A dagger (from Vulgar Latin: 'daca' - a Dacian knife) is a double-edged knife used for stabbing, thrusting or as a secondary defense weapon in close combat. In most cases a tang is placed along the center line of the blade.

Much like battle axes, daggers evolved out of prehistoric tools. They were initially made of flint, ivory or even bone and were used as a weapon since the earliest periods of human civilization. The earliest daggers appear in the Bronze Age, in the 3rd millennium BC, predating the sword, which essentially developed from oversized daggers. Although the standard dagger would at no time be very effective against axes, spears or even maces due to its limited reach, it was an important step towards the development of a more useful close combat weapon: the sword.

Celtic dagger
Celtic dagger
A variety of daggers
A variety of daggers

However, almost from the very beginning of Egyptian history, daggers were adorned as ceremonial objects with golden hilts and later even more ornate and varied construction. Until recently military officers wore ceremonial daggers as a symbol of power and soldiers are still equipped with combat knives.

In any case knives and daggers were always considered secondary or even tertiary weapons. Babylonians, Greeks, Spartans, Persians, Romans, Vikings and crusaders all mainly fought with pole weapons, swords and axes at arm's length if not already utilizing bows, spears, slings or other long range weapons. Roman soldiers were issued with a pugio.

The dagger is symbolically ambiguous. It may be associated with cowardice and treachery due to the ease of concealment and surprise someone wielding one could inflict on an unexpecting victim — many assassinations are supposed to have been carried out using one. The most famous victim of all is certainly Julius Caesar, who suffered from 33 stab wounds from irate members of the Senate. On the other hand, the dagger may symbolically suggest a determination to courageously close with the enemy.

From the year 1250 onward, gravestones and other contemporary images show knights with a dagger or combat knives at their side. The shaft and blade shapes began to resemble smaller versions of swords and led to a fashion of ornamented scabbards and shafts in the late 15th century.

The increasing sophistication of sword fighting and a prevailing sense of chivalrous honour caused knives and daggers to lose their popularity as weapons in medieval times, only to regain it during the Renaissance in the form of the Stiletto, which proved to be very effective against the plated body armor popular at the time.

In that age, the books which trained for the use of weapons prescribed that the dagger would be held in the hand with the blade pointing from the heel of the hand, and used by downward jabs. This would differentiate a dagger wound from that of a sword. A sword wound was noble, and as the possession of swords was limited to aristocrats could only be caused by one of them. Murder by dagger thrusts was ignoble, and could be done by commoners or vengeful aristocrats who wished to remain anonymous. This is why a group of political murders is called Night of the Long Knives, although daggers were not literally used.

With the development of firearms, the dagger lost more and more of its usefulness in military combat; multipurpose knives and handguns replaced them. However, beginning with the Napoleonic Wars, the American Civil War and World War I, another form of dagger - the bayonet - was used to turn rifles into spears by mounting them on the barrel.

Daggers achieved public notoriety in the 20th Century as ornamental uniform regalia during the fascist dictatorships of Mussolini's Italy and Hitler's Germany, but dress daggers were used by several other countries as well, including Japan. As combat equipment they were carried by many infantry and commando forces during the Second World War. British commandos had an especially slender dagger, the Fairbairn-Sykes fighting knife, developed from that used in Shanghai. U.S. Marine Corps Raiders carried a similar fighting dagger, and others were fashioned for American forces and their allies from cut-down WWI Patton sabres.

Although not technically a dagger, the rondel, a stabbing weapon with a circular, triangular or rectangular cross-section, is commonly included in the term.

See also

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