AVELLA – Ryan Brownfield straightened his back, gripped the atlatl and with a flick of the wrist hurled the spear-like dart to a hay bale target 20 meters away.
After a few practice shots, Ryan, a 15-year-old from Waynesburg, began to hone in on his target and improve his aim, although he was always just a bit off from the plate-sized bull’s-eye.
“It’s pretty cool,” Ryan said about the experience. “I’ve never done it before, but it feels like throwing a javelin. It was easier than I thought.”
Then it was his father’s turn to give it a shot in their friendly competition. Todd Brownfield fired the dart and nearly hit the target on his first try.
“I’m getting showed up by the old man,” Ryan said after watching the first attempt.
But then the somewhat awkward nature of using an atlatl became apparent with his next few shots.
“I should’ve quit at just one,” Todd Brownfield said. “It went downhill after that.”
The father and son tandem were trying that new experience Saturday at Meadowcroft near Avella as the museum was hosting one of the stops by competitors in the World Atlatl Association.
More than a dozen atlatl members from across the country participated in the two-day competition that records their accuracy and counts in the overall standings on various stops during the year. It’s the 15th year Meadowcroft has hosted the competition, and the museum’s director, David Scofield, said it’s a great chance for their guests to get an interactive look at the ancient hunting technique.
“We look at this as an educational opportunity,” Scofield said. “The competitors talk to our visitors and explain the instruments.”
Doug Bassett, a naturalist at a state park in Warsaw, N.Y., is a three-time national champion and described how the sport can be addictive to enthusiasts. He explained building the atlatl, the device that holds the projectile and flings it toward the target, and the dart itself.
“For me, it’s just another thing to throw,” Bassett said.
Although he participates in accuracy competitions, his passion is building long-range darts that are made for distance throwing. He said he once crafted a “super dart” and launched it 272 feet, which is just short of the official atlatl record. It broke during a competition in Ohio and he’s never been able to create one that went as far as his personal record.
“It was a deflating feeling. I haven’t been able to build a dart like that again,” he said. “It’s part of the draw to try to do something that’s never been done.”