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.
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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.
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:
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
Last updated: June 27, 2016