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Naval Dirk: the Gleam of Fame

Hand-to-hand fighting in the Navy required a special kind of cold arms

In present-day Russian Army each graduating student of a Naval School is given a dirk. He will hardly ever happen to put the cold arms in use in real life. The sole purpose of the dirk is to show that its owner has to do with the Navy. On the picture above: Zlatoust steel engraving.

There have been various versions concerning the origin of dirks. Some people believe it to be a kind of a dagger, while others are sure that initially it appeared as a short version of a sword. It would a mistake to judge about it on the basis of modern officers’ dirks, though: being nothing more than just a symbolic weapon, they are of a much smaller size than their combat predecessors. One thing, however, is beyond any doubt: the dirk was used for boarding operations.

Having emerged as a simple technique of enemy ship’s capture with the purpose of robbery, boarding tactics was predominant in naval battles starting from ancient times right up to the decline of sailing fleet as such. After that the ship could be either taken by the winner or sent to the bottom of the sea. The latter was the favorite method of pirates, whereas naval sailors usually preferred taking those captured ships as some kind of war trophies adding them later to their home fleets.

According to one version, it was British sailors who used the dirk for the first time. Using this weapon, they could have pierced the laminated armour of the Spanish soldiers who served as marines and formed the crews of Spanish warships which had been transporting the galleons’ valuables. It was extremely difficult, often impossible, to cut such a protective armour with a saber or an axe and, as one can understand, halberds were of little use either. That is why in hand-to-hand fighting the British would pierce them with rapiers and swords in the most vulnerable and unprotected parts and armour joints.

However, in close man-to-man boarding fights there was often shortage of space even for swords, and daggers and knives of that time were too short. This explains the fact that in the second part of the XVIth century a weapon which was something of a big dagger and shortened sword put together started to gain popularity. This new weapon was the dirk.

Apart from that, dirks of “saber type” with a bit curved one-edged blade are known to have existed. They are believed to have been a backup to the broadsword. And what is more those “saber” dirks became so popular with the British sailors that they even started to be called the “British dirk”, while straight-bladed dirks – the “French dirk”.

One of the dirks of those times which belonged to a British sailor had a straight sharp double-edged 36-cm-long blade which could be used as a thrust, cutting and chop weapon; it also had a special combined guard of a very impressive size. Its owner must have been very much concerned about his fingers. But there were no strict standards concerning dirks and blade configuration back those days – they were, for the most part, custom-made in compliance with the established length requirements, while the shape of a guard depended solely on its future owner’s fantasy. What is interesting, starting from the XVIIth century, all dirks were made with a cross guard: straight (cross), S-shaped, forward-curved and backward-curved, in different figures (for example, in the shape of extended wings).

The dirk is a result of a rather long evolution process. An ordinary “land” sword appeared to be an inconvenient and awkward tool for boarding, and pirates preferred its “shortened” modifications. The illustration: from the US Congress Library archive

Naturally, officers’ dirks were richly decorated, at that, the sheath was also abundantly gilded and strewed with precious stones. However, dirks were made for sailors, too, for at those times they were considered a weapon not just a decoration. The dirk was tremendously popular with pirates, especially the British ones: each and every self-respecting gentleman of fortune was dreaming of providing himself with that desired object. Remember the characters of the “Treasure Island” who never failed to arrange a slaughter with dirks!

Besides, dirks were popular on land as well. Since they are shorter than swords, they were more convenient for carriages; some noblemen would bear them as a shorter and lighter weapon. In addition, they made hunting dirks.

It was Peter the Great who brought naval dirks to Russia having returned from his trip to Europe. One of the Emperor’s dirks which once had been kept in the Museum of Budapest (till it disappeared without a trace as a result of a complete mess which followed the collapse of socialist system) was 63 cm in length – but in the hand of the Russian Tsar famous for his larger-than-life size it must have looked like just a small “knife”. Its wooden sheath covered with leather was decorated with symbols of Russia’s victory over Sweden. Peter the Great introduced the dirk as a standard weapon of Russian sailors. Unlike other Emperor’s innovations like, for example, beard-shaving, this particular innovation immediately received a very hearty welcome and became a firmly-established tradition. It was then when the dirk became the symbol of the Russian Navy valour.

After Peter the First’s death, the Russian Navy entered a pitiful period of decade-long decline, while the dirk started to be considered an ordinary weapon which could be born by anyone who took the trouble: naval and military officers, administrative officials, etc. In 1777, it was given to non-commissioned officers of chasseurs regiments instead of swords, at that, those dirks could be placed in carbines and used as bayonets.

Starting from the late XVIIIth century the dirk was no longer used as a boarding weapon. There were several reasons for that. First of all, by that time it had already been completely replaced by a more efficient boarding saber. Some believe that it appeared as an oversized dirk of “British” type. Secondly, with artillery rapidly and steadily developing, naval battles barely ended in enemy ships boarding – now it was quicker and more convenient to break them to pieces and then sink. Since then the naval dirk turned into a personal cold weapon and started to be perceived by everybody as part of the uniform.

The first standard naval dirk appeared in 1803: it was ordered to be born by naval officers including naval cadets and couriers of the Naval Department. Three years prior, the same decision had been announced by the British Admiralty. The Russian dirk of 1803 had a double-edged blade of 30 cm in length and, quite surprisingly, its hilt was to be made of ivory only! It was intended to emphasize its owner’s high social status. Nowadays, such dirks cost from 10 to 100 thousand US dollars.

A dirk’s price was all too often too high even for nobility and that was why dirks were cherished and passed on from one generation to another which, of course, put a special halo of sanctity around this weapon. Evidently, it was the time when most of traditions concerning naval dirks emerged in the Russian Navy. The sailors were so proud to have the right on bearing dirks that they did not want to give up this monopoly.

This photo of a Russian sailor was first published in the Columbian Naval Review in 1839. The negative happened to be brought first to Colorado Historical Society from where it was sent to the Congress Library. Photo: from the US Congress Library archive.

With the course of time, the length of blades was gradually reduced (the blade of 1913 was 240 mm in length), and it was also permitted to use cheaper materials instead of ivory. Nevertheless, the old dirks of our grandfathers only benefited from it having become even more precious and priceless in the eyes of the Russian sailors; the great value and importance of the old dirks could be compared perhaps only with the “family” swords of samurai.

In 1914, naval dirks were officially given to military pilots. To all appearances, it was due to the fact that aviation started to be called the Air fleet. And when in 1916 dirks became a personal weapon of senior officers and, later, military doctors, the rage and indignation of sailors exceeded all bounds.

The final blow to the prestige of the fleet was delivered by the Provisional Government which ordered to give out dirks to all generals, officers and military officials with the exception of cavalrymen and artillerymen. Those land dirks were of a smaller size, though, and could not boast of such an impressive background as those of naval officers.

The dirk as an officer’s attribute was abolished by the Soviet government. In 1924, there was an attempt to make it a weapon of naval commanding officers but heated internal arguments flared up in the Communist Party between ultra-revolutionaries and the “supporters of strong government and national ideas” resulted in a defeat of the latter. It was not until 1940 that the dirk came back to the Russian (then Soviet) fleet. Along with shoulder straps, it started to be presented to Higher Naval Academies’ graduating students in a solemn ceremony together with diplomas and the first ranks.

After the Great Patriotic War the dirk was once again reduced in size: now its total length was only 320 mm with the blade of 215 mm. Unfortunately, not a trace is left of its former splendour and glory – at present, its hilt is made not of ivory as it used to be but of a similar-colour plastic material. But, on the other hand, wonderful traditions and memories remain…

The source: Round the World