Worldwide Histories of Knife Fighting

Gaucho knife fighting of the Esgrima de Criolla


The Andalusian legacy

In Andalusian Spain, the use of the large navaja (folding knife) as a fighting knife has been prevalent among the peoples of that region since the 17th century.[7][8] In that part of Spain, sword and knife fighting techniques (espada y daga) were regularly taught to young men as a necessary skill, often passed down from father to son as a rite of passage to adulthood (and in some cases, to daughters as well).[7][9][10] In 18th and 19th century Spain esgrimas de navaja (fencing, or knife-fighting schools) could be found in the major cities and throughout Andalucía, particularly in Córdoba, Malaga, and Seville.[7][8][10] As time went on, these schools began to depart from teaching traditional sword-fighting and fencing techniques in favor of simplified attacks and defenses based largely on the concept of deception, distraction, and counterstrike.[11] Among navaja aficionados, the gamblers or barateros of Malaga and Seville were cited as the most skilled practitioners of fighting with the navaja.[7][12][13] The firmly-established knife fighting tradition with the navaja in Andalusian Spain would later spread to other Spanish-speaking countries, and was known as el legado Andaluz, or “the Andalusian legacy”.[14]

Esgrima Criolla

The Esgrima Criolla (“Creole fencing”) method of knife fighting was popularized by the South American gaucho and his large-bladed facón. Deprived of their ability to wear a sword by various edicts, Spanish gentlemen in South America adopted the facón,[15] together with fighting techniques developed directly from el legado Andaluz,[15] including the use of an item of clothing such as a poncho or cloak to protect the weaponless arm.[15][16] The facón was later universally adopted by the gaucho in Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay and later by men of the rural working class of those countries.[17]
Knives similar in style and length to the facón were carried by a wide variety of South American men who were either prohibited from carrying swords or who needed a more convenient, wearable close combat weapon. In an 1828 account of the capture of Las Damas Argentinas, a pirate schooner carrying a mixed group of Spanish-speaking pirates, the carrying of knives very similar to the facón is mentioned:
“Amongst these [weapons], were a large number of long knives – weapons which the Spaniards use very dexterously. They are about the size of a common English carving knife, but for several inches up the blade cut both sides.”[18]
After the turn of the 19th century, the facón became more of a utility and ceremonial weapon, though it was still used to settle arguments “of honor”. In these situations two adversaries would attack with slashing attacks to the face, stopping the fight when one of the participants could no longer see due to bleeding from shallow cuts.[19]


Eskrima, sometimes referred to as Kali, is an indigenous Philippine martial art involving the use of sticks, knives and other bladed weapons. Like most other knife fighting traditions, Eskrima is learned by constant practice, using sparring encounters between two or more opponents in order to hone a practitioner’s physical skills and mental concentration. This martial art flourished for hundreds of years as part of a society with a blade culture, and the system’s already impressive indigenous techniques were later directly influenced by Spanish and Andalusian fencing and knife fighting systems with the introduction of the angles of attack and the use of espada y daga (the word eskrima is a Filipinization of the Spanish word esgrima, meaning a fighting or fencing school.[20]

Scherma di Stiletto Siciliano

The Italian stiletto, originally a purely offensive weapon used to kill an unsuspecting or wounded adversary, was later embraced throughout Italy as a fighting knife for close combat confrontations.[4][5] The popularity of the stiletto in the Kingdom of Sicily resulted in the development of the La scherma di stiletto siciliano (Sicilian school of stiletto fighting).[5] The stiletto was purely a thrusting or stabbing weapon, and the scherma di stiletto Siciliano accordingly taught fighting movements designed to avoid the tip of the opponent’s blade (scanso). Techniques characteristic of the scherma di stiletto Siciliano include sbasso (bending to ground), in quarto tagliata (tacking to left or right), and the balzo (leap to evade the enemy’s blade).[5] A person skilled in the use of a stiletto would thrust the knife deep into the victim, then twist the blade sharply in various directions before retracting it, causing the sharp point to inflict severe internal damage not readily apparent when examining the entrance wound.[6]