When suddenly confronted with a wilderness survival situation, finding or building shelter from the elements should be your first priority. However, once you have either located or constructed suitable shelter and found a source of fresh water, obtaining enough food to maintain your heath is of paramount importance — and obtaining sufficient protein is essential. Thus, knowing how to construct and use primitive hunting tools, such as a sling or an atlatl and darts, is extremely beneficial, since they require very little construction time and can be easily made from the materials at hand.
Many if not most survivalists would say a self-bow — any simple bow made from a single piece of wood – should be constructed first. But this requires a significant amount of time to make, because you first have to find a straight sapling of an appropriate species and cut it down, and then you have to remove the bark and wait for the wood to dry before carving it to shape. Also, there is the issue of finding appropriate material from which to construct a bow string that does not stretch.
Consequently, constructing an atlatl (a “spear thrower”) and darts is often a far better strategy, because an atlatl can be built with as little as an hour’s work, and atlatl darts need not be nearly as sophisticated as arrows for a bow; atlatl darts are not subjected to the same stresses that firing an arrow from a bow produces. This is the weapon used by our ancestors to kill small animals, long before there were bows.
Let’s Get Started
In order to make an atlatl, start by finding a straight sapling, approximately 1 1/2 inches in diameter and preferably one that is of a very lightweight species of wood, such as poplar. Cut a section from it, approximately 24-28 inches in length. Use your camp knife and a baton to split the sapling down the middle, into two halves. You will need to choose the thicker of the two halves and proceed to use your bushcraft knife to flatten and smooth the split surface while leaving the other side half-round. Next, find an appropriate tree limb with a symmetrical fork, and then cut the fork from the limb, leaving approximately two inches below the fork and then cut each fork to a length of approximately one inch. Then cut a peg, approximately two inches in length.
Story continues below video
Next, drill one hole in the end of the flattened section of sapling using an auger or bow drill with sand for an abrasive and, once the hole is drilled, insert the peg firmly into the hole so that it extends approximately one inch above the flattened surface. Carve a handle on the other end of the sapling section by first rounding the edges and then carving shallow groves in either side for your index finger and thumb to help you retain your grasp on the atlatl when using it to launch a dart. Once you have the grip and finger grooves carved, drill a second hole in the flattened side, approximately one inch above the point where your thumb and index fingers meet when grasping the handle section of the atlatl, and then firmly insert the fork into that hole and you will have a completed (although very primitive), fully functional, atlatl.
Now you need to make atlatl darts. They can be made as simple as cutting a reasonably straight section of sapling to approximately 36 inches in length, removing the bark, sharpening one end, and then cutting a nock in the other end that will mate with the peg on your atlatl. Then, to launch your dart at a prospective target, all you have to do is place the dart’s nock against the atlatl’s peg and then lay the shaft into the fork and hold it in place by positioning your thumb and index fingers over the dart’s shaft. Raise the atlatl over your shoulder, point the dart at your intended target, and then move the atlatl forward in an arc while releasing the dart’s shaft from your fingers. This will cause the dart to launch with great speed and momentum. If you’re confused, then watch the video below.
Story continues below video
With more time to work with, you can make much finer atlatl darts by cutting an appropriate sized sapling to length, removing the bark, and then straightening the shaft by suspending the dart over a fire for a short period in order to cause the moisture contained within the wood to heat. Also, you can harden the tip of the shaft by placing it in the coals of a fire for a short period and removing it. Then, sharpen it with your bushcraft knife.
So, although an atlatl and darts may not be as sophisticated a hunting tool as a bow, it requires significantly less time and effort to make it – and yet is every bit as effective at harvesting both small and large game animals. The range over which they can be cast is mainly dependent on the strength of the hunter, but the average person can easily cast a dart 50 yards using an atlatl and, with a little more effort, 100 yards.
What advice would you add on making an atlatl and darts? Share your tips in the section below: