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Harpoons are cool, but as far as I know in the real world they've only been used in hunting marine animals so they don't float or sink away. Stone age hunters managed to hunt down mammoths using only spears, so I don't really see how a harpoon would be much of an improvement. Also, could harpoons even penetrate deep enough to prevent an animal from moving, but not deep enough to kill it instantly? Because if it can kill by penetrating deep enough, why be a harpoon at all, instead of just being a spear? Is there any reason to use harpoons on large land animals?

I'm asking this because I'm writing a story about an ancient fantasy world filled with large, dinosaur-like creatures in it, and I want to have a reason to include harpoons in it. So if you could also tweak a real animal's characteristics to justify using a harpoon against it, it would be welcome.

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  • $\begingroup$ "so they don't float or sink away" Harpoons are used because their high mass carries lots of energy that will not be dissipated away so easily in the dense medium that is water. Momentum is mv, but kinetic energy is 1/2mv^2 so they have a lot more momentum for the energy imparted to them. But that means they are slower and more difficult to aim. That's why James Bond uses a harpoon underwater and not a gun even though he ain't hauling any kills back to land. $\endgroup$
    – DKNguyen
    Aug 26, 2020 at 2:00
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    $\begingroup$ Yeah, so does a spear. But a spear is not a harpoon. $\endgroup$ Aug 26, 2020 at 2:02
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    $\begingroup$ Isn't that the definition of harpoon? $\endgroup$ Aug 26, 2020 at 2:05
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    $\begingroup$ I don't know, I'm just clarifying whatever it is you mean. You could tie anchors to the harpoon to hook into the ground or tie to a tree for ambush. That makes it a pain to get away in a half-kill. Injured animals can still run fast and far before falling. $\endgroup$
    – DKNguyen
    Aug 26, 2020 at 2:05
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    $\begingroup$ A harpoon (in its basic form) is a spear with a specialized point that uses a barb to hook tendons or bone so that the aquatic lifeform can be reeled in. In essence, it's the combination of a spear and a fishing hook. Modern harpoons are heavy (as @DKNguyen mentioned), but hand-thrown harpoons were used eons ago. Why not use one on land? What would be the point? Unless you needed, for some reason, to haul back on a rope to control the beast. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Aug 26, 2020 at 2:08

2 Answers 2

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A harpoon is a barbed spear with a tether, used at sea so you don't lose your prey after spearing it. On land it's usually not as necessary - if you prey starts limping away then you can just run after it and throw more spears - humans are very good endurance hunters. If it falls down dead, well then you're done, just go get it.

At sea, you need to hold on to what you speared because you can't just run after it. Let's make the same be true on land. I propose not a change to the hunted animals as such, but to the terrain. The areas where the beasts live are, for some reason or other, difficult or impossible to run through for humans, but not for the dinosaurs. It could be sharp rocks, big boulders, some kind of plant growth - whatever stops you when you have human sized feet but not when you have dino sized feet.

Let's say a jungle with thorny vines covering the ground. Humans can get thrugh by moving carefully or climbing the trees, but it's not fast. If they just throw a couple of spears at a dino it will bellow and run away, easily stomping through the underbrush. It would take some time to bleed out and collapse far away, by the time the humans got there lots of scavengers would have already done a number on the corpse.

Instead, harpoons. The hunter teams throw their harpoons and when they hit, quickly tie the tether to a nearby tree. This won't hold the target forever, but for long enough for the rest of the group to surround it and impale it a dozen more times. Each harpoon makes it more and more immobile, and finally it collapses at the spot. Dangerous hunting, but rewarding.

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  • $\begingroup$ "At sea, you need to hold on to what you speared because you can't just run after it." Absolutely, because sea creatures will dive to get away from you. However, the way for a large land creature to decrease the pain of a harpoon, or hook, is to run towards you, to reduce the tension in the connecting cord. You don't want this, because everything runs faster than us. So, you throw a spear, and let the prey run until it's exhausted, track it down and throw several more, to finish it off safely from a distance since you probably don't have hospitals. $\endgroup$
    – chiggsy
    Jul 10, 2021 at 2:24
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Yes. Functionally a harpoon is little different from a snaring trap; it needn't be fatal, it just has to slow the beast down or hold it in place until the hunter or others in the group can move in for the kill.

The barbed tip of the harpoon acts like the tightening noose of a snare or teeth of the classic bear trap:

Open bear trap

The only differences are the spear-like form, and you throw it rather than wait for an animal to stumble into it.

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