by Charles B. Black

Spectators of the hammer throw at modern track and field meets are often puzzled as to how a 16 pound ball on a four foot wire acquired this name. Those having witnessed a Scottish hammer throw at a Highland Games will be a little more enlightened, as this implement more closely resembles the working sledge hammer which is. in fact. the direct ancestor of the modern throwing hammer.

As with other customs with a long heritage, the sport of hammer throwing has uncertain origins. though. given man's tendency to turn the objects around him to the uses of sport. it likely dates back as far as do the hammers themselves. There have been attempts to link the sport with the roth-cleas or 'wheel feat' of the ancient Irish Tailteann Games (1829 B.C.) or the 'casting of the bar' of Renaissance England. These connections are tenuous at best, as the former is considered folkloric and the latter often appears alongside of 'throwing the sledge hammer in lists of events. The description of the throwing of a chariot spoke by the hero Cuchulain at the Tailteann Games by spinning around and releasing it is certainly not far off of later descriptions of bar and hammer throwing.

One of the earliest references to weight and hammer throwing is from the reign of Edward III (1327-1377) These sports were among those prohibited in an effort to prevent men from neglecting their archery practice. Interestingly enough. this concern was partially the result of threats from the -Scots, including Robert the Bruce. who had won Scottish independence from Edward II in the battle of Bannockburn in 1314.

Many references to hammer throwing occur in sixteenth and seventeenth century descriptions of rural fairs and sports. Barclay's 'Eclogues'. published in 1508. quotes a shepherd thusly:

I can both hurle and sling.
I runne, I wrestle. I can well throw the barre,
No shepherd throweth the axeltree so farre;
If I were merry, I could well leap and spring.
I were a man mete to serve prince or king.

The sixteenth century minstrel Randel Holme described the sports of Lancashire, His poem begins:

Any they dare challenge for to throw the sledge,
To jump or leape over a ditch or hedge,
To wrastle, play at stoole-ball or to runne,
To pitche the barre or to shoote a gunne...

During the reign of Henry VIII (1509-1547), running and field sports were especially popular, and the monarch himself was supposedly adept at hammer throwing. Richard Pace, secretary to King Henry, went as far as to advise noblemen's sons to pursue sports, 'and leave study and learning to the children of meaner people"! Pace's contemporary, Sir William Forest, in his 'Poesye of Princelye Practice' likewise advises that princes should

In featis of maistries bestowe some diligence.
Too ryde, runne, lepe, or caste by violence
Stone, barre or plummett, or such other thinge,
It not refuseth any prince or kynge.

(a 'plummet' is a weight, and probably refers to a sledgehammer in this context)

A 1566 court record reads as follows: 'Alexander Gyfford, aged ' twenty-eight, husbandman of Drydrayton, Cambs., pardoned for having by misadventure on 4th June, feloniously struck John Gyfford, a spectator, aged 8, at a game of 'throwing the coulter' at Drydrayton, so that he died the same day'. The 'coulter" referred to is a coulter's or quarryman's hammer. Fortunately this early legal precedent fell in favor of the of continuance of our sport!

The Cotswold Olimpick Games, held between 1612 and 1852 includes sledge hammer throwing, with a throw of 100 feet 3 1/2 inches being recorded 'without run and follow'. This was almost certainly accomplished with the spinning style William Denny gave the following description of this event in 'Annalia Dubrensia':

Of whom some leape, some wrastle for the day;
Some throw the sledge and others spurne the barre;
All act a part which makes them fit for warre.

Henry Peacham the younger, in his 'Compleat Gentleman' of 1622 says that throwing the hammer and wrestling are low-class sports, 'not so well beseeming nobility but rather soldiers in a camp and the prince's guard'. He also states that Achmat, the emperor of Turkey, made a hammer throw such that, 'there was reared in Constantinople, for one extraordinary cast which none could come near, two great pillars of marble'!

References to hammer throwing at rural fairs and wakes appear periodically until the mid nineteenth century. Modern university athletic meetings began in England in the 1850's and were common annual events within 15 years. Hammer throwing was gradually included at these meetings. thereupon earning its place amongst modern track and field events.

The early hammers were of various forms. The lighter ones (from 8 to 16) pounds were from blacksmiths or wheelwrights shops (where they were used to pound the iron tires onto wagon wheels). The heaviest hammer (those over 20 pounds) were used for quarrying rock. These two distinct origins are manifested today in the Highland games with the persistence of 'light' (16 pound) and 'heavy' (22 pound) hammers.

Handles of the working hammers tended to be from 2 and a half to 3 and a half feet long, with the longer ones obviously leading to longer throws, which explains the relatively long modern length of 4 feet 2 inches in the Scottish Hammer and 4 feet in the international hammer. These handles were hardwood, and thus would tend to break on hard ground. leading to experimentation with many other materials, even grapevines. In 1892, Malcolm W. Ford recommended whalebone handles of 3/8 inch diameter. The wire handle was legalized for the international hammer in 1896. The Scottish hammer has adopted the use of rattan, which is less likely to break than hardwood, while retaining the original character of the event.

In common with most sports, hammer throwing originally had virtually no rules. Well into the nineteenth century, the weight was standard at 16 pounds, but the hammers could be of any material, with any length of handle. The approach was unlimited and the hammer could be thrown in any direction, with the measurement being taken from the foot of the thrower. Eventually, for reasons of safety and fair competition, a 7 foot circle was introduced and the length and material of the hammer was standardized. Later still, cages were introduced and the direction of the throw restricted a fairly narrow sector. In Scotland and America, the event was further restricted in the mid nineteenth century by disallowing turns or the movement of the feet during the throw. In America, this rule was modified to allow the 7 foot circle in 1888, but the Scottish hammer retains the standing throw.

This hammer was introduced into the second modern Olympic games in i900. Rules for both the Scottish and international hammer have remained virtually unchanged since that time. While wire hammer technique has undergone many changes since the turn of the century, the 'round the head" style introduced by Donald Dinnie in the 1860's is still used in the Scottish hammer. This has resulted in a relatively small improvement in Scottish hammer records during that time (From Dinnie's 128' to Bill Anderson's 151'2"), relative to the international hammer, which has improved from 141'31/2" in 1842 to 284'7" today.


Doherty, Ken, Track and Field Omnibook, 4th ed., Tafnews Press, Los Altos, CA. 1985

Ford, Malcolm W., Hammer Throwing, Outing Magazine. 1892 (Reprinted in Krausz, John, How to Buy an Elephant, Hawthorn Books. New York. 1977)

Johnson, Carl, Hammer Throwing, British Amateur Athletic Board, 1984

MacNab, Tom, The Complete Book of Track and Field, Ward Lock Ltd., London; 1980

Redmond, Gerald, The Caledonian Games in Nineteenth-Century America, Associated University Presses, Cranbury, New Jersey, 1971

Shearman, Montague, Athletics and Football, Badminton Library of Sports and Pastimes, Duke of Beaufort, ed.. Longmans, Green, and Co., 1887

Webster, David, Scottish Highland Games, Reprographia, Edinburgh, Scotland, 1973

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