The Atlatl was a dart launching tool used by the Aztecs in warfare.
The Atlatl (pronounced as two separate syllables “atl-atl”) was a hunting tool developed early in human history. The tool was quickly replaced by the bow and arrow in many cultures because of the bow’s superior performance in hunting. According to Ross Hassig, the bow did not reach Central Mexico until about the 12th century, and even then, it did not completely replace the Atlatl.
The Aztecs combined the use of the bow and the Atlatl in warfare, but the latter was solely used by members of the nobility. The bow was seen as a Chichimec (“northerner”, “barbarian”) weapon, a tool not suited for the use of the nobility. Nobles made up the majority of the professional warrior class, and thus participated in much of the front line, hand to hand combat during a battle.
Hassig argues that the Atlatl was likely used during the initial charge at the very beginning of an engagement. It had less range than the bow, but had far more power behind the projectile and was therefore more likely to penetrate armor or a shield. During the charge, warriors likely threw a salvo of four or five darts that they carried loosely in their hand, before they dropped the Atlatl and switched to a melee weapon.
The darts themselves could be anywhere from about a foot to over six feet in length. The type of dart that was thrown depended on the apparatus that was used to throw it. For example, small darts could not be comfortably held in position for the throw, necessitating the use of a curved holding device to ensure that the dart did not fall out during preparation.
The larger projectiles obviously required more energy and power to throw them, but they hit much harder and could accommodate a larger obsidian point. Bernal Diaz Del Castillo described the various points that were used on Aztec arrows and spears (he did not differentiate between “spears” and “darts”). Some were bone from a variety of animals, some were flint, and others (probably the majority) were obsidian. Some had serrated edges, barbs, or other specialized shapes. Flaming arrows were used by the Aztecs, but these were likely used in siege assaults where the bow would have been more effective than the atlatl.