Ancient deer hunting method back in use

News from the region
Kansas City
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Hamilton, Mo -- Don’t be surprised if you seen some hunters in blaze orange walking through the woods carrying what looks like spears and an oddly shaped, narrow boards. They’re just trying to kill deer the truly, very old-fashioned way.

The atlatl, a prehistoric weapon, for the first time in modern times is allowed for use during any of the Missouri firearms deer seasons, except for the muzzleloading season. The weapon our long-ago ancestors used is legal for the regular firearms season that opens Saturday and runs through Nov. 23.

Atlatl throwers hurl a dart forward with a throwing motion of the arm. A board with a notch or tip for the dart to rest against is held with the arm and used as a throwing device that gives the dart extra speed and power.

“It’s a plain and simple throwing motion, and most throwers hold the dart in place on the board with fingers of their throwing hand,” said Vince Crawford of Hamilton, Mo., who has hurled darts at a practice target all fall. “But you’ve got to let go at just the right time to be accurate.”

The atlatl, pronounced by some as “at’-lat-ul,” was for 30,000 years or so a popular worldwide hunting tool. Native Americans brought the atlatl to North America about 12,000 years ago. The bow and arrow are relative modern hunting weapons in comparison.

Crawford, an MDC conservation agent based in Caldwell County, is adept at deer hunting with gun and archery methods. But he’s also an accomplished woodworker, and he couldn’t resist the challenge of making and using an atlatl.

“I’m into the idea that I want to kill a deer with something I made,” Crawford said. “I bet we can make one of these in one or two hours.”

It doesn’t take long to learn how to throw, he said. But throwing with accuracy and power takes practice. He can hurl a dart 90 yards in the open. But he figures any deer killed will be within a 20-yard range.

Primitive hunters knapped flint dart points, attached them to straight sticks or pieces of cane glued together, and then attached feathers for fletching to help the darts fly true.

Crawford is making some modern adaptations. He’s using three carbon-fiber arrow shafts fastened together, with modern fletching on the back, and modern steel hunting points for good penetration. He also modified his throwing board with a notch forward to hold the dart, rather than his fingers, which one tribe had used.

His conservation agent duties will keep him too busy to hunt during the firearms deer season. But he’s hoping to hunt with the atlatl during the later antlerless deer season.

Atlatl hunters are relatively few in numbers compared to firearm and archery hunters. But they’re enthusiastic, and opening the deer season to them provides one more way for Missourians to enjoy the state’s great hunting and fishing.

“This is for somebody who wants another challenge,” Crawford said. “If a hunter kills a deer with an atlatl, they’ve done something great. Plus, it’s just fun stuff.”