Introduction: Expedient @L@L (Atlatl)

The Scenario: I'm house-sitting today and noticed there's a lot of crap lying around, doing nobody any good. At the same time, I began wondering how -- should the need arise -- I would take down a wooly mammoth.

Ergo, The Challenge: Create an effective survival tool using only junk I can "borrow" and simple hand tools.

Rising to this challenge, I made an expedient atlatl for big game hunting, entertainment, and defense.

What the &%#@ is an atlatl, you ask? At atlatl is basically a spear thrower. It's an extension of your arm that allows you to throw "darts" (small spears) much farther, faster, and harder than you otherwise would be able to. Atlatli -- the plural form -- were used all around the world, by groups as diverse as Clovis hunters (~12,500 BC) and Australian Aborigines. The word atlatl comes from Nahuatl, the official language of the Aztec empire. The Spaniards who invaded central Mexico learned just how powerful atlatli were when Conquistadors found themselves pinned inside their suits of armor by darts. Atlatl dart points have also been found in wooly mammoth carcasses, so yeah, they get the job done.

Here are a few helpful links concerning traditional atlatli:

Wikipedia page on atlatli

Discovery Channel story on atlatl use

World Atlatl Association

There are also several quality Instructables on atlatl construction:

Atlatl Instructables

My Instructable is designed to demonstrate that a serviceable atlatl can be made quickly, using random parts.

Step 1: Tennis Racket --> Atlatl

Poking around, I found this old wooden tennis racket. Come on. Who would keep this? Sure, maybe it's a "collector's item," but then again, maybe it's next to worthless. In a survival situation, however, it becomes invaluable.

Let me take a break here for a minute and express my frustration over that word, "invaluable." This might be the only word in the English language where the prefix "in" adds a positive air. "INfamous" means being famous for negative reasons. "INcomplete" means not complete and "INcompetent" means not competent. So why does "INvaluable" mean super valuable and not worthless? Okay, now I feel better.

Step 2: Remove String

I cut the string out of the racket. Once I was done, I thought to myself, "Hey, that string would have been handy in a survival situation. It could have been used for snaring, lashing, etc. In my rush to construct the perfect expedient atlatl, I overlooked an opportunity. That was very INintelligent of me.

Step 3: Cut Away 42% of Racket Hoop

Just like this.

Not 41%.

Not 43%.


Step 4: Concrete Nail --> Atlatl Spur

If you had bothered to follow the links earlier, you would know that the distal end of an atlatl has a "spur" that fits into a socket on the end of the dart. This keeps the dart in contact with the atlatl until it takes flight. Without the spur (on the atlatl) and socket (on the dart) combination, the dart would go spinning off to the side or something and probably impale one of your hunting buddies.

I made my spur from a concrete nail, which is basically a horseshoe nail on steroids. I wedged it between the claws of a claw hammer and bent it into a 90-degree angle by slamming it against the concrete driveway. As I should have anticipated, slamming a concrete nail into concrete caused damage to the concrete. Glad this isn't my house!

I used a Stronghold Klamper tool. I don't own this company or even know them, but I have to tell you that this is the coolest tool I've ever owned! With this thing, you can clamp just about anything together with baling wire. It takes all the slack out of the wire, forming an INsanely tight clamp. As you can see, I clamped the bent nail to the wooden racket. The attachment is beyond secure.

Step 5: Fork --> Dart-rest

This step isn't exactly necessary, but there was a bunch of silverware in the sink, which tells me nobody really cared about it. I took a fork and wire-clamped it to the other cut area of the racket. When the racket handle is horizontal, the fork is sticking pretty much straight up.

Next, I folded the two inner tines forward, toward the racket's grip. This creates a hollow notch, between the outermost tines. The dart will eventually rest in this notch. To add an element of class, I twisted the ends of all four tines with a pair of needle nose pliers. This also makes the whole thing slightly safer, if you're into that sort of thing.

Like I said, this step isn't necessary. Many atlatli have no dart-rest. When you are holding the atlatl and the handle is horizontal, you can stick your thumb and forefinger up above the handle and pinch the dart there until it's go-time. Another option would be to notch the wood where I attached the fork.

Step 6: Tent-poles --> Dart Shaft

I'm sure we can all agree that tent poles are highly overrated when it comes to tent use. I mean, the poles don't repel water or provide any structural support, right? So I borrowed a section of fiberglass tent pole, which broke down into several sections that were tied together with shock-cord. I cut the shock-cord and took about 7-feet's worth of sections. I assembled these and secured them with duct tape. Liquid Nails would have been ideal, but borrowers can't be choosers, right?

Step 7: Some Pool Toy --> Fletching

I found some diving target type toys out by the pool. I grabbed one lopped off one end. This allowed me to take off the free-floating tri-fin assembly. I put this on the dart, about 6" away from the back (socketed) end.

The inside diameter of the fletching piece was a little bigger than the outside diameter of the tent pole shaft. Once I had positioned the fletching piece where I wanted it, I cut three pieces of duct tape, each about 4" long. I then "ripped" each of the three pieces lengthwise, resulting in six pieces of duct tape, each about 1" by 4". I laid these lengthwise over the red coupling, parallel to the dart shaft. Thus, there were two layers of duct tape that started ahead of the coupling, went over it, and then ended behind it. I then wound duct tape around the shaft, both fore and aft, to secure the six strips.

Step 8: Spatula Thing --> Projectile Point

I found this spatula-looking utensil in a box with a knife and one of those wedding cake topper things. It'll make a perfect broad-headed dart point.

I couldn't find a saw that would work on stainless steel, so I clamped the spatula in a vise and bent it back and forth until it broke. It didn't take long.

Next, I hammered the spatula flat, getting rid of any curvature.

With one hand, I started turning the spatula, as what remained of the handle rested on the vice. With my other hand, I whacked the broken end of the handle with a hammer. This sharpened the end of the handle and also gave it a corkscrew effect.

I screwed the dart point into the front of the dart and -- though it's probably overkill -- duct taped it in place.

Voila! You've just made a very serviceable atlatl and dart. It took you about an hour and cost you nothing. Now remember, what happens on Instructables stays on Instructables! Go get yourself a mammoth.

Step 9: UPDATE!!!!!!

Oh my God, you people are relentless!!! I was going to post an update after all the kinks were worked out, but I'll do an intermediary one here because I don't want anyone to think I'm just ignoring all the comments and requests.

First, however, I'd like to thank all (but one) of you for the kind thoughts, helpful suggestions, and support. The "invaluable" thing is finally cleared up, so I can scratch that off the list of things to worry about.

So, I took the atlatl and my kids to the part for a video session and that's where things took a turn for the annoying. I'll list the basic problems below:

  1. The spur (concrete nail) was too long and thus went too far up into the back of the dart. This was causing the dart to hang up on the atlatl when it should have been releasing.
  2. The dart was pretty well balanced, which isn't a good thing for atlatl darts. They should be front-heavy so that the point strikes the target. Because the dart was balanced, it tended to just flail through the air without purpose.
  3. Atlatl darts need to be flexible. Like a javelin, they bend when energy is exerted into them. This energy is then released mid-air, allowing the dart to fly farther, faster, and more accurately. In this case, the tent-pole shaft was too flexible.

In the steps to follow, I'll try to address these problems. This is going to be a work in progress and I haven't gotten back to the park AGAIN today, but I'll keep you all up to date as things progress.

Step 10: Problem 1: El Spur

On the first trip to the park, when I finally realized that the concrete nail was hanging up inside the dart, I got the Leatherman out and -- with more than a little effort -- ripped it off.

Second Approach: I then whittled down the end of the atlatl (where the nail had been), thinking I could just poke this up into the dart socket. If I had thought this out ahead of time, I would have realized it wouldn't work. I mean, the sharpened point went into the socket just fine, but only when the dart was at a steep angle to the atlatl. When I laid the dart down into it's read/aim/fir position, the socket and point were no longer aligned and it just flat didn't work. :(

Third Approach: I found a screw with a round head that fit nicely into the socket. I screwed it into the last racket-string hole in the atlatl. This was going to work much better than the first (nail) approach. I totally should have thought of this first.

Back to the park. With the first throw, the screw was torn violently from the end of the atlatl! I'm thinking the last hole had been weakened by way of whittling. I had also left probably too much of the screw (~3/8") sticking out. I couldn't find the screw. I'm sure it will show up in someone's tire down the road. Back home. Got another screw and put it DEEP in the third string-hole from the end. Problem solved!

Also, I readjusted (i.e., bent) the fork rest to account for the difference in height between the original concrete nail and the current screw.

Step 11: Optional Intermission

Here's what happens when you try to install the screw despite the presence of a bent fork in your way. Luckily, I happened to have all the necessary first aid supplies close at hand. Alright, enough whining, get back to work!

Step 12: Problem 2: Weight Control

Removing duct tape is never as much fun as putting it on, but I had to remove the spatula point. Once this was out of the way, I slid some nuts and some chrome fitting type thing over the end. Then I put the "point" back on and taped everything into place. The dart is now definitely imbalanced. Problem solved!

Step 13: Problem 3: Flexibility

To solve the flexibility problem, I was at first going to make two more shafts with the remaining tent poles and tape all three together, but that didn't seem very elegant. Instead, I "borrowed" a couple stainless rods from my neighbor's trampoline. Each rod has a threaded "male" end and corresponding "female" end, allowing me to screw the two sections together. At this point, the combined rods were almost as long as my dart.

I started duct-taping the steel rod to my dart. In a rare moment of foresight, I chose not to simply tape the rod down one side of the dart. I don't know; maybe that would have worked better. Instead, I gradually wrapped the rod around the dart shaft. Maybe this will give it some spin. We'll see. The dart is now definitely still flexible, yet less so than before. I'll update you guys when I have a chance to test it.

Thank you all again for your support. I really appreciate your comm