HARRISBURG, Pa. - An ancient weapon that struck fear in the hearts of Spanish conquistadors, and that some think was used to slay wooly mammoths in Florida, may soon be added to the arsenal of Pennsylvania's hunters.
The state Game Commission is currently drafting proposed regulations to allow hunters to use the atlatl, a small wooden device used to propel a six-foot dart as fast as 80 mph. The commission could vote to legalize its use as early as January.
It's unclear which animals atlatlists may be allowed to hunt, but the proposal is being pushed by people who want to kill deer with a handmade weapon of Stone Age design. The name, usually pronounced AT-lad-ul, is derived from an Aztec word for "throwing board."
"For me, it would be a thrill to have a deer get up close enough and to throw my dart and hit the deer, bag it like my ancestors did," said Jack Rowe, 45, a veteran hunter and atlatl enthusiast from Sayre.
In Alabama, one of a handful of states that currently allow the use of atlatls for hunting or fishing, few hunters use them during deer season, said Allan Andress, the chief fish and game enforcement officer for the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.
Even spear hunters — Alabama game law also allows spears — outnumber those using atlatls.
"As you might imagine, it's not something that most people have the skill or the patience for," Andress said.
Pennsylvania Atlatl Association president Gary L. Fogelman, who got the atlatl bug about 20 years ago, said he doubts that large numbers of deer will ever be killed with the weapon.
"You've got to know what you're doing, you've got to be good with all the outdoor skills in order to be able to score with this thing," said Fogelman, of Turbotville, publisher of Indian Artifact Magazine.
To use an atlatl, throwers hook arrowlike hunting darts into the end of the atlatl, which is generally a wooden piece about 2 feet long. The leverage of the atlatl allows them to throw the 5- to 8-foot darts much farther than they could throw a spear.
At BPS Engineering in Manhattan, Mont., a leading manufacturer of atlatls, sales have averaged about 450 in recent years, said owner Bob Perkins. Customers pay $140 for his company's 2-foot maple production-line model, the Warrior, along with a set of five 5 1/2-foot aluminum darts.
Perkins has killed two deer with atlatls and, a couple weeks ago, got his first buffalo.
"Atlatls were the first true weapon system developed by the human race," he said. "They were used longer than any other weapon. Comparatively speaking, the bow and arrow was a recent development in projectile technology."
There is evidence that the weapons were used more than 8,000 years ago in Pennsylvania, said Kurt Carr, an archaeologist with the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.
Prehistoric atlatls have a distinctive counterweight feature called a winged banner stone that has helped confirm their existence at digs in Huntingdon and Bucks counties, among other places, said Carr. Atlatl use goes back far as 12,000 years elsewhere in North America and far longer in Europe.
"It takes some practice, but it's like the bow and arrow. I can't shoot a bow and arrow for beans, but I can use an atlatl more effectively," he said.
The World Atlatl Association, which has 380 members, has held an annual accuracy contest since the mid-1990s, and this year more than 2,000 people participated.
"People that are interested in archaeology and ancient history are the ones that seem to be drawn to it," said association president Richard B. Lyons, a retired firefighter from Jeffersonville, Ind.
Game Commissioner Roxane Palone, who generally supports legalization of atlatl hunting, said there are other game commissioners who probably will join her to vote for it.
"It's a good way to expand hunting opportunities," she said. "I don't think it's any more unusual than people who use long bows to hunt."
If the commission gives preliminary approval in January, a final vote in April could clear the way for atlatl hunting in Pennsylvania late next year, Palone said.