BLADE Magazine

How To Make An Atlatl

Atlatl Thrower

Past Michigan Atlatl Association champion Chris Oberg shows his form with the atlatl. Note the way he points at the target with his offhand. This is to help him control his overall balance during the throw. The atlatl has a bit of a learning curve to it but, once learned, the ancient tool can be used for a variety of hunting needs. 

We’ll take a momentary break from knives to talk about how to make this ancient and useful hunting tool—the atlatl.

Over 20 years ago I attended a primitive skills event in Michigan where the Michigan Atlatl Association was having its annual competition. I was amazed at how accurate the people could be using an atlatl, not to mention how much energy they could generate throwing one. However, I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself. For starters I want to explain why I’m discussing atlatls in the first place.

One of the key points to remember during a survival situation is efficiency, because efficiency saves calories and resources. I know, many have heard of making a survival bow, but the time and resources used to make an atlatl are way less. An atlatl is simple: a throwing stick that allows you to increase your power when throwing a dart.

Imagine you were a pitcher in the major leagues and you could increase the length of your arm by half. The advantage you would create would be amazing. Similarly, not only is an atlatl easy and fast to make, it also increases your ability to throw a projectile farther and faster. Don’t get me wrong; I am not against bows by any means, but in the time it takes just to make a string for a bow, you can make an atlatl and a fist full of darts. In the end, if I were in a survival situation and needed something to hunt with, I would start with an atlatl.

How To Make An Atlatl

At left are two single-finger throwers. At right is a snowbrush Chris Oberg used as a thrower to win the Michigan Atlatl Association championship. A hammer-style grip works well with the snowbrush thrower as the scraper end acts as a stop.

As mentioned, the atlatl is simply a stick used to increase your throwing advantage. To start, the simplest version is a branch with a secondary branch sprouting off the main shaft.

Take a branch and cut it to the length of you forearm, being sure to leave the secondary branch near the end. Now all you need do is cut the secondary branch to a small point, or leave a pocket. Which method you use will affect how you make your darts. With the point configuration, you must put a bit of a dimple in the end of the dart so it can rest on the point of the thrower arm. Another method is to form a pocket by attaching other materials. These days most survival kits and a lot of EDC kits include duct tape. Simply cut yourself a stick, again the length of you forearm. At one end of the stick form a pocket with a piece of duct tape to cradle the back end of your dart.

There are a couple of methods to hold the atlatl. The first and easiest without having to do any more work on the atlatl itself is the hammer grip. To apply a hammer grip, grab the end of the thrower with the bottom three fingers of your throwing hand. Take your other hand and place the dart on the holder. Then rest the thrower in the palm of your hand and, with your thumb and index finger, grab the shaft of the dart, suspending it off the thrower.

A second method makes your thrower in the basketmaker’s* style. To do this you will need a bit of cord (a shoelace will work) or anything you can use to form two loops on the side of the atlatl shaft. At the end of your thrower, tie a knot that creates two loops on the handle. Insert your index finger in one loop and your middle finger in the other. Having the two loops makes it easier for you to retain the thrower throughout as it is now attached to your throwing hand. A thrower is that easy to make.

Making Spears And Darts

A thrower and a variety of darts illustrate the basic concepts of harvesting and utilizing various materials, including lashing smaller pieces together to make a dart.

An atlatl dart is simply a large arrow. If you can wrap your head around that, you start to see potential dart material everywhere—perhaps a piece of a broken fishing rod, the extra pole in your tent bag, a leg from a folding chair—the possibilities are pretty much endless. The mark of humanity is that there is plenty of garbage most everywhere, so remember to capitalize on any resource you run across.

For natural resources you can turn to plants and bushes that grow almost straight shaft shoots. Some examples in North America are those from mullein, rosewood cane, ragweed and dogwood. In places like Asia, bamboo is a natural selection. Since plant shafts grow in a tapered fashion, be sure to put the heavier end of your dart at the tip. Having the heavier end at the rear will cause the momentum of the heavier back to lift the tip, as the heavier end will want to pass the front.

For length, look for the dart to be at least twice that of the thrower or longer. The longer and lighter the dart, the more energy you can produce. Note: The heavier the dart, the strong the thrower must be.
Start by stripping the shafts and straightening them. During the initial straightening you can bend the shafts or create friction on the concaved side, which will release the tension in the material. As time passes you might do the occasional straightening over a campfire, as the heat helps.

Now that you have the shafts straight you need to carve a small dimple in the back of each one to rest on the point of the thrower. If you are using materials that have nodes along the shaft like bamboo and mullein, be sure to carve the pocket just before a node to avoid splitting the shaft of the dart.

Now for creating drag. Just like with an arrow, to keep a dart flying straight it helps to have drag. Consequently, fletch the dart by splitting leaves and lashing them to the shaft. A more expedient way is to make fletching out of duct tape. You don’t necessarily need fletching but for throwing longer distances it helps.

For making the tip, simply sharpen the point or as mentioned earlier get creative and find something to use that has been left behind—a soda can cut and folded to form tips, for example. How does the saying go? Recycle, reduce and reuse.

What’s An Atlatl Good For?

Carter Gammill takes aim. In terms of accurate throwing, the hardest part is getting your timing down as to when to release the dart. Setting up a target for practice provides an added element of challenge.

Atlatls have been in use for thousands of years as hunting tools. There are still Inuit tribes that use them to hunt narwhal to this day. It is expedient, uses little resources and best of all you can carve one with your favorite knife in no time. You will want to try making one first to get the idea. After that you will be surprised how you start to see so many things that can be made into an atlatl. The hardest part is getting your timing down as to when to release the dart when you throw it. Most importantly, knowing how to make and use an atlatl puts yet another worthwhile tool in your kit.

*The Basketmaker culture of the pre-Ancestral Puebloans began about 1500 BC and continued until about 750 AD with the dawn of the Pueblo Era in what is now the American Southwest. They used the atlatl for hunting and as a combat weapon. The culture was named Basketmaker for the large numbers of baskets found at local archaeological sites dated circa 800 BC to 200 AD.

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