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Updated on April 9, 2011
Photo by Paul Preacher
Photo by Paul Preacher

The stiletto was a dagger developed in southern Europe and in common use in the 16th century. It had a slender blade about 6 inches (15 cm) long that tapered to a sharp point. Employed only as a stabbing weapon, the stiletto's blade had no cutting edge, but was three- or four-sided to give it firmness and strength. Some stilettos were sturdy enough to penetrate light armor, and some were so small and light that they could be used by a woman. The stiletto's handle was protected by a simple cross guard, or quitton.

A dagger is a short, hilted blade for stabbing. Commonly the thrust is delivered downward, the blade below the hand, but some daggers may be wielded like swords. Most dagger blades are sharpened on two edges, or even three, though some which are certainly daggers, not knives, have but one sharp edge. Blade lengths vary from 4 to about 20 inches (102-508 mm). A blade longer than 20 inches is a sword. Some types of daggers have been made in the full range of lengths. These include: the Prankish scramasax (about 500 A.D.); the baselard, the "street dagger" of medieval citizens; and the 16th century cinquedea which, at its largest, was a heavy, broad, and thick blade used for slashing.

The oldest known daggers are those that were skillfully chipped out of flint by Neolithic man. Some examples have blade, hilt, and a rudimentary guard, made as a unit. Flint daggers are leaf-shaped; their two-edged blades curve inward below the hilt and then swell outward again before tapering to a point. Early bronze daggers and swords kept this shape, but the Greek hop-lite's short iron dagger was so wide that its blade was almost an equilateral triangle. Dagger blades have had almost every conceivable shape, from this abrupt triangle to the stiletto's thin bodkin, and to curious variations such as the Turks' curved blade and the Malays' wavy kris.

It is simpler to classify daggers by their type of guard, the extension below the hilt that protects the hand. The commonest guard is the rondel, a metal disk. Rondel daggers usually have the disk repeated at the top of the hilt as a pommel. The kidney dagger's guard is two bulbous knobs approximately kidney-shaped. Most kidney daggers have narrow blades tapering from hilt to point. The Scottish dirk has such a blade. The quillon dagger's guard is a pair of opposed transverse bars (called quillons), similar to those on a rapier and serving the same purpose—to engage an opponent's blade and wrest it from his and. The armored knight's misericord, a quillon dagger, was used to shorten the suffering of a mortally wounded foe. The burgher's baselard had quillons, and so has the Italian stiletto. So, too, had the main gauche, held in the left hand by early duelists to supplement the rapier in the right hand. This dagger's blade was notched to harass the opponent's sword.

The katar of India and the push dagger of the American West (1848-1860) have the hilt at right angles to the blade, and are wielded with a straight-arm punch. The earliest plug bayonet was actually a quillon dagger with the pommel of its hilt tapered to fit into the muzzle of a gun.

The throwing knife of early frontier America, lethal at 30 feet (9 meters), was a true dagger, sharp on both edges. For balance, its blade was widest just above the point. The "Arkansas toothpick," tapered straight from guard to needlepoint, could also be thrown. Col. James Bowie, American adventurer of the early 19th century, wielded a long, heavy, scimitar-bladed knife in his brawls. He used it edge up. It came to be called the bowie knife.

Modern armies still use daggers, particularly in guerrilla fighting. In World War II the U. S. Army bought over 2,500,000 of the Mark 3 Trench Knife, a sheath dagger with brass knuckles as part of the hilt. Many soldiers in all wars, if issued no daggers, buy or make their own.


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