By Elizabeth Kelly
It has been jokingly suggested that the idea of darts goes back to the times of cavemen. When hunters threw spears at their prey, the caveman with the most accurate throw "won" by getting to eat a nice bison steak for dinner that night. Although the sport may not actually be that old, the concept of throwing at targets is certainly an ancient one, even if pubs and beer wouldn't be invented for thousands of more years.
A truer form of darts was more likely an offshoot of military training. Roman soldiers may have used wooden barrels for target practice, and medieval archers also went through rigorous training with bows and arrows. It wasn't until casual gatherings of non-military men began tossing around arrows for fun that the practice became a sport, rather than a training exercise. The medieval lads who recreated with arrows threw them at the bottoms of wine casks, bringing alcohol into the mix long before the game was played in pubs. It is believed that the cork served as a target, and today the bull's eye is still referred to as a cork.
When winter rolled around, the game was taken indoors. The close confines of the local inn necessitated that the arrows be shortened, and the rules of the game started adapting into a closer version of what we play today (only the refreshments consisted of mead drunk from animal skins).
The turn of the century was when darts started to be more consistently regulated. Now played in pubs across England, the barrel tended to be four inches in length and feathered. Dartboards had a numbering system that resembles a modern system. Like a lot of games that evolved in pubs and bars, rules were developed that were particular to the locale. Hockey and Sons was a brewery in the South of England, and local pubs stocked their goods. The standard throwing distance of the time came to be the length of three Hockey and Sons kegs (later reduced to two). You can still hear the phrase "toeing the hockey" in use.
It used to be a subject of dispute as to when darts crossed the pond to the US. Some early accounts have suggested that it came over on the Mayflower, though it's hard to imagine the puritanical pilgrims engaged in such sport. Subsequent research, with the help of the Pilgrim Society, has finally put that notion to rest. Darts more likely traveled to the continent with the influx of Irish immigrants in the 1900s. Later, American soldiers stationed in the UK in World War II picked up the sport in their spare time and brought it back home.
By this time, pub competitions had become popular in England, with the first organized darts competition being sponsored by the News of the World in 1924. Rules were standardized across the board, and by 1938 the contest had more than 280,000 entrants. The huge surge in popularity may have been due to a visit by the King and Queen to a social club a year previous, during which they tossed a few darts. If nothing else, the Queen's participation brought women's attention to the game.
The era of modern darts was ushered in by the UK's televised games of the '60s and '70s. Folks at home watched darts on their televisions and the champions became superstars of the sport. Big events like the World Grand Prix made the game a truly international event that is only poised to get even bigger as time goes by. We've come a long way since caveman days, huh? If only you could get a good bison burger at the local darts tournament.