So... You want to start playing darts?
The following is a representation of where to start when first taking up the game of darts. Refining your abilities, learning the different games and competing against others will go far beyond these first steps. Never be afraid to ask questions from other players. Darters are a great group of people and are usually more than willing to assist new players.
When you're first starting to play darts there are several things that can make the experience fun and rewarding instead of painful and frustrating. Interestingly enough, these don't necessarily include being able to hit what you're aiming for yet! After you master a few basic things you will find that darts becomes primarily a mental game of memory, focus and concentration.
So where do you start? There are three areas that should be addressed first. These areas are your stance, your throw (including your grip) and the dart you choose to use. Before continuing to examine each area in more detail, it needs to be pointed out that these are only guidelines.
Darts is a sport with lots of differing styles and mechanics. Copying someone else's stance, throwing style or darts may not be what's best for YOU. So, don't shortcut the initial process and try to jump directly to the mental aspects of the game or you will find the path much harder than it needs to be. It will take a little time before your arm is completely ready to throw precise darts (this is known as developing "muscle memory" where some of the smaller muscles need to strengthen, as well as supporting ligaments, etc.).
Find a comfortable, balanced stance where you can throw your darts with the least amount of body movement (the fewer things that move the easier it is to be accurate).
You'll want to have your throwing arm closer to the board than your other arm. You're not pitching a baseball, you're trying to develop a subtle, repeatable arm action (as I touched on above, after a certain amount of practice, darts becomes at least 90% mental).
It's very important that your stance helps you throw and not cause any pain during a full league night or long tournament. Your front foot will normally bear most of your weight and will be closest to the oche (the line you throw from). The angle of your front foot can range from parallel to the oche to perpendicular (i.e., pointing at the board) to any point in-between.
Again, this will be a personal thing, but you should try to find a comfortable position that causes the least amount of body movement during your throw (you'll want to avoid a stance that causes you to jump or lift your rear leg as well as any stance that makes you feel off-balance).
It is perfectly normal to have a bit of lean in your body and some techniques will incorporate a slight twist of your body to help lock in the body parts that you don't want moving. These can be attempted after you have developed a basic stance.
As strange as it may sound on the surface, it's not all that important what you hit with your darts when you're first learning. Of far more significance is how the dart looks going into the board and how tight your groupings are.
You should be able to walk up to the line and simply throw your darts at the board (without specifically aiming at a target) and the darts should all look similar. What I mean by similar is that they should all enter the board at the same vertical angle without leaning to the left or right.
The first things you are striving to accomplish in the beginning is to develop a smooth, consistent throw that doesn't cause you any pain. If the darts are entering the board at weird angles and/or do not look the same from one dart to another then your throw is not correct and NOW is the time to work on it (bad habits are terribly hard to break). Your throw should start from a relaxed position, have a smooth backstroke and a nice follow-thru.
Also, notice how your fingers hold the dart during the throw. Do you spin the dart as you throw? Are there any hard or sharp motions in your throw? (These will not only cause inaccurate results, but can eventually cause you pain.) With regards to your grip, you want to develop a grip that is comfortable and easy to repeat throw after throw. Dart surfaces (explained later) can help here as well as external substances like wax, chalk or rosin.
Muscle memory is what you are trying to achieve when you first start to play. Basically, you want to train your arm to have a consistent, repeatable stroke. Will it require a lot of practice and dedication? You bet! But an interesting thing is that once you have developed this correctly, you'll require far less practice later in your playing life (where it mostly becomes all about mental focus and handling nerves).
Needless to say, if you don't practice good technique you will be teaching your muscles bad habits which will take FAR more effort to correct later. That said, you'll want to avoid using any part of the dart or your hand to aim with. While many are used to sighting their target (down the barrel of a gun for example), the difference here is that as you start to move your arm back, what you're using to focus on is moving.
Once your throw looks good (meaning the dart enters the board straight in without leaning to either side), you should work on learning how to group your darts. This is actually pretty easy to practice since all you need to do is throw a dart at the board and then throw the next two darts with the same mechanics.
The goal being that the second and third darts should be close to the first dart. In other words, throw a dart at a target (say the triple 20), but even if the dart misses, go ahead and throw the remaining two darts exactly as you did the first and see if they end up near the first dart. The point here is to reduce the frustration that comes from missing a target which may due to an inconsistent throw, then trying to correct and missing again.
Once your darts are grouping nicely you will know that you have a consistent throw. At this time you are ready to really begin really throwing at targets (it's at about this time that the game will begin to become more mental and less physical).
This is the third point because an improper stance or throw can make even the best dart feel awkward.
There are many types of darts with the main differences being length, shape, weight, grip and location of the center of balance (either front-loaded or center-loaded darts). Then, you add shafts (where the initial difference is primarily length) and flights (which, in the beginning, you should consider shape and size). Beyond this lies a world of differing looks, colors, materials and accessories, most of which are purely for personal preference and don't change how you throw your darts.
First of all, it's important to know what each part of the dart is called. The main section is called the barrel and this piece will commonly have a hole in the front for a tip to screw into (or already have a tip attached) and another hole in back where the shaft goes. The shaft (or stem) is the part that holds the flight onto the back of the dart. The flight (which used to be called the "feathers") are used to stabilize the dart in flight and will commonly have four "wings" unlike an archery arrow which usually has three.
There are some practical considerations to take into account as well. If you throw with heavy darts (especially non-tungsten darts that use a lighter metal), your darts will be very large. This will make it difficult to get all three darts to hit the same target since they take up a lot of space.
Also, although it may not seem like much, if you're throwing a dart that weighs more than 28.3 grams, you are throwing more than three ounces every turn, which becomes over a pound about every five turns. Play a long tournament and you will find it getting more and more difficult to maintain a consistent throw as your arm tires out.
Then there is getting a dart set-up that feels easy to throw well. Most people fall into either the front-load or center-load camps and really can't throw the other type. You've got enough to think about during a match, the last thing you need to do is have to fight with the darts to get them to do anything.
Another consideration is length. If the dart is too long, you might hit yourself in the face on the backstroke of your throw, while a dart that is too short might not fit comfortably in your hand. Of course, if you desire to play in tournaments someday, you will need to abide with the equipment rules of the governing body. For example, the American Darts Organization (ADO), states that:
"Darts used in tournament play cannot exceed an overall maximum length of 30.5 cm (12 in.), nor weigh more than 50 gm per dart. Each dart will consist of a recognizable point, barrel, and flight."
Needless to say, it may take you a while to find a dart that is perfect for you but, instead of trying the darts of all your friends, head down to a "good" dart store and expect to stay for a while. A "good" dart store will have someone who understands that you need to try a variety of darts and configurations and not someone who will just try to sell you the model some Pro uses.
In the beginning it's just ridiculous to spend over $100 on a set of darts you're not sure you'll like in a week (especially when you can probably get almost exactly the same in a much cheaper set that doesn't have a "name" attached to it). The better stores will also allow you to return a set in a week if you find they are not to your liking. So now let's go about finding a dart that's a good match for you.
Remember that this can be a repetitive process and that one barrel may feel good with a long shaft but not with a short one, while another is exactly opposite.
Center of Balance - There are two basic kinds: Center-loads and front-loads. Center-loads distribute the weight evenly along the whole shaft (and look more like a nail) while front-loads have more weight towards the tip (and look more like a little bomb or teardrop). You will probably find one to be far more enjoyable to throw than the other type.
Weight - As I alluded to in the practical considerations above, you'll want to avoid a heavy dart (even if they tend to feel the best in the beginning). Another reason to start with a lighter dart is if you think you'll ever be playing soft-tip (where you throw plastic tipped darts at a stand-up video game machine).
Soft-tip rules have far more restrictive weight limits to consider then and I believe that if you can play steel-tip with a dart that's also of a legal weight for soft-tip, you'll have a lot less to change on your stroke (and consequently you'll be more consistent in both games - in fact, you should be able to use the same darts, simply replacing the tips for each type of game). To the best of my knowledge, the current weight limit for soft-tip is 18 grams.
Length - This is really a personal preference (as long as the length stays within the rules as mentioned above). You'll want a dart that feels balanced in your hand, but isn't hard to hold on to and doesn't poke you in the face or hit the back of your hand when you are throwing it. Remember that longer barrels will weigh more than shorter barrels of the same style, so know that you can also modify the overall length with different points and shafts.
Surface - To have a consistent throw you don't want an edge or a knurl that occasionally catches on your finger as you throw, or have a finish that's so smooth that the darts sometimes slip through your fingers.
You will find that darts have many different textures that include grooves (from minimal to aggressive), knurls (from light to heavy) as well as many combinations of both. There are even different smooth surfaces from a matte-finish to a chemically coated one.
Take your time and try out several styles. Keep an open mind and remember to go back and try previously discarded options when you change something else (like trying a certain knurl with both a center-load and a front-load, you may find that a knurl works better with the center-load and not as well with a front-load).
Some of the more exotic darts have coatings that are designed to give you a consistent grip, but are probably best left until down the road when you really know what you want since these darts are usually among the most expensive. Realize that your grip will change depending on the temperature and how well you handle your nerves too!
You may find that you need something else to go along with the darts to keep a good grip and there are several things available. Most dart stores can sell you wax or small rosin bags, and you can also use chalk or water, but it's best to find a dart that feels right most of the time first.
Points - Here, again, there are two basic choices: Points that move and those that don't (including "fixed points" that can't be removed).
Movable points (MP) are designed to bounce off the board less because when you hit a wire the weight of the dart shaft continues forward (after the tip starts to bounce back) and usually causes the dart to continue into the board on one side of the wire or the other.
One thing I should mention here is that if you choose removable points (which may or may not actually move) you can then use the same darts for both steel-tip and soft-tip (as long as they are under the maximum weight for soft-tip of course).
A lot of the professional players that I have seen (in person and on television) tend to use fixed points (FP), but I should point out that they also tend to throw at nearly new boards (with tiny razor wires) and not the very used boards usually seen in your average local bar that feature larger wires separating the scoring areas.
Shafts - Now, I'm not advocating drinking here, but if you happen to like having a couple while you throw, you may find yourself cursing some of the tight metal shafts that are nearly impossible to put a flight back on after they get a bit bent (and anyone who has poked their finger with a dart while trying to open up the shaft end will know what I mean).
Consider different materials - like aluminum, plastic and nylon - as well as differing lengths (remember to try several with each dart barrel). Personally, I would avoid any shaft with a "gimmick" until you really know what you like (these include spinners and those with "flight protectors" in their design, etc.).
Flights - While there may appear to be a dizzying number of flights to choose from, the SIZE and SHAPE of the flight may not be as much a personal choice as it is dependent on how your darts hit the board.
If they tend to hit the board with the shaft pointing too far up then your flight is too big. If your darts tend to hit the board with the shaft pointing down then the flight is probably too small (this is assuming that the mechanics of your throw are fairly decent).
After you've worked on your personal style for a while, you may prefer to have your darts tilt up or down a bit. If you watch these three World Champions; Phil Taylor, John Part and John Lowe, you may notice that each has a slightly different angle of entry. One whose darts tend to tilt down (Phil), one whose darts enter pretty much straight (John Part) and one with his darts tilting up a little (John Lowe).
One last note about flight size, if you have to play outside or in a windy location, a larger flight will obviously cause you more issues than a smaller one.
As for the MATERIAL that the flight is made from, this becomes more of a personal issue, but if you are constantly damaging your flights then you might want to try another make or style (although you might find that adding a "flight protector" solves the problem). Some people prefer flights that come off easily to avoid damage but, as you get older and find the bending down to pick up flights more of a hassle than replacing damaged flights with new ones, you might consider changing shaft and flight types until they stay together (there are also various "shaft rings" and "shaft crowns" that can help with this).
One last comment about flights: Color. While this is primarily an area of personal preference and the best place for you to express your opinions and individuality, I would suggest starting with a solid color at first that won't distract you from your target. Some people even use clear flights for this but, while they help you see through them to the target, it doesn't help much when all you do is hit the flight with the next throw.
Accessories - Some of these have been touched upon above (wax, rosin, flight protectors and shaft rings), but there are some other items that are useful (some more obvious than others). Do you really NEED a case? No, but having something to keep extra points, shafts, flights and tools in is nice.
Some other things that you may find helpful include a sharpening stone (which actually shouldn't be used for sharpening, but rather to remove burrs from the tips of your darts), a tip remover (if you have removable tips) and a plastic point protector (to put the darts into so the tips don't poke anything).
For darts to become an enjoyable event for years to come, it's important to start off correctly. The above are guidelines to begin the journey with and you will find that there are many fellow players that are qualified and willing to give you advice.
Just keep in mind that what works for one person may not be appropriate for you. An open mind and gathering constructive criticism from multiple sources are your best bets. Once you find a basic stance, throw and set of darts that suits you well, the next steps are practice and getting out there to play.
Everyone was a beginner once and you definitely won't be the only one out there just learning (It should also be mentioned that the learning never ends so you'll never get bored!). The next step might be to join a local league (perhaps with some friends that are also just beginning).
This can end up being just for fun or could lead to a more competitive future in higher divisions or playing in tournaments. You can play as seriously as you want or just enjoy the social aspects - it's all up to you!
Good luck, shoot well and enjoy playing!