The Bowie Knife

3 minute read

The Bowie knife could be the most famous knife on earth; it is definitely rooted in history with many legends and stories attached to it. The knife gets its name from Colonel James "Jim" Bowie the 19th-century pioneer and soldier who was a prominent force in the Texas Revolution and was killed at the Battle of the Alamo. The knife became known as a Bowie knife because he always had his with him and there were many stories in which he used the knife to defend himself.

One such fight was the "Sandbar Fight", a famous fight that pitted Bowie against several other men including Major Norris Wright from Alexandria, Louisiana. The fight occurred in 1827 on a sandbar in the Mississippi River across from Natchez, Mississippi. Bowie was stabbed, shot, and beaten half to death and still won the fight. It was claimed by Bowie's brother, Rezin that the knife used in this fight was made by a blacksmith by the name of Snowden, not Jesse Cleft who is generally given credit for making the original Bowie Knife after Rezin's design from an old file.

Bowie returned, with his knife, to Texas and was involved in a knife fight with three men who had been hired to kill him. Bowie killed the three would-be assassins with his new knife and the fame of the knife was established. Legend says that one man was almost decapitated, the second was disemboweled, and the third had his skull split open. Bowie died at the Battle of the Alamo five years later and both he and his knife became immensely famous. 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.

Possibly the most famous of the Bowie Knives was the one designed by Bowie himself and given to an Arkansas blacksmith named James Black as a carved wood prototype. Black made the actual knife to Bowie's specification and also created another with a sharpened edge on the curved top edge of the blade. Bowie was given his choice of the two and he chose the one that Black had modified. This type of knife is known as the Sheffield Bowie today, so named for the cutlery factories in Sheffield, England who due to the knife's popularity began mass producing it and exporting it to the U.S. by 1850. These knives usually had a handle made from hardwood, staghorn, or bone and occasionally came with a guard.

The blacksmith James Black soon did 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, Black was nearly blinded by an attacker and 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 to producing true Damascus steel.

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. But Black had been retired for many years and found that he himself had forgotten the secret. The only thing Black could remember was that ten separate steps were involved. Jones would later become Governor of Arkansas.


How to Identify a Bowie Knife

There are several different variations on the basic Bowie knife design available on the market. There are, however, essential characteristics of these knives that must be present before a knife can be called a Bowie. The knife did have some design changes during its early years. For example, some of the early Bowies have blades which aren't as clipped as modern versions.

The end of a Bowie knife has what's called a "clipped" tip. This means that the point of the knife lies below the spine of the blade. This characteristic has its origins in fighting. A blade of this style has excellent penetration qualities. It also lightens the blade and makes it more agile when used for skinning and cleaning animals.

A Bowie knife always has a hand guard. Traditionally, this guard had a forward-swept quillion on the top of the handle. Today, this hand guard may be modified somewhat, and the knife to which it is attached may still be called a Bowie. The famous Marine combat knife of World War 2 is clearly a Bowie-style knife, even though it has an essentially straight hand guard. The curved hand guard provides better protection in blade-to-blade combat and, thus, was favored by Bowie when he designed the original knives.

The clipped blade of a Bowie knife leaves little ambiguity as to the reasons behind its design. Positioning the tip of the blade lower than the spine lends agility to the point and makes it a more streamlined affair. In practical matters, this means that the tip is more agile when applied to everything from cutting meat to skinning animals. In martial matters, this means that the blade has lethal penetration characteristics and makes it an intimidating weapon. In both the literal and metaphorical senses, the Bowie has a balanced blade.

Bowie knives have blades that are both thick and heavy. Properly used, they can perform in a similar fashion to machetes. The heavy blade of the knife ensures that it can deliver a solid blow, that the blade isn't prone to bending or breaking and that it is adequate to block another weapon if needed. Like some other legendary blades, the Bowie knife is associated with a hero.


Parts of a Bowie Knife

Bowie knives are fantastically versatile, enabling you to accomplish numerous different tasks with a single knife. However, what exactly are all the features of the blade used for? This can be hard to understand, as you'll find bowie knives with different features from another. Part of the confusion is simply due to the modern evolution of the knife, while other models try to remain historically accurate. Here are a few features that you might find and need to understand.

Clip Point - Your bowie knife has one defining feature; it has a clipped point. This is the end of the blade and it looks like someone cut a section out of the tip. This is an important feature and serves several purposes. First, it serves to narrow the point of the knife, giving you greater control during use. Second, it ensures that the bowie knife has better penetrative (stabbing) power. As you might imagine, these benefits come in quite handy.

Saw Teeth - You will undoubtedly encounter other bowie knives that feature a saw-toothed design on the spine of the blade. Ostensibly, this is used for sawing wood, or scaling fish. However, most users find that it actually gets in the way and can even injure the knife's wielder if they are unwary. If you choose to purchase a knife with this feature, be very aware that the saw-tooth portion might not be as handy as you first think.

Spanish Notch - Some bowie knife models include a Spanish Notch, while others do not. The true use of this feature seems to have been lost to the mists of time, but today, it serves as a guide to show where sharpening should begin. Some people attest that the notch was placed there to help catch an opponent's blade, but most collectors and historians are skeptical of these claims.

The Tip - The tip of bowie knives is quite unique. Called a clipped point, it provides better punch-through power in stabbing motions, but also provides better tip control, as well. You will find that this unique tip is actually one of the defining elements that sets bowie knives apart from other large, fixed blade sheath knives on the market today. If a knife does not have such a tip, it is not a bowie knife.

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