Bowie knife

Bowie knife specifically refers to a style of knife popularized by Colonel James "Jim" Bowie and first made by James Black, although its common use refers to any large sheath knife with a clip point.


The historical Bowie was not a single design, but was a series of knives improved several times by Jim Bowie over the years. The earliest such knife, made by Jesse Clifft at Rezin Bowie's request resembled the Spanish hunting knives of the time and differed little from a common butcher knife. The blade as later described by Rezin Bowie, was nine and one half inches long, one quarter inch thick and one and one half inches wide. It was straight-backed having no clip point nor any hand guard with simple riveted wood scale handle. Rezin presented the knife to his brother because of a recent violent encounter with one Norris Wright.Walker, Greg (1993). "Battle Blades: A Professional's Guide to Combat/Fighting Knives" (Hardcover), pages 210 ISBN 0-87364-732-7] This is the knife that became famous after the sandbar duel of 1827. Bowie and Wright were attendants on opposite sides of the duel. When the principals quit the field, a fight broke out among the attendees and Bowie, though seriously injured by a rifle shot, killed Wright and drove his companions from the sandbar. Bowie and his knife, described by witnesses as "a large butcher knife," quickly attained celebrity and the Bowie brothers received many requests for knives of the same design. They commissioned more ornate custom blades from various knife makers including Daniel Searles and John Constable.cite web |last = Cumpston|first= Mike|title = The American Exalibur: Jim Bowie's lethal legacy | work = Guns Magazine| date = 04/01/2007 | url =| accessdate = 7/21/2008 ]

The version most commonly known as the historical Bowie knife would usually have a blade of at least six inches (15cm) in length, some reaching 12 inches (30cm) or more, with a relatively broad blade that was an inch and a half to two inches wide (4 to 5 cm) and made of steel usually between 3/16" and 1/4" thick (from 4.8 to 6.4 millimeters). The back of the blade sometimes had a strip of soft metal (normally brass or copper) inlaid which some believe was intended to catch an opponent's blade while others hold it was intended to provide support and absorb shock to help prevent breaking of poor quality steel or poorly heat treated blades common on imported Bowie knives from England. Bowie knives also often had an upper guard that bent forward at an angle (S-guard) intended to catch an opponent's blade or provide protection to the owner's hand during parries and corps-a-corps. Some Bowie knives had a notch on the bottom of the blade near the hilt known as a "Spanish Notch." The Spanish Notch is often cited as a mechanism for catching an opponent's blade, however, some Bowie researchers hold that the Spanish Notch is ill suited to this function and frequently fails to achieve the desired results. These researchers, instead, hold that the Spanish Notch has the much more mundane function as a tool for stripping sinew and repairing rope and nets, as a guide to assist in sharpening the blade (assuring that the sharpening process starts at a specific point and not further up the edge), or as a point to relieve stress on the blade during use. The version attributed to blacksmith James Black had the back edge of the curved clip point, also called the "false edge," sharpened in order to allow someone trained in European techniques of saber fencing to execute the maneuver called the "back cut" or "back slash". A brass quillon was attached to protect the hand, usually cast in a mold.The English Sheffield knife making region was quick to enter the market with "Bowie Knives" of a distinctive pattern that most modern users identify with the true form Bowie. The Sheffield pattern blade is thinner than the Black/Musso knives while the false edge is often longer with a less pronounced clip.The shape and style of blade was such that the Bowie knife could serve usefully as a camp and hunting tool as well as a weapon. Many knives and daggers existed that could serve well as weapons, and many knives existed that could serve well as tools for hunters and trappers, but the Bowie knife was designed to do both jobs well, and is still popular with hunters and sportsmen even in the present day.

The curved portion of the edge, toward the point, is for removing the skin from a carcass, and the straight portion of the edge, toward the guard, is for chores involving cutting slices, similar in concept to the traditional Finnish hunting knife, the "puukko" (though the typical early 19th-century Bowie knife was far larger and heavier than the typical puukko). Arkansas culturalist and researcher Russell T. Johnson describes the James Black knife in the following manner and at the same time captures the quintessence of the 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." Most such knives intended for hunting are only sharpened on one edge, to reduce the danger of cutting oneself while butchering and skinning the carcass.Since the 1960s, Bowie knives with sawteeth machined into the back side of the blade appeared inspired by the Air Force survival knife NSN: 7340-00-098-4327. The sawteeth were intended to cut through the Plexiglas canopy of a downed aircraft. During the Vietnam war the US Army issued them to helicopter crews for the same purpose.


The Sandbar Fight

The first knife Bowie became famous with was allegedly designed by Jim Bowie's brother Rezin in Avoyelles Parish, Louisiana, and smithed by blacksmith Jesse Cleft out of an old file. Period court documents indicate that Rezin Bowie and Cleft were well acquainted with one another. Rezin's granddaughter claimed in an 1885 letter to Louisiana State University that she personally witnessed Cleft make the knife for her grandfather.

This knife became famous as the knife used by Bowie at the Sandbar Fight, which was the famous 1827 duel between Bowie and several men, including a Major Norris Wright of Alexandria, Louisiana. The fight took place on a sandbar in the Mississippi River across from Natchez, Mississippi. In this battle Bowie was stabbed, shot, and beaten half to death but managed to win the fight.

Jim Bowie's older brother John claimed that the knife at the Sandbar Fight was not Cleft's knife, but a knife specifically made for Bowie by a blacksmith named Snowden.

James Black's Bowie Knife

The most famous version of the Bowie knife was designed by Jim Bowie and presented to Arkansas blacksmith James Black in the form of a carved wooden model in December 1830. Black produced the knife ordered by Bowie, and at the same time created another based on Bowie's original design but with a sharpened edge on the curved top edge of the blade. Black offered Bowie his choice and Bowie chose the modified version.cite web |last = Johnson|first= Russel|title = The Bowie Knife and the Arkansas Toothpick| work = The Arkansas Travelog Home Page| date = 2006 | url =| accessdate = 7/21/2008 ] Knives like that one, with a blade shaped like that of the Bowie knife, but with a pronounced false edge, are today called "Sheffield Bowie" knives, because this blade shape became so popular that cutlery factories in Sheffield, England were mass-producing such knives for export to the U.S. by 1850, usually with a handle made from either hardwood, stag horn, or bone, and sometimes with a guard and other fittings of sterling silver.Bowie returned, with the Black-made knife, to Texas and was involved in a knife fight with three men who had been hired to kill him.Pacella, Gerard (2002), 100 Legendary Knives, Iola, USA, Krause Publications, 145. ISBN 0873494172] Bowie killed the three would-be assassins with his new knife and the fame of the knife grew. Legend holds 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 more 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.

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, shortly after his wife's death, Black was nearly blinded when, while he was in bed with illness, 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. Black 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. Jones would later become Governor of Arkansas.

The birthplace of the Bowie knife is now part of the Old Washington Historic State Park which has over 40 restored historical buildings and other facilities including Black's shop. The park is known as "The Colonial Williamsburg of Arkansas". The American Bladesmithing Society has also established a college at the site to teach new apprentices, journeyman, and masters in the art of bladesmithing.

Variations and collecting

Over the years many knives have been called Bowie knives and the term has almost become a generic term for any large sheath knife. During the early days of the American Civil War Confederate soldiers carried immense knives called D-Guard Bowie knives. Many of these knives could have qualified as short swords and were often made from old saw or scythe blades.

The Bowie is still popular with collectors, in addition to various knife manufacturing companies there are hundreds of custom knife makers producing Bowies and variations. The KA-BAR Knife of World War II fame is based on the Bowie design. [Citation | last = Walker | first = Greg | title = KA-BAR: The Next Generation of the Ultimate Fighting Knife | place = Boulder, Colorado | publisher = Paladin Press | year = 2001 | isbn = 1581601204] Custom knife maker, Ernest Emerson originally used a Bowie knife in his logo and manufactures a folding Bowie known in his line-up as the CQC13.

The Bowie knife is sometimes confused with the "Arkansas toothpick," possibly due to the interchangeable use of the names "Arkansas toothpick", "Bowie knife", and "Arkansas knife" in the antebellum period. [ [ Bowie Knife - Encyclopedia of Arkansas ] ] The Arkansas toothpick is essentially a heavy dagger with a straight 15-25-inch blade. While balanced and weighted for throwing, the toothpick can also be used for thrusting and slashing. James Black is also credited with inventing the "Arkansas Toothpick" but no firm evidence exists for this claim. Jim Bowie was posthumously inducted into the Blade Magazine Cutlery Hall of Fame at the 1988 Blade Show in Atlanta, Georgia in recognition for the impact that his design made upon generations of knife makers and cutlery companies.cite news |title = Bowie Inducted into the Hall of Fame| work = Blade Magazine| date = 8/01/1988 | accessdate = 7/30/2008 ]

A Bowie knife also appears on the shoulder sleeve insignia of the U.S. 39th Infantry Brigade, headquartered in Little Rock, Arkansas.

Legal status

In the late 1830s, several southern states passed anti-bowie knife legislation attempting to curtail the manufacture and sale of the implements. In 1837, the Alabama legislature imposed a $100 transfer tax on bowie knives and stipulated that any killing with a bowie knife was murder regardless of the circumstances (Cramer 1999).In the state where Jim Bowie died, Texas, it is now a criminal offense (generally a Class A misdemeanor) to carry a Bowie knife, as a Bowie knife is classified in Texas as an "illegal knife". [Tex. Penal Code sec. 46.01(6) and sec. 46.02.] This law does not apply if you are traveling in a private vehicle because it is now legal to carry a handgun, knife, or club while en route to or from the vehicle or engaged in a sporting activity involving the use of such equipment.

In fiction

* Quincey Morris used one to kill Dracula in the book of the same name and in some of the movie versions.
* In "Back to the Future Part III" Seamus McFly tells Marty that his brother Martin McFly was stabbed with a Bowie knife.
* Crocodile Dundee always carries a Bowie Knife.
*The artist David Bowie, (aka David Robert Jones), adapted his name from Jim Bowie and his Bowie knife in order to avoid possible confusion with Davy Jones of The Monkees. [Buckley (2000): p.33]
* The villain from horror movie "Wolf Creek" uses a bowie knife to torture his victims.
* In "Happy Tree Friends", the character Flippy uses a bowie knife during his murders.
*The film "The Iron Mistress" starring Alan Ladd, was a fictionalised account of Jim Bowie and his famous knife. An excerpt from the film has been used in recent times in humorous out-take TV compilations, such as It'll Be Alright On The Night for unintended humorous dialogue, In the scene where Bowie sadly confides to his ladyfriend his loss in knife-fighting self-confidence to the extent that he stopped wearing the knife with the words - while looking downward at his groin "It's all gone - all of it !" - to which she replies "But you still wear the sheath !".
* Bowie knife is the weapon of choice of Gene, main antagonist in the PSP game "".
* In Harry Harrison's book "Deathworld 3", the protagonist is using "an unusual knife that he had forged and tempered himself, after an ancient design called the 'bowie'."
* The bodyguard Brock Samson from the television show "The Venture Bros." carries a Bowie knife with a saw filed onto the rear side of the blade.
* In the movie, "Scream", the Bowie knife is the weapon of choice for the horror character, Ghostface.
*In the Anime "Neon Genesis Evangelion", the main character's mecha utilises a proportionally sized knife called a Progressive Knife which vibrates at very high frequency, it cuts on a molecular level and was stylised after a Bowie knife.
*The Bowie knife is the mélee weapon of the popular video game, "Counter-Strike".
*In Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Canadian harpooner Ned Land carries a Bowie knife.
*In The Difference Engine, by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, a "Texican" assassin guts his victim with a Bowie knife, which is described in detail.
*In the possible future of Lilo and Stitch, Angel and Reuben possibly used two to take out their enemies.
*In The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray, the serial killer, Stitch-Face, is seen carrying a Bowie knife.
*The fictional character John Rambo used hollow handled Bowie type knives made by the late Arkansas knife maker Jimmy Lile in the first two films, but used a more traditional Bowie knife made by custom knife maker Gil Hibben in Rambo III.


Further reading

*Cramer, Clayton E. Concealed Weapon Laws of the Early Republic, Dueling, Southern Violence, and Moral Reform USA, Praeger Publishers, 1999

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Look at other dictionaries:

  • Bowie knife — Bow ie knife A knife with a strong blade from ten to fifteen inches long, and double edged near the point; used as a hunting knife, and formerly as a weapon in the southwestern part of the United States. It was named from its inventor, Colonel… …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • bowie knife — ► NOUN ▪ a long knife with a blade double edged at the point. ORIGIN named after the American frontiersman Jim Bowie (1799 1836) …   English terms dictionary

  • bowie knife — ☆ bowie knife [bo͞o′ē, bō′ē ] n. [after Col. James Bowie (1799? 1836) or ? his brother, Rezin, U.S. frontiersmen] a steel knife about fifteen inches long, with a single edge, usually carried in a sheath, used originally by American frontiersmen… …   English World dictionary

  • bowie knife — 1827, named for its inventor, U.S. fighter and frontiersman Col. James Jim Bowie (1799 1836), and properly pronounced boo ee …   Etymology dictionary

  • Bowie Knife —    The Bowie knife, once called an Arkansas toothpick, is a dangerous weapon. It is a dagger, strongly made, with a one edged blade of some twelve inches in length that curves to a point. It has a heavy guard of horn between the hilt and the… …   Dictionary of eponyms

  • bowie knife — /boh ee, booh ee/ a heavy sheath knife having a long, single edged blade. [1830 40, Amer.; named after James BOWIE, for whom the knife was designed, either by James or his brother Rezin P. Bowie (1793 1841)] * * * …   Universalium

  • bowie knife — bow′ie knife [[t]ˈboʊ i, ˈbu i[/t]] n. cvb a heavy sheath knife having a long, single edged blade • Etymology: 1830–40, amer.; after James Bowie …   From formal English to slang

  • bowie knife — noun Etymology: James Bowie Date: 1836 a stout single edged hunting knife with part of the back edge curved concavely to a point and sharpened …   New Collegiate Dictionary

  • bowie knife — [ bəʊi] noun a long knife with a blade double edged at the point. Origin C19: named after the American frontiersman Jim Bowie …   English new terms dictionary

  • bowie knife — /ˈboʊi naɪf/ (say bohee nuyf) noun a heavy sheath knife having a long, single edged blade. {named after James Bowie, 1796–1836, American pioneer} …   Australian English dictionary

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