Throwing Spears with Gary Nolf

 atlatl11A Please join me in welcoming Gary Nolf, president of the World Atlatl Association (WAA), to the blog today.  Visit their website at  to learn more. According to the website Texas Beyond History (, “in prehistoric Texas, the atlatl and dart was the main weapon system in use for 10,000 years or more until they were replaced by the bow and arrow between A.D 500-1000.”

Galf Nolf demonstrates his technique

Gary Nolf demonstrates his technique

Thanks for being with us today, Gary.  Could you describe an atlatl briefly for our readers? Atlatls are ancient weapons that preceded the bow and arrow in most parts of the world. They are one of humankind’s first mechanical inventions. The word atlatl (pronounced at-latal) comes from the Nahuatl language of the Aztecs, who were still using them when encountered by the Spanish in the 1500s. Other words include spear-thrower, estolica (Spanish), propulseur (French), speerschleuder (German) and woomera or miru (English versions of the most common Australian terms).

Atlatl and spears or darts made and photographed by Jack Johnson

Atlatl and spears or darts made and photographed by Jack Johnson

What did ancient people used them for?  They were used for hunting game. The largest animals would have been mastodons and woolly mammoths. Atlatls were even used with harpoons for hunting whales and seals. They were also used in warfare. The Spanish conquistadors feared them because they could pierce certain types of armor.

How did you learn to throw one? Is it hard?  I learned by attending an event in Vermont about 10 years ago. I could teach you how to throw in just a couple of minutes. The difficulty comes with the accuracy which takes a bit of practice.  

I’m wondering if you’ve ever been to the Archeo-Olympics at Seminole Canyon State Park.  Atlatl throwing is one of the events.   No, I have not, but I have been to events in Nevada at the valley of Fire, contests in Wisconsin, Michigan, New York, Vermont, Pennsylvania, Florida , New Jersey and Quinson France.

What kinds of events can modern atlatl throwers compete in?  If you go on the World Atlatl atlatl menAssociation web site you will see that there are two standardized contests. One is the European and other is the International Standard Accuracy Contest. You can shoot anywhere in the world and compare your score. The scores are listed on the web site which is updated frequently. Each event also has local events such as 3D targets.

Are you a good shot? I will let you decide . Google my name or go to You tube and watch me on the David Letterman Show.

Wow! I’ve never had anyone who was on Letterman on the blog before (I don’t think!) Cool!  That must have been fun.  And yes, I’d say you are a very good shot.  You know, the rock art of the Lower Pecos, which is the area I write about, contains images some people think might be atlatls and spears. Where else were atlatls used? Evidence of their use has been found in every continent in the world except Africa. This may be due to the fact that they are made of wood. They are still used in parts of Mexico and Australia.

What’s the funniest thing that’s ever happened to you with an atlatl?  I think the funniest thing is watching the faces of people trying it for the first time. The dart goes much father than you think. I have literally taught thousands of school kids how to do it and seventh graders can throw over 50 yards with a little practice. I even had a group of nuns try it who thought it was awesome.

Hunter with atlatl

Hunter with atlatl

How does the World Atlatl Association benefit its members? The WAA web site provides hundreds of links to get information on the history of the atlatl, how to build an atlatl and where to purchase an atlatl. It provides information how to run a contest and keeps tract of who is scoring what around the world. The Annual meeting this year will be held at Hammonasset Beach State Park in Madison, Connecticut the first weekend in October. The WAA website also posts a list of all of the events that are scheduled world wide.

Hey, look who’s coming in!  It’s Jack Johnson,  park archeologist at Amistad National Recreation Area.  Hi Mary, and you too, Gary. Good interview. I hope you don’t mind me coming in. I just wanted to tell you about the equipment I made in the picture. I tried to set it up to show how the atlatl spur engages the nock at the back of the dart. I also included a hafted stone point and one of my sotol darts with a modern carbon fiber foreshaft and target point.  The carved wooden point is something I made this afternoon just for fun and to my knowledge has no precedent in the archeological record of the lower Pecos. It is inspired by Inuit seal hunting harpoon tips, usually made of bone or ivory. My intent is to use this for atlatl spearfishing, but it will probably snap the first time I hit the rocky bottom of the riverbed.

Well, thanks for coming by, Jack. You can read one of Jack’s stories in my post of January 14, 2013.  Gary, thanks so much for blogging with us today. 

Recommended Links:

Fun for Kids

Hunter takes deer with atlatl, 2011


2 thoughts on “Throwing Spears with Gary Nolf

  1. Have you seen Matt Lieberman’s little video of getting his class to try using an atlatl? I keep enjoying your blog, Mary. Hope you are having a wonderful summer. Best wishesIain

    Iain Davidson, IDHA Partners Mailing address: 10 Cluny Rd, Armidale, NSW 2350, Australia Mobile/cell phone AUS +61 402 106 853

    Emeritus Professor, University of New England Last upload 3 July 2013

    Date: Mon, 22 Jul 2013 14:53:55 +0000 To:

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