What Exactly is an Atlatl?

If you’ve been paying attention in prepping and self-defense circles lately, you’ve probably seen interest in primitive weaponry on the rise.

DIY atl-atl and shaft with fletching
DIY atl-atl and shaft with fletching

Whether they are kept as last-ditch backups to more sophisticated weapons, or used as a workaround in places that have highly restrictive weapons laws, many of these devices are as effective today as they were countless years ago.

What you might have heard of, and scratched your head over, is the atlatl. What exactly is an atlatl?

An atlatl is a spear thrower, a simple lever that is used with the hand to add significant velocity and range to a compatible thrown spear.

Atlatls are simple and pretty ingenious devices, basically acting as an additional lever in the arm to impart even greater speed and power when used with a spear.

For someone who is already an experienced spear-thrower or anyone who wants to get the most from battlefield darts and javelins, atlatls are extremely easy to fabricate and become skilled with.

I’ll tell you everything you need to know about them in the rest of this article…

How Much Farther Does an Atlatl Throw?

A Strange Word: Atlatl Etymology

You’ll rarely hear a word that is more peculiar than atlatl. What exactly does it mean, and where does it come from? Simply enough, the word itself comes from the ancient Aztec language of Nahuatl.

The pronunciation is also somewhat variable depending on who you ask, and at least among Western English speakers, you’ll hear it butchered left and right. The closest proper pronunciation sounds like “addle-addle” or “ought-loddle.”

But to be clear, the atlatl is not a uniquely Aztec weapon, though it was first recorded there in the West by the Spanish…

It is truly ancient, and it’s thought to have been developed more or less concurrently by various cultures around the world, from Australia to Central America and Europe, the latter being the continent of origin according to most paleontologists, if you want to call it that.

If you struggle with the word or just think that it is goofy, you can call it a “spear thrower” and most folks will know what you are talking about. Still, you should also know that most domestic and international groups dealing with the tool refer to it properly as “atlatl.”

How Long Have Atlatls Been Around?

A very, very long time, at least 17,000 years according to some accounts. They are a truly simple, primitive technology and easy to fashion from nothing more than a sturdy and appropriately shaped branch.

But, they are so effective that they persisted well into the age of metal with some surviving examples from antiquity being made of intricately carved bronze, silver and more.

And, of course, they remain in use today for purposes of historical appreciation, recreational and practical hunting.

Atlatl Anatomy

As mentioned, atlatls are truly simple, consisting of nothing more than a straight body with a small hook or cup at the end that mates to the end of a compatible spear shaft opposite the sharpened end or point. Although most atlatls are straight, some are gently curved.

And that’s all there is to it, though you’re likely to see some more advanced designs that have a protruding rest on the end near the hand that will help support the spear shaft and keep it level and aligned throughout the throwing process.

Simpler designs rely on the wielder’s thumb and forefinger to stabilize the spear shaft instead.

In all cases, the throwing motion looks almost identical to that of an overhand pitch, or a conventionally thrown spear; the only difference is that the atlatl wielder releases the spear shaft at the moment they snap their wrist during the throw…

Why Not Just Throw a Spear Normally?

Because it doesn’t work as well! An atlatl functions on principles of levers. By adding another, longer lever to the existing series of levers that is the human arm and wrist, it is possible to impart drastically more force to a thrown spear.

Even a beginner with an atlatl is capable of generating greatly increased velocity and range with a compatible spear compared to a person throwing a similar spear by hand. A truly skilled user, referred to as an atlatlist, is frightening indeed!

This greater velocity translates naturally to far greater range but also penetration, making a dart or javelin of the same size, weight, and design even deadlier than it would be normally.

This means that it’s more effective for hunting or for self-defense, and the improved ballistics of the equation often translate to better practical accuracy.

Can Any Kind of Spear Be Used with It?

No. Only spears that are designed to be thrown will work well with an atlatl. Beyond this, they must have a butt end of the shaft that is designed to mate with the hook or cup on the atlatl itself.

Although it isn’t out of the question that a non-optimized spear could be successfully thrown to good effect with one, you shouldn’t count on it, and larger, handheld battlefield spears are simply not compatible.

Generally speaking, familiarizing yourself with javelins, darts, and similar spear types that are designed for throwing or other ballistic usage will help you figure out which ones are right for you, or just craftable in a pinch.

Types of Animals That Can Be Hunted with an Atlatl

Surprisingly enough, almost all of them! Using fossil records and associated evidence, scientists have deduced that our ancient ancestors used atlatls to hunt truly huge critters, including mammoths, with success.

Remember that greater velocity means greater penetration most of the time, and these ingenious little weapons were the breakthrough of the era that enabled repeat success against the largest and most dangerous prey on Earth.

In more recent years, atlatls can be used to hunt everything from deer and hog to alligators and other animals.

With a properly designed spear shaft mated to a sharpened steel or stone head, the damage they can inflict is genuinely harrowing: speeds at the thrower have been recorded in excess of 75 mph, with an upper limit of 90 mph being achievable with the right combination of thrower, atlatl length, and spear.

Suffice it to say that if you get good with an atlatl any sort of animal within 25 yards or so is going to be in mortal danger, and they are no slouch when it comes to self-defense against humans, either, especially if used by a group of skilled throwers at the same time.

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