The Criollo (creole) Knives from Argentina - Article by A. Domenech
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My dear friend Gonzalo:
I was delighted to read the link to the Forum you have sent to me and to read the post about gaucho knives.
I feel that the information that you and other Forum members have provided is a very thorough and serious approach to the issue of Creole Knives, and find that little has to be added to what was said.
I would be honored to participate in this Forum, but by the reasons you know, it is very difficult for me at present time to participate in the Argentine and Spanish Forums I am usually part of. I wish this will change next year, after my new book is finished, and will be more than happy and a true honor to take a little part in it.
In the meantime, I sincerely thank you for your nice comments about my works, and I kindly request you to tell the Forum members who posted their comments in this thread, that I thank them sincerely for their kind references to my books.
At the same time, and as per your kind invitation, I´m enclosing a little article, and pictures, containing some information which may be will help in the understanding these fascinating knives.
I have to apologize for my English, and hope my writings can be understood in spite of some improper phrase construction, or other mistakes.
I was very pleased to write it and I request you to publish it in the Forum, if you find it is worth enough and of interest to their Membership.
Of course I keep to your orders if some additional explanation is needed around these themes.
I hope you enjoy this writing and also wish it would be of the liking of the Forum members, and I thank you and them for this nice opportunity of placing this post.
Please receive my best cordial regards, Abel
A short essay about gaucho knives: Facón, Daga, Cuchilla and Puñal.
And a short study of the different knives used by gauchos, and some interesting coincidences and a common root between puñales and bowies.
By Abel A. Domenech
We call in a generic way “cuchillos criollos” (creole knives) to the different types of edged weapons used by gauchos in the past. We employ this generic name, as actually, gauchos didn’t use just one class of knife, but different ones, depending on their personal tastes, customs, or what they could find or acquire.
About the gauchos.
The Gaucho was a very particular human type: a free man, always changing of settlement, with no personal land, few personal belongings, and no boundaries.
An excellent rider, hunter of wild cattle, with no employer and not fixed job, he preferred to be an errant rider crossing the silent and deserted big plains.
Gauchos appeared as a result of the crossing of the Spanish with the local Indians, and it is generally believed that his appearance happened for the firs time, in territories of what today belongs to the Republica de Uruguay, on the North bank of River Plate, and that they quickly spread across the River, to territories of what today is known as Argentina.
Both gauchos of Uruguay and Argentina, have very similar characteristics, in customs, and clothing. A little different type of gaucho, also developed later in the southern region of what today is Brazil, in the Rio Grande do Sul zone.
What we can call a “gaucho type” appeared under several different names, during the XVII Century, and they were called “changadores” “arrimados” “camiluchos”, gauderios, etc., before being called “gauchos” for the first time, probably around end of XVIII century.
It has to be explained, that the first Spaniards settlements around the coasts of the River Plate, where made around the 1530´s, and after their initial failure, great part of the few horses and cows brought from Spain, gained liberty and escaped to the great open plains which offered these animals ideal conditions of grass, water and mild weather.
These initial little herds gave place with the pass of the following 150 years, to the huge herds of thousands and thousands, of “Cimarron” (wild) cattle (both horses and cows) which astonished the voyagers who arrived to these lands in the following centuries after the First Foundations of Buenos Aires.
These huge herds, gave origin to a big local industry based in the chasing and hunting of wild cattle, just to take their hides for export to Spain, which required the special permission of the Cabildo, institution which represented the King of Spain in our lands.
These expeditions required many men to work as hunters, killers and skinners, and also of soldiers to protect them against the attack of Indians.
Of course, many entrepreneurs found that more profitable business could be made organizing their own non authorized expeditions to get the cattle, and smuggle the hides to other places of Europe.
Gauchos were men of the frontier, and recognized no Law, no King, no Patron, and committed robberies, and other felonies, and as such, were pursued by the Law.
Their services as knowledgeable men of the plains, was requested from time to time by owners of big rodeos of cattle, or by the chiefs of the expeditions organized by the Cabildo to hunt wild cows, and get their skins. This helped to put an end to the pursuit of the Law, at least during the course of those authorized expeditions.
But then, they also hunted wild cattle for themselves, without the required Cabildo permission, and smuggled the skins for their own profit, or were employed by the organizers of the non authorized expeditions.
Later, in several stages of our history, they were forced to form part of the regular Army and, badly armed and badly equipped, employed in Independence and Civil wars, and during the war against the Indians, both under orders of military brass, politicos or civilian leaders.
These human types known as camiluchos, gauderios and other names given before that of “gauchos”, all of them had similar characteristic behavior, remained in constant change, adaptation, and modification of their clothes, tools, and ridding apparel, according to times, and personal possibilities. Everything was capable of being used, changed, adapted, modified, to their personal tastes, or customs. That’s why it’s so difficult to classify the edged weapons they employed, and also their other pieces of tackle and riding equipment.
Anyway, to study an object, it’s necessary to arrive to a classification method, and to use a more or less methodic description, to allow us to observe a specimen, and classify it, in such or such variant.
We always should have in our minds though, what we said before, regarding to the personality of gauchos, and their ability to adapt or modify his equipment, including his riding tackle, and weapons.
This is especially important with their knives, because we always find pieces which do not fit exactly within the characteristics we hereby show, or fit in any of the types named here, but should be classified in one of the four types we propose.
Real Gauchos disappeared around 1880/1890´s, with the arrival of wire fences, the telegraph and the railroad. They adapted themselves, to become employees of estancias, under the directions of its owner, or otherwise they just vanished.
Today, the public image of gaucho is very different to the true sense it has in the past. A new, positive image replaced the bad one he had in the last centuries.
He is now the icon who represents Argentinians, in a similar sense as cowboys represent the Americans.
Far from its true origins, it is known today for his riding skills and the knowledge of the cattle and the secrets of the countryside work, his personal valor, and his generosity, everything forming an image coined by the romantic sense given by literature, and the forgiveness of the pass of time.
Gaucho´s arms and tools:
Gauchos were simple poor people. Skilled riders, and handlers of cattle, they had very little equipment. The lazo (lariat) and bolas (throwing weapon inherited from the Indians) were his tools and weapons.
The hobbles were a humble but important tool which prevented the loosing of their horse in the middle of the great lonely plains, by tying together the front legs of the horse. A gaucho without horse, in the middle of the great plains, was a dead man.
Then of course, was the knife, an edged weapon, and a multi purpose tool that he used almost at any time during his day.
Gauchos had limited access to firearms, which in our territories were reserved to the high or military classes almost exclusively.
For this same reason, gauchos seemed to look firearms with disdain and little confidence, preferring edged weapons over all other types.
Several types of knives were used by gauchos in the past. They received different names depending on its shapes and general design, and local customs.
It is worth noting that being persons of little literacy, they called their knives under different names, paying little attention to their true characteristics, but using the names they have heard from their older people. Thus, a knife was a facón for one person, but the same was called a “daga” by another.
It is also worth noticing that the features which must be present in a specific specimen in order to classify it as a particular type are subject to debate, as there is no definite or rigid pattern or list of characteristics which exactly define each one.
So the present classification which I propose in my books and writings, are those I used during the last 25 years, and can be considered of rather “modern” usage, based in the local customs, and the most widely accepted morphology of each variant. Some authors may accept these definitions and others propose some little changes.
When considering gaucho knives, we must always bear in mind that their manufacturing was more a result of improvisation and of taking advantage of the available materials, than a true cutlery product, as it happened with the English cutlery trade.
As a matter of fact, the local “cutlery industry” was very simple: silversmiths took blades imported from Europe, and provided rich handles, and occasionally sheaths.
Then simple blacksmiths made entire simple knives with whichever metal was at hand.
Old or broken swords, sabers or bayonets, donated their blades to make facones or dagas.
Basically, we can establish four main types: facón, daga, cuchilla and puñal.
Each of these knives have sub-types depending on subtle design differences, size or regional manufacture.
However, this analysis would be out of the scope of this article.
On the other hand, we should understand that the luxurious silver and gold embellished knives made their first appearances after the 1830/1840's when the true local silversmith trade was established.
In those early years, this type of costly knives were mainly destined to wealthy "estancieros" (ranch and land owners), high rank military or rich "politicos", not for ordinary gauchos which were usually very poor and owners of very few personal belongings as said.
Anyway, the taste for flashy silver ornamentation for their knives and horse headstalls and saddles, quickly spread among gauchos and Indians, becoming their most prized possession.
Both indians and gauchos became very fond of use of silver in their riding tackle and knives, as a power and rank symbol. Though both human types were usually very, very poor, they tried by all means (including trade and robbery) to get some silver in their belongings.
Common knives were handled with local woods, cow horns, or antlers of small plains stags. Sometimes, they were adorned with coins, or small pieces of silver. Later, nickel silver was also used, as well as low quality silver alloys.
Curiously enough, and in spite of their Spanish heritage, gauchos have never been fond of navajas, or of any other type of folding blade knife, and always preferred fixed blade knives, and of good blade length.
Now, let’s see some characteristics of each type:
The Facón, is a thoroughbred fighting weapon. Its long blade (15” to 18” long) was usually made with a portion of broken sword, saber or bayonet or sometimes, it was specially forged by frontier blacksmiths, usually from old worn tools, like files.
Facones made with military blades
The blade of a typical Facón, is very long and slim, single edged, and sometimes with a short double edge near its point.
The presence of a fuller is common in these long blades.
Facones also feature a double guard, usually "S" shaped, sometimes with the form of an inverted "U" or a simple short crossguard. It was intended to protect the hand of the bearer during a fight, or to deflect an opponent thrust.
Two Facones and a Daga
An interesting sub-type was the "caronero". It is a very long bladed facón or dagger (single or double edge) -almost a true sword- which was carried between the "caronas" (a leather part of the gaucho saddle, thus its name). Caroneros do not usually have guards, as they could get entangled with the saddle when reaching for the weapon.
Contrary to the popular belief, caroneros were not common or popular among gauchos. They were used by “bad gauchos” (pursued by Law), militia members or soldiers, and only very occasionally, by a gaucho.
The “Daga” (dagger) is similar to the facón in shape, but the distinctive feature is that its long slim blade is double edged.
Two Facones and a Dagger
The "cuchilla" is an utilitarian type of knife.
Actually, it is a big butcher's knife with a curved edge and a straight back.
It is interesting to note that in Spanish language there exist the words "cuchillo" (masculine noun) and "cuchilla" (feminine noun).
Gauchos seemed to find the image of a "pregnant blade" in the "belly" or curved edge of the cuchilla, so it's the legend around the origin of the use of a feminine noun to name this type.
The cuchilla is a knife of full tang construction, with wooden slabs attached to the tang by rivets. It has no bolsters.
Cheap and easy to find everywhere, cuchillas are one of the most popular types of knife in use in the country in present times.
An interesting variant of this type, is what I call “cuchillo de campo” (country knife), which was of later appearance, may be during ends of XIX C.
The cuchillo de campo, is also of full tang construction, slab attached with rivets, usually of wood or antler, and a false bolster made of brass or nickel silver. The shape of the blade is slimmer, and similar to that of the “puñal”.
Ways of carry a knife
Customary, gauchos carried their long bladed knives in their backs, crossed through their "tirador" (wide belt) and with the edge upwards. This enabled them to carry a very long blade easily, especially when riding a horse, and also to unsheathe it very quick and ready to cut. On his books published during XIX Century, English traveler and author, Cunninghame Graham, wrote that these knives crossed on the gauchos' backs looked like the latin sail of Mediterranean boats.
(Note: "tirador" is the name of a heavy and wide leather belt, closed in the front with a distinctive and big silver buckle called "rastra". The belt also carried important personal papers and money like the cowboy "moneybelt", and was usually decorated with silver or gold coins.)
A small knife, of not more than 13 or 15 cm blade, is usually carried on the front, near the right side of the rastra. It´s called “verijero” and explained later.
As a knife collector whose personal interests cover several different aspects of the fascinating world of knives, it has never ceased to amaze me, the similarities about two most interesting types of knives: bowies and gaucho "puñales".
Although historical, economic and cultural behaviors of North and South America followed different roads, the significance of both knives in our respective history and culture are of similar great importance.
As a matter of fact, both the saga of the conquest of the Frontier, the conflict with the Indian, and the cattle industry are all dominant factors in the development of the two Americas.
Both knives suffered the early menace of restrictive laws, trying to control its use. Both were principal and sometimes only weapons for their owners. But also, they were multi-purpose tools in the hands of settlers, farmers, cowboys or gauchos. In both cases, knives were used with outstanding skill by our countrymen.
There are also several features of South American knives, whose exact meaning or actual use are not clear today; the same happens with certain characteristics of bowies.
Of the several types of gaucho knives used in the past, I personally consider the most interesting type to study (specially for bowie collectors), is the variant known as "puñal", a knife which was widely used along the territories of what today is Argentina, as well as Uruguay and southern Brazil. This type features subtle distinctive differences of design in each of these regions.
Several years ago I developed my own theory, tracing a common root in both the bowie knife and the puñal. I don't know if this theory would be widely accepted among our leading bowie authorities in the USA, and I can't say if I'll ever be able to fully demonstrate its complete truth, but in the meantime I humbly consider and present it to our readers as an approach to the study of these most interesting types of knives - bowies and South American puñales- taking into account their broad use during a large historical period of our countries.
The use of the name "puñal" could be rather confusing for the historian, as the shape of this knife can not be related to the classical European "poignard". Anyway, old European catalogs from the cutlery firms which supplied this kind of blades to the South American trade, call them "puñales" or "daggers" in their literature.
It is also interesting to point out, that in local common day language -e.g. in a newspaper crime news- it is usually referred as a "puñalada" for "stabbing". So is the verb used to name the act of receiving a wound with an edged weapon, no matter the actual shape or type used in the stabbing.
Also, it is very common among Argentine military personnel to call any type of fighting or military knife "puñal" without paying attention to its actual shape or design. This could somewhat explain the wide use of the word "puñal" among common people, referring to any kind of knife.
Original blades for puñales were forged in Germany, Belgium, France and England, but the exact story of its origin remains a mystery, as well as who designed its distinctive blade shape, and the actual date of appearance - perhaps XVIII Century or earlier.
The Spanish influence of these knives is evident as soon as you compare its shape with the Belduque, Albacete and Flandes knives brought by the Spaniards to our lands. On the other hand, there is a Germanic influence too, as there were several types of knives of German origin which used the same blade shape long before the gaucho knife.
The so called "Mediterranean Dagger" (actually a single edge knife) is a knife which was used in Spain, Italy and France during the XVII and XVIII Centuries, and it is commonly shown as a probable origin of the early bowie knives. Probably connected to certain Genovese and Corsican fixed blade knives, too.
As a matter of fact, we know that Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas received a very strong French and Spanish influence in those days, and some early bowies show a strong reminiscence of the European dagger or knife. This can be easily seen for example, in the classic lines of the knife Searles made for Rezin Bowie.
Both South American puñales and early bowies or Spanish Mediterranean daggers, can be compared with large butcher knives and actually, this was the way bowie knives were described in early documents and newspaper accounts of knife fights.
I'd like to call the attention of our readers to several main characteristics of gaucho puñales: the slim elegant spear pointed blade, the presence of a "button" (in Spanish "botón") or forged bolster which reinforce and divides the blade from its tang, the use of "cuts" or file marks or decorations on the back of the blade, and the use of some kind of "notch" in the ricasso of the blade.
File marks on the back
These blades have a rat tail tang, which remains enclosed within the handle of the knife.
The bolster, (we call the forged bolster “botón” meaning “button”) which also appears in several early American bowie knives and Naval dirks, as well as in European types, had a rounded shape in Uruguayan and Southern Brazilian knives, while in those used in the present day Argentine territories had a distinctive square-shape sides.
There is no known explanation regarding these different shaped bolsters, and their geographical distribution, except that the rounded bolster (“button”) seems to be of earlier appearance.
Typical Uruguayan and Brazilian button with sheat provided with a “botton keeper”
Because of the use of a bolster, puñales never have any type of guard or crossguard.
Regarding the use of the file marks on the back of blades of puñales, there are several explanations:
One assures that they were used as "cattle counters", (each mark counted as a bead in an "abacus"), or as wire cutters, or as an edge destroying device for an opponent's blade edge during a fight.
Although I feel that those marks could have been incidentally used as described, I personally believe that they were just cosmetic decorations, which were also present in bowies, as well as in Spanish "navajas" (clasp folding knives).
(By the way, in Spanish navajas we can usually find other "bowie like" features: clip point blades and the widespread custom of decorating them with phrases and mottoes. Just a coincidence, or the transfer of customs from the Spanish-French immigration to the Southern U.S. Territories of the XIX Century?)
A lot has been written regarding the so called "Spanish Notch" true purpose.
As a matter of fact, on page 7 of ABKA Newsletter # 4 there is an interesting paragraph about Mr. Sterling Wortham's tracing of an old Spanish Scissors, "Toledo" marked, and a discussion about the possible use of its "notches" when working with twine. Another interesting discussion on this issue, was written by noted collector and writer, the late Mr. William Williamson, on occasion of the publishing of a special work for the famous Exhibition of La Commission des Avoyelles ("Bowie Knives/Origin & Development, October 1979 - pages 24 & 25). (The two Spanish Daggers shown on page 25 of that work show several features usually associated with gaucho puñales, including round bolsters and half moon cuts on the ricasso, confirming the common roots of both bowies and gaucho knives).
I have often asked myself if we can really link the purpose of those notches with the menacing "rompe puntas" (point breakers) of Spanish left hand (main gauche) daggers used in the past, as it has often been suggested. I really doubt it.
It is possible that its intended use, was that of catching the opponent's blade, but the shape of the notch present in some bowies suggest another use to me.
For example, that in the knife pictured in the book "Bowie Knives" by Robert Abels (The Ohio Hist. Scty, 1962), under number 3-K1A3c 10 1/2, depicts a corresponding hole in the sheath. This feature suggests its intended use to secure the knife to its scabbard by means of a leather thong.
The notch in a well known Samuel Bell knife, could have been used for some way of quick release retention device, like a small short chain with a ring, secured to the belt.
True, it's a thrilling view that we get when we think about a duel occurring in those far gone days, during which the duelists try to break or catch the other's knife blade.
But I think that we have to remember that the fighting methods of our ancestors were dictated more by their natural instincts, survival desire and personal skill, than by an educated and formally learned "esgrima" technique, like that of the different European swordsmanship schools.
Thus, it is my personal belief that the presence of the "Spanish Notch" responds to a less romantic or thrilling reason: it was more a cosmetic touch of the artisan who made the piece, reminiscent maybe, of those European knives he might have seen, than a feature intended to be used in parrying techniques.
I also wish to point out, that the ricasso of most puñales show a "half moon cut", whose use, it is generally accepted locally, was for the placement of the index finger when grasping the knife. This half moon cut is especially useful when the owner intends to make a thrust with his knife, preventing the hand to slip into the blade and cutting the fingers.
Do our readers remember the story of Rezin cutting his fingers in the calf episode??
The primitive knife Rezin was using on that occasion, didn't have a guard, and when Rezin Bowie stabbed a calf to kill it, his hand slipped to the blade edge, producing a severe wound. It is said that this accident led to the use of a guard in the following knives ordered by Rezin.
Gauchos used to place their index finger in that cut, in order to handle their knives when using them as a cutting tool or as a weapon.
The finger inside the "half moon notch" prevented the forward movement of the hand towards the blade edge. It also gives a better control of the knife. (The blade notch on a Samuel Bell knife pictured on page 25 of "The Antique Bowie Knife Book”, shows exactly the same shape of the ones present in several gaucho puñales).
As I said before, blades for South American puñales came from Europe. Some of the most well regarded brands were "Arbolito" (Boker), "Defensa" (Weyesberg) and "Herder", from Germany, "Dufour" from France, and "Joseph Rodgers & Sons" from England (By the way, we all know that Joseph Rodgers produced very high quality cutlery, including Bowies!!)
The list of blade brands used in the making of gaucho puñales is very long and it is never
complete, as every time a collector discovers one he has never heard of before. Local importers ordered blades from German cutlery firms, and requested the stamping of special markings, usually in Spanish, and/or with prominent figures of related objects or animals well known in the South American region: a "mate" (small gourd or pumpkin used as a vase to contain the typical local hot beverage, which he drank with a metallic straw), a running ostrich, a sheep, the sun, a hunter firing his gun, a bull, a stirrup, a tree, etc., etc.. Generally, local consumers of knives of those far times, were not capable to read or write, so they needed to recognize their favorite brand by the logo on the blade.
The appearance of the metallic cartridge and the perfection of repeating guns, marked the beginning of the decline of the use of bowies. It is interesting to note that while in the North American Territory firearms rapidly took the place of these fascinating knives, the opposite happened in South America, where the knife kept being the main personal weapon till the first quarter of the present Century.
It is also interesting to remark that, while we won't see a "Peacemaker" hanging on the belt of a present day working cowboy, you will surely find a knife (usually a short bladed puñal) crossed in the back or a small “verijero” on the front of almost all modern “gauchos” of today, while working in the range.
Of course, present day countrymen ride both horses and modern pick ups, and to ride a truck with a knife crossed on the back is very uncomfortable. Then the knife is carried inside the glove box, or under the cab seat.
Also, to bear a large knife openly while walking in a town street, is seen as “politically incorrect” by present customs.
Anyway, in some small countryside towns, nobody cares if someone is wearing working clothes and a carrying a criollo knife on his belt.
By the same token, and as previously said, all men working in the country, wear a fixed blade knife of small proportions, as a practical tool. These are usually “verijeros” with metal or wooden handles, a smaller version of “puñales”.
The name of “verijero” comes from the carry position, in the front near the belt buckle or rastra, near the groins, a part of the body popularly known locally as “verijas”.
I have often seen larger knives (puñales) still carried on the back in the usual tradition, by country workers inside the boundaries of estancias, and while riding their horses.
Of course, facones and dagas are of little practical use for work, and are only seen on
“desfiles” (parades) during festivities and celebrations, worn by typically customed men.
Argentinians are fond of owning a little verijero, silver handled, sometimes with silver sheath, to make it proudly shine on a Sunday asado (barbeque). Its 13 to 15 cm blade makes a very practical cutting tool indeed.
In any case, knives keep being very popular among Argentinians, and in spite that very few know the true origins and meaning of gauchos, still associate the word “facon” with their figure and personality.
And creole knives are still keep being the symbol of the past, closely related with those fierce, valiant, tough men, proud of their freedom, and also symbol and reminder of a more romantic, adventurous and dangerous time.
- ABKA Newsletter # 4 - page 7
- Bowie Knives/Origin & Development - by William Williamson - La Commission des Avoyelles/October 1979
- The Antique Bowie Knife Book - B. Adams/J.B. Voyles/T. Moss/ Museum Publications, 1990.
- Catalog by Jim Parker- sale of J.Rodgers Exhibition Knives, 1988
- Dagas de Plata – Abel A Domenech – Buenos Aires, 2006
Facon and daga were fighting weapons, used in fighting, while the cuchilla, and the puñal, were multi purpose tools. Anyway, the skill of gauchos handling a long bladed knife for small or delicate cutting tasks, allowed them to use their long facones as a common knife if needed.
Origin of Word “facón”:
We should know that gauchos originated in territories of what today is Uruguay, on the opposite coast of River Plate, where Buenos Aires is situated.
All those territories were known as Virreynato del Rio de la Plata, and were under the control of the Crown of Spain. There was no division of present countries of Argentina and Uruguay, in those far times (XVII to beginnings of XIX C.)
In those far days, those primitive gauchos born in the River Plate area, had encounters with gangs coming from neighborhood Southern territories of Brazil (territories under control of the Portuguese Crown, and in dispute with Spain) which crossed the frontiers, while smuggling, committing robberies, etc.
Of course those encounters were very far of being friendly ones!
Those gangs of tough Portuguese speaking men, were astonished to see the long bladed knives used by Spanish speaking gauchos, which were too short to be called “swords”, and too long to be called simply as “knives”. Then they called them “big knife”.
Incidentally, knife in Portuguese is “faca”, and the noun for “big knife” is “facao”, which is pronounced approximately as “facáun”.
When Spanish speaking gauchos heard that funny way of calling their big knives, they liked it, and adapted the phonetic in Spanish language, as “facón”.
Use of the knife and the Gaucho Duel:
Together with the horse, the knife –and specially the facón or daga- was the distinctive tool/weapon of the gaucho, to the point of not existing himself without them.
Gauchos were famous for the skillful use of knives, and the use and abuse made of edged weapons during their duels.
To understand this, we should bear in mind their background, and epoch: these were solitary men. Very tough men raised in total solitude, almost without their parent guidance. With no education, almost no religion, they spend their lives in the middle of the large plains, in constant touch with nature, the danger of wild animals, and Indians, the constant peril.
They often spend long periods of time in solitude, without seeing another human being, and their only source of distraction, or obtaining their very few extra needs, was to reach one of the hundreds of “pulperias” distributed along the frontier.
Pulperias were a special kind of country store. Poorly built with adobe walls, and a thatched roof, the owner of the pulperia provided the few gaucho needs: tobacco and paper for making cigarettes, “yerba” to prepare the national infusion called “mate”, and some pieces of clothing, among a very few other things.
Gauchos paid with silver coins obtained in their part time jobs, or by smuggling or earned playing cards, or simply paid those goods, by exchange of cow hides or ostrich plumes of animals they had hunted.
Pulperias also provided the unique possibility of distraction, joining other gauchos to drink, to play cards and to talk, or just to play guitar and dance.
It also provided the unique opportunity of seeing a woman for the first time in several months, and the “oldest profession in the world”, was one of the main attractions of those places.
Gauchos liked drinking, and high alcohol content beverages were the favorite ones.
Now, the meeting in the same small place of several tough men, heavy drinking, and very few and rarely seen women was a very explosive formula indeed!.
Any motif, under this delicate atmosphere, could ignite a dispute, and give pace to a duel.
A contradiction during talking, the inadecuate use of a word, an erroneous comment about a woman present in the pulperia, or anything pronounced after having finished a couple of bottles of alcohol, could be the invitation to prove who was better with the knife, or who was more rude or brave.
Sometimes, a person had the reputation of being the best knife of the region, and this was reason enough for another gaucho, to prove he was better than him.
The duel was inevitable, and the men went outside the building, to prove themselves.
Knife in one hand, and their “poncho” rolled on the other arm to protect the body as a shield, a technique inherited from the Spaniards, who used their capes in the same way.
The intention was far to kill the opponent. They just wanted to “mark” the other; specially on the face. That mark would tell to everybody and forever, that the bearer of the scar had lost a duel.
But sometimes, the heat of the fight, the excess of alcohol, or the angry made that the fight ended in a fatal wound.
One of the gauchos died, and it was considered an accident, a “disgrace”, an unwanted death.
The killer was seen with pain, and was often helped by the onlookers, who considered him as a man in disgrace who was in need of protection and help to escape from the Law.
He usually was helped to flee to the plains, sometimes getting a home for some time in the nearby Indian villages.
There they waited till their crime was forgotten, or authorities changed. Or the opportunity to travel to a far town.
Only those gauchos who were known killers, were seen with little sympathy, and persecuted by the Law with more care. These were called gauchos “matreros”, always changing of place, always persecuted.
Other brutal practices of the time, included to “kill the pain” of a suffering friend or familiar, having a disease or a big injury, producing a great suffering, far from a doctor help, or medicines.
To put an end to their misery, was known as “to make the Holy work”, that is, to kill the suffering person with a quick pass of the knife through the throat, something which was seen with permissive eyes by common people. This is something which has to be understood with the ethic, moral and social and cultural background of the epoch.
We should bear in mind what a foreign traveler -surprised to know the intensive use of knives by gauchos- said:
“gauchos use their knives the same, to open a cow or to close a discussion”
The common present vision suggest that gauchos passed half of their lives riding horses, hunting wild cattle just to take their hides, and eat their tongues and a little of meat, and the other half, fighting duels.
This due to the old tales and descriptions written by foreign and local travelers visiting the pampas during the XIX Century, and giving details of the duels they have witnessed and the horrible scars on the faces of the gauchos they have met.
The truth is that some gauchos had dueled sometimes, but not so often as we usually think.
Knives were used heavily, but mostly as tools, at every time during their long days in the prairie, in hundreds of little and big tasks:
They cut strands of tobacco, cut small wood for making fire, cut hay to make the roofs of their poor houses, they made adobe bricks, killed cattle, skinned, cut meat, used their knives to eat cutting and using as forks, cut hides to make or repair their saddles, headstalls, reins, and lariats. Leather was used in hundreds of things. And the knife was an extension of their hands.
Estadist, writer and former Argentine President Domingo F. Sarmiento, wrote in his book “Facundo” published during the XIX C.:
“The Gaucho is armed with the knife he inherited from the Spaniards… More than a weapon, the knife is an instrument which serves him in all his tasks; he can´t live without his knife; it is like the elephant trunk, his arm, his hand, his finger, his everything… “
I feel, and always try to put emphasis in the fact that knives were tools, often the only tool, gauchos had, and that they used them as such, and just on occasion in a fight with another gaucho. This in spite of the popular image of dueling gauchos, driven by literature and the common feeling of people in the present.
Abel A. Domenech
Photographs and descriptions
Group of puñales and verijeros. Difference in name being the length of the blade which conditioned the place of carrying. Verijeros usually have a blade of 13 to 15 cm (around 7 to 8”), while puñales had blades of 10 to 14” length.
Knives in this picture have handle and sheath made of silver, some with decorations in gold.
Thre facones. Blades with single edge with wide fullers, and two types of crossguards: small guard, and “S” shape.
“Empatilladura”. Reinforcement soldered to the handle-crossguard assembly to reinforce the union of hilt to blade. Generally present in long bladed facones and dagas.
Top and middle: facón. Note “U” and “S” shape of crossguard. Bottom a dagger with short guard and typical double edged blade.
Daggers. From top to bottom:
1 wooden handle with simple silver rings decoration, double guard with the figures of flamingo heads and necks. 2 – dagger – 3 – interesting double fullered blade probably taken from an old sword – 4- blade with single central fuller, and handle with typical fluted handle, a decorating shape known as “galloneado”. 5- dagger with U shape crossguard and 6 – dagger, blade with central fuller.
Top to bottom: 1- facon. U shaped crossguard. Note semi circular throat of sheath to accommodate the guard. 2- facon, S shape crossguard. 3- Dagger. Double edge blade probably hand forged from an old file. This knife probably made by Indian silversmith due to the very simple and naïf, typical decoration motif.
Group of Cuchillas. Actually common butcher knives, full tang construction, wooden slabs and blade with belly shaped edges and straight back. The “pregnancy of steel” felt in the belly, gave the use of a feminine noun to name this type.
Cuchillos de campo. Of more recent introduction, perhaps ends of XIX C., these types are of more popular use in town. But otherwise, a very interesting variant, sometimes of high quality contruction, like the two specimens shown with white bone, and stag handle slabs. More common specimens, like the other two, are handled with wood slabs, and brass bolsters.
Detail of typical construction of “cuchillos de campo”. This type is closely related to cuchillas, being of full tang construction, with slabs attached with rivets. Equipped with false bolsters made of brass or nickel silver. Blade shape similar to that of puñales.
Usually imported form Germany, but also from France and England.
Puñal. Blade length 27 cm (11”) with “square” bolster denoting Argentinian destiny of this Boker/Arbolito German blade.
Detail of a never used puñal blade, with “square” bolster, for use in Argentine market.
Commercial brand “Libertad”, imported from France by Anezin Hermanos, an importer of Buenos Aires. (circa first quarter of XX C.)
Same blade, 27 cm length
Detail of circular bolsters or “round buttons” (boton Redondo o boton oriental).
Left to right:
1 – Brazilian knife. Blade marked with makers name and also “Rio de Janeiro”. Probably end of XVIII C. Made for the south of Brazil market.
2 – Knife probably made in Germany, for S.A. use (circa beginnings XIX C.) No makers markings.
3- Probably German, circa beginnings XIX C. No makers markings.
4- Knife of present day making, by local silversmith Carlos canali, following style and patterns of old knives of the XIX C. The blade, is an antique one, probably of ends of XIX C, or beginning of XX C. Belgian origin, and markings of a famous and now closed gun shop of Buenos Aires.
Notice round bolster feature, and “Spanish notch” on item # 3.
Same knives described above
Same knives described above
Top: puñal for Rio Grande (south of Brazil) market.
Blade marking of well known brand “cocoteiro” (palm tree) of Belgian origin.
Below: Knife for the Uruguayan market. Blade of famous brand “Sol” (sun) and Broqua & Scholberg. Belgian origin.
Notice “Spanish notch” on ricasso of baldes.
Also note that Brazilian and Uruguayan sheaths usually present a semi circular extension on their mouths, which cover and protect the blade bolster when the knife is inside the sheath.
Same knives described above.
Four Argentine puñales, made in silver, showing their square bolsters or “boton cuadrado” (actually, octagonal). Semi circular notch on ricasso, used to rest the index finger, preventing the hand to slip towards the edge when stabbing.
Same knives of previous picture. Sheaths completely made of silver, or leather with throat and tip of silver.
Detail of blades of same knives
Usual notches or file marks on top of back of blade. Typical on most Argentinian puñales, each brand had their own pattern of marks. Popular belief attribute different uses to these file marks, but in my personal opinion, they were just decorations.
As the uploader of this article, I must ask for your forgiveness, as I have not been able to format it to make it fit exactly on the page. I beg the support of the moderators to help me formatting this article, or explaining me how to do it. Thank you very much.
My best regards
Wow what a great reference
I would like to thank you on behalf of all of us for posting this extremely valuable article. Another huge thanks to Mr Abel Domenech who has been so generous with his time in writing this essay and making all this somewhat esoteric information freely available to readers who do not speak Spanish.
If I may indulge myself a little, I would like to recommend, as the definitive reference on the subject, Mr Domenech's wonderful book, Dagas de Plata, to anyone who is interested in Creole knives. Whilst it is at the present only available in Spanish, nevertheless, its many superb illustrations alone will convey invaluable information and with the aid of digital translators it is possible to obtain a rough, but useful translation.
I´m sorry, I resized the photographs to edit the posts, and make the whole text and images to fit the monitor, but the forum´s software does not permit me the edition. We will need to wait for support.
How very exciting! Many many thanks to you both for sharing this.
With your & Mr Domenech's permission, I will prepare a static html page with this essay and link it from the main page.
I have derived many hours of pleasure from Mr Domenech's excellent book, although it is somewhat slow going for me with only a couple years of college Spanish.
I have been meaning to send Mr Domenech pictures of the very first "gaucho" knife I obtained (when I was still in college in the early 1970s). Although the silverwork is "rustic' compared to most of the others, it remains my favorite and clearly shows signs of having seen a lot of use. I will start a fresh thread for that...
On the contrary, Mr. Lee, thank you very much for this honor. It is Abel Domenech who has all the merit, I´m just a channel, and as member of this forum I was not less obliged.
You should writte to Abel, he is a very open person, and he would be delighted to have a conversation with you about this subject, in which we have a shared interest.
The most simplier gaucho knives are those who have more history, as they have been used on the work...or on the fight. I would be pleased to help you in your translations, anytime you need it.
My best regards
I'm also going to link this to our "Classics" page!
I love this thread but I have one request. Can the pictures be resized for easier viewing and reading of this wonderful thread?
I have begun working on a static page with images sized to a width of 1024. This should be up later this weekend.
FANTASTIC referance! :)
Thank you for posting it!
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