Brass Knuckles type weapons were first documented being used in India in the 12th century. They were used in blood sports and referred to as Vajra-Musti, a Sanskrit word which translates to thunder-fist or diamond-fist. They were fist loaded Knuckleduster type weapons which typically had spikes.
Similar devices were also observed in the Roman Empire and with the Greek at gladiatorial matches. Referred to as the Caestus which offered some of the same functionality as brass knuckles but differed as it was more of a glove with metal attachments then a standalone tool like knuckledusters.
The Asian and Japanese also had their own version of brass knuckles referred to as tekko. These ancient knuckledusters baring many similarities to the Indian’s Vajra-Musti (which isn’t surprising as they are neighboring countries). These knuckles were primarily crafted from wood, random metals or animal bones. They were often used by Shinobi Ninjas in close quarter combat.
The Nihang Sikhs of Punjab (a state in India) also used a similar tool in combat in the 18th century. It was referred to as a Sher Panja which translates to “Lions Paw.” It was a spiked tool worn on the palm side of the hand as opposed to the knuckle side like traditional brass knuckles.
Modern day brass knuckle designs gained notoriety in the mid 1800’s during the American Civil War. Abraham Lincoln’s and his bodyguards were know to carry brass knuckles, they are even on display at the Ford’s theatre national historic site(pictured above). Soldiers were easily able to purchase them during WW1 or cast them from lead bullets using moulds that they dug up in the dirt.
By the 1900’s brass knuckles were very popular and combination weapons were being released for use in WW2. Such examples include trench knives and Apache revolvers which were knife/knuckle and gun/knuckle combos respectively.