In his book “American Knives: The First History and Collector’s Guide,” author Harold L. Peterson put it best when he wrote, “In the history of American arms, three weapons stand out above all the rest: the Kentucky rifle, the Colt revolver and the Bowie knife.” Peterson went on to say, “Each was a superb weapon, but more than that, each became so much a part of the American scene that it transcended its role in history and became a part of the great American legend. Of none is this truer than the Bowie knife.”
What exactly is a Bowie knife? Opinions vary and definitions are as diverse as the knives themselves. Among arms students, there are those who feel that a Bowie can be any sheath knife with a clipped point—regardless of size—while others deem any large knife, regardless of blade shape, a Bowie. Finally, there are those who feel that virtually all of the sheath knives produced from around 1830 through the turn of the century (the knife’s greatest period of popularity) should qualify as Bowies. To the modern blade enthusiast, each of these points of view carry some justification; however, among serious collectors, vintage knives with the clip point are the most sought after, and are referred to as the classic form of the Bowie knife.
On The Frontier
As with other famous American weapons, the Bowie knife cut its way into the heart of our nation’s frontier folklore almost from its beginnings. And although the evolution of the Bowie blade is shrouded in mystery and controversy, there are a few facts that cannot be denied. While historians may argue whether it was the famed frontiersman James Bowie, his older brother Rezin or knifemaker James Black who actually produced the first true Bowie blade, there’s no denying that it was Jim Bowie who brought the edged weapon to the forefront.
While no one knows for certain whether Jim Bowie’s original knife was made with a clipped point, we know that the style was developed by the early 1830s. It is clear, though, that he carried a large, single-edged knife with a sharp, false edge at the back of the point allowing for an effective, wound-inflicting backstroke. This blade was designed to serve well for defensive purposes along with fulfilling its role as a sturdy utility knife to meet the rigors of frontier living.
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These two bloodthirsty lines, part of a longer poem contained in the “American Ballads” section that made up the opening of an 1845 British “Book of Ballads” satirizing American society, where each of the five rhymes included make mention of the Yankee fondness for the Bowie knife, then considered a necessary part of America’s early 19th century frontier, serve as testimony to the Bowie’s significance in America:
“They say my Bowie knife is keen to sliver into halves, The carcass of my enemy, as butchers slay their calves…”
There’s more than a little truth to those words, for in the early 1800s, during the age of single-shot flintlock firearms, the trans-Mississippi region provided the perfect atmosphere for the development of the knife cult. Besides a gun, virtually every frontiersman worth his gunpowder also packed some sort of edged weapon. Regardless of whether a Westerner carried a simple pocket-sized folding knife, a skinner, a camp knife or a full-sized fighting blade, he generally went “heeled” with some sort of cutting tool. Most carried two or more knives of some sort, each with a specific purpose. Among the lawless and violent element that populated the outer edges of society, as well as the law-abiding citizenry, the knife was a handy weapon that could be carried unobtrusively and used silently.
The Sandbar Fight
Countless incidents involving knives—ranging from defending one’s self against wild animals or predators of the two-legged variety, to duels held to preserve a “gentleman’s” honor, or settling violent disputes, to downright murder—took place in and around the rough and tumble centers of “civilization” throughout the frontier. Such blade-wielding affairs weren’t relegated to just backcountry campsites, street brawls, raucous saloons and gaming houses, or on riverboats—they even occurred in the supposed sanctity of state legislatures. However, it was the infamous Sandbar Fight along the Mississippi River on September 19, 1827, that catapulted Jim Bowie and his knife to fame.
The affair, which started out as a duel between two men, ended up as a bloody brawl between the aggrieved combatant’s seconds and comrades. In this fight, Jim Bowie killed one opponent and badly wounded another with a large hunting knife (reportedly made by and given to Jim by his older brother Rezin), despite being seriously wounded in the shoulder, chest and thigh. The murderous clash was reported in the local papers and was quickly picked up by others throughout the country, eventually spreading as far as Great Britain. Before long, James Bowie’s weapon became known as the fighting knife of the West!
Both the man and his weapon achieved such notoriety from this fight that, as early as 1836, the Red River Herald of Natchitoches, Louisiana, declared that quickly following the incident, “all the steel in the country, it seemed was immediately converted into Bowie knives.”
According to noted Bowie knife collector and historian Joe Musso, the earliest known documentation associating any cutler directly with Jim Bowie comes from an editorial in the December 8, 1841, Washington, Arkansas Telegraph, where the editor, James P. Jett, denounced the Bowie as a tool for murder. Jett also stated that he believed “the first knife of the land was made in this place by Mr. James H. Black, for a man named James Bowie who was killed at the Alamo in Texas, and hence it is sometimes called the Black knife, sometimes the Bowie knife.” (Emphasis added by Jett.)
Regardless of who actually made the first knife, by the early 1830s, Bowie’s performance in subsequent knife duels had earned him the unofficial title as the archetypical knife fighter, and his “Iron Mistress” existed as a distinct blade type, with great numbers of them being produced—both with and without the famed clip point. It’s possible both Jim Bowie and his brother Rezin were the foremost proponents of the blade. Early on, they amassed a collection of the type while working on improvements and design changes.
Bowie Knife Variations
At first, these so-called Bowies were hand-forged by local blacksmiths, supposedly copying Bowie’s original blade. Generally, they were large knives with heavy blades from around 9 to 15 inches in length and measured a full 1.5 to 2 inches in width. Though these blades were thick and ruggedly constructed, they lacked the fine finish of later mass-produced Bowies. Further, they were fitted with a simple cross-type guard, often with S-curved quillons, or with an iron or brass plate. The grips were usually made of wood, bone or stag.
One early feature of these Amer-ican blacksmith-forged Bowies that was not incorporated into the British imports that followed was a hardened brass strip along the back of the blade to catch the edge of an adversary’s knife during a parry, thus preventing his blade from sliding up past the guard, injuring the hand. While varying in subtle differences, such as blade shape, size and other details, knives of this general variety were produced throughout the frontier until after the Civil War.
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With the entry of the British cutlers onto the scene, a secondary breed of Bowies made their appearance. While many of these imported blades carried the classic lines of the large-bladed, clip-point American Bowies, other styles, such as the spear point and the slant point, with blades ranging from 6 to 15 inches were introduced. Another evolution noticed in these later Bowies is the transition from a false edge with a sharp cutting border, as found on all of the early American knives, to a vestigial beveled clip with a dulled edge—although some later knives still included the sharpened clip point.
Other variations were also incorporated into these newer Bowies. Besides their better commercial finishes, they began sporting fancier decorated hilts fashioned with German silver, brass, coin and sterling silver mountings, and fitted with one- and two-piece grips made from a variety of exotic materials, such as horn, ivory, mother of pearl, tortoise shell and German silver. Decorated blades also became de rigueur, featuring stamped or etched motifs, patriotic emblems and mottos, and more—some even accented in richly blued and/or gilt finishes.
Legends such as “The California Knife,” “Self-Defender,” “The Hunter’s Companion,” “I can dig Gold from Quartz” and the “Genuine Arkansas Toothpick” were but a few of these fanciful slogans. Even the scabbards ran the gamut from simple, sturdy utilitarian sheaths fabricated from harness leather to elaborate, metal throated and tipped, richly colored and decorated cases—designed more for appearance than actual service.
End Of An Era
By the mid-1870s, metallic cartridge repeating arms relegated the large, early-style Bowie almost to obscurity. Nonetheless, with Westerners still having a need for a serviceable knife, the Bowie continued to be used but was gradually replaced by the smaller versions, which were often fitted with the new synthetic handle materials of celluloid, simulated bone and ivory, hard rubber and early plastics.
In spite of the effectiveness of cartridge revolvers, there were still many who considered a hefty Bowie as their primary defensive weapon and/or as a utility tool. None other than the famed lawman Wyatt Earp revealed in a 1920 interview by his biographer Stuart Lake that, when discussing Kansas City in the early 1870s, “Bowie knives were worn largely for utility sake in a belt sheath back of the hip; when I came on the scene, their popularity for purpose of offense was on the wane, although I have seen old timers who carried them slung about their necks and who preferred them above all other weapons in the settlement of purely personal quarrels.”
With the dawning of the 20th century, the frontier was all but gone, and the popularity of the Bowie vanished with it. Ironically though, nearly a half century later in the 1940s, the blade enjoyed a resurgence of use as a personal-defense weapon and tool by the American GI fighting in the jungles of the Pacific during World War II. Eventually, the Navy and the Marine Corps actually issued a Bowie-type knife.
Today, the Bowie knife, whether vintage or newly made, is ranked among the most collectible of edged weapons, and modern replicas are being turned out by some of today’s finest custom knifemakers as well as being commercially produced in limited quantities. Like the Kentucky rifle and the Colt revolver, the Bowie knife is truly an American classic.
This article was originally published in “Guns of the Old West” Fall 2017. To order a copy and subscribe, visit outdoorgroupstore.com.