When you hear the words Bowie Knife chances are a burly buckskin frontiersman or wild cowboy probably pops in your head carrying a huge clip point knife with a cross guard, or maybe you picture something a little more modern from your own collection like a Buck 120 General or a KA-BAR USMC. But what if I told you that James Bowie, the man the knife was named after, carried something that looked a lot more like a big thick steak knife?
Much of what we think we know about the Bowie Knife is steeped in a lot of tall tails, aged retellings, historical liberties, and Hollywood magic. Even in the early 19th century when these events were happening it’s not hard to see why everyone was captivated by the Bowie Knife. It was a knife said to have been designed by providence wielded by a near immortal demigod. Who wouldn’t want to have a piece of that hanging from their belt! We’re going to do our best to separate fact from fiction while still having some fun with the awesome unverifiable history of the Bowie Knife.
The Bowie Knife is uniquely American and more than once has rightfully been called the Excalibur of America. In place of noble knights, wizards, and women living in water the Bowie Knives story was forged in brawls, battle fields, and frontiers in the callused hands of men bigger than life. However don’t be fooled by it’s rough American upbringing because the Bowie Knife was still very much a king maker and still very much wrapped in a thick layer of magic mysticism, and folklore.
Known as the knife that cuts twice due to it’s sharpened false edge the Bowie Knife seems to carry a blessing and a curse for anyone who gets to closely tangled up with it with an almost poetic historical cycle of live by the knife die by the knife and that tradition kicks off with a 90 second brawl that happened almost 200 years ago
In September of 1827 the infamous Sandbar fight took place on the Mississippi river just outside of Natchez. The dueling parties had to show up for honor's sake and their duel ended without bloodshed and a handshake. However there were other motives from the spectators of both parties and a life or death brawl broke out with our man James Bowie right in the middle of it. There are multiple accounts of what happened that day with both sides claiming the bravest actions and the number of fighters ranging from 16-40. From the haze that time has put over the actual events of the sandbar fight we know three things for sure; one, James Bowie was the target of the aggression, two, he sustained multiple stab, cut, and gunshot wounds that would have easily killed a lesser man especially given the time period, and finally, he dispatched his foe Norris Wright with his yet to be famous Bowie Knife.
( Norris Wright Stabs Jim Bowie at the SandBar Fight. )
The duel and brawl took place in the antebellum south where such events were not that uncommon. It may be due to the fact that in all accounts Bowie did fight bravely and did win against great odds with his knife, or that the injured Bowie survived the wounds he had sustained or maybe there was just a slow news cycle. Either way the Sandbar quickly became national news and immortalized into the very history of the United States. With every major paper and regional paper reprinting and covering the event it was a relatively short time until people from all walks of life were going to their bladesmith or more commonly their blacksmith and requesting a knife like Bowie’s. The only problem however was that no one knew exactly what a James Bowie Knife looked like. In fact to this day we have no idea what the sandbar knife looked like because there was never an illustration of it; the only description we have is that it was a ‘Large Butcher Knife’.
This is an important place to have a quick chat about the position personal defense weapons had at this point in American history. Open carrying swords had fallen out of style due to the fact that the colonies and then the United States had three major wars take place on their shores over the last 70 years, the most of which was a full blown revolution. While a lot of the United States at that time was very wild the people seemed to have had their fill of open displays of violence, and swords, a real sign of marshal intent, had fallen out of favor. There were of course single shot pistols but these were notoriously unreliable as a daily defense weapon and even if successful were only good for one shot. Plenty of people were carrying concealed daggers as well as cane swords. Both proved to not be as utilitarian as circumstances required as well as having other drawbacks.
In short there was a demand for a tough utilitarian personal defense tool that could be easily used and maintained while still being seen as socially acceptable.
( Bowie #1 Believed To Be Attributed To James Black )
Even by the tamest accounts of Bowie's injuries it’s pretty miraculous that he survived and most people at the time could see that since most people at the time had experience with violence of some sort in their lifespan. It was Jim Bowies physical strength and the need for a better self defense option that wrote the check for the Bowie Knife’s launch into the public imagination. With the only description of the knife he used being vague at best and no real mass production of such knives, the true form of the Bowie Knife as we know it today would be formed over the next decade through hundreds of makers and thousands of knives being sold, carried, and used. Imagine being a blacksmith and someone coming in saying they want a knife like Bowies' you’re going to take what you know in your craft, what knives you have experience with, and whatever second hand accounts you have heard and do your best. These early makers were the best America had to offer in that many were first or second generation immigrants from all over bringing their special sauce to the USA and to the Bowie design
America was hitting her stride as a frontier nation and just as other nations throughout history she needed a blade to accompany her pioneers. The idea of a stout, simple, and useful knife/short sword was definitely nothing new to history one only has to look at the Seax or Bollock knife to see the original Bowie Knife designs DNA not to mention the Spanish bull knife and assortment of daggers/heavy knives in use at the time. There was very little to anything original about the first ‘big butcher knife’ Bowies. But this frontier was a little bit different from others of the past because it had a more or less equal class of people free to earn and spend as they pleased, as well as the best technology the world had to offer at the time to push designs and ideas forward.
( James Black (left) & Jacob Buzzard (right) )
There are a handful of USA makers that pop up at this time that gain some notoriety with many of them claiming to have created the first Bowie Knife. One man we know for sure to have made blades and is tied right into the magical early history of the Bowie Knife story is James Black. Now depending on accounts James Black either made the blade Bowie had on him at the sandbar fight, perfected a subsequent design that Bowie came up with and then carried with him until his death at the Alamo, or was just a really good bladesmith that many turned to to make them a Bowie style blade. For sure James Black is attributed to Bowie #1 a historical Bowie Knife with the inscription Bowie #1 on it and is the reason that the Bowie Knife is the official knife of Arkansas since he was based out of Washington Arkansas for years. But this wouldn’t be an early Bowie Knife character worth mentioning if he was not also steeped in his own folklore. James Black’s tempering and hardening techniques were kept top secret and each blade he made reportedly went through the ‘hickory test’ in which Black would take a newly finished knife and whittle on a seasoned hickory block for an hour. If once he was done whittling the knife could not smoothly shave hair he would throw it out. Governor Jones of Arkansas was convinced that Black possessed the "Damascus Secret" meaning he had rediscovered an ancient perfect form of tempering and hardening steel that had been lost to time. When pressed Black told Jones that no one taught him this method but that it came to him in a mysterious manner which he could not explain. Through a series of betrayals and bad luck this prophet of steel and edge ended up blind, penniless, and homeless. He was taken in by Governor Jones' family and for repayment he offered to write down his top secret 10 step process for perfect steel tempering. James Black was known to have a mind like a steel trap but when handed the pen and paper to share his mysterious secrets it’s said that his mind went blank in the process and that the effort to remember essentially drove him mad. Governor Jones who we are getting all this information from declared, “God gave him the secret for his own purposes, but was unwilling for him to impart it to others.”
Now this is a first hand historical account from a United States Governor. This is just one of many mysterious tales surrounding the Bowie Knife in its early days. Putting aside the supernatural questions of are we alone in the universe, and was the Bowie Knife a divine gift to the American West, we have more practical questions like when did the Bowie Knife get cross guards and its clipped point blade? To answer all of this it seems high time to bring in an expert
Mark Zalensky Editor of Knife Magazine and member of the Antique Bowie Society agreed to jump on a call with me and talk about some of the finer points of the Bowie's upbringing. Mark agreed that the Bowie was slowly formed over a few year process into the knife we recognize today. He also confirmed that most Bowie knives in the 19th century in the USA were coming from Sheffield England. Watch the video at the top of the blog for all of Mark's awesome insight.
Truly after the civil war ended references to Bowie knives began to taper off in a big way. The focus on fixed blades really started to turn towards hunting and sportsman style knives with drop point style blades and more belly in them. That’s not to say that the use of Bowies or even the knife style completely disappeared but it did go out of fashion almost as fast as it went in. Between local laws against Bowie knives, reliable multi-shot firearms, and a war torn country that had its fair share of violence the Bowie's appeal waned. In fact it was not until the United States' next biggest conflicts in WW1 and WW2 that we saw a resurgence.
The Bowie's involvement in WW1 was fairly ad hoc. The great war was one that took the world by storm and saw a lot of home made/brought from home knives used in trench warfare. The Germans did have a standard issue knife that saw some play in the battle field that was very Bowie-esque and of course the Americans had the MK1 dagger, but due to it’s expensive production cost and non-carry friendly design an initial order of over 1 million MK1’s was reduced to just over 100K. Most fighting knives of WW1 were simply hunting knives, many in the Bowie shape repurposed for camp and self protection duties.
( US Soldier With MK1 Dagger In Hand.)
It was WW2 that truly brought the Bowie design into the modern era and back into the American story with KA-BAR's now famous USMC. It should be noted that at this time the family that ran KA-BAR had been in the cutlery business for almost 50 years with plenty of ups and downs. At the time of the war like all cutlery manufacturers the current iteration of KA-BAR called Union Cutlery started making knives for the war effort and got their version of knife 12 19 C2 approved which we now know as the USMC Fighting and Utility Knife. What I mean by "their version" is that Union Cutlery was not the only company making the 12 19 C2 but by all accounts they were making it best. Troops quickly learned that the KA-BAR stamped versions were superior to the others being made and started to refer to the knife style, regardless of maker, as KA-BARs. Because of this popularity Union Cutlery ended up changing their name after the war to KA-BAR in 1952. So many KA-BAR USMC knives were made during WW2 that another one would not have to be made for issue until the 1970’s! Even with all that success KA-BAR felt the sting of the knife that cuts twice, the blessing and the curse of being closely associated with this knife of legend by it first helping them and then by it putting a nail in their coffin. Even with all the post war brand recognition KA-BAR suffered the same fate as swords before Bowies and Bowies after the Civil War. The USMC was viewed as a fighting knife plain and simple and America had had enough with war at that time. To this day KA-BAR has changed hands many times and still sits squarely in the shadow of the USMC.
Many small hobby knife makers that would later become important in modern knife history were also contributing to the war effort in WW2 from homemade operations all over the country. One of theses makers was in a pastor from a little town in Idaho with a forge in the basement of his church. His name was Hoyt Buck and his 119 special is an essential link in the reason we are still even talking about Bowie Knives today.
After WW2 American knife making started to walk its way into a golden age of custom makers and by the late 1960’s custom knife making started to make its way from a hobby side business to a practical full time endeavor. Bob Loveless, A.G. Russell, Jimmy Lile, Bo Randall and many others were turning out some of the best made and most beautiful knives the world had ever seen and you guessed it…a lot of what they were making were Bowie shaped or inspired American made gold.
( Hoyt and Daisy Buck Outside Of Their Church In Idaho.)
Hoyt Buck had once apprenticed as a black smith in his home state of Kansas as a young man but it was not until the war that he picked up his tools and skills again. Much like James Black, Hoyt Buck had his own secret recipe for heat treating that he guarded. Instead of whittling on a hickory stump the Bucks early on would baton through bolts with no damage to their blades to prove how tough their knives truly were. In 1946 Hoyt and his wife, both ailing in health, moved in with their son Al in San Diego. Unlike James Black, Hoyt had someone to pass on his own unique knife making skills too and although Hoyt died in 1949 his son Al had mastered everything his father had passed on As a result Buck made it through some rough times until they were able to incorporate in 1961 finally creating a steady supply of Bowie knives to this very day and also seemingly breaking the curse of the Bowie Knife by concretely evolving it from a dedicated fighting knife to a hunting/camping knife that could handle itself just fine if the necessity arose. Not only is the Buck 120 General one of my personal favorite knives of all time, the 110, 119, and 124 have an undeniable legacy as some of the greatest production fixed blades ever made. Buck even makes a more collector style Bowie called the 916 that has even more of that wild west Bowie feel.
( The Amazing Buck 120 General.)
This post WW2 era was seeing a big resurgence of interest in the old west of the United States. Westerns were the Marvel Universe of the time with Hollywood and TV both saturated with cowboys and indians. For most of this era Buck was a small player and names like Case and Schrade ruled the popular market. While pop culture had it’s moment with the West you can be guaranteed that the Bowie Knife was not left behind. A book called The Iron Mistress was released that was specifically about Jim Bowie and his knife not long after it was turned into one of the most popular movies of the time. There were a handful of movies about the Alamo all making sure to pay homage in some way to Jim Bowie and his legendary knife. There was even a short lived TV show called The Adventures of Jim Bowie. Interestingly the lead actor of the TV show blamed its lack of success on the fact that they would never let him use the knife. Davy Crocket and all the other frontiersmen/cowboys on TV could shoot whoever they wanted but the knife was seen as too violent.
All of these stories worked in their own bit of folklore like the original knife being made from meteorite, or designed for throwing just as much as for fighting, or that James Bowie was a boy scout vigilante who had never done wrong. Most interestingly they all chose to show the Bowie Knife as we came to know it, not as it actually existed at the time. Most of these productions were informed in some way by a book titled “Bowie Knife” by Raymond Thorp. While a good portion of what Thorp wrote has been called into question by more modern scholars it was considered gospel at the time and has gone a long way in building the Bowie myth. The book is actually available for free online. I put a link to it down below. I recommend you check it out, not for historical bearing, but for a great read with some pretty fantastical Bowie accounts in it.
Custom makers, Hollywood and then Buck did the most to keep the Bowie Knife alive. And as mentioned that survival seemed to be predicated on the fact that the Bowie Knife was no longer a weapon first but a tool that had many uses. Unlike swords and daggers before it the Bowie Knife with slight variations in designs proved to be a near perfect blade good for anything an edged tool was needed for.
From this crowning milestone in the Bowie's history it pops up from time to time in its more pure form recapturing all of our imaginations. In the 1980’s we have Rambo, Crocodile Dundee, Bill Bagwell’s Battle Blade articles, and Cold Steel's introduction of pure to form fighting Bowies with the Laredo and Natchez. These all helped to kick off the tactical knife craze that shaped much of the modern pocket knife and produced tons of variations on the Bowie pattern. In more recent history even Spyderco Knives has done a ton with the Bowie name and shape integrating it into a handful of folders and even created another true to form fighting style Bowie just a few years ago.
Thanks to shows like Forged in Fire and the advent of social media/YouTube there are countless custom makers building big Bowie inspired blades. I think Peter Kohler at Dark Timber Knives is leading the pack making knives that Jim Bowie, Davy Crocket, or any frontiersman/cowboy would have traded their left arm for. On top of craftsmanship and execution I think Peter also has some of that early James Black magic that he is instilling in his knives. When you handle one you really get the sense there is something more to the knife than just what you can see.
( Peter Kohler From Dark Timber Knives.)
In the production world of course we still have Buck pumping out their unbeatable tried and true classics. When we look at the spirit of the Bowie Knife as a purpose built fighter that could handle just about anything else you throw at it I think TOPS Knives is carrying that torch through pretty much their entire catalog. Take the MPAT for an example. This was designed by Seth Brown who works with fighter jet aircrews. It’s by line is 'Kill and Survive' and it is purpose built to do everything you need it to do while being attached to your combat vest and be out of the way when you don’t need it. Almost 200 years from when the first modern looking Bowie’s were carried and you can’t deny it’s fingerprints here on a knife designed to be used in fighter jets!
The Bowie has even transcended into the world of high art. Tashi Bharucha and a group called the Unnamed society have just put together the most amazing Bowie Knife project of all time. Using a design that Tashi came up with they have contracted the best knife makers in the world to create 50 Bowie knives in Tashi’s pattern but gave them full freedom in every other aspect of the knife. This project is incredible in scope and in Bowie Knife history. Each knife could be used for any task you could imagine but each is also a singular piece of art honoring one of the infamous knives in history.
( Full Unnamed Society Custom Jim Bowie Project Collection.)
The staying power in the Bowie is equal parts practical and romantic. Forged in the hands of leaders, pioneers, and rough men in the some of wildest wildernesses the world has known it’s no surprise that it came out the other side a near perfect implement for what humans have been questing for since the stone age, a fang and claw to help feed and protect themselves.
Further Resources and Fun Links:
Raymond Thorp's Bowie Knife Book
First Episode of the Adventures of Jim Bowie TV Show
A More In-Depth Video on James Bowie
Video Highlighting The Historic Arkansas Museum Bowie Knife Exhibit
Epic AJ Russel Talking About Bowies, Rambo Knives, and Tactical Knives
Lynn Thompson Talking About Cold Steel Bowies. Skip to 1:56 for Lynn