Every dart has four parts: the point (or tip), barrel, shaft and flight. Each part has a specific function and can change the overall performance of a dart. Understanding the functions of each part will help any dart player find the right set of darts for their playing style and help improve their game.
Point (or Tip) - Dart points come in plastic (soft tip darts) or steel (steel tip darts) versions. Both steel and soft tip darts can be used on "bristle" dart boards (the boards traditionally used with steel darts), but you should never use steel tip darts on soft tip dart boards as they will cause permanent damage. Some dart points are removable while others are permanently integrated into the barrel. Darts can also have either fixed points or moveable points. Moveable point darts are constructed in a way that allows the points to retract slightly into the barrels upon impact. This slight retraction allows the dart to continue its forward motion when hitting a hard surface, such as the dart board's wire, sliding the point past the wire into the dart board, virtually eliminating bounce-outs.
Barrel - Dart barrels come in a huge variety of styles, sizes, materials and grips. The overall weight of a dart is largely determined by the weight of its barrel. Barrel weights commonly range from 16 to 30 grams, but even heavier and lighter darts are available. Common barrel materials include wood, plastic, brass, nickel-silver and tungsten. Wood barrels are less commonly used and, along with plastic barrels, have taken a back seat to the increasing popularity of brass, nickel-silver and tungsten barrels.
Brass barrels are durable and inexpensive, though they can be susceptible to corrosion, causing the grips (texture of the barrel) to slowly wear off with time. Nickel-silver barrels are corrosion resistant and harder than brass barrels while being slightly more expensive. Tungsten barrels are generally considered to be the most desirable barrel material. Tungsten is very dense, allowing barrels to be very thin and sleek while still maintaining proper weight. Thinner tungsten barrels create more room for closer dart grouping. Most tungsten barrels will be listed as a percentage of tungsten, many are 80 - 90%. The higher the percentage, the thinner and smaller the barrel can be for a given weight.
Barrels also come in smooth, ringed and knurled grips. Certain ringed barrels can accept rubber o-rings in the in-set barrel rings to improve the grip. Knurled grips can range from very fine to very coarse. Deciding on the right grip for your style is a matter of experimentation.
Shaft - similar to barrels, dart shafts also come in a variety of materials, lengths and styles. The most common shaft materials are aluminum, plastic, nylon and titanium, aluminum being the most popular. Shaft lengths affect the stability of the dart in flight. Longer shafts may help reduce the effects of crowding, but they can also cause a dart to "fish-tail" in the air, destabilizing an otherwise accurate throw. If your darts "fish-tail" you may want to switch to shorter shafts.
Specialty shaft styles include those with replaceable tops, adjustable lengths and spinning shafts. Spinning shafts rotate at the flight, allowing incoming darts to slide past without bouncing off other darts or damaging other flights, creating the opportunity for tighter groupings.
Occasionally, the fit between shaft and barrel may begin to loosen, causing unnecessary instability in the dart during flight. In this case, shafts can be kept tight in their barrels by putting a rubber o-ring (sometimes called a "dart washer") between the the two to act as a sort of lock-washer.
Flight - Dart flights come in different shapes and textures. The most common shapes are Standard and Slim while less common shapes include Pear, Vortex, Vector, Kite and more. Flight textures include smooth, nylon, Dimplex, etc. Smaller, smoother flights will allow darts to cut through the air faster with less drag, yet they will be less forgiving to variations in angle of attack. Conversely, larger, more textured flights will make darts fly slower through the air with more drag and they will be more forgiving to variations in angle. Generally speaking, smaller flights, like slims, are used with lighter darts and shorter shafts while larger flights are generally used with heavier darts and longer shafts. There are always exceptions to the rule of course and plenty of accomplished darters use long, heavy darts with slim flights or vice-verse.
Armed with an understanding of dart anatomy, you can start experimenting with different combinations of point, barrel, shaft and flight, finding the one that best fitsyour playing style and preferences.