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` The PDC SA Masters Tournament hosted by Unicorn at Emperor’s Palace in Johannesburg introduced South Africans to darts as an exciting spectator sport. Photo NICOL DU TOIT
Q3 2017

Going like a Boeing

The evolution of darts dazzle. The dart has evolved from being a weapon and has been turned into futuristic, fun and fanciful player equipment. LINZA DE JAGER explores the turbo-charged changes

There’s no beating about the bush. The first darts were rude and crude. The darts that came onto the scene in 1314 were lengths of wood with sharpened metal tips. Short spears, in other words. The earliest dartboard was equally rough. It was the end of a tree log.

Wood would remain the material of choice for darts for a long time. By the 1880s, when the first purpose-made darts were brought to Britain, they were manufactured in one piece from wood, and wrapped with a strip of lead for weight. Change was in the air, however. There would be new materials and brilliant features that would change the dart beyond recognition.

“The wooden dart was succeeded by a brass barrel with a steel point,” Stanley Lowy, non-executive chairman of dart innovator, Unicorn Products, unpacks the changes.

“The flight end of the dart was essentially of two kinds.”

The earlier, somewhat crude, untrimmed feather flight, was refined to neatly-trimmed four feather wings, affixed at 90º angles to a wooden spigot, which was shaped at the front to push into a brass dart body.

An alternative, cheaper, flight assembly was a bamboo length of cane, split at its rear to accept a folded paper flight, which could be easily and cheaply replaced when damaged - as was inevitable when it was in the board and struck by the next dart.

“My father — dart pioneer and founder of Unicorn Darts, Frank Lowy — found the cane-shafted dart unsatisfactory for several reasons,” says Lowy. “Firstly, when the atmosphere was humid, it was difficult to insert the cane in the brass barrel. And contrary-wise, the cane was apt to fall out when the atmosphere was dry,” he says.

The cheaper paper flight would fall out from time to time when the dart was thrown, so that the dart fell to the floor and the score was lost.

The first modern dart

The Silver Comet that Frank Lowy developed in 1937, was futuristic in comparison with these older darts, which came in many different shapes and weights. Lowy describes it as “precision made, chromium plated, with an aluminium shaft, instead of wood, and a vulcanised fibre flight replacing the paper flight. This was prevented from falling out in flight by a streamlined screw cap.”

Because they were precision-made, the three Silver Comet darts that were sold together in a box, became the first darts to be made with a similar weight.

Since 1949 Unicorn has been selling darts classified by actual weight – the first company to do so. And today the manufacturer prides itself on guaranteeing the weight of its tungsten darts to within 0.33%.

“The shaped wooden shaft had the same negatives as the cane,” explains Lowy. “It was also difficult to fit it to the barrel, or it would fall out of the barrel, and my father designed a plastic adaptor, which accepted a wooden stick onto which the feathers were stuck at one end. At the other end it had a screw thread, which attached to the dart barrel with ease.”

The feather flights made by Unicorn also evolved. More accurate wings, with different shapes to give more or lesser lift to the dart, were developed. The turkey feathers were dyed to introduce colour choices to the mix.

The feather flights were replaced almost overnight by polyester flights, which were decorated with colourful graphics, champion players’ signatures or advertising slogans. They often come in different shapes.

“These shapes were developed to provide different characteristics to the flight of the dart through the air on its way to the dartboard, and when it sticks in the board,” Lowy says.

New materials

Plastics have played an enormous part in the evolution of dart equipment: in flights, shafts, cases and other accessories. Plastics lend themselves to mass production, and are very versatile. They come in an endless array of colours, can be stiff or flexible, can be printed, embossed, and are usually very durable.

By the 1970s tungsten alloys came onto the scene, and so began a new chapter for darts. The commercial tungsten alloy darts first introduced to the market by Unicorn in 1972, were slimmer, while still having the required density. This allowed darts to be grouped together closer on the board.

“Tungsten permitted the development of more intricate machining and finishes over the next forty years, which resulted in acceptable premium prices for not only the darts, but more complicated shafts, flights and presentation carrying cases. Barrels are frequently laser engraved with signatures and other information,” Lowy says. In 1987 they introduced the first titanium tungsten darts in their Golden Unicorn range.

More recently, Harrows used new research into the properties of tungsten to create their I.C.E. range, with a very high 90% tungsten content.

Rapid changes

Decisive changes to dart designs have taken place over the last 20 years. With the result that darts players now have a wide range of features to take choose from when selecting their favourite dart – whether it is a preferred barrel shape, the flexibility of the shaft, or the shape of the wings.

There are now also removable dart points, and dart points that are permanently integrated into the barrel. The moveable point can retract into the barrels upon impact, thereby virtually eliminating bounce-outs.

Barrels and shafts

A wide variety of barrel shapes are available:
  • Pencil shape, i.e. a long thin barrel
  • Front loaded barrel, which is teardrop-shaped
  • Torpedo, which is thicker in the middle and tapered at both ends
  • Scalloped barrel, which has a notch in the barrel for one’s finger
  • Stubby barrel, which is compact.

Rigid and flexible shafts are available, as are longer and shorter shafts. Longer shafts provide greater stability and allow for a reduction in flight size. This means that darts can be grouped closer together. The longer shafts can however increase the chance of the darts’ wobbling. Switching to shorter shafts can alleviate this.

Specialty shaft styles with replaceable tops, adjustable lengths and spinning shafts are also available. The spinning shafts allow incoming darts to slide past without bouncing off other darts, or damaging other flights. This creates the opportunity for tighter groupings.

TV darts and standardization

After the National Darts Association (NDA) was formed in London in 1925, the first formal darts rules and a standard dart board were introduced. But, darts was still pretty much a free for all game.

“Different scoring zones and rules were used in different parts of the United Kingdom until the mid-1960s,” says Colin Farrer of Corsport, local distributor of Harrows darts.

“It was television that really standardised the modern board in 1973. This meant that players could compete nationally and eventually internationally, on the same board.”

Yet, darts have been televised since 1937, when a darts tournament was televised for the first time — by the BBC, no less!

In the 1970’s, however, television made darts a truly global spectator sport, with sponsorships attracting flamboyant players who became international icons, and some, like player Eric Bristow, even a M.B.E.

It was, in fact, this TV exposure and resultant popularity of the sport, that led to the founding of Harrows Darts in 1973. They teamed up in 1985 with 5-times world champion Bristow, with the biggest endorsement deal of that time.

Big sponsorships and dart ambassadors became a regular part of the sport when The News of the World Tournament, founded in 1927, was revived in the 1990’s with the help of Unicorn. Corporate sponsors from outside the sport soon saw the benefits of aligning themselves with televised tournaments and celebrity players known by nicknames like The Power (Phil Taylor), The Legend (John Lowe), Darth Maple (John Part), Mighty Mike (Michael van Gerwen), Crafty Cockney (Eric Bristow) and The Man (Raymond van Barneveld), to name but a few.

“Professional players have become sporting icons with large followings,” adds Lowy, who started the trend in the 1950’s when he signed up top players to become members of Team Unicorn, which over the years included most of the big names in darts, like world champions John Lowe and John Part.

“Increasing prize money has created millionaire dart players who train seriously, and who refine their set-ups of dart barrel, flight and shaft, seeking that edge in equipment.”

During the 1970’s Jocky Wilson was the Susan Boyle of his time, says Patrick Franck of W.E.T. Sports, local distributor of Datadart, which was aligned to this world champion. “His larger than life persona, fuelled by the television coverage of the 1979 World Darts Championship, made him an instant crowd favourite,” adds Franck.

The Professional Darts Corporation (PDC) and the big prize money on offer for regional winners at razzmatazz spectator–friendly tournaments, also created a stir in South African darts circles, especially with the likes of The Power Taylor there to inspire local players.

Electronic darts

Apart from the upsurge in interest in the sport due to steel tip darts matches being shown on television worldwide, there has also been a move towards electronic/soft tip darts, comments Farrer.

“Electronic darts were created in the 1980s by Americans who were tired of doing the mental arithmetic needed in traditional steep tip darts,” he explains. Electronic dartboards have built in scoring computers that are pre-programmed with a wide variety of game types.

“The introduction of computer chips made it possible to score for a number of different games, to hook up remotely with players in a different place, or a different continent, for a match and the establishment of electronic leagues,” adds Lowy.

But, he believes the more conventional — and perhaps the more serious player — still wants a traditional bristle dartboard. Perhaps with a digital capability added. It was with this player in mind that Unicorn introduced Smartboard, a seemingly conventional bristle board whose scores are relayed to a smartphone or standalone Pad or computer.

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