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I've always understood it to be a long Scottish knife, almost always single-edged, intended as a secondary weapon and often employed in the left hand in conjunction with a targe ( a small, round shield that frequently bore a long spike in the center) while the right hand employed a sword.
It also seems to be frequently applied to daggers with thin, triangular or diamond shaped blades (in cross-section) of the misericorde / poniard / stilletto variety.
If you look at most state laws some people would have you believe it applied to any double-edged knife. Pure nonsense.
Corduroy, The single edged Scottish blade is the one I always thought to be correct, but rarely heard. It is usually the 2nd version that I hear and it has come from purported experts on edged weapons. Thank you.
Historcally, and most accurately, dirks are of the Scottish variety that Corduroy so adequately described. The term has been mutated over the last few decades into a misnomer that usually includes daggers and long fighting knifes. This is a direct result of goofy lawmakers using improper language to describe something that they know little about.
[This message has been edited by fenixforge (edited 12 May 1999).]
While by all apearances the term "dirk" seems to have originated in Scotland, it was quickly adopted as a name for any number of weapons, typified as a single-edged, drop-pointed knife suitable for thrusting.
It is the "stabbing" part that gets the lawmakers, who couldn`t find their asses in the dark if they used both hands, to classify a double-edged, or in deed anything capable of stabbing or piercing, as a dirk.
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I follow the reasoning regarding the Celtic origins of the term, "dirk", but I do want to ask how it got from there to what I have seen as the "Naval Dirk" or "Midshipman's Dirk". Such references go back at least as far as the Napoleonic Wars and far precede any legal terms. As an aside, the Midshipman's Dirk appeared in the recent "Hornblower" series on A&E tv.
Interestingly the early scottish dirks are usually marked Solingen. It seems that the frugal scots, unable to produce quality steel themselves, imported broken and damaged swords from the continent and reforged them into dirks. This accounts for the fact that most early dirks (pre 1800) were single edged.
During the Victorian period the double edged dirk with the canted pommel began to be produced by Sheffield knifemakers. These became very ornate compared to the original Scottish dirk.
There are several definitions; it's almost as bad as "bowie knife." The one I like is a symmetrical blade like a dagger but single-edged.
In the US navy (maybe others are the same for all I know) officers wore swords with dress uniform and common sailors didn't, but a midshipman is, in Kipling's phrase, "neither fish nor fowl," so he wore a "midshipman's dirk." A midshipman's dirk can be just about any shape; some are double-edged and some are even curved. Most of them are fancy miniature swords, as highly decorated as dress swords, just smaller.
I think US naval officers still occasionally wear swords with full-dress uniform but the midshipman's dirk is obsolete.
Off-topic nonsense: When the US navy started issuing revolvers to officers they issued Remington rolling-block single-shot pistols to midshipmen -- gotta preserve that status distinction at all costs....
The Remington was debatably a better weapon in engagements that lasted long enough to require reloading a revolver.... The army wasn't going to let anybody say the navy had anything they didn't have, so they ordered a few too. What for? Who cares ... we'll think of something to do with them ... gotta keep up with the navy....