It is thought that the game of darts evolved from the sport of archery, with that teaching archery shortening the arrows and getting their students to throw them at the bottom of empty wine barrels. This explains the game’s original name of ‘butts’. According to certain historians, the transition to pub game was the consequence of soldiers who took the game to drinking establishments to have fun and show off their skills. When empty wine bottles were not available, the cross-section of a tree was used instead. This obviously has rings on it and, when it dried, cracks formed which divided it up into segments. This explains how the circular, divided target board came into existence.
This new sport was soon taken up by the upper classes; Henry VIII is reported to have been an avid fan and was given an ornate set by Anne Boleyn. The game remained popular within the army, and as the British Empire spread so did the sport, most notably flourishing in America.
The regulation of throwing distances also came into place around this time, with crates being used to mark the distance. The brewery Hockey and Sons have been credited with first using this system – the owners lining up three crates (nine feet cumulatively) to mark the spot where each player must stand to throw the darts. This mark later fell to two crates (eight feet), which remained the rule for many decades. Regional versions of the game also soon developed. Woodworkers often exchanged bar tabs for fabricating dartboards and different types of dartboards, representative of the region, subsequently came into existence.
Darts remained an Anglo-American sport until the Victorian era when it spread all over the world. However, it was not until around 1900 that a set of rules comparable to the modern incarnation were put into place, and the system of numbering and scoring of the dartboard was implicated. Christopher Carey, however, describes how these rules did not become fully standardized until World War II, after which time the popularity of darts as a pub game grew greatly.
The history of the dartboard
Regional variations of the dartboard have been around throughout the history of the sport and can still be seen in Staffordshire, Manchester, and Yorkshire. Although deviations from the numbering system have been produced in different regions, Brian Gamlin devised the main layout in 1986 with the aim of penalizing inaccuracy. Although this applies to most of the board, beginners prefer the left-hand side as there is a greater concentration of the higher scoring numbers.
Dartboards were originally made from wood but, in 1923, Ted Leggatt made the first dartboard from Nodor modeling clay. However, this was not an immediate hit as it did not make the traditional wooden sound when the dart hit the board. By 1924, Leggatt added elm dartboards to Nodor’s production and led an innovation in darts by adding brass elements to them in 1928.
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Further developments came in 1931 when Frank Dabbs proposed a new idea for dartboard construction, which consisted of using vertically laced rope bound to form a circular target. In 1935, the first Nodor Original Bristle Dartboard was manufactured, and around the same time, this clock pattern was adopted as the standard formation for all dartboards. The Nodor company later moved into the hands of the Bluck family and produced ‘Supabull’ in 1984, the first staple-free bulls eye. In 1999, the Nodor company relocated to Kenya, which was also home to the best sisal, the key ingredient for Bristle dartboards, in the world.
In 1945, Harry Kicks also began to manufacture his own paper-coil dartboards, using the name Keep Dry, as they did not require soaking like the Nodor elm boards. Many years later, the Kicks family also began to make bristle dartboards under the brand name H.A. Kicks and Sons. In the mid 1970s, the company changed its name to Winmau, a brand now synonymous with darts. The company has a strong affiliation with the British Darts Organisation; the company’s boards are used in all BDO games and Winmau also hosts a tournament.
There has been a great competition between these two companies, which has driven each to produce great technological innovations in dartboard design. This battle reached a semi-conclusion in 2002 when Nodor bought Winmau, although the brand name will still be found on many dartboards available for sale today.
The history of darts in competition
For most of the early 20th Century, darts was played as a friendly or “in-house” game in pubs across the UK. However, after World War I, brewery leagues began to appear, and darts was played at a more competitive level. This saw the introduction of the first darts association and the first darts event, ‘The News of the World Competition’. This was initially founded in London in 1927/28 and then spread to the rest of England by the 1930s. By 1938, the total number of contestants was over 280,000. The contest was put on halt during World War II, but was later revived on a national basis and continued to be the most popular darts competition until its termination in the 1990s.
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The 1960s saw the introduction of darts competitions on television, as aided by the British Darts Organisation, which helped spread the sport’s popularity. As more and more people began to watch these competitions, there was the creation of darts “stars” in the 1970s and 1980s. This led to the introduction of high profile events such as the World Grand Prix, the World Championships and the World Matchplay.
Professional darts organizations
The first national darts organization did not survive the two World Wars and, as a result, the National Darts Association of Great Britain (NDGAB) was established in 1954 to fill the void. Today, there are 2 main professional darts organizations in the United Kingdom; the British Darts Organisation (BDO) and the Professional Darts Corporation (PDC).
The British Darts Organisation (BDO), founded in 1973, is marginally older and affiliated with the World Darts Federation (WDF), making it the most prestigious organization in the country. It organizes some of the major competitions and tournaments held in the UK, with the exception of all those held by the National Darts Association of Great Britain and the News of the World Championship.
The power of the BDO was challenged in 1992 though, when an organization broke away, initially forming the World Darts Council (WDC) before switching names to the PDC. This organization took darts in a new direction, bringing new players to join established stars and creating a new outlook for the game. The tournaments held by the PDC have a strong following, although notably weaker than for BDO games. The PDC competitions do have higher prizes though and count some of the dart’s major stars among their ranks, most notably 13-time World Champion Phil Taylor (arguably the greatest player in history) and Raymond van Barneveld.
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There are two Darts World Professional Championships, each being held by one of these organizations. The BDO World Championship was founded in 1978 and is held annually over the Christmas and New Year period. The PDC World Championship has been running annually during the same period since 1994 (although efforts are made to prevent clashing).
Another major tournament is the World Grand Prix, a PDC tournament held in Dublin every October and open to the top darts players across the world. The World Matchplay is also a notable PDC competition, founded in 1994. Darts players see this tournament as second to the World Championships.