The Mayans used a short shaft of wood like a gun in battle, sending darts toward incoming attackers at amazing speeds. It may not have been powered by gunpowder, but it was still an effective killing tool.
While simple in design, the hul'che produced accurate and deadly results. Let's look at an ingenious early use of technology to improve hunting efficiency, other civilizations that developed similar devices, and modern uses of the hul'che.
Swift and Deadly
A very simple device, the hul'che is a wooden shaft with a bur at the end of that supports the end of a dart or arrow. The device resembles a forked branch, and it is quite possible that a stick plucked from the ground became the first hul'che.
The Mayans used hul'che to take advantage of additional leverage gained from an overhand motion to increase the amount of force placed on an arrow or dart. Relying on finger placement and the motion of a skilled thrower, the hul'che saw use in hunting and combat when the Mayans battled nearby polities. Due to the skill-based aspect, both Mayan men and women used the hul'che for hunting.
Modern recreations of the hul'che can fling darts over 250 meters at a velocity of over 150 meters per second, with distances of 150 meters more common for an average thrower.
One weapon, many names
A weapon similar to the hul'che shows up in several cultures. The Aztecs used an almost identical weapon, the atlatl, a device gaining in popularity among modern sport hunters. The Nahuatl term atlatl is now commonly used for the wooden device, regardless of origin.
French, Spanish and German variations are known, with extremely old specimens making use of reindeer antlers to create a bur connecting to a dart. Whether the atlatl/hul'che is the product of independent discovery on the part of several different groups of people separated by continents or an example of early information transmission between groups is unknown. Personally, I would lean to independent discovery due to the creation of similar, relatively simple devices. Australian Aborigines also used a weapon similar to the hul'che for hunting, the woomera, further supporting the possibility of independent discovery.
The atlatl/hul'che is gaining popularity among hobbyists who recreate ancient weapons in order to study their success, along with college kids looking for an unsual tournament sport. Several championships are held throughout North America, with some states motioning to allow use of the hul'che in traditional hunting.
In my homestate, a recently passed law allows for deer hunting with an atlatl/hul'che. I'm not sure I'll be hunting deer in the future (unless some unforeseen apocalypse arrives), but if I had to, I could create a hul'che pretty quickly from some branches and a knife. Making darts would be the difficult part - my hul'che would probably hurl shards of broken Star Wars blu-rays.
The top image is a set of recreated hul'ches from Pascal Chauvaux/Webarcherie. Additional images courtesy of Michael Fagan and Link/Webarcherie. Demonstration video from CaptKordite/YouTube. Sources linked within the article.