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ATLATL Renaissance

By Jim Merritt

At the end of the last Ice Age, in what is now western Montana, a woolly mammoth followed a path to the river that would one day be called the Missouri. The mammoth was a lone bull, and his huge curving tusks grazed the sedge covering the mountain-fringed valley. With a flick of his trunk he sampled the breeze and snorted at the unfamiliar smell mixed with the aroma of water. Adult mammoths had no natural enemies, and this one had never before encountered the one creature that regularly killed them.

Atlatl Bob throwing an Atlatl

As the bull paused at the strange smell, four skin-clad hunters rose from the sedge and leveled their throwing sticks. Their arms moved in an arc as each man launched a reedy projectile that sprang from the stick and covered the 40 yards in the blink of an eye. The flint points thudded deep into the hairy flanks and were followed by a second volley, then a third, which also found their marks. The mammoth trumpeted in confusion and rage, then wheeled and began a lumbering trot back up the valley, the projectiles swinging from his wounds. The hunters followed at a distance, knowing it was just a matter of time. Several of the projectiles had hit vital spots, and their quarry was soon lying dead on the tundra, a six ton mountain of meat.

Cut to the same Montana valley 11,000 years later. It's a Saturday afternoon in August 1992, and were at the Helena home of Manuel and Helen White, hosts of the Fourth Annual Montana Atlatl Mammoth Hunt.

In the side yard a dozen men and women are warming up for the event. The "mammoth" is no flesh-and-blood pachyderm, of course, but a silhouette painted on a slab of foam plastic salvaged in the renovation of the local V.A. Hospital. In lieu of skins, the "hunters" come in a variety of shorts, jeans, T-shirts, and ball caps. They line up shoulder-to-shoulder about 35 yards from the target, hurling what look like long arrows with the aid of a throwing stick, or Atlatl, a weapon that until a decade ago had not been seen in these parts for two millennia.

"Atlatl" (pronounced either AT-lat-ul or AT-ul-LA-tul, take your pick) is an Aztec name for the throwing stick. It appeared on the Eurasian continent 30,000 years ago and arrived in the Americas perhaps 12,000 years ago, when the ancestors of the modern Indians crossed the then-existing land bridge between Siberia and Alaska. These Paleo-Indians - known as the Clovis people, for the exquisite projectile points they left at a site near Clovis, New Mexico - gradually moved south as they followed the herds of Mammoths, Mastodons, and Long-Horned Bison. They killed these animals with the Atlatl and its projectile, which despite its similarity to an arrow is called a "Dart" (alas, a name more suggestive of a smoke-filled bar than a glacial landscape). Although the Atlatl and Dart were eventually replaced by the Bow and Arrow, they weren't entirely abandoned. Columbus found Carib Indians using them, and in 1519, when Hernan Cortez began his conquest of Mexico, Aztec warriors skewered numerous conquistadors with his ancient but formidable weapon, which easily pierced Spanish armor.

After the warm-ups, the contestants get down to business. From the joking and camaraderie it's evident that most of them have known each other for a while. Welcome to the small but spirited world of Atlatl enthusiasts. For the next hour, at distances ranging from 30 to 90 meters, they take turns hurling their Darts at the foam-plastic mammoth. The quality of throwing varies, and a lot of the Darts sail wide of the target or kick up dust in front of it. But the better throwers fling their weapons with authority - releases are crisp and trajectories flat. The whippy Darts, which are 5 feet long, flex in mid-air and hit with thump, penetrating a good 10 inches into the target. A respectable number cluster in and around the red bull's-eye painted on the mammoth.

The defending champ in the men's division is Bob Perkins, a hefty, bearded thirty-six-year-old with shoulder-length hair held in place by a rolled bandanna. Perkins may look more like a biker than a Clovis Hunter, but he throws a wicked Dart and is on his way to winning his division once again.

Perkins' status as a professional in the field is unique. He has been making and selling Atlatl "systems," as he calls them, for seven years. This is his sole source of income; he boasts that he's "the only person in 2,000 years to bring home the bacon with an Atlatl."

He is also responsible for our understanding of the dynamics of Atlatls and why they were so deadly in the hands of Stone Age hunters. Perkins traces his obsession with atlatls to an archaeology course he took in 1984 while a student at Montana State University. The course, in "replicative studies," taught primitive crafts like flint-knapping as a way of learning how early people lived. An engineering major, Perkins focused on the Atlatl and Dart as a "mechanical system," and with fellow student Paul Leininger he wrote a seminal paper on the subject. Get Perkins talking about the physics of Atlatls and he'll bombard you with terms like "waves cycles" and "kinetic energy." After Bob has boiled it down it's all simple enough. When a Dart is launched it flexes. The flexing first stores and then releases energy, causing the Dart to jump from the Atlatl. The Atlatl flexes, too, giving the Dart an added boost. The Dart both springs and is sprung, like a diver launching off a high board.

Before Perkins and Leininger, the few archaeologists who'd tried replicating Atlatl technology had done so mainly with rigid Darts, which performed poorly. "We didn't really understand Atlatls until Bob and Paul came along - basically we were using 2x4s to throw broom handles, and we were lucky to get them out 50 or 60 yards," says Dave Schwab, the state archaeologist for Montana. Schwab himself has thrown a flexible Dart 176 yards, and the unofficial world's record is more than 200 yards.

Popular writings on primitive weapons usually refer to the Atlatl as a "Spear thrower," but use that term around Perkins and he winces the way a fly fishermen would if someone called his split-cane fly rod a "pole." The Atlatl and Dart derived from the spear, but the lighter, flexible, and fletched Dart is a lot closer to an arrow in design and dynamics. It is longer than an arrow, however, so it has a greater mass - and therefore more killing power if launched at a comparable speed. A skilled Atlatlist can fling a 5-ounce Dart at upwards of 100 miles per hour, delivering a bigger knock-down punch than an arrow fired from a 60-pound compound bow, Perkins claims.

Despite the Atlatl's wallop, the bow replaced it. In the Americas this probably occurred about the time of Christ, according to Perkins. He believes early hunters adopted the bow for reasons of accuracy (a bow shoots truer at shorter ranges) and stealth. "The thing that gives you away with an Atlatl is movement," he says. A bow and arrow is also easier to carry. Such drawbacks aside, the Atlatl's modern potential as a hunting weapon has scarcely been tapped. Perkins has taken deer with one, and recently a trio of bow-hunters-turned-Atlatlists killed several wild boars on a private game preserve in Georgia. When Perkins first approached Montana officials about hunting with an Atlatl, they were understandably perplexed about classifying it as a weapon. After mulling it over, they allowed him to hunt during the rifle season. (No one, of course, should hunt with an Atlatl without first checking his or her state's regulations.)

I had met Perkins several days before the Helena gathering at his home in Manhattan, Montana. His two-room bungalow doubles as the headquarters of BPS Engineering, the company he and Leininger founded in 1984 to make and sell Atlatls. ("BPS" stands for the "Bob and Paul Show," an allusion to their college partying days. Leininger later left the business.) The interior was functional - a bare floor, a bed, a couple of wood stoves, cases for rifles and books, and Atlatls in progress. Covering the wall were photos of Perkins' pioneer ancestors, who arrived in Montana in the 1860s, and his Honorable Discharge from the Marines, in which he served for five years.

Perkins told me he makes "hundreds" of Atlatls a year but isn't sure of the exact count. His market is the growing number of hobbyists taking up the ancient weapon and competing with it in contests like the one in Helena. Other annual events include a gathering hosted by the Valley of Fire State Park in Nevada and the Atlatl World Open held in Casper, Wyoming. Along with manufacturing production line Atlatls, Perkins also makes Museum-quality replications based as closely as possible on archaeological specimens, using only natural materials like horn, Buffalo sinew, brain-tanned hide, and flint or obsidian points. To get such details right he once spent four days pouring over the collection of Atlatls in the "Attic" of the Smithsonian Institution.

We took one of his production models and a set of Darts outside for a few throws. His test range is a grassy strip next to the railroad tracks opposite his house. "I'll crack one out for you," he said, inserting the spur on the contact end of the Atlatl into the hollowed-out base of the Dart. The thumb and forefinger of his grip hand held the Dart in place as he cocked and fired with a swift overhand motion. "It's real easy," Perkins assured me. "I've taught hundreds of people to throw these things, and only two or three really uncoordinated types couldn't do it."

My first efforts were feeble, and one of the Darts slipped off the spur - a common problem for beginners, I learned. But after a few minutes I was able to toss a Dart 40 or 50 yards, a range I comfortably doubled after returning home and practicing with an Atlatl bought from Perkins.

My model is called the Warrior. Based on a specimen found in a cave in Nevada and dated from 6000 B.C., it has sleek lines and a gracefully carved stone lashed to its 26-inch-long maple shaft. Actually, Perkins told me, the "stone" is a facsimile of the original, made from epoxy mixed with copper dust to resemble the pipestone favored by Clovis craftsman. For years archaeologists puzzled over the function of these stones. Some thought they helped balance the Atlatl, while others suggested they were talismans. Perkins is certain they acted as "timing mechanisms." By securing a stone higher or lower on the shaft, a hunter could "tune" the Atlatl's oscillations to the Dart's, thus optimizing the transfer of energy. Timing stones are unique to Atlatls of the Americas. Perkins' theory is that the bow replaced the Atlatl 15,000 years ago in the Old World, but in the New World this didn't happen until 2,000 years ago. So here the Atlatl had 13,000 more years to evolve.

A special type of stone may represent the apogee of Atlatl technology. Banner stones, as they're called, were carved in the shape, roughly, of a butterfly or a bow tie and slipped over the shaft. Archaeologists have assumed they were decorative, but Perkins believes they served a secondary function as silencers, (however, primarily they were timing mechanisms) like the puff balls some Indians placed on their bow strings: "The Atlatl makes a zipping noise when you swing your arm, but a Banner stone dilutes the sound waves." Informal experiments support this theory. Perkins notes, too, that most Banner stones have been found in Eastern woodlands, were hunter and prey were probably closer and sound carried better in the humid air.

Perkins can get mystical talking about Atlatls, and feels a deep empathy with the Clovis hunters who took the technology so far. He has a running pseudo-dialog with an alter ego he calls the "paleo-genius." He talks of the first time that the idea of Atlatl weights being timing devices came to him. It was a dark and stormy night several years ago, when Perkins was trying to fathom the purpose of Atlatl weights. The notion that they were timing devices came to him in a flash. "It was like this long dead Master Atlatlist reached out from the grave and knocked me on my butt," he says. "Sometimes I feel like I'm only a conduit between the past and present, merely reporting on what's already occurred."

This article first appeared in the September 1993 issue of Field & Stream. It is reprinted with the permission of Atlatl Bob's friends at Field & Stream and Jim Merritt.