What is a dagger?

Your perfect guide in collectible daggers

Many tragic assassinations of heroes and prominent people have involved the use of daggers. The death of Julius Caesar, the Roman statesman Cicero, and others have tainted the reputation of daggers as bringer of untimely death. Moreover, they are small and lightweight compared to swords. They are easily kept from view and can be sneaked into and out of any place without detection. They are thus recognized, in the history of daggers, as an instrument of secrecy, the means of treachery, and fatal tool of betrayal.

In spite of their blackened reputation, collectible daggers have never lost their popularity. They are increasingly regarded with importance and respected as an invaluable part of any serious sword collection. For collectors, starting an interest on these “small” swords would pay off along the way.

Definition of dagger

What is a dagger? A dagger has the size of a knife. It is a one-handed, bladed shortsword made up of two cutting edges tapering to a sharp point along the centerline of the blade. Its tang extends too through the centerline with a wooden or metallic hilt. It is used for stabbing and thrusting. It can also be used for cutting, as its edges are sharp enough to slash through flesh, wood, and other objects.

Parts of a dagger

There are two basic parts of a dagger: the hilt (which includes the guard, grip, and pommel) and the blade (which includes the ricasso, cutting edge, fuller, and point).

What is a dagger hilt

The hilt is the part of the dagger where the hand is fitted for holding and control. It is usually called a handle, because it is the only part where the human holder is safe. Below are some of basic parts of the hilt:

• Dagger Grip is the major part of the hilt. It is what the hand holds when wielding the dagger. Japanese daggers have beautiful shark skin wrapped around the grip to improve control. Other ancient knife swords have wood, animal skins, leather, and thick cords.

• Dagger Guard is a barrier that protects the hand from slipping to and being wounded accidentally by the sharpened edges. For daggers, the guard is usually made of wood or metal and range from a simple cross-guard (a bar perpendicular to the blade) to elaborate basket hilts.

• Dagger Pommel is a relatively heavy metal placed at the end of the hilt. In martial arts, putting some weight at the end of the dagger would counterbalance the weight of the blade. The pommel provides the swordsman an improved performance, better handling, and more control.

What is a dagger blade

The blade is the sharpened part of the dagger. It consists of:

• Dagger Ricasso is the unsharpened part of the blade to enable the handler to place some fingers without being wounded

• Dagger Cutting edge is the sharpened part of the blade responsible for cutting.

• Dagger Fuller is the hardened groove along the centerline of the dagger. The fuller makes it possible for the dagger to be swung, hit a hard object, and suffer no chips or breaking afterwards.

• Dagger Point, also called tip, is the end of the blade, often rigidly sharpened, and fatal for stabbing or thrusting action of the dagger.

Difference between dagger and knife

Dagger is sometimes confused with knife since it is of the same size and length. The main difference between them is design. Knife has only one cutting edge. Its point is either absent (which means, it is primarily for household use such as chopping) or prominent (which means that it can be used for slitting and, sometimes, as a weapon). The dagger, on the other hand, has two cutting edges with a prominent point.

Another difference lies in their primary use. The dagger is more effective for stabbing. A sharp point is powerful in opening or inflicting wounds. The gradual, equal increase of the dagger’s blade toward the hilt and the two cutting edges cause fatal mortal damage as it is driven deeply to the wound. The knife, on the other hand, is more effective for cutting. This distinction is hardly rigid, since both dagger and knife can be used either way.

Difference between dagger and other combat swords

A dagger is sometimes called knife sword and small sword. There are two other varieties, called long dagger and shortsword, that are too long to be called a dagger and too short to be called a sword. The table below illustrates the difference between these combat swords:

Type of Sword Sword Example Sword Blade Length (in)
Dagger Tanto(Japanese dagger) between 6in – 12 in
Long Dagger Pugio(Old Roman dagger) between 12in - 17in
Shortsword Gladius(Old Roman shortsword) between 17in – 24in
Sword Knight Arming Sword between 24in – 35in
Longsword European Knights Templar Longsword over 35 in


Use of daggers

The dagger was used as a backup to the longer axes and maces. This was necessary, obviously, as the dagger lacks in reach and force that axes and maces can provide. This was also practical, because metalworking around 3rd millennium BC was crude and mining of ores was limited and labor-intensive. Ancient blades were forged from weak metal alloys of copper, bronze, and iron. These materials become brittle (their tensile strength will give in to stress) when they are made into long blades.

Daggers as a close-combat shortsword

The dagger became instrumental when somehow, the use of axes and maces proved to be cumbersome to carry for ordinary infantrymen. As military tactics and formation became advanced and dynamic, close combat was fast becoming the central arena for fighting and showing valor on the battlefield.

Such evolution in warfare was coupled with the discovery of steel around 1st century BC. Smiths found a way of lengthening the dagger and the first of the ancient swords were produced. This breakthrough afforded the infantrymen to drop their axes and maces. From that time, the dagger became secondary to sword.

The survival of daggers

When heavy artillery and firearms were introduced to war, the use of swords waned correspondingly. Instead of being employed as primary weapons, the swords were carried symbolically by generals and other high-ranking military officials to manifest honor and prestige to their position.

It is surprising that daggers proved to be more resilient than swords. They survived through the sweeping change of arms technology. In 17th century, antique daggers were mounted onto the muzzle of longarms to produce bayonets and instant spears. They were continued to be used as killing weapons even when guns and bullets were preferable.

Royal and Religious daggers

There are daggers however that have never been used in the battlefield. Some of them were meant to be a display of power, authority, and affluence, such as those carried by kings and royal family members. Still some were meant to be a symbol of reverence and respect, such as those used for religious purposes.

They are often designed with elaborate accessories. They are forged, enmeshed, or hammered together with other precious metals such as gold and silver. They are inlayed with rare gemstones especially on the guard and pommel. Markings are often found etched on the blade. For instance, some Indian daggers are carved with the faces of the deities. Ancient Arab swords and daggers bear quotes taken from Holy Koran.

Famous daggers

Admittedly, daggers are not a popular as swords. But starting to collect daggers as a hobby is an even more exciting endeavor. Because daggers are fewer, they would command heftier prices than swords. They are also somewhat difficult to search for, which make their discovery more romantic and adventurous. Historical daggers are also rich with tales of treachery and betrayal, which makes them even more precious.

To tease your interest with daggers, here are some of perfect masterpieces that you can start viewing for appreciation:

• Ear dagger is a medieval shortsword famous for its Moorish design. Its prominent part is the oversized, oval pommel, which looked like and has almost the same size of a human ear (hence its name). For its design, museum curators consider it as a very rare European dagger.

• The famous gold encrusted dagger of Shah Jahan, the Indian ruler who commissioned the construction of Taj Mahal in India. A collector in the ’60s brought it for only a thousand dollars. However, it was traded for $3 million when it was auctioned in April, 2008. It only proves that knowledgeable collectors are inviting money into their homes when they get hold of valuable daggers.

• Topkapi dagger is a very rare antique shortsword now on display in a museum in Turkey. It is a priceless 16th century dagger considered to be the pinnacle of ancient Turkish bladesmithing. Its golden hilt holds three big emerald stones and the scabbard is covered in diamonds.

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