Spotlight: The Ballock Dagger
An article by Jason Elrod
During the Middle Ages there were five main types of daggers. Each dagger was differentiated from the other types by the shape of its hilt: quillon dagger hilts had sword-like guards and pommels; baselards had "I"-shaped symmetrical hilts; rondel daggers had round plates in place of the pommel and/or guard; ear daggers had two protruding discs in place of the pommel; and ballock daggers were characterized by two round lobes in place of the guard.
First appearing on continental effigies around 1300-1350, the ballock dagger has one of the longest usage life spans of the five main types of Medieval daggers. On the continent it continued to be used throughout the 16th century, while in England its form persisted into the 17th century as the dudgeon dagger. Only in Scotland, as the Scottish dirk, did the ballock dagger style continue to be used throughout the 18th century.
Ballock dagger blade styles varied considerably. One of the first and most common forms was a single-edged, triangular section blade that tapered evenly from hilt to point. The blade was sometimes reinforced for piercing with the end becoming quadrangular near the point. These styles seem to have persisted throughout the dagger's considerable lifespan. By 1400 an evenly tapered double-edge blade became popular and by 1450 the double-edge blade became slender with a thick diamond cross section that sometimes included a ricasso. This later style continued throughout the 16th century with the diamond cross-section becoming so thick that it could almost be considered four-sided. These four-sided blades are the most frequently found form on 16th century ballock daggers.
While other blade shapes continued to appear throughout the ages, including asymmetrical designs and some blades that came from cut-down swords, these tend to be seen only on individual pieces and do not seem to be representative of the ballock dagger blade type as whole. Only the single-edged blades with false edges found on 18th century Scottish dirks could be considered part of the family.
In its earliest and simplest form, the ballock dagger hilt was made of a single piece of hardwood such as ebony, rootwood, briar, heather root, or holly wood without any metal parts. The lobes which formed the guard were large and well rounded while the pommel terminated in a bulbous knob. The grip might taper toward the pommel or the guard. Eventually other materials were used for the hilt including horn, ivory, bone, and in much later designs brass and even agate. By the beginning of the 15th century these simple hilts started to include metal plates as reinforcements on the top of the pommel and in between the ballock lobes and the blade. This form continued throughout the lifespan of the ballock dagger.
By the end of 15th century not only had the grips and pommels changed but so had the lobed guards. Some daggers incorporate three lobes at the guard instead of the traditional two. In addition, the metal plate that separated the guard and blade became thicker, longer, and started to droop towards the blade, protruding almost like quillons. In fact in northern France and Flanders the lobes themselves were made of metal and protruded like short quillons. In northern Germany not only were the lobes made of metal but the hilts would also terminate with disc-shaped pommels.
In general, ballock daggers with conical pommels followed the same attenuation as their more phallic brethren. One regional exception would be ballock daggers developed around the areas bordering the Baltic Sea. Called a Poke, Poeke, or Poicke, these ballock daggers were characterized by a phalliform hilt with a conical pommel. The lobes were placed on stems and in effect became short quillons with spherical finials. The whole dagger tapered sharply from pommel to the point of the blade.
The last major variation of the ballock dagger hilt is seen in the 18th century with the development of the Scottish dirk. The basic form continued the trends of the dudgeon dagger including the smaller lobes, though the lobes became even more flattened and elongated. Most examples also continue to have metal bands between the hilt and the blade. However instead of having the general phalliform shape the hilts became capped with a flat pommel topped with a metal plate usually of brass though other metals were used including pewter, silver, and gold. The fluting went away and was usually replaced by complex interlacing patterns or a grip studded with tiny nails. Of course very plain smooth hilts also existed during this period.
The scabbards for ballock daggers varied significantly regardless of the era in question. Sometimes they were simple leather sheaths without metal mounts. Other times they were tooled leather with metal bands for suspension. Still other examples consist of leather over a wooden core. There is at least one scabbard made entirely of silver. Generally speaking later scabbards frequently had metal throats and very long metal chapes. In addition, as early as 1416 and continuing throughout the 16th century, they also frequently had pockets for small auxiliary knives, prickers, awls and other various small tools which emphasize the utilitarian nature of the ballock dagger.
Presented here are examples of authentic ballock daggers, not shown to scale:
A beautiful example of a classical form of the ballock dagger, this piece dates from the late fifteenth century and is French or Flemish.
This example is likely English. It sports a highly complex blade geometry with hollow-ground faces and a reinforced point section. The cylindrical grip terminates in a bulbous pommel end.
A civilian dagger dating from about 1450 with a single-edged blade and large guard lobes
This excavated Flemish dagger dates back to the early 17th century and has a single-edged blade of triangular section. Its wooden hilt shows a tapered grip topped with an iron fillet forming a pommel cap. Another iron fillet fits within the lower lobed portion.
A 16th or 17th century example found in the River Thames, this is either Flemish or English and measures 19 1/4 inches long. The blade is single-edged and of triangular, wedge-shaped section. The rootwood hilt is comprised of a faceted grip, carved nodules, and has an iron cap at the pommel.
This French or Flemish example dates from the second half of the 15th century. The hilt has three basel lobes rather than the typical two. The hilt's arms and pommel cap are of metal.
This beautiful Germanic example dates from the second half of the 15th century. Its graceful hilt arms and decorative pommel cap add visual flair and detail.
A dudgeon dagger measuring just shy of 15.5" long, this example is English or Scottish and dates from 1620. Tradition says that this type was carried by Colonel Blood when he attempted to steal the Crown Jewels in 1671.
Dating from the late 16th or early 17th century, this example is Flemish in origin. The robust wedge-shaped blade has a maker's mark. The wood portion of the grip is a later replacement and is topped with an iron cap. There is a brass fillet at the base of the nodules.
Probably Flemish and from the mid- to late-15th century, this example includes a by-knife and pricker along with a complete scabbard.
A fine French of English sample dating circa 1470 and having a carved bone hilt with silver mounts. This dagger is 17 3/4 inches long with a 12 3/8 inch long blade. The guard mounts ("protrusions") are of steel and sit on either side of the double-edged diamond-sectioned blade.
An Italian example from the 15th century, this piece has a triangular blade and sharply flared grip ending in a metal pommel cap.
This rare Northern European ballock dagger measures 15 1/4 inches overall and dates from the second half of the 15th century. The stiff blade starts at the hilt as a diamond cross-section and flows into a pentagonal section. The barrel-shaped pommel is hollow to accommodate the now-missing grip. The forte is gilt with latten.
Another sharply tapering example, this piece dates from the late 14th or early 15th century and has a long, triangular blade with reinforced point. The hilt consists of a sharply tapering grip, pommel cap, and small nodules. The overall length is around 15 1/4 inches.
A 15th century excavated example, this exhibits a fairly typical single-edged blade form along with its hilt protrusions and pommel cap.
This Lowland Scots dagger dates from circa 1610. It is 14 1/4 inches long and has a 10-inch long, copper-inlaid blade that is hollow-ground with a well-defined triangular section. The octagonal grip is spiral-grooved and terminates in a domed and fluted pommel.
French or Flemish in origin, this 15 1/2 inch long ballock dagger has a mushroom-shaped pommel and brass end cap with an image on it depicting Virgin and Child.
This dudgeon dagger has a blade dated 1605 and bears the motto, "Ask me not for Schame, drink lis and by ane." The overall length is 15 1/4 inches. Take note of the complex blade geometry.
Measuring 18 inches long, this specimen is probably English dated circa 1520. The round-sectioned wooden grip tapers sharply to a flattened disc on which a latten-engraved pommel cap resides. The flattened diamond-sectioned blade is single-edged and has a long false edge.
The hollow-ground blade on this 17 1/4 inch long English ballock dagger is of quadrilateral section with a fuller running much of its length. The wooden hilt has a faceted grip and is mounted with steel and brass fittings.
This somewhat rare example has three basal eminences on its hilt, a flared grip, and a three-sided blade profile. It's in excavated condition and is in quite bad shape.
Dating from the second half of the 15th century, this Western European dagger has a sharpened blade with a triangular cross-section for most of its length until it reaches its needle-like point. The wooden grip is carved and the nodules and pommel cap are brass. This piece is quite large, measuring over 18 inches and weighting 11 ounces.
A fifteenth century ballock knife with carved bone grip and metal fittings, this piece was found in the Scheldt at Antwerp.
A Sampling of Available Reproductions
Arma Bohemia, a Czech retailer, offers a few 15th century ballock dagger designs in their catalog and will also take on custom commissions.
Lutel, another Czech retailer, offers a pair of 16th century ballock daggers, catalogue numbers 10019A and 10019B. Their prices include not only the daggers but also an appropriate scabbard.
Del Tin Armi Antiche currently offers the DT5158 and DT2154 15th century ballock daggers.
Manning Imperial, an Australian retailer that also does custom work, offers at least three unusual forms of ballock daggers on their Web site. One, with an asymmetrical blade (#468), is the subject of a hands-on reivew.
Tod's Stuff of Oxford, England, takes custom comissions and has examples of completed ballock daggers in a gallery of past work.
The ballock dagger had a long history and could be found throughout the British Isles and continental Europe. It was a versatile weapon and tool that could be used both on and off the battlefield. In its simplest and earliest forms it must have been comparatively easy to manufacture which probably led to its widespread use, while its phallic shape must surely have appealed to the rough and ready men of the Middle Ages.
Though still popular throughout the 16th century, by the beginning of the 17th century the ballock dagger's use and production waned. Standardization in military practices and armament along with the rise of the firearm limited the usefulness of the dagger. This, coupled with the 17th century development of the bayonet, almost insured that the ballock dagger would fade from the battlefield.
On the civilian side, style and fashion finally did away with the ballock dagger. It was replaced by the left-handed dagger or main gauche which could be used concurrently with the rapier for self defense and to settle duels. The complex hilts on both of these weapons offered more protection for the hand than the ballock dagger. Only in the more conservative and less progressive areas of England and Scotland in the 17th and 18th century did the ballock dagger style continue to be used in the form of the dudgeon dagger and Scottish dirk.
About the Author
Jason Elrod is a retail manager with Borders Books in Dulles, VA. His sword obsession is tempered only by the knowledge that no matter how large his collection becomes, he still will not be able to use it to send his son to college.
Antique Arms and Armor, by Frederick Wilkinson
Arms & Armor of the Medieval Knight, by David Edge, John Miles Paddock
Complete Encyclopedia Of Arms & Weapons
Daggers and Bayonets, by Logan Thompson
Daggers and Fighting Knives of the Western World, by Harold L. Peterson
Edged weapons, by Frederick Wilkinson
Swords and Hilt Weapons, by Peter Connolly, Michael D. Coe, Anthony Harding, Victor Harris
Wallace Collection Catalogue of European Arms and Armour, by J. G. Mann
Weapon: A Visual History of Arms and Armor, by DK Publishing
Photographs are copyrighted by The Deutsches Klingenmuseum Solingen; Hermann Historica; The Historisches Museum, Basel; The Metropolitan Museum of Art; The Museum of London; Peter Finer; The Royal Armouries, Leeds; Sotheby's; The Victoria and Albert Museum; and The Wallace Collection
Illustrations by Nathan Robinson