Temple IronToggle Iron

Early Temple iron (above) and improved toggle iron (below).

The concept of a toggle head harpoon is quite old. Essentially, a toggle head harpoon features a moveable head that remains streamlined to the shaft for darting. Upon penetration, it pivots at a right angle to the shaft when force is applied to the line, thus preventing withdrawal.

Ancient Eskimo harpoons were an early form of toggle harpoons. Typically made of bone or ivory with a stone or metal point, they pivoted around a line threaded through a hole in the center of the head. A flaring rear barb ensured it would catch in the blubber or flesh to trigger the toggle action. The head was kept streamlined to the shaft by a separable shaft fitting into a receptacle hole in the rear. These harpoons were smaller than later iron toggle harpoons since they were attached to skin floats and didn't have to withstand the force of pulling a fully loaded whaleboat through the water.

Eskimo bone toggle head and slate tip

Eskimo Harpoon head, 3-1/8" long, showing slate tip insert. (Author's collection).

Grommet iron

Grommet Iron, 30-1/8" long.

The first iron toggle head whaling harpoon was the grommet iron. Its head was kept streamlined to the shaft by a grommet, which could be a tied line, leather, or most commonly, a metal ring. Upon darting, the grommet was pushed back by the blubber, freeing the head to toggle. Grommet irons were used extensively, later mainly for porpoise, blackfish, or large fish like sunfish or basking sharks. The pivot pin size indicated the iron's intended use. For whales, a 3/8" diameter pin, flush with the head sides and flared like a rivet at the ends to retain it, was standard. Smaller pins were for smaller fish and weren't meant to pull a boat.

Detail of grommet iron head

Grommet toggle iron with iron ring grommet

The earliest grommet harpoon record is a sketch by Francis Thompson around 1772 for Joseph Banks, intended for a scientific Pacific expedition led by James Cook (1772-1775). Since this wasn't a whaling voyage, the harpoon might not have been intended for whales.

Thompsons Harpoon,
  ca 1772

'Mr Thompson's Harpoon', c. 1772, pencil drawing possibly by Francis Thompson, the engineer. (ML Ref: Banks Papers, Series 6: 132)

Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales

Throughout the nineteenth century, grommet irons varied in design. Some featured a metal leaf spring to aid in the toggling action. Most, however, had small pivot pins, indicating use for porpoise, blackfish, sharks, etc., rather than whales.

Grommet iron varieties

The grommet iron's drawback was premature opening during penetration, as the blubber pushed off the grommet, halting further penetration and losing the catch.

In 1848, Lewis Temple, an African American blacksmith in New Bedford, improved the toggle iron and is often credited with its invention. Temple was likely aware of Eskimo harpoons, grommet irons, and how single flue irons bent to rotate the head across the shank axis to prevent withdrawal. An early version of Temple's iron improved the grommet iron by preventing premature head opening during penetration. His harpoon featured a line tied around the toggle head to keep it streamlined for darting. The head had a front barb to cut the blubber and protect the grommet from premature push-off. The rear barb, which toggled the head open by catching in the blubber or flesh, had a sharpened top edge to cut the grommet after full penetration, allowing the head to pivot open. The grommet was positioned between the barbs for protection.

Concept of Temple's grommet iron.

Concept of Temple's improved grommet iron, with rope grommet cut by rear barb. This lead directly to the Temple Toggle Iron which became a whaling industry standard.


Very soon, Temple replaced the grommet with a small wooden shear pin placed through holes drilled through the head and shaft. This wooden pin held the head streamlined to the shaft for darting and prevented early toggling. After complete penetration, when the force of the running whale was applied to the whale line, the rear barb caught in the flesh or blubber, forcing the toggle head open. Temple Iron Toggled The wooden pin sheared, allowing the head to toggle open. This final design became known as Temple's gig, or more commonly, the Temple iron. It retained the double barb configuration and the wooden shear pin, setting the industry standard for whaling harpoons. Temple Iron Head


Author's collection.

Temple iron detail - Authors collection.

Temple crafted his iron by forging a separate U-shaped piece to the end of the shaft to accept a cast iron toggle head. The heads were cast in a local foundry and sold to blacksmiths, who finished them. The head fit snugly between the cheeks of the U-shaped section, with a hole drilled through them for the pivot pin. After securing the pivot pin by flaring its ends, a hole was drilled for the wooden shear pin with the head in the darting position.

Construction Comparison

Construction differences between Temple toggle (left) and improved toggle (right).

Making the Temple toggle iron was challenging due to the U-shaped section. An improvement eliminated this extra piece by simply flattening the end of the shaft and inserting it into a recess cast in the toggle head. Toggle Iron Head ConfigurationsThis also increased the flat area of the toggle head presented to the blubber after toggling, enhancing its holding power. No one is credited with this improved toggle iron, but it became the industry standard starting in the 1850s.

Different foundries produced varying shapes of toggle heads, but there was no performance difference attributed to one over another.

Toggle head styles; acute (top) and obtuse (bottom). Author's collection.

The success of toggle irons spread quickly. The following report from The Whalemen's Shipping List, and Merchants' Transcript on May 31, 1853, is typical of the feedback that led to the popularity of toggle head harpoons:

"The ship Ohio, Capt James A. Norton, which arrived at this port on Saturday, took all her oil the last season in the Arctic seas. Twenty-two bow-head whales were struck, and twenty-one of them cut in, making 2350 bbls. of oil. In the capture of these twenty-one whales, but eight harpoons were used, and not one lost. The only loss of craft or tow-lines sustained was upon the whale which was struck and not captured, and which parted the short warp and went away with one harpoon and two fathoms of tow-line. The harpoons used were toggle-irons."

It must be noted that the use of only eight harpoons was exceptional, and whaleships continued to carry 150 or more harpoons for a four-year voyage.

The improved toggle iron was never superseded by any other hand-darted harpoon. It remained in use in the American whale fishery up to the final voyages in the mid-1920s. There were, however, several attempts to improve upon the design in various ways. The most notable attempts are detailed below.

Babcock Iron

Babcock Iron

One of the earliest variations of the toggle head was invented, but never patented, by Capt. Elisha Babcock in 1860. Babcock was a whaling master on the Ship Lydia of Fairhaven in 1860 and the Bark Adeline Gibbs of New Bedford in 1866. This design might have been tried on one of those voyages, but there is no record of it. The Babcock toggle iron was fashioned like the Temple iron, with the malleable cast iron head positioned between the cheeks of a U-shaped section forged to the forward end of the shaft. A wooden shear pin secured the head in the streamlined darting position. Babcock Iron Head Detail

The head configuration differed in that it combined the toggle head profile with the old two-flue head. The top ridge of the toggle barb was sharpened, as were the two-flue edges. This two-flue toggle design resulted in more surface area for holding power, but the area was mostly forward of the pivot pin, under the two-flue portion of the head configuration. The result was that when resisting force was applied to the head after it toggled open, there was more force on the larger area forward of the pivot pin, which tended to cause the head to pivot back into its streamlined position. When this occurred, the size of the head matched the entry wound, allowing the iron to be drawn out. The larger head (two-flue plus toggle head) profile also made penetration more difficult. Consequently, the Babcock iron never gained popularity.

Balance Toggle IronBalance Toggle Iron

The balance toggle design is attributed to James Durfee, a New Bedford blacksmith, and the iron is sometimes called the Durfee Balance Toggle, although there is no documentation to substantiate this. The design was never patented.

To maximize holding power, a large flat surface was needed to resist pulling out after the toggle head opened. Additionally, the surface area to resist pull-out had to be equal on both sides of the pivot pin, i.e., the forward part and the after part. Balance Toggle Head If the areas were unequal, the force of the blubber on the toggle head would act similarly to the force of the wind on a weathervane; the larger area would receive more force, pushing that side away. (This was the problem with the Babcock iron). To address these requirements, the so-called balance toggle head was developed. A wooden shear pin held the head in the streamlined darting position, as it did in most toggle head designs.

The balance toggle never became popular, likely because the head was too large and made penetration difficult. To have a large surface area for resisting pull-out, a large head was necessary.

Diamond Point ToggleDiamond Point Toggle

A toggle iron that focused on ease of penetration was the diamond point toggle iron. This design was never patented, and its originator remains unknown. It was introduced around 1857, and although rare, several known examples exist. The point of the toggle head was sharp on two edges like a spear point, presumably to make penetrating tough blubber easier. Diamond PointA wood shear pin held the head in the streamlined darting position. The issue was that when the head toggled open, a sharp edge was brought to bear on the blubber or flesh instead of a broad flat surface. This would have allowed the iron to cut its way back out when forces from a running whale were applied. In "The Log of the Bark Emily ... 1857 - 1860" by John R. Spears, published in Harper's Monthly Magazine, 1903, the use of the diamond point toggle on November 13, 1857, is described:

"...the 'new-fangled' diamond point cut its way through the flesh as soon as the strain of towing the boat was brought on by the mad rush that the whales made for liberty."

The diamond point toggle never became popular.

Doyle IronDoyle Toggle Iron

One toggle design seemed to meet most requirements but failed in another. The Doyle iron, patented by George Doyle of Provincetown, MA (U.S. Patent #21,949, Nov. 2, 1858), was designed to present the broad flat side of the toggle head to the blubber or flesh to oppose withdrawal rather than the narrow edge of the toggle head. This iron is also known as the Provincetown Toggle. It had a low profile to facilitate penetration and a point sharp on two edges to aid in penetration. The configuration resembled two standard toggle heads placed bottom edge to bottom edge. Additionally, the head could toggle open in either direction.

Doyle Iron DetailThere was one problem: Doyle did not use a wood shear pin to hold the head in the streamlined darting position. His second patented feature was a small lip on the shank that engaged a corresponding recess in the toggle head to keep the head in the streamlined darting position. The hole in the shaft to receive the pivot pin was elongated, allowing the head to shift forward with respect to the pivot pin. The idea was that during darting, the head would be positioned back with the lip engaging the slot in the head. After darting, when tension was applied to the whaleline, the forces would cause the shaft to pull back slightly with respect to the head, thereby disengaging the lip from the retaining slot and allowing the head to toggle open.

While all considerations for ease of penetration, broad surface area to resist withdrawal, and a balance of resisting areas were met, the Doyle iron never became successful because the head was not held securely in the darting position.

Doyle Iron Patent Drawing

Patent drawing for the Doyle Iron.


British Toggle Iron with Stop Wither

British toggle iron with stop wither. Length is 33-3/4". Maker's mark J.L.P.75 on one side of the head, and whaleship's identification opposite side, VICTOR.

British toggle irons are often identified by their stop wither feature. This particular design is illustrated by Captain William Adams of Dundee, Scotland, in "The Fisheries and Fishery Industries..." (1887) by George Brown Goode, plate 195. Goode notes that this type of hand-harpoon was most commonly used on Scottish whaling steamers. The example displayed here is similar to a Temple iron, with the head pivoting within a clevis forged to the shaft's end. Captain Adams' illustration also shows this construction method. Additionally, Adams illustrates a British toggle iron very similar to the improved toggle iron without the stop wither. Goode describes this illustration as a "Hand-harpoon in general use about 1857." All illustrations in this plate of the book pertain to British harpoons.

The iron depicted here is exceptionally large, with a head measuring 10-1/4" in length and 13/16" in thickness, and a shaft diameter of 7/16". Such a heavy iron would have been challenging to dart. It is possible that it was used for raising whales that had sunk after being killed. This type of harpoon, known as a whale raiser, was commonly used in the humpback whale fishery, where dead whales often sank.

© Website originally created by Thomas G. Lytle.

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