The American fishermen do not look on harpoon guns with much favour, and the writer, from his own observations, is very greatly inclined to agree with them. The harpoon at times flies very true, but, again, it is most erratic in its flight, even striking sideways and failing to fasten the fish. This is probably due to the momentary check the shackle 1 and foregore give when the former reaches the end of the harpoon. It takes a very quick eye and some one well accustomed to the use of firearms to observe this deflection of the flight of a harpoon, and probably that is the reason why the Scotch fishermen seem quite satisfied with the gun at present in use ; but it is more than likely some of the misses which one hears of, and which are put down to bad shooting, are caused by the harpoon not flying true. The mark is big and the distance short, so, although a harpooneer may be bothered a little by the lop of the sea, provided he is cool and can hold straight, a miss ought hardly, if ever, to occur.
In these days of electricity and other inventions, surely some better motive power than powder might be invented. Compressed air might do, or some power, such as a strong spring, that would give a more continuous steady propelling force.
1 ' Shackle'—some harpooneers put a small piece of cork between the bars of the harpoon at the end that goes into the gun, to deaden the shock.
With a view probably to get over the difficulties enumerated above, Messrs. Mason & Cunningham, the American makers, brought out a gun with a very ingenious contrivance by which the butt is allowed to recoil against rubber cushions, thus converting the blow of the recoil into a push. The writer is not aware what success attended this gun.
The Americans have other most ingenious inventions in the way of explosives, both as harpoons and lances, but there is no space to notice them here. A description of most of them will be found in the 1 Fisheries of the United States,' previously quoted in this chapter.
The gun that appears to be most in use is one made by Messrs. Greener, a muzzle-loader weighing from seventy to seventy-five pounds. Messrs. Bland brought out a double-barrel breechloading gun in 1885, one barrel to take a harpoon and the other to discharge a shell which explodes by concussion. By a neat arrangement of the barrels the shell hits thirty inches from the spot the harpoon strikes. Peterhead people know the gun, but they cannot give any instance of its being tried on a fish.
In 1884 the Norwegian ships had a very neat-looking breechloading gun, mounted on a carriage which, as well as the writer recollects, was intended to take the recoil of the gun much in the same plan as the American rubber cushions described above. Their harpoons were much lighter than, and of different make from, the Scotch irons. They are fitted with a single double-ended movable barb, like two spoons joined together by the handles, and attached in the centre to the end of the harpoon. To prepare them for firing, one of the spoons is turned over and lightly lashed with spun yarn to the harpoon, leaving the other like an arrow-head to enter the fish. The moment the strain of the line comes on the harpoon, the spun yarn breaks and releases the barb, which explodes a shell in the front part of the harpoon. The barb jams in the fish at a right angle to the shank of the harpoon, and if it once gets a good hold, there ought to be little fear of its drawing. They seemed to do well for Bottlenosing, and one Norwegian skipper told us it was not an uncommon thing for them to kill a fish dead.
Scotch whalers had at that time an objection to this gun on the grounds, as far as the writer could make out, that there was no ' Proof House ' in Norway to test guns, and in consequence no guarantee against their bursting.
Harpoons are made of soft Swedish iron, which will bend into any shape and not break. Great care must be taken in their construction, as the fish twists them into the most extraordinary shapes, and any flaw or bad piece of work might result in a fracture entailing the loss of a valuable fish. The shapes and patterns of the barbs are innumerable, and the writer has only been able to give diagrams of a few of the principal at present in use.