Throwing sticks

(Survival Manual/3. Food & Water/Throwing sticks)

The throwing stick is one of the first weapons used by early humans and cultures all around the world. In essence, it is a short stave or wooden club thrown as a projectile to hunt small game such as rabbits or waterfowl. In flight, it rotates rapidly cracking the target with one of the ends and either maiming or killing it.

As a survival tool, the throwing stick is one of the most effective and easiest tools to obtain. Other than a weapon, it can also be used as a digging tool for making fire-pits and underground shelter. A curved limb will suffice as a throwing stick. Ancient throwing sticks were believed to be made of hardwood with a weighted or curved end to one side to impart momentum so the stick stays straight and does not wobble in mid-flight.

[Image at right: Ancient Egyptian throwing sticks.]

All throwing sticks and their variations are about 2 to 3 feet long pieces of thick hardwood, usually about the circumference of the user’s wrist. When they are thrown, they spin, creating the image of a sort of blurry disc.

 A well designed throwing stick uses the principles of an airfoil shape and gyroscopic stability; the oldest of these dates back 200,000 years to ancient Poland. The Australian hunting boomerang, used into modern times, uses the bent shape and a symmetric airfoil cross-section to provide stability and low drag for long, accurate throws. Most throwing sticks do not return, a good thing, since they are large, heavy, and dangerous. Throwing sticks of both the non-returning and returning variety, have been found in many ancient cultures, ranging from Egypt to North America.

[Above, an Egyptian hunting water fowl with throwing sticks in a marsh, image from a ca. 1350BC hieroglyph.]

In the worst possible outdoor scenario such as a survival setting, utilizing throwing sticks can not only keep you from going hungry, but can keep you alive until rescue. Although the use of throwing sticks in modern times is extremely limited, in the days of old they were very popular. In their truest sense throwing sticks are an art form, but for a stranded outdoor person they are simple to make and with a very brief period of practice they can produce moderately good results. Throwing sticks are very good for killing small game such as rabbits, squirrels and water fowl, and should be immediately incorporated into every survival situation at the earliest opportunity.

Emergency throwing stick:  A basic throwing stick can be fashioned from a dead tree branch about the thickness of a human wrist, and the length of the person using the stick’s arm from armpit to finger tips. A stick of the appropriate thickness but of excessive length can be broken easily by using a standing forked tree as a lever. In this manner making a throwing stick does not involve any tools, utilizes fallen and dry timber, and saves the precious energy of the individual in a difficult circumstance. Once a throwing stick is made it should be kept with the person at all times, simply because one never knows when an opportunity will present itself to come upon prey.

Use: The techniques used in actually throwing the sticks are self-explanatory, and no more difficult than throwing a baseball or football. Obviously, when hunting it helps to get as close to the target as is possible in a stealthy manner to augment accuracy. The stick should rest on the shoulder, with the hand on the other end. The throwing sticks can be released in a diagonal, vertical or horizontal manner – whichever is most comfortable for the user. The horizontal throw is preferred for ducks or geese on sitting water, as the stick has a greater chance of finding success when it skips off the water. In every case, the throwing stick will spin end over end striking the prey with good force. It is important to move in quickly on game that is hit, as it may only be stunned and might get away.

 The throwing stick
Variations of the throwing stick or rabbit stick can be found in many cultures all over the world, also known as a throwing club, throwing wood, baton, kylie, or the well-known returning and non-returning boomerangs of the Australian aborigine’s. Used for hunting small mammals and birds, typically made from medium or hardwood, 12 to 24 inches in length with one end either weighted by a thicker heavier section or a curve. This extra weight or curve imparts momentum to the stick when thrown, increasing flight stability. I don’t fully understand the physics and subtleties of the various different designs, but there seems to be four basic styles:
1)  club,
2)  equal single bend (a stretched ‘V’ shape, less   than 45 degrees),
3)  unequal single bend (a stretched ‘L’ shape) and
4)  double bend (a stretched ‘Z’ shape), examples are shown in the figure at right.

From reading around and searching the web, you don’t normally see a straight, constant diameter throwing stick, the exception to this is when metal, typically lead is used to weight one end.
Throwing sticks having a bend are normally thinned downed flat i.e. a bi-convex or thin oval, improving their aerodynamic profile, reducing weight, therefore, allowing them to travel greater distances.
This profile is optimized for the returning boomerang, forming an aerofoil profile i.e. a flat bottom and a curved top, allowing the boomerang to generate lift.
A common characteristic of these throwing sticks is that their edges are thinned down to a point, concentrating the kinetic energy on impact.

Club type throwing sticks have a solid bulge, protuberance e.g. circular or oval, at one end and tend to be shorter than curved throwing sticks. Again the club end may be pointed to concentrating the kinetic energy on impact e.g. pointed, forked, tear drop or conical.

How to throw
Throwing sticks with a bend are thrown using an overhand, sideways throwing action, imparting a spinning motion on the stick. This sideways spinning flight path increases the probability of making contact with the target. Some quotes on using throwing sticks:
•  “ The throwing arm moved with a broad sweep using the whole arm but with some degree of wrist snap at the end of the action”
•  “First, align the target by extending the non-throwing arm in line with the mid to lower section of the target. Slowly and repeatedly raise the throwing arm up and back until the throwing stick crosses the back at about a 45-degree angle or is in line with the non-throwing hip. Bring the throwing arm forward until it is just slightly above and parallel to the non-throwing arm. This will be the throwing stick’s release point.”
•  “The throwing wood is a crooked piece of wood, which is able to fly with or without having a grip. Generally it is thrown and then rotates in the air, but occasionally it also can be used as a club. Unlike the throwing club, the throwing wood does not concentrate on the effect of hitting. Only the variant which returns to the thrower is called a boomerang.”
•  “Such a basic club can be thrown either overhand (when, for instance, you’re trying to hit the side of a tree) or sidearm (when you’re in an open area, where brush won’t interfere with the stick’s flight). In using the first method, point your left foot at the target (if you’re a right-hander southpaws can simply reverse these directions). Then, holding the smaller end of the stick loosely in your right hand, bring the weapon back over your shoulder and hurl it, with good end-over-end spin, straight at the mark. At the moment of release, your shoulders should face the target squarely. The sidearm throw is similar to the motion used in stroking a tennis ball with the racket. Point the left toe at the target, bring the stick to a cocked position at your side, and throw it, squaring your shoulders and snapping the club as if you were cracking a whip to give it spin.”
“What I remember from Tom’s class was to pick a stick that was the length of the distance from your armpit to your wrist, and about 2 inches around. Such a stick will weigh between 2 and 3 pounds. If you throw it at any animal, any hit will break something, like a rib. We learned both an overhand throw, and a sidearm throw, where we would actually bounce the stick off the ground just short of the target, so it would bounce up and take the target out. On rabbits which sit so close to the ground, this particularly throw is used, unless there is brush between you and the sitting rabbit.”

Club type throwing sticks can be thrown using a more targeted throwing action. Again, thrown using an overhand throwing motion, however, this time no sideways spin is used i.e. the club is thrown straight, heavy end first, this end making contact with the target. The handle increasing leverage and speed allowing the club to be thrown further and faster. Some books suggest that a twisting flick should be added just before release i.e. rotating the club in line with the directions of travel, improving its stability in flight.

Making a throwing stick

[Photos above are of an equal length, single bend throwing stick. The equal length single bend throwing stick is cut down and  shaped using an axe and wood rasp then sanded to give a more aerodynamic profile.]

To make a throwing stick that contains a bend the simplest solution is find a piece of wood with a suitable natural bend, although this is sometimes easier said than done. However, as this type of throwing stick is normally thinned down to a flat profile, any unwanted bends or bumps can be minimized or removed completely with a bit of judicious trimming.

When a suitable piece of wood cannot be found the wood can be formed into a curve by heating and bending. One technique I’ve read about is to heat green wood over hot coals to make it pliable, then placed it between two rocks, placing a heavy pressure rock on top to form the bend. Alternatively the wood could be steamed to make it more flexible, removed from the rocks when cooled.

[Above: Long single bend throwing sticks: Length~25 inches, Width ~1-1/2 inch, Thickness ~ 1/2 to 3/4 inch. The bend is naturally formed and further shaped to improve its aerodynamic profile.]

Comparing these throwing sticks with some traditional non-returning Australian aboriginal boomerangs from the central desert, they may need to be thinned down a little more. However, some examples from Tasmania and eastern Australia are of a similar size (or a little bigger) i.e. approx 2.5 feet long and 1 inch wide tapering at the ends slightly. Not sure what the best balance between weight, width and aerodynamic profile is. Note, its common to have scratches or shallow groves carved into one end, to form a non-slip grip.

To assess the performance of each of these throwing sticks they were tested at various distances. The equal length single bend throwing stick, flew like a lead balloon. Over short distances it was ok, but as it slowed down it would lose stability allowing the broad face to flip-up, causing it to fall out of the air. To improve its flight path stability the stick’s width and thickness were reduced.
This problem highlights the conflicting requirements involved in making a throwing stick i.e. to produce a flat, stable, long flight path requires a light weight, thin stick, however, to increase impact force requires a weighted, heavy, thick stick. Increasing a sticks weight can also have a negative effect on its throwing distance, requiring the release angle to be increased (relative to the ground) to improve distance.

[Short range club throwing stick. Length~12 inches,  handle width ~1 inch,  head diameter ~3 inches.]

I had the chance to experiment with a couple of different throwing sticks recently. The environment in which I used them included a mix of terrains, from fields, open wood land to dense forest. From practicing with these sticks, I’ve come to the conclusion that I need a lot more practice and that trees seem to have a strange magnetic attraction on throwing sticks i.e. doesn’t seem to matter what you aim a,t a tree always gets in the way. I found the larger heavier throwing sticks are more difficult to aim, either releasing them too early or too late, overshooting or undershooting the target. I’m guessing this is due to the large amount of physical force / movement required in throwing these sticks i.e. a long arm swing and body twist, rather than a quick sharp arm / wrist flick.

The advantage of the larger sticks is that the area covered by its rotational plane is significantly bigger than that of a smaller throwing stick, therefore, somewhat compensating for this aiming difficulty. Even so I still found it more difficult to consistently hit a target with this type of stick.

Another disadvantage of the longer throwing stick is when you are in woodland i.e. finding a flight path through the trees. In these situation you have to throw the stick in the vertical plane to avoid the trees, limiting the advantage of this longer length. In woodlands, a shorter throwing stick is easier to use (and carry.

Mr. Larry’s throwing sticks, 2011

[The photographs above are my throwing sticks. In order to compare before and after images, the top 4 sticks in the top photograph are also the top 4 finished sticks in the lower photograph.]

The tools I used to form my throwing sticks were: hammer and chisel, small hatchet, 4-1/2 inch small angle electric grinder, bench vise, wood hasp with plastic handle, several grade of sand paper. I’d estimate it took between 2-3 hours from start to finish for each throwing stick. The use of a band saw, which I did not have, would have reduced the labor time considerably.

In the lower image (top to bottom): Throwing sticks #1-#3 have been cut to shaped and sanded flat on the top and bottom surface, while remaining at least ¾ inch thick. #5 is thin, about ½ inches thick and several inches wide. #1 – #3 and #5 are flat on the bottom with tops slightly beveled on the forward and trailing edge. In cross-section they somewhat resemble an airplane wing. These four are meant to be thrown like a boomerang with the snap of the wrist so they whirl in horizontal flight toward their target.

#4 is a short-range club throwing stick, meant for direct body impact, as opposed to leg injury as  the whirley-wings shown above.

#6 on the bottom is a striking club, with a somewhat pointed nose and rounded heal. This would dispatch a small animal up through medium size dog.

The wood for these throwing sticks were sawn from fallen tree limbs in the woods where I walk. The wood might be oak, but I’m not sure what trees lost what limbs during the storm. My ‘sticks’ , except the short-range club, measure about 22 inches long (wrist to armpit). On most I’ve either filed grooves into, or wrapped twine or cord on the handle end. All were stained dark oak and subsequently given a couple of coats of polyurethane spray to toughen the wood and for preservation. The twine handles were additionally painted with a generous coat of liquid polyurethane.
I made two additional  throwing sticks, similar to #1 & #3 in shape, which were not finished and are used for target practice on occasion when I’m doing walking exercises.

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