Arma Bohemia Sgian Achles
A hands-on review by Chad Arnow
The Scots seem to be somewhat unique among Europeans as they took weapons common elsewhere at the time and made their own unique and easily recognizable variations: the Scottish dirk; its smaller and later cousin, the sgian dubh; the basket-hilt; the targe; and intricately detailed all-metal pistols. Slightly less well-known are knife forms like the gralloch knife (a hunting knife not terribly dissimilar from some rifleman's knives) and the sgian achles.
The term sgian achles, sometimes spelled skeen ochles, comes from the Gaelic for "armpit knife" (sgian = knife, achles = armpit). Edward Burt's Letters from a Gentleman in the North of England (published in 1754) speaks of the Highlanders and this knife:
Some of them carry a sort of knife which they call a skeen-ochles, from its being concealed in the sleeve near the armpit.
Unfortunately, there are few other references to this knife that I've found. The few texts I've seen that discuss the sgian achles cite Burt's quote above. Complicating the picture is the fact that only two knives are even tentatively labeled as sgian achles. One, with an ornately carved wooden grip is considered to be a relic of the Battle of Culloden (1746). The other, from the Royal Museum of Scotland, is dated to mid 18th century and is the basis for this replica. It has a steel blade with file-work on its spine and a grip of antler.
Unfortunately, not much is known about the use of the sgian achles or how they were worn. But, as the name implies, it was likely meant to be concealed under the jacket, giving it either a sinister connotation or making it a weapon of last resort (or both).
Czech Republic-based Arma Bohemia has been supplying reenactors since 1995. While they may make some items in their own shop, most items seem to be farmed out to various small smithies. Jakub Malovany, Arma Bohemia's co-founder, takes the orders and handles dealing with the smiths and scabbard makers. While Jakub was always perfectly pleasant to deal with in emails, there were delays in responses that were longer than I would prefer. It could simply be a difference in culture, as most Americans (for better or worse) are used to more timely responses. Some people may have no issue with delays of a few weeks between responses.
This order overall did not go as smoothly as I would have liked. It was scheduled to be finished around the first of the year. In February, I received pictures of the replica, which was not very close when compared to the original. I immediately noted concerns with the overall size, handle shape, blade shape, and the lack of file-work on both sides of the blade. In April, I received pictures of the knife with its newly-finished sheath. The only change to the knife from my February complaints was the addition of file-work to the other side of the blade. I noted my issues with it again, at which point Jakub decided to have a new one made. Consequently, the knife in this review is the second version they created. The sheath is the one made for the original, remolded to fit the second one. It would have saved time had my objections been given more weight in February, prompting the knife to be remade two months sooner.
Measurements and Specifications:
Replica created by Arma Bohemia of the Czech Republic.
The blade has a very acute point that, under very severe use, might break. The original (see above) may have suffered from the same issue as the very tip of its point appears to have broken off. I don't see it as any more an issue than any pointy knife or sword faces.
The blade is .22 inches thick at its base and tapers in thickness to .6 inches. The weight and balance make it very handy without lacking authority. It has a relatively sharp working edge and the spring steel of which it's made should hold that edge fairly well.
Fit and Finish
The grip is nicely shaped (much of the credit must go to the deer, of course) and the bolster and pommel plate mate very well with it. The entire assembly is very solid. The tang passes through the grip and is peened over the pommel plate. In addition, epoxy was used to help secure things.
The black leather sheath envelopes the blade and lower part of the grip. It is stitched up the back and its face features Celtic knotwork. A long leather thong makes it easy to tie to a belt. Though it was originally made for the first knife Arma Bohemia made, it fits this second knife surprisingly well.
Dealing with Arma Bohemia was not without its frustrations for me. Nevertheless, their products have yet to disappoint me in any way (this is the third knife or dagger I've seen from them). I would order from them again, though I'd be more likely to order one of the numerous in-stock items their website lists. I'd consider another custom order, too, though I'd have to adjust my expectations for communication.
While there were some bumps in the process of getting this knife, I'm still very pleased with the results. It's attractive, solidly-built, and should handle any task its historical inspiration would have. I'm thoroughly pleased with the end result.
About the Author
Chad Arnow is a classical musician from the greater Cincinnati area and has had an interest in military history for many years. Though his collecting tends to focus on European weapons and armour of the High Middle Ages, he enjoys swords, knives and armour from many eras.
Scottish swords and dirks: An illustrated reference guide to Scottish edged weapons (Stackpole arms and armour), by John Wallace
Scottish Dirk, The: Historical Arms Series, No. 26, by Forman, James D.
Photographer: Chad Arnow