Ion current and electron temperature are measured using electrostatic probes in a dc, nonfiltered vacuum arc operated with argon and nitrogen as filling gases in the pressure range 0.001–1 mbar. It is found that the measured ion current for argon is between two and six times larger than for nitrogen, for similar operating conditions. Also, the electron temperature is smaller for Ar. These differences can be satisfactorily explained with a simple one-dimensional model, which includes the most relevant elastic and inelastic processes that take place in the interelectrodic plasma: elastic scattering of metallic ions by neutral gas, charge exchange, electron impact ionization of gas, dissociative recombination of gas ions, and conversion of atomic ions into molecular ions. The observed differences between nitrogen and argon are attributed to the low rate of conversion of atomic argon into molecular argon, that makes inoperative the channel of dissociative recombination for this gas, together with the higher ionization rate of argon.