brass knuckles

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a band of metal with four holes that fits over the upper fingers and that is gripped when a fist is made, used for increasing the effect of a blow with the fist.
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Origin of brass knuckles

An Americanism dating back to 1850–55
Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2022


What else does brass knuckles mean?

Brass knuckles are a piece of metal designed to fit around the fingers by the lower knuckles and gripped by the hand. They can pack a powerful, potentially lethal punch.

How do you pronounce brass knuckles?

[ bras nuhkuhls ]

Where does brass knuckles come from?

Brass knuckles can be made out of a variety of materials. Though most notably made from hard brass, as their name suggests, the hand-held weapon can also be made from steel, iron, lead, wood, and even plastic.

An early form of brass knuckles was the ancient Roman caestus. Gladiators would wrap their knuckles in leather and affix metal studs, iron plates, and even spikes. Japanese martial artists have used a brass knuckles-like weapon called the tekko, made of wood or metal.

Brass knuckles were in use by armies by at least the 18th century. They were distributed by the U.S. military for soldiers during the Civil War; Abraham Lincoln’s bodyguard even had one. During World War I and II, soldiers used variants fixed with knives for some extra force in hand-to-hand combat. Others have even made versions with guns.

Brass knuckles are currently illegal in over 20 countries. Though not outlawed by the U.S. federal government, a number of cities and states have banned them, including New York. Where legal, the purchaser often has to be over 18 and illegal possession can earn jail time. People have been beaten to death just from brass knuckles alone.

Brass knuckles have long been associated with gangsters, pimps, and felons. There’s even been a crime movie made in the 1920s called Brass Knuckles. Fast forward to 2008, when Angelina Jolie sported them in the action thriller Wanted. Professional wrestler William Regal notably had a move called the Power of the Punch, in which he “hits” his opponent while wearing brass knuckles.

Thanks to their down-and-dirty past, brass knuckles have developed a “badass” image, lending them as a fashion statement everywhere from the hip-hop to the hardcore scene. Some are bedizened with jewels or ornamental skulls, worn on necklaces, belt buckles, and shoes, or adorned on cars.

They’re also feminized versions, with takes on brass knuckles stylized into large rings. Many books have used brass knuckles in their titles to signify toughness, as have many brands.

How is brass knuckles used in real life?

Rather than being treated delicately or censored, as its opposite kid gloves suggests, brass knuckles implies getting tough, literally or figuratively. Often people reference brass knuckles as if to say “Let’s get shit done.”

Outside their use as a dirty add-on in a street fight, brass knuckles are also appreciated as a fashion aesthetic and accessory, especially to symbolize strength and resilience.

More examples of brass knuckles:

“Springfield man accused of using brass knuckles in fight with brother at Walmart”
—Parker Perry, Springfield News-Sun (headline), June, 2018


This content is not meant to be a formal definition of this term. Rather, it is an informal summary that seeks to provide supplemental information and context important to know or keep in mind about the term’s history, meaning, and usage.

How to use brass knuckles in a sentence