Monday, November 21, 2005


Choosing Whips

Whips come in a wide range, from useless junk made to bilk tourists to fine collectibles costing hundreds of dollars or more. While the quality and artistry at the high end of the scale is admirable, most of us cannot afford such luxuries, and frankly, those aren’t whips one wants to beat up learning the art anyway.

Here are some basic guidelines for buying whips.

First, the more plaits it has, the more likely it will have smooth action. On the other hand, those plaits (the strips of braiding) will be thinner and more fragile. An 8-plait whip will generally not have the subtlety of movement as a 16-plait, but it should withstand a lot rougher use.

Second, fine whips have a fully braided inner belly. Cheap whips may just have a cable inside, or rope, or even stuffed with rolled newspaper.

Third is the type of whip. Bullwhips are the most common, what most people think of as a whip. These have a rigid handle. Snakes are similar but have no rigid handle, so roll up for saddlebags, backpacks, even pockets. Stock whips have a long handle and the whip itself is attached at an angle. These are considered by some to be the height of whip design. Florida cow whips are similar, as are some from the Philippines. There are of course specialty whips like cat-o-nine-tails and other flails, but those are not what we are using for our training. Here I am only writing of whips that demonstrate extension and flow of energy.

Finally there is the materials used for the whip. The finest whips are made from kangaroo hide, which is renowned for being both tough and supple. Cowhide whips are less supple and rougher, good for practice or hard use such as herding cattle in tough conditions. Calf hide is softer than cow, closer in quality to kangaroo but more delicate. Finally, there are nylon whips. One advantage of these is they are quite tough, less prone to damage if they get wet, and are cheaper to replace.

These have come a long way in the past decade. My first practice whips were heavy, coarse nylon with paper cores. They are still workable, after lots of use and abuse over the years by my students and me. The new generation of nylon whips, however, are made much like good leather whips, with full braided bellies and much finer plaits. Like most leather whips, they require a break-in period to loosen up a bit, but as trainers they are capable of doing most of what a good leather whip will accomplish. This is perhaps an opinion not shared by all, but my 4’ nylon whip has good action, and in motion is perhaps the most visually exciting whip I own.

I’ve had a few whips over the years. Besides my two original 6’ nylon whips (one of which was borrowed and not returned), I now have two 4’ nylon whips from 21st Century Whips, one a bright red and yellow bullwhip, the other a snake. I also have two whips by Stephen Blanton, who only sells whips on Ebay. These both arrived amazingly supple right out of the box. One, my favorite whip, is a 4’ calf-hide snake. The other is a 5’ bullwhip, just a bit longer than I’d prefer. My most recent whip is a Latigo y Daga whip from Peter Jack, which I’m still in the process of breaking in. I suspect it will be right up there with the Blanton snake as my favorite. At one point I got a 4’ Joe Strain bullwhip that I passed along to Tom Meadows, since I had the Blantons and didn’t want to break it in. I’ve had a chance to handle it now that it’s been used, and it’s turned into a fine piece.

The bottom line is getting the best whip you can afford, and one that will suit your purposes. For combative training, 4’ seems about a perfect length. Shorter whips lose versatility and can be hard to handle, as they will come back too quickly. Longer whips are visually attractive but easier to entangle and can be slow to reverse, though someone like Anthony DeLongis will have great skill with these. Tom Meadows is pretty adamant about leather whips, feeling that anyone serious about learning this craft should be willing to get one. Considering the Latigo y Daga whip from a master maker like Peter Jack is little more than 2x the cost of a nylon whip, Tom has a point. On the other hand, if budget is a necessary consideration, a good nylon whip is better than none at all.

Jeff "Stickman" Finder