Mittwoch, 28. Oktober 2015

The German hunting knife as an everyday tool and apotropaion

 This is somewhat of an edit of an ancient post from way back then. But as is, the times have changed a lot, and so has my perspective on the topic, albeit not THAT much. Still the German hunting knife, a.k.a "Jagdnicker" is one of my favourite styles of knife. The term Jagdnicker is a composite word out of "Jagd" (German for hunt, hunting, Swedish "Jakt") and "Nicker", a substantive of the verb form "nicken, ab-nicken", which refers to a special technique to kill an animal that is  either kept by the hounds or injured (see the picture courtesy of Alfred Fritschi, Kleines Jagdlexikon, J.Neumann-Neudamm Verlag, 1937, S. 120 via


The knife, whilst in history actually served as a hunting weapon, always has been far more than that. Even today it is customary to present it as a honourable gift, as a status symbol in traditional attire or even use it as an apotropaion (talisman against evil). Most commonly to date this style of knife is used in the German custom of "Brotzeit", "Jause" or "Vesper". This term needs some explanation, for it is not just, as translated "snack" or "dinner". The Brotzeit is the very definition of "slow food". Ideally speaking, people gather up in a Biergarten, the famed German - Bavarian institution to share a platter of sausage, cheese, mixed pickles, bread, pig stilts, Weissbier and Schnapps and other delicacies. Often the knife of the traditional attire is used, and it sometimes becomes a kind of show - off who´s got the most precious blade. This has, as far as I am informed, always been the case, and it is a kind of ritual showing off the knives and one´s own aptness in sculpting e.g. the white radishes, which are a traditional addition to the "Brotzeit" into accordion shapes and even wood spirits and the like. ;-). It´s also a good occasion to socialize with the lassies ;-), named "Dirnd´ln". Exactly for this occasion, many traditional cutlery sets came with two forks, and the smaller one was named "Dirnd´l - Gabel" (girl´s fork). This is almost a mating ritual, or so ethnologists tend to say ;-), for this indicated that the man wanted to provide for the girl. Many traditional hunting knives were also etched with Christian prayers or sigills. Popular prayers were e.g. The Lord´s Prayer or wishes for prosperity and health. Popular sigills were e.g.
 (picture from
The Agla sigill was used for magical purposes, e.g. to ward off storms or Evil spirits. Other apotropaic inscriptions were IHS (Iesus Hominum Salvator - Jesus, the saviour of men, or Iesus Humilis Societas - The humble society of Jesus) or INRI (Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum - Jesus, from Nazareth, King of Jews). Another crucial mark were nine crosses and nine crescent moons. There was a saying in Bavarian dialect "Neun Kreutz un neun mo´greif´n alle deifen o´" (Nine crosses and nine moons attack all devils). Also in use was a kind of "rune" (of course, not genuinely so), the "Drudengatterl" (nightmare fence) or Drudenfuß (night-mare´s foot, on the left):

(Pictures courtesy from Peter Pfaffinger:, thank you, Peter!)Drudengatter02

 The Drud or night - mare was a nocturnal spirit, sometimes a supernatural witch making a lot of mischief, spreading animal diseases and turning the butter stale, up to killing people in their sleep. To ward this spirit off, the knife inscribed with the aforementioned apotropaic words or sigills was stuck into the bed post or the door stock. That way the night - mare would cut itself on the blade and flee. The defensive effect was emphasized by the sigills and inscriptions.

Apart from that, the knives were priced tools, but not necessarily used that much except for festivals and holidays; for farming work there were others, more humbly made. In any case, the knife was handed down in the family as a priced possession.

 In a way, this knife is something like that. It´s the knife that my father used for 25 years, an old Hubertus with a 9 cm blade and stag antler scales. Now it´s mine. I will not have any children, but if I had, they would inherit it ;-). This knife, simple as it is, is also a kind of talisman for me. It reminds me of all the hikes and foraging outings and "Brotzeit" - meetings with friends from Hessia we did together when I was a kid, of working in the reconstruction of many houses, when he cut the plaster boards and his lunch alike with it or scraped out his beloved tobacco pipe with the blade, of good times and bad times.

No wonder I have an affinity to this kind of knife, eh? ;-) A part of my collection: Top to bottom:

-Otter knives, 10cm, 1.4110 steel, stag antler with a multi - carry sheath for traditional attire and belt carrying
-Hubertus, 11 cm, rattail tang, 1.4109 steel, with art deco fittings and a lovely sheath for traditional attire.
-Hubertus, 12 cm, full tang, C45 cryo - hardened steel with a surprising edge-holding capability for that steel., Sambar stag antler
-Widder knives, 10 cm, full tang, 1.4116 steel, stag antler, with a beautiful etching of a fisherman on the blade
-ancient Solingen Nicker, 11,6 cm, rattail tang, crucible steel, pre - 1920.
-Rudolph Broch blade with Weberknives fittings, C60, 10 cm, cowhorn handle
-Hartkopf Nicker with a beautiful stag etching on the blued 1.4110 10 cm full -tang blade, stag antler
 This is a knife I made long ago in the garden of my old home by the lake, after a historical piece from the Southern Tyrolean region of the Paseirer valley. 12 cm, chisel steel with a full bainite temper, ca. 59 HRC. riverso. I fitted the Edelweiss badge in, which is a bit controversial. Many people would look at it as trumpery, but as is, I have actually SEEN Edelweiss "in person". I am thoroughly fascinated with this flower and it conveys a meaning to me: While it clings to the sheer rock and prospers in the most hostile conditions, it will die in a cultivated garden. And even in the most hostile environment, there´s still a flower growing, a strange flower, white and pale and ghostly even, but still-only strange and strong flowers will survive in hostile environments. So my trusty readers might see why it appeals to me ;-).
 This is a bad example of a "Drudenmesser". It is made in Pakistan. Oh, so it cuts well, but...
 It´s made from stainless industrial damascus, and it´s even tempered. It was dead cheap, to be true, yeah, and the blade is well made. The mountings are sloppy, but they even have some kind of tribal knifemaking charme to them. So why is it a bad knife?

Now, imagine there´s a very accomplished craftsman. He makes knives like these, with love and meticulous precision and fierce passion. He just so can make a living from it for himself and his family. But he strives to get better, as any dedicated craftsman does.

Now, imagine there´s another guy in the neighbourhood. He looks at the knives the first guy makes and is like "Yeah, I can make a profit from that." And copies the knives to an extent that his master´s mark has the same pixel mistakes as the Drudengatterl from the homepage I just quoted. And makes them in Pakistan at a fraction of the price.

This would not be half as bad if he had talked to the first guy in the first place and would say the truth about his knives. For a knife made in Pakistan, this is good enough, and not everyone wants to or is able to afford a knife for almost half a grand. As I said, the knife cuts well, the Damascus is relatively carefree, it´s a light carry and it´s dead cheap and offers quite a bargain. For a user, this would be fine. But that´s not the point in it all. I personally would suggest to save for the real thing, if you want something for a good traditional attire. But a lie is never good and eventually will fall back upon you.

 This is another knife I made. It´s apotropaic "power" lies in the fact that I have made it from ancient crucible steel I found on the St. Jakes pilgrimage trail near my home. It is selectively tempered.
 Here you can see it shows a kind of pattern in the blade. The steel was presumeably processed by one of the ironworks in the vicinity, ca. 1890-1920. The blade has a hardness of ca. 61 in the edge and 45 in the spine. Typologically, the knife is inspired by the traditional style of Jagdnicker with a semi- integral layout and a somewhat triangular shape, but differs a bit. The bolster I filed out octagonally, and the blade shape is also a bit different. The sheath is made for belt carry, not for a knife pouch in the traditional attire leather trousers.
 ...but as you can see, there are deviant shapes along the traditional design produced, too.
All of them made by Hubertus, my favourite traditional knifemaking corporation in Solingen, but available from other corporations like Linder, too. The topmost knives are made from 1.4034 (420HC), the two below are made from 1.4109 (which is similar, but not identical to 440A). It is most interesting how well even the 1.4034 blades hold an edge. This is due to cryogenic hardening employed by Hubertus and a very sensible forging process with a lot of experience. The topmost knife is one of the first knives I ever got-my father bought it for me in Austria when I was 11 years old. I only once had to reprofile it.

The German hunting knife is a knife that has a strong connection to our cultural identity. Of course it could be used as a weapon, as anything could, even a pillow. But it has strong roots in our history, our religion of state and our social culture. It has contributed a lot to what we are and thusly shaped our future. And while Germans are reluctant to say that they are proud of their culture, because of some aspects of contemporary history (the Third Reich), this culture is very rich, not because of its enclosedness, but in the contrary, due to the plurality of its people. Now this plurality is enriched, or could be, by the many refugees and immigrants. But in order to empower a sane and sensible way of integration and cultural exchange, we must keep in mind who we are and where we come from. The German term "Gemütlichkeit" was exported as far as the USA. If you use a very literal translation, this means "being like one´s mind", referring to a sort of well-being along the requirements of one´s soul. The Jagdnicker and Drudenmesser are but one, but a crucial part no less of at least the oft - quoted Bavarian Gemütlichkeit and find their equivalents in other styles of knife throughout Germany. Being well along the requirements of one´s soul is a thing of personal dignity, and this is something that the German "Grundgesetz" (which, unfortunately is not a constitution of state, since we are no state, but ruled by a trust corporation) assures every citizen, provided he acts according to the law.

This knife can show us who we are, if we ask the right questions. If we know who we are, we can put up to our challenges better. It is an experiment of the mind I can recommend to anyone not sure about the refugee problem; just ask the question what knives do they use and why. Just ask one question at a time-and don´t get me wrong, that´s quite difficult to do, and chance is, you will find many things that differ - but also many things that are similar. We have no choice but to look at the things similar if we want to build the society of our mutual future without compromising who we are and the well-being of our collective soul.

To those who try to offend us, we could answer with a meme I once read in an Austrian inn:

"Buama, wann´s raufen wollts,
Dann lasst´s eich raden,
Die Messa san g´schliffan
 Und d´Pratz´n san g´laden!"

(Boys, if you want to fight, please take council, the knives are honed, and the fists are loaded!" ;-) )

Noone in their right mind wants to quarrel with a Bavarian who´s drunk! ;-)

Kidding aside, I hope to have made clear that this style of knife has deep cultural roots in tradition, and it is those roots that in my opinion could prepare us for the future. If we fear the bad things that could happen, we are wrong. We have to look at the chances of our culture. In fact we have no choice. The knife could give us the "Gemütlichkeit", and this is something we should strive for also for the new citizens of our country; gathering around the table and sharing good talk, and the food we all like respectively. No harm done if one prefers the beef to the pig stilts on the platter-if he doesn´t make a fuss out of it and ruins it for the whole lot.


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