Jan 23, 2012

Weapons & Warriors: The Atlatl of the Aztecs

This is a relatively simple device to create and use, but was a shock for the more advanced conquistadors who had never seen anything like it. The Atlatl itself is not a weapon, but was used to throw long darts. The darts were the equivalent of a javelin, the main difference in that they were thinner and much more flexible.

The Atlatl is basically a carved piece of wood about eighteen to twenty four inches. One end is either hollowed out into the shape of a cup or a point. This is where the butt end of the dart is placed. The other end is the handle. The dart’s length can vary from four to six feet. The longer the dart the more speed and force upon impact. The dart is tipped with sharpened flint and although it cannot penetrate steel breastplates, it is quite lethal in the hands of a trained and accurate thrower.

The dart is laid across the Atlatl with the handle in the direction of where the warrior wants to throw. When the warrior swings the Atlatl forward like an extension of his arm, the dart bends and then springs from the end of the weapon at a much higher velocity than would be humanly possible if the dart had been thrown by hand. The darts are capable of traveling at over ninety miles an hour. In less than fifty feet away, you still won’t have much time to get out of the way.

The light weight of the Atlatl and dart allows the warrior to sling the weapon very quickly. By trading power for speed, the Atlatl is extremely useful for hunting or killing anything that isn’t covered in metal. This is also one of the reasons the conquistadors were able to conquer the Aztecs by use of steel breast plates and helms. Unless the throw was lucky or well-aimed, it wouldn’t do any more than dent the armor.

Some designs of Atlatl have a flat stone tied to the shaft. This is called a bannerstone. These stones had holes carved into them to help balance the Atlatl and to mask the zipping sound of the swing. The stone would alter the zipping noise to more of a whoosh sound which is much more difficult to hear from a distance as the wind cuts around the wood.

Since muscle power is not the focus of the Atlatl, women and children were capable of learning to use this to help with hunting or to defend their homes against invaders. The speed of the dart is not the only thing that is extraordinary. A thrown dart can travel well beyond eight hundred feet. This is a huge advantage in range. A javelin thrown by the strongest man alive would struggle to achieve the distance a young teenager could reach with the flick of his wrist.

The Atlatl is still commonly made by sportsmen who compete in tournaments, much like Archery contests. Aztecs weren’t the only people to use the Atlatl. The Aborigines of Australia also use something like this that they call the Woomera.

I hope you enjoyed this edition of Weapons and Warriors, click here to view the entire catalog of weapons and cultures. Thank you, see you next week.

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