The hand lance, also known as the killing iron, was the implement used to kill a whale after fastening to it with a harpoon. When the harpooner, called boatsteerer, in the bow of the whaleboat had securely fastened a harpoon (preferably two) in a whale, he changed positions in the whaleboat with the mate, called boatheader. The boatheader had been in the stern steering up to this point. But only the mate could kill a whale with the hand lance. The harpooner then steered the boat for the mate while he killed the whale, thus boatsteerer. The lance was plunged into the whale in the area of its "life," the large arteries of oxygenated blood in reserve for long dives. The method of hand lancing had not changed over the many years of whaling. Thomas Edge, writing of a whaling voyage to Spitzbergen in 1625 described lancing:
... in lancing him they strike neere the finnes he swimmeth withall, and as lowe under water neere his bellie as conveniently they can; but when he is lanced he friskes and strikes with his tayle so forcibly, that many times when he hitteth a shallop hee splitteth her in pieces.
The whale having received his deadly wound, then he spouteth blood (whereas formerly he cast forth water) and his strength beginneth to fayle him.
The lance consisted of an iron shank, five to six feet long and 3/8" diameter, with a standard socket forged at one end for mounting to a wood pole. The blade of the lance was oval, approximately five inches long, two inches wide and 1/4" thick and was sharpened razor sharp on all edges. It was designed to penetrate deeply and easily, and to be withdrawn to be used repeatedly until the whale spouted blood - "chimney afire."
A short lance warp was tied around the lance shank forward of the socket with a double round hitch and eye splice, in the same manner as the warp attached to a harpoon. This short warp passed back along the lance pole, was stopped to it with marline in two places, like a harpoon, and often passed through a hole in the butt end of the pole to emerge at the center of the butt end. This arrangement facilitated pulling the lance back out for repeated use. The lance pole was not as rough and crooked as the iron pole, and may have been smoothed somewhat.
Photograph taken during filming "Down to the Sea in Ships," 1922.
Two types of hand lances were made: the common lance and the steel lance. Common lances were made by forging the blade of wrought iron while steel lances were made with a blade forged of cast steel forge welded to the wrought iron shaft. The words "CAST STEEL" were impressed in the blade of a steel lance. Common lances were in use prior to 1864. The records of whaling agents Swift and Allen in New Bedford show both common and cast-steel lances listed in inventories for a decade from the early 1850's. Common lances were then less expensive than steel lances. After steel was produced in quantity in the United States in 1864 only steel lances were used. Steel held a cutting edge far better than the softer wrought iron.
Common Lance (above) and steel lance (below). Author's collection.
Some British hand lances were made with two large half-round grooves running longitudinally along the lance blade, on on either side of the shaft axis on each face of the blade, four grooves in all. These grooves were to facilitate the egress of blood. The feature was never used on American lances.
Walrus or sea-elephant lance. Length is 48-1/2".
Hand lances were also made with very short shanks, and these were used for killing walrus or sea elephant, not whales. The walrus lance was also sometimes made aboard ship using damaged whale lances.Rather than the lance pole, they were mounted on a short wood handle. Walrus and sea elephant were killed by hand on the ice, not from a boat.
Kelleher Explosive Hand Lance Kelleher hand-darted explosive lance, detached from pole. Length of the lance excluding pole is 48-1/2"; lance blade is 5" long, 2-1/2" wide, 3/4" thick. Photograph courtesy of History of Technology Division, NMAH, Smithsonian Institution.
A hand-darted explosive lance was patented by Daniel Kelleher of New Bedford in 1878 (U.S. Patent No. 201,794, March 26, 1878). Kelleher was a prominent machinist and later bomb-lance manufacturer. His lance consisted of a thick, hollow-cast blade fastened to the front of a brass bombshell. The bombshell screwed onto a lance shank. A wire attached to a friction primer in the bomb extended from the aft end of the bomb and passed back along the shank in a groove provided for it. The wire detonator cord was secured to a sliding piece around the shank, free to slide along the shank forwardof the socket.. A thumb screw on this sliding part was used to hold it in place to prevent accidental discharge. A socket, with closed seam, was fixed to the rear of the shank, to mount the lance to a standard lance pole.
When Kelleher's hand-darted bomb lance was ready for use, the thumb screw was released and the lance was darted into the whale. The sliding part around the shaft came in contact with the whale and the lance continued to move in deeper. The sliding part stopped, the detonating wire was pulled out, igniting the friction primer, exploding the bomb. The depth of penetration before the explosion was adjusted by changing the length of the detonating wire.
Patent drawings for Kelleher Explosive Lance.
Kelleher's lance was expensive, and if it didn't kill the whale when first darted, there was no chance to withdraw it for repeated use. It was never popular, especially in light of gun-fired bomb lances in use at the time which were much more efficient.
There were also poison hand-darted lances. These are grouped together with poison harpoons because they have so much in common and discussing them together more effectively completes the picture of poison implements. Click her to go to poison lances.
©: 2000 - 2008Thomas G. Lytle . All rights reserved
Back to top of this page
Back to Main Menu
Bibliography Harpoons History Knives Lances Links Markings Non-Whaling
Patents Poison Processing Shoulder-Guns Shoulder-gun Irons Spades Swivel Guns and Irons