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How To Tie a Sheepshank

The Sheepshank, it must be said, is a rather iffy—even infamous—knot. It’s been taught to scouts and other beginners for ages and is widely known and used, but it’s an insecure configuration—all the more so these days, given how unstable it is tied in “slippery” synthetic rope.

Sheepshank Knot
Visual material or guide on execution of “Sheepshank Knot”. Isolated on white background. Illustration for a survival guide.

Typically employed to shorten a length of line, draw up slack, or isolate a damaged section of rope, the Sheepshank readily comes apart when it’s not under tension, and, particularly in that modern synthetic rope, it’s prone to slipping under strain as well. Use it for temporary and low-stakes tie-downs, and choose another, more secure alternative for any situation where the knot must really be relied upon.

How to Tie the Sheepshank Knot

There are a couple of basic ways to tie a Sheepshank; we’ll break down the standard way, and discuss variations a bit later. Essentially this knot involves cinching bights on two standing ends of a rope using Half Hitches.

(1) Form two opposite-facing bights in the rope.

(2) Make a loop in the lefthand standing end of the rope.

(3) Pull the lefthand bight through this loop and dress.

(4) Form a loop on the righthand standing end.

(5) Pull the righthand bight through this loop and dress.

(6) Tighten the Sheepshank by pulling on the two opposite free ends of the rope.

Tips on Tying the Knot

  • When tightening the Sheepshank, it can be helpful to place fingers inside the loop-cinched bights to brace them while pulling on the free ends. 
  • If you’re using the Sheepshank to separate out a section of damaged rope, make sure this section is not drawn into one of the Half-Hitch cinches or otherwise under strain; configure the Sheepshank so that the damaged area lies in the middle part of the knot.

Variations on Tying the Knot

A widespread alternative method of tying the Sheepshank is to form three successive loops in the rope, all turns of the same direction. The left side of the middle loop is drawn through the lefthand loop, the right side through the righthand one, and then the free ends are pulled tight. This version is sometimes called the Trumpet (or Trumpeter’s) Knot and is considered by some distinct from the Sheepshank, but the two knots are, for all intents and purposes, identical. 

There are many variants of the Sheepshank. One, called the Dogshank or the Sheepsank Pouch Knot, finishes the knot by passing the free ends of the rope through the two cinched bights. Another, the Man-o’-War or Navy Sheepshank—also called the Sheepshank with a Sword Knot—involves making two pairs of overlapping hitches, then pulling the bights of these through the opposite pair and tightening.

In his classic Ashley Book of Knots, Clifford W. Ashley suggests the most secure version of the Sheepshank is one tied with Marlinespike (aka Marlinspike or Marlingspike) Hitches; all other Sheepshanks, he attests, “should be seized or otherwise secured to make them safe, unless the need is very temporary.”

Advantages of This Knot

As we’ve mentioned, the Sheepshank can be used to shorten a length of line or to bypass a damaged part of rope when tying something down. With practice, it’s quick to tie. 

Disadvantages of the Knot

Particularly when using modern synthetic rope, the Sheepshank is unstable under load and not effective off load. It can quickly come apart in such slippery cordage, but even in the coarser natural rope the Sheepshank was originally intended for, this knot isn’t all that secure. As we’ll explain at the end, there are other knots that can be fashioned to shorten rope or utilize damaged rope—the two main purposes of the Sheepshank—with much greater security.

Avoid the Sheepshank if you need to secure a critical load, certainly not in slippery synthetic fiber or for any length of time. (Or, as the Ashley Book of Knots notes, consider seizing the knot, though we’d argue just going with a more secure alternative is altogether easier.)

History of the Knot

According to a 2006 post on the International Guild of Knot Tyers Forum, the Swedish word for the Sheepshank is trumpetstek, which essentially translates to “Trumpet Knot”—reinforcing the idea that the Sheepshank and the Trumpet/Trumpeter knots are basically one and the same.

Incidentally, it’s the three-loop Trumpet Knot method that the character Matt Hooper uses in the Steven Spielberg classic Jaws (1975) when Captain Quint instructs him to tie a Sheepshank as an impromptu test of seamanship.

Uses of the Sheepshank Knot

When its tendency to slip is taken into account, the Sheepshank ends up being a knot of pretty limited utility. Among the few really appropriate uses are shortening a necktie or lanyard. That said, many users rather unwisely use the Sheepshank Knot for tying down loads.

In outdoor situations where you need to temporarily secure something with a damaged rope, you might use the Sheepshank, but keep it under strain and keep its use brief. You can definitely argue that cutting out a worn or fraying section of rope and then securing the two severed ends together with the proper bend—say, a Carrick Bend—is a better way of dealing with a damaged rope than relying on the Sheepshank Knot.

Related Knots

A much better choice for shortening rope, dealing with slack, or isolating damaged cord than the unstable Sheepshank Knot is the Alpine Butterfly Loop (or Butterfly Knot), which in addition to those purposes is commonly used by climbers to make a secure loop in the middle of a line for attaching a carabiner to. The Alpine Butterfly Loop is made by twisting a section of rope twice to form two loops, then turning the outer loop around the standing end and back through the inner loop for cinching.

Other knots with some similarities in construction to the Sheepshank Knot are the Square/Reef Knot and the Bowline. Meanwhile, learn yourself a good bend such as the Carrick or the Ashley’s Bend for tying rope together after you’ve cut out a damaged or failing section: as we mentioned, usually a better bet than using the Sheepshank to isolate that section.

Form three loops at the point in the rope where the shortening will be required. Pull the indicated points of the middle loop through the two outer loops.Sheepshank 1
Slowly pull on the two main parts of the rope, making sure that the knot retains its shape and form.Sheepshank 2
Tighten the knot into its final form. This knot is very adjustable, but always make sure that the two loops at the end of the knot are of similar proportion.Sheepshank 3
If the knot is used to take up a piece of damaged rope, the damaged area must be positioned in the center of the knot to avoid subjecting it to any strain.Sheepshank 4