Bowie Knife

A Bowie Knife, popularized by Colonel James “Jim” Bowie, is a style of fixed-blade knife although any large sheath knife is commonly referred to as a Bowie. The knife started gaining popularity after Jim Bowie used it in a duel at a fight called the Sandbar Fight. Ever since then the knife has been popular with collectors.

The original knife was not a single design but one that Bowie worked on and improved on several times. Jesse Clifft created the first knife and made it to resemble the Spanish hunting knives of the time which differed little from a standard butcher knife. This knife was 9.5 inches long, .25 inches thick and 1.5 inches wide and was straight-backed with no clip point or hand guard with a simple wooden handle. Rezin Bowie who commissioned the knife then gave it to his brother where he fought Norris Wright with it in 1827 at the sandbar duel. After the fight broke out, even after being shot, Bowie killed three men by decapitating one, splitting the skull of another, and disemboweling the last. Soon after the fight the Bowie brothers received many requests for similar knives. They soon commissioned more knives that were made by Daniel Searles and John Constable.

The most common version was 6 inches in length although some reached 12 inches or more with a relatively broad blade and is made of steel. Often the back of the blade had a strip of soft metal which some believed was intended to catch an opponent’s blade while others hold it was intended to provide support and absorb shock. The knives often have an upper guard that bent forward at an angle in order to catch an opponents black and provide protection to the users hand.

Some knives had a “Spanish Notch” at the bottom of the blade near the hilt that is designed to catch an opponents knife although often fails at doing so. Since it did this so poorly many researchers think it was more of a tool for stripping sinew and repairing ropes and nets.

A main characteristic of the Bowie knife is the “Clip-point” at the top of the blade, which is where the tip of the blade is lower than the spine allowing for better control and providing a sharp, stabbing point. Many of the knives have a bevel ground along the clip, typically ¼ of the way up the top edge. This is referred to as the “false edge” because from a distance looks sharpened. This bevel takes metal away from the point making the tip streamlined and thus enhancing the penetration capability of the blade during a stab.

Bernard Levine, noted knife expert, noted how the first Bowie knife had general lines that seemed influenced by Mediterranean styles. However, many of the knives were just large knives often with two full edges. The blade toward the point, where it was curved, is for removing the skin from a carcass while the straight portion is for cutting slices.

The Bowie knife term has almost become generic for any large sheath knife. The knife gets confused with the Arkansas toothpick which is essentially a dagger with a 15-25 inch blade. Many Bowie knives were made in Sheffield, England although the blades were thinner than the Black/Musso knives made in America.

Even present day hunters continue to use the Bowie knife which is useful as a hunting and camping tool as well as a weapon. Bowie knives with saw teeth were issued to US Army helicopter crews in order to cut through acrylic glass canopy of a downed aircraft. The knife also remains as a popular collectors’ item and are produced by manufacturing companies and hundreds of custom knife makers. Texas has now made it a criminal offense to carry a Bowie knife.