We generically term the different types of edged weapons used by gauchos in the past as cuchillos criollos (creole knives). We employ this generic name as the gauchos didn't use just one class of knife, but would employ different ones depending upon their personal tastes, customs, or what they could find or acquire.
The gaucho was a specific 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 no 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 blood of the Spanish with the local Indians and it is generally believed that the gaucho first appeared in those territories of what today is the Republica de Uruguay, on the North bank of River Plate opposite from where Buenos Aires is situated. Gauchos quickly spread across the River into territories of what today is known as Argentina. All those territories were then known as Virreynato del Rio de la Plata and were under the control of the Crown of Spain. There was no division into the present countries of Argentina and Uruguay in those remote times (XVII to beginnings of XIX centuries). Both the gauchos of Uruguay and of Argentina have very similar characteristics in customs and clothing. A somewhat 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' went under several different names during the XVII century, being called changadores, arrimados, amiluchos, gauderios, etc. before being called gauchos for the first time, probably by the end of the XVIII century.
In those early times, these gauchos of the River Plate area had encounters with gangs coming from neighboring territories in dispute with Spain and under control of the Portuguese Crown (presently the southern territories of Brazil), who crossed the frontiers while smuggling, committing robberies, etc. Of course, those encounters were very far from being friendly ones! The gangs of tough Portuguese speaking men were astonished to see the long bladed knives used by the Spanish speaking gauchos, which were too short to be called swords and too long to be called simply as knives. Therefore, they called them "big knife;" "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 adopted the phonetic in Spanish language, as facón.
It has to be explained that the first Spaniards' settlements around the coasts of the River Plate were made around the 1530s and subsequent to their initial failure, many 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 small herds gave rise with the passing 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 in these lands in the following centuries after the first foundations of Buenos Aires.
These huge herds gave origin to a large local industry based upon 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 working as hunters, killers and skinners and also soldiers to protect against Indian attack. 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 markets in Europe.
Gauchos were men of the frontier and recognized no Law, no King, no Patron and they committed robberies and other felonies and, as such, were pursued by the Law. Their services as knowledgeable men of the plains were required 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 by 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, were employed in the Independence and Civil wars and during the war against the Indians, under orders of military brass, politicos or civilian leaders.
These human types known as camiluchos, gauderios and those other names given before that of gauchos all had similar characteristic behaviors, remaining in constant change, adaptation and modification of their clothes, tools, and riding 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. To study an object it is first necessary to arrive at a classification method and to then use a more or less methodic description to allow observation and classification of a particular specimen as such or such variant. We should always have in our minds, though, what we said before regarding the personality of gauchos and their ability to adapt or modify their equipment, including riding tackle and weapons. This is especially important with their knives, because we will always find pieces which fail to fit exactly within the characteristics we hereby show, or to fit well into any of the types named here, though it should be possible to classify most into one of the four basic types we propose.
Real gauchos disappeared by around the 1880/1890s with the arrival of wire fences, the telegraph and the railroad. They adapted, becoming employees under the directions of the owners of estancias, or otherwise they just vanished. Today, the public image of the gaucho is very different from its true former sense; a new, positive image has replaced the bad one the gaucho had in centuries past. The gaucho is now an icon who represents Argentineans, in a similar sense as cowboys represent Americans. Far from his true origins, the gaucho is known today for his riding skills, his knowledge of cattle and the secrets of countryside work, his personal valor and his generosity; everything forming an image coined by a romantic sense imparted by literature and with the forgiveness of the passage of time.
Gauchos were simple poor people; skilled riders and handlers of cattle, they had and required very little equipment. Among the gaucho's tools and weapons were the lazo (lariat) and bolas (a throwing weapon inherited from the Indians). The hobbles were another humble, but important, tool which, used to tie together the front legs of the gaucho's horse, prevented the loss of the horse out in the middle of the great lonely plains. A gaucho without horse, in the middle of those great plains, was a dead man. Then, of course, there was the knife, an edged weapon and a multipurpose tool used almost at any time during the gaucho's 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 upon 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 shape, general design and local customs. It is worth noting that, being persons of little literacy, gauchos called their knives by different names, paying little attention to their true characteristics but using the names they would have heard from their elders. Thus, a knife was a facón for one person, but the same knife may have been called a daga by another. It is also worth noting 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. The present classification, which I propose in my books and writings, is that classification that I have used during the last 25 years and can be considered of rather "modern" usage, though based in the local customs and the most widely accepted morphology of each variant. Some authors accept these definitions as offered while others propose some little changes. When considering gaucho knives, we must always bear in mind that their manufacture was more a result of improvisation in taking advantage of the available materials, than a true cutlery product, as 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. 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. The facón and daga were fighting weapons while the cuchilla and the puñal were multipurpose tools, although the skill of gauchos in handling a long bladed knife for small or delicate cutting tasks would also have allowed them to use their long facones as a common knife if needed. Each of these knives have subtypes depending on subtle design differences, size or regional manufacture, however, such analysis is out of the scope of this article.
Photo 1. A group of puñales and verijeros. The difference in name relates to the length of the blade which, in turn, conditioned the place of carrying.
Verijeros usually have a blade of 13 to 15 cm (around 7 to 8 inches), while puñales had blades of 10 to 14 inches length.
The knives in this picture have handles and sheaths made of silver, some with decorations in gold.
The luxurious silver and gold embellished knives made their first appearances after the 1830/1840s, once the true local silversmith trade was established. In those early years, this type of costly knife was destined mainly for wealthy estancieros (ranch and land owners), high ranking military or rich politicos, and not for ordinary gauchos, who were usually very poor and the owners of very few personal belongings, as previously said. However, the taste for flashy silver ornamented knives, horse headstalls and saddles quickly spread among gauchos and Indians, defining their most prized possessions and serving as symbols of power and rank. So, while both of these human types were usually very, very poor they tried by all means (including trade and robbery) to get some silver into their belongings.
Common knives were handled with local woods, cow horns or antlers of small plains stags. Sometimes, these knives were adorned with coins or small pieces of silver. Later, nickel silver was also used, as well as low quality silver alloys. Curiously enough, despite 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 of good blade length.
Now, let's see some characteristics of each type:
The facón is a thoroughbred fighting weapon. Its long blade, of 15 to 18 inches length, was usually made with a portion of broken sword, saber or bayonet though sometimes it was forged by frontier blacksmiths, usually from old worn tools, like files.
Facones made with military style blades Photo 2. Three facones. The blades are single-edged with wide fullers; two types of crossguards are shown: small and "S" shaped. Photo 3. Empatilladura. A reinforcement has been soldered to the handle-crossguard assembly to strengthen the union of hilt to blade.
Generally present in long-bladed facones and dagas.
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, though sometimes with the form of an inverted "U", or a simple short crossguard. The guards were intended to protect the hand of the bearer during a fight, or to deflect an opponent's thrust.
Two Facones and a Daga Photo 4. Top and middle: Facones. Note "U" and "S" shapes of crossguards.
Bottom: a daga (dagger) with short guard and typical double-edged blade.
An interesting sub-type was the caronero which is a very long bladed facón or dagger (single or double-edged) - almost a true sword - 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 upon reaching for the weapon. Contrary to the popular belief, caroneros were not common or popular among gauchos. They were used by lawless gauchos, militia members or soldiers and only very occasionally by an ordinary gaucho.
Daggers Photo 5. Daggers. From top to bottom:
1) wooden handle with simple silver rings decoration and a double guard with the figures of flamingo heads and necks.
3) interesting double-fullered blade, probably taken from an old sword
4) blade with single central fuller and handle with typical fluted design, a decorative form known as galloneado.
5) dagger with "U" shaped crossguard, and
6) dagger, blade with central fuller.
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 Photo 6. Top to bottom:
1) Facón. "U" shaped crossguard. Note the semi-circular throat of sheath to accommodate the curvature of the guard.
2) Facón with "S" shaped crossguard.
3) Dagger with a double-edged blade, probably hand forged from an old file.
This knife (3) was probably made by Indian silversmith, considering the typically very simple and naive decoration motif.
The cuchilla is a utilitarian type of knife. Specifically, it is a big butcher's knife with a curved edge and a straight back. It is interesting to note that in the Spanish language there exist both the words "cuchillo" (a masculine noun) and "cuchilla" (a feminine noun). Gauchos seemed to find the image of a "pregnant blade" in the curved edge or "belly" of the cuchilla, according to the legend surrounding 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 and no bolsters. Cheap and easy to find everywhere, cuchillas are one of the most popular types of knife in use in the countryside in present times.
Cuchillas Photo 7. Group of Cuchillas. Essentially common butcher knives with full-tang construction, wooden slab grips and blades with a "belly" shaped edge contour and straight back.
The "pregnancy" or fullness of steel felt in the "belly" is reputed to have given the use of a feminine noun to name this type.
An interesting variant of this type is what I call cuchillo de campo (country knife), which was of later appearance, maybe during the end of the XIX century. The cuchillo de campo is also of full tang construction with a slab handle, attached by 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.
Photo 8. Cuchillos de campo. Of more recent introduction, perhaps at the end of XIX century; these types are more popular for use in town.
Interesting variations include examples of high quality construction, like the two specimens shown at bottom of the above photograph having white bone and stag handle slabs.
More common specimens, like the top two, are handled with wooden slabs and have brass bolsters.
Photo 9. Detail of typical construction of cuchillos de campo.
This type is closely related to cuchillas, being of full tang construction, with grip slabs attached with rivets and false bolsters made of brass or nickel silver.
The blade shape is similar to that of puñales. Usually imported from Germany, but also from France and England.
As a knife collector whose personal interests cover several different aspects of the fascinating world of knives, the similarities between two most interesting types of knives, Bowies and gaucho puñales, have never ceased to amaze me. Although the historic, economic and cultural milieu of North and South America followed different roads, the significance of these knives in our respective histories and cultures are of similarly great importance. In fact, the saga of the conquest of the frontier, the conflict with the Indian and the cattle industry are dominant factors in the development of both of the two Americas. Both knives suffered the early menace of restrictive laws trying to control their use. Both were principal and sometimes the only weapons for their owners. But also, they were multi-purpose tools in the hands of settlers, farmers, cowboys and 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 Bowie knives.
Of the several types of gaucho knives used in the past, I personally consider the most interesting type to study (especially for Bowie collectors) to be the variant known as the 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 blade 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 also is the verb used to name the act of receiving a wound with an edged weapon, no matter the actual shape or type of knife used in the stabbing. 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 may somewhat explain the wide use of the word puñal among common people, referring to any kind of knife.
Originally blades for puñales were forged in Germany, Belgium, France and England but the exact story of the origin of the puñal remains a mystery, as does who designed its distinctive blade shape and when it actually first appeared - perhaps in the XVIII century or earlier.
The Spanish influence upon these knives is evident as soon as you compare their 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 and is also probably connected to certain Genovese and Corsican fixed blade knives. 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 elicit 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 and 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.
Puñal Criollo Photo 10. Puñal. Blade length 27 cm (11 inches) with square bolster denoting Argentinean origin of this Boker/Arbolito German blade.
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 an integrally forged bolster or "button" (in Spanish, botón) which reinforces and divides the blade from its tang, the use of "cuts" or file marks on the back of the blade and the presence of some kind of "notch" in the ricasso of the blade.
Integrally Forged Bolster (Botón) and Form of the Tang Photo 11. Detail of a never-used puñal blade, with square bolster, prepared for use in the Argentine market.
Commercial brand Libertad, imported from France by Anezin Hermanos, an importer of Buenos Aires. (circa first quarter of XX century)
Photo 12. Same blade, 27 cm length
These blades have a "rat tail" tang, which remains enclosed within the handle of the knife. The bolster (we call this integrally 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 distinctive square-shape sides. There is no known explanation regarding these differently shaped bolsters and their geographical distribution, except that the rounded bolster ("button") seems to be of earlier appearance. Because of the use of a bolster, puñales never have any type of guard or crossguard.
Rounded "Buttons" Photo 13. Detail of circular bolsters or round "buttons" (botón Redondo o botón oriental). Left to right:
1) Brazilian knife. Blade marked with maker's name and also Rio de Janeiro. Probably end of XVIII century. Made for the southern Brazil market.
2) Knife, probably made in Germany, for South American use (circa beginnings XIX century). No makers markings.
3) Probably German, circa beginnings XIX century. No maker's markings. Notice round bolster feature and Spanish notch
4) Knife of present day making by local silversmith Carlos Canali, following the style and patterns of old knives of the XIX century. The blade is an antique one, probably from the end of the XIX century or the beginning of the XX century, of Belgian origin with markings of a famous and now closed gun shop of Buenos Aires.
Photo 14. Same knives described above, full length and in sheaths. Photo 15. Same knives described above, full length.
Typical Uruguayan and Brazilian "buttons" and sheaths provided with a "button keeper" Photo 16. Top: Puñal for Rio Grande (southern Brazil) market. Blade markings of the well known brand cocoteiro (palm tree), of Belgian origin.
Below: Knife for the Uruguayan market. Blade of famous brand Sol (sun) and Broqua & Scholberg, of Belgian origin.
Notice the Spanish notch on the ricasso (base) of each blade and also note the semicircular extension from the sheath mouth which covers and protects the blade's bolster while the knife is inside the sheath, a feature usually associated with Brazilian and Uruguayan sheaths.
Photo 17. Same knives described above, shown full length.
Squared "Buttons" Photo 18. Four Argentine puñales, mounted in silver, showing their square bolsters or botón cuadrado (rectangular in overall cross section, but with facets replacing what would have been sharp edges, so actually octagonal). Notice also the semicircular notch on the ricasso, used to rest the index finger and prevent the hand from slipping towards the edge when stabbing. Photo 19. Same knives of previous picture. Sheaths completely made of silver or leather with throat and tip of silver.
Trade Marks Photo 20. Detail of the blades of these same knives.
Regarding the use of the file marks on the back of blades of puñales there are several explanations; one such explanation assures that they were used as "cattle counters" (each mark counting as a bead in an "abacus"), another that they served as wire cutters and yet another that they were an edge-destroying device for the opponent's blade edge during a fight. Although I feel that those marks could have been incidentally used as described, I personally believe that these 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?)
File marks Photo 20. Usual notches or file marks on top of the back of blade. Typical on most Argentinean puñales with each brand having their own pattern of marks.
Popular beliefs attribute different uses to these file marks, but in my personal opinion, they were just decorations.
Much has been written regarding the true purpose of the so-called "Spanish notch." 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 "Toledo" marked Spanish scissors and a discussion about the possible use of its "notches" when working with twine. Another interesting discussion on this issue was written by the late noted collector and writer Mr. William Williamson on the 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 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 those Spanish left hand (main gauche) daggers used in the past, as 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 suggests another use to me. For example, 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 an 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 accommodated some quick release retention device, like a small short chain with a ring secured to the belt.
Truly, it is 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 more dictated by their natural instincts, survival desire and personal skill than by formally educated and 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 shows 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, by preventing his hand from slipping onto 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 onto the blade edge producing a severe wound. It is said that this accident led to the use of a guard in the knives subsequently ordered by Rezin. Gauchos used to place their index finger in that cut whether using their knives as cutting tools or as weapons. The finger inside the "half-moon notch" prevented the forward movement of the hand towards the blade edge and it also allows 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, the 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. 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 vessel to contain the typical local hot beverage sipped 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 bygone times were incapable of reading or writing, so they needed the logo on the blade to recognize their favorite brand.
Use of the Knife and the Gaucho Duel
Together with his horse, the knife, especially the facón or daga, was the distinctive tool/weapon of the gaucho, to the point of not himself existing 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 parental guidance. With no education, almost no religion, they spent 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 spent long periods of time in solitude without seeing another human being and their only source of distraction or satisfying 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 by playing cards, or simply paid for those goods with exchange of cow hides, ostrich plumes and other products of animals they had hunted. Pulperias also provided the unique possibility of social distractions, joining other gauchos to drink, to play cards and to talk, or just to play guitar and dance. They 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 their 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 gesture, under this delicate atmosphere, could ignite a dispute and give rise to a duel. A contradiction during conversation, the misunderstood use of a word, an erroneous comment about a woman present in the pulperia, or just about 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 to provoke the challenge of another gaucho. Once the duel was inevitable, 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 from killing the opponent. They just wanted to mark the other, especially on the face. That mark would tell to everybody and forever that the bearer of the scar had lost a duel. But sometimes in the heat of the moment, the excess of alcohol and the rage generated in the fight ended in a fatal wound. One of the gauchos died and this was considered an accident, a disgrace, an unwanted death. The killer was seen with sympathy and was often helped by the onlookers, who considered him as a man in disgrace who was in need of protection and help in escaping from the Law. He often fled to the plains, sometimes getting a home for some time in the nearby Indian villages where he waited till his crime was forgotten or authorities changed. Or, he took this as an opportunity to travel to a far town. Only those gauchos who were known deliberate 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.
Another brutal practice of the time was mercy killing to end the pain of a suffering friend or familiar who had a disease or a severe injury producing great suffering, far from the possibility of a doctor's 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 within the ethic, moral, 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." Estadist, writer and former Argentine President Domingo F. Sarmiento wrote in his book Facundo published during the XIX century: "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."
The common contemporary vision suggests 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 the meat, and the other half fighting duels. This is 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 indeed used heavily, but mostly as tools, throughout the gaucho's long days in the prairie, in hundreds of small and large tasks. The knife was an essential extension of their hands: the single utensil required for eating, both as cutting implement and fork; necessary in the task of cutting small wood for making the cooking fire; necessary in cutting strands of tobacco; necessary for slaughter and skinning of cattle and cutting their meat as well as in cutting hay to make the roofs of their poor houses and making adobe bricks for the walls; necessary in cutting hides to make or repair their saddles, headstalls, reins, and lariats - leather was used in hundreds of things. 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 conception of present-day people.
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 its place as the main personal weapon until the first quarter of the present century. Customarily, gauchos carried their long bladed knives across their lower 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 quickly and ready to cut. In his books published during the 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.) Smaller knives, with blades of not more than 13 or 15 cm and with metal or wooden handles, a smaller version of puñales, are usually carried on the front and are called verijeros. This name of verijero comes from the carry position, on the front near the right side of the belt buckle (rastra) and near the groins, a part of the body popularly known locally as verijas. Argentineans remain fond of owning a little verijero, silver handled, sometimes with silver sheath, and making it proudly shine at a Sunday barbecue (asado). Its 13 to 15 cm blade makes a very practical cutting tool indeed.
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 on the back or a small verijero on the front of almost all modern gauchos while working in the range today. 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, so the knife comes to be 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. In some small countryside towns nobody cares if someone is wearing working clothes and is 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. 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 today only seen in desfiles (parades) during festivities and celebrations, worn by typically costumed men.
In any case, knives remain very popular among Argentineans and in spite of the fact that very few know the true origins and meaning of gauchos, most still associate the word facón with their figure and personality. And creole knives continue to be a symbol of the past, closely related with those fierce, valiant, tough men, proud of their freedom, and remain also as symbol and reminder of more romantic, adventurous and dangerous times.
Abel A. Domenech
- 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.
- Sale of J. Rodgers Exhibition Knives - catalog by Jim Parker, 1988.
- Dagas de Plata - Abel A. Domenech Buenos Aires, 2006.
Copyright © 2008 by Abel Domenech
Gratitude is due to Abel A. Domenech for sharing his great expertise of these traditional South American knives; much more detail and an abundance of illustrations drawing from his lifelong study of these knives is available in his 2006 Spanish language book, Dagas de Plata.
Gratitude is also due to forum member Gonzalo G. for arranging for the publication of this essay.