The atlatl or spear-thrower was a weapon used by homo sapiens as far back as 30,000 years ago, utilized by different cultures ranging from ancient Aztecs and Indigenous Australians to Greeks and Romans. Though there are certainly better weapons you can make or simply purchase, knowing how to construct and use an atlatl is a skill worth having, especially in a survival situation where you need a long-range weapon for hunting or defense.
If you need a decent projectile weapon but don’t have the materials to make a bow, the atlatl is a good alternative. In fact, atlatls are easy to make and can be surprisingly effective and deadly despite their relatively quick and simple construction.
Making the Atlatl
To construct an atlatl, you’ll need a sharp knife or similar cutting tool. In this article, we list a couple of ways you can go about this.
Method 1: In the Wild
For this method, this is assuming you’re out in the wild and will have to source materials from your environs.
Here are the materials and equipment you’ll need:
- A sturdy branch, about 16 inches in length and 2 inches in diameter
- A sharp knife
- Sandpaper (optional)
- 3-foot long stick, ¾ inches in diameter for the “dart”
- Bird feathers
- 1 foot of small cordage (spruce roots, twine, fishing line or inner strands of paracord)
To make an atlatl and a dart, follow these steps:
Step 1. Take the 16-inch branch and trim off all the twigs.
Step 2. Shave off the bark and thin down the sides of the stick.
Step 3. On the part of the stick with a natural curve to it, make that the top part where the “bowl” or “cradle” for the dart will be.
Step 4. Whittle the area that will serve as the cradle for the dart; make a “stop cut”, a clear indentation where the rear end of a dart will be placed.
Step 5. Make some refinements on the atlatl with sandpaper if you wish.
Step 6. Get a long, thin stick to make into a dart. You can make several darts, just be sure to have enough materials.
Step 7. Shave off the bark with your knife, being careful not to crack or damage any part of the shaft.
You can remove all the bark, or just the bark on either end of the stick if it’s sufficiently straight.
Step 8. If the stick isn’t straight enough, trim off all the bark, and warm the stick over a fire. Slowly straighten out crooked parts of the dart by bending them with your hands while the stick is still warm.
Step 9. Carve one end to a sharp point. Heat the newly-carved point over a fire to temper it and make it less breakable if you wish.
Step 10. Finally, the dart has to have fletching to allow it to fly farther and straighter. Get some bird feathers and trim them to wedge shapes; attach them to the other end with cordage.
Method 2: Urban Scavenging
This alternative method is for when you’re in an urban environment and happen to have the materials around the house, or can still get the materials from a store.
Here’s what you’ll need:
- 1 piece of PVC pipe, ½ inch in diameter, 2 feet in length
- Craft knife or survival knife
- Dental floss pick (F-shaped)
- Small cordage or paracord inner strands (optional)
- Superglue (optional)
- Store-bought arrows
To make an atlatl from these common household items, do these:
Step 1. Take the PVC pipe, and using a craft or survival knife, cut a small notch (for the part you’ll make in the next step) 2 inches away from one end.
Step 2. Take an F-shaped floss pick and cut off the “arm” so you’re left with the “C” part that has the floss in it.
Step 3. Carefully insert the “C” from the floss pick onto the notch.
Step 4. As an option, you can replace the floss if it wears out with the inner strand of some paracord; simply cut a short length to replace the floss and secure it with superglue.
Step 5. Use commercially-available arrows, or make your own through steps 6-10 in Method 1.
Using the Atlatl
Once you have your atlatl and ammo, it’s time to put them to the test and hone your throwing skills. Hurling a dart with an atlatl is simple and is a bit like using a bow and arrow, but to be skilled enough to hit a target from a few meters away takes practice.
To launch a dart with the atlatl, follow these steps:
Step 1. Lay the dart on the atlatl’s cradle.
Step 2. With your dominant hand, grasp the atlatl opposite the “launching side”, while pinching the dart with your thumb and forefinger.
Step 3. Bring the dart within eye-level, looking straight at your target.
Step 4. Launch the dart at your target by using a baseball-pitching-like motion, and flicking your wrist just before you release your thumb and forefinger.
The instructions for the atlatls here are for:
- When you need a projectile weapon quickly
- The materials or tools for making a bow aren’t available, and
- If hunting or protecting yourself with a spear proves too difficult.
If you have the time and the materials, you can certainly make a more intricate atlatl by incorporating a spur and notching your darts. Depending on the situation, you can choose to make the simple, quick-fix atlatls or the more elaborate designs. Either way, the atlatl is still a viable survival tool that you should know how to put together for when SHTF.