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Primitive Living Skills- Beyond the Basics-
Primitive Weapons- Spears, Darts, and Atlatl

Primitive Weapons

Moving beyond the primitive skills basics a person could spend all their free time trying to master the more advanced skills such as flintknapping, the bow and arrow, and trapping. If you have the time and desire to do this it can be very fun and rewarding. But if the time is not really available, I recommend at least giving some of the more advanced skills a try at some point. One of the main reasons for this is that in a survival situation, if you are in a position where the need to hunt for food arises, these skills can help get you fed.

While I do not claim to be an expert at making or using any of these tools, I have at least experimented with everything that I outline here, in some form or another. I recommend starting with the more simple tools and techniques. I will tell you that some of the more advanced skills, such as flintknapping, can be intimidating and frustrating. But with time and patience, and perhaps a workshop or two where you have the opportunity to watch an expert and ask questions, you will suddenly begin to feel comfortable smashing rocks together. Eventually you will start seeing points that are at least functional. As for primitive weapons, start with the throwing stick, or rabbit stick, for example. It is easy to create and put into use and with a little practice is one of the more useful primitive weapons for hunting. After the rabbit stick try a pronged spear for fish or frogs. And then perhaps a throwing spear, or darts and an atlatl. And of course there is always the bow and arrow.

Each of these items can be made into beautiful and functional tools, and works of art. But they do not have to be. A simple rabbit stick made in an hour from the proper wood with the proper shape is deemed just as effective as one that took days to create. The same is true for the other weapons. Keep this in mind as you experiment- your immediate goal should be simple, functional, easily reproducable tools, not perfectly balanced works of art.

For more information on creating primitive weapons, and primitive skills in general, take a look at the website for The Society of Primitive Technology and their bi-annual journal called Bulletin of Primitive Technology. The journal features many very descriptive, easy to follow articles, photos, reviews, resources and reports on primitive experiments. Nearly all of the issues are available as reprints. If you are serious about learing primitive skills this seems a great place to start.

Creating an Expedient Atlatl and Darts

The atlatl has been around for many thousands of years and predates the use of the bow and arrow. It developed independently in North America and in the Old World. It is basically a board that holds an elongated arrow shaft, the dart, which increases the amount of energy and velocity of the shaft as it rotates around the throwing arc prior to release. There are innumerable websites that explain the physics involved in the energy increase. With or without the knowledge of the equations involved in its function, the atlatl makes the dart more accurate and more deadly.

Below are a few photos of an atlatl I recently carved. I spent all of an hour on it, using my Martindale Golok No. 2 machete to rough in the shape, and finishing it off with my USAF survival knife. The sawteeth on the back of the USAF survival knife blade serve well as a rasp for shaping the atlatl. They are especially helpful in removing wood from knots where it is harder to control the amount of wood removed with the blade.

finished simple atlatl shown with tools used to form it- USAF survival knife and Martindale Golok no.2 machetteThe photo to the left shows the finished, very expedient atlatl. The overall length started at about 30 inches, a bit too long for close in throws at sitting rabbits or squirrels. It ended up being about 25 inches when finished.

finished simple atlatl showing the finger loops made of 550 cord














finished simple atlatl  with photo showing detail of notched end to accept dart

Atlatl experts say that the longer the atlatl, used with longer darts, the longer the range of the weapon.

I used the sawteeth again to form a shallow groove to tie on the 550 cord for finger loops, shown in the photo above and right. The photo to the right shows the notched end of the atlatl where the end of the dart will sit. Traditionally this notch has a small knob or point in its center where the hollowed end of the dart, or nock, will sit securely. I chose to forego this detail for the faster and simpler notch. I then cut the back of the dart at a 45 degree angle with the point resting in the notch. Be sure to crown your dart before cutting the angle if you use this expedient method- if it is not perfectly straight the cup in the dart should be up when it is parallel to the ground.


For a dart I used a 5 1/2 foot piece of willow which I spent about an hour straightening, narrowing, and drying. The dart probably should have been longer, especially in relation the 25 inch atlatl, but my goal was a quick, expedient, functional weapon. I used the larger, heavier end of the willow as the "point" end. In reading about dart manufacture by "the experts", this is recommended for various reasons, including the fact that the more flexible end (the narrower end) of the shaft at the back is where the increase in energy occurs. The fore end of the shaft should be less flexible. In terms of expediency, it is not necessary to attach any type of point really, unless you are skilled in flintknapping and hafting and have the desire. Some atlatl makers say that attaching a point, in weighting the business end, does add an increase in energy as well. In looking at archaeological examples and reconstructions of darts, they appear to always be heavier in the fore end with a stone point which is hafted to a separate, stronger foreshaft. But for expediency, the blunt end seems just as effective at knocking a rabbit or squirrel senseless, allowing one to approach and finish the job by hand.

The dart actually requires more time and effort than the atlatl. It is very important that the dart be as straight as possible in order to make it fly exactly where you want it to. If anything I would suggest spending time searching for the straightest dart you can find, and spending time on making it as perfect as possible, and less time on the atlatl. Ultimately the dart should be from 6 to 8 feet in length, not more than about 3/4 inch in diameter, with the rear 2/3 of the shaft more flexible and the front 1/3 of the shaft more rigid. I chose willow because it was readily available and the longest and straightest shaft I could find. I have read that common cane, which is abundant in many locations in desert canyons, is one of the best materials for making darts. Click here to visit a very informative webpage titled "Making the Rivercane Dart"- the text is very clear and the photos are great.

After throwing the dart about 10 times I realised that the dart really is too short. Although it is balanced properly, because it is a bit short, it still flew less than perfect. I added fletchings to help straighten it out. Considering that I always carry duct tape on my water bottles, I decided to create "feathers" out of duct tape. I taped on three "feathers" and trimmed them down. This helped the dart fly much straighter and much more stable.

Next, to continue with the experimentation and really test the atlatl itself, we bought two 6-packs of bamboo stakes from Home Depot (we do not have immediate access to common cane). They come 6 feet long. The next step was to try straightening them on a fire, using the techniques described by Tom Mills in the website linked above. We strightened a few darts, without any problems, other then a bit of scorching when they got too close to the fire- wait till you have a nice bed of coals if you can. We then gave them a throw to see if the longer, and possibly straighter dart corrected better after release on the expedient atlatl. The darts were nearly on target every throw. Now to work on throwing technique.

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Primitive Skills- Living Comfortably Off the Land
Primitive Skills- Learning the Basics, Water
Primitive Skills- Shelter
Primitive Skills- Fire
Primitive Skills- Food
Primitive Skills- Navigation
Primitive Skills- Primitive Weapons
Primitive Skills- Fishing
Primitive Skills- Flintknapping
Primitive Skills- Tracking
Desert and Wilderness Survival and the Survival Kit Page
Choosing Your Survival Knife

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