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Atlatl battle

Eons before Alabama spear hunter Gene Morris first headed for the tree stand, early man hunted bison, mammoth, saber-toothed tigers and other big game with blades and shafts.

But a key technological advancement, a simple tool called an atlatl (pronounced AT'-lat-ul), revolutionized early hunting, allowing spear-throwers to hurl their projectiles into wild game with far greater accuracy and power.

These days, hunters who want to reconnect with their hunter-gatherer roots are bound for a tough time. Despite — or perhaps because of — its primitive roots, the atlatl has been a tough sell to state game agencies outside of Alabama, where Morris successfully lobbied for a spear hunting season almost a decade ago.

Take Gary Fogelman's efforts in Pennsylvania. In 2006, Fogelman, an avid deer hunter and former president of the now-defunct Pennsylvania Atlatl Association, teamed up with fellow atlatl competitor and hunter Jack Rowe to persuade the Pennsylvania Game Commission to draft preliminary regulations allowing spear and atlatl use.

But word spread across the Web that the new regulations were being considered, sparking debate on message boards and fueling public resistance. Fogelman believes it was the idea of deer running around with spears stuck in their sides, rather than an honest evaluation of effective hunting practices, that led the state to indefinitely table the discussion.

Pennsylvania officials stated that, while they were convinced that skilled atlatl hunters could harvest deer humanely, the risk of misuse by the average hunter was too high.

"They're concerned it's not as accurate," Fogelman said recently about the state's argument. "And they think it's savage."

Two years after the fight, he stresses how untrained hunters injure deer every year using conventional means.

"If you're inept with a bow, you're not just going to go out there," said Fogelman, who knows the power and lethality of the weapon firsthand: He killed a wild boar with a spear on a game preserve in 1998.

Essentially a yard-long stick attached to the end of a spear or dart, the atlatl is akin to a sling or catapult. Its effectiveness comes from the ability to multiply mechanical energy from a movement similar to a tennis serve. Leverage generated by arm and atlatl launches the projectile forward at speeds up to 100 mph, depending on the weight of the spear or dart.

"Several tests have been made on the penetrating power of an atlatl, and it's far greater than a bow and arrow," said Richard Lyons, the treasurer of the World Atlatl Association (W.A.A.). "To support theories, they were used to hunt mammoth; there have been several experiments on elephant cadavers. The findings show they're more than sufficient to take large game."

Some suggest the name of the device comes from the Nahuatl (language spoken by the Aztecs) word for "throwing board."

Lyons said archeologists have traced the weapon back 20,000 years — making it 10 times older than the bow and arrow.

While the W.A.A. holds meets across the world where participants use targets to compete for accuracy, others would like to incorporate the ancient tool into modern, legalized hunting, much like how Morris successfully championed the regulation changes in Alabama.

In Missouri, Ron Mertz has taken up that banner. As president of the Missouri Atlatl Association and a former university anthropology instructor, Mertz wants to see the atlatl restored as a recognized hunting weapon.

"We've been working with the [Missouri] Department of Conservation for seven years," Mertz said. "My goal is to get the atlatl legalized for deer hunting."

The Missourian's interest in the "first compound weapon ever used" came from early hunting experiences with rifle and bow.

Five years ago, Mertz and his colleagues met with officials from the Missouri Department of Conservation who referred him to the Missouri Conservation Federation, a private organization acting as a consultancy on the atlatl subject.

Following a series of meetings and presentations with the federation, Mertz eventually convinced officials to craft two written regulations. The federation then recommended the department legalize small-game atlatl hunting and study the feasibility for deer.

In April of 2007, new regulations went into effect in the Missouri's hunting codebook allowing the use of spear on small game. However, Mertz wasn't satisfied. Since he believes the atlatl is best designed for taking deer-sized game, he continues to fight.

Almost every hunter interviewed for this story commented on the declining numbers of hunters across the country each year. Most believe allowing more niche hunting methods, like the use of the spear or atlatl, might help to boost interest and keep hunter participation high.

"What the state departments need to do is, they need to put a sign on their desks that says; 'What can I do today to increase hunting today?" said Morris, the self-named "Spear Chunker."

In the meantime, Mertz is holding out hope Missouri may still go the way of Alabama rather than suffer the fate of Pennsylvania. He feels a Missouri approval would create a snowball effect for atlatl use across the country.

"The Missouri Department of Conservation is one of the most respected in the nation," Mertz said. "Hopefully, if we can get it passed here, other states will look to it."

Specifically, Mertz mentioned Wisconsin atlatl deer hunting hopeful Lenny Riemersma, and his efforts to see its legal use in the Badger State.

"If they legalize it in Missouri, I know many other hunters who will come to hunt as non-residents. And that speaks to the state's bottom line," Mertz said.

In Pennsylvania, Fogelman and his allies are still looking for a change in regulations, although most of their collective fire on the issue has been extinguished.

"You have to educate people with this thing, so we'll see," Fogelman said with a resigned tone.

But this hunting season, only Alabama will allow the taking of deer by spear, meaning that so far, only Gene Morris has succeeded in getting his point across.

For more on Gene Morris, check out Spearheaded.

This story is a part of ESPNOutdoors.com's Deer Camp, an in depth, state-by-state look at deer hunting in America.