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Updated on May 21, 2010

The harpoon is a long, spearlike weapon. Early harpoons were hurled by hand, but many modern ones are shot from guns. Such harpoons are made of iron and sometimes weigh more than 100 pounds. The harpoon was adapted from a primitive pronged spear and used for centuries by hunters of whales and other sea animals. Whalemen used the harpoon to penetrate the body of a whale and attach him to the whaleboat by the line. The whale was then killed with a lance.

The harpoon used by European whalers in the 17th century had a double-barbed head, a shaft, and a wooden pole set into a socket in the shaft. This was the standard design until about 1848, when Lewis Temple, a Negro blacksmith from New Bedford, adapted the design of the Eskimo harpoon, which had a bone head that became detached from the pole after the whale was harpooned. Unlike the Eskimo harpoon however, the American designed head did not dislodge or come free.

Many harpoons have a bomb, or exploding head, attached to the forward end of the shaft. The bomb is exploded by a fuse after the harpoon has entered the body of the whale.

Toggle Harpoon

The Temple harpoon had a barbed 7 inch (18 cm) swivel head called a toggle, a 3.5 foot (1 meter) iron shaft attached to the toggle by a strong rivet, and a 6 foot (1.8 meter) wooden pole set into a socket in the shaft. A slender wooden pin was inserted in a hole through the toggle and the shaft to hold the toggle straight as it entered the whale's body. When the pull on the line snapped the wooden pin, the toggle swung on its rivet to a position at right angles to the shaft, thus holding the harpoon firmly in the whale.

    Photo by Stahlkocher

Harpoon Guns

Harpoon guns were invented in England in the early decades of the 18th century. The Greener gun was the most commonly used gun during this period, but the whalers still preferred the hand harpoon. In the 1840's, the large-bore Brand shoulder gun was invented. The American Captain Eben Pierce revolutionized such weapons with his darting gun, introduced in arctic whaling in 1865. It had a stockless gun barrel affixed to the harpoon pole and shaft, and a heavy iron wire protruding along the gun barrel and extending under the shaft. When the harpoon was thrust into the whale, the wire was shoved back, setting off the gun trigger and firing a bomb lance that exploded after entering the whale. In the 1860's, Svend Foyn, a Norwegian, invented a harpoon with hinged barbs in the head that spread open when shot into a whale from a cannon. The barbs crushed a glass tube filled with sulfuric acid, igniting a fuse that exploded gunpowder in the harpoon tip. Foyn's harpoon ushered in the era of modern whaling.


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