The navaja is a traditional Spanish folding-blade fighting and utility knife.
One of the oldest folding knife patterns still in production, the first true navajas originated in the Andalusian region of southern Spain. In Spain, the term navaja is often used to generally describe all folding-blade knives.
The etymology of the word navaja is derived from the Latin novacula, meaning razor, and the Andalusian knife known as the navaja is thought to have derived from the navaja de afeitar, or straight razor used for shaving. Like the straight razor, the navaja's blade folds into the handle when not in use. A popular slang term for the navaja in the 19th century was herramienta, which translates as "(iron) tool".
While folding-blade knives existed in Spain even in pre-Roman times, the earliest Spanish knives recognizable as navajas date from around the late 1600s. The rise in popularity of the navaja occurred at a time of increased restrictions upon the wearing of swords and other bladed weapons by persons outside the Spanish nobility. Like the navaja de afeitar, the earliest navajas worked on the principle of the simple peasant's knife, with no backspring to hold the blade in place once opened. These early navajas were primarily designed as utility or work knives, and could easily be carried either openly or concealed on one's person. One of the more common early varieties of this type of knife was the navaja cortaplumas, used by clerical workers, draftsmen, and notaries to sharpen ink quill tips.
With the development of reliable spring steel in Spain, the navaja could be fitted with a tempered steel, externally mounted backspring, making the design much more useful. The new spring-back navaja proved very popular throughout Spain and was later exported to or manufactured in other countries as well, particularly France and the island of Corsica.
During the first part of the 18th century, the blade heel and backspring of the navaja were cleverly altered to provide a locking device for the blade. Pulling open the blade from the handle, the lock allowed the blade to rotate into the fully open position, where it locked into position. The locking mechanism itself consisted of pinion teeth (piñones or dientes) cut into the blade heel (talón de la hoja) that are engaged by a lug attached to either the backspring or a separate spring-loaded metal latch as the knife is opened. The last pinion tooth serves to keep the blade locked in its fully opened position. The ratcheting-tooth lock-blade navaja was commonly referred to as a navaja de muelles or navaja de siete muelles. The metal-to-metal contact produces a distinctive clicking or ratcheting sound when the blade is opened, and the navaja de muelles was popularly termed the carraca in consequence. With its locking blade, the navaja de muelles was now a versatile fighting knife, able to safely deliver thrusts as well as slashes (cuts). The navaja de muelles proved sufficiently formidable as an offensive arm that it was specifically named by the Marqués de la Mina, the Spanish military governor of Catalonia, in his edict of 29 May 1750 prohibiting the carrying of armas blancas, or edged weapons.
Despite official disapproval, the navaja de muelles became popular throughout Spain as a fighting and general utility knife, and was the primary personal arm of the Spanish guerrilleros who opposed Napoleon during his invasion and subsequent occupation of Spain in the Peninsular War of 1808–1814. Around 1850, a metal pull ring was incorporated into the lock to facilitate blade closure. Pulling the metal ring cammed the backspring upward, freeing the blade from its lock and allowing the blade to fold back into the handle. The pull ring was eventually discarded in favor of a low-profile metal lever.
In Spain the navaja epitomized the concept of a defensive knife to be carried at all times on the person. Aside from the early navaja cortaplumas, the design is thought to have been first adopted by the working classes - mule drivers, teamsters, artisans, and sailors as well as by the majos, the "gentlemen of the lower class" of Andalusia. Its association with barateros, pícaros, jácaros and rufos (gamblers, rogues, ruffians, and thugs) comes from its frequent use as a weapon of the underworld, where it was often used to enforce the collection of gambling debts or to rob innocent victims. Most of the larger navajas of this period were clearly intended as fighting knives, and were popularly referred to as santólios, a contraction of the Spanish term for "holy oil". The name was a reference to the oils or unguents applied to the dying as part of the Catholic last sacrament, as it was believed that a man encountering such a knife in a violent confrontation would invariably require administration of the last rites.
However, in Spain the carrying of a navaja did not necessarily identify its owner as a criminal. During the first part of the 19th century, the navaja was carried by Spanish men—and not a few women—of all classes and backgrounds, including the upper classes, the clergy, and the aristocracy. Evidence of this rests in museum collections of ornate antique examples, all featuring a standard of costly materials and laborious craftsmanship that could only have been commissioned by the upper classes. The imposition of laws restricting the carrying of swords and other offensive weapons in Spain and in the Kingdom of Naples in southern Italy only served to increase the popularity of concealable knives such as the navaja in a culture devoted to edged weapons.
The appeal of such a distinctive design and cultural symbol proved irresistible to foreign visitors to Spain. Demand for the navaja as a collectible and as a tourist's souvenir is not a new one; as early as 1858, navajas were being widely offered in street markets in novelty lengths as short as three inches and as long as three feet. Navajas with blades over 200mm (23 inches) were mostly oversized showpieces (navajas de muestra or navajas de exposición), and were made to display the abilities of the knifemaker, not for actual use.
Towards the end of the 19th century, use of the navaja began to decline in Spain. However, for the working classes and those living in the provinces, who were loath to give up cherished customs, the navaja remained a habitual item of personal wear for many years afterwards.
The navaja used a variety of blade and handle styles over the years, with certain regions of Spain favoring distinct patterns. The classical Andalusian blade style is today popularly known as the navaja bandolera. The navaja bandolera is a variation of what is termed a "clip point" blade, a design featuring a concave unsharpened false edge near the blade tip. Compared to its slim, almost feminine handle, the exaggerated belly and recurved blade of the classical navaja is particularly large and menacing. Many blade patterns bear a striking resemblance to that of the Bowie knife, and some historians believe the navaja's blade served as inspiration for the latter. The classic Andalusian navaja of the craftsman era utilized forged carbon steel blades predominantly sourced from Spanish communities with a long history of swordmaking and cutlery manufacture, such as Albacete, Santa Cruz de Mudela, and Toledo. The traditional navaja was typically fitted with a handle made of wood, horn, bone, or pierced copper or brass that was reinforced with a steel or brass liner, although examples can also be found with expensive materials such inlaid silver, ivory, and even gold. From the mid-19th century, many 'Spanish' navajas were actually imported from France; most of these imported French patterns lack a locking device for the blade. Many examples of this period were fitted with metal bolsters and butt caps for additional strength and protection; these are often carved, filed, or engraved with decorations.
The typical navaja manufactured today blends traditional styling with modern materials. Most are smaller in blade length and overall size than the navaja carried during the classical era. The majority feature stainless steel blades, stainless metal bolsters and butt caps, and horn or wood handles. Many different blade patterns are available, with hand-made (artesanal) versions commanding the highest prices. While the ratcheting carraca can still be found on some knives, most examples now use a simplified locking mechanism consisting of a lug attached to the backspring that engages a single slot machined into the blade's heel.