A Bowie knife is a pattern of fixed-blade fighting knife created by James Black in the early 19th century for Jim Bowie, who had become famous for his use of a large knife at a duel known as the Sandbar Fight.
Bowie Knives have come to incorporate several recognizable and characteristic design features, although in common usage the term refers to any large sheath knife with a cross guard and a clip point. The Bowie knife pattern is very popular with collectors; in addition to various knife manufacturing companies there are hundreds of custom knife makers producing Bowies and variations.
In 1827 an Arkansas plantation owner named Rezin Pleasant Bowie was attacked by a bull. Rezin tried to stab the bull in the head, but his knife could not pierce the bull’s skull. Rezin managed to survive nonetheless, and in his quest for a more reliable knife he had an old file ground down to create a large single-edged knife. The blade was over 23cm (9in) long and 4cm (1.5in) wide, and it was fitted with a cross guard and simple wooden grip.
Rezin gave a knife of this form to his brother James, who later that same year was involved in the famous “sandbar fight” at Vidalia, Louisiana, on the Mississippi River. James was shot and stabbed, but still managed to use his brother’s knife to disembowel one assailant, wound another and chase off a third. The local press reported the fight, along with details of James Bowie’s unusually large knife, and the classic American legend of Bowie Knives then began.
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The historical Bowie knife 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 Clift at Bowie's brother's request resembled Spanish hunting knives of the day, and differed little from a common butcher knife. The blade, as later described by Rezin Bowie, was 9.5 inches (24 cm) long, 0.25 inches (0.64 cm) thick and 1.5 inches (3.8 cm) wide. It was straight-backed, described by witnesses as "a large butcher knife", and having no clip-point nor any handguard, with a simpleriveted wood scale handle.
According to an 1847 article, the Bowie knife was originally designed to fill the need for 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. By this time, the 'Bowie knife' was already being made in a variety of sizes.
This is referred to as a false edge as from a distance it looks sharpened, although it may or may not be. Regardless of whether or not the false edge is sharp, it serves to take metal away from the point, streamlining the tip and thus enhancing the penetration capability of the blade during a stab. The Bowie knife's design also lends itself to use as a hunting knife for skinning or butchering game.
The Bowie knife became famous as the knife used by Bowie at the Sandbar Fight, a 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, and is the only documented fight in which Bowie was known to have employed his Bowie knife design. In this battle Bowie was stabbed, shot, and beaten half to death but managed to win the fight using the large knife.
Bowie Knife Designs
Later versions of the Bowie knife had a blade of at least 8 inches (20 cm) in length, some reaching 12 inches (30 cm) 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 to 1⁄4 in (4.763 to 6.350 mm) thick. Bowie knives often had an upper guard that bent forward at an angle (an S-guard) intended to catch an opponent's blade or provide protection to the owner's hand during parries. One characteristic of Bowie knives is the clip point at the top of the blade, which brings the tip of the blade lower than the spine and in line with the handle for better control during thrusting attacks. As the goal is to produce a sharp, stabbing point, most Bowie knives have a bevel ground along the clip, typically 1/4 of the way, but sometimes much further running the entire top-edge.
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. Knives such as this, 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, deer antler, or bone, and sometimes with a guard and other fittings of sterling silver.
State Laws Regarding Bowie Knives
Certain locales in the United States have legislation restricting or prohibiting the carrying of a "Bowie knife". Most of these laws were passed decades earlier, originally in the interest of controlling or eliminating the then-common practice of "dueling", a term which had degenerated from a rarely used social custom into a generalized description for any knife or gun fight between two contestants. In some states, many of these laws are still in force today whereas, in other states, these laws were repealed or amended.
In 1837, the year after Bowie’s death at the Alamo, the Alabama legislature passed laws imposing a $100 transfer tax on 'Bowie' knives and decreeing that anyone carrying a Bowie knife who subsequently killed a person in a fight would be charged with premeditated murder. Louisiana and Virginia prohibited the concealed carrying of any Bowie knife, while Mississippi made such knives illegal when carried concealed or when used as a dueling weapon. In Tennessee, the use of Bowie knives to settle disputes on the spot so alarmed state legislators that in 1838 they not only made the concealed carrying of a Bowie knife a criminal felony, but also prohibited the use of a Bowie knife in any altercation, regardless of self-defense or other mitigating excuse.
This prohibition does not apply to a person carrying the Bowie knife on one's own property, private properties etc. nor to any person carrying a Bowie knife inside of or directly en route to a motor vehicle or watercraft owned by that person or under that person's control.