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.