BY WILL DABBS , M.D.
He walks like a man, but you suspect he is a god. His head and chest sport a burnished shine unlike anything you have ever seen. Perhaps his is the light of the gods. Perhaps he brought this light with him from the sun.
He carries with him lightning. It takes life like nothing you have ever before experienced, and you are afraid. But after seeing what the gods do to your people, your rage quenches your fear like a deluge.
You stand motionless, your naked body slathered in mud and invisible, even to the gods. He is close now. You can hear him breathe. He holds the lightning at the ready, a tiny wisp of smoke signaling its hunger to kill.
You have performed this maneuver literally countless times and there has forever been food on the floor of your dwelling as a result. You step forward a single step and your arm swings overhead, your wrist snapping at the perfect moment to impart the momentum of your entire wiry frame into the throw. The long dart is gone faster than the eye can see.
The world explodes and you catch a full charge of buck and ball from a Spanish matchlock in your chest. Your life spills out into the moist jungle earth in a torrent and in moments you are gone. The smoke clears and Francisco, the able seaman originally from the slums of Toledo, falls lifeless to the ground, eyes wide and mouth agape. A black obsidian point protrudes a hand’s width out the back of his neck and drips a viscous crimson. The heathen’s dart has utterly run him through. Hernan Cortes and his conquistadors have just received a formal introduction to the Aztec atlatl and the savages that yield it. More than a million lives later, the Aztec nation would be gone, casualties of that peculiar combination of Spanish steel,
gunpowder, and smallpox.
“Atlatl” is an Aztec word, but the device it describes is as old as humanity. It is common knowledge that the simple spear-throwing stick was used by primitive man around the globe. However, the lethal efficiency it imparts to a simple wooden dart is surprising, even in the Information Age.
Everything is physics. In this case, for a given rotational velocity, the linear velocity of a projectile tangent to the arc is proportional to the length of the moment arm. Distilled to its essence, this means that an atlatl increases the effective moment arm for a man throwing a spear. The same principle governs the sling on a trebuchet, a particularly elegant medieval siege engine. If the atlatl is built thin enough, there is a spring component to the device that magnifies a projectile’s velocity as well.
Many original atlatls included a stone attachment in the middle of the device called a banner stone. Theories regarding its purpose suggest it was either a counterweight or a sound suppressor.
Atlatls of antiquity were found in countless designs made from many disparate materials. In certain states, the more manly among us can legally hunt certain game with this Stone Age appliance, even in 21stcentury America. The basic concept of the design is common to them all, however.
Several different atlatls, and a series of projectiles, cost me a couple of hours in the workshop. Cane and immature pine trunks are straight and lightweight, and these make splendid darts. A little time with a shaping tool turns juvenile hardwood trunks into projectiles as well. Fletch the darts with something to keep them flying straight. I used turkey feathers for the larger darts, though, surprisingly enough, the most accurate projectiles were unremarkable cane shafts with a little tuft of leaves left on the tail end. A sliver of scrap steel and a few minutes on a grinder make a simple, effective cutting tip without requiring an afternoon of chipping stones. The resulting dart is quite sinister.
My best natural atlatl was harvested from a piece of second-growth hardwood. In this case the limb in question was straight with a little elbow at the end, where it sprouted from the stump of a tree we felled for firewood several years back. Shape a trough in the throwing arm as needed, and a notch in the end to catch the dart. Alternatively, the notch could be carved into the base of the darts and a small peg formed in the atlatl to engage it.
As a comparison, I tried my hand at something a bit more high tech. The determined American male could build a thermonuclear weapon or put his brother-in-law into low Earth orbit with the proper application of PVC pipe. In this case the fittings take a little engineering, but any knuckle dragger can manage the tech.
Take a 2-foot piece of Schedule 40 PVC and fit a standard end cap over one end. Thinner stock provides a better spring action, but most anything will do. Wrap the throwing portion with 550 cord to make it look cool. Form a small notch in the cap to allow the dart to rest at the front. Glue a 180-degree joint on the back, then open the top lip up generously with a Dremel tool to allow the dart to clear the throwing arm cleanly during the throw.
My best synthetic projectile began life as a fiberglass pole from a bicycle safety flag. The material is tough and perfectly straight. A little automotive epoxy and a field tip from an arrow make the resulting projectile resilient. The same epoxy secures vanes for stability. A pair of zip ties reinforces these appendages. Though I found the longer homebuilt darts easier to throw accurately, an aluminum hunting arrow is itself not half bad with the shorter throwing sticks.
Like with all primitive weapons, there is a learning curve. Throwing something hard, far and fast is fairly easy—amazingly so. Doing so accurately, however, requires hours of practice. If I were relying on the atlatl to put food on my table at this point in my life I fear I would simply starve. However, I can easily see how a young warrior who grew up with these things could be quite deadly with them at proper ranges.
It is a challenge not to be impressed with the downrange energy of even a simple projectile launched by a decent tuned throwing stick. Care must be taken in the release not to impart an oscillation to the projectile. Several old cedar arrows made the ultimate sacrifice before I figured out how to manage my wrist so that I didn’t splinter my shafts.
Punching the dart deep into a target is child’s play, and a little time behind the instrument yields accuracy sufficient to utterly ruin the day of anything on the receiving end.
Whether your atlatl and dart are formed from natural materials harvested in the wild or began life on a rack at Home Depot, the exercise of building the device and then practicing to attain proficiency with it is satisfying on a primal level. The ferocity of the resulting weapon is impressive, even to a guy jaded toward newfangled firearms.
We only get one shot in life. You can while away your precious free time sitting on a couch assimilating electronic bilge or you can nourish your inner warrior. The guys who originally developed the tech for these things did so with nothing more advanced than antlers and stones. With 21st-century tools at your disposal and a little patience, you can whip up some simply splendid atlatls that will perform well enough to shock you. The resulting exercise will put a little hair on your chest and add some spice to your life. It will also give you some
insights into what all the fuss was about when Cortes and his conquistadors met the Aztecs for the first time.
Atlatl materials are limited only by your imagination. Trial and error optimizes the design. Regardless of the particular PVC fittings chosen to hold the near end of the dart, the top lip must be relieved with a Dremel tool to facilitate a clean release.
This story was originally published in the American Frontiersman 2014 issue. For more great stories Click Here to Subscribe
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