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April 24, 2014
Tungsten Darts History
(Note: In this article, "Darts" refers to steel-point darts, as modern soft-tip electronic dartboards & darts had not yet been invented.)
To darters, the 1970's was a time of explosive growth for Darts in both the USA and Great Britain. Promoters such as Tom & Della Fleetwood, Paul Hong, Bob McCloud, Olly Croft (and many others) organized new leagues, publicized regional and national tournaments, and heavily marketed new darts products.
The decade was also a period of relative peace & prosperity for most of the Western world and especially the USA, after the end of the Vietnam War. That prosperity meant that people could spend more time on leisure activities, and sports & recreations of all types built large followings, including darts.
Much of the new interest could be attributed to the development of darts made from ultra-dense tungsten, along with the darts industry that developed to make and market the new darts.
Before the 1970's, there was some production of "tungsten darts", but they were often made of a much softer blend of copper & tungsten, a fairly common industrial material at the time.
Unlike true alloys that are made by mixing molten metals, nickel-tungsten is produced by the process of Sintering. This industrial process involves blending fine powders of various materials together, then subjecting the mixture to heat and pressure to produce a solid billet of metal.
The billet is then machined to the desired shape, often on a lathe, and more recently in CNC machining centers. The quality & cost of the resulting material can vary widely, depending on the amount of each material; the fineness, uniformity, & quality of the raw metal powders; and the precision with which the various components are combined.
The new ultra-dense sintered nickel-tungsten material was revolutionary. It allowed production of new thinner darts, which in turn allowed darters to place their darts closer to each other, greatly increasing the likelihood of high scores such as 180's.
The new tungsten material was also more durable and resistant to corrosion, unlike brass darts that would quickly wear down and lose their machined grip. The sharp machined grooves of a N/T dart stayed gripping for much longer, which led to generally more precise manner of throwing. Highly textured tungsten barrels could just rest on the darter's finger tips instead of requiring the stronger squeeze often needed with the more slick brass darts.
Thin, streamlined darts made of dense tungsten soon displaced traditional brass to became the standard for competition, and manufacturers raced each other to introduce novel barrel designs. As the new high-tech darts commanded higher prices than traditional brass darts, the darts industry grew rapidly, and as part of their promotions began sponsoring major tournament and "pro" players.
What caused the sudden change in materials? Military research & spending during the Cold War & Vietnam War was a major factor, as it led to the development and high-volume production of very dense materials such as nickel-tungsten for purposes such as armor-penetrating projectiles, as well as for tiny helicopter blade balance weights and a variety of nuclear energy applications.
High volume production of tungsten rod stock brought the price down, and many civilian uses were soon found for the material. With their sleek high-tech appearance and dense feel, Nickel-Tungsten Darts were marketed as the "ultimate" in darts sets.
The majority of early tungsten darts were simply grooved, as the technology for knurling the most dense tungsten blends was both expensive and difficult. In the last couple of decades, more elaborately machined tungsten darts have been made possible by using more malleable blends of nickel-tungsten, which are less prone to chip or break during machining. These materials are generally the result of adding softer metals such as copper and iron to the blend of nickel and tungsten. This results in a metal billet that is cheaper, easier on machine tooling, and less likely to break during machining or when darts fall onto hard surfaces.
Those who grew up in that era recall that it was the age of booming high-technology, with other high tech materials such as graphite, titanium, & aluminum alloys replacing traditional materials in sports ranging from tennis to fishing, to golf. And not just in sports: New exotic materials appeared in medical applications such as titanium hip & knee joints, heart valves, and prosthetics. The first Personal Computers appeared, a man walked on the moon, and nearly all problems seemed solvable by application of the latest technology.
Darts was caught up in the high-tech materials revolution, and Nickel-Tungsten darts soon became ubiquitous. Before the age of Internet shopping, hundreds, perhaps thousands, of darts shops opened worldwide to provide a growing range of darts supplies to darts enthusiasts. Dozens of darts equipment manufacturers, both large & small, provided a vast array of merchandise to these new shops. In the early years of the 21st century, the industry consolidated, became much more competitive, and many of these pioneer darts companies went out of business.
Technology continues to influence innovation in darts, as seen in the recent trend towards highly milled textures and finishes on darts barrels. Many of these new designs would have previously been very difficult, and certainly very expensive, to create. Computer controlled machining centers have now become affordable for even small factories, and these machines can repeatedly duplicate incredibly precise machining projects.
It seems likely that darts designs will continue to evolve along with the materials and technology used to make them.