Swords in War – Part 2: Daggers. And are fencers any good?

Plate from Johann Jacobi von Wallhausen's Ritterkunst

Plate from Johann Jacobi von Wallhausen’s 1616 work Ritterkunst. I don’t mention this text at all in my research but the illustrations are great.

Following on from the last post about swords and Sir John Smythe’s instructions on how to use them in combat we’ll turn to his opinion on daggers. In short – the simpler the better. He suggests daggers of nine or ten inches without hilts or with short crosses.

Long heauie Daggers also, with great brauling Alehouse hilts, (which were neuer vsed but for priuate fraies and braules, and that within lesse than these fortie yeres; since which time through lōg peace, we haue forgotten all orders and discipline Militarie) they doo no waies disallow, nor find fault withall, but rather allowe them for their Souldiors to weare, than short arming Daggers of conuenient forme & substance, without hilts, or with little short crosses, of nine or ten inches the blades, such as not onely our braue Ancestors, but al other warlike Nations, both in warre and peace, did weare, and vse. By the which they euidently shew that they do very litle consider how ouer-burdensome and combersome, such Alehouse Daggers are for all sorts of Souldiors both horsemen and footmen, as also how vnfit they are to be vsed with the point and thrust by Soldiors, Piquers or Halbardiers against their enemies in squadron. Where, by proofe, reason and experience, in al battailes and other encounters, the nerenesse and prease being so great, short, strong, and light arming daggers are more maniable, and of greater executiō amongst al sorts of armed men, than such long deformed Daggers, as aforesaid.

In this it seems he is addressing two separate concerns related to the military use of daggers:

        • The first is specific to the time period and the style of combat. In formation the Alehouse daggers become unwieldy. Longer blades become a liability.
        • The second is implied in the comment about alehouse daggers being ‘ouer-burdensome and combersome’. As a soldier you’ll have to carry your equipment with you – often further than you’d like, over terrain your not keen about, to places further away than the local pub.

Below Paul Wagner from Stoccata explaining more about Alehouse daggers.


This theme of military concerns winning out over what we would think was effectiveness is echoed in Duke of Albemarle’s 1671 Observations upon military & political affairs. When discussing the arming of pikemen he has this to say:

The Offensive Arms of a Pike-man are these.

A good long Pike of eighteen foot in length with a small Steel head, and a good stiff Tuck not very long, with a Belt: for if you arm your men with Swords, half the Swords you have in your Army amongst your common men, will upon the first March you make be broken with cutting of Boughs.

From Gaya’s 1678 guide Traité des armes.

From Gaya’s 1678 guide Traité des armes.

Going back a century to 1578. In the book Of the knovvledge and conducte of warres two bookes, latelye wrytten and sett foorth, profitable for suche as delight in hystoryes, or martyall affayres, and necessarye for this present tyme  authored by someone only known as T.P. there is this said about the arming of pikemen.

Moreouer in myne oppinion, it were an ex­cellent furniture for the pikeman to haue a dagge, or a case of dagges at his girdle, for diuers purpo­ses. But it is needefull for euerie souldiour in the fielde to haue a good swerde and dagger, and for the armed souldiour, the same woulde bee but shorte, with waightie pomells, stronge, & narrowe poynted.

I read the last section as relating to the characteristics of the ideal sword rather than the dagger. Earlier in the work upon the subject of who makes a good soldier, he has this to say about practitioners of the art:

But the cōmō speache of fencers, that they be neuer good souldiours, proceadeth not of iudgemēt. For though there be of them, as of other men, some faynte fellowes, yet for the more part, that inclynation & delight in the vse of weapons, sheweth some manlike courage, & the practise & skill therein, breadeth hardines: and albeit there be other sortes of weapons vsed in warres, yet the exercyse of these, causeth nimblenes & actiuitye to handle anie other. And therefore if he bee not otherwise vnrulie, or naughtelye geuen, he that is practysed and skilfull in vsynge of weapons, is lykelye to prooue a valyaunt and an excellent souldiour.

So hooray for us. However never forget rule one. Don’t get hit.

But hee that feareth not to receaue hurte, excepte he knowe howe to inflicte daunger & doe harmes vnto the enemie, is not profitable. And therefore, when there was one cōmended vnto an expert captaine (by his manie skarres of woūdes receaued) that he was a great souldier, & a verie man, the captaine asked streight, where is the man which hurt him thus: brynge him vnto mee, (quod he) & I will entertayne him presentlie, for in this case I like the geeuer, better then the taker.

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