Poisoned Dart Blow-Gun: Effective (Real?) Weapon or Hollywood Invention?

A recent episode of Mythbusters involved shooting a victim with a poisoned dart from a blow gun. In Hollywood depictions of the blowgun weapon that I’ve seen, the victim is impaled with a dart and then instantaneously keels over dead. However, I see several problems with this.

  1. How much poison can you actually put on the tip of a dart?
  2. Wouldn’t the poison simply fall off the dart and/or evaporate during travel from the gun to the victim?
  3. Is there any known poison that can instantly kill a healthy adult from a minute amount delivered from a superficial epidermal puncture?
  4. If there is such a poison, do/did ancient cultures have the means to harvest or synthesize it?

One example is in south american rainforest - the poison they use is the skin secretions of the poison dart frog.

While in Brazil on the Amazon, one of the tourist things to do is to visit a traditional indigenous village (Well, it’s probably some low budget Disneyfied thing, but it looks pretty authentic. They probably drive back home to their condo on their jet ski. :slight_smile: ). They let you shoot a dart out of a blow pipe and it is pretty damn accurate at about 10 feet, even for a novice. I don’t know about a grown man, but I hear that the poison is pretty quickly lethal when used on a small primate.

Re: 1. and 2. Actually blowgun darts were made of wood or bamboo and were soaked in poison. Plus, they were made prior to hunting trip (or war), and kept in moist container made of bamboo/gourd/something like that. So, the poison was fresh, applied in generous amounts and half-second of flight wasn’t much of problem.

Re: 3. it’s paralyzing poison. Check this link about curare, for example. It don’t kill instantly, but it can render you immobile within half minute. Also, as noted above, amount of poison is quite significant, and it’s not so superficial puncture, as dart can easily penetrate two or three inches of flesh.

Re: 4. Check link about curare and lexi link about poison dart frogs.

I recall a nature show in which it showed that Amazon hunters using curare darts needed to follow their prey and hit it multiple times for success, which gets progressively easier, curare being a paralytic, but still. I saw this many years ago.

As an aside to the OP. What are the hazards of eating curare, or other toxin, impregnated meat? Do the poisons break down during preparation or cooking? Or do the diners actually ingest small amounts of whatever compound it was? What are the short and long term effects of they do?

On the other hand, I’ve seen nature show where it took less than ten seconds for monkey to fall from tree. So it all depends - how potent poison, how good hit, how resilient victim.

But yes, multiple hits is standard tactic whether for hunting, or during war. Actually very few primitive weapons have considerable single-shot down capability, and turning target into reversed hedgehog is what you want to do.

From above wikipedia link:

As to the seriousness of the puncture, there are some people who use modern day versions of blowguns for small game hunting. I find it surprising, but you can apparently get enough velocity on a razor tipped dart constructed like a broadhead arrow to kill a rabbit or a squirrel without poison. It penetrates enough to reach the vital organs of a small animal. It would presumably produce a nasty gash on a larger animal or a person.

In veterinary medicine, blowguns with narcotic darts are regularly used to immobilize patients you couldn’t get your hands on otherwise.

As far as an instant kill or knockout from a dart is concerned, see this TVTropes entry. It’s not a cite, but it does suggest that “instant” is a bit much to expect.

This just leaves the question of how Tokugawa-era ninjas got a biological product from the Amazon through the sokuku restrictions on foreign contact.:dubious:

Dude, they’re ninjas.

These answers seem to be considering only the traditional wooden type dart. There are books/manuals out there that show you how to make much better and more effective poison darts from easily obtained materials. Just imagine what could be done with a small syringe fitted with a cone and a rubber band for instance…

Blow guns really do work, but aside from the novelty, there are much better weapons/tools available to send a projectile into a target. Blowguns also are not nearly as silent or handy as the ones used in ninja movies.

This question reminds me of that exchange between Ian Malcolm and that other guy in The Lost World (I think it was in both the book and the movie). To paraphrase:

I always wondered how such a thing could even be remotely feasible – how would a toxin spread “faster than the nerve conduction velocity”? An explosion, maybe, but a chemical injected into your bloodstream? That sounds just plain stupid.

It is. There are some very powerful toxins, but the risk is acceptable if you handle them responsibly.


“Etorphine is most often used to immobilize elephants and other large mammals. Etorphine is only available legally for veterinary use and is strictly governed by law. (…) Veterinary-strength etorphine is fatal to humans; one drop on the skin can cause death within a few minutes.”

… but only if you’re a jackass, and don’t have somebody with a sufficient dose of naloxone ready to inject standing by.

(And it still doesn’t act even remotely as fast as the action potentials on your neurons.)

Well, if they wanted good poison they just had to make short trip to nearest fish market :cool:

Seriously, curare isn’t only of it’s kind. And cultural exchange with China gave Japanese access to variety of poisons discovered by Chinese alchemists during last couple of millenia and found over at least half of Asia.


Blowgun hunter checking in. Blowguns are vastly more powerful than common sense implies. Using 5 gram wooden darts with razor sharp broadheads 10 mm wide, I can take down a duck or a rabbit inside 15 yards with one shot, the 16" dart flying completely through the animal, stopped only by the cone at the tail end.

Chronograph tests I’ve run give me velocities in the 40 m / s range, the sectional density of the dart equal to a bow-shot arrow. Maximum range of the heavy darts is 100 yards. I am positive I could kill a man with one dart, sans poison, if the dart didn’t encounter bones. It wouldn’t be instantaneous nor pretty, but it would do the job through profuse bleeding, internal and external.

The Cherokee and Choctaw among other SE peoples used blowguns and unpoisoned darts that were simply wood skewers sharpened to a point, to bag small game such as squirrel and pidgeon. “Superficial epidermal puncture” - not.

Poison darts become necessary when you need to kill mid-sized or larger game such as monkeys - and humans, at long distances. There’s a multitude of traditional dart poisons, curare being just one of them and not the most powerful or revered one. SE Asian blowgun hunters usually used poison derived from the upas tree (Antiaris toxicaria). Tests done with upas darts have shown that a single hit can paralyze a large game animal (small deer) immediately, death coming in ten minutes. Smaller animals, especially birds, succumb much faster. SE Asian hunter-gatherers used poison darts on Japanese sentries to good effect as late as WW II.

Conquistadors got a taste of curare soon after entering South America. According to Spanish sources, a man hit with a curare dart died inside an hour. As curare kills by relaxation of the respiratory system, the victim can be saved by continuous mouth-to-mouth resuscitation until the effect wears off (not a tip from the Conquistadors).

Strychnine-based dart poisons such as upas are deadly upon ingestion - natives cut out a chunk of meat surrounding the hit to prevent poisoning themselves. Curare, in the minute amounts on a dart - is safe to eat. Curare-killed meat is in fact considered a better treat than unpoisoned fare.

The blowgun, to my mind, is a very handy means to “deliver a projectile into a target”. More silent than a bow-shot arrow, vastly more so than any pellet gun or silenced firearm I’ve shot, lightweight, foolproof and highly accurate at short range. YMMV.

Toxylon obviously knows what the hell he’s talking about. W/ the advent of Cold Steel’s .625 Magnum blowgun technology has taken a great leap forward. Jivaro’s .38cal blowguns of the 60’s are so drastically inferior in power & accuracy that any realistic comparison is pointless IMO. A 200+fps broadhead tipped dart delivered to a target less than 40ft away is w/out a doubt IMO deadly. That same dart w/ as little as .5mg of a few select readily available poisons applied to it becomes one of a silent assasin’s most effective weapons.