Fun with a Pocket Knife: How to Play Mumbley Peg

by Brett & Kate McKay on June 7, 2011 · 113 comments

in Gamesmanship, Manly Skills

Every man should carry a pocketknife. It’s handy for cutting open packages, severing twine, and, of course, eating an apple like a bad ass.

But it can also be a source of instant, anywhere entertainment. Because it’s all you need to play the game of mumbley peg.

Never heard of the game? Don’t worry. Today we’ll give you the scoop on how to play this knife throwing pastime that was once popular among 19th century schoolboys, Wild West cowboys, and World War II soldiers. All you need to play mumbley peg is a friend, a couple of pocket knives, and a bit of skill. It’s the perfect way to pass the time when hanging outside with your friends, relaxing around the fire on a camping trip, and bonding with your son.

The History of Mumbley Peg

Versions of mumbley peg (also known as mumblety-peg, mumblepeg, mumble-the-peg, mumbledepeg or mumble-de-peg) have been around as long as jackknives have been in the pockets of boys and men who had time to kill. The game gets its name from a stick driven into the ground by the winner of the game, which the loser must pull out of the ground with his teeth. Mumbley peg was an insanely popular schoolyard game in the 19th century among boys. It was right up there with marbles and jacks. In fact, Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer, Detective, mentions “mumbletypeg” as being a favorite game with the children at old Tom’s school.

The game continued in popularity well into the first half of the 20th century. If you’re an old timer who participated in Boy Scouts or went to summer camp, there’s a chance you played a version of mumbley peg.

Mumbley peg wasn’t just popular with boys. Men played the game, too. Cowboys would often circle around the campfire after a night of calf wrestling and play a few rounds of mumbley peg. Soldiers in both World Wars also passed the time throwing their knives in the ground.

The game waned in popularity starting in the 1970s as over-protective adults put a kibosh on the game at summer camps and as pocket knife-carrying became less prevalent among the male population.

How to Play Mumbley Peg

There are different variations of Mumbley Peg. One version involves two opponents who stand opposite from one another, feet shoulder-width apart. The first player takes his pocket knife and throws it at the ground, so that it sticks into the ground as close as possible to his own foot. The second player take his knife and does the same. The player who sticks his knife closest to his own foot wins. A player could automatically win if he purposely stuck his knife into his own foot. What can we say, this was a time before Xbox 360. Kids needed something do.

Mumbley Peg: American Boy’s Book of Sport Edition

A much more complicated and, I think, more fun (i.e., less likely to end in a tetanus shot) version of Mumbley Peg can be found in the American Boy’s Book of Sport, from 1896. Instead of trying to get the knife to stick as close to your foot as possible, the aim is simply to get the knife to stick in the ground. What makes this version tricky is that it involves progressively more difficult trick tosses. The first man to successfully perform all the trick tosses wins and gets to drive the mumbley peg into the ground with the handle of his pocket knife. The loser has to pull the mumbley peg out of the ground with his teeth. While mumbling curses at the winner, naturally.

In the American Boy’s Book of Sport, there are 24 different trick tosses that must be performed correctly to win. Players take turns doing the throws. A player that completes a throw successfully can move on to the next. So it’s possible to have one player breeze through all the throws while the other guy is still stuck on the first throw. Got the basic gist? On to the throws!

1. Hold your right fist with the back of your hand to the ground and with the blade of the knife pointing to the right, resting on top of the closed fingers. Like so:

The hand is swung to the right, up and over, in a semicircle, so that the knife falls point downward and sticks, or should stick, upright in the ground. Like this:

2. Same as the first toss, except done with the left hand.

3. Take the point of the blade between the first and second fingers of the right hand, and flip it with a jerk so that the knife turns once around in the air and strikes the point into the ground.

Throw #3

4. Same as #3, except done with the left hand.

5. Hold the knife as in the third and fourth positions, and bring the arm across the chest so that the knife-handle touches the left ear. Take hold of the right ear with the left hand like so:

How to hold the knife for throw #5

Flip the knife so that it turns once or twice in the air and strikes on its point in the earth.

6. Same as #5, except done with the left hand. Take hold of the left ear with the right hand.

7. Still holding the knife in the same manner, bring the handle up to the nose and flip it over through the air, so that it sticks in the ground.

Throw #7

8. Same as #7, except bring the handle up to the right eye before flipping it.

9. Same as #7, except bring the handle up to the left eye before flipping it.

10. Place the point of the blade on top of the head. Hold it in place with the forefinger, and with a downward push send it towards the earth, where it must stick with the point of the blade in the earth.

Throw #10

11-15. Hold the left hand with the fingers pointing up. Place the point of the knife on the tip of your thumb. Hold the knife in place with your right forefinger holding the handle like so:

With a downward motion with your right forefinger, throw the knife revolving through the air so that the knife point lands in the grass. Repeat this throw with the left index finger, the left middle finger, the left ring finger, and the left pinky.

16-20. Repeat what you did in throws 11-15, except reverse your hands.

21. Sit down with your knees up. Place the knife point on your right knee and hold it in place with your right forefinger. With a downward motion with your right forefinger, throw the knife revolving through the air so that the knife point lands in the grass.

22. Repeat with the left knee and left forefinger.

23. Hold the point of the blade between the first and second fingers and, holding the hand near the forehead, flip the knife back over the head, so that it sticks in the ground behind you. Like so:

Throw #23. Behind the back throw.

Basically, you’re doing a behind the back toss. Very tricky.

24. “Ploughing the field.” After the 23rd throw, leave the knife stuck in the ground. Then with the palm of the hand, strike the knife handle a smart blow that will send it revolving over the ground for a yard, more or less, and cause it to stick in the ground where it stops.

Ploughing the field

Winner gets mumbley peg bragging rights. Loser gets to chew on a stick.

Did you play mumbley peg growing up? Still play? Share your stories with us in the comments.

{ 113 comments… read them below or add one }

101 keki May 11, 2013 at 6:50 pm

Girls love this game, too!

I took a couple summer school co-ed camping trips one year (back in the 80′s) and this is one of the games we played to pass the time, after setting up camp for the night.

We were using a fairly dull Bowie knife and there’d be 4 or 5 of us in a circle. We’d pick someone to start, who would then pick whoever they wanted to toss the knife at. Wherever it stuck in the ground, the other person would have to move the outside of their foot to it, remove it from the ground and pick who’d be next to do the same to. It ended up being a bit similar to Twister by the time all was said and done. Whoever eventually stretched too far and fell over or gave up was out. Last person standing was the winner.

It’s a crazy and sometimes dangerous game if you’re playing against an idiot, so I’d say make sure you trust your opponents. I can’t remember having more fun that summer. On a side note, I did learn how to play Cribbage on those trips as well, which wasn’t always a safer bet in this case.

102 mick May 17, 2013 at 1:07 pm

my dad show me how to play mumbly peg at Lake Hartwell when I stuck the knife in my foot let me get drunk. if he was still here we would laugh

103 Shaun June 14, 2013 at 6:48 pm

Played a version of this in the Boy Scouts. Would’ve been late 80′s, early 90′s.

Our variation started with both players with legs as far apart as they could get them. The opponent threw the knife between your feet. when it stuck in the ground, you moved a foot to touch it. This kept going until one player chickened out. That’s when the peg was dug out by the loser…

104 Bob July 2, 2013 at 3:25 pm

Fun with knives is still evolving. Butterfly knives are fun and challenging to flip. I have a Spyderco, well balanced and “loose,” Check out the You Tube videos .I first became acquainted with “flipping” while a USN sailor in the Philippines. All boys should learn how to safely handle a knife, they come in handy. My daughter plays a popular game stabbing the knife between her spread fingers to the table, while averting her eyes. I don’t know what it is called, makes me nervous, no flesh wounds yet.

105 k. harris July 29, 2013 at 8:09 am

The version we play, and which is shown in your pictures on this website, involves a two-blade pocket knife with the blades at 90 degree angles. you set the knife on the ground, index finder under the butt end, and then flip the knife upwards. If the long blade sticks (knife straight up), then it is 100 points. If the knife sticks with both blades, 75 pionts; if just shorter blade sticks (rest of knife parallel to ground) it is 50 points; if knife sticks with shorter blade and butt end on ground together, 25 points. And if knife lands on back with both blades up, free turn. First one to 500 points (without going over) wins. Others have to “root the peg”. The winner gets to hit a 1 – 1 1/2 inch peg “once with ‘em open” or “twice with ‘em closed” (eyes, of course). Each loser has to get the peg with his/her teeth. We’ve been playing this game for 50 years, and my dad’s generation for 50 years before that.

106 BigAl August 27, 2013 at 10:33 pm

August 27, 2013 at 11:25 p.m.

I am 89, and a 38 year vet of Normandy, Korea and Vietnam. I am amazed at how I have been remembering things as far back as early grade school, while my short term memory is shot. Just today the fact that I played Mumnley Peg popped into my mind, and I went online to check. We played with a soft-wood board. k, harris above explained how we played – in Pittsburgh, PA.

107 scott September 11, 2013 at 2:28 pm

I went to grade school through the early 60′s. we used to play this game during recess and lunch. Here’s the part that will surprise some younger folks,,,,The gym teacher and sometimes other teachers would come out on fridays ( esp in the spring, warm weather etc) and play the school yard champ!! I remember the principal came out near the end of the school yr and played for the school title!! he’d get fired now no doubt!

108 J. Anthony Carter October 11, 2013 at 10:19 am

Hmmm. I learned the game this way. Two boys stand with their feet more than shoulder width apart and whoever wins the coin toss gets to throw first. The winner throws the knife (sticking, else it doesn’t count) into the ground between the feet of the other boy. That boy has the choice of which foot he gets to move closer to the other one to touch where the knife landed. Then it’s the other boy’s turn. The object is to keep making each other place their feet closer and closer together until one surrenders for fear of getting one of his feet stuck with the knife on the next throw because they’ve gotten so close together.

109 Zack November 10, 2013 at 12:00 am

I used to play this game with my scout troop – lots of fun! But the way we played it was that you had to throw the knife, stick it in the ground, then the other player would have to move his own foot to the knife. etc etc etc. When one or the other can’t move any further, the game ends.

110 John Alden Ellis December 14, 2013 at 10:18 am

I was let off a bus Bedouin way station to board the bus to Mt. Sinai. The station was a tiny shelter selling water and an orange drink. there I met the owner’s son about 30 [whose wealth was 10 camels] and I produce a US pocket knife and showed him a version of Mumbly Peg. Tip of blade on each finger and flip to stick in piece of board. He was delighted as a child would be and when I folded the knife and presented it to him he in turn offered me his huge long bladed knife which I could not carry as a tourist so he then wanted me to go with him by camel to San Katerina that I refused [chicken].

111 Christine January 2, 2014 at 4:32 pm

My siblings were reminiscing about games we played as kids. I remember playing this back in the 60s, but couldn’t remember the name. Looked it up and found this website. Our grandpa taught us this game. And I was even a girl!

112 jvnvch January 7, 2014 at 7:13 am

The version I learned and played as a boy was called “stretch” instead of mumbley peg. It involved a single knife, and no peg. The game started with both players facing each other while standing. The point was to throw the knife into the ground outside your opponent’s foot, forcing him to move the foot out to the knife while maintaining his balance, but the throw counted only if the knife stuck into the ground a knife length or less from the opponent’s foot. When one contestant could no longer reach the knife with his foot while keeping his other foot in place, or lost his balance or his nerve, he was declared the loser.

113 mitchell hall March 9, 2014 at 4:37 pm

This was a great game at summer camp. I was in the boy scouts in grantham north carolina troop10. We played this a lot. That was in the early 90′s.

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