I recently learned the slungshot, not to be confused with a slingshot. The slungshot is a monkey’s fist’s nasty cousin.
As most are probably aware, a monkey’s fist is a knot, shaped like a ball (or a fist), used to provide weight to the end of a heaving line. Typically one end of a moderately heavy line is tied into a monkey’s fist while the other end is finished in an eye splice. The monkey fist knot is often tied around a stone or a piece of lead or iron to give it additional weight. A light heaving line is tied to the eye splice and the monkey’s fist is thrown from a ship or boat to a line handler on the dock as the ship or boat is approaching. The heaving line is then attached to a heavier hawser.
A monkey’s fist is a practical, as well as an attractive bit of marlinspike seamanship. These days, they often appear as decorative knots on keychains and jewelry.
But then what is a slungshot? Therein lies the tail. Sailors, just off a ship, having been paid off, on their way to the bars and brothels of a seaport, were natural targets for street thugs interested in relieving them of their hard-earned, if meager wages. Some sailors carried brass knuckles to defend themselves. Others could carry a monkey’s fist. Rather than having a heaving line attached, a sailor could slip his hand through the eye splice and use the monkey’s fist as an effective and dangerous club, capable of knocking out an attacker or even opening his skull, if wielded with enough force. The monkey’s fist as a weapon became known as a slungshot.
The slungshot had the advantage that it was easy to make, easy to conceal, silent to use, and could be lethal. After being used for self-defense by sailors, the street thugs were quick to adopt the slungshot as a weapon of their own. Abraham Lincoln’s most notable criminal trial occurred in 1858 when he successfully defended “Duff” Armstrong, on a charge of killing another with a slungshot.
Slungshots developed from the original monkey’s fists. Some used two stones while others use braided-leather covering a lead weight. They became the weapon of choice for gangs and thieves in the later part of the 19th century up into the early 1920s. In many states, even carrying them became illegal.
Carrying or attempting to use a slungshot is a felony in the states of California, Oklahoma, Massachusetts, and Michigan. It is a gross misdemeanor in the states of Nevada and Washington. In Minnesota, it can be either a misdemeanor or a felony, depending upon the circumstances. As of 2010, in the state of New Hampshire, possession of a slungshot carries a misdemeanor penalty. In March 2016, Florida repealed its longstanding first-degree misdemeanor law forbidding the carrying of a concealed slungshot. (The production or carrying of slungshot as a concealed weapon had been illegal in Florida since 1868.) Tennessee’s going armed statute lists the slungshot (as “slingshot”) in its list of prohibited weapons.