Changing Whaling Technology

Darting Gun Iron by Ambrose J. Peters

Original content by: Peter Emanuel

zoomable artifact image here

About This Artifact

Though this object may look like a harpoon, and work like a harpoon, it is actually a different whaling tool known as a darting gun iron. This iron would be used with a larger instrument called a darting gun. The long wooden shaft is similar to that of a standard harpoon, but at the forward end there is no pointed tip. The tail of the darting gun iron would fit into the circular holders of the darting gun, while a loop at the tail end would be attached to a retrieval line. The head of the darting gun iron is a toggle barb that, after penetrating the whale, flips into a position that prevents it from slipping out of its entry hole. Also attached to the darting gun would be a bomb lance, which would upon contact, shoot into the whale and explode, killing it much faster than a traditional hand-held lance would (and with more accuracy).

This whaling technology grew out of an increased number of whaleships on the open seas, and whales becoming more cautious of them. In order for ships to catch enough whales to be profitable, they were forced to stay out at sea longer and longer, often needing to venture into more treacherous waters to reach their whale quota. Though the darting iron and gun were heavier and more awkward to use than a simple harpoon, they were much more efficient. The darting iron and the gun were retrievable by attached lines, so they could be easily re-used. The bomb lance would explode inside the whale and kill it before it had a chance to dive far below the surface or submerge itself within the ice floes of the arctic.

This darting gun iron in particular has a very interesting history. If you look closely, you'll see the initials "AJP" imprinted on the iron, next to the initials "BKCWM" (visible in the second view of this image). The letters "AJP" are the initials of Ambrose J. Peters, the shipsmith who made this darting gun iron. Peters worked in New Bedford, MA as early as 1879 in the James Driggs Shipsmith Shop (which is now located at Mystic Seaport Museum). The imprint of "BKCWM" on this darting gun iron is short for Bark Charles W. Morgan, showing that this iron actually sailed, and may have possibly been used on one of her voyages!

Questions for Further Thought

  1. Is it surprising that whales became more cautious of whaleships as time went on? What does this tell you about whales?
  2. This particular darting gun iron is important because of its provenance. Without it, it would just be another darting gun iron in the museum collection. What does the word provenance mean and why would museums care so much?
  3. What is the relationship between the darting gun iron and the Charles W. Morgan? Do you think that many museums have many items that are related in this way? What makes this relationship so special?