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History of the Game of Darts

by Andrea Kreidler
March 2008

Darts, called "...a game to play with the golden glow of beer in one's brain..." by author Rupert Croft-Cooke, has from its beginnings been linked with alcohol. In Medieval England, shortened archery arrows may have been thrown at the bottom of an empty wine barrel as a training exercise. The wine barrel evolved to a tree cross-section, which provided rings at which to aim. There is speculation that arrows and target were brought into drinking establishments, both because of cold weather and for entertainment.

Evolution of Dart Games
Puff and dart, or puff the dart, was a 16th century form of the game which did not catch on, possibly due to the fatalities that resulted from darts sucked inwards rather than blown outwards.

In the 1870s, dart and target was played with darts made from a dowel, with a pin placed on one end and paper on the other. The darts were lobbed at a softwood board. Dart and target's highest score was in the middle of the board, while the lowest scores occurred around the outside edges. There were no doubles or trebles.

301 was the first number used to count down to zero. Score was kept on a cribbage board. In 1924, the National Darts Association began in London, bringing more standardized rules, along with a standard ("clock") board a few years later.

The Darts
An American, Nathan P. McKenney, patented a folded paper flight (used as a toy) in 1898. Before that, darts were imported from France and had 3-4 turkey feathers on the ends. Brass darts with paper or feather flights were popular in the 1930s, until their eclipse by the slimmer tungsten dart in the 1970s.

The Board
Soft woods such as elm or poplar were first used as dartboards. The drawback was that wooden boards needed constant soaking in water to stay soft. In the 1930s, a "bristle" dartboard came into use; although thought to be made from boar bristles, it actually came from fibers of the sisal plant.

An Englishman, Brian Gamlin, invented the numbering sequence on dartboards that is still used today. Low numbers were placed next to high numbers, ensuring that skill, not luck, brought a high score.

The Throwing Line
Many darts histories claim that the throwing line was originally 9 feet away from the board, a distance arrived at by measuring three beer crates of 3 feet each from Hockey & Sons, a southwest England brewery. When Hockey & Sons decreased their beer crate size by a foot, four 2 foot crates were used instead. However, Patrick Chaplin, a darts historian, states that no such brewery as Hockey & Sons ever existed. For whatever reason, 8 feet is still used as the distance in some parts of England, but the official distance for competitive darts is 7 feet 9 1/4 inches.

Darts in America
Part of darts lore are accounts of pilgrims playing darts on the Mayflower in 1620, but Patrick Chaplin again calls these apocryphal. Native Americans played a form of darts, aiming a corn husk with two feathers at a ring, but it was not until World War II when Americans stationed in England discovered darts and brought the game back with them that darts gained wide-spread popularity in America.

Although darts has become a sport as well as a pub recreation, the belief that aim improves as more drinks are consumed, and the sheer fun of a dart landing where it was intended to land, will doubtless remain.

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