The Bowie Knife

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Bowie knife
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Bowie Knife
Bowie Knife by Tim Lively 16.jpg
"Bowie Knife"
Type    Knife
Place of origin    Arkansas, USA
Production history
Designer    James Bowie
Designed    1830
Produced    1830 through present
Length    12"?30"
Blade length    6"?24"
Blade type    Clip-point

A Bowie knife (pronounced play /ˈboʊ.iː/ BOH-ee[1][2][3] or play /ˈbuːiː/ BOO-ee[3]) is a pattern of fixed-blade fighting knife first popularized by Colonel James "Jim" Bowie in the early 19th Century. Since the first incarnation was created by James Black, the Bowie knife has come to incorporate several recognizable and characteristic design features, although its common use refers to any large sheath knife with a crossguard and a clip point.[4]

The "Jim Bowie knife" first became famous due to Bowie's use of a large knife at a duel known as the Sandbar Fight. The knife pattern is still popular with collectors; in addition to various knife manufacturing companies there are hundreds of custom knife makers producing Bowies and variations.

    1 Origin and Description
    2 History
        2.1 The Vidalia Sandbar Fight
        2.2 James Black's Bowie Knife
    3 Variations and collecting
    4 Legal status
    5 References
    6 Further reading
    7 External links

[edit] Origin and Description
An early Bowie of the type made for Rezin Bowie and commissioned by the Bowies to Searles and Constable. This is a copy of the Fowler Bowie currently displayed at the Alamo.

The historical Bowie knife was not a single design, but was a series of knives improved several times by Jim Bowie over the years.[5] The earliest such knife, made by Jesse Clifft at Rezin Bowie's request resembled Spanish hunting knives of the day, and differed little from a common butcher knife.[5] The blade, as later described by Rezin Bowie, was 9.5 inches (24 cm) long, 0.25 inches (0.64 cm) thick and 1.5 inches (3.8 cm) wide. It was straight-backed, described by witnessess as "a large butcher knife", and having no clip point nor any hand guard, with a simple riveted wood scale handle.[6]

Noted knife expert Bernard Levine has reported that the first known Bowie knife showed a strong Mediterranean influence insofar as general lines were concerned, particularly the shape of the traditional Spanish folding knife, the navaja, often carried by immigrants to Mexico and other territories of the Old Southwest.[7] In an 1828 account of the capture of a pirate schooner carrying a mixed group of Spanish and South American pirates, the carrying of knives similar to the early Bowie knife is mentioned:

"Amongst these [weapons], were a large number of long knives - weapons which the Spaniards use very dexterously. They are about the size of a common English carving knife, but for several inches up the blade cut both sides."[8]

After the Vidalia Sandbar fight, Bowie was a famous man, and the Bowie brothers received many requests for knives of the same design. Bowie and his brothers would later commission more ornate custom blades from various knife makers including Daniel Searles and John Constable.[6] George William Featherstonhaugh described them as, "These formidable instruments...are the pride of an Arkansas blood, and got their name of Bowie knives from a conspicuous person of this fiery climate."[9]

According to an 1847 article, the Bowie knife was originally designed to fill the need for a wearable, convenient close combat weapon - a short sword much shorter than the saber or other swords of the day, yet still possessing a heavy blade.[10] This cleaver-like blade had enough weight to give the blade sufficient force in a slashing attack, while permitting the use of cut-and-thrust sword fighting tactics.[10] By this time the 'Bowie knife' was already being made in a variety of sizes, with the optimum blade length similar to "that of a carving knife"[10][11] The blade design was described as:

"Back (spine) perfectly straight in the first instance, but greatly rounded at the end on the edge side; the upper edge at the end, for a length of about two inches, is ground into the small segment of a circle and rendered sharp...The back itself gradually increases in weight of metal as it approaches the hilt, on which a small guard is placed. The Bowie knife, therefore, has a curved, keen point; is double-edged for the space of about two inches of its length, and when in use, falls with the weight of a bill hook."[10]

Most later versions of the Bowie knife had a blade of at least 8 inches (20 cm) in length, some reaching 12 inches (30 cm) or more, with a relatively broad blade that was an inch and a half to two inches wide (4 to 5 cm) and made of steel usually between 3⁄16 to 1⁄4 in (4.763 to 6.350 mm) thick. The back of the blade sometimes had a strip of soft metal (normally brass or copper) inlaid which some believe was intended to catch an opponent's blade while others hold it was intended to provide support and absorb shock to help prevent breaking of poor quality steel or poorly heat treated blades. Bowie knives often had an upper guard that bent forward at an angle (an S-guard) intended to catch an opponent's blade or provide protection to the owner's hand during parries and corps-a-corps.

Some Bowie knives had a notch on the bottom of the blade near the hilt known as a "Spanish Notch". The Spanish Notch is often cited as a mechanism for catching an opponent's blade; however, some Bowie researchers hold that the Spanish Notch is ill-suited to this function and frequently fails to achieve the desired results. These researchers, instead, hold that the Spanish Notch has the much more mundane function as a tool for stripping sinew and repairing rope and nets, as a guide to assist in sharpening the blade (assuring that the sharpening process starts at a specific point and not further up the edge), or as a point to relieve stress on the blade during use.

One characteristic of Bowie knives is the clip point at the top of the blade, which brings the tip of the blade lower than the spine for better control. As the goal is to produce a sharp, stabbing point, most Bowie knives have a bevel ground along the clip, typically 1/4 of the way, but sometimes much further running the entire top-edge. This is referred to as a false edge as from a distance it looks sharpened, although it may or may not be. Regardless of whether or not the false edge is sharp, it serves to take metal away from the point, streamlining the tip and thus enhancing the penetration capability of the blade during a stab. The version attributed to blacksmith James Black had this false edge fully sharpened in order to allow someone trained in European techniques of saber fencing to execute the maneuver called the "back cut" or "back slash".[6] A brass quillon, usually cast in a mold, was attached to protect the hand.

The Bowie knife's design also lends itself to use as a hunting knife for skinning or butchering game. The curved top clip bevel of the blade, when suitably sharpened, may be used to remove the skin from a carcass, while the straight portion of the blade edge, toward the guard, can be used for cutting meat. This is similar in concept to the traditional Finnish hunting knife, the "puukko" (though the typical early 19th-century Bowie knife was far larger and heavier than the typical puukko). Arkansas culturalist and researcher Russell T. Johnson describes the James Black knife in the following manner and at the same time captures the quintessence of the Bowie Knife: "It must be long enough to use as a sword, sharp enough to use as a razor, wide enough to use as a paddle, and heavy enough to use as a hatchet."[6][12] Most such knives intended for hunting are only sharpened on one edge, to reduce the danger of cutting oneself while butchering and skinning the carcass.
[edit] History
[edit] The Vidalia Sandbar Fight
A coffin handled Bowie Knife.
Main article: Sandbar Fight

The first knife, with which Bowie became famous, allegedly was designed by Jim Bowie's brother Rezin in Avoyelles Parish, Louisiana and smithed by blacksmith Jesse Cleft out of an old file.[6] Period court documents indicate that Rezin Bowie and Cleft were well acquainted with one another. Rezin's granddaughter claimed in an 1885 letter to Louisiana State University that she personally witnessed Cleft make the knife for her grandfather.

This knife became famous as the knife used by Bowie at the Sandbar Fight, a famous 1827 duel between Bowie and several men including a Major Norris Wright of Alexandria, Louisiana.[6] The fight took place on a sandbar in the Mississippi River across from Natchez, Mississippi, and is the only documented fight in which Bowie was known to have employed his Bowie knife design. In this battle Bowie was stabbed, shot, and beaten half to death but managed to win the fight using the large knife.[6]

Jim Bowie's older brother John would later claim that the knife at the Sandbar Fight was not Cleft's knife, but a knife specifically made for Bowie by a blacksmith named Snowden.[13]
[edit] James Black's Bowie Knife

The most famous version of the Bowie knife was designed by Jim Bowie and presented to Arkansas blacksmith James Black in the form of a carved wooden model in December 1830.[6] Black produced the knife ordered by Bowie, and at the same time created another based on Bowie's original design but with a sharpened edge on the curved top edge of the blade. Black offered Bowie his choice and Bowie chose the modified version.[12] Knives such as this, with a blade shaped like that of the Bowie knife, but with a pronounced false edge, are today called "Sheffield Bowie" knives, because this blade shape became so popular that cutlery factories in Sheffield, England were mass-producing such knives for export to the U.S. by 1850, usually with a handle made from either hardwood, deer antler, or bone, and sometimes with a guard and other fittings of sterling silver.[6] The James Black Bowie knife had a blade approximately twelve inches long, two inches wide, and 0.25 inch thick.[14] The spine of the knife was covered with soft brass or silver, reportedly to catch the opponent's blade in the course of a knife fight, while a brass quillion protected the hand from the blade.[14]

In 1831 Bowie returned with his James Black Bowie knife to Texas, and was involved in a knife fight with three men armed with firearms, who had been hired to kill him by the man he had spared in his 1829 fight.[14][15] According to reports of the time, Bowie killed all three men in a fierce battle in which Bowie used his knife to kill all three men: one assassin was nearly decapitated, the second was disemboweled, and the skull of the third man was split open.[6][14] Bowie died at the Battle of the Alamo five years later and in death both he and his knife became an American legend. The fate of the original Bowie knife is unknown; however, a knife bearing the engraving "Bowie No. 1" has been acquired by the Historic Arkansas Museum from a Texas collector and has been attributed to Black through scientific analysis.

Black soon had a booming business making and selling these knives out of his shop in Washington, Arkansas. Black continued to refine his technique and improve the quality of the knife as he went. In 1839, shortly after his wife's death, Black was nearly blinded when, while he was in bed with illness, his father-in-law and former partner broke into his home and attacked him with a club, having objected to his daughter having married Black years earlier. Black was no longer able to continue in his trade.

Black's knives were known to be exceedingly tough, yet flexible, and his technique has not been duplicated. Black kept his technique secret and did all of his work behind a leather curtain. Many claim that Black rediscovered the secret of producing true Damascus steel.[12]

In 1870, at the age of 70, Black attempted to pass on his secret to the son of the family that had cared for him in his old age, Daniel Webster Jones. However, Black had been retired for many years and found that he himself had forgotten the secret. Jones would later become Governor of Arkansas.

The birthplace of the Bowie knife is now part of the Old Washington Historic State Park which has over 40 restored historical buildings and other facilities including Black's shop. The park is known as "The Colonial Williamsburg of Arkansas". The American Bladesmith Society established the William F. Moran School of Bladesmithing at this site to instruct new apprentices as well as journeyman, and mastersmiths in the art of bladesmithing.[16]
[edit] Variations and collecting
Krag Bolo bayonet US stamped, on the reverse date 1900

Over the years many knives have been called Bowie knives and the term has almost become a generic term for any large sheath knife. During the early days of the American Civil War Confederate soldiers carried immense knives called D-Guard Bowie knives.[6] Many of these knives could have qualified as short swords and were often made from old saw or scythe blades.

The Bowie knife found its greatest popularity in the Old Southwest of the mid-19th century, where several knife fighting schools were established to teach students the art of fighting with the Bowie knife pattern.[17] It is sometimes confused with the "Arkansas toothpick," possibly due to the interchangeable use of the names "Arkansas toothpick", "Bowie knife", and "Arkansas knife" in the antebellum period.[16] The Arkansas toothpick is essentially a heavy dagger with a straight 15-25-inch blade. While balanced and weighted for throwing, the toothpick can be used for thrusting and slashing. Although James Black is popularly credited with inventing the "Arkansas Toothpick", no firm evidence exists for this claim.[12]

Knives made in Sheffield, England, were quick to enter the market with "Bowie Knives" of a distinctive pattern that most modern users identify with the true form Bowie. The Sheffield pattern blade is thinner than the Black/Musso knives, while the false edge is often longer, with a more oblique and less pronounced clip edge.[6]

During the late 19th and 20th centuries, the Bowie knife served usefully as a camp and hunting tool as well as a weapon, and is still popular with some hunters and trappers in the present day.[6] However, as today's campers and backpackers generally rely on prepared lightweight foods, and have little or no use for a large knife as a weapon or for butchering wild game animals, the traditional Bowie pattern knife is today mostly purchased by collectors or edged weapon enthusiasts.[18]

Since the 1960s, Bowie knives with sawteeth machined into the back side of the blade appeared inspired by the United States Air Force survival knife (NSN 7340-00-098-4327). The sawteeth were intended to cut through the acrylic glass canopy of a downed aircraft. During the Vietnam War the United States Army issued them to helicopter crews for the same purpose.

The Bowie remains popular with collectors. In addition to various knife manufacturing companies there are hundreds of custom knife makers and bladesmiths producing Bowies and variations. The Bowie knife dominates the work produced by members of the American Bladesmith Society.[19] Collecting antique Bowie knives is one of the higher-end forms of knife collecting with rare models selling as high as $200,000. Even mass-produced Sheffield Bowies from the 19th century can sell in the range of $5,000US to $15,000US.[20]

The USMC Ka-Bar of World War II fame is based on the Bowie design.[21] Custom knife maker, Ernest Emerson originally used a Bowie knife in his logo and manufactures a folding Bowie known in his line-up as the CQC13.

A Bowie knife appears on the shoulder sleeve insignia of the 39th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, headquartered in Little Rock, Arkansas. Jim Bowie was posthumously inducted into the Blade Magazine Cutlery Hall of Fame at the 1988 Blade Show in Atlanta, Georgia in recognition for the impact that his design made upon generations of knife makers and cutlery companies. Rock star David Bowie (born David Robert Jones) took the name Bowie after the Bowie knife because, in his words "it cuts both ways".[22]
[edit] Legal status
Sheffield pattern blades are not quite as wide as the Black design but most variations carry a false-edged clip point.
Further information: knife legislation

Although many jurisdictions worldwide have knife legislation regulating the length of a blade one may own or carry, certain locales in the United States have legislation mentioning "Bowie knives" in particular. The deadly reputation of the Bowie knife eventually led to its possession being either prohibited entirely or restricted in some manner in those states where it had been most popular.[23] In 1837, the year after Bowie?s death, the Alabama legislature passed laws imposing a $100 transfer tax on 'Bowie' knives and decreeing that anyone carrying a Bowie knife who subsequently killed a person in a fight would be charged with premeditated murder.[23][24] Louisiana and Virginia prohibited the concealed carrying of any Bowie knife[25][26], while Mississippi made such knives illegal when carried concealed or when used as a dueling weapon. In 1838 Tennessee legislators attempted to ban the Bowie knife altogether.[23] Many of these laws are still in force today.[23]

In modern-day Texas, the state where Jim Bowie died, it is a criminal offense (generally a Class A misdemeanor) to carry a Bowie knife, where it is classified as an "illegal knife".[27] This law does not apply if you are traveling in a private vehicle because it is legal to carry a handgun, knife, or club while en route to or from the vehicle or engaged in a sporting activity involving the use of such equipment.

This is the Bowie Knife vision I had from my childhood. Originally from the Disney film "Davy Crockett" with Fess Parker, but as you can see in the YouTube video that image was reinforced many times over and over. For most of my life the word "knife" brought up the image of this movie prop of "the Iron Mistress".

Another good article, "A Knife Like Bowie's" by John Bryant.
Do click on the underlined names to view the knife mentioned.

I found a couple of very interesting videos on the Sandbar Duel, the fight that made Jim Bowie's name famous as a knife fighter. I've read about the fight many times, but these videos really give you and in depth understanding of why, where and how it all came down. I think they're well worth viewing.

Thank you Phil. Interesting story, for sure. I would not have thought, as popular as the Bowie knife has become, it would have such obscure beginnings- starting with a personal and regional political fight.

It seems like duels with pistols were quite common, but take a knife to a gun fight. Now that's news.
The Bowie family was infamous as land swindlers and con artists. It's a surprise that the Sandbar is the only knife fight on Jim's record.


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