It is also necessary to coat the sapling in grease of some sort when heating it. Beeswax, paraffin, bacon grease, the fat from a fresh kill, whatever. When heating, the grease bubbles into the pores of the wood and makes bending the wood without breaking or splintering possible.
River cane and bamboo on the other hand, require only one straightening session and no spattering oil, which explains to me why cane was so popular in the past.
In the Northwest, Indians split out sections of redwood trees to make long rectangular pieces for dart shafts and did not even bother to do much more to them than sort of round off the edges a little.
Today, modern atlatlists have all kinds of material to choose from to make dart shafts including milled straight grain lumber, aluminum tubing and the same kind of plastics used for fishing poles and carbon arrows.
Some manipulation (or after purchase modification) is necessary to make these modern materials into good dart shafts. As stated earlier, a good dart has a balance point forward of center and it would be helpful if the front one/third of the dart is stiffer than the rear two/thirds of the dart. (A dart shaft with the same diameter from end to end tends to flex in the middle of the dart rather than confining the flexing to the rear two/thirds of the dart, which means, the front end of the dart is still flexing up and down when it approaches the target which could make a difference where the point will hit.)
Milled lumber can be tapered to ape the shape of cane (big point end, narrow rear end, thicker and less flexible up front).
The aluminum arrow trick: Two and one half arrows put together make a good dart length (a good dart length being a foot taller than you are). Aluminum arrows can be put together using short lengths of a larger or smaller diameter arrow shaft as outside or inside couplers (glued together). To make the front (point end) of the shaft stiffer than the rear and to give the dart shaft a balance point forward of center, use a full length smaller diameter arrow and insert it into the first half length of larger diameter arrow shaft. Then slide the second full-length arrow over the exposed smaller diameter shaft. Then using a short coupler piece of smaller diameter arrow to add the third larger diameter arrow shaft to the package. Use standard arrow inserts front and rear. The front insert to receive an arrow field point, the rear insert to act as the cup in the rear of the dart where the spur of the atlatl will hook.
Thus you will end of making an aluminum dart that has a balance point forward of center and is stiffer in the front one/third of the dart and confines the flexing of the dart to the rear two/thirds of the dart, which is two out of three of the good dart factors noted at the beginning of this article.
The best you can do with a dart shaft that is one diameter front to rear is to weight the front end to at give the dart a balance point that is forward of center.
I make dart shafts from aluminum tubing and use a 1/4 thick nail about two inches long for a point which gives the darts the balance point that is forward of center. I use these darts to teach. They are nearly impossible to destroy. I have aluminum tubing darts that are ten years old and have withstood the mauling and abuse of thousands of 9 to 16 year old kids and their parents. These darts fly OK and serve a good purpose.
It’s a matter of nuance. Every dart material has its own degree of kinetic flexibility and react differently to changes of ones force of throw. Consistent force of throw is absolutely necessary for accuracy. Aluminum and carbon have a very high degree of kinetic flexibility. Any small change in a person’s force of throw will have a very dramatic effect on the flight of aluminum and carbon darts. That is not so true of bamboo and even less so for river cane. That is why I love river cane darts because they are, for me, simply more forgiving. I don’t use wooden darts so I cannot speak to their degree of kinetic flexibility. I have thrown wooden darts and quite frankly I don’t like them. Others swear by them. I swear at them.
It should be noted that bamboo and river cane (3 years) darts don’t last as long as aluminum and carbon darts (10 years or more) but they are as good or better than wood.