Let’s discuss parrying daggers. It came up recently in an interesting discussion about female arms and armor, so it’s been on my mind. I’m not going to go into all the various sundry how-to of sword-and-dagger combinations that can be used, as there is no real definitive conclusion on the subject. Simply put, parrying daggers add an offensive/defensive character to a combat style in many of the same ways that shield or buckler might, while at the same time removing the added force and control of two hands on a sword or spear—also in the same ways a shield or buckler might.
This will just be a quick description of three of the most common (though not exhaustive) types of parrying-daggers from the 16th century in Europe, when this style of fighting was at its peak when paired with a saber or rapier: swordbreakers, trident daggers and main gauche.
Despite its name, the “swordbreaker” was not intended to actually break swords. “Sword catcher” or “thrust breaker” might be a better term for what was intended. The sturdy, short-blade with serrated teeth like a comb would be used in combination with a sword to parry and hopefully trap an opponent’s sword. Most weapons of this era were made from strong, flexible steel and would have withstood most attempts to break them. Swordbreakers, in comparison with other parrying daggers, were a complicated and likely expensive item that weren’t really worth the effort. For these reasons, while they have some mention in fencing manuals and training, they weren’t as prevalent as other parrying daggers.
This has to be one of my personal favorites mostly because this is a case, much to my chagrin, where Hollywood got it right—or at least mostly right. Trident daggers were actually a thing. Two spring-loaded blades are meant to jut out into a trident-like dagger, surprise the enemy, and trap the blade. Disney’s Three Musketeers featured this weapon in the hands of Porthos (Oliver Platt), and while again it wouldn’t have broken a blade, it certainly was a real thing of which we have examples.
French for “left hand” this is a category for literally any dagger used to parry or thrust from the subordinate/off hand. I’m not even certain if it’s considered a historical term. It may simply have become the term de rigueur as meurtrière is used to describe “murder holes” and trebuchet is meant to describe any number of traction slings from around the world. Still, the main gauche would often be a dagger specifically paired with a sword for parrying and counter-thrusts opposite, or together with, the sword hand. From rondels to misericorde to, well, any other style of dagger. There are simply too many to name. But when used as an off-hand weapon, main gauche is the modern term to use. Even the previously mentioned trident dagger is sometimes called a trident main gauche. Go figure!
Two-sword fighting probably needs a good, bleach-based debunking (and perhaps we’ll get to that someday), but dagger-and-sword fighting generally doesn’t. The dagger, opposite its sword counterpart (usually a rapier), was studied and developed as a style of fighting, most specifically during the Renaissance period. This wasn’t unique to European sword fighting, as illustrated by other cultures like the Japanese daisho with a matched pair consisting of a long katana and short wakizashi (although other variations existed).