As requested, (CapnPervy, this one’s for you… ) today I’m going to talk a little about a very old and not so well known projectile weapon called the Atlatl. Yes, A-T-L-A-T-L. No, it’s not a slang name for a happenin’ town in the stated of Georgia, in the good ‘ol U. S. of A. Nor is it a giant, four legged, imperial armored transport from Star Wars. Nope. It’s actually a really cool weapon that just happens to have a funny name:
This here weapon is called an “at-lattle”. Or something like that. Yes, I know that’s not how to write phoenetic pronunciation… Eh? Look gimme a break here, I’m a Balrog, not an English teacher. Just for that smart alecky comment, I’ve decided to drown you in technical atlatl minutae. Yes… What?
Ok, yes, you’re right, that’s a baldfaced lie, I was gonna drown you in atlatl trivia regardless. What can I say. I tend to get long winded when I am talking about things that i find interesting, so I need every excuse I can get to justify my rambling. Just humor me, OK? It’ll be fun. Really. Go grab a cup of coffee, tea, whatever your slow poison of choice is, and get comfortable… Mua ha ha ha ha ha ha… *wheeze*… heh…. Here we go…
An atlatl is essentially just a stick, usually around 2′ in length, with a peg, or pin at the rear end, sometimes set in a pocket, designed to hold and cast darts that can be anywhere from 4′ to 6′ in length. Some modern atlatls are also made with dart rests, integrated finger slots, unique grip designs and so on, like the ones below, however these are all contemporary designs that did not exist in traditional atlatl.
The atlatl is sometimes called a spear chucker, however I don’t think this is technically accurate, since, as far as I can tell, Atlatls do not actually cast spears. Almost every atlatl projectile I have seen are technically darts, or over sized arrows. And while it may seem like an inconsequential detail, there’s actually one very important difference between a dart and a spear. Yes. Seriously. And if you just hold your horses for one second I’ll tell you what the difference is. Yes. Thank you. Let’s continue.
What really sets a spear apart from an arrow or dart is that a spear has no tail fletching or fins. All arrows and darts have fins/vanes/fletching to aid in aerial stabilization. Spears do not. This is why an atlatl is technically not a spear chucker. In fact, spears have more in common with crossbow bolts than either arrows or darts, as bolts are also generally stiffer than arrows. But I digress, as usual.
Many traditional atlatl darts also had a very unique point feature. unlike arrow tips that were usually permanently tied in place, atlatl tips were removable. The employed an interesting double socket design, with the hard atlatl tip attached to a secondary wood atlatl tip dowel, (sometimes called a foreshaft) using a tongue and groove design. The tip assembly was then mated to the atlatl dart by hollowing out the front of the dart, wrapping it with cord, and press fitting the foreshaft and tip assembly in place like a plug. Rather ingenious.
An atlatl can be used to cast a dart much farther than it could be thrown by hand. Some have finger straps, slots or voids in/on the grip to aid in retention, and many others have stone weights attached, about which there is a lot of debate. More on that later.
The atlatl works by extending the effective range of motion of your arm, from the wrist joint outwards. This allows you to use a much larger throwing arc than you would have been able to using your arm and hand alone, and you are able to impart much more energy to the projectile as a result. FORE!!
As I mentioned earlier, the atlatl and dart has a lot in common with the bow and arrow. However the similarities do not end with the fletching of the dart. An interesting property of properly constructed atlatl darts, are that they are designed to flex, and can be tuned, much like an arrow, for specific amounts of spine (flex) during launch, so that they straighten just before the socket leaves the peg, thus transferring all of that stored energy to driving the point towards the target
I also mentioned before that many traditional atlatl designs have weights attached to them. The purpose of these weights is a point of great contention. Many historians claim they are purely cosmetic, or religious/ritualistic in nature. However there are also those who argue that they are there to aid in the tuning of the atlatl.
The idea being that traditional weighted atlatls are designed to flex a little during launch, much like a bow, and that the weights are there to help fine tune the amount of flex and when return occurs. theoretically this would mean that one could tune both the Atlatl and the dart to flex, and release their energy at exactly the same time, in order to maximize the amount of stored energy that gets transferred to the dart, propelling it downrange.
I am personally inclined to believe that these weights do serve to help fine tune the atlatl for better throws, and this has been verified by actual atlatl record holders, however exactly what they are doing has not been definitively proven. However there is a lot of good information about them from veteran atlatl expert William Robert Perkins (aka “Atlatl Bob”), who was able to show scientifically, that these weights did in fact affect the balance, noise levels, and flexion characteristics of the atlatl.
Science applied towards the analysis and improvement of medieval weaponry. My kind of weapons expert.
The atlatl is just an absolutely fascinating weapon. So elegant and simple, and yet, as we’ve seen, there are so many complex facets to it’s operation. Amazing really. Quite an interesting read if you’re a weapons nerd like me. Otherwise you are probably nodding off about now. Which is OK because I’m pretty much done with the atlatl waterboarding session.
I’ve included some links below for those of you who have not yet drowned in my deluge of atlatl info. Sorry, there are no life rafts or flotation devices aboard this vessel. You will just have to swim for it.
Atlatls n More
List of atlatl manufacturers – [Flight Toys]
Atlatl Design – [World Atlatl Association]
Atlatl weight and function – [BPS Engineering]
Tools of the Stone Age – Atlatls – [Dons Maps]
Walnut and Rosewood Atlatls – [Ray’s Atlatls and Darts]