Recently I posted an article titled – Atlatls – What they are and why I love them where I said I would be publishing a couple of How To…. guides on making them. This is the first of these guides on making what I call the One Stick – Split Stick Atlatl.
As explained in the previous article, an Atlatl is basically a spear-chucking device. Many different types have been made by different societies: there is nothing in the archaeological record (as far as I know) of this type of Atlatl, but then as it’s made completely of organic material there is no surprise there. I decided to investigate this type after researching the Lovelock Cave Atlatl. There is debate over how darts were launched by that Atlatl and whether a point was used or whether a strip of cordage was used.
The One Stick -Split Stick Atlatl I made for this post was done using primitive tools only and a single shoot of goat willow (Salix caprea). I made the Atlatl just to prove to myself I could make one out of a single stick (shaft, wedge and cordage). All you would need to make one using modern tools would be a good sharp knife. The piece of willow I selected was about 1.5 metres long and about the thickness of my thumb. This was far longer than needed but I wanted it this length to get lots of cordage from the bark and to use part of the excess wood as a wedge (needed in making this type of Atlatl).
The first thing I did was to cut into the bark all the way around the stick about 12cms from the thickest end, leaving an area of bark slightly larger than my fist. This bark-covered end acts as a handle area.
I used an old deer rib bone to scrape the dark outer layer of the bark off rest of the stick, leaving the handle untouched. If you leave this on the bark, the cordage you make from it will not of the highest quality.
After scraping off all the bark I re-cut around the stick just above the handle area to make sure all the inner bark was disconnected from the handle area.
I then cut a line through the inner bark from the handle to the end of the stick to start to open the bark up.
I used my thumbs to peel open the bark. Other tools that make this job easier are a small wooden wedge or the back of your knife blade. In late spring the bark comes off easily so my thumbs were all I needed.
Wherever possible try and take the bark off in one piece so you can make long strands for easy cordage making. Do not worry if this does not happen, all it means is that your cordage may take slightly longer to make.
I wedged the flint knife into a groove in the log and then sliced the bark into strips. I managed to get a good amount of strips out of this one piece of bark. I then left the strips to dry out in the sun. Cordage is best made from rewetted strips of bark as the bark shrinks considerably when it is dried out for the first time.
I decided that I wanted my Atlatl to be about 64cms long (fingertip to armpit for me) so I used a piece of flint knapped as a discoidal (curved) knife to saw through the stick. This takes far longer than using a modern knife but I find far more satisfying.
Keep sawing until you can feel you can snap the wood without splitting it down its length. Once snapped, trim the end of the Atlatl smooth.
The spare piece of wood needs to be trimmed down and cut to size to make a wedge. This will be used to form the split stick part of the Atlatl.
I used my flint adze at first to blank out the wedge, making it about 10cms long.
Then I used my flint knife to trim the wedge to its final shape.
I used my flint knife to split the non-handle end of the Atlatl open. As the knife has a flat spine I just hit the back of the knife to start the split. Be careful to keep the split in the middle of the stick. A piece of cordage should really be tied off on the shaft where you want the split to stop. I forgot to do this but thankfully the split did not travel too far. I made my split 20cms long.
I used my discoidal knife to create a small groove around each split limb for the cordage to grip onto.
Before inserting the wedge I did tie off the split with some of the dried bark using a constrictor knot.
Afterwards I used more of the bark strips to secure the wedge by wrapping them around it to hold it secure.
I had plenty of bark left over after this, which was good as I wanted to make some cordage to create a strap to hold the dart in place before launching.
I completed a piece of cordage about 50cms long to give me plenty to tie onto the Atlatl. I used a constrictor knot on each split to hold the cord in place. Jonsbushcraft blog has an excellent tutorial on making cordage.
I was very happy with how this Atlatl turned out.
You can see the dart has a groove instead of a hole at the end. This allows the cordage to hold the dart in place before launching.
The finger pinch hold is just the same as a normal Atlatl with a point.
I think the launch with this type of Atlatl feels slightly different but once you get used to it I find the release is as smooth as it is with a normal pointed one.
I made this Atlatl purely for the joy of making one with primitive tools and to see if it was possible to produce a hunting tool out of just a single stick.
I have no idea whether hunters in pre-history used this type of Atlatl but I certainly now know they would have found it the easiest thing in the world for them to make.
A good post on some other Other Types of Atlatls: Loop, Fork and Cord was written by Mike Richardson on the Primitiveways website.