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What is a Stiletto?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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A stiletto is a type of dagger which is designed specifically for stabbing and thrusting. Stilettos became extremely popular during the European Renaissance, because they could be used quite effectively against armored knights. Assassins in particular favored the use of the stiletto, since this blade is extremely easy to conceal, making it a good tool for someone who wishes to conceal his or her intentions. The shape of this knife has been borrowed by shoe manufacturers for a specific type of high heel which is famous for being extremely narrow and long.

The term “stiletto” is a diminutive of the Italian stilo, which means “dagger.” This term is probably derived from the Latin stilus, or “spike.” The origins of the term suggest that the stiletto may have Italian origins, or simply that it became very popular in Italy. Certainly stilettos were widely used in Renaissance Italy, and the blades may well have originated in this region of Europe.

Classical stilettos are relatively short daggers with slender, tapering blades which appear triangular in cross section. Because the blades do not have a specific cutting edge, they are best suited to thrusting and stabbing, using the sharp point of the knife as the weapon, rather than the edge. The narrow design of the stiletto makes it an excellent tool for snaking into the cracks of armor and clothing to deliver a lethal blow. Stilettos are typically created with a hollow grind, creating a channel in the blade which is known as a fuller; this channel in turn generates the characteristic triangular cross section.

If you're a fan of historical fiction, you may have encountered a few stilettos, or characters with stilettos protruding from various body parts. These blades were extremely common well into the 20th century, especially in Europe, and they were carried by a wide range of people. In addition to assassins, stilettos were also carried by knights, to be used as weapons in close quarters, and by thieves and many members of the military. In all cases, people used the blades for quiet, close-quarters work, and they usually used stilettos with an intent to kill.

In both the First and Second World Wars, the stiletto experienced a brief comeback. The trench knives of the First World War were based on the stiletto design, for example, and many people outside the trenches carried these small but very effective knives as well. Many knife companies continue to produce stilettos for military use, and these companies typically sell similar versions to civilians who feel that they have the need for such a knife.

Historical Index is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Historical Index researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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