What is a Bullwhip?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A bull whip is a specialized long whip used in livestock handling. The design of the whip is such that the whip generates a very distinctive cracking noise when it is used, and some people engage in bullwhip cracking for recreation or in competition. Farming supply stores sometimes carry bullwhips, and these whips can also be ordered directly from artisans or companies which produce them.

Bullwhips were used to manage livestock.
Bullwhips were used to manage livestock.

The history of the bullwhip is a bit unclear. Like other leather goods, this implement is a perishable tool, because it wears down in use and eventually rots away, making it hard to find evidence of ancient bullwhips. Some of the whips depicted in Greek and Roman art look a lot like bullwhips, and “crackers” which might have been closely related to bullwhips were used historically on slave ships, but the first solid evidence of the use of this whip comes from the Americas, where bullwhips were used to manage livestock on large farms.

There is also some dispute about how, precisely, the bullwhip is employed. Some people have suggested that the whip is never actually used directly on the animals, but is instead cracked near them to encourage them to move in a particular direction. Given the fact that the tip of a bullwhip can accelerate enough to create a sonic boom, it would be a brutal tool for whipping animals, lending credence to the cracking philosophy.

A basic bullwhip consists of a handle, a plait of rawhide known as a thong, a small flexible piece of leather at the end of the whip called a fall, and a whippy strip of leather or nylon at the end called the cracker. The fall and cracker are designed to be replaced as they wear out from use, allowing the plaits of the thong to be maintained. Traditionally, bullwhips are made from rawhide, but other types of leather may be used as well.

This farming implement entered popular culture when it was featured in the Indiana Jones series. The eponymous hero uses a bullwhip frequently in his work, and the distinctive “crack” of a professionally-wielded bullwhip became a familiar sound for fans of this series. Interest in maintaining the art of making and using these whips was revived, and today there are several associations which hold events periodically to celebrate the history of this whip and to train people in its proper use.

People who are interested in experimenting with a bullwhip should be aware that this implement can be very dangerous. Practice should take place in a cleared area outside, and novice users should be aware that it is possible to whip yourself by accident, which can be a painful experience.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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