A bullwhip is a single-tailed whip, usually made of braided leather, which was originally used as a farmer's tool for working with livestock.
Bullwhips are agricultural tools, traditionally used to control livestock in open country. A bullwhip's length, flexibility, and tapered design allows it to be thrown in such a way that, toward the end of the throw, part of the whip exceeds the speed of sound - thereby creating a small sonic boom. Many modern "sport" whip crackers claim that the bullwhip was rarely, if ever, used to strike cattle, but this is a matter for debate.
The origins of the bullwhip are also a matter for debate and, given the perishable nature of leather, are likely to remain so. Difficulties in tracing its development also arise from regional and national variations in nomenclature. There are claims that it was developed in South America where these were also used, as well as 'Cow-Whips' during the Slave Trade as weapons, generally in North Carolina, or arrived there from Spain, but Roman mosaics and earthenware dating to around the second and third century A.D. show what appear to be tapered drop-lash whips, rather than the two-piece whips often associated with the Romans and other ancient cultures. Given that the same basic design appears in several primary sources, it seems likely that this is not a stylistic coincidence but a depiction of a design of whip in current use at the time the articles were made.
During the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, as rural economies became increasingly mechanised, demand for all types of whips diminished. By the middle of the 20th Century, bullwhip making was a dying craft, with only a few craftsmen left making good quality whips.
In the latter half of the 20th Century, attempts to preserve traditional crafts, along with a resurgence of interest in Western performance arts and the release of films such as Raiders of the Lost Ark (in which the hero, Indiana Jones, uses a bullwhip as both a tool and a weapon), led to an increased interest in whip cracking as a hobby and performance art, as well as a competitive sport. Whip cracking competitions focus on the completion of complex multiple cracking routines and precise target work; although it should be noted that other whips, apart from bullwhips, are also used in such competitions.
Whereas, in times past, the bullwhip was designed for a single specific purpose, modern whip makers design their whips for different purposes and to suit different throwing styles. A few whip makers will refuse to sell bullwhips for specific usage, such as for BDSM, or as weapons. Regardless of their intended end use, all bullwhips have certain common features.
The main portion of the bullwhip's length is made up of a braided body or thong. Made of many strips of leather, the number of braids or plaits is an important factor in the construction of the whip. Often the thong is multi-layered, having one or more "bellies" in the center. Quality whips have at least two bellies, made of braided leather like the surface of the whip, though with less plaits. Lower-quality whips may have no bellies at all, and are sometimes stuffed with materials such as newspaper which will break down with use. Unlike in the Australian stock whip, the thong connects in line with the handle (rather than with a joint), or even engulfs the handle entirely!
The handle is usually short, being between 8 and 12 inches long. While some whips have an exposed wooden grip, others have an intricately braided leather covered handle. Leather-covered handles usually contain a butt foundation, which is held in the palm of the hand when cracking, and can have a wrist loop, used for hanging the whip at the end of the day, not for putting around the wrist during use. Some handles swivel, making it easier to do certain types of unsophisticated cracks but making it harder to do others, or to use the whip for any type of accurate targeting. The Australians introduced a longer handled bullwhip to the US, where the bullwhips traditionally had shorter handles. The longer handled whip (handle of 10-14 inches) functions like a cross between a stockwhip and a bullwhip, and is referred to as a "Target Whip."
Bullwhips are usually measured from the butt of the handle to the end of the plaiting of the thong. The thong typically terminates at a fall hitch - a series of half hitches that neatly tie the replaceable fall (or tail) to the whip. Whips range in length from 3ft to very long bullwhips of 20ft with some examples being even longer.
A fall is a single piece of leather between 10 and 30 inches in length. It was traditionally made to be replaceable and to take the wear and tear of dragging on the ground when on horse back as it is much easier to replace a solid piece of leather than to re-plait the whip. In lesser quality whips the fall can also be a continuation of one of the strands used in plating the overlay or the fall can be an extension of the core of the whip, with the strands from the overlay tied off, and the core continuing on as the fall. But these types of falls do not allow for replacement and thus are not practical.
Tied to the end of the flexible fall, is an even more flexible piece of string or nylon cord or wire called the cracker or the popper or the lash. Some sources state that the cracker is the portion of the whip that makes the loud noise known as the sonic boom, but this is misleading (see "whip cracking" for details). A whip without a cracker will still make a sonic boom, but it will be less audible unless you are standing directly in front of it. The cracker functions to disperse the sound so it can be heard more easily. Cracking a whip causes wear to the cracker, and well used whips frequently require new crackers. Crackers can be made of horsehair, twine, string, thread, silk, polyester or any number of materials. There are several methods of tying the cracker to the fall, usually using a larks head knot as the basis since it tightens on itself when the whip is cracked, reducing the chance the cracker will slip off the fall and be sent flying into the air.
Bullwhips come in many different weights, materials, and designs. Some light whips use shot loading or lead weighting to affect their balance. Though usually made of strips of leather, nylon whips (often using paracord) have become popular -- they were initially developed for use in the wetlands of Florida specifically, where leather is difficult to maintain hence the name "Florida Cow Whip" but have recently gained in popularity because they are less expensive than leather. In the old days in America, regular cowhide, rawhide and oxhide leathers were most commonly used for the construction of bullwhips because they were readily available. They tend to be quite thick and sturdy and are good for harsh conditions. Some whip-crackers doing target work prefer a whip made of kangaroo skin and Kangaroo hide is preferred by whip makers because it is many times stronger than cow hide and can be cut into fine, strong laces allowing for more intricate braiding patterns that in the past only could only be done with rawhide, which is much harder to work with.