Knife vs Dagger: What's the difference?

Today we take a look at the distinction between knives, which are primarily tools, and daggers, which are primarily weapons.  During the medieval period many people carried a knife on their person, whether they were a peasant, a townsman, or a warrior.  But carrying dedicated weapons was probably much less common in most places, most of the time.  

peasant with knife

A peasant with a knife in his belt

medieval knife

The Arms and Armor medieval knife is a good example of medieval "every day carry"

 As opposed to utility knives, daggers often have a guard that protects the hand, at least somewhat, from the blade of an enemy and that helps to prevent the users hand from sliding down onto the blade during thrusts or struggles over the weapon.  Many daggers feature a cruciform hilt like that of a European sword.  Others, such as rondel daggers, had round discs that served a similar function.


medici dagger

Arms and Armor Medici Dagger, a cruciform dagger


 On the other hand, this distinction between the words "knife" and "dagger" is likely a modern one.  What would have mattered in the medieval period was not what the item was called, but whether it was seen as being primarily a tool or primarily a weapon.  

Koln messer

Arms and Armor Koln Messer, called a knife in German, but definitely for fighting...

Watch the video below for some up close details, and check out our entire selection of knives and daggers here.



Nathan Clough, Ph.D. is Vice President of Arms and Armor and a member of the governing board of The Oakeshott Institute. He is a historical martial artist and a former university professor of cultural geography.  He has given presentations on historical arms at events including Longpoint and Combatcon, and presented scholarly papers at, among others, The International Congress on Medieval Studies.

Craig Johnson is the Production Manager of Arms and Armor and Secretary of The Oakeshott Institute. He has taught and published on the history of arms, armor and western martial arts for over 30 years. He has lectured at several schools and Universities, WMAW, HEMAC, 4W, and ICMS at Kalamazoo. His experiences include iron smelting, jousting, theatrical combat instruction and choreography, historical research, European martial arts and crafting weapons and armor since 1985.

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