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At its most basic, the atlatl is a stick, usually about 2 feet long, with a handle on one end and a hook or spur on the other end. A dart, which can range from 4 to 8 feet long, is placed against the hook and held parallel to the atlatl. The dart is launched using an arm motion similar to throwing a baseball. By flipping the wrist, additional energy is transferred from the arm to the dart.

An atlatl dart can be thrown with the same penetrating power as an arrow shot from a 50-pound-draw longbow. Hunting and target range is typically 10 to 30 yards, but the world-record throw is over 848 feet.