John Gage Cocobolo Ballock Dagger
A hands-on review by Jason Elrod
The ballock dagger or kidney dagger is one of the five ubiquitous types of daggers from the Middle Ages. The other types are the rondel dagger, ear dagger, baselard, and quillon dagger. Ballock daggers derive their name from the phalliform shape of the hilt and the 14th century fashion for wearing it directly in front of the girdle. A popular style, the ballock dagger form spans the centuries and influenced the English dudgeon dagger and Scottish dirk of the 17th century.
John of Gage Custom Knives is an independent cutler and artist based out of New Glarus, Wisconsin. John's work is varied as he has been known to design and execute both historical and fantasy pieces. He also works from time to time with other craftsmen such as Rick Barrett and Kevin Iseli. The ballock dagger supplied for this review is not based upon any particular historical piece but is an amalgamation of various historical examples throughout the 14th-16th centuries.
Measurements and Specifications:
Replica created by John Gage, Gage Custom Knives, of Wisconsin.
With a point of balance barely in front of the basal lobes, this dagger feels very quick in the hand. While neither optimized for the cut nor the thrust, I found this dagger to be a versatile weapon due to the execution of the blade. Single-edged and extremely stiff because of the hollow-grind as well as the 5/16" thick back edge, this dagger should effectively cut most light to medium materials and penetrate most light armour that might come up against it. I was unable to cut or thrust through any medium as this dagger belongs to a customer.
Fit and Finish
Generally speaking, this is a very solid dagger. Nothing is loose and there are no excessive gaps between any of the components. In fact, the bronze banding around the basal lobes is perfectly flush against the grip making it appear as if the hilt grows straight from the banding.
The hilt is made out of cocobolo (heartwood) and is capped and banded with bronze fittings. Cocobolo is a wood native to Latin America and historically probably would not have been used in the hilt of a European ballock dagger. However, one could easily imagine that a Conquistador or other Renaissance explorer might bring back exotic wood from the New World. At any rate, though this dagger isn't based on any specific historical example, John's artistic license helps create a beautiful piece overall.
The cocobolo wood chosen for this dagger has a deep, dark red tinge and is striped with black grain. It is beautifully finished and exceedingly smooth to the touch, almost glassy. The basal lobes are elongated, evenly carved, and well-delineated from the conical grip.
As nice as the wood is, one would want to choose a metal that would compliment the rich colors of the grip. John found the perfect metal in bronze. The red tinge in pure copper would have simply blended in with the color of the wood while bright brass would have overpowered the subtle characteristics of the cocobolo. The choice of bronze is inspired and yet is also a subtle and perhaps easily overlooked detail.
The dagger's blade is peened over the pommel cap. The peen starts out circular but widens to an octagonal shape where the peen meets the bronze pommel cap. While this is a nice detail, I found the execution of the octagon a little rough and uneven in shape. However, the peen is still flush with the pommel cap and this very minor blemish would not even be noticed by the casual observer.
The leather scabbard that comes with this dagger has been dyed a dark red to match the cocobolo grip and has been topped with a bronze chape that matches the bronze on the dagger. The dagger fits firmly inside its sheath. Incised lines and fleurs de lis have been added to the scabbard giving it a regal appearance while the sewn seam has been reinforced with glue for added strength. When the dagger is placed inside, the mouth of the scabbard overlaps the basal lobes of the hilt and covers the bronze band around the ballocks. When sheathed this makes the dagger and scabbard look like one piece capped in bronze at the tip and the grip. Again, this is a nice detail.
If I had to use one word to describe the work from John at Gage Custom Knives, it would be subtle. At first glance nothing about his work really stands out. However, the attention to detail that John puts into every part of his workfrom the blade, to the woodworking, to the scabbardcreates an overall aesthetic that is hard to capture in photos alone. I was impressed enough with John's work that I plan to add one of his pieces to my collection in the near future.
About the Author
Jason Elrod is a retail manager with Borders Books in Dulles, VA. His sword obsession is tempered only by the knowledge that no matter how large his collection becomes, he still will not be able to use it to send his son to college.
I'd like to thank Jean Thibodeau and John Gage for contributing this piece for review.
Photographer: Jason Elrod