Atlatl Weapon

Aztecs were a warrior people who frequently undertook campaigns against neighbouring tribes and city-states, mostly in order to gather sufficient victims for human sacrifices. During the wars, Aztecs made use of a wide range of weapons, including many different kinds of spears. A unique weapon used by Aztecs in their fight was a special spear thrower called atlatl. Atlatl was used in a single hand-grab and allowed an Aztec warrior to throw his spear with more force, speed and accuracy. When thrown with an atlatl, a spear could pierce the target’s body, going through leather or chain mail with ease.

Design of the Atlatl

The Aztec atlatl was designed with a view to give Aztec warriors a solid grip of the spear thrower and at the same time, allowing them to wield it for maximum impact. Typically, an atlatl was as long as the arm of the thrower. It had a hook at one end in which the spear was stuck before the throw. At the other end of its length was the grip, usually a two-fingered grip through two holes, with which the thrower grasped the atlatl and made the throwing movement.


Aztec Weapons and the Atlatl – A unique weapon used by Aztecs in their fight was a special spear thrower called atlatl.

Use of the Atlatl

An atlatl essentially served as an effective lever which was exploited by the Aztecs when throwing their spears towards the enemies. A hand-throw alone wasn’t very effective for the light-weight spears popularly used by the Aztecs. Throwing the spear with the help of an atlatl, on the other hand, proved to be very effective. Spears were usually tipped with bone or sharpened wood, and the right throwing speed was an absolutely necessary in order to inflict significant damage on the enemy. Atlatl provided the improvement of speed. The Aztecs would typically draw back the arm holding the spear-fitted atlatl and then, after taking it all the way back, fling it forward with full force so that the leverage of the atlatl added to the force of the throw.

Role of Atlatl in Warfare

Aztec warriors typically preferred close combat with enemies. This was usually because the key aim of warfare was to capture enemies and present them for sacrifices at Aztec temples. So the purpose of warfare was to capture enemies rather than kill them. In order to accomplish this, the Aztec typically started the battle by confounding the enemy with a barrage of arrows and spears thrown with the help of an atlatl. The impact of this attack seriously paralysed the enemy while the Aztec warriors closed in and engaged the enemy with wooden swords called macuahutils.

Symbolism used on Atlatl

Aztecs usually used intricate symbols and extensive decorations on their atlatls. This was particularly true for the atlatls used by Aztec royalty and nobility. An example is an Aztec atlatl which was sent back by Hernan Cortez to the court of the Spanish King. This particular atlatl is adorned with gold and despite being highly decorated, is still functional. The gilded carving on this atlatl probably depicts the Aztec god Huitzilopochtli. Notable symbols used on atlatls include the snake, which was a popular mythological motif among the Aztecs. Various depictions of feathers and birds of prey were also frequently depicted on the atlatls. Aztecs believed that by portraying religious symbols and gods, they could invoke the divine powers for their help during fighting.


Aztec Weapons Types and The Atlatl – Aztecs usually used intricate symbols and extensive decorations on their atlatls

Use of Atlatl against Spaniards

When Spaniards arrived at the capital city of Tenochtitlan in the leadership of Hernan Cortez, they were initially welcomed by the Aztec Emperor Montezuma II and invited as guests to stay at his palace. Before soon, disagreements rose between the Spaniards and the Aztecs. The Spaniards led a massacre at Templo Mayor, probably for the sake of snatching gold from the citizens present. This eventually led to the death of the Emperor in his own palace. The Spaniards then had to escape the city under what Spanish chroniclers described as a shower of spears. The Aztecs hurled these spears with atlatl, so that they tore right through the mail chain and leather of the Spaniards and killed a large body of Spanish troops, with few successfully escaping the city.

Atlatls used in Hunting

Aztecs originally invented atlatls to be able to hunt effectively. Atlatls were effective weapons in hunting large animals as well as fishes. Rather than directly using a spear, Aztecs threw it with an atlatl during hunting because not only it increased the force of the throw, it also helped them target the hunted animal more accurately, adding precision to the throw. For bigger animals, the force of the throw was important so that the spear could pierce through the skin of the animal. The spears were typically tipped with bone, obsidian or sharpened wood so that they could inflict a lot of damage when thrown at the right angle.


Aztec Weapons and The Atlatl on Aztec Codex – The British Museum hosts the most significant and impressive Aztec atlatl extant today

British Museum Atlatl

The British Museum hosts the most significant and impressive Aztec atlatl extant today. The atlatl at the Museum is made of an excellent quality of wood which is carved with religious symbols, probably one of the Aztec deities and a snake. The British Museum hosts the most significant and impressive Aztec atlatl extant today. The carved portion of the atlatl has been topped with a gold foil, giving it a gilded look. It is believed that this atlatl, evidently a precious specimen, was used by the Aztec Emperor or a member of royalty. It was probably gifted to Hernan Cortez upon his arrival as the first token of friendship by the Aztecs and was then sent to the court of the Spanish monarch.

Aztec Weapons and the Atlatl Summary

The Aztecs used a wide range of weapons during warfare. Typically, these weapons could be categorised into two types: weapons used at a distance, and those used in close combat. Among the weapons which could be used from a distance, the most effective Aztec weapon was atlatl. It was a wooden spear thrower used to throw light sticks of wood tipped with sharp edges, often by adding a piece of bone or obsidian at the end. The spear was adjusted at one end of the atlatl and the thrower gripped the other end with his fingers. Atlatl essentially allowed the thrower to achieve great speed, accuracy and force in throwing the spear.