Bull Whips

The bull whip developed independently in different parts of the world. Variants can be found in numerous parts of Europe, and elsewhere. The predecessor of the modern American bullwhip may have originally hailed from Spain and Portugal, whence it traveled to the Americas as the New World was explored.

We've recently learned that a handful of bull and stock whips are still used, in Wales and Scotland, by shepherds; who use the sound of the whip in training sheep dogs: signalling with the crack when the dog makes a mistake or gets over enthusiastic. The bullwhip is also still used in the cattle industry in some parts of the world, and a well made work whip has provided many people with an economical introduction to the sport of whip cracking.

Thanks to Hollywood, the bullwhip is the only one, used by sport whip crackers, to have maintained a place in the British public's imagination - as the whip used by countless cowboys (and girls), as well as characters such as Indiana Jones, Cat Woman, Zorro and many more.

Modern bull whips can come in any size, from tiny hat band whips up to monstrous forty footers. The whip is measured from the butt of the handle to the end of the thong; although some American whip makers measure the fall as well.

A modern one has a solid, or nearly solid, handle, or 'cane'. The handle may be bare or braided over. The thong is permanently attached to the handle.

The strands can be made of anything from nylon webbing to butyl pond liner, but are usually some kind of hide. Whips made from nylon parachute chord are often now very good indeed; the best of them being better than many roo hide whips.

Most modern bullwhips have narrow replaceable falls. 'Texas style' whips feature a wide fall that sometimes cannot be replaced and will ultimately wear out. This style of whip is still made in large numbers for the American tourist industry, and occasionally to a reasonable standard at a fairly low price, but is increasingly rare amongst sport whip crackers.

Whips lacking either the fall or the cracker, are likely to be poor quality 'novelty' whips, and will fall apart if you try to use them. The vast majority of 'genuine leather bullwhips' available in online auctions, and from adult and joke shops, are of this type.

Snake Whips

The snake whip, or shot whip, is a forgotten whip of the cowboy. The snake lacks the rigid handle of the bull whip, but is otherwise similar. This allows it to be tightly coiled (hence the name) and put into a saddle bag. Small ones can even be carried in a jacket pocket. These whips were sometimes favoured by cattlemen and teamsters working on foot, because they could be carried slung around the neck, available for instant use.

The snake whip is the one type of whip used in our sport, that was often carried as a weapon; not for whipping but for cracking skulls with the weighted Turk's head knot! We're told that in some parts of the United States, ownership of a snake whip was at one time illegal.

Early snake whips were generally fairly long, and were often made with a sewn leather cover over most of the belly, with only the lower part of the thong being actually braided. Although this tip could be replaced, these whips were mass produced and considered almost a 'throw away' item, and very few of this design survive today.

Modern snake whips range from about 3 foot long to around 12. Most are under 6 feet long. Short ones behave very similarly to a signal whip, longer ones are used like a bull, but require more sensitive handling for technical use. Either way, a good snake should be accurate enough for target cutting but lively enough for rapid cracking; and a good choice for the whip cracker who finds storing a whip with a rigid handle to be something of a problem.

Although it would seem that the original snake whip was a distinctly American whip, most whip makers now produce them. Most are made from kangaroo hide, with 8 to 16 strands in the overlay, although decent 4 plaits can be found; and there's no reason why cow hide ones can't be good. Higher plait whips are very rare. All good snake whips have replaceable falls and crackers. They are almost always shot loaded - hence 'shot whip' - although longer cowhide ones don't need to be if made well.

Many bull and stock whip owners find that the lack of handle makes the snake whip harder to use; while signal whip owners will find the action of a snake whip to be quite familiar.

As with all whips used by whip crackers, true snake whips are noise making machines. Any 'snake whip' lacking either a cracker or fall will perform disappointingly for whip cracking; and is best avoided except possibly as a novelty.

Signal Whips

Signal Whips are snake whip variants that were originally designed for use with dog sled teams, and are still used by some mushers. They are a surprisingly modern design, only having been around since the 1970's. As the name suggests, they are meant to signal to the dogs to help steer them, and the length is strictly controlled to prevent them accidentally striking the team.

Signal whips used by whip enthusiasts are sometimes up to six feet long. At that length, you have a very elegant, accurate and efficient whip, which is not very suitable for sport whip cracking. Commonest are whips between three and four and a half feet, including cracker.

Most signal whips are made from kangaroo hide. We've seen pictures of them made from buffalo hide and buckskin.

A good signal whip has a dense, slim, thong that tapers for almost it's entire length. Without knots to cause drag or dissipate the energy of the throw, it will offer exceptional control. Consequently, such whips are usually bought for adult play; and are particularly suited to the 'Bob Deegan' style.

Stock Whips

This is the archetypal Australian whip. It is said to have been developed from the English hunting whip, but there are early photographs of English stock whips with intricately carved wooden stocks; as well as photo's and film footage of early arctic explorers using something that looks like a short stock whip (or yard whip, see below), so it seems to likely to us that the stock whip is very much a part of our English heritage and was taken to Australia by English thong makers during the 19th Century. Although one or two can still be found on farms, the stock whip is not well known in Britain.

Australian whip makers insist that the name refers to the long handle (stock). English whip makers used term 'stock' for the solid parts of a number of different types of whip; and the Australians made different whips with the same basic design (for example, the short heavy 'knockout') so, perhaps, the name originally referred to it's intended use.

However it gained it's name, the long stock makes this whip particularly suitable for use from horseback. Because of this, stock whips are traditionally long - usually over 7' in the thong. Shorter ones are now commonly available for enthusiasts and children - our shortest whip being around 3 to 3.5 feet in the thong. For Australian target cutting competitions, six foot is the minimum length.

A traditional a stock whip features a cane stock, often with a steel insert to provide shock absorption and strength - the long ones are powerful whips, and a lot of strain is put on the wielder's wrist and forearm. The stock may be partially or fully braided over. The fancy braiding of the stock on roo hide whips has almost become an art form.

Stock and thong are not permanently joined. Instead, each part has a loop through which the other part is threaded. This is the keeper and, as the name suggests, it keeps the thong attached to the stock (or crop, including keeper). This may be a throwback to the English whip making industry's heyday, where the profession of whip maker (making the crop) was entirely distinct from that of the thong maker. It has the advantage over other designs of whip that, if one part of the whip becomes damaged, it can be replaced without having paying for an entirely new whip.

Stock whips tend to be made using some kind of hide, with anything from 4 to (very rare indeed) 40 strands in the overlay. Nylon stock whips have started to appear over the last few years. These tend to have a much faster action than hide ones, and can get wet without worrying about maintenance. Older stock whips are usually shot loaded. However, unless added in small quantities, lead weighting makes for a heavy thong that gives a 'top heavy' feeling to the whip's handling. Refinements in technique means that most good stock whips are now 'naturally falling'.

Only the length of the thong is used in determining the length of the whip. Thus, a 5' stock whip is almost twice as long as a 5' signal whip.

Yard Whips

This yard whip is currently in use on a farm on the Isle of Skye 'Short stock whips. As the name suggests, they were developed for used on foot in the cattle yard, rather than from horseback. Great for precision target work and energetic routines. A yard whip with a four foot thong has a reach of around 8.5 feet

We recently had the pleasure to send a yard whip (pictured) to Scotland, where it joined the very small number of traditional whips still used in British agriculture. The customer told us that he had used whips as a lad but, when his last one broke, he had been unable to find anyone to make him a replacement and, despite his best efforts, he had been unable to make one that was up to the job. He had been motivated to try again after finding that his son uses a bullwhip in his work in Wales. It's a satisfying feeling to think that these whips, the descendants of cattle whips that would once have been common place on British farms, are still finding a place in helping people to make a living from the land.

Cow Whips

These whips hail from Florida in the United States. Although quite popular amongst enthusiasts in America.

Cow whips have long handles like stock whips, but the thong is attached by passing strands through the handle, then knotting them. Modern ones are usually made from nylon chord due to the climate, although hide - especially buckskin - used to be the norm. The handle is usually wooden, and left unbraided.

Unlike some other types of whip, they are still made primarily as a work whip, which is why so many are made of nylon. If you're out in humid conditions every day, you really don't want the hassle of giving a leather whip the care it really needs if it's going to survive for long.

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