I was thudding in some triple 20’s the other day (or at least trying to!) when I started thinking about the history darts. How many years have people been throwing sharp bits of metal at a board on a wall to score points? Where did it all begin? Why did it all begin?
I set out to do a bit of research and digging and I’ve brought together some of my finding in this article. I’ve focussed entirely on the dartboard, but I’m sure I’ll follow up with another article about darts in due time!
It is unknown where the dartboard was invented. Most speculate that the dartboard is a variant of an archery target from the middle ages that was adapted by soldiers to practice throwing spears or other weapons at.
That’s a pretty disappointing answer if you’re anything like me, it turns out that like many of the older sports around we can’t be sure because it probably just started as a game played by a few who had no intention of formalising it into a sport.
What I did find interesting in my research was to find out just how many variations of the dartboard there has been over time. I’ve picked out some of my favourites for their variation and interesting twists!
What is clear, is that by the early twentieth century most regional dartboard found across the UK had begun using the numbering system we see today and that the size of dartboards from around the same time is remarkably consistent.
Lincoln dartboards are thought to have originated from Lincoln in the UK. Unlike modern dartboards the Lincoln features only a central bull and the double ring around the edge of the board.
The Lincoln boards also have a distinctive all black colour, personally I’m not a fan of that but it is certainly a talking point!
Much like modern darts the Lincoln board is used with the same height to bull as modern boards, 1.73m, or 5’ 8” (you can read more about that in our guide to board height and dimensions) but a slightly shorter throw distance. I’m not sure why the Lincoln is played with about a 9 and ¼” but the Lincoln is also a slightly bigger board, with a scoring area of 15”.
From Norfolk (UK), was another variation the board. This is perhaps one of the most intriguing boards from my perspective due to its difference from many of the other boards and the fact that I’ve been to Norfolk in the UK!
Whilst most dartboards have triangular scoring segments running to a central bull, with then doubles and triples (if on the board!) ringing concentrically around the bull the Norfolk is a very plain board.
The Norfolk board consisted of just 3 scoring rings each getting larger than the last, starting with a center bull of 1”, an outer bull of 2” and a final scoring zone 6”. The only place I’ve been able to see reference to it online is on Darts 501 page where they have provided a description based on the book ‘Pub Games’ by Arthur Taylor.
The Grimsby Dartboard
The Grimsby dartboard is another English variation on the standard dartboard (which wasn’t standard when this one was around!)
What I find interesting about the Grimsby board is that the numbering system is different to most other dartboards, even the local variants around the UK from similar times.
The numbering system counts from 1 to 28 instead of 1 to 20. Where the modern 1-20 scoring system sees close value numbers spread around the board which punishes you for missing big scores, the Grimsby board doesn’t seem to care so much about this system with some high scoring numbers sitting right next to each other.
The best information I could find about this board was found on a website by Dr Patrick Chaplin who uncovered a photograph sent into ‘News of the World’ back in the 1940’s showing this oddity. I’ve included a link to his information here, it’s well worth a read if Darts history is your thing.
The Kent dartboard isn’t that dissimilar to many of the other regional boards of the time. The board has a central bull and a doubles ring (many did not have the triple ring) and the numbering system would be recognised by modern day dart players.
The reason I’ve included this on my list of dartboards is that the board didn’t actually have the numbers on it. The numbers sat instead on a fixed board which would either be around or behind the main board.
The main dartboard body could then be spun around the bull to realign the board. This is what we do with modern board when we turn them and I can only assume it was done for the same reason – to spread the wear and tear out over a larger area of the board, hence it lasts longer.
Where does the dartboard numbering system come from?
Typically, numbers that are next to each other numerically, e.g. 19 and 20 are spread about as far apart as they can be on the board.
The darts legend goes that this system was invented by a carpenter from Bury in Lancashire (UK) called Brian Gamlin in 1896 and that it was specially chosen to penalise ‘lucky’ throws by spreading the best scores around the board and is why we see so many players on for a 180, only to finish with 121 from their throw.
Whilst this is a great story, there doesn’t appear to be any evidence to actually back up the story and most boards don’t seem to all start using the numbering system until the early twentieth century, some decades after Brian Gamlin’s death.
The origin of the dartboard scoring system is likely to therefore remain a mystery, so feel free to pick your favourite legend!
I hope you enjoyed following me through on this brief tour of the history of the dartboard. Unfortunately there aren’t many definite dates but that just adds to the mystery surrounding the game we love! Happy throwing.