The Tech Explosion.
As with many sports, darts has been inundated with “technological” advances over recent years. Due to the large audience, increased exposure and huge participant numbers, manufacturers have been seeking to develop products that will tempt the ordinary player and, perhaps, give professional players that extra % that will make all the difference.
One of the great advantages of darts, as a participant sport, is its relatively inexpensive nature. A decent board, other items needed, in order to play the game can be obtained and installed for less £100 or even less than £50 with the help of Ebay or swap & sell sites.
Surges in popularity of Golf & Tennis, among others, also lead to technological leaps, both for amateurs and at the professional level. Yet in these sports the advances can be clearly demonstrated, explained and sometimes obviously visible. Sweet spots, head size, string power or spin generation, length of shot, reduction of mis-hits etc.
The biggest change in darts was the use of denser metals, such as tungsten, in order to make darts thinner at the preferred weights. Tennis and golf have had their equivalents with changes in shaft and frame material respectively. Again in such sports these changes lead to measurable increasing in power, durability, flexibility etc.
A few years ago however darts manufacturers began to introduce other changes. With these came increased costs and what could be termed premium level darts and accessories. Along with the design “innovations” came new cosmetics and terminology in order to persuade players that these items could really make a difference to them. At the highest level players were tinkering, with the help of manufacturers, almost constantly to create the impression of an evolving process, thus meaning new generations of players, or classic, darts and the creation of a market that now sees many amateur players changing darts annually or even more often! It seems that a combination of sport tech and mobile phone / football shirt fashion have entered into the game.
Do darts Innovations Work?
There are three main area’s where advances are claimed. Barrel design, and manufacture, accessories that complete the dart, often known as the “Set Up” and more recently the third area, point design and manufacture.
The recent increase in these areas of innovation can probably be traced back to Unicorn’s, and Phil Taylor’s, development of development of the Sigma dart. Much fanfare was brought to the creation of this ( Phase 4?) dart. Could “The Power” be made even better? Rocket scientists were apparently involved, later known as UniBoffins! and “dart & accessories designed to be as one” from point to flight became a watchword.
These darts were then packaged in premium cases and sold with serial numbers and assured weights, laser etched on the barrels, and quality guaranties etc. These were short-lived in terms of Phil’s use and , due to his struggles, The Phase 5 was swiftly introduced. Yet the die was cast and the annual launch, technology heavy and premium looking package, formula now became the norm.
Hidden in this tale, however, is a possibility that manufacturers would not like to dwell on. Namely, that the advances are myths and depend totally upon the player. “The Power” could not get on with the newly created darts, something had to be done, so some old tech, the “John Lowe”barrel, was swiftly adapted into the Phil Taylor Phase 5. Even the one piece side loading stem was very similar to those used by Lowe and others in the 1980’s. Taylor went from strength to strength, different editions of the Phase 5 were launched, colour hjgcoordinated and coated for fashion preference and the day was saved, The Phase 5 is now known as the most successful dart ever made.
Barrels & Grip
If barrel technology was moving the game forward at rapid speed, or had changed anything significant, the current crop of the games elite would be using different equipment, or much improved versions, than those of 10 or 20 years ago. If we allow the argument that those players had grown up with the older equipment, and struggled to change, then surely the younger generation coming through would be using newer kit or dramatic variations of the older styles.
Yet a good look at the rankings may show us a different story. The top twenty PDC players include players whose age range is from mid fifty’s to early twenties. They are a mix of players, some who have grown up with darts early TV age and those who will have been heavily influenced by the more modern Sky/PDC game. They also differ in speed, style, rythym just as much as previous generations.
Of the current top twenty. Eleven use a straight or tapered barrel with a cut grip. These are either simple ring cut, combination cut or a “purist style” cut. Phil is currently the only player in the top 20 using a classic Lowe/Sigma barrel and similar set up. Of the other eight players, two use knurled grip barrels, variations of these have been around for decades. Too more use very smooth barrels of slightly different types. Although Stephen Bunting is trying various new grips, his most successful darts were very light, simple and smooth. Jelle Klassen and Simon Whitlock are using an interesting looking barrels, yet upon close inspection they have much in common with other tapered nose barrelled with ring cuts placed where they like them and a scallop or similar toward the rear of the dart. Even the weight used by players is not changing greatly. Phil’s 26g is still at the high end, Bunting at the lower end with 12-17g. The vast majority seem to sit between 20 & 22g. Not much has changed here (for example John Lowe prefered 21.5g) in over over thirty years. It does seem however that lighter darts have the slight upper hand. Priestley, Hankey and Bunting have won world titles using 17g or less. The 21g or less professional group seems to be gaining momentum.
What of the younger generation of players, perhaps less set in their ways or more open to the newer styles? Micheal Smith uses a very simple ring cut barrel with soft snub nose, Dave Pallet uses Adrian Lewis type darts made either by Unicorn or Bulls. It is a tapered nose edition with ring step cuts all the way down. Keegan Brown uses a Unicorn dart that uses simple cut sections and smooth blanks. It looks like cross between Barney, Bob Anderson and some One80 barrels.
The newer grips that are being developed, produced and marketed include nano grip, pixel grip, micro grip, diamond grip and more. None of these have yet made the grade in terms of a player coming through having adopted one of these from early in their career or changed to one and transformed their performance. Although a special mention should go to Red Dragon/Winmau here. Around 2010/11 they introduced the diamond fusion grip. Selected designs of premium darts were made with an encrusted diamond grip on sections of the barrels.
After trying various darts and set ups, during a “fitting session” Ian Diamond White was suggested to try the 22g edition. They were very familiar to him in shape, style weight & balance, the additional grip and security, of the diamond idea, seemed to really fit with Ian and over the next couple of years his career did indeed go to the next level. The problem is, this process had already started, Ian had qualified for the G Slam and Worlds in the previous few months and was already on a steep upward curve. It is very difficult to be sure how much the grip chance added to that. However I do believe it provided a confidence in his eqipement, and in turn his game, that helped him improve quicker and maintain his highest standard for longer periods. It is interesting that they have now introduced this into more models, in the Winmau Range, and Peter Wright’s Euro 11 dart. This is very similar to MVG’s dart. The combination of the two could be very interesting.
In some ways grip fashion is moving backwards, there is a renewed appetite for older style copper tungsten, and other mixed material, darts. This seems to be due to the fact that the metal, combined with use , sweat etc., seems to produce a natural grip not dependent on the added factors. Could this be due to added or surface grip wearing and being less consistent over time?
As can be seen the jury is still out on “technological advances” in the barrel and grip areas. Yet the development, presentation and marketing of these premium products goes from strength to strength. Makers such as Cosmo package their darts more like jewellery than sports items with Target’s recent £300 Elysian darts illustrating the extreme end of such a market.
What about “set ups” can technology and innovation help the pro’s or the rest of us when it comes to flights, stems and other accessories?
The answer here may be even clearer……..
See Part II