The event was popularly contested throughout the Middle Ages; a statue of Joseph O’Hanrahan portrays a half-clad Irish giant hurling the hammer. A 16th century drawing shows King Henry VIII throwing a blacksmith’s sledgehammer, the implement from which the event derived its name.
Since 1866 the hammer throw has been a regular part of track and field competitions and England, Scotland, and Ireland. These historical hammers were made of forged iron of no prescribed weight and had handles varying in length from 3 to 3 1/2 feet. The athlete swung the hammer around his head and threw from a standing position to a distance measured from his forward foot. Later the hammer was thrown from a line marked on the field. The best distances achieved were between 130 and 140 feet.
The English standardized the event in 1875 by establishing the weight of the hammer at 16-pounds and its length at 3 feet six inches and by requiring that it be thrown from a circle 7 feet in diameter. For a decade these restrictions reduced the distances, but slowly gave rise to a technique utilizing one or two body turns before the delivery. In 1887 the Amateur Athletic Union of the United States adopted the 7-foot circle and the 16-pound hammer with a set overall length of four feet.
In 1895, A. J. Flanagan of Ireland originated a new school of hammer throwing using three jumping rotations on the ball of his left foot. In 1896 Flanagan immigrated to the United States and proceeded to improve his world record over the next 13 years from 147 feet to 184 feet 4 inches. By then, the implement’s wooden handle had been replaced by a steel wire connecting the iron ball with a pair of grips.