The AEWC WIP Committee, through development of a WIP Strategic Plan in 2013, determined that continued training on the proper use of the penthrite projectile is essential to the safety and success of the program and the ability of the AEWC to meet the mandates placed on the aboriginal hunt by the International Whaling Commission.

With a goal of 100 percent use of the penthrite projectile in the next five years, the AEWC conducts hunter training to educate them on the proper use of the penthrite and perform on-site quality control evaluations on the darting guns to ensure the modifications to the darting gun components are accurately assembled. Regular training and refresher courses are critical to the successful use of the penthrite projectile.

WIP Training Manual

WIP Training Video 

A key component of the AEWC’s work is the Weapons Improvement Program (WIP). The primary objectives of the program are:

  • Improving the reliability and safety of the weapons
  • Hunter safety
  • Ensuring humane harvest of the bowhead whale
  • Increasing the efficiency of the harvest by landing a higher percentage of struck whales

In 1986, the IWC instructed the U.S. and the AEWC to shift away from the use of black powder in the bowhead whale hunt and toward the use of the explosive “penthrite.” This mandate was placed on the AEWC with the instruction that the hunters must also continue to utilize traditional weapons in their hunt. To fulfill this mandate, the AEWC formed the AEWC Weapons Improvement Program (WIP) and supervisory WIP Committee. Through the WIP, the AEWC has worked for a number of years with Dr. Egil Oen, a highly regarded Norwegian veterinarian and weapons expert, and a Norwegian manufacturer on the design, manufacture, and testing of a penthrite projectile for use in the traditional hand-held darting gun utilized in the hunt.

Penthrite is an extremely powerful explosive, with one projectile capable of killing an entire whaling crew if a misfire occurs. The dangers of the projectile were compounded by the need to incorporate the use of the penthrite with traditional hand-held darting guns, which are not designed for such use. These obstacles have made the design and implementation process arduous. Modification of the pusher shell continues to increase safety and reduce the rate of misfires.

Additionally, the use of penthrite requires specialized training, requiring the AEWC to provide ongoing training to the Captains and their crews. The barrels of the traditional darting guns have been modified to accommodate the new projectiles, requiring redesign, manufacture, and redistribution of the barrels. In addition, the projectiles are very expensive, approximately $1,000 apiece and shipping is very expensive, requiring transport by cargo carriers or barge. The AEWC typically orders the projectiles in 200-unit batches. To reduce costs to the whaling villages, AEWC continues to work toward developing a domestic manufacturer. It continues to meet resistance from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) on permitting and licensing requirements for domestic manufacture, although in recent years progress has been made.Exploding projectiles, fired from a hand-held darting gun and the backup weapon, the shoulder gun, have been used in the subsistence hunt since the 1880’s with only slight modifications since then. These weapons, developed by Yankee whalers in the 1860s, are hand-held and designed for use in small boats. The darting gun is mounted on a long wooden shaft to which a harpoon is also attached. The shoulder gun is a smooth-bore gun weighing 35 pounds (16kg) and is used after the harpoon and float are attached to the whale.

Through the WIP, AEWC has sponsored the development of a projectile charged with penthrite for the darting gun. Penthrite delivers a stronger explosive charge than the black powder that has been used for over a century. Since its development, the use of the penthrite projectile has increased in the villages outside Barrow, with training from the AEWC and the Chairman of the WIP Committee. The new projectile shows promise in reducing the time to death in this hunt. The AEWC now is undertaking development of a new, standardized pusher shell to further increase the effectivenss of the penthrite projectile. Both the efficiency and effectiveness of the penthrite projectile are studied by AEWC and scientists from the North Slope Borough. The AEWC reports annually to the IWC Humane Killing Working Group on its progress with the penthrite projectile and the WIP.

Weapons training

Nuiqsut Whaling Captains' Association

May 2016