I have been making and using hunting darts for use with atlatls for a couple of decades. When a few friends and I started doing this in the early 90s we were aware of the fact that atlatls and darts must have been used for hunting in ancient times but we were unable to find information about how darts were made from living sources.
Determining the Diameter of Darts from the Archaeological Record
When I started designing atlatls and darts in the late 1980s I had very little to go by other than a few books and articles I read at the library. At the time there were few if any people with any atlatl hunting experience to ask how to do it. I found a few other people who were interested in the same task and so we joined forces. Who these alatl pioneers were, is the subject of another article.
We were left to gleaning information from the archaeological record. We started by looking at collections of projectile points that belonged to friends and museums. What we noticed was that there was a large variety of different sizes of points and point styles. We measured the space between the notches on many points and came to the conclusion that darts must have been anywhere from 3/8 to 5/8 inches at the point where they were hafted. Using these measurements, I started making darts of many different diameters.
Establishing the Ideal Diameter to Length Ratio of Darts
Deciding how long to make the darts was accomplished by starting with shafts that were 8 foot long and fletching them. I cut off 2 inches at a time from the front end and cast the darts and noted how far they flew by throwing them on a football field marked for yardage. From that experiment I worked out the optimal diameter to length ratio. Beginning at the small end of the spectrum I noticed that 3/8 inch darts made of hardwoods like maple, ash and cherry wood seemed to work best at lengths like 48 to 54 inches. At the large end of the spectrum darts of 5/8 inch in diameter seemed to work best from 80 to 90 inches long.
Experiments with Wood Types, Tapering and Heat Treating Dart Shafts
A good friend, the late Wendell Adams of Louisville KY helped me rig up a large belt sander to taper darts. We experimented with them on hunting trips in Florida, Georgia, Pennsylvania and Alabama, hunting wild boar with our experimental equipment. The tapered darts we were making at that time were quite difficult to make requiring a lot of hand work. From 2000 until last summer our standard hunting darts were a straight 9/16” by 7 feet ash weighing 8 ounces. We only made tapered darts for those who requested them. Two years ago I built a new dart tapering machine that requires less effort by the operator to rotate the darts.
Improved Hunting Darts
The new version of hunting dart flies better than our previous versions. They are made from pine, 7 foot long, tapered from 9/16ths to 7/16ths inch. They weigh about 6 ounces and have a spine of about 7 pounds. They are faster than the old 8 ounce ash darts but have better penetrating power than ultra-light darts. The pine darts tend to stay straighter than hardwood darts and require less maintenance time keeping them straight. Many of my atlat friends in Europe are using pine shafts, so I thought I would give it a try. Further experiments reveled that heat treating the darts improved stiffness. Experiments that I have done in the last few years, revealed new solutions to the complex problem of balancing weight, spine, taper and the type of wood used.
Dart Points for Hunting and Practice
Thunderbird Atlatl darts have shaped tips designed to accept field points that can be easily switched to Ace Broadheads. This makes it possible to practice with the same set of darts that will be used for hunting. Our Thunderbird Atlatl dart tips are tapered to fit almost any traditional broadhead on the market so you are not forced to use a proprietary type of point you can only get from one source. If they break when you hit hard objects like rocks or trees, they usually break off just behind the dart point so you lose only 1/2 inch in re-tipping your darts.
The Future of Atlatl Hunting
I doubt that the last word on atlatl hunting darts has been written. It will be through the efforts of people like me who have an undying interest in atlatls, who will take on the task of re-discovering an ancient past through experiment and experiential archaeology. The future of atlatl hunting has been and will be forged by many people who will take up the task of learning the skills necessary to accomplish the goal that I and many of my friends, colleagues and customers have had, which is to develop atlatl hunting so it is universally accepted as one of the many choices that hunters can legally make. As for my own part, I produce atlatl hunting equipment that has evolved and improved over two decades and will continue to be improved.-Bob Berg