A Responsible Top's Primer
Please note that these are recommendations only.
The author cannot accept liability for injuries due
to accidents or irresponsible handling of whips.
BULLWHIP SAFETY FAQ
Let's say that someone you know wants to get a motorcycle. He's
never ridden one and the only exposure he's had to bikes are the
ones he's seen on TV.
Only a self-destructive idiot would buy one, jump on it and open
it up to see what it can do without first learning the basics of
safe riding. And yet it's not unusual to meet someone who's paid
top dollar for a Morgan bullwhip without taking the time to learn
how to use it, as though the mere possession of such an
instrument somehow magically imparts some superior level of skill
to the owner.
Just like motorcycles, bullwhip accidents happen fast and can
leave lasting injuries. I have little sympathy for the Top who
whacks himself when he's trying something new, but I have
absolutely no respect for the ones who injure others
inadvertently because they are simply arrogant in their
Even a short four-foot bullwhip can cut like a chainsaw or slice
like a knife. A longer one can inflict deep-tissue bruising like
a baseball bat. A bullwhip can break bones.
Expert wielders of single-tail whips have a well-deserved
mystique about them. The good ones have paid their dues with
patient practice. You can't fake ability with a bullwhip -- you
either have it or you don't. If you've never picked up a
bullwhip, I'd like to point you in the right direction. This is
one man's opinion, but nothing here will contradict the practices
or the principles of the best whip handlers. If you've been
practicing for a while, some of what's said here may validate
your own experiences.
CHOOSING A WHIP
Pick the right tool for the job. Don't buy an 18-plait, 14-foot
kangaroo whip if you want something to play with in an apartment.
Don't expect people to happily jump in front of your 10-foot whip
so you can learn how to play with someone. Make your mistakes on
your own time -- practice diligently and consistently until you
can tell that whip where to crack every time. When you can take
leaves off a tree by fractions of inch at a time, then you're
ready to play with someone else.
You do not need an expensive whip; you do need a well-made one.
Many beautifully braided whips are mere costume pieces better
left hanging on the wall, just because they do not function the
way whips are supposed to. The braiding should be tight enough to
communicate the energy of the throw undissipated all the way from
the handle to the cracker. While kangaroo is twice as strong and
lighter than leather, it is twice as expensive. Which way you go
is your choice. The price of a whip is no indication of its
Cecil Castro of Texas makes excellent, and inexpensive,
whips for the ranchers there -- his whips are simple, almost
crude, but they work beautifully once they're conditioned. At the
other end of the spectrum are the whips made by David Morgan (or
his employees, under his watchful eye), which are works of art.
I've also heard good things about Rawwhips. One of my own
favorites is a leather whip, made with a kangaroo bolster,
combining the skins to make a unique instrument.
Like all leather, keep your whip dry. Condition it with tallow, a
lanolin-beeswax based mixture. Better yet, obtain some Pecard
Conditioner (Pecard Leather Care Products, 1836 Industrial Drive,
Green Bay WI 54302 or call 414-468-5056). Keep neatsfoot oil or
any other greasy surface treatment away from it.
Pick the right whip for your purpose. A shorter whip will force
you into a stricter form, because it is faster than a longer
whip. Because it's shorter, it's also lighter, so you can
practice longer with it before you tire yourself out. Working a
long whip is like doing bench presses with one arm. It's easier
to go from a shorter whip to a longer one as your ability
increases. A four-foot whip can be used in a variety of
situations, while a whip up to 14 feet long will be accurate
enough to play contact games with someone. Beyond that length,
don't try anything more elaborate than simple wraps around
Get a good video, if you can't find a local whip user to share
information. I've produced one, "Bullwhip: Art of the Single
Tail Whip." Mark Allen Productions has a series, "Cracking the
Whip, I & II." Dressing For Pleasure in New Jersey has tapes of
whip seminars from past conferences. If you're on the Internet,
there's a good bullwhip FAQ which can be accessed at
Attend conferences. Understand that non-SM people also like to
crack the whip, and you can meet them at events such as those
sponsored by the Wild West Arts Club (call 702-873-1100 for
Once you've got your whip, practice, practice, practice. Make
sure the floor is clear of objects that might fly off like
bullets if you strike them. Outside, rocks or pebbles can be
launched like missiles if your whip hits them. Since a whip is a
three-dimensional experience, make sure you have clearance in
front, behind and above you.
Expect to smack yourself. Wear glasses, a hat, long sleeves. If
you put your eye out, you won't grow a new one, so protect what
you have. Keep the whip moving away from you; never crack it with
a downward snap so the whip flies toward your face. Develop a
repertoire of strokes: there are basically three: the overhead
shot straight forward, the circus crack (an S-shape) and the
helicopter spin over your head with a sudden reverse. Everything
else is a variation on these strokes.
Concentrate on your form. It doesn't take strength or power or
speed to crack a whip: if your form is correct, the whip will
crack. It wants to crack -- it was made that way. Let it do its
Remember that using a whip is a whole-body activity, not just a
wrist-snap. Use a passive wrist, not an active wrist. Use your
whole arm. Later, you can add a little wrist action to give an
extra grace-note, but the foundation of the stroke will originate
with your whole arm. Get that elbow away from your side, unless
you like the idea of carpal tunnel surgery in your future.
Learn to weave your own crackers; it's less expensive than buying
Play games to sharpen your skills: cut newspapers, crack between
boxes on chairs without touching the boxes, wrap broomsticks and
Never crack directly onto the skin at the point where the sound
detonates, unless you want to risk cutting. When a Top wraps an
arm, the whip cracks above and behind the skin: once the whip has
cracked, the energy is expended and the momentum of the throw
makes the whip wrap like a snake around the arm. Good Tops can
make the crack and wrap occur almost simultaneously. It's scary,
but it's non-injurious.
You can play so the cracker hits the skin, if you use this same
principle and make the crack occur before you hit flesh. The
cracker brushes the skin on its way back -- if you make the crack
occur fairly close to the strike, the bottom believes it was
simultaneous. Yes, you can use a whip to lay in a stroke for
real, understanding that it will raise a welt or a blood blister.
Use a thicker string for the cracker -- a sharper one like silk
is more likely to actually cut.
Even with bullwhip play, follow the precepts for other whip play:
always warm the bottom up first, and stay away from kidneys and
thin tissue areas, like joints. DON'T PLAY AROUND THE FACE.
Understand that a whip has a range of expressions available, not
just a single speed and force. Make it a dance.
A shorter whip will be more precise for edge play like this. Keep
the area clean; even if skin is not broken, you are still driving
dirt into the skin. Keep the whip off the floor (I use alcohol on
my crackers). Clean your whips between sessions.
The same safety rules for yourself apply to your bottom. Keep the
whip moving away from his/her face. NO NECK WRAPS (leave this for
the movies). Stay away from the eyes. Play as though this is the
time you will screw up royally -- that way you'll play with the
thought in the back of your mind that you will try to minimize
the damage that will happen. Because if you can fuck up, you WILL
fuck up. People forget that Babe Ruth was the Strike-Out King as
well as the Home Run King.
There it is. This is not the final word, or perhaps the best one,
on the topic of single-tail whips. But what is here is true. At
least you've now been told.
For the more academic, there are other books out there well worth
reading, including David Morgan's. There are other resources you
can find wherever you are (especially if you're on the Internet).
One of the nice things about the whip is that it is such an
individual experience. Every person I've seen who knows how to
handle a whip responsibly has his/her own unique style, but under
those idiosyncracies, I see they are based on solid principles,
and those principles reflect the same foundations, the way
aerodynamic principles are observed by everything that flies.
Once you get your foundation set, you can make your whip express
your own personality.
Every violin has the same basic shape and the same number of
strings. But in the hands of different people, the music they
make reflects the quality of the player. Here's wishing you many
happy hours making music with the instrument many have called
"the epitome of S&M."