Beyond the suspenseful intrigue of a good mystery novel, the term “cloak and dagger” has origins dating back to the 15th century. Fighting with a knife has no doubt existed as long as humans were able to grasp and thrust a piece of sharp wood or bone. But as humans evolved, so did daggers and the techniques in using them.
Much like the Bowie knife, the term “dagger” falls into the same type of vague terminology. A Bowie knife can be described in a wide range of styles, and so can a dagger. But most would agree that a dagger would at least be defined as a knife with a slender pointy blade. Not especially descriptive, but it gives a starting point. A dagger blade is generally described as a spear point style with a ridge running down the center to the tip. Not the best shape for cutting, but a strong blade type for thrusting. A dagger is also commonly called a “Dirk” in both England and the United States.
The strategic use of daggers started around the medieval era (14th and 15th centuries). Their shapes and sizes changed over time as fighting techniques and body armor also changed. Daggers were often used in conjunction with a sword when fighting, sometimes to block a sword, as well as to fight within close quarters. The term “cloak and dagger” was an actual style of fighting which used a cloak as a distraction and blocking devise, while also thrusting with a dagger in the other hand. This practice was described in a written work of fencing techniques by Achille Marozzo from Italy in the 16th century.
Although there is no specific length for a dagger blade, the most common sizes fall into the 3 inch to 12 inch range. And much like their Bowie cousins, daggers are seen in all shapes and sizes, and with handles as varied as any other knife. While daggers are generally thought of as fixed blade models, folding daggers have also been quite popular over time. Folding daggers were actually quite common in Europe throughout the early 1800s to mid-1900s. Although not as common, folding daggers were also offered by various cutlery companies in the United States during the mid-19th to the early 20th centuries.
Shown within are four examples of European and American daggers from the 1800s and early 1900s. One example is a small Sheffield fixed-blade dagger by Alfred Williams from the early 1900s. With a total length of 7-1/4 inches, it features a nickel silver guard and trim. The handle is made from mother of pearl which is hand-cut in a beautiful spiral pattern. Another is a fixed-blade unmarked French model from the late 1800s with stag handles. This model is 8-1/4 inches in total length and has a very thick triangle shaped blade. A third example is an American folding lock-back dagger from Ulster. Dating to the 1920s, it has folding guards, jigged bone handles, and measures 8 inches fully open. The final model is a folding lock-back dagger with pearl handles. At 7-3/4 inches open, it dates to the mid-1800s and was made by James Rodgers of Sheffield, England. The ornate and stunning nickel silver bolsters are classic Sheffield types from the 19th century.
Volumes could be written on the history of daggers, but this is just a snippet of another fascinating type of knife. While the sword was used in battles and self-defense for a few thousand years, the dagger was the back up for close encounters. Ever since the stabbing assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 BC, the dagger has maintained a rather dark or even sinister reputation. Designed to be easily concealed, a dagger can be deployed and put into use in a matter of seconds. While the dagger may very well deserve a rather nefarious distinction, it still holds an alluring beauty which captures our attention and imagination.