Thursday, 4 August 2016

Atlatl, History and Construction

Atlatls are ancient weapons that preceded the bow and arrow in most parts of the world and are one of humankind’s first mechanical inventions. The word atlatl (pronounced at-latal or atal-atal) comes from the Nahuatl language of the Aztec, who were still using them when encountered by the Spanish in the 1500s. Other words include spear-thrower, estolica (Spanish), propulseur (French), speerschleuder (German) and woomera or miru (English versions of the most common Australian terms).

An atlatl is essentially a stick with a handle on one end and a hook or socket that engages a light spear or “dart” on the other. The flipping motion of the atlatl propels a light spear much faster and farther than it could be thrown by hand alone. The following will show you how to make an easy atlatl that can be done in a day.  I  am going to call the throwing part the atlatl, and the spear-like part, the dart.

Almost everyone’s ancestor used atlatls at some time in the past. The only continent with no record of atlatl use is Africa. Spear throwers were invented in the Upper Paleolithic period by early modern humans, who originated even earlier in Africa, so it is quite possible that we simply don’t have the evidence yet for early African spear throwers.

The first known spear throwers come from European Upper Paleolithic sites in France and Spain. Most are from the Magdalenian period (ca 15,000 B.C.), with at least one example possibly from the earlier Solutrean. The surviving hook parts are carved out of ivory or reindeer antler, and the fancy ones are well-known examples of prehistoric art.

Early people in the Americas used atlatls to hunt the Pleistocene “megafauna” like mammoths and mastodons some 11,000 years B.C. Much later, a variety of atlatl types were in use in different part of North America. Many of the large stone projectile points found in American sites were used with atlatl darts, and are not “arrowheads.” The bow and arrow began replacing the atlatl around 1000 B.C., but atlatls continued to be used alongside bows into modern times in some areas, most notably Mexico and the Arctic. Bows and arrows are easier to use, and more ammunition can be carried, but atlatl and dart systems have some advantages. They can be used one handed, allowing the other hand to hold a shield in war, or a paddle in a kayak. They throw a heavier projectile, which is easier to attach to a line for harpooning, and they are less affected by wet conditions.


An atlatl dart can be thrown with the same penetrating power as an arrow shot from a 50-pound-draw longbow. Hunting and target range is typically 10 to 30 yards, but the world-record throw is over 848 feet.

When you throw an with an atlatl, make sure you have an open area that’s at least 30yds long, with nothing breakable behind it.

There should never be anyone in front of you when you throw.


Step 1: The atlatl.

The first thing to do is to get a branch selected for the atlatl. The one that I selected was forty centimetres (sixteen inches), but the main thing to do is to get the size that fits you. The piece that I selected had a bit of a natural curve to it, which in my opinion is good for an atlatl.

Step 2: Cutting.

After that, cut off all the little branches                   

Step 3: Thinning.

Then start thinning down the sides. Once you are done with that, start thinning down the top and bottom. Make sure that you know where you want your handle to be so that you don't accidentally carve it some of it off. If you are wanting a curve in the atlatl, then this is where you want to start carving it.

Step 4: The stop cut.

Next, start making the stop cut that the dart will rest in. 

Step 5: Last refinements.

Next, make the last refinements, sand the whole thing down, and voila! You are done with the atlatl.

Step 6: The dart.

Now, it is time for the dart. I cut a long, straight piece of wood, and then cut it down to the length that I wanted. It was about ninety-three centimetres (thirty-six inches)  

Step 7: Trimming.

Then  trim off all the little starts of branches.

Step 8: Shaving off bark.

Then  remove a bit of bark off of the end that will rest in the stop-cut of the atlatl, for the feathers.

Step 9: Tying feathers.

Take three feathers, cut off the smaller sides with a pair of scissors. After that I glued them just enough to hold them on, take some Cordage and proceeded to wrap the feathers onto the now-fully-fledged-dart. Also, when you are doing it, try to make to end of the feathers curve to the side a bit, and it will spin when thrown

Step 10: Carving a tip.

Take the other end of the soon-to-be dart, and carve a tip, making sure to make it off-center so that the tip was not made out of the fluffy inner wood. Alternatively you could attach a flint arrowhead. (tutorial on how to make flint arrowheads coming soon) If you are unable to make your own they are available from the very talented Will Lord

Step 11: Hardening the tip.

Then harden the tip with fire. The fire hardening process removes moisture from the wood by slowly and lightly charring it over a fire. This process also causes the resins in the wood to harden giving it a stronger, durable point.

Step 12: Have fun!!!

Have fun throwing the dart with the atlatl!