A Resource for Historic Arms and Armour Collectors
Windlass Steelcrafts Brass-hilted Rondel Dagger
A hands-on review by Chad Arnow
The medieval weapon smith was a far more adaptable creature than one might suspect. His (or very occasionally her) goal was to create new and innovative ways to help their customers defeat their enemies and more importantly, survive. In dagger blades we see a wide variety of attempts to balance general purpose usage with pure battlefield ability, with the influences of fashion never far away.
While traditional wedge-shaped single-edged blades and two-edged blades of flattened diamond cross-sections were always popular, more and more creativity in blade shape emerged as plate armour flourished. Daggers featured combinations of these old blade shapes with elements seeking to improve their thrusting ability. I find two examples particularly striking.
A ballock dagger in the The Royal Armouries, Leeds, sports a blade that begins as a traditional single-edged blade with a wedge-shaped section but quickly transitions to a stout diamond cross-section. This asymmetrical blade may look strange to the modern eye, but it is a prime example of the innovative spirit of the weapon smith.
A rondel dagger dated after 1400 in the Museums für Deutsche Geschichte in Germany has a multi-fullered blade. A cutting edge sits between a thick and strong ricasso and a stout reinforced tip. This unconventional cross-section is another great example of an attempt to balance different needs: cutting and thrusting.
I was first introduced to replica weapons through Museum Replicas Limited's (MRL) catalogue in the early 1990s. At the time, they were mostly a reseller of items made by Del Tin Armi Antiche and Christopher Poor (of Arms & Armor). Widespread consumer use of the Internet was still several years away and, for many of us, MRL's products were all we knew. In fact, my first quality swords were Del Tin swords purchased through MRL.
When MRL was acquired by Windlass Steelcrafts of India in the mid 1990s, they underwent a change. Well-respected models by Del Tin were replaced by Windlass copies of questionable construction and durability. Many new items were also introduced and suffered from the same design and quality control issues. Like many customers, I was burned by repeated poor purchases and vowed to never buy Windlass again.
In recent years, though, MRL has seen a bit of resurgence. The reports of poor construction have dropped markedly. Windlass has also introduced many unique models not covered widely (or at all) elsewhere in the market and has priced the majority of their items under $300 US; many are under $200. This has resulted in more and more collectors seeking out their products.
MRL has offered many rondel daggers throughout the years, so I was not surprised in late 2006 to see a new rondel dagger offered in their catalogue. I was surprised, though, to see the complex blade cross-section and what appeared to be a decent amount of detail in the hilt.
Measurements and Specifications:
Replica created by Windlass Steelcrafts of India.
According to one of MRL's customer service representatives, the Brass-hilted Rondel dagger is based on an original housed in the collection of Rome's famed Castel Sant'Angelo. To my eye, though, it appears to be a simplified version of the dagger mentioned above (housed in the Museums für Deutsche Geschichte), down to the multiple blade fullers and the pattern of the filework on the grip. Perhaps there is a similar dagger in Rome.
If it is indeed based on the German example, there are some obvious differences. The first is the reproduction's size. The German dagger is a shade under 16 1/2 inches in total length and its grip and rondels together are a little over 4 inches long. The blade is around half an inch wide. Comparing these numbers to the statistics below will show that the MRL dagger is longer in the blade and the grip and the blade is about twice as wide at its base. In looking at several other all-metal rondel daggers, it would appear that the MRL version is much larger than average.
Another obvious difference would be in MRL's use of brass for the grip. While there are a handful of 15th century rondel daggers that use brass (or latten) for their rondels I have not run across any rondel daggers with solid brass grips (though I know of a very different 14th century example with grip and rondels made of bronze). The use of brass here may be a concession to cost, as brass is likely cheaper to cast and finish than steel.
As the statistics above show, this dagger is no featherweight; however, its point of balance lies somewhere in the rondel between the grip and the blade, keeping the dagger from feeling blade-heavy. In fact, it feels solid and authoritative. The shape of the grip is somewhat unusual, as it gets wider as you approach the blade. The grip's cross-section (for much of its length) is a flattened hexagonal section. On each side the two long faces meet in an acute corner that would be irritating to the hand if they didn't naturally fit into creases in my hand when the edge is aligned where I want it to be.
I do think a more appropriately sized dagger would handle even better. Losing an inch or so from the grip and about that much from the blade would help, as would narrowing the blade.
The thick cross-section makes for a strong thrusting blade. Unfortunately, it compromises the blade's cutting ability. The blade is too thick where the edge's bevels begin for the edge angle to be easily sharpened.
In thrusting tests it was easy to make the point go where I wanted it to go. The point is quite stout and its reinforced shape makes it dangerous even when the blade is unsharpened. The tip stood up to a dozen or so hard thrusts into a cabinet wall, penetrating up to 3/8 of an inch with little effort. On a whim I tried thrusting at a stationary metal object (an old broken metal-cased network hub). The tip made a very small hole in the metal, though it sustained very light damage in the form of a miniscule burr to the tip. The damage was easily fixed with a few strokes of a file. As our ancestors did not go to battle clad in cabinetry or computer hardware, the relevance of these tests is, of course, debatable.
Fit and Finish
The rondels are not entirely symmetrical in thickness and exhibit some waviness in their overall shape. The grip itself features a cast look that, while not bad overall, presents a more washed-out appearance than crisp period originals.
I believe the blade to be well done, especially in light of the dagger's sub-$100 cost. There are four fullers on each face of the blade: one long one running parallel to the back edge and three on the ricasso. Of those three, two are of the same width while one is wider. On my example, the wider fuller on one side wasn't evenly ground. The transition to the four-sided tip was very cleanly done.
The polish level on hilt and blade are very bright, enhanced by the protective layer of lacquer. My personal preference is for a more muted, period appearance. One side of the blade bears the Windlass stamp while the other held the dreaded hologram sticker. Fortunately it was easily removed.
When I made this purchase, I wanted to answer a burning question for me: How much can one expect from an $85 weapon? In this case, I was pleasantly surprised. While there were certainly a number of flaws present, I expected more flaws than I found. The dagger's low cost and third-world manufacture create most of these and are to be expected.
My one wish is that they would have stuck more closely to an historical size. While rondel daggers of enormous blade and grip size can be found in period art, surviving historical all-metal examples don't seem to be as large as this one. Making it smaller would have made a more attractive and functional weapon, and likely wouldn't have had a great impact on its cost.
This Windlass Steelcrafts dagger represents a good value. It is solidly constructed and reasonably attractive. It is also a recreation of one of the more unique styles history has brought us and is unique in the production market. Usually the only way to get a dagger of this complexity is to go the custom route. As such, this piece is worth a look.
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.
Photographer: Chad Arnow