Atlatls – What they are and why I love them

I’ve mentioned the Atlatl several times in previous blogs, so I thought it was high time I wrote a post devoted to this, one of my very favourite bushcraft activities. I’m going to introduce you to the three different types of Atlatl I use when teaching this art, together with some historical references to them I’ve found in the course of my research. For one of my types of  Atlatl there is no historical record, and the exact makeup of other types are sometimes just a best guess, so please feel free to leave comments if you know more, as it is all a big learning curve for me. There are many different types of Atlatl but here I will concentrate on the three I regularly use.

What is an Atlatl?

An Atlatl is a spear-chucking device traditionally used for hunting or combat purposes It was developed in pre-history by many different societies. Some societies still use the Atlatl to this day, others used it alongside the bow while other societies stopped using the Atlatl after they developed bows. An excellent modern day comparison to help you understand how an Atlatl works is to watch a dog walker using a plastic tennis ball thrower. The ball travels much further than normal as the plastic ball thrower extends the thrower’s arm length and as the arm sweeps forward the plastic thrower is bent back, storing energy. This energy is released as the thrower does a final flick of the wrist. The dog is happy as it gets a longer run and the thrower is happy as he gets longer between throws :-).

The name Atlatl comes from the Aztec society but in Australia it is known as the Woomera. An excellent overview of the Atlatl can be found in Wikipedia.

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Atlatls in action with the Sea Cadets

I like Atlatls as they are relatively simple to make, cost me next to nothing to make, students can make them and learn to use them easily and will provide hours of fun for kids from the age of about three years up (I still classify myself as a big kid).

When teaching this skill I always set up a proper range so that the darts can be thrown safely. I normally work on a range of about ten to twenty metres but a good Atlatl can reach up to a hundred metres in a competent thrower’s hands.

I made a short video last year showing the Atlatls in action with some of my Sea cadets – Video of Atlatls in Action.

Here is a selection of some of my Atlatls. I will be posting in the near future a couple of How To…. guides on making some of these Atlatls.

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Some of my different Atlatls – Front View

I have simple Atlatls that just have a point at the rear to attach the dart to, Split Stick Atlatls with cordage instead of a point, and other Atlatls that have a front ‘Y’ rest for the dart.

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Some of my different Atlatls – Top and Back views

Simple Atlatls

The simple type of Atlatl shown below on the left just has a point at the rear to hold the dart in place before releasing it. You will see how this works later in the post. This is the easiest type of Atlatl to make. I generally use the base of a piece of hazel coppice (lots of other woods will work as well) for this where there is a fork in the wood near the ground. All I have to do is after cutting the shoot is to shape the smaller fork into a point with a knife and whip a para cord handle onto the main. The Primitive Ways website gives an excellent description of constructing a simple Atlatl.
The Atlatl on the right is also a simple one but made in a primitive manner, without modern tools. I used a thin yew branch, attached a rawhide handle and attached a carved antler point to the back.

Two simple Atlatls. One with modern cordage and one purely primitive
Two simple Atlatls. One with modern cordage and one purely primitive

Once you have mastered the finger pinch grip these simple Atlatls are very easy to use and great fun can be had at very little cost. The Atlatl gives greater power to your throw by extending your arm length, enabling you to throw the dart faster and further.

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Simple Atlatls being held in the finger pinch grip

Atlatls with Front Rests

I was on holiday in the Cheddar Gorge area of the UK a few years ago and spotted in the Museum of Prehistory some reproduction Atlatls on display. They had been reproduced as closely as possible to Atlatl finds in the local caves. One of them had a forked rest and I found that intriguing, as up to that point I had not found any reference to this type of Atlatl.

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Cheddar Gorge Museum of Prehistory Atlatl (centre) with Rest

I soon found out that this style of Atlatl with a front rest is great for kids. As the dart is supported by the rest no finger pinch grip is required, making it easy for kids as young as three to use this type of Atlatl.

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Younger children prefer an Atlatl with a Rest to begin with

In my research into this type of Atlatl I also came across a post by Mike Richardson In Primitive Ways explaining how if the thrower has to wear gloves (for example in arctic environments), the normal finger pinch method of holding the dart is not an option so a rest is attached to the front of the Atlatl. This along with some cordage wrapped around the dart allows the gloved thrower to have the dart locked in place but still easily released with a flick of the wrist. I have used this method numerous times and the cordage wrap/lock has no detrimental effect on the release of the dart.

I made some Atlatls up with metal bolts as rests as I found the original wooden rests I had made were easily broken by my cadets so I had to design a ‘Squaddie-proof’ alternative. Not pretty but very effective and robust.

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The Squaddie-proof Atlatl with metal rest

In the picture above and the one below you can see that the cordage wrap on the dart is locked up against the fork of the rest, ensuring the dart does not fall off before release. After a short piece of tuition most kids (except the very young) are able to set this up for themselves.

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Locking mechanism in place

In the picture below you can see a wooden rest I made by wrapping a piece of shaved wood around the shaft of the Atlatl and tying it in place with some natural cordage. I inserted a further wedge piece in the rest to tighten the cordage wrap. This proved an interesting experiment but was too fragile for most of the cadets to use.

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An experimental rest made of a strip of shaved wood and bark cordage

Again in the picture below you can see that, as with the Atlatl with the bolt, the dart is well locked in place requiring only a flick of the wrist to release it. I have not come across any historical evidence for the cordage wrap on the dart as a holding mechanism. It may not be authentic, but I like it as it opens up the world of Atlatl to the very young who find holding the dart and Atlatl in one hand difficult.

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Dart locked in place – No finger hold required

The Split Stick Atlatl

The Split Stick Atlatl I found documented on the Primitive Ways website as well. No point is carved at the end but a piece of cordage is used instead to hold the dart in place. There is very little archaeological evidence for this type of Atlatl and much debate if it was ever used but I like it and with a little practice it is just as accurate as an Atlatl with a point. A good online discussion on this can be found in the PaleoPlanet forum.

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The Split Stick Atlatl

I call this one the ‘One Stick Split Stick Atlatl’: I made the whole thing using primitive tools and out of just one piece of willow just to prove to myself that an Atlatl could have been made just using one straightish piece of stick. I will be posting a How To…. guide on making this Atlatl.

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The ‘One Stick Split Stick Atlatl’

A sideways view of the Atlatl showing the finger pinch grip.

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Finger  Pinch Grip without a Rest

One of my favourite Atlatls is the Lovelock Cave Atlatl which I reproduced as closely to the original as possible. This Atlatl was found in a cave over a century ago but the original was lost; thankfully, though, not before someone had made a detailed drawing of it. A copy of the drawing can be seen in the post by Mike Richardson on the Split Stick Atlatl. It has a fork at the rear and the drawing shows a small groove around each fork. I have read that this was where a small piece of carved wood or bone was attached as a point to hold the Atlatl. I decided though to see if the Atlatl would work with just some cordage wrapped around it. Again there is no historical evidence that this was done but it does work well. A good comparison of both attachments to the Lovelock Cave Atlatl can be read in the PaleoPlanet forum here.

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The Lovelock Cave Atlatl

Sideways pictures showing the finger pinch method.

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The Lovelock Cave Atlatl and Alternative  Finger Grip

A couple of pictures showing the dart attached to the cord wrapped around the fork.

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The Lovelock Cave Atlatl – Dart Cordage Connection

A little experiment with a split stick and a rest. The rest did eventually split as the pine wood was quite weak with the hole drilled into it.

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Split Stick with Rest

The rest here is based on the Cheddar Gorge replica I saw but instead of a point at the end I made it into a fork with cordage. This works perfectly well with a bit of practice.

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My take on one of the Cheddar Gorge Atlatl reproductions

I really love making Atlatls and everyone I work with loves to have a go with them. I need to spend some more time on making different types of darts next to go with my shed full of Atlatls.

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An Atlatl Broadside from the Royal Marine Cadets

Cheers

George

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