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Rural Missouri Magazine

The Ancient Atlatl
A hunting tool predating the bow and arrow, the atlatl makes a resurgence in Missouri

by Jason Jenkins
Ray Madden of Joplin has thrown with an atlatl since he was a boy. His accuracy with the weapon has won him many competitions as well as allowed him to successfully hunt small game in Missouri.
Ray Madden of Joplin has thrown with an atlatl since he was a boy. His accuracy with the weapon has won him many competitions as well as allowed him to successfully hunt small game in Missouri.

Like a major league pitcher beginning his windup, Ray Madden digs the toe of his left shoe into the soft earth. He rolls his shoulders, stares down his target, takes a steadying breath and makes his throw at a speed nearing 100 mph.

Only, the 71-year-old Joplin resident isn’t throwing a baseball to an opposing batter. Instead, Ray is hurling a 5-foot-long, carbon-fiber dart with a device called an atlatl. Tipped with only a field point, the dart still buries itself 3 inches into the closed-foam backstop.

The atlatl (pronounced AHT-lah-tuhl) is the weapon that transformed early humans from scavengers to big-game hunters. Thought to have first developed in Europe some 20,000 to 25,000 years ago, evidence of the atlatl has been discovered on every continent except Africa.

“The atlatl predates the bow and arrow by thousands of years,” says Ron Mertz of Town and Country, president of the Missouri Atlatl Association. “It allowed man to throw a spear-like dart farther and with more force than with arm power alone, and it allowed him to hunt larger prey like the mammoth and the mastodon.”

Once the most widely used weapon in the western hemisphere, atlatls also were a formidable weapon of warfare, as 16th-century Spanish conquistadors learned when encountering Aztec warriors who could cast darts with enough force to pierce a coat of mail.

Today, the atlatl is especially popular among primitive weapon enthusiasts who organize competitions around the country for throwing accuracy and distance. A growing number of those enthusiasts, including those in Missouri, also desire the challenge of hunting with an atlatl.

Atlatls vary in shape and size depending on their cultural origins and intended uses.
Atlatls vary in shape and size depending on their cultural origins and intended uses.

The atlatl’s resurgence led the Missouri Conservation Commission to approve the atlatl as a legal method of taking small game, such as squirrels and rabbits, and non-game fish species, including carp and suckers, beginning last year.

At its most basic, the atlatl is a stick, usually about 2 feet long, with a handle on the front end and a hook or spur on the back. A dart, which can range from 4 to 8 feet long, is placed against the hook and held parallel to the atlatl.

With an arm motion similar to throwing a baseball, the dart is launched. By flipping the wrist, additional energy is transferred from the arm to the dart. According to Ron, an atlatl dart can be thrown with the same penetrating power as a 50-pound-draw longbow.

“It’s really all in the flip of the wrist,” Ray says. “Most people think you have to have big muscles and when they first start throwing, they try to kill it. But it’s more in the wrist than the arm.”

Depending on their origin and intended use, atlatls and darts can vary greatly in size, shape and weight. Atlatls can range from the simple to the ornate, but Ray says the dart is the more important part of the equation.

“Atlatls don’t have to be anything fancy, but the dart is the hard part,” he says. “If you have a good dart, you can throw it with almost any atlatl. But you can get your very best atlatl and if the dart isn’t made right, it won’t fly.”

Atlatl technology may be stone-aged, but its effectiveness as a hunting tool still finds a place in the Information Age. Though they hunt from modern aluminum boats with outboard motors, Eskimos hunting seals in Alaska’s Yukon River Delta still use atlatls because in the river’s fresh water, a seal shot with a rifle will sink.

“They use an atlatl dart tipped with a detachable point and tied to the shaft with a line,” Ray explains. “The dart shaft trails behind the seal and lets the hunter track his game.”

Ray and Ron have both hunted small game since the new regulation came into effect. On opening day of squirrel season in late May, Ray killed a grey squirrel with a blunt-tipped carbon dart and a homemade atlatl. In October, Ron and other atlatlists organized a rabbit hunt in central Missouri.

Though they can be ornate, effective atlatls can be carved very quickly from small branches.
Though they can be ornate, effective atlatls can be carved very quickly from small branches.

“We didn’t take any rabbits, but it was a lot of fun,” Ron says. “It gave you a real appreciation for how skilled our ancestors had to be to survive.”

As the primitive weapon gains more enthusiasts in the Show-Me State, atlatlists including Ray and Ron hope to one day hunt deer and turkey in Missouri with their weapon of choice. The Missouri Atlatl Association has asked the Conservation Department to consider including the weapon as a legal method under existing archery regulations. The group believes the weapon could offer a safe means for hunting deer in urban and suburban areas.

Currently, the only state that permits hunting deer with a hand-thrown spear is Alabama.

“I got my last deer with a rifle nearly 10 years ago,” Ron says. “I may not hunt deer again unless I can use an atlatl because it’s mostly about the challenge of it, the uniqueness of it, and the link back to our human past.”

Visit www.worldatlatl.org to learn more about the atlatl. To join the Missouri Atlatl Association, e-mail Ron Mertz at devoemertz@sbcglobal.net or call 314-628-9376.


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