Cracking A Whip
Before you begin, you should know that whips can be dangerous. The person you are most likely to his is yourself, so wear long sleeves and pants, and protective eye glasses or goggles! Look out for people or animals who may enter your danger zone, and keep an eye out for overhanging tree branches and power cables.
Buying a Whip
The whips used in the Indiana Jones movies are made of kangaroo leather by David Morgan of Seattle, Washington. They are very high quality and very expensive whips. If your budget does not run to that there are some excellent professional quality whips made out of nylon. Your first bullwhip should be in the six to eight foot range, depending on your size and how much space you have to practice in.
- David Morgan
America's most respected whip maker, David Morgan supplied the whips for the Indiana Jones movies and many other productions and performers.
- Western Stage Props
A leading supplier of whips in a wide range of prices and quality.
- Mike Murphy
One of Australia's finest whip makers, Mike is also a champion whip cracker and has made some excellent "how to" videos.
- Greg DeSaye
Maker of high quality reasonably priced nylon bullwhips.
- Rhett Kelley
Maker of high quality reasonably priced nylon bullwhips and cow whips. Rhett often has a waiting list, so ask before you order.
The Forward Crack
The first crack you should learn is the one I call the Forward Crack. It has various other names, though. I've heard it called the Circus Crack and the Gypsy Crack. In Australia they call something very similar the Cattleman's Crack.
There are several reasons why this is a good place to start. First of all, it is a relatively safe crack. The whip is not going too fast when it goes past your body, and it goes from back to front. If you do mess up and hit yourself it won't be in the face. After the whip cracks the follow through takes it down to the ground and not back towards your body. There's nothing makes you feel a fool faster than a really impressive crack followed by a face full of whip.
The second reason I like to teach this to beginners, is that it is such a useful crack. In fact, I have seen a five minute stage routine by a whip artist who did nothing but slight variations on the Forward Crack! You can use it just to make a sound, you can cut targets with it, you can put out candles or you can use it to wrap a horizontal object such as an assistant's arm. The whip travels through a large vertical plane (the shoulder wall plane) and anywhere that a target intersects that plane the whip will cut it. This means that as well as having an assistant hold a target, you can also hold one yourself - behind your back, over your head or even in your mouth.
The third reason is that it is a fundamental building block for more complex moves. When you have mastered the Forward Crack, you can move on to the Reverse Crack, Figure Eights, Fast Figure Eights and Volleys.
If your whip has a natural curve (most long leather whips do, many nylon whips do not) then you must now decide if you want to crack with the natural curve or against it. By cracking with the curve, I mean that the final loop that will make the crack coils the whip in the same direction it curls naturally. Cracking against the curve you are flexing the whip in the opposite direction. Some whip handlers are almost religious over this issue, and debates on the topic can get very heated.
If you crack with the natural curve you will exert less energy, and you will generally have a more graceful and fluid style. If you crack against the natural curve, you will be putting more effort into the crack, but the result will be louder and more macho. My suggestion is that you experiment and find out what works best for you, and then stick with that. I have heard it suggested that cracking one way or another will wear a whip out faster, but I believe this is a misconception.
Whichever way you decide to go, the natural curve should always lie in the plane in which the whip is cracking. Never twist the handle of the whip so that the natural curve forces the motion of the whip out of the plane of the crack. This is true for almost all cracks, and not just the forward crack.
In this crack, as in most others, the final push that helps the whip to crack comes from the thumb (or the V between the thumb and index finger if you prefer that grip). If you want to crack with the natural curve you should hold the handle so that your thumb is on the inside of this curve. If you crack against the natural curve your thumb should be on the outside.
I will break this crack down into three phases, the setup, the turn and the follow through.
Forward Crack Setup
Take the knot in the palm of your hand, with your thumb pointing down the handle. I find it most comfortable to have the knot right in the middle of my palm, but some people prefer it further back towards the wrist, especially if using a stock whip. Don't grasp the middle of the handle, though. Hold your arm straight down, with the handle of the whip pointing downwards and your thumb at the front. Arrange the whip so that it is lying in a line directly behind your whip hand. If you want the final crack to be with the natural curve, the whip should now be flexed against the natural curve, and vice versa.
Getting the whip in a straight line behind you is not easy at first. It always seems to shoot over further than you expect, or try to squirm around like an eel. The simple way to straighten out any curves in the whip is to lay it out behind you anyhow and then take a pace or two forwards, but with a little practice you will find that you can flip the handle gently so that the thong moves into the right position. If you start with the handle pointing forwards, and then rotate it till it points upwards and then backwards, keeping it in the shoulder wall plane, you will send a loop down the whip which will straighten it out. You may wish to spend a few minutes practicing this just to get to know your whip before you try to crack it. If you don't get the whip straight, don't wear shorts! Enough said.
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Now, keeping your arm straight, swing it forwards, and upwards, all the time keeping it in the shoulder wall plane. The tip of the whip will make a big circle, up in front of you. You should be going fast enough to keep the whip straight in the air. This is the time when you are putting most of the energy into the whip, which will later be released in the crack. Work, says the physicist, is force times distance. This means you don't have to exert a huge amount of force to get a whip to crack, you just have to apply that force over a large distance. Make sure you are using a big arm motion if you are using a bullwhip or a snake. With a stock whip or a cow whip the handle acts as a lever, so you can use a smaller arm motion, and apply more twisting force with your wrist.
When your arm is horizontal allow your elbow to bend upwards, and let your wrist tilt backwards so that the whip can continue its motion. Eventually the whip will once again be pointing straight backwards, but this time it will be in the air at about shoulder level. Do not let your elbow swing out to the side; keep it pointing forwards.
Forward Crack Turn
When the whip is behind you in the air you need to propel it straight forwards. By now your elbow should be bent at a right angle so that your upper arm is horizontal, pointing forwards in the shoulder wall plane, and your forearm is vertical. Don't bend your elbow much more than ninety degrees, though or let your hand go too far back.
Now, drop your elbow slightly so that your hand is just above shoulder height, and then push your hand straight forwards. Straighten your elbow until your whole arm is horizontal, and then tilt your wrist so that the handle of the whip points forwards. The whip will come past your body, just outside your shoulder and arm. A loop will form, which will roll forwards along its length. You do not need to put a tremendous amount of force into this part of the crack, just enough to change the direction of the whip. All the energy that you stored in the whip during the setup is ready to be released, you just need to direct it.
Forward Crack Follow Through
Just keep your arm pointing straight forwards without moving until the whip cracks. The whip should crack in the shoulder wall plane well in front of you and a few feet (0.5m - 1m.) above your head, then fall to the ground, its force exhausted. Now you can bring your arm back down to pull the whip back and position it behind you for another crack.
What Went Wrong?
The chances are the first few times you try this you will not get very many cracks, or the whip may be cracking in the wrong place. Watch for the loop that rolls along the whip. If it is a small loop in the shoulder wall plane rolling straight forwards then your whip will crack. If you don't see this then you're probably having one of the following problems:
• The whip was not lined up at the start. If you find that you are hitting yourself on the back of the legs it may be because the whip did not start up in a line behind your whip hand. Get in the habit of checking the alignment of the whip every time you crack, especially if you are using anything longer than a six-footer.
• Snatching. You will not see the loop at all, because the whip is cracking next to your ear rather than well in front of you. You are starting the turn too early and pulling the whip down rather than forwards. Make sure the setup places the whip all the way behind you before you start the turn, and don't try to apply too much force during the turn.
• Hesitation. This is the opposite of snatching. After the setup you stop to think about what you are doing, and allow the whip to lose all its momentum before going into the turn. You'll probably do this a few times when you are learning, but then get over it. It may help you to vocalize as you crack, that is, say to yourself something like "Up, over, back, forwards, crack, down," as you go through the motions. This will help you to get your timing consistent. I once taught a belly dancer to crack a whip, and she assigned a note to each position, and then sang her way thought the crack. She learned very quickly.
• Leaving the shoulder wall plane. There are several warning signs for this. If you are hitting yourself on the back, if the loop is not in a vertical plane but pulled out into a helical spring shape, or if the follow through brings the whip back across the front of your body, then you are not keeping the motion of your arm in the shoulder wall plane. You are almost certainly sticking your elbow out to the side! Keep all the motions of your arm in the shoulder arm plane, and the whip will stay there too. There should be no sideways motion of your elbow at all. (You can check this by making your usual cracking motion while facing a mirror. Watch that elbow!)
• Leaving the shoulder wall plane. Yes, I know I just warned you about this one, but you're probably still doing it. Almost everyone does when they are learning this crack. Is the follow through still hitting you on the shins? Then you are still letting your elbow creep out to the side at the end of the setup. Stop it!
• Leaving the shoulder wall plane, one more time. You've watched yourself in a mirror and your elbow motion is perfect, but the whip is still not cracking properly and is hitting your legs. OK, now it's time to watch the angle at which you are holding the handle. Wherever you are in the motion of the whip, the handle should be tilted just slightly away from your body, and your palm should be facing inwards. Don't twist your hand, and don't tilt the whip towards your body when it is over your head.
• Going back over the top. It's important that the turn should propel the whip straight forwards. Don't try to take the whip back in a circle, reversing the motion of the setup. The fall and popper should stay pointing downwards during the turn. If they flip back upwards before the crack, check your arm motion carefully.
• Finishing too low. Your arm should be perfectly horizontal and pointing forwards after the whip has cracked. If you arm is pointing downwards it will be harder to crack the whip, and you risk damaging it by hitting it on the ground. Check your arm position after each crack and make sure it is OK.
• Missing popper. The last crack may have been so hard that the cracker has left the whip, possibly taking some of the fall with it. You can get a crack with just the fall, but it is more difficult and will chew up your fall in no time.
• Knots. Sometimes your whip may manage to wriggle itself into a knot, especially in the fall or popper. You may get hitches, figure eight knots, blood knots, slip knots and plain old tangles. If you go on cracking with a knot in your whip it will just get tighter and tighter, so untie it right away. It's a good idea to glance at your whip after every crack to make sure there are no knots.
• Timing. If everything else is perfect but the loop is too big, then you have a timing problem. Some part of your motion is too fast or too slow. Get a friend to watch you, and tell you where the whip is when you start the turn. With a whip that is six foot or under it should be horizontal in the air behind you. If it slopes upwards from your hand, they you are starting the turn too early, and if it slopes downwards you are too late. With a whip that is eight foot or more you can afford to wait until you hear the fall hit the ground behind you before you begin the turn.
Want To Learn More?
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