Are you old enough to remember being terrified of being skewered by a lawn dart? You know, those metal pointed, weighted darts that look like miniature javelins with fins? In any other dimension, they’d be treated as a weapon, not a game for children. I’m periodically stuck on the subway with nothing to do but let my brain wander through a tangled landscape of ideas and half written articles and during a rather epic delay underground recently, I began thinking about lawn darts and wondered why I no longer saw them.
We had a neighbour, years ago, who owned a set, decades ago, and I hated them… the darts, not the neighbours. Their kids where a bit cavalier about launching them into the air and woe to anyone who got in their way. The metal tipped missiles created havoc when they went astray. I looked for the original lawn dart patent from sometime in the 1950s, but had no luck. I managed to dig up an old Hasbro patent application from 1970 that reworked the design a bit.
The pointy bit was still made of a heavy metallic material (usually lead) so it would hit the ground with sufficient force and not wobble about. The new bit was a proposal to use molded plastic for the fins and shaft to cheapen the costs per unit.
“Referring now to the drawings, there is shown generally at 10 a dart construction comprising a weighted head portion 12, a metallic shaft 14 extending from one end thereof and terminating in point 16, an elongated plastic shaft 18 extending from the opposite end of head portion 12, and a tubular portion 20 having vanes 22 extending integrally there from.” 1
Irwin also manufactured a popular series. I couldn’t find the original patent, but did find one from 19762. It looks equally deadly:
In hindsight, it should never have been a game marketed to kids. Then again, my neighbours shouldn’t have left the darts unattended, but that was the 60s – survival of the fleetest of foot. The concept of lawn darts is a fun one … the delivery, not so much if you get nailed by one, which prompted me to see if anyone has come up with a solution to their deadliness. The trick, I suspect, is the darts have to have a number of features to be effective, including sufficient weight and a pointy end that sticks into the ground, which is what makes them such efficient weapons. Without a tip, proper weight distribution and fin length, you end up having a sad game of “toss the metal tube about and hope it eventually sticks into the ground”.
The metal tipped version was outright banned in Canada in 1989. Why? According to tests, lawn darts could exert 23,000 pounds of pressure psi - enough to crack through a human skull and puncture the brain. Which it did. In less than a 10-year span, over 6,000 people made trips to the emergency room for treatment – 80% were under 15 years old and 50% under 10. The injuries included “punctures, lacerations and fractures to the head and skull”3, along with eye injuries, usually to bystanders.
“The combined factors of weight, the narrow elongated shaft, the speed that the dart is traveling at the time of impact, and the thickness of the child’s skull at the point of impact present the risk.” Consumer Product Safety Commission3
In the US the darts were eventually banned, unbanned and then banned again [see articles below for the full, tragic story]. It’s a bit complicated. Currently, there is a brisk trade in used sets. Just scan Kijiji or Craig’s list in the summer and you’ll see people begging to find a set to buy. I spotted one person offering over $200 for a set. I was a bit surprised by this, especially given their ability to maim. Nostalgia overrides safety sometimes.
As it turns out, a few people filed patents for safe lawn darts. Most didn’t make it off the drawing board. Many of the patents focused on using a blunt tip. It’s a decent idea, but the darts don’t always stick into the dirt, in as much as they plop to the ground and bounce about a bit. Given enough height, they will penetrate the ground, but then we’re back to the same issue – weight, height and skulls don’t mix. Others tried a combination of lighter non-metal darts with blunt tips or flat bottoms rather than tips. Again, people complained about lack of control when the darts were thrown. The thing about traditional lawn darts is they stayed where they dropped, making it easier to score.
Most modern versions of lawn darts have settled on a uniform design:
Coleman’s is typical – blunt, flat bottomed, soft end to prevent skull damaged and weighted to help with stability. Poof makes a set that looks a bit more like a traditional lawn dart, and using the Jarts brand name, but with a round plastic ends rather than metal. Far safer, but many people complained they couldn't stand up to a lot of impacts and fell apart.
The biggest issue is the newer lawn darts bounce about too much making it hard to score. Most complaints appear to come from people who played the original lawn dart games and lament the lack of accuracy and control the old javelin styled darts had. Issues seem to revolve around whether the ground is too hard and dry or the grass is too long. Either cause serious bounceage (not a word, I know). I suppose you could hose down the backyard before playing but that brings a new set of problems to the game. Without the traditional javelin point, bounce will continue to be an issue. But seriously, it’s a backyard game not the Olympics.
I have an idea that might work. Get a large cloth made of Velcro, cut it into squares with numbers and scatter them around the yard. They need to be largish swaths of material or the game won’t work. Then Velcro tip flat bottomed darts. The darts should come in varying weights for different types of throwers, like real darts. Space out the cloths and then when you throw, the darts stick. Miss the cloth? Oh it’s like falling off the dart board, no score. I like Velcro – it can solve so many of life’s little problems.
- Original Patent https://www.google.com/patents/US3672678?dq=inassignee:%22Hasbro+Industries,+Inc.%22&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwj04eSevKfVAhUi5YMKHchxCfw4ChDoAQh kMAk
- Irwing Out Door Darts Patent https://patents.google.com/patent/US3982762A/en?q=lawn+dart&assignee=Irwin
- Consumer Product Safety Commission https://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/CFR-2015-title16-vol2/pdf/CFR-2015-title16-vol2-part1306.pdf