Two factors that govern your dart’s flight are its flex (also called its spine), and the feathers (its fletching). Flex is the amount of pressure it takes to make the shaft bend. An atlatl generates 6–10lbs of pressure (depending on your throw), so your darts need a spine of 6–10lbs. Less than that and you won’t be able to throw it; more, and it won’t fly right.
To measure the spine of a piece of wood or bamboo, press it lengthwise onto a bathroom scale. When the shaft begins to bend, look at the number. That’s it. Common 2"×48" dowels typically flex in our desired range, as do ½"×72" dowels, which are better for target practice. It’s satisfying to make a dart out of a natural piece of wood and hone it to the proper flex, but it’s also quite a bit of work. So to start with, I’d say use dowels.
Unlike with an arrow, the feathers on a dart don’t act as vanes. They add wind resistance, which slows the rear end so the sharp end stays in front. You can use other materials besides feathers, such as birch bark, cornhusks, cloth, and duct tape, but you can’t beat feathers for the look.
For our 48" dowel, a pair of 8" feathers should work fine. With less fletching, the dart will travel farther but won’t be as accurate. More fletching means the dart will be more accurate, but won’t go as far.
Using the Atlatl
Now let’s get out there and throw! The 3 basic steps are the grip, the stance, and the throw itself.
The Grip Slide your index finger through the hole from the side opposite the peg, and grip the handle with your other fingers. Put the point of the dart on the ground, then fit the atlatl peg into the nock and hold the dart with your thumb and index finger. Squeeze them, almost like you’re holding a pencil, but keep them on the sides of the dart, not over the back. The dart will come out of your hand at the proper moment, if you just let it.
The Stance Point your left foot at the target (if you’re right-handed) and angle your right foot away from it, about a shoulder’s-width back. You should feel comfortable and balanced. Turn your body sideways, in line with your left foot, and turn your head to look at the target. Point at the target with your left arm to help with accuracy and balance.
The Throw First, aim the dart by bringing your grip hand up by your ear and sighting along the shaft to your target. Next, bring your arm straight back as far as you comfortably can, but don’t twist your wrist on the way back, which will point the dart off to the side. Unless you’re a powerful thrower, tip your hand back so that the point rises up a few inches. This will give your throw an arc, making it travel farther. Pause to collect yourself and focus.
And now, the throwing motion itself: using an atlatl is like throwing a fastball — you need to put your whole body into it. Lean back, balancing on your back foot. Then step forward and shift your weight onto your other foot. Slide your arm forward, keeping the dart pointed at the target, and when it’s almost fully extended, snap your wrist forward hard. It should all be one fluid movement, and the atlatl should end up pointing at the target. For an example, watch the video clips of atlatl throwing on Bob Perkins’ website, atlatl.com.
Practice without a dart until you get used to it. And don’t worry about releasing the dart; it should come free on its own at the proper moment. Don’t try to throw it hard — this will just mess you up. Just concentrate on throwing smoothly, and your speed and power will develop. Everything will click at some point, and it will be a thing of beauty.
Throwing the atlatl purely for distance is fun, but after a while you get tired of chasing down all your darts. Besides, you’ll want to see what it would be like to hunt with one. You can use paper archery targets on hay bales, and 15yds is usually a good starting distance. If you switch to a heavier dart, you’ll want to double up the bales.
Standard bull's-eye targets are fine for accuracy competitions, but I personally don’t like them.
The atlatl is for hunting, so I prefer animal silhouettes; 3D targets, your basic foam animals, are my personal favorite. You really feel like the “mighty hunter,” and the first time your dart flies straight and true into the target, well, it’s indescribable. You need to experience it.
In a pinch, almost anything will make a decent target. A friend and I once used some styrofoam coolers. We ended up hunting those “sheep” for about 3 hours, until it got so dark we couldn’t even see them anymore! We were tied at the time (it’s always about competition, you know), so we had to keep going, listening to see whether we’d hit them or not. If I remember right, he won. Barely.
This project first appeared in MAKE Volume 12, page 117.