Atlatl makes debut for Missouri deer season

Tuesday, September 28, 2010 | 11:41 a.m. CDT; updated 5:03 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, September 28, 2010
Justin Garnett holds an atlatl, a wooden weapon that he made in about 30 minutes out of natural resources on Hinkson Field. The atlatl is a primitive weapon that can hurl darts, which range in length from 4 to 13 feet, to hit a target.

COLUMBIA — One knee on the ground, Justin Garnett, 27, scraped an elderberry stem with a knife he made from volcanic glass. Within 30 minutes, he turned the stem into a weapon favored by Aztec war gods.

The weapon is called atlatl, pronounced “AT’-lat-ul”. Its name originated from the Aztec language, meaning “water thrower” for hunting fish and mammoths.

Try your hand at atlatl

The Missouri Atlatl Association will sponsor a competition and workshop from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday at the archery range behind Bass Pro Shops. The event is open to all. For more information, e-mail Jon Wood at


1.    It’s a normal overhand throw like you'd make with a ball.

2.    Keep your shoulders straight. If you’re right-handed, keep your right elbow up.

3.     Don’t bend your waist – it makes the dart go down instead of straight.

4.     Most of the force should come from your wrist. Drop your wrist as you release the dart. Atlatl doesn’t take muscle, but wrist and timing.

5.     The faster you can throw a dart, the more power it has and the flatter it flies.

6.     Practice, practice, practice.

Sources: Ray Madden and Ron Mertz

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It wasn't until 2007 when the atlatl could be used in Missouri to hunt small game such as squirrels. In November, Missouri will become the second state in the U.S. where this weapon, which dates to at least 28,000 years ago, can be used to hunt deer. Alabama took the lead in 1996.

Garnett gingerly tapped his thumb and index finger on a 5-foot dart. The rest of his fingers gripped the atlatl itself, a piece of wood about 2 feet long.

As his left foot strode forward, waist slightly turned, he flung the atlatl with his right arm like a lightning bolt. Swoosh. The dart flew forward from the atlatl, and the handmade target positioned about 50 feet away trembled with lingering impact.

“I’m borderline obsessed with it,” Garnett, a lab technician at the MU Division of Plant Sciences, said. He has been practicing and making atlatls for the past four years.

Ray Madden of Joplin, who gathered with other atlatl enthusiasts for a recent competition in Boonville, has 20 years of experience with the weapon.

“Atlatl is very addictive,” Madden said. “It’s worse than cocaine.” 

Madden, along with Ron Mertz, president of Missouri Atlatl Association, has spent the past seven years working with the Missouri Department of Conservation to get the weapon legalized for hunting.

“It not only expands our hunting method,” Mertz, a retired anthropology professor who lives near St. Louis, said. “It brings back something in our heritage.”

Though the oldest known atlatl was found in France dating 17,000 to 19,000 years old, indigenous peoples in Australia and Papua New Guinea, as well as Inuit groups in the Arctic, still use it for hunting, said John Whittaker, who teaches anthropology at Grinnell College in Iowa, and serves on the board of directors for the World Atlatl Association.

Whittaker said the Aztec fought the Spaniards with atlatls in the 1500s. In Aztec culture, the atlatl is widely revered, such as the one displayed in the British Museum. It’s covered with gold and engraved with an image of a war god and a snake entwined together.

“It’s a symbol of warfare and magical power,” Whittaker said. Atlatls were the first compound weapon, he said, and arrived after spears but were replaced by bows and arrows.

Whittaker said archaeological remains of atlatl darts found in Missouri were about 10,000 years old. But most Missourians – or most North Americans, for that matter – have never heard of the weapon, Mertz said, and that probably contributes to why it took the Conservation Department so long to legalize it.

Atlatl associations in Pennsylvania, New York and Wisconsin have tried but failed to have the atlatl legalized for deer hunting.

Some people fear atlatls because they don’t know much about the once-popular weapons, Mertz said, and that’s why he and other members often demonstrate their skills for the public.

The only disappointment, Mertz said, is that atlatls can only be used during the November firearms season for deer. While there are special four-day urban hunts, the regular firearms season lasts 11 days compared to four months for archery.

"Also, hunting in the early fall would be more appropriate for the atlatl before the weather gets extremely cold," he said. 

Tom Draper, chairman of the Department of Conservation’s regulations committee, said that because the atlatl is a new method, the department decided the firearms deer season was “the most reasonable” time frame to test it.

“If we see interest, we may expand it to the archery season,” Draper said. “If we have a group coming back to us to say they would like to have more opportunity, the committee would consider it.”

For Garnett, atlatls were initially a brief reference in an anthropology class. When the Columbia native tried to throw one for the first time, he was hooked by the speed and effectiveness of the simple weapon.

“It’s a short stick by which you throw with a longer stick,” Garnett said. The short stick serves as a leverage that propels the long stick forward.

He admires the weapon so much that he has crafted at least 150 of them in the past four years. His homemade weapon has helped him capture frogs, which he sautes in butter for a pasta dish.

Using an atlatl, he said, doesn't require much training. Barely 2 ounces, he said, an atlatl can be at least as effective as a 60-pound bow and propel a dart up to 120 miles per hour.

But since the range is shorter than that of a bow and arrow, it is safer for beginners, Whittaker said. 

The atlatl is considered more difficult to aim accurately than, for example, a modern bow and arrow, Garnett said. That challenge is part of the attraction.

“Atlatl is an easier weapon to make than a bow or firearm, but has a steeper learning curve for usage, and accurate aiming takes more practice,” Garnett said.

Growing up in Columbia, Garnett made his first bow and arrow when he was 13. Over the years he has trained himself to craft cave art, shepherd’s slings and leather sandals. His latest project is to build a tepee – and spend winter inside.

But for now, his focus is on using an atlatl to hunt deer.

“You’re using a weapon that was known to be used 14,000 years ago,” Garnett said. “Whether you get a deer or not, you’ll feel a great sense of accomplishment using such an old-fashioned weapon."

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Mark Foecking September 29, 2010 | 8:04 a.m.

I've heard criticism of bowhunting because some hunters don't put in the time to get good enough with their bow to reliably make clean shots, with the result they only wound their game, it gets away, and dies later of infection. I'd be concerned the atlatl could be worse in that respect. Two unquestioned advantages of a good, high powered deer rifle is accuracy and ease of use.

A lot of non-hunters criticize us for not caring whether our game suffers when we take it. The only way to refute those attacks is to make a humane, clean kill a priority. Please, if ssomeone wants to use this weapon to hunt deer, put in the time to get good at it. All of our hunting privileges could be at stake here.


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Ray Madden September 29, 2010 | 9:04 a.m.

Mark makes a good point. It's a sad fact that in hunting there will be woundings. This is true in the natural world with lions and alligators as well as with human hunting efforts. One problem among today's hunters is that they expect modern equipment to do the hard work for them. Rifle hunters often fail to practice, borrow a gun they,re unfamilar with, stretch the range of the equipment, or take running shots,mistakenly thinking "a hit is a kill". Many bow hunters can attest to seeing the sad results in the deer woods after rifle season. I join Mark in urging all hunters to be familiar with and practice with their hunting equipment year around, and avoid risky or chancy shots. This will not eliminate wounding, but it will cut it to a minimum.

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