Atlatl Myths

The atlatl and dart are mythically endowed with powers that are highly overrated by several atlatlists. The first myth is that the dart flexes and compresses, storing energy in order to push itself away from the atlatl. Another myth is that there is a specific magic formula for the optimum length of the dart to the length of the atlatl. The third myth is that atlatl weights increase the power or speed of the dart as it rebounds from the atlatl. Although these are fascinating concepts they are not true.

The reason an atlatl dart needs to have a certain flex is that there are lateral components to the vectors that are necessary to cast a dart caused by its non linear acceleration. This is caused by the way the atlatl must work due to the human anatomy. The atlatl must go through an arch to cast the dart. As it does so, the back of the dart is pushed first up then down as it accelerates forward. The dart must be designed to bend enough to allow this to happen. Upon close inspection of fast action pictures of the moment when the dart disengages from the atlatl, flexible atlatls remain flexed after disengaging from the dart. This phenomenon leads me to believe that the energy stored in the flexing atlatl is lost rather than transferred to the dart.

The dart to atlatl length ratio has more to do with the strength of the atlatlist and his or her goal in throwing the dart. Smaller, shorter darts will work just as well in the same atlatl as longer heavier darts to achieve the specific results desired by the atlatlist. Distance darts tend to be lighter and shorter whereas hunting darts are longer and heavier. Darts meant to be used for target shooting work better if they are lighter and long, yet with a fairly sturdy spine especially if the target is set at 15 to 20 meters. The long light darts work best for the target shooter because of their lower and straighter trajectory. The dart needs to be tuned to the capabilities and the goals of the atlatlist rather than the dart being sized to the atlatl. The flexibility of the dart needs to be matched to the degree that is necessary for it to be cast effectively by a particular atlatlist. That depends on the casting technique of the atlatlist more than anything else.

Atlatl weights add to the stability of the cast rather than to its power, speed or penetration. It takes energy to accelerate the extra weight of the stone. Some say that the energy is returned to the system to give it more power. This theory may erroneously lead you to believe that the stone weight somehow acts as an amplifier of the power exerted in the throw. Simply said, you get out of a cast what you put into it. It again depends on the atlatlist, his technique, and how hard he or she throws the dart.

Bannerstones are unlikely to have been used as atlatl weights, except on modern atlatls. The idea was proposed as absolute truth by William S. Webb who is no longer alive to argue with. Now we have lots of people who have run with the idea. They have invested time in making so called replica atlatls using bannerstone weights or writing various articles about bannerstone weights with mystic properties like increasing velocity or silencing the dart. They all followed the leader like lemmings over the cliff.

The atlatls allegedly found with bannerstones on them didn’t even have shafts upon which the bannerstone, atlatl hook and handle were attached. They were found “in situ” which means that they were found in place in a way which Webb suggested that they were parts that went together. I would add here that thousands of bannerstones have been found all over the place in North America, but they have only been found with hooks and handles in digs done by Webb. I should say digs done by Webb’s crews. It isn’t clear that he actually did the digs. If his work were submitted to a group of peers today it would be highly suspect. It’s possible that the bannerstones were simply in the same container with atlatls. Webb doesn’t even discuss that possibility.

Many people have suggested to me that there are petroglyphs that prove that bannerstones were atlatl weights. A picture at
shows what some people believe is proof positive but if those are bannerstones it seems that they would weigh about 10 pounds or more. Also the pictures are way too much like cartoon figures to get any real information from them.

There are other reasons I think bannerstones were not atlatl weights. I have examined hundreds of them in various conditions from whole to bits and pieces. I looked carefully at the holes and how they were drilled. I looked at wear patterns and I measured the holes. Some of the holes were as small as ¼ inch, many were 3/8”, and the average was about ½ inch, the largest I have seen was over an inch. Most of the holes seemed too small for an atlatl shaft that would work well.

What they all had in common, where the bannerstone was whole enough to detect this, was that they were all balanced. That is to say that they looked like they were designed to spin. Atlatls don’t need to spin. What would a hunter gatherer need that spins? Something to make string, fire or drill holes is the answer. I think it is the string making tool that is the best answer. It’s the best answer because string is necessary to haft points and tie on fletching among other handy applications for cordage in the hunter gatherer’s lifestyle.

Bannerstones are also all over the place as far as weight is concerned. Most of them seem to me to be too heavy to be atlatl weights. They are very apt to break in use as an atlatl weight and atlatl weights can be attached to the atlatl in any number of ways much easier than drilling a hole through a rock with grit and a reed.

For each kind of dart material there are a few constants which are inherent to it. They are the materials density, modulus of elasticity, and vibration dampening characteristics. There are other characteristics but these three affect how the dart works the most. Dart materials may include wood, aluminum, bamboo, fiberglass and perhaps many others. If there is a formula to be devised as a guide to making good darts it would be one that shows a ratio of dart diameter, density, elasticity through different dart sizes, with the ultimate spine being determined by how hard the atlatlist tends to throw.

Bob Berg

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2 thoughts on “Atlatl Myths”

  1. Bob, I think you are making a lot of sence. Most people are afraid to rock the boat. they wouldn’t go against their peer group for any reson. I for one agree with you. Keep using your brain, we need people like you. Amy

  2. Hello Bob Berg, I really enjoyed reading this. Bannerstones have always fascinated me, just as has the at-latl. Thank you for taking the time to make this information available to those of us that seek it. Cordage making and use was vital. I’ll search for videos of people using bannerstones as a “whorl” in order to produce cordage. Thanks again and, please keep publishing things like this. Ed

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