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Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Gaucho's Skill at Knife Throwing

A facón worn at the rear of the belt.

The following excerpt from Lewis R. Freeman's "On the Pampas,”  an article in a 1920 issue of Living Age magazine, describes the Argentinian gaucho's fabled skill at throwing his facón, a large knife carried for fighting and general tasks, much like the bowie.
The danger zone encircling a gaucho with his knife in his hand is by no means limited to the circle he sweeps with his extended arm. I am not sure just how far it does go, nor have I the least desire to find out. I heard, however, a crack revolver shot, a man who could blot out the spots on a ten of spades at a dozen paces, say that he would be extremely reluctant to take his chance at a draw-and-let-go with a gaucho at any distance under twenty yards. An illuminative case in point came to my attention in Buenos Aires. As a class the American agricultural machinery experts sent to Argentina are as handy with six-shooters as any I have ever met. They are mostly Westerners, have used revolvers from their childhood, and their arms, from which they never separate themselves for a moment while in campo, are always of the best and latest pattern.

Not once or twice, but on dozens of occasions, have I seen one or another of these men with his Colt's or Mauser 'automatic,' after a preliminary shot or two to get the range, bowl over a rabbit running at full speed across the pampa. This is good shooting, as will be appreciated by anyone who has had experience of the revolver. Yet the case I have in mind is that of a threshing machine expert from Texas - a crack shot - who had trouble with his Argentine maquinista [machine operator], had an even break on a draw at twenty-five or thirty feet, and was retired from action with a knife through his shoulder before his revolver was clear of its holster.

My own experience of the gaucho's skill in knife-throwing, though not as serious, was quite as convincing as the one I have just detailed. It chanced that a man at an estancia [ranch] I visited was famous for his skill in this particular, and one day I was ill-advised enough to admire the marvelous deftness with which he was plotting out the outline of a human profile upon the woodwork of a threshing machine by chucking his facón into it from a distance of eight or ten feet. He acknowledged my compliments with a characteristic gaucho bow and smile, but assured me that what I had seen was nothing, since it required no exercise of nerve on his own part nor that of anybody else; but if I would do him the honor to walk off about fifteen paces and hold up the little piece of paper I saw on the ground there, he would perhaps be able to show me a feat that was really worth while.

I walked meekly off as directed, but with a sinking heart, for I didn't need to be told that I was to hold that accursed bit of paper up while my blackbearded, careless-eyed friend tried to hurl his eighteen-inch-bladed knife through the middle of it without amputating my hand, and I was never so lacking in enthusiasm for any proposition in my life. Courage to hold the thing up I knew I had -- that was a small matter -- but I didn't want to hold it up, and of courage to refuse I had none at all. Besides, I had admired the fellow's skill, and he undoubtedly figured he was doing me no small honor in permitting me to be a party to his exhibition; to refuse to act the part of a passive foil would be, under the circumstances, an offence unpardonable.

Inwardly, I was in a terrible turmoil, but focussing all my attention upon the parts that showed, I managed to present a fairly unruffled exterior. The piece of paper I found to be a page from the popular Buenos Aires weekly, Caras y Caretas, measuring, I should say, about five inches by eight. This, after cramming my pipe in my mouth, I held out in one hand with all the appearance of nonchalance I could muster, but grasping no bigger a piece of the corner than was absolutely necessary to keep it from fluttering away. With my free hand I scratched a match; then nodded what was intended for an indifferent acquiescence in response to the gaucho's interrogation as to whether or not I was 'listo,' and at the moment when the knife went 'whicking' through the paper without so much as tearing its edges I was vigorously puffing away for a light. I continued to puff until my match went out before I discovered that I was trying to light an empty pipe. For the next two weeks I had 'facón' nightmares every time I dropped off to sleep.

This little incident, in no consequence of itself, was the immediate cause of another that resulted more seriously. It appears that scarcely had I left the harvesting outfit to return to the estancia house, when one of the Italian hands declared that he, too, was an expert in knife-throwing, and called for a volunteer to hold up the paper that he might give proof of his skill. The gauchos and Argentine peons laughed at his pretensions, but an English sailor, who had deserted his ship in Bahia Blanca to take advantage of the high wages paid in harvest time, foolishly walked over and held up the punctured sheet. Probably he did not appreciate how difficult a thing the feat really was. If he had, after the Italian had missed the paper by a foot the first throw, he would have seen he was dealing with a novice and withdrawn before it was too late. As it was, the knife, at the second trial, struck the unfortunate fellow upon the inside of the wrist, tore its way through bone and sinew, to leave the hand hanging by only a few shreds of flesh and tendon. We saved him from bleeding to death with a tourniquet, but the hand, of course, had to be sacrificed.
More on gauchos and their knives here.

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