Swivel Guns and Swivel Gun Harpoons

Swivel gun mounted in whaleboat

Whaleboat with Greener swivel gun mounted (Scammon, The Marine Mammals of the North-western Coast of North America, 1874).

It was not always feasible to approach a whale closely enough to dart a harpoon. This was particularly challenging in the northern fisheries, where ice frequently hindered a close approach. The proposed solution was to shoot a harpoon from a gun into the whale. The gun, mounted in the bow of the whaleboat, was called a swivel gun because it was secured on a swivel mount, allowing it to turn for aiming. Such guns were first attempted in 1731. Adam Anderson of Dublin, Ireland, documented in Anderson's Historical and Chronological Deduction of the Origin of Commerce... (1790):

At the [South Sea] company's dock there had at this time [1731] been invented a new sort of gun for shooting with gunpowder the harpoons into the bodies of whales, at a greater distance than the harpoons could be thrown by hand; and the ships were accordingly provided with some of them, which were used both in this and the next year's fishery, with some success. They were chiefly adapted to a calm season, and were scarcely practicable in blowing weather, which mostly happens in the Greenland seas. And although the foreign harpooneers could not easily be brought to use them, as being out of their usual method; yet in a ship, fitted out by Mr. Elias Bird and partners, two years after, out of the three whales brought home, two of them were said to be killed by that new-invented gun.

Early swivel guns were flintlocks, and in any weather, the powder in the flash pan would get wet. As Anderson noted, they were only useful in calm weather.

Staghold's swivel gun and harpoon, 1772

Staghold's Gun and Harpoon, Awarded a prize by the Royal Society of Arts, 1772.

There was little further attention given to swivel guns until the Royal Society of Arts in England, after witnessing experiments with the guns in 1772, offered awards for improvements to the gun and harpoon to promote the idea. In 1820, William Scoresby wrote:

Between 1772 and 1792, the Society of Arts gave in premiums to whalefishers, and to artisans for improvements in the gun and harpoon, the sum of 350l. or 400l. In one year only, (1791), they paid 36 guineas as premiums, to twelve persons, who had been successful in the use of the harpoon-gun. Since the year 1792, they have generally been in the habit of offering a premium of 10 guineas, to the harpooner who should shoot the greatest number of whales in one season, not being less than three. This premium, however, though it has been frequently offered, has been seldom claimed. The harpoon-gun has been highly improved, and rendered capable of throwing a harpoon near forty yards with effect; yet, on account of the difficulty and address requisite in the management of it, and the loss of fish, which, in unskillful hands, it has been the means of occasioning, together with some accidents which have resulted from its use, - it has not been so generally adopted as might have been expected.

The illustration above shows one of the guns and harpoons, invented by Abraham Staghold, that received premiums from the Royal Society in 1772. It's notable that the design of the swivel-gun harpoon has not changed significantly since then.

Early swivel gun

Early improved flintlock swivel gun. (Scoresby, An Account of the Arctic Regions, with a History and Description of the Northern Whale-Fishery).

George Wallis, Jr., of Hull, England, is credited with the first successful swivel gun around 1815. The swivel-mounted harpoon gun of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries was a flintlock with two locks. The flintlock was protected from spray by a hinged door cover. The gun had a wrought-iron barrel approximately 24 to 26 inches long, with a 1-7/8 inch bore and a 3 inch outside barrel diameter.

Early picture of firing a harpoon, 1813The gun described by William Scoresby and illustrated above was not used in the American whale fisheries. No significant changes were made to this gun until 1837 when William Greener, a gunsmith in Birmingham, England, produced an improved version. Greener described the changes he made to the old-style swivel guns in his book, The Science of Gunnery, as Applied to the Use and Construction of Fire Arms, London, ca 1846:


From "Shooting a Harpoon at a Whale," Clark, 1813.

I was then approached by Captains Warham and Taylor of the Lord Gambier and Granville, bay whalers, also from this port, to lend my attention to the matter. I proceeded by lengthening the barrel, adding more weight, and reducing the bore to 1-1/2 inches. By judiciously improving the firing mechanism directly behind the barrel bore, adding a conical form to the breech, and fabricating a percussion gun, I achieved a remarkable result: not a single misfire in over one hundred shots. The lock's construction is quite simple, based on the principle of a saddle pistol lock; the caps, nipples, and lock are completely covered and protected from moisture or sea spray. The gun remains securely bolted until needed; at that moment, removing a pin and pulling the trigger string fires the gun, projecting the harpoon with considerable accuracy up to eighty-four yards, which is more than double the range achieved by any previous gun of this type. The charge required to project a 40-pound weight, including the 10-1/2 pound harpoon and increasing weight of the three-inch line, is relatively small.

Greener further explained that using the correct gunpowder was crucial. Large-grained powder burned more slowly than fine-grained powder, putting the harpoon in motion more gradually and evenly.

Greener gun

Greener gun. Length is 52-1/2", length of barrel is 36".

An advertisement for the improved and successful Greener gun first appeared in the Whalemen's Shipping List, and Merchants' Transcript in New Bedford on February 5, 1850:

Harpoon Gun. Greene's [sic] celebrated English harpoon gun, said to be capable of throwing a harpoon forty yards with effect, received for exhibition and sale by Swift & Allen.

This simple advertisement did not initially generate much enthusiasm for the Greener gun. However, within two years, the success of the Greener gun became well known. An article in the same newspaper on April 13, 1852, stated in part:

We do not remember that we have particularly mentioned the Whaling Gun invented by Mr. William Greener, the eminent Gun maker of London. These have been for a long time in use in the British Whaling service and have been there considered as valuable instruments. We have now the pleasure of adding the testimony of one of our own captains in their favor. A letter from Capt. Worth of the Ansel Gibbs of Fairhaven states that he had purchased one of Greener's Whaling Guns out of the British whaler Margaret, spoken by him in the China Seas, and bound home with a cargo of sperm oil. Capt. Worth had taken one whale with the instrument which he would not otherwise have captured. This whale was struck at a distance of eight fathoms by a harpoon discharged from Greener's Gun. He is strongly of opinion that if he had possessed it earlier, he should have been the gainer by two hundred barrels of sperm oil.

For the next few years, many advertisements and articles with enthusiastic testimonies appeared. The Greener gun became a success with little competition, though other swivel guns quickly appeared. Christopher C. Brand and Charles Tracy of Norwich, Connecticut, ran an advertisement in the Whalemen's Shipping List, and Merchants' Transcript in New Bedford throughout most of 1852, stating that:

They also manufacture a Gun for shooting Harpoons, to be mounted on a boat, which is very highly approved. This Gun is about the size of the English Harpoon Guns, and is superior to them in strength, simplicity, and convenience in loading and firing.

Although Brand and Tracy's shoulder gun became well-known, their swivel gun did not.

The Greener gun gained significant popularity among American whalers along the California coast, particularly due to the calm waters that facilitated accurate aiming. It proved to be highly effective for hunting grey whales. In 1874, Charles M. Scammon remarked:

...were it not for the utility of Greener's gun, the coast fishery would be abandoned, it being now next to impossible to "strike" with the hand-harpoon. At the present time, if the whale can be approached within thirty yards, it is considered to be in reach of the gun-harpoon.

Scammon further detailed the methods and aiming techniques for using the Greener gun:

The harpoon, four feet and a half long, is projected with considerable accuracy to any distance under eighty-four yards. The gun is mounted on the bow of the boat. A variety of maneuvers are practiced when using the weapon: at times the boat lying at anchor, and, again, drifting about for a chance shot. When the animal is judged to be ten fathoms off, the gun is pointed eighteen inches below the back; if fifteen fathoms, eight or ten inches below; if eighteen or twenty fathoms distant, the gun is sighted at the top of its back.

According to W. Greener in his 1910 book, The Gun and Its Development:

The charge of powder never exceeds six drams, for more doubles up the shank of the harpoon. It is rarely used at greater distances than twenty-five yards, but it is fairly accurate up to forty; and the late W. Greener, whose harpoon guns were by far the best of their day, obtained in a public contest at London Dock, in 1848, an extreme range of 120 yards. Smaller harpoon guns are sometimes made for shooting white-whales, porpoises, walrus, etc., and are carried by yachts on Arctic trips.

The Greener gun could fire a large harpoon weighing around ten pounds over distances of thirty to forty yards. It was produced with three different bore sizes: 1-1/4", 1-1/2", and 1-7/8". Mounted in the bow of a whaleboat, the gun was fired by pulling a lanyard attached to its trigger. Detail showing two nipples and one hammerThe Greener guns featured a percussion hammer that struck two nipples simultaneously to reduce the likelihood of a misfire. The barrel was set in a wooden stock, which included a small hand grip at the rear for swiveling and aiming. A brass hinged cover protected the hammers and nipples from sea water. A brass ramp sight ran along the top of the barrel. The entire gun, excluding the harpoon, weighed approximately seventy-five pounds.


Greener gun - hammer struck two percussion caps on nipples simultaneously.

Toggle head Greener ironTwo flue Greener iron.

Greener gun irons. top: toggle head, length 48"; bottom: two flue, length 48-1/2". Both are for 1-1/4" bore.

The harpoons used in Greener guns evolved minimally over the years, though the heads changed in line with the developments in hand-darted irons. Greener irons are found with various head types, including two flue, single flue, pivot barb, and toggle heads. The whaleline was connected to a ring that could slide along a slot in the shank. When loaded in the gun, the ring was positioned forward near the head, outside the barrel. Upon discharge, the ring would move to the butt end, trailing the whaleline behind.

One notable change was in the shank of the Greener irons. While most had the characteristic slot as pictured above, some were made with a solid shank, similar to the hand-darted irons. In 1820, Scoresby described the solid shank:

Some harpoons have been lately made with a single shank, similar to the common "hand-harpoon," but swelled at the end to the thickness of the bore of the gun. The whale line, which is closely spliced round the shank, is slipped towards the mouth of the harpoon, when it is placed in the gun, and when fired, is prevented from disengaging itself, by the size of the knob at the end.

Despite this, the slotted or "double shank" Greener irons were more favored. Numerous letters of endorsement appeared in The Whalemen's Shipping List, and Merchants' Transcript in New Bedford during 1852. Here are some examples:

From Captain George Harrison, of the Lady Jane of Newcastle, 1848: "... I can confidently recommend them, the double shanked harpoon never failed, the single shanked I have seen fail twice out of thrice. I got two single shanked gun harpoons from Aberdeen upon trial, which proved a complete failure. I would not allow one to be put into my boats. When fired they went side first and often butt end first ..."

From Capt. John Gray of the 'Eclipse' of Peterhead: "... We do not use the single shank Harpoon at all from this port. The 'Commerce,' last year lost several fish with them from the heads coming off - the double shank is much preferred ..."

From Captain William Penney of the 'Advice' of Dundee, now in command of Lady Franklin's expedition from Peterhead: "Murray's Harpoon is a complete failure, nothing will do but your double shank."

William Greener's gun became highly successful and was used in both American and British whale fisheries. The harpoons were commonly referred to as Greener irons, regardless of the blacksmith who made them, their head configuration, or their country of origin.

Efforts to improve the Greener gun continued. One major issue was the recoil force from firing large harpoons, which was transmitted directly to the lightweight whaleboats, not designed to withstand such shocks.

Early Cordes and Rechten Swivel GunAn early enhancement to the Greener gun came from Germany. Around 1856, John Phillip Rechten from Bremen collaborated with H. G. Cordes, a gun maker from Bremerhaven. Rechten received a German patent for a bomb lance in 1856. Their improvements to the Greener gun included increasing the bore to 50 mm (1.97 inches) and lengthening the gun to 127 cm (50 inches) and the harpoon to 107 cm (42-1/8 inches).

Early single-barrel Cordes and Rechten swivel gun. Information and photo from Lars Bottcher, Germany. The gun is in the Altonaer Museum Hamburg.

The second version of the Cordes and Rechten swivel gun featured two side-by-side barrels. The left barrel was smooth bore, designed for firing a harpoon, while the right barrel, intended for a bomb lance, was rifled with three grooves, giving it a twist of one turn in 40 feet. Two barrel version of Cordes and Rechten Swivel GunThis gun saw successful use in the North Sea around 1867. The gun discharged both barrels simultaneously by pulling two lanyards attached to the triggers. Each barrel was 24 inches long, and the entire gun weighed 160 pounds. There were two types of harpoons: one constructed with an iron head and a wooden shaft, and another made entirely of iron. The harpoon's two-flue head measured 5 inches in length. The bomb lance, also made of iron, was 15 inches long, featuring a 5-inch point. The explosive cylinder measured 8 inches in length and 2-1/8 inches in diameter, containing 1-3/4 pounds of gunpowder. A fuse at the bomb's base was ignited by the gunpowder flash and could burn underwater for 25 seconds. The base of the bomb lance had a brass screw with a 2-inch long head and three setting lugs to match the rifled barrel's grooves.

(This information and the accompanying illustration of the Cordes and Rechten gun were provided by Lars Bottcher of Germany and come from an old newspaper article in the August 6, 1867 issue of "ILLUSTRIERTE ZEITUNG".)

The √úberseemuseum in Bremen, Germany, houses a Cordes double-barrel harpoon cannon from 1867, similar to the type Svend Foyn experimented with for one season. This item might have been lost from the Focke Museum collection during World War II. (See Links page. This information comes from Klaus Barthelmess, Cologne, Germany.)

Rechten Darting Gun, patent drawing

The similarity between the Cordes and Rechten swivel gun and the darting gun patented by John P. Rechten in the United States in 1869 is notable. Rechten's darting gun also featured two side-by-side barrels that could simultaneously fire a harpoon and a bomb lance (U.S. Patent No. 97,693, Dec. 7, 1869).


Mason and Cunningham swivel gun

Mason and Cunningham swivel gun. Length is 28-1/2", length of barrel is 21-3/8", bore is 1-1/2".

Henry W. Mason and Patrick Cunningham of New Bedford were granted a U.S. Patent in 1882 for their whaling-gun invention, which focused on reducing the recoil forces transmitted to the whaleboat (U.S. Patent No. 269,080, Dec. 12, 1882). Mason and Cunningham's design mounted their swivel gun on heavy rubber cushions. Patent drawing for Mason and Cunningham gunThese shock-absorbing rubber cylinders were positioned on both sides of the trunnion mounting and around the mounting post where it passed through the thighboard of the whaleboat. The gun was mounted to the trunnion rods parallel to the gun barrel, allowing it to slide back and forth. Rubber cylinders placed around the rods behind the lugs on the gun absorbed the recoil, thereby reducing the forces transmitted to the whaleboat.

Patent drawing for Mason and Cunningham swivel gun.

The Mason and Cunningham swivel gun was loaded by opening a breechblock and inserting a cartridge, eliminating the need for muzzle loading gunpowder and percussion caps on nipples. After loading the cartridge and locking the breechblock closed, the harpoon was loaded into the gun's muzzle. The gun was cocked by pulling back an exposed hammer and fired using a finger trigger, unlike the Greener guns, which were fired by pulling a lanyard attached to a trigger. Designed primarily for Arctic use, the gun was made of gun metal (a bronze alloy) rather than iron, which would be too brittle at extremely cold Arctic temperatures.

Harpoons for Mason and Cunningham gun

Mason and Cunningham harpoons. Top: typical type. Length is 33-3/4".Center: early type with double shank. Length is 38-13/16". Bottom: non-explosive toggle iron for Mason and Cunningham gun, slotted shank. Length is 29".

The barrel of the Mason and Cunningham gun was shorter than that of a Greener gun, necessitating a different harpoon. Though not patented, the harpoon was described in the gun patent. It was a bomb harpoon designed to explode inside the whale, eliminating the need for hand lancing, which was challenging in the Arctic. The harpoon featured a cylindrical bomb shell that screwed onto the main harpoon casting. A sharp point with four longitudinal cutting edges screwed into the front of the bomb shell. Behind the bomb were two large pivot barbs mounted in a slot in the harpoon casting, pivoting on a single pin. An early version of the harpoon had a slotted shank with a ring for attaching the whale line, similar to Greener irons. A later version had a solid shank with four longitudinal grooves for the whale line to lie in when placed in the gun barrel. In this version, a three-foot length of whale line was rove through a hole near the butt end of the harpoon and spliced to form a continuous loop. This loop passed forward in two of the grooves in the shank, with the end of the loop outside the gun barrel muzzle, where it was attached to the main warp.

In addition to the bomb harpoon, a non-explosive toggle-head harpoon was made for the Mason and Cunningham gun. This was similar to the Greener irons, with the slotted shank, but the shank was shorter to fit the Mason and Cunningham gun. All three harpoons were specifically made for the Mason and Cunningham gun and fit the 1-1/2" bore.

Patent drawing for J.J. Haviside swivel gun

John J. Haviside swivel gun - patent drawing.

Another swivel gun was patented by John J. Haviside of San Francisco in 1885 (U.S. Patent No. 324,935, Aug. 25, 1885). Haviside's invention aimed to:

"My invention relates to a whaling-gun and stand by which it may be supported within the boat, so as to resist the recoil or kick of the gun when fired."

His patent claims included a gun with two or more barrels and corresponding hammers operating on a single shaft to discharge all barrels simultaneously.

This gun featured three barrels: the center barrel discharged a gun harpoon, while the two outer barrels discharged bomb lances. All three barrels were fired simultaneously by three hammers and three firing pins. The rear section of the gun, containing the firing mechanism, swung up to expose the barrel ends for loading cartridges. Once loaded, the rear section was secured by a large locking pin. Haviside hinted at the gun's use in the Arctic by describing the enclosed firing mechanism:

"By this construction the interior of the lock-case is kept perfectly tight and free from water and ice."

The three barrels were held together by permanent clamps. A large curved rack was attached to the gun barrels via one of these clamps. The rack curved downward and rearward through a slot in a mounting post, allowing the barrels to be raised and lowered for aiming. Ratchet teeth on the rack secured it in position for firing. The lower end of the gun support standard fit into a hinged step at the bottom of the whaleboat.

No examples of the Haviside gun have been found. The patent did not mention any special harpoon or bomb lance, implying that any existing harpoon and bomb lance fitting the barrels could be used. A bomb lance fitting this description, indicating a 1-1/4" bore, is described below.

Bomb lance for Greener gun

Christopher C. Brand #4 bomb lance for swivel guns (rubber fins missing).Length is 34-1/2", diameter is 1-1/4".

(Author's collection)

Christopher C. Brand of Ledyard, Connecticut, designed a bomb lance for large swivel guns in 1852. It could be used in any gun with a 1-1/4" bore. Brand patented this bomb lance in 1852 (U.S. Patent No. 9,047, June 22, 1852), which featured folding rubber fins to keep the bomb on its trajectory during flight. Brand claimed:

Patent drawing for C.C. Brand bomb lance"...my improved mode of making them, viz., of vulcanized india-rubber or other equivalent, so that they may not only resist the destructive powers of the explosion, but be folded down on the shank when put into a gun-barrel, and have the property of elasticity, such as will enable them to unfold themselves after being discharged from the gun."


Patent drawing for Christopher C. Brand bomb lance.

The patent did not specifically identify swivel guns, but Brand made four sizes of this design, with size #4 intended for swivel guns. Differences were in length and diameter, and no other bomb lance specifically made for swivel guns appears to exist.

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