Harpoons and lances.

The instruments used to kill whales were the harpoon and the lance. Usually, the harpoons were thrown by hand but by the 19th century simple harpoon guns were also being used. It should be noted that the harpoons fired by the gun were not explosive devices but essentially similar to those thrown by hand.

©SCRAN/University of Aberdeen

At the beginning of the 18th century, harpoons were about 3 feet in length and consisted of three parts; the socket to which a wooden handle and the rope was attached, the shank, and the sharp and barbed mouth. The mouth was triangular in shape, with two simple flat barbs, each equipped with a smaller barb pointing in the opposite direction. Apart from the small forward pointing barbs, his basic design had not changed since the 1600s. The cutting head of the harpoon was made, not of steel, but of soft iron, to allow easy sharpening with a file.

When the harpoon was forced into the whale, and the line held tight, the main barbs seized the strong fibres that run through the blubber and prevented it being pulled out.

The most important part of the harpoon was the 2 foot long shank. This part came under tremendous stress as the whale tried to break free, and was made from the softest and most pliable iron. The shank could be, and was, severely twisted by the thrashing whale and it was important that it could bend without breaking. At the end of the day the value of a harpoon was exactly the same as the value of the whale into which it had been thrust, and that was a small fortune.

harpoon twisted by whale
©SCRAN/Scottish Fisheries Museum.
Harpoon shank twisted by a captured whale.

The lance, used to kill the whale once it had been brought to the surface, was an iron spear 6 feet in length. One end of the lance was formed into a socket into which was fitted a 4 foot handle of fir. At the other end was an 8 inch blade, made of steel and exceedingly sharp.

harpoon twisted by whale

W. Scoresby. Account of the Arctic Regions. 1820. Aberdeen University Library
Lances used to kill whales.

The harpoon gun was invented in 1731 but early designs were difficult to use, and often dangerous. Between 1772 and 1792 the Society of Arts awarded prizes for improvements to the harpoon-gun. The result was a marked improvement in design and by the early 1800s guns could throw a harpoon over 40 yards. These guns were muzzle loaders and fired black powder. The swivel mounted barrel, made of wrought iron, 24-26 inches in length, and with a bore of 1 and 7/8 inches. Guns were supplied with two locks which fired together to reduce the chance of a miss-fire. The harpoon's shank terminated in a cylindrical knob that fitted snugly into the barrel and the line was attached by means of a wire ring.

harpoon twisted by whale
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
Harpoon guns used in the Greenland fishery

Martyn Gorman   ·   University of Aberdeen   ·   Department of Zoology ·   © 2002