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Inuit hunter with harpoon in kayak, Hudson Bay, circa 1908-1914

A harpoon is a long spear-like instrument used in fishing to catch fish or large marine mammals such as whales. It accomplishes this task by impaling the target animal, allowing the fishermen to use a rope or chain attached to the butt of the projectile to catch the animal. A harpoon can also be used as a weapon.


Spearfishing with poles (harpoons) was widespread in palaeolithic times.[1] Cosquer cave in Southern France contains cave art over 16,000 years old, including drawings of seals which appear to have been harpooned. In Zaire, harpoon points have been found in the Katanda region that were used to spear fish perhaps 80,000 years ago.[citation needed]

There are references to harpoons in ancient literature; though, in most cases, the descriptions do not go into detail. An early example from the Bible in Job 41:7: Canst thou fill his skin with barbed irons? or his head with fish spears?.

The Greek historian Polybius (ca 203 BC–120 BC), in his Histories, describes hunting for swordfish by using a harpoon with a barbed and detachable head.[2] Copper harpoons were known to the seafaring Harappans[3] well into antiquity.[4] Early hunters in India include the Mincopie people, aboriginal inhabitants of India's Andaman and Nicobar islands, who have used harpoons with long cords for fishing since early times.[5]

Harpoons used in the whale fishery, 1887, including new design from Provincetown whalemen
"Manner in which Natives of the East Coast strike turtle." Near Cooktown, Australia. From Phillip Parker King's Survey. 1818.


The two flue harpoon was the primary weapon used in whaling around the world, but it cut through the blubber when under stress. This flaw was corrected with the creation of the single flue harpoon; by removing one of the flues, the head of the harpoon was narrowed, making it easier for it to penetrate deep enough to hold fast. In the Arctic, the indigenous people used the more advanced toggling harpoon design. In the early 19th century the one flue harpoon was introduced, which reduced failed harpoons due to the head cutting its way out of the body of the whale. In the mid-19th century, the toggling harpoon was adapted by Lewis Temple, using iron. The Temple toggle was widely used, and quickly came to dominate whaling.

In his famous novel, Moby-Dick, author Herman Melville explained the reason for the harpoon's effectiveness:

"In most land animals there are certain valves or flood gates in many of their veins, whereby when wounded, the blood is in some degree at least instantly shut off in certain directions. Not so with the whale; one of whose peculiarities is, to have an entire non-valvular structure of the blood-vessels, so that when pierced even by so small a point as a harpoon, a deadly drain is at once begun upon his whole arterial system; and when this is heightened by the extraordinary pressure of water at a great distance below the surface, his life may be said to pour from him in incessant streams. Yet so vast is the quantity of blood in him, and so distant and numerous its interior fountains, that he will keep thus bleeding and bleeding for a considerable period; even as in a drought a river will flow, whose source is in the well springs of far off and undiscernible hills."

—Herman Melville, Moby Dick, 1892[6]

He also describes another device that was at times a necessary addition to harpoons:

"All whale-boats carry certain curious contrivances, originally invented by the Nantucket Indians, called druggs. Two thick squares of wood of equal size are stoutly clenched together, so that they cross each other's grain at right angles; a line of considerable length is then attached to the middle of this block, and the other end of the line being looped, it can in a moment be fastened to a harpoon. It is chiefly among gallied whales that this drugg is used. For then, more whales are close round you than you can possibly chase at one time. But sperm whales are not every day encountered; while you may, then, you must kill all you can. And if you cannot kill them all at once, you must wing them, so that they can be afterwards killed at your leisure. Hence it is that at times like these the drugg comes into requisition."

—Melville, Moby Dick[7]

Explosive harpoons[edit]

Bomb lance whaling harpoon, pictured in 1878, prominent in the famous whaling legal case, Ghen v. Rich

Jacob Nicolai Walsøe (born September 26, 1819 at Myklebostad in what was then part of Lødingen, died in October 1869 in Christiania ) was a Norwegian painter, inventor and pioneer whaling . He was the inventor of the explosive harpoon for whaling, and a precursor to the more famous Foyn . Walsøe sent in an application for a patent for his invention in June 1851. The application was recommended by the Industry class of the Company for the Society, but was rejected by the Interior Ministry claiming that Walsøe had received public funding for their experiments and therefore could not be granted any patent. This refusal was a big disappointment for Walsøe which itself was not sufficient finances to continue work on a larger scale. He went from door to door in Trondheim and in northern Norway to raise capital, but only managed to obtain 4000 spd., which was too small total. He continued anyway their capture attempts and shot and killed several whales in 1852 with his grenade harpoon.

In 1870, a Norwegian man named Svend Foyn successfully patented and pioneered the exploding harpoon and gun based on Jacob Nicolai Walsøe's idea and design. Together with the steam-powered whale catcher, this development ushered in the modern age of commercial whaling. Euro-American whalers were now equipped to hunt faster and more powerful species, such as the rorquals. Because rorquals sank when they died, later versions of the exploding harpoon injected air into the carcass to keep it afloat.

A certain type of explosive harpoon fired from a shoulder gun, first used by American whalemen in the mid-19th century, was called a "bomb lance."

Modern developments[edit]

Modern whaling harpoon.

The modern whaling harpoon consists of a deck-mounted launcher (mostly a cannon) and a projectile which is a large harpoon connected to a thick rope. The spearhead is shaped in a manner which allows it to penetrate the thick layers of whale blubber and stick in the flesh. It has sharp spikes to prevent the harpoon from sliding out. Thus, by pulling the rope with a motor, the whalers can drag the whale back to their ship.

A recent development in harpoon technology is the hand-held speargun. Divers use the speargun for defense against dangerous marine animals. They are also used for spearing fish. Spearguns may be powered by pressurized gas or with mechanical means like springs or elastic bands.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Guthrie, Dale Guthrie (2005) The Nature of Paleolithic Art. Page 298. University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0-226-31126-0
  2. ^ Polybius, "Fishing for Swordfish", Histories Book 34.3 (Evelyn S. Shuckburgh, translator). London, New York: Macmillan, 1889. Reprint Bloomington, 1962.
  3. ^ Ray 2003, page 93
  4. ^ Allchin 1975, page 106
  5. ^ Edgerton 2003, page 74
  6. ^ Melville, Herman (1892). Moby Dick; or, The Whale. Boston: St. Botolph Society. p. 337. 
  7. ^ Melville (1892), p. 363.


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