Tuesday, April 28, 2015

The History of the Bowie Knife

Perhaps no knife has so entered into the American mystique as the Bowie Knife.

Colonel James Bowie was a soldier and pioneer who had a huge role in the battle for Texan independence from Mexico, and died at the battle of the Alamo. However, millions of people around the world know of him only because of his knife.

In 1830, Bowie went to Arkansas blacksmith James Black and presented him with a wooden model of a knife and asked Black to make it for him. Black did, and the result was the first real Bowie knife. That first knife is lost to history, but because of all the copies that were made, we have some idea of what it looked like.
The blade was longer than six inches, with some claiming it was as long as 12 inches. Most speculate eight to ten was more likely. It has a very wide blade of an inch and a half to two inches and was around a quarter of an inch thick. (You can see, this was no small knife). The blade curved upward in a broad clip point, and the back of the clip point was sharpened for back slashing. Some reports say that the back of the blade had a strip of brass inlaid, to catch opponents blades in a knife fight, but that is uncertain. However, we do know at least some blades had such a strip.

The Bowie “knife” actually had much more in common with the saber used by the Army, and such features as the soft brass back and the wide sweeping hand guard show that fighting with such a knife was based on fencing techniques.

Having a knife custom made was no big feat in those days, and was actually quite common. In fact, the Bowie knife would have faded into history the same way countless others had were it not for the infamous sandbar duel. In 1827, Bowie was engaged in a feud with Norris Wright, who was a Louisiana Sheriff. Wright had spread rumors about Bowie, causing him to be denied a loan for a land deal Bowie was speculating in.

When they were both in attendance at another party’s duel on a sandbar outside Natchez, Mississippi, a fight broke out. The exact details are sketchy, but we do know that when all was said and done, Bowie had been shot twice, stabbed with a sword and hit over the head with a pistol, breaking it in the process. As for everyone else, Bowie killed two (disemboweling one) and wounded three more, with one of them having their forearm severed. All of this with a mere knife.

Bowie’s reputation as a knife fighter was now secured for all of history, and everyone wanted to have a knife like his. After Black made the new knife for Bowie three years later, Black was swamped with orders for a “Bowie Knife”. In a future post, I will talk about the influence of the Bowie knife on modern knives.

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