John Gage Thuya Burl Ballock Dagger
A hands-on review by Patrick Kelly
The knife is one of man's oldest weapons. After the spear, the knife or dagger was undoubtedly the most common piece of a soldier's kit throughout the ages. Not only was this short-bladed hand weapon a common tool of war, it was also one of the most common tools carried on a daily basis. This is borne out by the many knives and daggers that have been found as grave goods during excavations, dredged up from waterways or recovered from ancient trash heaps. One of the most common knife and dagger designs encountered in the medieval era is known as the ballock. This distinctive form of weapon seems to have appeared sometime during the early- to mid-14th century and carried on in popularity through the Renaissance.
The bulbous swellings found at the shoulder of the weapons hilt lend a phallic appearance to the design and this obviously gives the style its name. The medieval mind did not possess the near-paranoia found in modern sensibilities when the display of genitalia is encountered. As such, it is fairly certain the design was intended as a display of masculinity. Earlier examples of the ballock tend to be simpler and less elaborate in their design. This causes the phallic symbolism to be much more apparent. Later examples, though, tend to be more elaborate in their embellishment so the original reference is somewhat lost. The ballock came in many forms, being mounted with both single-edged knife blades and double-edged dagger blades, as well as thrusting-only designs meant for military use. The ballock style was incorporated into many weapons, both civilian and military, and took many forms, from large weapons with an obvious military application to smaller examples meant as everyday tools or fashion displays.
Since the ballock dagger is such a ubiquitous design from a large part of the medieval period, I have long wanted a representative example in my collection and I have tried many times to obtain one. However, due to the vagaries and idiosyncrasies present in the replica arms industry my numerous attempts were unsuccessful and I had just about given up on obtaining a ballock dagger. Fortunately Gage Custom Knives came to the rescue with a beautiful example.
I first met John Gage during a visit to Albion Armorers of New Glarus, Wisconsin. Before working at Albion John had already become an accomplished artist in the field of decorative metalworking. While at Albion I saw numerous photos and several in-hand examples of John's work. I was very impressed by the attention to detail present in these items and it was obvious to me that John had a real eye for the craft. During his time at Albion he worked under smiths Peter Johnsson and Eric McHugh. John told me the experience of working with such talented craftsman has been essential to his growth as a custom maker.
During the 2005 Atlanta Blade Show I had the opportunity to examine a large dirk made by John. I was impressed by the fit and finish of this piece as well as the overall stylistic approach. Not long after this, John left Albion to pursue his own work. Then, in mid 2006 I happened to see an in-progress photo of a ballock dagger John was making at the time. I was looking for a companion piece to go with my newly acquired Albion Svante Sword and the style of this dagger made for a perfect fit.
Measurements and Specifications:
Replica created by John Gage, Gage Custom Knives, of Wisconsin.
This dagger does not represent a weapon meant for military use. As such it is rather small and almost dainty in its size. For this particular piece I didn't want a large war-weapon, but instead something that would represent an everyday tool or item of kit for the medieval man. When I inquired as to the dagger's availability John told me he saw this piece as something a man might use to eat an apple while seated beneath a tree on a summer day. It is often difficult to get a real sense of scale when viewing items like this dagger in photographs so I really had no clear indication of the dagger's size when I bought it. However, when it arrived I was very pleased with this aspect of its design.
The piece is quite trim, almost petite, and its grip is swallowed up in my large hands. In spite of this the dagger has a very solid feel about it. It might be seen primarily as a tool but it could also serve as an effective weapon if needed. It may be dainty but it's far from fragile. I've now worn this dagger at several reenactment events and I've found it comfortable on the belt as well as in the hand. Not only does this ballock dagger represent a period correct tool, it also makes for a very attractive fashion accessory.
Fit and Finish
While I had seen a few photos of John's artistic metalworking, as well as a single example of his weapon craft, I was not intimately familiar with his artistic style; this purchase was something of an act of faith on my part. When the dagger arrived I knew that faith had been well-placed. John had earlier told me one of the things he improved on while working for Albion was his sense of proportion. When many makers attempt to recreate period weapons the resulting product is quite often far larger and much more overbuilt than it should be. This is one of the dangers of trying to recreate period pieces from photographs alone, without hands-on study of original examples. This particular dagger displays an excellent sense of shape and proportion. The shapes of blade and hilt flow extremely well together, as does the size of the various components. John's ballock dagger has that graceful sense of flowing proportion often found in original examples but far too often lacking in modern replicas.
The hilt is fashioned from a piece of thuya burl, an exotic Moroccan hardwood. While purists may note this wood is likely incorrect for a medieval ballock dagger its beauty is such that I'm more than willing to live with it. The wood's beautiful grain must really be seen to be appreciated. Photographs simply do not capture the many different hues and designs naturally present in the wood. John had chosen this wood because the original piece of walnut had developed a crack during production. We both thought this proved to be fortuitous since the thuya burl greatly adds to the dagger's aesthetic appeal. The grip's octagonal cross-section makes for a design that is aesthetically interesting as well as quite secure during use and the hilt's haunches are crisply shaped and well defined. The hilt's bronze fittings are quite well done and are excellently fitted to the wood. The execution of the file work on the sides of the pommel is flawless and the octagonal shape of the pommel perfectly matches that of the wood portion of the grip. The hilt's rivet block is fashioned into a cloverleaf shape that is very nicely rendered. One would be hard pressed to find flaw with this dagger's level of fit and finish.
The scabbard is a very nice piece of work in its own right. This takes the form of a piece of leather that has been molded to the blade's shape and stitched down its back with a single seam. The belt loop consists of a single piece of leather that is secured to the scabbard with a bronze rivet. This wide loop allows the dagger to hang securely and comfortably upon the belt. The scabbard also features nicely incised lines along its outer face that are cleanly executed and greatly add to the piece's visual detail, as does the nicely sculpted bronze chape. The scabbard is then finished in an attractive brownish oxblood color. Both the wood of the hilt and the scabbard appeared to have a much redder hue in the photographs John supplied. In reality both possess a much more rust-like hue. This coloring, along with the nice mellow appearance of the bronze mountings, lends the entire piece a beautifully subdued, yet rich, appearance.
As I previously stated, my search for a ballock dagger was a long process. However, in the end my efforts were more than rewarded with this dagger. John of Gage Custom Knives is a man who is seriously dedicated to his craft and I am proud to own an early example of his work. This piece exhibits an attention to detail that has been lacking in many other pieces I've acquired over the years. It also shows a sense of line and proportion that I've found lacking in the work of other makers with much more experience. The fact that this is perhaps only the eighth or ninth dagger or knife John has made makes these qualities even more impressive.
This dagger wasn't cheap, but when we consider that the manufacture of its complex shape involved the use of very few power tools and quite a bit of labor, the cost was more than commensurate. John told me he was forced to overcome several hurdles as a maker during the manufacturing of this piece. As such it represents something of a benchmark in his journey as a custom maker. If this is the kind of quality we see from a relatively new maker as John presently is, we can only wonder what we'll be seeing from him a decade from now.
About the Author
Patrick is a State Trooper serving with the Kansas Highway Patrol. He has been fascinated with edged weapons, particularly the medieval sword, since early childhood. Not only is Patrick thankful for any opportunity to indulge in his favorite hobby, he is also blessed with a wife who tolerates a house full of sharp pointy things.
Photographer: Patrick Kelly