harpoon (härpōnˈ) [key], weapon used for spearing whales and large fish. The early type was a flat triangular piece of metal with barbed edges and a socket for attaching a wooden handle, to the end of which a long rope was fastened. The modern weapon usually has only one barb or point, with a pivoted crosspiece to prevent its withdrawal. Harpoons are used to capture whales, which are then commonly killed by driving a lance into the vital parts. Harpoons may be thrown by hand or fired from guns. These guns are 4 to 5 ft (1.2 m–1.5 m) long, weigh about 75 lb (34 kg), and discharge a harpoon weighing about 100 lb (45.4 kg). Svend Foyn, a Norwegian, invented (c.1856) a harpoon with an explosive-filled tip that kills the whale. A later invention is a harpoon propelled by air pressure with a valve that opens as it strikes, thus admitting air to hasten the whale's death and keep it afloat.
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