The Aztec atlatl spear throwing device was a ranged weapon commonly used by Aztec elite warriors. Atlatl darts could be thrown with power and precision.
According to the Minnesota State University EMuseum, “It is estimated that the atlatl was in use from 14,000 years ago to over 40,000 years ago.” The oldest known example, believed to be approximately 15,000 years old, was found in France. The device was also used by early Native Americans and Australian Aborigines, the latter referring to the device as a woomera.
In the New World, the spear throwing device was used by both Aztec and Inca warriors. The word atlatl derives from the Aztec Nahuatl language; the Inca called their spear-thrower an estolica. While the bow and arrow, crossbow and musket had replaced the spear-thrower in Europe, the atlatl was still widely used by the Aztec military upon the arrival of the Spanish Conquistadors in the early 1500s.
Aztec Atlatl Design & Construction
As described by the World Atlatl Association, an atlatl is basically “a stick with a handle on one end and a hook or socket that engages a light spear or “dart” on the other.” The tail end of the dart or spear sits in a groove that runs the length of the atlatl, while the handle (finger-loops or holes) is generally located approximately two-thirds of the way along the shaft.
The device serves to increase leverage upon the spear during the throwing action, in turn increasing velocity and power. In the hands of a skilled user, the atlatl also helps to impart greater accuracy.
According to historian Ian Heath, the Aztec atlatl was about 2 feet (61 cm) long and often decorated with ornately carved figures and symbols. The projectiles (variously termed darts, spears or javelins – or tlacochtli in Nahuatl) were approximately twice the length of the atlatl itself. The darts had either a fire-hardened tip or were tipped with flint, copper, fish-bone or obsidian. Some darts were barbed in order to prevent an enemy from removing the projectile after impact, while others were double or triple tipped.
Aztec Atlatl Warriors
The atlatl was regarded as one of the elite Aztec weapons. The sling and bow and arrow were seen as weapons of the commoner classes, making the atlatl, with its decorative workmanship, a weapon favored by the noble Aztec military societies. The atlatl also possessed a religious or mythical significance. Aztec gods were often portrayed carrying the device, while the snake and eagle, two key Aztec symbols, were often incorporated into the weapon’s design.
Aztec battle tactics employed long-range weaponry attacks before the principal hand-to-hand engagement. A prolonged peppering of the enemy with atlatl darts was neither practical nor desired. Aztec codices show individual warriors carrying at most five darts (normally only three), the darts often being secured through the hand grips of a shield. After a warrior had spent his darts he would engage with a close-quarter weapon such as a club, spear or macuahuitl sword. In a defensive situation, such as from a fortified position, warriors are likely to have been supplied with a far larger number of darts.
Atlatl Armor Piercing Capabilities
Initial atlatl attacks could be devastating. A dart thrown from the device could easily penetrate the standard cotton armor used by both native enemies and, quite frequently, the Conquistadors themselves. Bernal Diaz, Conquistador and chronicler of the conquest, claimed that an atlatl dart “could pass through any sort of armour.”
The atlatl was certainly feared by the Conquistadors, but its effectiveness against soldiers in full plate armor is questionable. John Whittaker, Professor of Anthropology at Grinnell College, Iowa, doubts that a dart could penetrate full metal armor but could quite easily pass through a man wearing lighter chain mail, leather or padded cotton armor.
Aztec Atlatl Range and Accuracy
Modern atlatl tests (as well as some competitions) have revealed much about the range and accuracy of the weapon. Heath states that these tests indicate “a probable maximum range of about 150 feet (45 m) – dependent, inevitably, on the strength of the individual using it.” Lethal accuracy could be achieved at slightly shorter distances, a skilled user being able to hit a four inch (10 cm) target at a range of 120 feet (37 m).
While greater projectile range could be achieved with a bow or sling, the overall effectiveness of the atlatl lay in its power and piercing capabilities. As Ross Hassig states in Aztec Warfare, an atlatl dart “could be thrown with maximum effect during the time required to close with the enemy, striking the opposing soldiers with enormous force and disrupting their formations.”
Bowmen and slingers were used to pepper the enemy from afar, retreating to the flanks or rear before the main hand-to-hand engagement. Conversely, the Aztec elite military orders, those soldiers who would give teeth to the attack, would hurl their atlatl darts before charging headlong into the enemy ranks.
- Ian Heath – Armies of the 16th Century (Vol 2), Foundry Books, 1999, ISBN 190154303X
- Ross Hassig – Aztec Warfare, University of Oklahoma Press, 1988, ISBN 0806127732
- Bernal Diaz – The Conquest of New Spain, Penguin Classics, 1963, ISBN 9780140441239