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History & Physics
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The Klingon chetvI'
What is an atlatl?

Basically, the atlatl is a stick with a hook on the end used to increase the leverage in throwing a spear.

Actually, the spear (called a dart or yaomitl) is much more like an arrow. It has fletching added to stabilize flight and is quite flexible. The dart can come in many different lengths. By way of example, the author's has darts which are 7 feet long.

The atlatl is the hooked stick used to throw the dart. It too can come in many different lengths and styles. The author's atlatl is about 1/3 the length of the darts.

History of the atlatl.

The atlatl may be one of the first compound weapons that is, a tool used to enhance human power. While the earliest archeological evidence is 25,000 years old, it is believed that atlatl has been in use for some 40,000 years.

The effectiveness of this weapon allowed early humans to hunt Ice Age mega-fauna such as the Mammoth and Wooly Rhino.

Eventually, the development of bow supplanted the atlatl as the weapon of choice because the bow was more compact, easier to carry and quieter. Also, with the mega-fauna gone through a likely combination of hunting and climate change, the smaller mammals did not require the penetrative power of the atlatl to bring down.

In the 16th Century, when the Spanish Conquistadors invaded Central America, the Aztecs re-adopted the atlatl (which is where we get the word from) because of its incredible power. They weren't able to compete against the Spaniard's firearms but many a Conquistador was surprised to have an armor-piercing dart pass completely through their steel breastplates; both front and back.

The Aztecs are all gone but a few cultures still use the atlatl. The aborigines of Australia call it a Woomera. Native Alaskans of the lower Yukon call it a Nuqaq.

In the early 1980's, "Atlatl Bob" Perkins of Montana State University began studying the atlatl and, through "reconstructive anthropology", began building and using atlatl. It seems that archaeologists had concluded that the atlatl really wasn't a very good weapon. But when Bob started actually working with them he learned that by using a flexible dart instead of the rigid darts that the professional archaeologists had been using, the atlatl was revealed to be a very efficient weapon indeed.

This began something of a resurgence in the recreational atlatl. Clubs and associations have been formed and hold competitions. People hunt fallow deer and boar with atlatl.

Dave Ingvall set the World Record for distance of 848.56 feet with an atlatl-thrown dart in 1995.

How to operate.

To use the atlatl, one generally begins by holding it horizontally at just above shoulder height. A depression in the back of the dart fits into the hook on the atlatl and the dart is held parallel to the atlatl by the thumb and forefinger. Some atlatl have raised and grooved sections to aid this alignment and others have mechanisms that will actually hold the dart in place.

The throwing motion is like that of throwing the stick and one should not "lead with the wrist", drop the elbow or snap the wrist at the end of the throw.

throw.avi (1.5 Mb): The author throws with his atlatl.

The physics of the atlatl.

Both the atlatl and dart are springs that store energy. As the arm moves forward, both will flex and, if properly tuned, will spring back at the point of release, imparting the maximum amount of power. Weights (called banner stones) can be added to the atlatl to adjust the flex timing and properly shaped weights can actually help to silence the sound of the rushing atlatl.

Because the atlatl is essentially a lever that doubles the length of the thrower's arm, it can easily deliver 200 times as much power and 6 times the range as a dart thrown like a traditional spear. Even with the increased mass of a normal spear, the atlatl-thrown dart clearly outpowers the spear. A 5 oz dart can be thrown at 100 mph and have as much impact as an arrow fired from a 60 lb compound bow. -- Revised: 6 August 2002
Copyright © 2002 Kevin A. Geiselman