by | Dec 18, 2020

Stone Age tool scores points in state

David Lohr’s skill set ranges from Space Age to Stone Age. For 11 years, he was a professor of aviation technology, teaching people how to overhaul jet engines. He also honed his outdoor survival skills, showing people how to knap flints to make knives and crafting bows and arrows. But his ultimate goal — taking a deer with an atlatl — has eluded him.

“Deer hunting with an atlatl is the most heartbreaking thing that you can do,” David says.

Resembling a long-handled shoehorn, an atlatl (pronounced at’ lat-tuhl) is a prehistoric, hand-held weapon used to hurl a 6-foot long spear, called a dart, at a target. As a hunting tool, the atlatl became outdated with the invention of the long bow, but it’s drawing attention in Missouri as a competitive sport and among hunters who want a challenge.

David, who lives in Thayer, was one dart short of taking a deer with an atlatl. It was a cold day, he recalls, and he had gone to his favorite tree stand. He was freezing, but his patience was rewarded.

“A little six-point buck came out and stopped right on the 13-yard rock,” he says of the distance markers he had put in the ground. “I had just started my throw when I heard a crack.”

The crack was the sound of the 6-foot dart hitting a narrow limb behind him. As a result, the dart traveled only 6 yards and stuck in the ground. The buck ran off a bit, so David started snorting and chuffing, mimicking another buck. Then he noticed a doe that had come to the edge of the field. The buck ran over to the doe. The doe stopped right on the 20-yard marker from his stand.

“I had been practicing every day, so I was pretty confident I could hit her,” says David, who had a 25-yard indoor atlatl range at his store, Kosh Trading Post. “I took my second dart and leaned over so I wouldn’t hit the limb. The dart missed her under her ribs. If she’d been at the 13-yard rock, I would’ve hit her clean.”

Both deer approached and smelled the dart that was sticking in the ground. But David had only brought two darts to the stand with him that day. “After that,” he says, “I started taking four darts to the woods.”

An atlatl increases the force of the throw, but throwing a 6-foot dart with accuracy over a distance requires a high level of skill. Led by the persistent efforts of Ron Mertz of St. Louis and Ray Madden of Joplin, hunting small game in Missouri with an atlatl was approved in 2007. It was first approved for deer and turkey hunting in 2010. Currently, Missouri is one of three states, including Nebraska and Alabama, that have legalized deer hunting with an atlatl.

Ron became interested in atlatls in the 1970s, when he was teaching in Alabama. They originated in Europe in the Stone Age, he says, but most were made of wood. Because the dart usually does not travel far from its intended target, the atlatl has potential to control deer populations in more densely populated areas, Ron says. It doesn’t take physical strength to throw a dart with an atlatl, he adds, although if you’re muscular, you can throw it faster than someone who is not. “A lot of it is in the flick of the wrist,” Ron says.

While Ron had to figure out how to make atlatls from textbooks or copies of National Geographic, the internet now connects enthusiasts throughout the world via the World Atlatl Association.

In the Show-Me State, the Missouri Atlatl Association endeavors to teach newcomers the sport through demonstrations. Many members offer opportunities to try throwing an atlatl including Dawn and Brian Wagner at their Horse Around Ranch near Truxton. It was there that Dawn, who had never hunted before, honed her skill to take rabbits and even a deer. As of November 2020, she was the World Atlatl Association’s No. 1 ranked female thrower. Brian, a bow hunting enthusiast, was the third person to take a deer with an atlatl in Missouri after it became legal to hunt, and has since taken another one.

“I love my atlatls,” Brian says. “My bow is not a challenge.”

The Wagners hold throws at their ranch almost every other weekend January through November. Anyone interested is invited to come and try their hand. If three or more people show up, the Wagners can hold an International Standard Accuracy Contest, with competitors each throwing five darts at a distance of 15 meters, then another five from 20 meters. The Wagners also have animal targets, including a full-size mastodon, in their barn. The couple encourage young people to take up the atlatl in anticipation of its possibilities as a competitive sport. Several colleges have atlatl teams.

“There’s talk of it even getting into the Olympics,” Brian says.

Steve and Barb Spencer hold ISAC and fun throws at their home in Trenton. The Spencers introduced their grandchildren to target shooting with an atlatl at age 3, Steve says, and by age 7 they could hit the target. Steve has also introduced Cub and Boy scouts to the sport and taught a week-long class at the local high school.

Atlatl throws are held in conjunction with the Pomme de Terre Rendezvous and the Osage Knap-In at the Missouri River Valley Steam Engine Association Park near Boonville. The Missouri Department of Conservation has hosted atlatl workshops around the state. Van Meter State Park near Miami holds an atlatl shoot in conjunction with Archeology Day in September, which Daniel Pierce, site director, hopes to resume this year. Van Meter also is home to Missouri’s American Indian Culture Center, which showcases the history of the Missouria, who lived in the pinnacles above the Missouri River.

“It is believed that all the tribes (in the area) used them for hunting, although we don’t have any archeological evidence,” Daniel says.

In September 2021, focus shifts to Cahokia Mounds State Park in Illinois, where the World Atlatl Association plans to hold its annual meeting. A UNESCO World Heritage Site just across the Mississippi River from St. Louis, Cahokia Mounds is the largest pre-Columbian settlement north of the Mexican border. The Missouri Atlatl Association also holds annual meetings there. Ron estimates the interests of the roughly two dozen members are evenly split between hunting and competition.

The tool has also raised exposure for atlatl makers. Mitchell Lockwood of Atlatl Madness in Marceline experienced that when the movie “The Silencing,” was released in 2020. Mitchell was commissioned to make 28 darts for the movie, which was filmed in Canada. Mitchell set up the business in 2015 to make darts for himself and friends, then expanded production into a dedicated workshop.

“We are mainly online sales, with the occasional store front customer,” he says, adding the store started shipping to Europe in 2020. “We ship anywhere from 150 to 200 shipments a year.”

The movie has prompted inquiries. “I did have a customer purchase one as they were watching it,” Mitchell adds.

Whether your interest leans toward hunting, competing, owning a piece of movie memorabilia or just throwing a dart for the fun of it, give throwing an atlatl a try. As Steve Spencer says, “it’s a fun activity for all ages.”


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