An Example of a Whale Hunting Gun

Harpoon Gun

Kongsberg Vaabenfabrik 1937 No. 354. (Photo from MacFarlane collection.)

The harpoon used for killing and catching baleen whales was (is) a formidable and heavy weapon (many would say it is barbaric). The harpoon itself is re–usable and consists of a long shaft that fits in the barrel that ends in four large hinged barbs. In front of the barbs is a large threaded boss onto which screws the (in this case) pointed and explosive harpoon head. After use, the harpoon is recovered, straightened out and re–used with a new explosive head being fixed to the front. The shaft is not solid but has an open groove running it’s whole length, a rope is fixed into this groove, when the harpoon is in the gun, the rope is slid to the front and here is seen hanging down ready for firing. The barbs of the harpoon are held back by wires which break when the harpoon has hit its target and the explosive charge detonates.

The harpoon is approximately 6 feet long (1.8m) and weighs 120 pounds (54.5 kg) made of high quality steel. The gun has a bore of 3 inches (76mm) and used a 14 oz (390g) charge of gunpowder. The gun itself is a crude but effective instrument; it could be swivelled easily by the gunner and tilted either up or down. A long metal rod positioned on top functioned as the gun sight.

The real key to the successful use of this gun was the gunners skill and experience. Gunners were the top rank of all whale men. They were treated with the greatest respect and easily earned far more than any of the other crew in the whaling fleet. If a gunner didn’t do his job properly then the whole enterprise was a failure; if he did do his job properly it would mean success and riches for all. The majority of a gunners considerable pay was linked to how many whales he could catch.

The whole process of whaling was changed drastically when Norwegian Sven Foyn invented the bow-mounted exploding harpoon in 1864. By doing so he removed some of the elements of danger from whaling though it remained a very precarious job. But more than any other innovation in whaling, it increased the efficiency by which whales could be captured and made it possible to hunt the larger and faster rorquals (baleen whales). On entering the whale the barbs of the harpoon opened, a small vial of sulphuric acid was broken which then set off a fuse to explode the bomb.

Similar explosively fired harpoons had been around for several decades but it was Foyn who, after much trial and experimentation, perfected a workable and effective solution. Such a new invention required improvements to the boats as well as the catching and processing gear to make the most effective use of it. The heavy gun was mounted at the bow of the whale-chaser which needed to be strong and fast. Foyn converted a steam whale catcher Spes et Fides built in 1863 to take his new harpoon gun. The Spes et Fides became the very first modern whale catching boat.

Bofors, a Swedish company founded in 1646 and known widely for the design and production of the Bofors 40mm cannon used extensively by both the Allies and Axis forces in the Second World War, began making whaling guns in the 1870s. Early guns had a 70 mm bore, launched a 22 kilogram harpoon using 500 grams of black powder. It evolved into a 90 mm bore and exploding harpoons of up to 90 kilograms were launched with smokeless powder in a sliding block in a brass propellant casing. The key patent feature was the recoil chamber filled with freeze-resistant glycerin.

Kongsberg, a Norwegian company, was founded in1814 as a weapons factory and produced Bofors–type harpoon guns under license. The company remained unchanged until 1987 when it took the name Norsk Forsvarsteknologi (Norwegian Defence Technology) undertaking financial restructuring.

The bow–mounted exploding harpoon gun enabled a harpooner to hit a whale 50 yards away no longer needing to be next to the whale in a small wooden boat. This rendered the old hand–thrown harpoon and hand-wielded lance obsolete. This much more efficient – and deadlier – harpoon gun design was the invention that allowed large–scale industrial whaling to begin, an event from which the world’s whaling stocks and oceanic ecosystems have yet to recover as whale stocks were ruthlessly over–exploited.

Whaler Brown

The Harpoon Gun loaded and ready for action on the whaler Brown. The gun itself is quite a crude instrument, it could be swivelled easily by the gunner and tilted up and down, the sight is the long metal rod seen on top. (Photo courtesy of Maritime Museum of British Columbia collection.)

The gun enabled the harpooner to hit a whale 50 yards away, no longer needing to be next to the whale in a small wooden boat. On entering the whale, the barbs of the harpoon opened breaking a small vial of sulphuric acid which set off a fuse to explode the bomb. So in a single action, the old hand–thrown harpoon and hand wielded lance were rendered obsolete.

Whaler Brown

Harpooneer firing a harpoon at a whale from the whaler Brown (Photo courtesy of Maritime Museum of British Columbia collection.)

Whale Jawbone

Whale jawbone at Coal Harbour (northern Vancouver Island) British Columbia. (Photo from MacFarlane collection.)

Whaler Blue

The whaler Blue (Photo courtesy of Maritime Museum of British Columbia collection.)

Whale Gun

This gun was the invention that allowed for industrial whaling to begin, an event from which the world’s whaling stocks and oceanic ecosystems have yet to recover as whale stocks were ruthlessly over–exploited. (Photo courtesy of Maritime Museum of British Columbia collection.)

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