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Frontier Knife-Fighting: A Tale of Four Regions by Mark Hatmaker


Let’s a take a complex topic and render it into bite-size morsels to start our conversation, perhaps down the road we will go into greater depth on this wide-ranging subject. [Wide ranging in both land covered and depths of past cultures re-visited.]

Knife-fighting, knife-wielding, knife-play played a large part in the frontiers of the Early Americas, and to be clear I combine the North American continent with the South American Continent in this estimation.

For our discussion’s purposes we will divide our geography into four broad cultural regions.

One-Our Brothers and Sisters to the North in the Canadian Frontier.

Two-The Early United States and Western Territories.

Three-Mexico as the “Dividing Line” or “Meshing Line.”

Four-Our South American Brothers and Sisters will be considered in toto just as we do in the case of the United States and Western Territories.

To approach in numerical order we begin with the Canadian Frontier, and recall we are only examining knife-fighting and knife-wielding culture in broad strokes—we are making sweeping generalizations that are on the whole true.

With that in mind…there is not much blade-wise to speak of on the Canadian Frontier.

Hold your horses, this is not to say that blades were not wielded, and innovations were not made beyond the Northern Border. I merely offer that, Canada in its frontier days enjoyed a comparatively more mellow time than did her southern neighbors.

Canadian cowboy Henry Caven in his “Recollections” seems to sum up the difference between Canadian and US Cowboys and ranchers, “there was none of the Wild West gunman stuff that the movies portray about the early American west days.”

A carried pistol and a knife were far more ubiquitous in the US counterparts than in the Canadian cowboy. Many historians [Richard W. Slatta among them] surmise that the difference in violence was due to the fact that the Canadian Mounted Police often moved West with the settling of the Canadian Frontier and in some cases in advance of it with far-flung Outposts, whereas, in the American Frontier, “recognized” law often came after settlement, in some cases long after.

Again, none of this is to say that the Canadian Frontier was all hearts and flowers, it is merely that in comparison to all neighbors to the south, they enjoyed a far more peaceful time and had less need of a deep-rooted blade culture.

It is when we get to the US that the knife and gun culture begins to really gain ground. Firearms and blades were ubiquitous from the Atlantic to the Pacific Coast.

The Old West fistfight, a large part of the Western film was rarer than the cinema would have us believe. Knives and or “manstoppers” [firearms] were the preferred method.

There were indeed regional differences even here.

The “chinfight” [fistfight] or “dogfight” [rough ‘n’ tumble all-in fight] were a larger part of the Southern and Appalachian Frontier than the Western Frontier.

The early Appalachian Frontier and the South seemed to revel in all forms of personal combat from unarmed to most any and all weapons. There was even a phase in the early South when a form of knightly jousting was resurrected. [More on these myriad combat games another day.

Knife and gunplay was held in high esteem throughout the US but it is out West where the firearm and the knife enjoyed an almost monopoly in violent skirmishes.

We see a curious thing regarding knife play and gunplay as we move South towards Mexico—gunplay is still rife but the incidents of knife play rise exponentially.

There are many less than PC remarks in journals and newspapers of the time along the lines of, “A Mex would rather gut a man with a blade than face a man down with a gun.”

A single incident points out this, “Go for your choice!” mindset.

Baz [Sometimes spelled , “Bass”] Outlaw [his actual name] a sometime Texas Ranger but more often a violent drunken hellraiser was drinking in a mining salon in Sierra del Carmen, Coahuila, Mexico in 1889. Baz gets into an argument with an also armed Mexican miner [we do not have his name.] They both “reach” Baz comes out with his pistol, the miner with his knife—Baz comes out on the winning side of that fracas.

This leads to the question of why the reach for the blade over the firearm in the face of sure violence?

We’ll come back to that. Let’s move further south to region four for our explanation.

Region Four—All of South America. It is here that we have a blade dominant culture.

The gaucho the Argentinian and Uruguayan equivalent of the US cowboy carried blades, most often the facon, a long sword-like knife, or sometimes the desjarretadera, a working or task knife.

The llanero horsemen of Venezuela and Colombia likewise all wielded blades.

But where the gun took the premier spot in the American West, the blade was the go-to in South America. Knife fights, knife-duels, knife games were common. Often the goal of these “disagreements” was to merely mark up the face of the opponent and leave them alive.

Of course, the violence often went further but the prioritizing of knife over gun and even holding a less-than-deadly goal [face-marking] as an ultimate sign of skill we have more chance for actual pure tempered tactical know-how to persevere.

These knife-duels were often conducted in pulperias [the south American equivalent of the Old West saloon] and were “refereed” by those present.

The ultimate compliment in these regions was to be retobado, or a canny evader.

There is a wide variety of shielding, tripping, sweeping, tangling, and canny evasions in the knife play of this region. [All aspects we will cover on RAW Volumes.]

Let us now go back to Mexico, or Region Three.

Mexico served as the Dividing or Meshing Line where we see the blade-saturated culture of South America meet the gun culture of North America.

It is the region where we have the vaquero meeting of “Mark him but leave him alive” meet the “Kill him now so you want have to kill him later.”

It is here that knife fighting prowess also started including more “gutting,” “hocking’ and other like killing tactics.

The blade over firearm mindset is also likely why the unfortunate Mexican miner reached for his blade against Baz to whom that thought never would have occurred.

The reason for this rising reverence for the blade seems to be because of its geographic and cultural midground a “border between the two Americas.”

Blade culture, blade tactics and strategy is far deeper in the Americas than is usually assumed. Most thinking begins and ends with the Bowie knife or the influence of the salles de armes in New Orleans and other locations. No, my friends, it is a far deeper and more interesting story than that.

Four regions, all of which have surprises up their sleeves, and we are wise to resurrect these surprises and use them to our own advantage.

Many of these advantages will be revealed on upcoming volumes of The Black Box Project.

In The Black Box Project we provide old-school combat nitty-gritty straight from the historical record.

For skinny on The Black Box Project

[For techniques, tactics, and strategies of Rough and Tumble Combat, Old-School Boxing, Mean-Ass Wrestling, Street-Ready Frontier Scrapping & Indigenous Ability culled from the historical record see the RAW Subscription Service, or stay on the corral fence with the other dandified dudes and city-slickers.

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