COACHING THE ATLATL: How a Spearthrower Throws a Spear.
John Whittaker Feb 2002, revised April 20, 2023
Throwing a dart with an atlatl is a complex sequence of motions. It is difficult to visualize and explain exactly what happens, and a number of fallacies and odd theories have made their way into the literature. Unlike pitching or tennis, which have been studied for years, no one has looked at the details with a concern for teaching new atlatlists and improving the skills of experienced throwers, although many individuals within the sport have come up with tips that they find helpful.
With the help of modern photography, we can study the motion and begin to make some practical suggestions. 1) The throwing motions in using an atlatl are potentially important in human physiology and motion studies and of course relevant to understanding the use of an important early hunting technology (my archaeological orientation). 2) I also teach students to use atlatls and take them to competitions, boasting that Grinnell has the world’s first collegiate atlatl team. The teaching purpose behind this is to expose people to prehistoric technology both for fun and for the purposes of experimental archaeology.
The following document illustrates some of our initial ideas from several sources. 1) My explanation of the throwing motion comes from examining slow motion video tapes Chuck Hilton made of me throwing. The photos illustrating it were taken by Jeff Lindow at Fort Osage, May 2000. If you scroll down through them real fast, you get a sort of motion picture. 2) These are followed by selected photos cribbed from the World Atlatl Association webpage albums of atlatl competitions and other events, and illustrate what I consider good throwing form, and some of the common mistakes. There are now lots of Youtube videos where you can see atlatls in use, some worthless, some very good. One place to start: https://basketmakeratlatl.com/
THE THROWING MOTION
I think in terms of four phases. From a balanced aiming posture, a throw begins with 1) a step, then 2) the body rotates and the arm and shoulder begin to move the atlatl and dart, 3) the wrist snaps to provide the leverage of the atlatl, and 4) you follow through. All together, a throw takes about one second from balanced beginning to follow through. The motion is essentially the same as throwing a ball. In both cases the snap of the wrist flicks the ball or dart downrange and provides much of the velocity. The atlatl works by providing a much longer lever at the wrist.
1) The step.
I start with a standing posture, feet close together, and left foot forward, leaning back very slightly (less than I would have thought), with my arm cocked back, body turned not quite 90 degrees from target so that my left arm can be raised and pointed at it. The dart is level or a bit above horizontal, at or above eye level depending on range. I visually align it with the target, even though I can’t actually sight down it like a gun barrel.
The throw begins visibly with a slight bend of the left knee as I rock back fractionally (first photo), then bring the left foot forward in a full step, which brings body, arm, and dart forward, but without moving arm or rotating torso until the full step is complete, with the left foot flat or almost on the ground. I’m trying throughout to drive the dart in a straight line at the target.
2) Arm and body.
As the step is completed, the torso begins to rotate and the upper arm to flex at the shoulder, bringing the hand and the atlatl forward until it is about even with the back of the head.
The atlatl throughout this remains horizontal. The shoulder flexion seems to me to be small at this point, and the wrist must be rotating to keep the dart pointed at the target.
3) The Wrist Snap. Slightly before the hand reaches the back of the head, the hand and forearm begin to rise.
Then at the point when the hand passes the head as the torso continues to rotate, the wrist must rotate back in the opposite direction from its previous rotation, and then flex violently, swinging the atlatl up to vertical to flick the dart away.
This is what flexes the dart as the point remains aimed at target, while the nock is rapidly raised by the atlatl.
At the same time, the arm is extended straight out. [The wrist motion seems essentially the same as that in cocking and throwing a ball, with the only real difference being that the fingers remain closed to grip the atlatl.] Note how high above the head the dart is as it is just about to leave the atlatl.
With the atlatl in vertical position, the dart has recovered from its initial flexing, and is about to spring away from the atlatl and flex in the opposite direction.
As the dart leaves the atlatl with the atlatl vertical or slightly past, the wrist continues to flex, as does the shoulder, and I bend forward and swing the right arm and atlatl down and across my body, ending outside my left leg.
My chin remains up, and my head at almost the same level throughout the throw, with my eyes fixed on the target (this is conscious “good form”).
1) Atlatl motion. Calvin Howard, in a 1974 article “Atlatl: Function and Performance” in American Antiquity 39(1), says “the atlatl is not a catapult or flipping device. During a proper throw, the spur reaches no greater elevation than that of the handle.” He thinks hook on a level atlatl simply remains in contact and delivers thrust longer than a hand throwing the same spear with same motion. Several other people have the same idea, and it is plainly and unequivocally wrong. Both my photos, and ethnographic photos show that it is the flip of a high, vertical atlatl that provides the lever action and gives the atlatl its force. It is true that the atlatl moves horizontally for most of the throw, with only a very fast snap of wrist bringing it vertical. During this horizontal part of the throw, the step and the rotation of the upper body are starting the forward motion of the atlatl and dart.
Howard also says “Hooking results when thrower fails to keep the atlatl level during the thrust.” This implies to me that he didn’t have an effective hook/nock system – and that may be why he misunderstood how the atlatl works.
It is possible to throw a dart with a level atlatl, and Vanderhoek (1998) thinks a level atlatl is used for short accuracy shots, and a full rotating atlatl for distance throws. The level throw does work, but it is weak, and if you don’t flip the atlatl, you fail to use it’s essential lever action, and you will often hold on to the dart too long and dump it in the dirt well in front of the target. Maintain good form even for short shots.
Another bad habit associated with the level atlatl model is bending the front leg or leaning forward to lower the body and the atlatl hand so that the hook can describe an arc and flip the dart, without rising (Vanderhoek’s model again). This too works, but is weak and leads to inaccuracy.
2) Dart and atlatl flex. A lot of people feel that the flex of the atlatl and the dart is very important, and provides much of the power of a throw by storing energy like a spring. In the photos above, it can be seen that the dart does flex a lot, but although my atlatl is somewhat flexible, little if any flex is visible in the throw. There are of course lots of ethnographic atlatls that are completely rigid – atlatl flex adds almost nothing to the power of the throw. Slow motion video shows that the dart has left the atlatl before any atlatl flex rebounds, so it cannot add power to the throw.
The dart, however, does flex a great deal. This is because the dart stays horizontal until the wrist snap part of the throw, when on our video film it begins to point upward at a slight angle. During the wrist snap is also when the dart flexes, and the snap is a very short, fast, motion, so it must be at this time that most of the energy is imparted to the dart. As the hand rises, and especially as the atlatl begins to move to the vertical, the dart flexes. At the top of the throw you can see that the fletched end is flexed upward and the center bending downward. The next photo shows a straight dart about to spring away from the atlatl, and the photo after that has the dart flexing in the opposite direction (tip and feathers down). I think the flex is largely caused by the sudden vertical movement of the hook of the atlatl with the tail of the dart, while the dart is kept on target, and flexes to compensate. This is why a rigid dart doesn’t work. Our observations of the video seem to confirm this – the dart point and forward 2/3 stay in a straight line and in the same position on the tape, while the tail of the dart is moved upward. Once the dart leaves the atlatl it oscillates back and forth rapidly for a bit until it stabilizes, and because of the dart’s uneven flex, it also rotates unevenly.
Although the dart does flex, this is necessary for accuracy, not for power. The spring-like flex of the dart adds almost no forward motion. If you don’t believe this, try flexing a dart by pressing it against the ground and then suddenly releasing it. It will jump into the air very little. Similarly, you can try nocking a dart against a fixed atlatl and flexing only the atlatl to spring the dart away – that too will not get you very far. Conclusions: flex in the atlatl is of no importance, flex in the dart is necessary only for an accurate throw.
3) Hooking and Unhooking: Unhooking is a common error among beginners, and happens to the best also. There are two common bad habits. First, when aiming, do not suddenly cock your arm further back – this often unhooks the dart. Start the throw with your arm already at full cock, so the only movement is forward. Second, do not twist your wrist. A completely straight overhead motion is best. This is another reason not to use a side-arm motion. The wrist should only flex late in the throw, and it should flex in the plane of the throw without twisting. One training cure for wrist flex is to have the thrower flip small pebbles with the atlatl. Any twist of the wrist or side-arming dislodges the pebble even more readily than a dart, but if the pebble can be flipped, the atlatl is being moved correctly in a flat plane.
An unhook can often be disastrous for the dart, as the atlatl sweeps around and strikes it, sometimes chopping it in half.
Hooking, or pulling down the end of the dart, does not result from a good overarm motion, but from a hook which is at the wrong angle, or more often, too sharp and too deeply set in the socket of the dart, or from a dart that is too rigid.
If the end of the atlatl extends beyond the hook too far, it is also possible to strike the dart’s nock as the dart leaves the atlatl. Often this produces an audible click; obviously it is detrimental to accuracy. Reducing the end of the atlatl often produces a quick fix.