A harpoon is a long spear-like instrument used in fishing, whaling, sealing, and other marine hunting to catch large fish or marine mammals such as whales. It accomplishes this task by impaling the target animal and securing it with barb or toggling claws, 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.

Inuit hunter with harpoon
Inuit hunter with harpoon in kayak, Hudson Bay, circa 1908-1914
Harpon Unaaq MHNT ETH AC 198
Unaaq MHNT


Manner in which the natives of the East Coast Stirke Turtle
"Manner in which Natives of the East Coast strike turtle." Near Cooktown, Australia. From Phillip Parker King's Survey. 1818.

In the 1990s, harpoon points, known as the Semliki harpoons or the Katanda harpoons, were found in the Katanda region in Zaire (nowadays the Democratic Republic of the Congo). As the earliest known harpoons, these weapons were made and used 90,000 years ago, most likely to spear catfishes.[1] Later, in Japan, spearfishing with poles (harpoons) was widespread in palaeolithic times, especially during the Solutrean and Magdalenian periods. Cosquer Cave in Southern France contains cave art over 16,000 years old, including drawings of seals which appear to have been harpooned.[2]

There are references to harpoons in ancient literature, though, in most cases, the descriptions do not go into detail. An early example can be found in the Bible in Job 41:7 (NIV): "Can you fill its hide with harpoons or its head with fishing spears?" The Greek historian Polybius (c. 203 BC – 120 BC), in his Histories, describes hunting for swordfish by using a harpoon with a barbed and detachable head.[3] Copper harpoons were known to the seafaring Harappans[4] well into antiquity.[5] 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.[6]


The two flue harpoon was the primary weapon used in whaling around the world, but it tended to penetrate no deeper than the soft outer layer of blubber. Thus it was often possible for the whale to escape by struggling or swimming away forcefully enough to pull the shallowly embedded barbs out backwards. This flaw was corrected in the early nineteenth century with the creation of the one 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 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, 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, 1851[7]

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 [i.e. drogues]. 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 [frightened] 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 [injure] 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[8]

Explosive harpoons

Whaling Harpoons 1887
Harpoons used in the whale fishery, 1887, including new design from Provincetown whalemen

The first use of explosives in the hunting of whales was made by the British South Sea Company in 1737, after some years of declining catches. A large fleet was sent, armed with cannon-fired harpoons. Although the weaponry was successful in killing the whales, most of the catch sank before being retrieved. However, the system was still occasionally used, and underwent successive improvements at the hands of various inventors over the next century, including Abraham Stagholt in the 1770s and George Manby in the early 19th century.[9]

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

William Congreve, who invented some of the first rockets for British Army use, designed a rocket-propelled whaling harpoon in the 1820s. The shell was designed to explode on contact and impale the whale with the harpoon. The weapon was in turn attached by a line to the boat, and the hope was that the explosion would generate enough gas within the whale to keep it afloat for retrieval. Expeditions were sent out to try this new technology; many whales were killed, but most of them sank.[10] These early devices, called bomb lances, became widely used for the hunting of humpbacks and right whales.[9] A notable user of these early explosive harpoons was the American Thomas Welcome Roys in 1865, who set up a shore station in Seydisfjördur, Iceland. A slump in oil prices after the American Civil War forced their endeavor into bankruptcy in 1867.[11]

An early version of the explosive harpoon was designed by Jacob Nicolai Walsøe, a Norwegian painter and inventor. His 1851 application was rejected by the interior ministry on the grounds that he had received public funding for his experiments. In 1867, a Danish fireworks manufacturer, Gaetano Amici, patented a cannon-fired harpoon, and in the same year, an Englishman, George Welch, patented a grenade harpoon very similar to the version which transformed whaling in the following decade.

In 1870, the Norwegian shipping magnate Svend Foyn patented and pioneered the modern exploding whaling harpoon and gun. Foyn had studied the American method in Iceland.[12] His basic design is still in use today. He perceived the failings of other methods and solved these problems in his own system. He included, with the help of H.M.T. Esmark, a grenade tip that exploded inside the whale. This harpoon design also utilized a shaft that was connected to the head with a moveable joint. His original cannons were muzzle-loaded with special padding and also used a unique form of gunpowder. The cannons were later replaced with safer breech-loading types.[11][12]

Harpoon mounted on a whaling boat, Alaska, ca 1915 (COBB 76).jpeg
Harpoon mounted on a whaling boat in Alaska, ca. 1915

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.

Whaling harpoon
Modern whaling harpoon

The modern whaling harpoon consists of a deck-mounted launcher (mostly a cannon) and a projectile which is a large harpoon with an explosive (penthrite) charge, attached 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 spearing fish. They may also be used for defense against dangerous marine animals. Spearguns may be powered by pressurized gas or with mechanical means like springs or elastic bands.


The Philae spacecraft carried harpoons for helping the probe anchor itself to the surface of comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko. However, the harpoons failed to fire.[13][14]

See also


  1. ^ Yellen, JE; AS Brooks; E Cornelissen; MJ Mehlman; K Stewart (28 April 1995). "A middle stone age worked bone industry from Katanda, Upper Semliki Valley, Zaire". Science. 268 (5210): 553–556. doi:10.1126/science.7725100. PMID 7725100.
  2. ^ Guthrie, Dale Guthrie (2005) The Nature of Paleolithic Art. Page 298. University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0-226-31126-0
  3. ^ Polybius, "Fishing for Swordfish", Histories Book 34.3 (Evelyn S. Shuckburgh, translator). London, New York: Macmillan, 1889. Reprint Bloomington, 1962.
  4. ^ Ray 2003, page 93
  5. ^ Allchin 1975, page 106
  6. ^ Edgerton 2003, page 74
  7. ^ Melville, Herman (1892). Moby-Dick; or, The Whale. Boston: St. Botolph Society. p. 337.
  8. ^ Melville (1851), p. 363.
  9. ^ a b Tønnessen, Johan Nicolay; Johnsen, Arne Odd (1982). The History of Modern Whaling. University of California Press. pp. 17–19. ISBN 9780520039735. Retrieved 2013-02-07.
  10. ^ Tønnessen, Johan Nicolay; Johnsen, Arne Odd (1982). The History of Modern Whaling. University of California Press. ISBN 9780520039735. Retrieved 2013-02-07.
  11. ^ a b Ellis, Richard (1999). Men and Whales. The Lyons Press. pp. 255–265. ISBN 978-1-55821-696-9.
  12. ^ a b Tonnessen, Johan; Johnsen, Arne (1982). The history of modern whaling. University of California Press. pp. 16–36. ISBN 978-0-520-03973-5.
  13. ^ "Philae touches down on the surface of a comet". CNN. 12 November 2014.
  14. ^ Aron, Jacob. "Problems hit Philae after historic first comet landing" New Scientist.


  • Lødingen Local History Society (1986) Yearbook Lødingen. The modern history of whaling, ISBN 82-990715-7-7 .
  • Lødingen local historical society (1999/2000) Yearbook Lødingen. More about Jacob Nicolai Walsøe, granatharpunens inventor, ISBN 82-90924-07-0.
  • Information about Erik Eriksen based on The Discovery of King Karl Land, Spitsbergen, by Adolf Hoel, The Geographical Review Vol. XXV, No. 3, July, 1935, Pp. 476–478, American Geographical Society, Broadway AT 156th Street, New York" and Store norske leksikon, Aschehoug & Gyldendal (Great Norwegian Encyclopedia, last edition)
  • F.R. Allchin in South Asian Archaeology 1975: Papers from the Third International Conference of the Association of South Asian Archaeologists in Western Europe, Held in Paris (December 1979) edited by J.E.van Lohuizen-de Leeuw. Brill Academic Publishers, Incorporated. Pages 106-118. ISBN 90-04-05996-2.
  • Edgerton; et al. (2002). Indian and Oriental Arms and Armour. Courier Dover Publications. ISBN 0-486-42229-1.
  • Ray, Himanshu Prabha (2003). The Archaeology of Seafaring in Ancient South Asia. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-01109-4.

External links

AGM-84E Standoff Land Attack Missile

The AGM-84E Standoff Land Attack Missile (SLAM) was a subsonic, over-the-horizon air-launched cruise missile that was developed by Boeing Integrated Defense Systems from the McDonnell Douglas Harpoon antiship missile. The SLAM was designed to provide all-weather, day and night, precision attack capabilities against stationary high-value targets.Except for new technologies in the guidance and seeker sections, which included a Global Positioning System receiver, a Walleye optical guidance system, and a newly developed Maverick missile datalink, all of the missile hardware came directly from the Harpoon missile. The SLAM is also equipped with a Tomahawk missile warhead for better destructive force. SLAM missile uses an inertial navigation system, which is supplemented by Global Positioning System (GPS) input, and it also uses Infrared homing terminal guidance.Developed in only 48 months, a number of SLAMs were successfully employed during the Persian Gulf War, when it struck Iraqi coastal targets. Also, the SLAM was used successfully in F/A-18 Hornet and A-6 Intruder air strikes during Operation Desert Storm even before official operational testing of the new missile had begun. The SLAM was also used during United Nations air raids in Bosnia before "Operation Joint Endeavor".In the year 2000, the SLAM was replaced in service by the AGM-84H SLAM-ER (Standoff Land Attack Missile Expanded Response), which had numerous new capabilities including increased target penetration and nearly twice the range of the older AGM-84E SLAM.


The AGM-84H/K SLAM-ER (Standoff Land Attack Missile-Expanded Response) is an advanced precision-guided, air-launched cruise missile produced by Boeing Defense, Space & Security for the United States Armed Forces and their allies. Developed from the AGM-84E SLAM (Standoff Land Attack Missile) (itself developed by Boeing Integrated Defense Systems from the McDonnell Douglas Harpoon antiship missile), the SLAM-ER is capable of attacking land and sea targets medium to long range (155 nautical miles/270 km maximum). The SLAM-ER relies on the Global Positioning System (GPS) and infrared imaging for its navigation and control, and it can strike both moving and stationary targets.

The SLAM-ER can be remotely controlled while in flight, and it can be redirected to another target after launch if the original target has already been destroyed, or is no longer considered to be dangerous (command guidance). The SLAM-ER is a very accurate weapon; as of 2009 it had the best circular error probable (CEP) of any missile used by the U.S. Navy.

Arrow (symbol)

An arrow is a graphical symbol such as ← or →, used to point or indicate direction, being in its simplest form a line segment with a triangle affixed to one end, and in more complex forms a representation of an actual arrow (e.g. ➵ U+27B5). The direction indicated by an arrow is the one along the length of the line towards the end capped by a triangle.

The typographical symbol developed in the 18th century as an abstraction from arrow projectiles. Its use is comparable to that of the older (medieval) manicule (pointing hand, 👈). Also comparable is the use of a fleur-de-lis symbol indicating north in a compass rose by Pedro Reinel (c. 1504).

An early arrow symbol is found in an illustration of Bernard Forest de Bélidor's treatise L'architecture hydraulique, printed in France in 1737. The arrow is here used to illustrate the direction of the flow of water and of the water wheel's rotation.

At about the same time, arrow symbols were used to indicate the flow of rivers in maps.

A trend towards abstraction, in which the arrow's fletching is removed, can be observed in the mid-to-late 19th century.

In a further abstraction of the symbol, John Richard Green's A Short History of the English People of 1874 contained maps by cartographer Emil Reich, which indicated army movements by curved lines, with solid triangular arrowheads placed intermittently along the lines.

Use of arrow symbols in mathematical notation originates in the early 20th century.

David Hilbert in 1922 introduced the arrow symbol representing logical implication. The double-headed arrow representing logical equivalence was introduced by Albrecht Becker in Die Aristotelische Theorie der Möglichkeitsschlüsse, Berlin, 1933.

Explosive harpoon

The explosive harpoon is a type of harpoon which uses an explosive discharge to assist in whaling. In Norway, Japan, and Iceland, penta-erythritol tetra-nitrate is used in harpoon grenades. These are steel canisters that thread onto the tip of a reusable harpoon and explode by means of a hook and trigger line when they have penetrated approximately half a meter into the whale. Shrapnel and hooks that are attached to the harpoon cable are lodged into the whale's body, inhibiting the whale's ability to escape. A cable then reels the whale in as it draw its last breath. Norway uses more advanced and more expensive grenades. They claim that 80% of whales are killed instantly. Iceland uses the Norwegian grenades, which can kill even large fin whales instantaneously 84% of the time. In Japan, the use of harpoons has been shown to yield a poor rate of instantaneous fatalities.

Harpoon (EP)

Harpoon is a song by Australian alternative rock band Jebediah. It appears on the band's debut studio album Slightly Odway (1997). The following year, it was released as a six-track EP by record label Murmur, which reached number 46 on the Australian ARIA Singles Chart.

Harpoon (missile)

The Harpoon is an all-weather, over-the-horizon, anti-ship missile system, developed and manufactured by McDonnell Douglas (now Boeing Defense, Space & Security). In 2004, Boeing delivered the 7,000th Harpoon unit since the weapon's introduction in 1977. The missile system has also been further developed into a land-strike weapon, the Standoff Land Attack Missile (SLAM).

The regular Harpoon uses active radar homing, and a low-level, sea-skimming cruise trajectory to improve survivability and lethality. The missile's launch platforms include:

Fixed-wing aircraft (the AGM-84, without the solid-fuel rocket booster)

Surface ships (the RGM-84, fitted with a solid-fuel rocket booster that detaches when expended, to allow the missile's main turbojet to maintain flight)

Submarines (the UGM-84, fitted with a solid-fuel rocket booster and encapsulated in a container to enable submerged launch through a torpedo tube);

Coastal defense batteries, from which it would be fired with a solid-fuel rocket booster.

Harpoon cannon

A harpoon cannon is a whaling implement developed in the late 19th century and most used in the 20th century. It would be mounted on the bow of a whale catcher, where it could be easily aimed with a wide field of view at the target. Powered by black powder and later, smokeless powder, it would generally fire a large steel harpoon, either solid steel (cold harpoon) or fitted with an exploding black powder, or later, penthrite (PETN) grenade.

Harpoon cannons are still used today in whaling nations, but usually guns of a smaller caliber with the exception of Iceland, which hunts large whales regularly.

Jarmann harpoon rifle

The M28 Jarmann harpoon rifle was a modification of the Jarmann M1884 Norwegian service rifle.

Between the wars, several Norwegian gunsmiths attempted to create harpoon guns, intended for hunting seals and shooting rescue lines to boats in distress. Seeing a ready market, and having access to the several thousand Jarmanns in storage, Kongsberg Våpenfabrikk designed a harpoon gun referred to as the M28. As part of the rebuild, the magazine and the repeating mechanism were removed, and the handguard and barrel were shortened. In addition, a heavy rubber shoulderpad was added to reduce the considerable recoil. The rifle could still fire the ordinary 10.15 x 61R cartridge after the conversion. A box could be mounted under the handguard containing up to 300 metres (980 feet) of thin rope. Kongsberg manufactured the M28 harpoon gun until 1952, when they started using the Mauser 98 mechanism in a new harpoon gun called the M52. The sources indicate that around 1,911 Jarmann rifles were modified to M28s, about half of them after World War II.

The M28 was advertised as being suitable for use for hunting and rescue work, as well as for general shooting of lines. The advertisement reproduced here specifically mentions its suitability for firefighters, people erecting telephone lines and general construction work. The M28 was seen as suitable for hunting Atlantic bluefin tuna, seals, swordfish and other large marine animals. Among the equipment that could be delivered for the M28 were hunting harpoons, rescue harpoons, rocket-assisted harpoons, 'dum-dum bullets' and rope of various lengths in special crates. The special rounds for launching harpoons were manufactured until the mid-1970s.

Kid Harpoon

Kid Harpoon (born 20 April 1982) is an English singer, songwriter, musician and record producer.

Kinetic bombardment

A kinetic bombardment or a kinetic orbital strike is the hypothetical act of attacking a planetary surface with an inert projectile, where the destructive force comes from the kinetic energy of the projectile impacting at very high speeds. The concept originated during the Cold War.

The typical depiction of the tactic is of a satellite containing a magazine of tungsten rods and a directional thrust system. (In science fiction, the weapon is often depicted as being launched from a spaceship, instead of a satellite). When a strike is ordered, the launch vehicle would brake one of the rods out of its orbit and into a suborbital trajectory that intersects the target. As the rod approaches periapsis and the target due to gravity, it picks up immense speed until it begins decelerating in the atmosphere and reaches terminal velocity shortly before impact. The rods would typically be shaped to minimize air resistance and maximize terminal velocity.

Kinetic bombardment has the advantage of being able to deliver projectiles from a very high angle at a very high speed, making them extremely difficult to defend against. In addition, projectiles would not require explosive warheads, and—in the simplest designs—would consist entirely of solid metal rods, giving rise to the common nickname "Rods from God". Disadvantages include the technical difficulties of ensuring accuracy and the high costs of positioning ammunition in orbit.

Lockheed Ventura

The Lockheed Ventura, also known as the Lockheed B-34 Lexington, was a twin engine medium bomber of World War II, used by United States and British Commonwealth forces in several guises, including maritime patrol.

The Ventura was developed from the Lockheed Model 18 Lodestar transport, as a replacement for the Lockheed Hudson bombers then in service with the Royal Air Force. Used in daylight attacks against occupied Europe, they proved to have weaknesses and were removed from bomber duty and some used for patrols by Coastal Command.

After United States Army Air Forces (USAAF) monopolization of land-based bombers was removed, the US Navy ordered a revised design which entered service as the PV-2 Harpoon for anti-submarine work.

Marauders (comics)

The Marauders is a team of fictional supervillain characters appearing in American comic books published by Marvel Comics. The Marauders are mutant assassins employed by the X-Men's archfiend Mister Sinister, with the purpose of assassinating other mutants and acting as a commando strike-force to carry out acts of mass murder.

One flue harpoon

The one flue harpoon or one flue iron (sometimes "single" instead of "one" is used) is a type of harpoon used in whaling after its introduction in the early 19th century when it replaced the two flue harpoon. Due to the asymmetric design of the head for which it is named, the one flue harpoon was less likely to cut its way out of the whale meat and blubber, and was therefore more successful in whaling.

In the mid-19th century the one flue harpoon was replaced by the toggling harpoon, which was an iron version of the ancient design used in the Arctic by the native whale hunters there. The toggling iron harpoon was even more successful and rapidly phased out the use of the "common harpoon" (a term which refers to either the one or two flue harpoon).

Operation Harpoon (1942)

Operation Harpoon (the Battle of Pantelleria) was one of two simultaneous Allied convoys sent to supply Malta in the Axis-dominated central Mediterranean Sea in mid-June 1942, during the Second World War. Operation Vigorous was a westward convoy from Alexandria and the convoy of Operation Harpoon travelled east from Gibraltar. Two of the six ships in the Harpoon convoy completed the journey, at the cost of several Allied warships. The Vigorous convoy was driven back by the Italian fleet and attacks by Axis aircraft.

News of the two operations had been unwittingly revealed beforehand to the Axis by the US Military Attaché in Egypt, Colonel Bonner Fellers, who had been submitting detailed military reports on British activities to Washington in a code that was later revealed by Ultra intercepts to have been broken by the Servizio Informazioni Militare (Italian military intelligence).

Operation Harpoon (2002)

Operation Harpoon was the code name of a joint American–Canadian military operation which took place in March 2002 in Paktia Province, Afghanistan. This operation took place in roughly the same region as Operation Anaconda. It was also the first major Canadian combat mission in half a century.

Teledyne CAE J402

The Teledyne CAE J402 is a small turbojet engine designed to power unmanned air vehicles such as missiles and target drones. Developed in the 1970s for the Harpoon anti-ship missile, the J402 was the first jet engine to be designed as a "wooden round", meaning that the engine had to be able to sit for long periods without maintenance or inspection and work right away. Several variants of the engine have been developed, some of which power unmanned aerial target drones.

Toggling harpoon

The toggling harpoon is an ancient weapon and tool used in whaling to impale a whale when thrown. Unlike earlier harpoon versions which had only one point, a toggling harpoon has a two-part point. One half of the point is firmly attached to the thrusting base, while the other half of the point is fitted over this first point like a cap and attached to the rest of the point with sinew or another string-like material. When the harpoon is thrust into an animal, the top half of the point detaches and twists horizontally into the animal under the skin, allowing hunters to haul the animal to ship or shore. This harpoon technology lodges the toggling head of the harpoon underneath both the animal's skin and blubber, and instead lodges the point in the muscle, which also prevents the harpoon slipping out.

Two flue harpoon

The two flue harpoon or two flue iron (which, together with the one flue harpoon, were known as common harpoons) is a type of harpoon used in whaling for at least 1000 years. It appears in works of art dating back to the 14th century.

In the early 19th century the design was modified, and the one flue harpoon was created. By removing half of the point, the chance of the point cutting its way back out of the whale was greatly reduced.


A whaler or whaling ship is a specialized ship, designed, or adapted, for whaling: the catching or processing of whales. The former includes the whale catcher – a steam or diesel-driven vessel with a harpoon gun mounted at its bow. The latter includes such vessels as the sail or steam-driven whaleship of the 16th to early 20th centuries and the floating factory or factory ship of the modern era. There have also been vessels which combined the two activities, such as the bottlenose whalers of the late 19th and early 20th century, and catcher/factory ships of the modern era.

Whaleships had two or more whaleboats, open rowing boats used in the capture of whales. Whaleboats brought the captured whales to the whaleships to be flensed or cut up. Here the blubber was rendered into oil using two or three try-pots set in a brick furnace called the tryworks.

At first, whale catchers either brought the whales they killed to a whaling station, or factory ship anchored in a sheltered bay or inlet. With the later development of the slipway at the ship's stern, whale catchers were able to transfer their catch to factory ships operating in the open sea.

The World War II Flower-class corvettes were based on the design of the whale catcher Southern Pride.

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