View Full Version : What is a Bowie?
The other thread got me to thinking. Most know the basic history of the Bowie knife. The early history of the Bowie blade has always seemed sketchy to me. It's been a while since studying Bowie history but my understanding is that it was a general style of fighting/utility knife favored by Jim Bowie himself. The small group of different knives that Bowie carried were likely unique designs made by local smiths on request from Bowie. After Sand-bar and of course the Alamo and San Jacinto many associated with Bowie copied the style in some fashion. I believe during one trip to Philadelphia Bowie gave an original to a cutler there to make more. The whole story of Bowie, the battles, the knife style all snow-balled and soon the "Bowie" knife idea was born. The cutlers in Sheffield had been supplying the North American settlers with cutlery so they seized the moment and began making the "Bowie" for export. A handfull of American cutlers began producing similar blades. Local smiths had made utility blades/tools in one form or another since the earliest days.
Here's a pic of what, in my mind's eye, is the Bowie style- picked out these as representative of commercially produced, Bowie styles in both spear point and clip point.
The top two are US Military Issue WWII era- M3 and MK2
The bottom two are Sheffield Bowies (pre-England markings) the oldest being from the 1850-60s.
07-13-2010, 07:05 PM
Ya, pretty interesing history. While there are any number of folks, who grew up in that part of the country, swear they know the real history and actually have THE original Bowie knife as found in their grandpa's attic. Tracking that history down seems a little more tedious and iffy. Interesting to me that word began to spread fairly quickly, at least locally, about Jim Bowie's fighting knife just after the Sandbar fight in 1827. Probably shop made knives matching some general description of Bowie's knife, passed by word of mouth, began showing up about that time.
By 1836, likely a few carried Bowie type knives at the Alamo, and one for sure Bowie knife by Bowie himself. One account of the Battle of San Jacinto told that while none of the Texas Army had bayonets many carried Bowie type knives..... just 8 weeks after the Alamo. The legend was sealed.
The earliest one I've ever looked at in person was from Southeast Texas. It had good provenance to the 1827-1836 time line. The workmanship looked typical of most local smith or shop made knives. It had an in-the-round stag or antler handle with fairly long, thin crossguard of iron. The forged blade resembled a large butcher knife with a long top false edge. It did not have a deep belly, nor was the upward curve near the tip very abrupt- a more sweeping curve. The blade metal was relatively thin. The blade itself was fairly long at about 14" IIRC. I doubt it had any connection to Jim Bowie directly but probably copied locally as word spread about the Bowie knife style.
07-14-2010, 02:18 AM
Large homemade or made by local blacksmith hunting knives were not uncommon on the frontier long before the Bowie came along.
Boone and Crockett carried "Butcher Blades" which were multi purpose large knives used in much the same manner as the European Hunting Daggers which were very nearly short swords. These were most often used in despatching wounded game.
The Old hunting traditions required that "Noble Game" be finished off by the sword, which could be hazardous when the game was Boar or Wolf.
The "Arkansas Toothpick" is most like the ancient hunting daggers, more for stabbing deeply to reach the vitals of large game animals.
In the days of single shot muzzle loaders a good blade was a necessary back up.
The "Secesh Bowie" is usually a fairly crude but useful bowie style hand hammered from scrap steel bands used in wagon construction. Confederate recruits liked to take a big knife along for close in work, and few could afford a store bought blade.
The Viking Sax would also pass for a BOWIE. The only authentic bowie I have ever seen was a documented Searls commissioned by Rezin Bowie and it looked more like a chef's knife. Everybody has the answer and they are all right. Who knows, I personally want Seth Kinsman's knife!
The original question, "What is a Bowie", was more of an academic if not rhetorical one. The intent was to make for some more discussion on the Bowie knife specifically and large, fighting knives in general. The original ONE that Rezin had the smith make for Jim and was used in the Sandbar Fight is lost to history. One account by an almost anonymous Mr. PQ in 1838 describes with some detail the real Bowie knife. Rezin's own description is more clouded. No matter, as some historians simply say that any large fighting knife that was made or carried for fighting after the Sandbar fight, where the person in possession called it a Bowie.... then it WAS a Bowie. Not so much the details of the knife, but the legend of Bowie himself.
One of the better summaries (easier for me to read anyway) of American Pioneer knife use can be found in CP Russell's book "Firearms, Traps & Tools of the Mountain Men".
07-27-2010, 12:18 AM
James Black was an Arkansas blacksmith and the creator of the original Bowie knife designed by Jim Bowie. Bowie was already famous for knife-fighting from his 1827 sandbar duel. But his killing of three assassins in Texas and his death at the Battle of the Alamo made him, and the blacksmith's knife, legends. Black’s knives were known to be exceedingly tough yet flexible. Black kept his methods for creating the knife very secret and did all of his work behind a leather curtain. Many claim that Black rediscovered the secret to producing Damascus steel which is a type of steel used in Middle Eastern sword making from 1100 to 1700 that could cut through lesser quality European swords. The original techniques to make James Black's knife cannot be duplicated even today. Black died on 22 June 1872 in Washington, Arkansas.
Interesting Fact: In 1839 shortly after Black's wife’s death, he was nearly blinded when 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. After the attack Black was no longer able to continue in his trade.
07-27-2010, 07:18 AM
Unknown Adult "you'll know one when ya see one, Kid".
Sorry I coldn't help myself.
07-27-2010, 07:30 PM
I don't think that is a Bowie he's holding in the picture as the blade is too short, isn't it?
Looks like a fairly small, refined Bowie with clip point blade about 8-9". The hilt looks like a form of "coffin" style with embellished rivets. Can't really see clearly in the photo if it has a cross guard or not.
07-27-2010, 08:09 PM
That type bowie, has silver sheet completely around the outside edge of the handle. No cross guard.
I used to own one of them.
07-27-2010, 08:32 PM
The Battle on Vidalia Sandbar took place on September 19, 1827 and Bowie used a large "butcher" knife in that blood letting.
The origins of Bowie's knife is as follows from Raymond's Thorps book "Bowie Knife" published in 1948 by the Univ. of New Mexico Press. Thorp's book although fairly short is very specific, well researched and footnoted with many very old sources.
There are several eye witness discriptions of Bowie's knife, but by any account it was very heavy. Bowie ran down an attacker and split his skull with it tothe shoulders. The blade had the top edge sharpeded for about 2.5 inches and overall the blade was in excess of 11 inches and maybe more. Here is the account from Thorp's book.
"In December of 1830 Bowie had just received his papers from the Mexican Goverment as a citizen of Coauila and was headed for the plantation of his brother Rezin at Walnut Hill. He stoped at Washington to order one of the knives of which he had heard. He had as customary, whittled out a model for Black to copy. James Black took Bowie's model, studied it for a few moments, and promised to copy it in steel. Bowied rode on, promising to return for the weapon in about four weeks. At the appointed time Bowie showed up once more at the blacksmith shop, whereupon Black laid before him for inspection not one, but two knives. He explained to Bowie that herefore he had always made knives according to the customer's specifications, but that in this instance he had decided to make another, as he had always thought a knife should be made "for peculair purposes.". He asked Bowie to take his choice. James Bowie took the knives in hand, testing each for balance as well asfor keeness of edge and resilience. He was a connoisseur of such weapons, and it did not take him long to decide that Black's pattern was the better of the two. Both knives were singled-edged, but that made according to the blacksmit's ideas was double-edged along the length of the curve from the point. This was the innovation that appealed to Bowie; he chose Black's model and discarded his own."
Black gets the credit for the design. Bowie get the credit for making the design famous.
07-28-2010, 03:42 AM
What Chargar wrote is similar to what I have found in reading about Bowie. The Sand Bar was fought with a good general purpose table knife. back then, special purpose cutlery was not common. One knife would suffice for many tasks and because of that, they were generally heavier than we think appropriate now. Raymnod Thorpe did a lot of research and is still a good source of info.
07-28-2010, 10:03 AM
Trying to nail down the real James Black and the origins of the Bowie knife is like trying to nail Jello to a tree. There are articles, books and even a P.hd. disseration or two on the subject. Some agree on some points and others disagree on all points.
Flayderman wrote a thome on the subject, but others have disassembled his conclusions point by point. At the end of the day there is no direct evidence. It is all hearsay and oral history. None of it would stand up in a court of law. There is plenty or very old oral history and that is what Thorpe draws from. But oral history will never satisfy anybody in search of the facts. In the case of the Bowie knife, the facts are not to be found. My money is on Thorpes story and it is as good as any and better than some.
My best guess, is the original Black made knife had no guard and a coffin hilt. The blade was probably 8 to 9 inches long and did not have pronounced clip point that we so often see. The top edge was straight, without the gut point, and a straight line from the tip to where the blade straightens out from the curve toward the tip. I think Randalls 1 has about the right length, depth, thickness and balance to give a good idea of the handling qualities of the original, albiet some differences in the design of the blade.
Randall also makes a Raymond Thorpe bowie that is a rendition of what Thorpe thought the original was like. It is a massive piece of steel with a 14 inch blade, long clip point, 1/4 inch thick and about 2.5 inched deep at the hilt. I owned one of these knives from the mid-60s to the late 70s. It was a clumbsy and unwieldy hunk of iron. It was closer to a hand ax or short machete than a knife. I doubt if any knife fighter would pick it. You would have to have wrist's like King Kong to control it.
Bowie and his knife are an eduring American legend, but I doubt if the arguments will ever end about the facts.
07-29-2010, 04:09 AM
...Bowie and his knife are an eduring American legend, but I doubt if the arguments will ever end about the facts...
Yeah, but black forged the blade with a piece of heaven or hell included in it!
08-04-2010, 10:25 AM
There are many different Bowie designs. The only original Bowie knife I have ever seen, made by Rezin Bowie as I recall, is the Shivley Bowie which is in the Old Capitol Museum in Jackson Mississippi. It looks nothing like the clip pointed blade that we call a Bowie today. In fact, it is much more like a Wusthoff or Henckels chef's knife.
08-05-2010, 08:39 PM
" That's not a knoife...
THIS is a knoife!"
(Apologies to those down under for my representation of accent. Hey, it was only a movie...)
08-15-2010, 11:16 AM
The reading I did in my younger years stated to the effect that it was an American short sword. Louisiana was still very immersed in the dueling culture, and that was where Mr. Bowie drew his inspiration. I think cleaving off a limb will effect a conclusion in a duel?
08-15-2010, 11:27 PM
That's a hell of a question..
the bowie is a little diferent to everyone, some see a large clunky tank of a knife as a bowie, others the sheffield style fancy types.
To me, a REAL bowie is bult as a general purpose tool and weapon, and built to last as the only tool one may have. Healthy thickness of blade, yet not unweildy or akward as it is properly tapered and ground. Good edge geometry allows whittling or chopping, and proper diferential heat treatment allows heavy use, including a little gambler style pitching. double gaurds, perhaps a coffin handle, but many possible handles work.
In my mind, if it is difficult to use for camp chores, akward to carry or use, clunky or poorly balanced, or delicate of consrtuction, a bowie it ain't.
Powered by vBulletin® Version 4.2.1 Copyright © 2013 vBulletin Solutions, Inc. All rights reserved.