Inflamed with authority: The knife fighting of the Argentinian Gaucho

Continuing in my presentation of knife fighting traditions, I found these two detailed descriptions of Argentinian Gaucho dagger fencing from the early 1900s. Argentina has a rich tradition of knifemanship, no doubt influenced by its Spanish colonists as can be seen by anyone familiar with the continental literature on the subject, and the art called Esgrima Criolla is still being practiced over there.

In the “Wild West” of South America

Adventurous life and sudden death among the picturesque, fiery and lawless cattlemen of Argentina and Brazil

Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas)

Published August 9, 1925

A real Wild West

By Arthur Mills

While “wild” can no longer be applied to most of the United States, the term is still applicable to most of the immense plains of South America, as Capt. Mills tells in this article. And the author has had abundant opportunity to learn of the “other Americans” through three extensive tours of the continent below the line.

Educated at Wellington College and the Royal Millitary College at Sandhurst, Capt. Mills, after joining the British Army, saw service in China and in France in the First World War, being wounded in the first battle of Ypres. While invalided home, he married lady Dorothy Walpole, a granddaughter of Daniel Corbin of Spokane, Wash. Later he served in operations in Trans-Jordania, and after the armistice he joined the editorial staff a=of the London Daily Mail, for which he made one tour of South America. He is the author of “From Aisne to La Basse” “Hospital Days”, “Pillars of Salt”, a novel, and “Primrose Path”, a collection of short stories.

Though any day in a civilized country one may read in his daily paper of the exploits of gunmen, of the hold-up of a bank or jewelry store, of killings, the great cattle plains in the heart of south America are one of the last parts of the world where life as it is lived is still really wild.

I have traveled over these plains, sat under the shade of an ombre tree watching the gaucho cattlemen play taba, seen them “tame” a potro (wild horse) in an hour, stood on the corral while they worked the wild zebu and crafty crillo steers, sat around the campfire eating in my fingers my share of the roasted sheep, sucked from the sociable mate bowl, drunk the fiery cana.

A tense situation

In the Southwest, I gather, a man gives his enemy a chance; he warns before he shoots. In Argentina a man never draws gun or knife unless he means to kill. To point your gun at a man in Argentina is a deadly insult. If you don’t shoot him then, he will shoot you later.

Actually the knife is the favourite weapon in Argentina: an ordinary long knife, carried in the belt, with which the men eat, skin their meat and kill each other. As a man’s longevity in the Southwest used to depend on his quickness on the draw, so it does in Argentina today. The following scene may instance this:

A cowboy came to work on Monday morning with the fiery cana spirit still burning in his veins. He had long had a grudge against his foreman – a black eyed, wiry Correntino. The two came to words in the corral. They stood facing each other eye to eye. The foreman’s hands lay idly at his side: the cowboy’s right hand was near his knife. It was a tense and grisly moment: with one man inflamed with liquor and the other in authority, blood was sure to flow.
Cowboy collapsed

Suddenly, the cowboy drew his knife. Now knife fights can best be measured in fractions of seconds. Yet in the fraction of a second that passed, all sized the situation up. As the knife was being drawn on him, The Correntino foreman stood motionless. It must be that he had left his knife behind. What madness was this that he had entered into an argument with an armed cowboy, drunk on cana, and bearing a grudge against him? He would lose his life assuredly.

The drunken cowboy’s arm went forward as he struck. It was an appalling sight to see, as it always is when one man knife another, in this case more appalling than ever with the Correntino standing there helpless.

And then – just as it seemed the cowboy’s knife would enter the Correntino’s body- something happened: so rapidly that it was difficult to see the detail. The cowboy, the point of his knife a bare fraction of an inch from the other’s body, sagged forward and collapsed in a heap at the Correntino’s feet. The Correntino was seen to bend and calmly wipe his knife on the grass, put it away and walk out of the corral.
A short and fatal thrust

It was light sleight of hand. Somehow, perhaps from his sleeves at the moment the other attacked him, the Correntino had drawn a knife. Using a thrust that traveled no more than a few inches, as often the decisive blow in a boxing match will do, he had placed his knife with perfect accuracy in his assailant’s heart as the latter struck at him. That foreman was one of the finest knife fighters in the district, which was one of the reasons he held this job.

So much for the informal fights among the cowboys, which are of such frequent occurrence that at most of the cattle-town drinking booths a man must hand down his weapon across the counter before the barman will serve him with liquor. In this way, on a Saturday afternoon, a row of knives and guns may be seen upon the shelf behind the bar. If a man is unwilling to part with his weapon he must stay outside and be served through iron bars.

But sometimes fights are staged in more orderly lines. They then take on the dignity of duels. The men face one another, each with poncho wrapped round his left arm, and his heavy rawhide riding whip in his left hand. Knife held in the right hand flat in the palm, some inches of the blade projecting. They circle round one another watching for an opening, on guard with riding whip and cape.
“Laming” an opponent

The point of aim is invariably the enemy’s stomach and, the target found, a quick upward rip ends the matter. Very occasionally an artist in knife fighting will try only to disfigure, by slicing at his opponent’s nose or face. If he succeeds, the other will become what is known as “lame”, just as the cowboys talk of a steer or horse, and an object of ridicule among his fellows.

The fighting as I have tried to show, is mostly among the men themselves and a foreigner may go among them unmolested.


The gaucho’s knife

Weapon which the Argentine Plainsman wields with surprising skill

Evening Post (Charleston, South Carolina)

Published August 2, 1906
The Argentine gaucho is not comparable with the North American cowboy in the handling of stock, but the former makes up for his deficiency in another way, he has no peer on earth in the handling of a knife. It is a common thing on the pampas to say of a gaucho that he was born with a knife in his hand. I think this is somewhat exaggerated, says a correspondent of the Low Angeles Times. Nevertheless I have often seen babes scarcely out of arms playing with knives half as long as their bodies and when a child once takes to carrying a knife it never leaves him. To a gaucho his knife is weapon, implement, instrument and utensil, and things another man would need a score or more of different contrivances to aid him in performing the gaucho accomplishes with his knife alone.
Though I failed to see a genuine deed in earnest, fight to a finish between two of these knife experts, often – night after night. In fact, when work is over, it is the principal diversion- I saw them pair off and fight one another to a standstill with all the fury of the real thing, except that the knives remained sheathed in order to prevent serious injury. I was told repeatedly that the anger and jealousy aroused in these friendly contests more often than not lead to bloodshed. I am somewhat in doubt as to the truth of this statement. However, for the scores of fights of this kind that I saw were as clean cases of give and take in the proper spirit as I have ever seen in boxing, fencing or wrestling contests at home or anywhere else.

Whether the bout be friendly or for blood the method of procedure is much the same. The men face each other with their knives in their right hands and their closely folded ponchos thrown across their left forearms. In action the knives are usually held with the points inclined downward. Each man keeps his weapon constantly in motion in order to deceive his opponent as to the exact moment he is going to strike. The parry of a thrust is similar to that in rapier play, but the thrust itself is more often downward than horizontal or upward, for reasons I will endeavor to make clear in a moment. If a thrust fails to be parried with the knife the folded poncho is brought into play as a shield, for which purpose it serves better than one would ever imagine.

The gaucho prizes his poncho second only to his knife, and he would no sooner think of parting with one than the other. As he values the knife the more highly for every opponent it has killed or disabled, so the more store he sets by the poncho for every additional time it saves him from death or disability. The knife ordinarily has little to show for the fights it has been through, but the poncho rarely comes unscathed from a mixup: hence it is that, as a gaucho will never sew up a knife or bullet hole in his poncho, nor likewise will discard it while there is enough unbroken warp and woof left to hold it together, those of some of the seasoned and belligerent old swashbucklers that one meets would put a historic battle flag to shame on the score of rags and tatters.

There is no etiquette in regards to above and below the belt thrusts in knife play or the pampas; in fact of the two the latter is the more popular- with the giver, of course, I mean. The result of a below the belt cut or thrusts is not a pretty thing to at by any means, but from the point of effectiveness it is decidedly the best stroke in the game. It is very easy to speak of stabbing a man to the heart, but to actually do it, particularly with a broad bladed knife, or anything in fact, but a thin stiletto or rapier, is quite a different matter.

Steel blades and bones do not mix any better than oil and water, and it takes a very strong man to drive a knife through another man’s ribs. The ribs are placed where and as they are as an armor to protect the heart and lungs. Your real knife man- I mean the man who fights for his life with a knife, unhampered by tradition or convention- recognizes this fact: hence it is that the gaucho thrusts downward instead of upward.

The danger zone encircling the gaucho with a knife in his hand is by no means limited to the circle he sweeps with extended arm. I am not sure just how far it does go, and still less have I a desire to find out. I have small skills with the revolver: yet were I able to do the regulation expert’s stunt of blotting out the spots of a ten spades at a dozen paces I would still feel very shaky indeed at taking my chances on a draw and let go at the same distance with a gaucho and his knife.

I have in mind a machinery expert from the states- a crack shot- who had trouble with his Argentine maquinista, had an even break on the draw at twenty-five or thirty feet, and was retired from action by a knife through his shoulder before his revolver was clear of its holster. From this wound he was confined a month in the British hospital in Buenos Ayres; yet, good sportsman that he was, so impressed had he been by the cleverness of his antagonists’ performance that he refused to appear to prosecute the charge against him, the maquinista going free from lack of evidence.

To end this article with a different type of source, here is a fairly realistic dueling scene from a 1949 Argentinian movie called “Historia del 90”.

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