Hey everyone! Thanks for coming along with me today as we build a survival atlatl and dart from natural found materials.
Over the last couple years I've been getting into flintknapping and primitive living skills and one of the coolest parts for me is being able to go out into nature and see what I can make with what's available. I do a mix of modern copper knapping with abo style antler and hammerstone work and I also build bamboo arrows and bows with all-natural materials. I can now build simple tools and weapons that look great and work about the same as their modern counterparts. It's a great feeling to be able to make things with your own hands knowing that you were the first person to actually work with the materials.
That said, today we're talking about emergency survival. There is a lot you can do with simple tools, but sometimes you won't have your toolkit. Whether it be a modern kit or a primitive one, chances are that if you do find yourself in a true survival situation you won't have either. You can have the best survival kit or plan, but if you get dumped somewhere or something goes wrong and you are alone with nothing, your only chance for survival lies in your mental toolkit. Today is an exercise in developing the mental toolkit by being flexible and thinking through things to get from raw material to finished tool.
As part of this little exercise, I'm limiting myself to use only what's available in my back field. I haven't really had the chance yet to fully scope it out, so there are little pockets of materials here and there including knappable stone. Some of it has been turned up or broken open by a brush mower, so in most cases I suggest finding a creek or stream that has done the work of exposing rock for you. I won't be using any pre-made tools or materials and while I have clothes, I won't be using them to help the work or protect myself as if I had absolutely nothing with me (though in a true survival situation guarding from cuts and stone flakes in the eyes could be the difference between life and death and I would use a shirt as eye protection).
You may not have the same materials available to you, but the great thing about building tools from nature is that you can be flexible. If you can't find chippable stone, other materials can yield a sharp edge. Other tools and materials can be replaced or improvised. All it takes are open eyes and an open mind to see the possibilities. If nothing else, keep a positive attitude and always be open to learning. Nature and experience can be a great, if strict, teachers.
Warning: What I'm doing is very dangerous. Always wear eye protection when chipping stone or chopping wood, and it is a good idea to wear gloves and have good protective clothing when working. I am not extremely experienced, but have enough skill to keep injuries to a minimum and finish the project. My results may not be typical and it does take practice even to do what I show here. That said, if you are interested in learning these skills and are a responsible adult or have your parent/guardian's support, feel free to follow along with me as we build a survival atlatl and dart.
Step 1: Find Some Rocks
First thing is to find some rocks or other material for making cutting and scraping tools. The best stone will be any of the silica based rocks like jasper, agate, chert, flint, microcrystalline quartz, chalcedony, fine grained basalt, obsidian, and other rocks that have a conchoidal or conical fracture. Glass or ceramic can also be broken to make sharp cutting tools.
If you can't find these types of rocks, just about any rock that has a sharp edge when broken will work. Shell, bone, antler, teeth, and other hard materials that can be sharpened can also be used. Be flexible and adapt to whatever materials you can find in your environment.
I got lucky and was able to find some jasper and very fine basalt or basanite for knapping. I also found a couple nice quartzite cobbles for use as hammerstones. Sandstone, granite, quartzite, and dense antler make pretty good tools for initial percussion knapping.
In pictures 2 and 3, you can see the process of removing a flake from one of the pieces of jasper. The stone was struck near an edge and a stone flake was removed. The resulting flake is razor sharp and makes a great cutting tool by itself.
While a small flake makes a great blade and scraper, a larger stone can also be sharpened for use as an axe or saw. In pictures 4 and 5 you can see how the hammerstone is held in relation to the basanite chunk and the resulting flakes taken off to sharpen the cutting edge.
The last picture is a collection of flakes from the different rocks including both jaspers and the basanite, which became my favorite stone.
Step 2: Blackberry Cordage
After finding the rocks, I ran across some blackberry vines. They are a little dry, but the tough fibers can still be harvested for making cordage. Select vines that are still green and are full of moisture. One thing to keep in mind is that many plants with good fibers for cordage and rope often are covered in spines or irritating hairs. Some are even toxic, so it's a good idea to research different plants and get a feel for what will work or won't. In a pinch, even grass or weaker plants can be used to make rough cordage.
Once a vine is selected, use a stone flake to remove the thorns and branches. Be careful not to cut through the fibers or your fingers. While it may not seem like it, stone flakes are very sharp and can cut flesh very easily if you aren't careful.
Once the vine is scraped clean, twist it to loosen up the fibers and break the internal support. During spring when the sap is up, or in regions with a lot of moisture, it is easy to simply strip the bark from the vine without twisting. Use your judgment to figure out what works best in your situation. If you are preparing natural fibers and have the time and shelter to do fine work, gently pounding with a stone and separating the fibers with a comb or by hand will result in superior cordage.
Step 3: Carving the Atlatl
Now it's time to start carving the atlatl. The first step is to find a suitable branch. You want something that is somewhere between 1/2 an inch to 1 and 1/2 inches in diameter. The smaller the branch, the less work required to get a nice high-performance atlatl. At the same time, you also risk the atlatl breaking especially if dropped or fallen on. The thicker the branch the more work required, but the result will be more durable and give you more options for tuning and finishing later on.
With your hand axe or similar large cutting tool, chop a branch near an offshoot. The offshoot will either be used as a spur, or become the reinforced base of an integral carved spur. I'm using maple, but almost any wood will work for this. Green wood is easier to work with stone tools than dried or seasoned wood.
Once the branch is cut off the tree, measure along your arm to get the atlatl's length. It should be around the length of your arm from armpit to wrist. Cut the branch to length and use your finer cutting edges to clean up the spur area. Once that's done, you can scrape off all the bark to allow the branch to dry faster. This will also result in a nicer finished product. Sometimes having a tool that makes you feel good is as important as having something simply utilitarian in a survival situation.
*Note: I ended up breaking the first atlatl by trying to throw very heavy darts with it. The last picture shows the replacement I made. The first atlatl was made of a 1/2" branch, the second out of a 3/4" branch. It took about twice the time to work down with the hand axe, but all the steps are the same. In a survival situation, it's sometimes better to cut losses and build a new tool rather than agonize over and try to repair a tool especially if you don't have the time or resources. Above all, stay positive.
Step 4: Making a Bamboo Dart
Now we're going to build our dart. I have some nice bamboo to work with, but any sort of cane or sapling will make a good dart. Pretty much any type of cane or bamboo will work, as will most any hardwood shoot or sapling. Willow and cottonwood saplings also work well for darts. You want to find something that is flexible but not too whippy. A good diameter range is 1/4 inch to 1/2 an inch. If using a sapling, it can be thicker to account for shrinkage and loss of bark.
When working bamboo or cane, use your cutting tool to cut the cane near the base and right below a node. This way you have a naturally tough and durable point that will take the abuse of being launched into things. Cut the dart at around 5-6 feet at a node. If the dart is very flexible, cut it around 5 feet. If it is very stiff, make it 6 feet or longer. You can sort of guess the length based on your height. Make sure the point of your dart is the bottom of the shoot or cane and the back end is the top. The thick end should be forward, the thin end should be backward.
Once the top is cut, use a flake to widen the opening at the top to make a cup for the atlatl spur to sit in. This should be smooth with rounded edges to prevent splintering or damaging your atlatl spur.
It's okay if the dart is a little crooked, it should still fly relatively straight. Saplings and cane are both great because they have a natural taper. This means the dart will fly even without fletchings or an added point. A point or foreshaft will help stabilize the dart more, as will fletching. If you can manage one or both, that's great. If not, this will still work as long as you practice and are familiar with the dart. Make sure the cup fits onto your atlatl spur and you're ready to throw.
Step 5: Fletching the Dart
While heading over to the bamboo, I managed to find a nice turkey feather in the grass. This is great because I'll be able to make fletching to help stabilize the dart a little more. Any way to make the dart more forgiving and accurate is going to be a huge benefit. In a survival situation, almost any feather can be used. Keep in mind that if you are just going into the woods to get fletchings for some darts or arrows, many birds are protected by law and possessing their feathers is a crime.
We'll be doing a very simple single-feather fletch. This is great for saving whole feathers for later projects while still getting good use out them right now. Once you get settled and have more time you can split and process the feather for more permanent fletchings.
Start by making some cordage out of the blackberry fibers. Either twist one long length of fiber or two separate lengths of fibers in the same direction. Once they start to kink and bunch up, hold both bundles together and let them twist together. This locks the fibers together tightly and is a great way to make thin cord for sewing and binding as well as stronger rope for building shelters, bowstrings, and lifting/dragging things.
Once you have some cord, simply tie the quill and tip of the feather to the dart shaft near the end. This can be done with a simple wrap or by simply tying multiple knots to lock the cord in place. Do whatever you are comfortable with. One suggestion is to not cut the loose ends of the cord as you can use it later. You never know when a little extra cord can come in handy and the dart will still fly without the fletching. You can also just tie the bottom end and leave the back end of the feather loose.
Sharpen the tip up and you have your finished dart! Simply sharpening the point will serve as a great practice point and will still give you the option of adding a foreshaft or hafting a stone point later on.
Step 6: The Finished Atlatl and Dart!
Here's the finished atlatl and dart! Now it's time to hone your atlatl skills and do some target practice. As you throw with it, you can refine the shape and get it where you want it. Since everything is fresh and green, both the dart and atlatl will change as they dry. They will both get a little stiffer and tougher, so any major shaping with stone tools should be done now. As you throw, you may want to adjust the spur. here you can see I've actually carved an integral spur where the little offshoot was as it is a little more robust and I can put more power into my throws.
Wait until the atlatl is dry before trying to put a fine finish on it because fibers will rip out of green wood and leave a fuzzy finish. Once it dries, a fresh stone flake used as a scraper will clean the surface and leave it pretty nice. If you want a smoother finish, a sandstone or rougher stone like basalt or granite can be used like sandpaper. If you can't find that, sand or dirt with a little water on a smooth stone will also work for polishing. Finish the wood with some kind of oil once dry to prevent moisture getting in or the wood getting brittle.
So here we are! Thanks for joining me on this adventure and I'd love to see what you guys come up with!
Step 7: Update!
After finishing the atlatl and dart, I went ahead and refined them with some primitive tools. I let the atlatl dry for a day and then finished it off with an abrader stone (sandstone) and some fine obsidian flakes. I did the final polish with a bamboo leaf and some coconut oil. The dart was straightened over a stove.
I took the broken hand axe and knapped the pieces with an elk antler billet and deer antler pressure flaker. I ended up with a little chopper/hand knife and a nice atlatl/arrow point. This stuff is a little tougher than the dacite I'm used to, but at the same time it doesn't step as much. I hope to find more of it to make some nice arrowheads. Alongside the point and blade, I also got a nice pile of flakes for use as scrapers and for making small arrowheads/microblades.
Thanks for following along with me!