Have you ever wanted to go spear hunting but wanted greater range? Are you an experienced bowhunter who wants to try something new—or rather, something very old? Then perhaps you should consider the atlatl.
The atlatl is one of the oldest weapons still used in modern hunting today, in many places predating even the most primitive of bows. Essentially a long dart or spear balanced on a thrower, the atlatl can be hurled with great efficiency and stopping power, making it the primary tool of early hunters in many different cultures. Earlier this month world-champion atlatl thrower Dawn Wagner held a demonstration in Columbia, Missouri to educate hunters on how to use the ancient weapon. Only about 70 people showed up to the workshop at the Missouri Department of Conservation’s (MDC) Columbia office, but support for the tool is rising.
“It brings you back more toward what your forefathers were doing back when time began…it takes you away from technology,” John Blankenship, who is a member of the Missouri Atlatl Association, told The Columbia Missourian.
Currently only two states, Missouri and Alabama, allow people to use atlatls for deer hunting. A handful of other states also permit the use of the atlatl for taking small game or nuisance animals. But most states are sitting on any proposals to legalize the spear-thrower due to doubts over its effectiveness.
Some say that the device lacks the power to kill big game, only succeeding in maiming deer. Atlatl supporters, however, say that the dart is more than capable of bringing down even the largest of animals. In fact, according to the World Atlatl Association, the weapon was first designed to take on “megafauna” such as mammoths or mastodons. Atlatl enthusiasts further argue that atlatls provide one of the safest and most ethical means of taking deer.
“The atlatl does not provide any unfair advantage to a hunter pursuing game during the archery seasons. Rather, it would provide an alternative to those archers who want to face new challenges and excitement in pursuing game,” the Missouri Atlatl Association wrote to the MDC. “The atlatl is one of the safest hunting tools because of its short range and the tendency for darts not to travel far beyond its intended target or to glance off objects. It would, in fact, be the safest means for hunting deer in more densely populated areas of the State.”
In the end, Missouri wildlife officials agreed with atlatl supporters that the best way to test the impact of the device was to simply allow hunters to use it.
In 2011, 54-year-old Luke Boenker became the first sportsman in Missouri to take a deer using an atlatl after the state legalized them for hunting in 2010. Boenker had constructed a seven-foot-long ash dart himself and only started using the device three months before deer season. Despite his relative inexperience, the hunter managed to harvest a deer within 15 yards of his stand.
“It was the ultimate feeling,” Boenker told the MDC.
“I’d hunted with bows and guns before,” he added, “But I didn’t even load my guns this year. I wanted to do something different.”
That seemed to be the main sentiment that draws many hunters to the primitive tool, including the modest crowd in Columbia.
“It connects folks with history,” said MDC outdoor skills specialist Brian Flowers. “It’s something that is fun to learn about and fun to participate in, and it has it uses for hunting and fishing.”
Atlatls are also relatively easy to construct and cheap to build, especially when it comes to practice. For competitive or sporting use, a number of companies have cropped up to offer professionally-crafted atlatls, such as those made by Thunderbird Atlatl.
You can learn more about the atlatl below:
How to build your own for practice: