Shoulder Guns

Brand Gun Advertisement

Advertisement in the Whalemen's Shipping List, and Merchants' Transcript, Aug. 14, 1888.

Challenges in capturing whales included penetrating the tough blubber, getting close enough to dart an iron effectively, and killing the whale with a hand lance while contending with a fighting whale, especially in rough weather. These difficulties were magnified when whaling in ice fields, where approaching a whale through the ice to harpoon and lance it was hazardous. Once harpooned, a whale often dove beneath the ice, pulling the whaleboat along and potentially destroying it. Many whalelines had to be cut to avoid losing a whaleboat, resulting in lost whalecraft and whales.

Several strategies were developed to address these risks. Early efforts included using poison to eliminate the need for lancing and to quickly kill the whale before it could be lost. Explosive harpoons were also tried with limited success. In 1731, swivel guns were introduced, mounted on the bow of the whaleboat to fire a harpoon into the whale from a greater distance (discussed further on the Swivel Guns page of this website). However, the large recoil from these guns added excessive stress to the whaleboat.

To mitigate the recoil problem, shoulder guns were developed to discharge harpoons and bomb lances. These harpoons had to be significantly smaller than those used in swivel guns.

Early attempts at developing shoulder-fired whale guns often ended in failure. An account from the Connecticut Current, Hartford, Conn., dated Feb. 28, 1810, described Mr. Fulton's experiments:

"Torpedoes and Harpoons - Mr. Fulton, not being permitted to enter the Capitol with his eloquence and machinery, exhibited them last Saturday, at Washington, to the populace in the street. In firing off his harpoon gun, the said harpoon flew the wrong way, and passed within three inches of the head of one of his assistants, a corporal of the troops, whom it would inevitably have killed had it struck him. In plain truth, Mr. F. failed completely in his experiment, and Congress were very fortunately saved from the disgrace of setting apart their SPLENDID HALL and a SOLEMN day for the exhibition of the most ridiculous 'quiz' and the most miserable mess of 'fudge,' that ever a philosophical projector displayed."

Capt. Henry Clay Murdock, Master of Ship Nassau, sailing from New Bedford on a whaling voyage to the North Pacific, expressed reluctance about using whaling guns in 1856 (The Murdock Whaling Voyages, ca.1930):

"The whale gun is making its appearance as part of the whaling equipment, but it is a crude affair. A whaler does not like to shoot a whale any more than a sportsman would shoot a trout. It is not honorable. Harpoon the whale and play it with boat and line until you or the whale wins. Never shoot it. The gun will only be used on the sperm whale as a last resort. A whale might sink if shot before harpooning. The whale gun will never be a success until science has developed a power boat with ample speed and with some means of inflating the whale to prevent its sinking. When that time comes, the present value of the whale will have disappeared and it will be hunted for other reasons."

The guns shared many common features, enabling more than one type to fire a harpoon or bomb lance. However, the Brand gun was most commonly used for harpoons. Harpoons fired from these early guns are presented on a separate page of this website. Some harpoons and bomb lances were specifically designed for use with only one gun, and they are included here with that gun to complete the picture of its intended use.

In 1846, the first successful muzzle-loaded shoulder gun was introduced for whaling. Lighter than swivel guns and not mounted to the whaleboat, these heavy shoulder guns fired a harpoon over a slightly greater distance than a hand-darted iron could effectively reach. In addition to shoulder gun harpoons, bomb lances were developed to replace hand lancing. These bomb lances had an internal time fuse, typically ignited by the flash of the gunpowder. The projectile could be fired from a distance, rather than requiring close proximity to the whale. Once the bomb lance was embedded in the whale, the time fuse would burn down and explode the bomb, usually within seven to ten seconds. The maximum weight of a projectile that could be effectively fired from a shoulder gun, with tolerable recoil, was approximately three pounds. Despite this, the recoil was still considerable for a shoulder gun. In 1887, James Templeman Brown described the recoil in "The Whale Fishery":

"...the gunner was kicked as far aft as 'midships, and it was found necessary then, even as it is now [1887], to tie the gun to the boat with a lanyard in order that it could be regained when it was 'hoisted overboard.' The recoil of the old shoulder-guns was immense. I have heard of two men who had their collar bones broken by a heavy gun."

In 1846, Oliver Allen of New London, Connecticut, received a U.S. Patent for a gun-fired bomb lance (U.S. Patent No. 4,764, Sept. 19, 1846). In 1848, he received another patent for a harpoon fired from the same gun (U.S. Patent No. 5,949, Dec. 5, 1848). The gun itself was not patented, as its features were common to many muzzle-loaded percussion shoulder guns of that era. However, it was introduced alongside his gun harpoon and bomb lance in 1846. The gun, made of cast iron, weighed 23 pounds. This weight was necessary to absorb some of the recoil from discharging a large projectile. The powder charge was limited to approximately three drams, and the projectile to about three pounds, to avoid excessive recoil.

Early Brand Gun

Early Allen shoulder gun with hollow brass stock. No. 1 gun, length is 35-1/2", bore is 7/8". Note the ring for attaching a lanyard.

Early examples of Allen's gun featured a hollow brass stock, while later and more common examples had a cast iron skeleton stock. The gun was muzzle-loaded and used a percussion cap to ignite the black powder charge. The gun itself proved successful and became an industry standard. In the first half of 1852, advertisements for this gun in the Whalemen's Shipping List and Merchants' Transcript, a weekly newspaper for the whaling industry in New Bedford, were titled:

"Allen's Whaling Gun and Patent Bomb Lance, With the improvements recently made by C.C. Brand."

Oliver Allen sold his gun business to Christopher C. Brand of Ledyard, Connecticut, around 1849 and went to California for the gold rush. Although Allen did not become wealthy from finding gold, he became very successful in cattle farming in California.

Brand Gun

Brand shoulder gun with open cast iron skeleton stock. Length is 38". (Author's collection).

Christopher C. Brand modified the stock from hollow brass to an iron skeleton, thus the gun became known as the Brand gun. It was produced in three sizes:

#1 with a 7/8" bore, weighing approximately 23 lbs.
#2 with a 1-1/8" bore, weighing around 19-1/2 lbs.
#3 with a 1-1/4" bore, weighing 19 lbs. or less.

These various sizes were designed to accommodate different bomb lances. The #1 gun, with a 7/8" bore, was most commonly used for shoulder gun harpoons. For details on several of these harpoons, refer to the Shoulder gun Irons page on this website.

Robert Brown Gun

Robert Brown shoulder gun. Stamped on top rear of the barrel is "ROBERT BROWN NEW LONDON CT / MADE BY AD & CO." Length is 45-3/4", bore is 1-3/8"

In 1850, Robert Brown of New London, Connecticut, designed a shoulder gun to fire a gun harpoon, gun lance, and a bomb lance, all specifically patented for his gun. The gun itself was not patented. Made entirely of gun metal, it was the heaviest of all the shoulder guns, weighing approximately 34 to 36 lbs. It was a muzzle-loaded gun discharged by a percussion cap. Examples of this gun feature one hammer striking two separate caps on two nipples simultaneously to ensure firing in a wet environment.

The initial response to Brown's gun and harpoon was enthusiastic. An article in Scientific American in April 1850 stated:

"NEW WHALE HARPOON - Capt. Robert Brown, of New London, Conn., has invented a most important improvement for shooting and capturing whales. It is well known that some whales of the Pacific cannot be approached with the harpoon in a boat, and at best the harpooning and lancing of whales is a very dangerous and difficult business. The idea of firing the harpoon out of a gun has been often advanced, but Capt. Brown's harpoon, with the line attached, can be fired as accurately as a musket ball. The invention may be termed, 'Whaling made successful and easy by a Yankee Captain.'"

Robert Brown Gun IronsDetail of Brown Iron

Brown's gun harpoons came in three styles. The first head style had a length of 38" and was stamped with "PATENTED" on one side of the shank and "JUNE 4TH 1850" on the other. The middle two harpoons were 36-7/8" long and similarly stamped. The bottom iron was 35-1/4" long, with "R BROWN PATD 1850" cast in raised letters on the cast iron shank.

Brown's gun harpoon was patented in 1850 (U.S. Patent No. 7,410, June 4, 1850). It featured a wide flat shank joined directly to the head, made of cast iron with two holes near the head for attaching the whale line, and another hole near the butt end. The line passed through one hole, back through the other, and was then spliced in an eye splice. The line then trailed back along the flat shank and through the hole at the butt end, trailing from the butt end when the iron was discharged. When loaded into the muzzle of the gun, the line passed from the hole at the butt to the head end where it exited from the muzzle. The end was spliced in an eye splice and secured to the main warp by a bowline through the eye splice.

The head of Brown's harpoon underwent several changes. The original design was a two-flue head with a lance blade fixed perpendicularly to the plane of the two-flue head, projecting beyond the two-flue tip. The second design incorporated two swivel barbs with the two-flue head, which folded inward for penetration and spread outward for holding power when withdrawal forces were applied. The third version had pivot barbs that opened farther, a smaller lance blade cast with the head, and a slightly smaller head overall.

The head of Brown's harpoon was not a patented feature and underwent several modifications. The original design featured a two-flue head with a perpendicular lance blade that extended beyond the tip. The second version added two swivel barbs to the two-flue head, which folded inward for penetration and spread outward for increased holding power when the line was pulled. The third version retained the pivot barbs but made them larger, altered their shape, and included a smaller lance blade cast directly with the head, resulting in a slightly smaller overall head.

Brown Non-explosive Gun Lance

Robert Brown's non-explosive gun lance. Length is 36-1/2".

Brown received another patent for a non-explosive gun lance intended for the same gun (U.S. Patent No. 7,572, August 20, 1850). This patent included rope tails for stabilizing the lance in flight, as described in the bomb lance patent.

An advertisement for Brown's gun and harpoon appeared in The Whalemen's Shipping List, and Merchant's Transcript on June 25, 1850:

"Brown's Whaling Gun, Patent Harpoon and lance, Were invented and very successfully used by the Patentee (his officers and boatsteerers,) during his late voyage as master of ship Electra, of New London. Capt Brown took on this voyage, (including what he shipped home and brought home) rising 4300 barrels of oil, and 53,000 lbs of bone. The practical utility of this invention for taking whales, has been demonstrated."

This voyage likely began in 1847 and would have used the first harpoon head configuration. By 1852, another advertisement stated that many other captains had adopted Brown's guns and harpoons, indicating the use of the second head configuration. On January 2, 1855, a subsequent advertisement claimed:

"Brown's whale guns, harpoons and bombs are now warrented, if used as directed. I run no risk in warranting them as those who have latterly used them can affirm. Formerly the most of my harpoons were too heavy and not made in a proper shape, this defect I was only able to remedy in part at Honolulu S. I.

I am now able to furnish Guns, Harpoons, and Bombs which will be of most effectual service in taking whales. My harpoons are much improved in shape and workmanship, the heads being of a different pattern, and as they are made half a pound lighter there is no recoil now to the Gun in firing them, if the Gun is clean and used in conformity with the directions."

Brown Bomb LanceBrown Bomb Lance Rope Tails

Above: Brown's bomb lance. Length is 33-1/4" (author's collection).

Below: Brown's bomb lance with rope tails attached. Note the decreasing thickness of the braided tails.

Brown's bomb lance consisted of an iron forward bomb shell with four cutting edges and a rear section made of cast iron, fluted on three sides. The center of the rear section was hollow to hold a fuse ignited by the gun's discharge. The rear part had holes for attaching rope tails, as explained in his patent:

"The friction between the tail and the air operates as a drag on the butt of the lance and keeps it back. The cords should be of uniform size and arranged symmetrically round the axis of the shank, so that they may drag behind it with equal force, and thus tend to keep the lance during its flight in the direct line in which it was projected from the gun."

When the bomb was loaded into the muzzle of Brown's gun, the rope tails were laid along the flutes to the head. A cork screwed onto a hollow threaded stud at the butt end ensured a snug fit in the barrel. Although Brown did not patent this bomb lance, the rope tail feature was claimed in his patent for the non-explosive gun lance.

Over time, several issues with the design became apparent. The gun's heavy weight was intended to reduce recoil from Brown's hefty harpoons and bomb lances, but the recoil was still significant. William G. Kirschbaum wrote in the New Bedford Evening Standard on February 20, 1904:

"It was the first shoulder gun in use, and several whalemen in New Bedford have used it, but not to any extent. It was made of gun metal, the barrel had an inch and a half bore, and the person who handled it had to be stronger than an ox. The recoil was so great that often-times he was prostrated."

Grudchos & Eggers Gun

Grudchos and Eggers shoulder gun. Length is 38".

In 1857, New Bedford gun makers Julius Grudchos and Selmar Eggers crafted a shoulder gun with a rifled barrel. Although this gun wasn't patented, it was designed to fire a specifically crafted bomb lance Grudchos & Eggers Bomb Lance(U.S. Patent No. 17,370, May 26, 1857). The bomb lance featured a lead section to engage the six rifling grooves in the barrel, which imparted a spin to the bomb lance for improved accuracy. A notable downside was that no other type of bomb lance could be used with this gun. Some Grudchos and Eggers guns had their rifling grooves bored out, resulting in a 1-1/16" bore that didn’t match any Brand guns.

The Grudchos and Eggers shoulder gun had a cast-steel barrel and a wooden stock. A large ring on the bottom of the stock allowed a lanyard to be attached to retrieve the gun if it fell overboard. This muzzle-loaded percussion gun was standard in design and weighed around 18 lbs, making it the lightest of all shoulder guns and therefore prone to more recoil. The gun was also equipped with a flask charger for measuring gunpowder.


Patent drwaing for Grudchos and Eggers bomb lance.

Cunningham & Cogan Gun

Cunningham & Cogan shoulder gun. Length is 33-1/2", bore is 1".

In 1877, Herbert W. Chapman of Newark, New Jersey, patented a robust shoulder gun (U.S. Patent No. 190,820, May 15, 1877). Manufactured by Patrick Cunningham of New Bedford, this gun weighed 27 lbs. and became known as the Cunningham & Cogan gun, although Chapman was the patentee. It was primarily used on steam barks in the Arctic.

ChapmanThe Cunningham & Cogan shoulder gun was designed to fire a combined bomb lance and cartridge patented by Cunningham in 1875 (U.S. Patent No. 171,553, Dec. 28, 1875). This one-inch bore gun was cast in one piece of iron, except for the barrel and breechblock. Chapman emphasized the need for simplicity, strength, and durability in his patent, stating:

"Owing to the conditions under which weapons of this class are used, it is particularly desirable that they be of simple construction, of great strength and durability, and at the same time so arranged as to be readily handled. To effect these results is the object of the invention, which is accomplished by casting the breech, a breech-frame, trigger-guard, and other parts of the stock in a single piece."

Patent drawings for Chapman's shoulder gun.

The steel barrel was screwed into the casting, and the iron breech block contained the firing pin, swinging up and to the left to expose the breech. The hammer was manually cocked and laid flat to allow the combined bomb lance and cartridge to be loaded into the breech from the rear. The breech block was then closed and secured by a heavy iron latch.

Cunningham & Cogan AdvertisementAn advertisement for the Cunningham & Cogan gun first appeared in The Whalemen's Shipping List, and Merchants' Transcript on April 4, 1876:

"These Guns and Lances are pronounced by all who have seen and examined them, to be SUPERIOR to all other brands, and are recommended in the STRONGEST terms.

The Superiority of these Guns over all others, is that they can be Loaded and Discharged


You do not have to carry any Powder, Caps, &c., in the boats. Can be fired as wel[l] underwater as above, as water has no effect upon either Gun or Lance."

Wm. Lewis Gun

William Lewis shoulder gun. Length is 33-1/2", bore is 7/8".

William Lewis of New Bedford developed a variant of the Cunningham & Cogan gun, introducing some modifications. This gun was not patented. Lewis utilized a cast bronze breech and a drawn brass barrel, opting for materials that would remain less brittle in Arctic conditions and offer greater resistance to corrosion. In his Illustrated Catalog of Whaling Utensils (ca 1896), Lewis provided a detailed description of the gun:

"It is 36 inches long and weighs 20 pounds. Bore 7/8 of an inch, standard size. The entire gun is made of the best non-corrosive materials. The breech is cast bronze of the finest quality, and the barrel is drawn especially for us and is used by no other makers. It is a much more expensive way of making a barrel, as experience has demonstrated that cast metal, which is cheaper for barrels, is liable to burst at any time. We warrant our barrels not to burst, and will replace any barrel found defective.

The locks are made very carefully and thoroughly tested. Particular attention has been paid to the hammers, making them of a material which will stand cold weather and not break. A very important point. All parts of the locks are interchangeable, thereby making repairs very cheap if needed.

The weight of stock and barrel is distributed so as to balance properly when firing. We believe it to be as near right as possible and suit the majority.

For simplicity, quickness in handling and ease in loading this gun is second to none, and if held firmly to the shoulder no trouble is experienced from the recoil.

To load the gun with the bomb and cartridge combined, throw back the breech block after putting the gun full cock. Then insert the bomb and push in until it stops. Next place the gun at half cock to prevent accident. Then see that the breech block goes down and is latched into place. When ready to fire put the gun at full cock and hold firmly against the shoulder.

Never snap the gun when it is empty, as the lock is powerful and snapping it does no good, but is liable to injure it. Keep the firing pin which passes through the breech block well oiled and clean. Also oil the other parts occasionally.

No pains or expense has been spared to make this gun the best there is, and it is generally acknowledged to be the standard gun for the purpose. Every gun is warranted perfect and packed in a suitable case."

Pierce & Eggers Gun

Pierce & Eggers shoulder gun, 1878. Length is 36-1/4", bore is 15/16".

In 1878, Ebenezer Pierce and Selmar Eggers, gun manufacturers from New Bedford, secured a patent for a mechanism designed to lock the breech block in place for discharge on a breech-loaded shoulder gun (U.S. Patent No. 200,338, Feb. 12, 1878). The breech block, along with the firing mechanism, trigger, and trigger guard, was hinged at the bottom of the gun, allowing it to open by pivoting downward and forward. A center-fire cartridge (Winchester No. 8) was placed into the breech, while the bomb lance was loaded into the muzzle. After loading the cartridge, the breech block was closed and secured. The patented feature focused on the locking mechanism for the breech block. A hook-shaped stud at the rear of the trigger guard extended through a slot in the bottom of the skeleton stock when the breech block was closed. A lever mounted within the skeleton stock pivoted to engage Pierce & Eggers Patent Drawingthe hook-shaped stud, thus locking the breech block in place. The gun was cocked by pulling back the hammer that extended out from the top. This firearm was crafted entirely from gun metal.

James Templeman Brown praised the Pierce and Eggers gun, stating in 1887 that it was:

" of the latest improved shoulder-guns, and the most popular and effective that has ever been introduced in the whale fishery. It may be used with either the Pierce or Brand explosive lance. It is also one of the most attractive whaling guns in appearance. It is made entirely of gun metal, with a skeleton stock and reinforced barrel. Charge, 2-1/2 drams of powder. Its length is 36-1/2 inches and its weight 24 pounds. It is manufactured by S. Eggers, New Bedford, Mass."

Patent drawings for Pierce and Eggers gun.

Pierce Gun

Pierce Shoulder Gun, 1882 - two versions. Length is 36-1/2", bore is 7/8".

In 1882, Ebenezer Pierce patented another breech-loaded shoulder gun (U.S. Patent No. 255,330, March 21, 1882). This gun was constructed entirely of brass. The barrel could be opened by tilting it forward to load a bomb lance and cartridge into the breech. A spring-loaded locking plate engaged a recess at the top rear of the barrel, securing it in the closed position for firing.

Frank Brown Advertisement for Pierce Gun

On each side of the gun barrel, near the breech, was a large lug cast as part of the barrel. When the barrel was locked closed, these lugs engaged corresponding recesses in the brass stock. Pierce detailed the functionality of this feature in his patent specifications:Patent Drawings for Pierce gun

"During the act of firing the shock and strain will be transmitted from the barrel to its lugs, and hence the walls of the recesses within which the lugs are fitted will receive the impact of recoil. In this class of guns the recoil is very heavy, and hence great strength of parts is essential. These lugs being arranged on the sides of the barrel directly opposite each other, and about in line with the axis of the barrel or its longitudinal center, and being received into the said recesses, will entirely relieve the pivot by which the barrel is connected with the stock from all strain during firing, and will also relieve the locking plate or latch from pressure and strain; also, they will so hold the barrel that but a slight locking device will be required for maintaining the rear end of the barrel in position against the breech-piece."

Patent drawings for Pierce shoulder gun.

The hammer of the Pierce shoulder gun was concealed within the gun's body and cocked using a lever on the right side. A large cover plate, screwed on top behind the barrel, protected the firing mechanism from water and ice.

There were two versions of the Pierce shoulder gun. In the later version, the pistol grip was solid with a large hole at the bottom that could fit onto a support for aiming and firing.

Pierce Bomb Lance

Pierce 1879 bomb lance. Length is 17-1/2", diameter is 7/8" (Author's collection).

The Pierce gun was designed to fire a bomb lance patented by Pierce in 1879 (U.S. Patent No. 211,778, Jan. 28, 1879) and other bomb lances with a 7/8" diameter, using a cartridge. This bomb lance featured metal flip-out fins for stabilization during flight, held in place for storage and loading by an iron ring that temporarily slid over them.

Shoulder guns remained in use for firing bomb lances throughout the whale fisheries into the 20th century. However, the use of shoulder guns for firing harpoons was short-lived due to accuracy issues. The lightweight harpoon often veered off course because of the trailing whale line's weight. An article in The Whalemen's Shipping List and Merchants' Transcript, New Bedford, on November 13, 1855, noted:

"Guns for driving the harpoon have, we believe, been pretty generally abandoned, but we are assured by a manufacturer of fuse, who has lately contracted for making a quality especially adapted to this sub-marine and blubbery location, that the bomb-lance is now being quite extensively employed by many vessels, and that some have sent home from the Sandwich Islands for further supplies."

© Website originally created by Thomas G. Lytle.

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