Brian Gamlin, a carpenter from Lancashire, invented what we know as the game of darts in 1896. However, darts has a much longer past – it originated in England during the medieval period as a military pastime, early in the fourteenth century.
The Medieval Times: Early Beginnings
Darts as a concept dates back to archers, spear throwers, and crossbowmen using large arrows and javelins in combat as well as in sport, likely over 700 years ago.
While some argue that they may have been shortened for use in a tournament, this is probably untrue since the tip on those arrows and javelins were much too large to shorten the shaft length by much. The lengths of these spears and javelins differed, however, and the fletching (the feathers found notched on the back of an arrow) on these throwing dart was added to keep it steady and true while in the air.
If you wanted to throw the dart farther, you could add a throwing string. You put a notch in the back of the spear or dart and attach a short string that the thrower then holds at one end to propel the spear/dart into the air. This could increase the thrower’s throwing distance by about 50%.
The Mary Rose, a medieval ship, is one place where we’ve learned about these old darts, as they would have been used in combat with enemy ships.
France And English Origins
There are references to darts being used as early as the Middle Ages, where bowmen would use a shorted version of their arrows to throw into a wooden target, like an upturned wine cask or a tree trunk. However, many historians think that darts played as a game originates from France.
Darts, also known as Fléchettes in France (meaning small arrows), consisted back then of a small pointed arrow hand thrown into a concentric ring target. Wooden darts were primarily used at the beginning; the flights were made of bird feathers, often turkey feathers, and they had a metal tip.
According to one darts historian, Patrick Chaplin, there is strong evidence that the English version of darts began at local fairgrounds. Other bar games like Skittles and Aunt Sally, according to his study, have similar roots in old English fairs as well (spelled fayres back then). These games seem to have been successful, as some of them (or a variant of them) remain popular well after fairs went out of style.
The dartboard was built in a fairground theme to make the game seem simpler than it was and to encourage players to win a prize. The iconic segmented face of the dartboard is most likely derived from these fairground boards in the early to middle nineteenth century.
Dartboard Appearance and Numbers
The reason a dartboard looks like is does is thanks to the number system first invented by Brian Gamlin in Lancashire in 1896, although some people claim that William Thomas Buckle, from Yorkshire, was the first to develop the system.
Regardless of who made it, this development is probably the most influential change to the game of darts since it was first invented and practiced.
From this point on, the game of darts really exploded in popularity and became a staple fun pastime in homes, pubs, and a professional league even developed due to the sheer amount of people playing it and becoming really good.
Gamlin set the numbering system that you see on all modern dartboards today. Each sliver shaped section has a number on the outside of it. The numbers, starting at the top and moving clockwise, are as follows:
This number order was created to ensure that the person with the highest darts skill level would win, and that you couldn’t get lucky and hit a high value number.
For example, if you aim for the 20 and miss, you either hit the 1 section or the 5 section, both of which are very low numbers. If the numbers were in order, missing the 20 would result in potentially hitting the 19, which is basically just as good a shot.
Proposed Mathematician Optimized Dartboard
Many mathematicians have researched the dartboard numbering series to see how it can be changed. Most recently, the project was taken on by David Percy, a math professor at the University of Salford, to see how the numbering series could be changed. He published his findings in Mathematics Today in December of 2012.
The series of David’s dartboard numbering scheme is structured to have two additional constraints:
- The figures go odd-even-odd-even.
- Related number clusters are dispersed as uniformly as possible throughout the board.
The proposed dartboard would have the following number order, starting at the top and moving clockwise:
See our article about numbers on a dartboard if you would like to learn more.
Darts in the Twentieth Century
The game of darts was met with controversy in the twentieth century. According to historical sources, a tavern owner in Leeds was brought to court in 1908 for encouraging his customers to play darts in his shop. Darts was considered a betting activity at the time, and was therefore illegal.
According to legend, the pub owner brought in a local darts champion, William “Bigfoot” Annakin, to the courtroom, in order to prove that darts was a game of skill and not chance.
Annakin threw and stuck three darts in the single 20 section. Not one other judge could replicate the throws, and just one of their darts even stuck to the dartboard by the end. The lawsuit was, of course, dropped, as the judge ruled it was a game of skill.
Darts became so common in the early parts of the twentieth century that by 1930 it was being played in pubs and breweries, and even at home, all throughout England and Wales.
One of the reasons it was so popular was the ease of entry into the sport. All you needed was a good set of darts and a nice dartboard to get started.
In the 1920s, the first formal championships were held, and the National Darts Association was created in 1924. About 300,000 hopeful darts players had registered for the yearly News of the World Championship by 1939.
After World War II, the game of darts gained even more prominence when soldiers adopted the sport as a pastime, seemingly replicating the sport’s roots hundreds of years ago.
The Navy, Army, and Air Force were issued darts as part of their “football” kit, which had soldiers playing the game wherever and whenever they could get away from the fighting.
The game saw high amounts of interest in competitive play throughout the United Kingdom during the 1950s and 1960s. The National Darts Association of Great Britain was established in 1954 to form and organize all of the local and national leagues.
By the 1980s, the world of darts had produced professional superstars who had achieved worldwide acclaim and popularity.
Darts is a popular game played by millions of people in pubs and clubs around the United Kingdom and millions more across the world. The game has progressed from its meager beginnings in the beer rooms and public rooms of traditional English pubs to the international level, where it is routinely broadcast to millions of people worldwide.
In 1978, Embassy tobacco financed the first World Darts Championship, hosted by the British Darts Organization. Leighton Rees of Wales, the winner, got a plaque and a cheque for £3,000.
Darts is one of the widely played sports in many countries, like Holland, Germany, and China in addition to the USA and Great Britain. In 1998, more than a third of the Dutch population saw Raymond Van Barneveld becoming the first Dutch darts champion. Since then, he has won the PDC World Darts Championship four more times – 1999, 2003, 2005, and 2007.
The game of darts has seen a massive rise in prize money in recent years, and the winner of a major tournament should hope to walk away with a considerable sum of money.
In the 2019 PDC World Championship, even if a player loses in the first round they still received £7,500, and the tournament winner received £500,000. That’s a far cry from the £3,000 first-place bonus at the World Championships.
Increased lucrative endorsement deals have been one of the main contributors to the growth in prize money in such competitions. Since 1978, the game has become one of the most famous and widely watched games on television.
The game of darts was recognized as a physical discipline by Sports England in March 2005, paving the way for the event to be used in the upcoming Olympic Games.
Darts as a game started from medieval soldiers and sportsmen throwing spears and arrows at chunks of wood, and has evolved over the years into a game of skill and strategy.
Darts has grown in popularity to the point that the sport’s most prestigious competitions are televised live worldwide, with sponsorships funding multimillion-dollar promotions.
There are 70 participating countries of the British Darts Organization, and millions of people play darts every day; the sport is even being considered for Olympic status. Without a doubt, darts have come a long way from their meager medieval beginnings.