Birth of an American Legend — The Bowie

Birth of an American Legend — The Bowie
Lightweight and with great balance, Cladio and Ariel Sobral’s stag-handle bowie dons a 10-inch, satin-finished san mai steel blade, stainless steel fittings and a Marcelo Sobral custom leather sheath. (Ward image)

Knives 2017, The World's Greatest Knife Book.
Knives 2017, The World’s Greatest Knife Book.
September 19, 1827, on a sandbar between Louisiana and Mississippi, there was first a duel and then a fight. The fight between Col. Robert Crain and Jim Bowie purported to last only 90 seconds, and those 90 seconds have been discussed and reviewed since that day. While the sandbar fight started the Bowie legend, man and knife, it was probably ant 1831 incident in Texas that solidified the legend. Three armed men, hired to kill him, attacked Bowie. The story goes that even though the attackers were armed with rifles, Bowie was the only man to walk away.

Bowie dispatched all three attackers using his knife. If interested in an in-depth look at the start of the Bowie legend, I highly recommend Dr. James Batson’s book titled James Bowie and the Sandbar Fight: Birth of the James Bowie Legend and Bowie Knife. Batson is not only an excellent researcher and writer, but also an American Bladesmith Society (ABS) master smith. His firsthand knowledge of crafting bowie knives gives him a special insight into the creation of Jim Bowie’s original knife.

Of all the great knifemakers and designers in the world, none of them have an entire category of knives named after them like Bowie does. The style of knife used by Bowie—now known simply as a bowie or bowie knife—saw some changes after the confrontation at the sandbar. Most notable were the addition of double guards to most bowies, and sharpened clip points with the appearance of the forward third of the blade spines being clipped off.

The knives bearing Bowie’s name gained such a reputation and following that they began to be mass-produced in Sheffield, England. Renowned makers such as Joseph Rodgers and George Wostenholm started making bowie knives. Estimates are that upwards of 70 percent of the bowies that went West with the first wave of pioneers came out of Sheffield.

Well balanced and exceptionally quick in the hand, ABS journeyman smith Steve Randall’s bowie boasts an 8.5-inch san mai steel blade, a Sambar stag handle, and a blued high-carbon-steel guard, ferrule and pommel, the latter filed to match the grooves of the stag. (PointSeven image)

The bowie knife enjoyed “must have” status for many soldiers on both sides of the Civil War. The bowie’s diversity was summed up by a historian of the time who described the knife style as, “ … 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.”

What is and what is not a bowie is the subject of numerous debates. Rezin Bowie, Jim’s brother who had the first knife made for his sibling, indicated the historic knife had a 9 ¼-inch blade. Given that there is no photo of the knife, we can only go by information historians have gathered. My take on the blade length of the first bowie is that it was between 9 and 11 inches.

I’d like to say I based this on Rezin’s comments but that is not the case. Certain blade lengths favor particular tasks. Bird-and-trout blades are usually between 2 and 4 inches. Hunters and skinners generally have blades in the 3- to 5-inch range. Camp knives often feature blades stretching from 5-7 inches, and fighters commonly sport blades in the 6-8-inch range.

Based on Rezin’s comment that the blade made for his brother was 9 ¼ inches, combined with the variety of chores that could be done with the bowie, the 9-11-inch range is where I place the bowie’s blade. All of the blade lengths mentioned are generalizations. Blade lengths are subjective, and different categories will often feature shorter or longer blades. I have seen gent’s or a gambler’s bowies with 4-inch blades and hunting knives parading 10-inch blades. When I see knives sporting blades that defy the conventional lengths of their category, I am reminded of my 7th-grade shop teacher who always reminded us to use the “right tool for the job.”

Editor’s Note: This article is from Knives 2017.


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