On the wall of Dawn and Brian Wagner’s Truxton home hangs Dawn’s trophy buck. By traditional standards, “trophy” is a stretch — a spike buck, weighing in at less than 100 pounds.
“By no means is he a trophy, but he’s a trophy in my eyes,” Dawn said.
Harvested from a converted hunting blind in the back room of the couple’s 107-year-old barn, the buck holds his place of honor not because of his size or impressive rack, but because he was her first.
First what you ask? This otherwise unimpressive buck is the first in the state — and possibly the nation — to be taken by a woman in modern times using an atlatl, an ancient hunting tool that uses a hand-held, arm-propelled launcher to project a 6-foot spear at its target.
A stick by any other name…
The term atlatl is from the Aztec language of Hahuatl, but given its use throughout the world, it has many names:
- Estolica (Spanish)
- Propulseur (French)
- Speerschleuder (German)
- Woomera or miru (English versions of the most common Australian aboriginal terms)
Atlatls, which have been used by prehistoric people around the world, come in a variety of styles and sizes, ranging from a simple notched stick to more complicated versions that include dart rests, counterweights, and finger loops.
“Two yearlings came past the window,” she said. “All of a sudden, they looked back at a biggerbodied deer. At first, I thought it was the mom of the two babies.”
It was actually a spike buck.
“It was probably a 13-yard shot,” she said. “He was eating the leaves off the apple tree, and that’s when I saw the perfect opportunity. He wasn’t looking at me and the other ones weren’t looking at me. I knew it was a real good throw.”
Although MDC doesn’t keep statistics on deer taken by atlatl (pronounced at-latal or atal-atal), it’s safe to say Dawn joins a relatively small group of Missouri atlatl hunters, a list that also includes Brian. Together, they represent two more firsts for the atlatl in Missouri.
“He’s the first one in our state to harvest two deer,” she said. “It actually makes us the first couple to harvest with the dart and atlatl.”
In 2011, a friend’s son introduced the Wagners to the atlatl. He visited their 18-acre homestead to give a new gift a try, and they quickly found themselves fascinated by it.
“Then it dawned on me what I could do with this,” Brian said. “When I picked it up and threw it a couple of times, I was like, oh, yeah.” Brian got his first atlatl in January 2012 and harvested his first deer that October. The second followed two years later. Like many others who hunt with the atlatl, he is a lifelong hunter, having routinely harvested deer using both rifle and bow, and is attracted by the challenge of the atlatl, including its limited range of 15–20 yards for deer.
“My bow, my gun to me is not a challenge anymore,” he said. “I can hit what I’m aiming at.This is more of a challenge to me. It’s making me practice and learn it.”
From Hunting to Hobby to Hunting
Described by enthusiasts as “throwing a stick with a stick,” the atlatl is an 18–24-inch, handheld spear launcher. It has a handle on one end and a socket on the opposite end that holds the end of the spear or “dart,” much like the nock of an arrow fits onto a bowstring. The additional leverage provided by the atlatl allows the user tothrow the dart much quicker — up to 100 miles per hour — than he or she could with arm-power alone.
For centuries, prehistoric cultures around the world used the atlatl for hunting. Early examples of the atlatl discovered in Europe date back to 15,000 B.C., with samples found in the Western hemisphere dating back to 11,000 B.C., according to the World Atlatl Association (WAA).
“In the Americas, there’s pretty good evidence they used them on mastodons and mammoths,” said Ron Mertz, co-founder of the Missouri Atlatl Association (MAA). “They were used throughout the Americas until about 2,000 years ago, and right around 2,000 years ago the bow and arrow began to replace it.”
It’s that connection to ancient cultures that ignites the interests of many atlatl enthusiasts,
Mertz said. His own atlatl adventure began as he was teaching anthropology at Jacksonville State University in Alabama in the early 1970s. Through his research, he discovered Ray Madden, an atlatl enthusiast from Joplin and his MAA co-founder. Unlike Mertz, Madden’s journey began in 1940s rural America with a young boy’s imagination and enthusiasm, time on his hands, and access to decades of vintage issues of National Geographic.
“I began to see that Eskimos were using them, Australian Aborigines were using them, South American Indians were using them,” Madden said. “They were used all over, so out came the old pocket knife and down to the edge of town to find something to cut down and start playing.” Although they arrived at the atlatl from different directions, their path forward was clear — reintroducing this tool to Missouri’s hunting culture.
“Pretty much from the beginning, Ray and I were interested in getting it legal for hunting, so we lobbied the department for six years,” Mertz said. “We started in 2003–2004, and I think in 2007 it became legal for rabbits and small game. We really wanted it legal for deer.”
After an initial meeting with MDC staff in 2003, Mertz and Madden took staff advice and approached Conservation Federation of Missouri (CFM) Executive Director Dave Murphy, who is now a member of the Missouri Conservation Commission, for guidance on navigating the regulation process.
“I had maybe read the word or encountered it two or three times,” Murphy said of the atlatl. “I’m an avid bowhunter myself, and I had never run across it or had an awareness of it, but I was intrigued by it.”
Two years of attending CFM meetings and events with literature, displays, and demonstrations convinced the organization’s membership and its executive director this ancient hunting tool had a place in the modern hunting landscape.
The organization passed a resolution in 2006 supporting the atlatl for small game hunting and urged further study of its use for large game, like deer.
That resolution opened the door for a series of changes in the regulations, first allowing small game hunting beginning in 2007, then deer hunting during the firearms season in 2010, and finally, in 2011, atlatl use throughout the deer season, which remains the standard.
And, along the way, while wooing skeptics and changing regulations, Mertz and Madden also picked up new practitioners, including CFM’s then-executive director.
“I’m enthusiastically a participant in it,” Murphy said. “Mostly my interest is in just throwing darts, either for distance or for accuracy at targets, but I continue to hunt with it.” In fact, he has his eye on a first of his own.
“I got the crazy idea about three years ago that I wanted to be the first guy in the last 10,000 years or so to harvest a wild turkey with an atlatl,” said Murphy, who has built two ground blinds designed for use with the atlatl. “I’ve had three opportunities to throw at turkeys, but they’re still faster than my darts.”
Missouri Against the World
News coverage of Dawn Wagner’s harvest in October introduced her to scores of new people, but many who follow atlatl closely already knew her. For the past three years, she has ranked in the top 10 in the world in the women’s division of WAA’s International Standard Accuracy Contest (ISAC), placing fifth in both 2017 and 2016. But she’s not an anomaly when it comes to Missouri’s atlatl success against the world.
Missouri men represented more than 13 percent of the 97 ISAC qualifiers in 2017, including two in the top 10. John Wood of Madison finished seventh — his fourth consecutive year in the top 10 — and Steve Spencer of Trenton rounded out the top 10.
While Missouri’s success on the world atlatl stage is exciting for enthusiasts, those looking for the sport’s future may well want to keep an eye on 13-year-old Leilani England of St. Louis.
An active outdoor enthusiast and hunter, Leilani finished fifth in the coed youth division in 2017 with a score that made her the world’s top female youth thrower. Leilani first picked up the atlatl at a 2016 event at MDC’s Jay Henges Shooting Range and Outdoor Education Center in St. Louis County.
“I met Dawn down at Henges,” Leilani said. “She was teaching a class, and I fell in love with it.” Dawn’s satisfaction comes from introducing the next generation of outdoorswomen, like Leilani, to a skill they might not otherwise ever encounter.
“It warms my heart to know I was able to turn these young girls on to something that they’ve grown very fond of,” she said. “It’s a sport I’ve grown very fond of.”
Part of the atlatl’s attractiveness is its accessibility for many who have difficulty with traditional archery or haven’t found success or satisfaction in other traditional sports, Brian said.
“Anybody who can throw can throw a dart and atlatl,” Brian said. “We teach people in wheelchairs, 4-year olds, people in their 80s. Sometimes kids will come to me with a big strawberry on the side of their arm (from a bowstring burn).”
This combination of a rich history, accessibility, and simple fun turned the Wagners from being just hunters and competitors to being ambassadors for this ancient tool. In addition to teaching at events, they host throws at their home — avenue that includes a life-size mastodon target.
“The atlatl has been a real joy in my life and in Dawns’ life,” Brian said. “If you look at any photos that we take with any kids — or even adults — everybody’s got a big ear-to-ear smile.”
The Atlatl: Missouri’s Notable Harvests
Dawn Wagner’s deer harvest in October marked the first in Missouri, and possibly in the nation, by a woman using an atlatl. Given that this ancient weapon was only approved for use in small game hunting in Missouri in 2007 and for deer hunting in 2010, it stands to reason that there would be a lot of firsts and notable harvests.
After being shutout in the first season, two Missouri hunters harvested deer with darts and atlatls within 24 hours of one another in 2011. Luke Boenker of Maryland Heights was the first Missouri hunter in the modern era to harvest a deer with an atlatl. Boenker took the four-point buck from a tree stand on Nov 12 in St. Louis County. A day later, Missouri’s second atlatl-harvested deer was taken by Trenton hunter Scott Rorebeck in Grundy County in northwest Missouri.
Four years later, on Oct. 24, 2015, Defiance resident Paul Gragg brought down a 15-point buck — the largest reported deer harvested by atlatl in Missouri — while hunting on a friend’s property in St. Charles County.
For More Information
MDC regularly holds classes on atlatl use. To check for atlatl and other outdoor skills classes, visit short.mdc.mo.gov/ZTy. The Missouri Atlatl Association hosts a number of instructional events and competitions. MAA maintains a page on the World Atlatl Association website at short.mdc.mo.gov/ZTF.