Learn the history of a survival knife that traces its history back to...
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If there was ever a quintessential American knife design, it would have to be the Bowie knife. Its murky origins have a mysterious shroud, but once word of this knife got out, people had to have one. When westward expansion began and folks had to survive in the harsh realities of pioneer life it became, in a way, the first modern survival knife. Read on for an overview of Bowie knife history, characteristic features, and modern variations on this classic design.
The Bowie knife first rose to prominence because of a duel in which Jim Bowie was an observer. It took place on Wednesday, September 19, 1827, on a sandbar outside of Natchez, Mississippi. Although the two duelists in question fired their shots and settled the dispute with a handshake, the other 15 attendees engaged in a brawl known today as “The Sandbar Fight.”
Above: As firearms became better, the Bowie became smaller. Pictured: Cold Steel 1917 Bowie (top) and Craig Camerer Damascus Bowie (bottom).
Bowie had a reputation as a fearsome brawler and was specifically targeted. Exact accounts vary, but Bowie was allegedly shot at least three times, impaled with a sword cane, had a pistol broken over his head, and stabbed between four and seven times. All eyewitness accounts do agree that he didn’t start the fight, but he matched and bested multiple opponents single-handedly with a large knife.
The knife in question has been described as being “9¼ inches long, 1½ inches wide with a single edge and a straight blade,” by Texas historian William Kennedy in an 1841 history on the Republic of Texas. It was said to have been made by Bowie’s brother, Rezin Bowie, although some sources (including Bowie family members) state that Rezin only supervised the blacksmith who made it. Still other sources claim it was a large butcher knife in the “Spanish design.”
An alternate claim, backed by some, is that after the Sandbar fight in 1830, Bowie hired a blacksmith named James Black to craft a formidable fighting knife for him based on Rezin’s design. Black was said to have made two of these knives with a clip-point type of blade — one with an unsharpened top edge, the other with the top edge sharpened. He asked Bowie to choose one. Bowie chose the one with the sharpened top edge.
Accounts vary, but most of the time the knife was depicted as having a coffin-shaped handle. Most versions had a cross guard to prevent the user’s hand from sliding forward onto the blade. Many blades had what was described as a Spanish notch cut near the hilt. Like the cross guard, it was said to have been intended as a “blade trapper,” but more than likely performed a more mundane function such as a reference point for sharpening or as a means of stripping sinew.
This knife’s pattern became known as the Bowie knife. Even though Jim Bowie never made one, he became the owner of this iconic design.
Above: Bowie knives were more commonly used as a weapon as opposed to a tool on the frontier.
Between the Sandbar Fight and Bowie’s legendary knife fights afterward, everyone wanted one of his knife designs. This was a time when unreliable single-shot black powder firearms ruled the roost — it would be a good 20 years before we’d see the first Colt revolver. Most personal combat was resolved by knife, sword, or hatchet at the time.
A March 1847 article by J.C. Robertson in The Mechanics' Magazine referred to the Bowie knife as “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. 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.”
These qualities were beneficial as a “survival knife” in the old west. Arkansas historian Russell T. Johnson describes the qualities of a 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.”
As stories in dime novels about explorers and western heroes using Bowie knives intensified, so did the desire for readers to own one. Perhaps the most famous use in literature was in Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Contrary to what’s shown in movies, the vampire meets his end by means of Quincey Morris’ Bowie knife and Jonathan Harker’s kukri rather than by a wooden stake through the heart.
American blacksmiths couldn’t keep up with the demand, and quality Bowie knives from factories in Sheffield, England, soon flooded the market and kept America in good supply for well over a century.
Bowie knives were often condemned as the “assault weapons” of their day. They were outlawed by name in states such as Louisiana, Virginia, Mississippi, Tennessee, and even the Great State of Texas. The most extreme of these “Anti-Bowie Knife Ordnances” was the state of Alabama, which passed a law in 1837 imposing a $100 transfer tax on Bowie knives ($2,679.25 in today’s dollars) with the added caveat that if a Bowie knife was used in a physical altercation resulting in death, regardless of self-defense, the owner would be convicted of premeditated murder.
As these laws would pertain to butcher knives, machetes, and other working blades, they were mostly not enforced. The primary goal was going after the practice of dueling. Eventually, many of these laws were repealed. Ironically, the last state to do so was Texas, where Jim Bowie is regarded as a founding father. In 2017, Bowie knife history came full circle when Texans could once again legally carry this knife. Always check local laws before carrying any type of knife.
Above: Gil Hibben Expendables Bowie and a prop knife from the 1992 film Dracula.
Buffalo Bill Cody was said to have carried a Bowie knife with a 16-inch blade, and Confederate troops in the U.S. Civil War were said to have carried D-Guard Bowie knives of that length and sometimes longer. In a time when a good knife represented a somewhat sizable investment and it had to perform a variety of tasks, most Bowie knives were on the large side, with 12 inches being the maximum blade length.
Its versatility as a tool saw it replace the tomahawk that had been so popular in the eastern United States as settlers moved westward. Primarily intended as fighting knives, brass spines welded to the back of the blade and hand guards or knuckles appeared here and there. However, as firearms technology improved, the size of the Bowie knife seemed to become smaller, and by the 1880s, it seemed to be more of a handy and useful tool as opposed to a “sidearm” as it had been in the previous half-century.
That’s not to say that the knife ever dropped from common use. On the contrary, throughout Bowie knife history, its design went on to influence other knives and the men and companies who made them.
The sharpened top edge seemed to disappear as it was a detriment to skinning game, and certain states outlawed double-edged knives, but the clip point remained. To this day, it may be the most obvious sign that one is looking at a Bowie knife. Still, knife catalogs from the 19th century reveal dagger-type blades being advertised as “spear-point” or “San Francisco” Bowies.
Above: The influence of the Bowie is popular in military knives such as the KaBar (left) and SOG Bowie (right).
When we think of a modern survival knife, that thought can encompass many different designs from the sawtooth spines on Rambo knives of the 1980s, to modern bushcraft knives that appear more Scandinavian in design, to machetes and kukris.
Bowie knives are still manufactured today as reproductions of the originals or a maker or manufacturer’s interpretation of the original. Yet we can see the influence of Bowie knife history in other knives, including the aforementioned “Rambo knives.”
The Bowie’s clip point inspired the legendary Ka-Bar knife, the U.S. Air Force knife, several Randall models, and a unique military knife made for Special Operations Forces in Vietnam known as the SOG Bowie. Even the Rambo knives we mentioned previously from the forges and workshops of custom makers like Jimmy Lile and Gil Hibben have the Bowie influence. Buck Knives designed a fixed blade model in 1942 in response to the U.S. Military’s request for knives for use in World War II. That Bowie-inspired design is still going nearly 80 years later as the Model 119.
There are even pocket knives inspired by the Bowie, from Buck’s legendary 110 that has been in production for over 50 years to newer designs by Emerson, CRKT, and Spyderco.
Above: The Bowie has decreased in size for modern EDC users, but the blade shape is still very useful. (Left to right: Spyderco Ed Schemmp Bowie, Buck 110 Automatic and SOG Pillar.)
Be it pattern-welded Damascus or some other type of steel, Bowie knives that are forged as opposed to made by the stock removal method represent some of the most sought-after knives for use and collectability. This is particularly true for those made by a member of the American Bladesmith Society (ABS).
One of the qualifications to become a Master Smith from the ABS is to forge a pattern-welded (Damascus) Bowie knife with a maximum blade length of 10 inches and a maximum overall length of 15 inches with a stick tang. After this knife is judged on appearance for fit, finish, and artistic merits, it must pass a series of tests including cutting a free-hanging 1-inch-thick piece of Manilla or sisal rope, hacking through a 4-foot-long construction-grade 2×4 and shaving arm hair to demonstrate its ability to retain an edge after the wood hacking. Subsequently, the knife is bent in a vise to see if it will return to place without deforming or breaking.
This testing is based on the legendary qualities of the Bowie knife, and although it’s an arduous test, many bladesmiths are successful. In 1988, the ABS founded a Bladesmithing School in collaboration with Texarkana College, the Pioneer Washington Foundation, and the Arkansas State Parks Department on the grounds of Historic Washington State Park in Hempstead County, Arkansas. This school was located near where historians believed that James Black may have forged his first Bowie knife.
In the realm of reproductions, there have been a lot of subpar knives throughout Bowie knife history. They may have the size and shape down pat, but often the materials are questionable.
Sure, they can have stag (or stag-like) handles and be emblazoned with the American flag, bald eagles, or other artistic renderings of patriotism. However, as with any knife, read labels carefully, especially if you’re going to actually use it. Be cautious of imported knives at a low price point, too.
Luckily, plenty of companies from Cold Steel to Spyderco make reproduction Bowies that are true workhorses. Custom knifemakers affiliated with the American Bladesmith Society and Knifemakers’ Guild routinely turn out high-quality knives that are not only stunning to look at but will perform as the best of the lot.
Of course, the price typically reflects this.
As an aside, when I served as a U.S. Marine a lifetime ago, I was an avid knife collector and had a number of Bowie-inspired survival-type knives that were popular in the 1980s that I chose instead of my issued Ka-Bar, which had a completely unserviceable edge. After a few outings to the field, I found their weight and bulk to be more of a burden than they were worth for most of my cutting chores. I opted to carry an extra canteen of water and a smaller fixed blade in the form of a privately purchased Ka-Bar or SOG Bowie. These knives have the same qualities of the legendary Bowie in a much lighter package.
A Bowie knife can vary in size, materials, and even in blade shape to a degree, but somehow, we all know one when we see one. From its days on the frontier to its uses today it is, in essence, a melting pot of design. From the Alamo to Afghanistan or from Dracula to The Expendables, whenever we see one, no matter its shape, size, or country of origin, we can’t help but feel a twinge of American pride after learning about Bowie knife history.