Whaling Weapons

whaling weapon detail

Catching whales was difficult and dangerous work. Getting close enough to the whale to get a line attached and then kill it was continually hampered by rough weather and fighting whales that would often dive below the ice to escape. As a result the whalers came to rely on the effectiveness and efficiency of their weapons. These weapons varied from hand held weapons to explosive devices.

Hand harpoon

Hand harpoons

The function of the harpoon is simply to fasten a line to the whale. The British 'iron' had two barbs each with a small reverse barb or 'stop wither'. The withers catch hold of the muscle fibres and tendons of the whale and prevent the harpoon from dragging out.

Experiments with new types of gun common place but projecting a gun harpoon so that it entered the whale as nearly vertically as possible was problematic as a result the hand harpoon remained a popular weapon and was in use throughout the entire era of commercial open boat whaling.

The Temple Iron became a popular harpoon with whalers. It was adapted by Lewis Temple, an American, in 1848. It was a simple design whereby a small wooden pin fastened a hinged barb to the harpoon, when the harpoon is drawn out of the whale the pin breaks and then the hinged barb swings outwards to hold fast.

shoulder gun

Harpoon gun

The harpoon gun was first invented in 1731 but was not widely used until the nineteenth century. A gun harpoon was inserted into the barrel of the gun and once fired into the whale would serve the same purpose as the hand harpoon.

Harpoons were often 'tagged' so that the identity of any particular harpoon could be verified in case the ownership of any whale was disputed. Usually harpoons were stamped with the name of the ship to which it belonged and often marked with the date.


The lances were thrust into the whale's vital organs; a spout of blood form the blow hole would usually indicate the impending death of the animal.

Whaling crossbow

The whaling crossbow was an enlarged version of the medieval weapon and has a swivel so that it could be mounted in a whaleboat. The crossbow was used as an alternative method to the early harpoon gun and from 1768-1788 the Society of Arts offered rewards for an improved crossbow. One of these crossbows survived and is currently on display in the Hull Maritime Museum.

Bomb lance

From the 1850's onwards shoulder guns were used to shoot bomb lances at the whales. The bomb lances were filled with explosives and would explode soon after entering the body of the whale.

The Balchin bomb lance was fired from a swivel harpoon gun and was in use throughout the 1860's. It was made to be smaller in diameter to prevent it from sticking in the gun barrel. A cylinder containing a fuse match was inserted at the back of the lance and this was ignited when the main charge of the gun was fired. The match was designed to burn a certain length of time so that the lance explodes once it had hit the whale.