Forget the traditional 10-inch blade, the new sweet spot for a custom bowie knife is now a 9- to 9.5-inch blade!
In July 1990 I was in the Army, home on leave from South Korea and attending The Knifemakers’ Guild Show in Orlando, Florida. While there, I was introduced to the forged blade.
I stopped by the table of ABS Master Smith Jim Crowell. He explained to me what it took to gain the prestigious rating of ABS master smith. It wasn’t just the quality of the knife that impressed me. I was amazed at how a 15-inch knife with a 10-inch blade could be so lightweight. While I was not new to fixed blades, my experience to that point had been with stock-removal knives.
Jim explained that distal tapering is a procedure to thin the blade from guard to tip and spine to edge. The amount of tapering depends on the purpose of the knife. As I moved through the show, I started paying more attention to the forged blades on the exhibitors’ tables. What I discovered was what was called the ABS Bowie. The dimensions of the knife were a blade of 10 inches in length, 1.5 inches wide and a quarter inch thick, generally with a 5-inch handle.
Development Of The Shorter Custom Bowie Knife
Those who have been involved with custom knives for some years know that the knives tend to move in cycles. Innovation leads to demand from collectors. There’s a lot of “following the leader” in the custom knife business. This could have helped explain why so many knives were dimensionally identical at the ’90 Guild Show. While some had damascus blades and hardware, most were carbon steel.
In 1992 the custom knife market cycled to a new entry into the custom knife world: the tactical folder. Toward the end of the decade, tactical folders started to wane, and forged blades once again established their prominence in the custom knife world. This time around the cycle began with hunters—basically, those with forged carbon steel blades, stainless guards, and wood or stag handles. The price point was predominantly in the $150-to-$210 range. By 2002, collectors buying hunters were ready to move to the hunter’s “big brother.” Meanwhile, the decade was populated with damascus patterns such as ladder, raindrop and twist, all of which began to show up more regularly.
While damascus was in demand by the higher-end collectors, it was W2 tool steel blades with hamons that took center stage for about five years. No two hamons were exactly alike. They looked cool and, for most collectors, were affordable. While antique designs from the mid-1800s were showing up more regularly, the one thing that hadn’t changed was the ABS Bowie, the majority of which continued to have 10-inch blades or longer.
BLADE Magazine Cutlery Hall-Of-Fame® member Jim Bowie was at least 6 feet tall. Depending on your source, the knife he carried had a blade with a length anywhere from 9.25 inches (on the one his brother Rezin stated was made for Jim), to 121/8 inches (the knife known as the Edwin Forrest Bowie), and a handle length of up to 6 inches. For size comparison, the Japanese ko-wakizashi, a short sword that was carried by samurai, started with a 12-inch blade. The ko-wakizashi was worn outside the clothes in a belt at the waist. Current knife laws aside, a knife that long would be difficult to carry and use openly. After all, have you ever tried carrying around a knife with a 12-inch blade? My only experience was a two-week field exercise while I was in the Army. The knife I took with me had only a 10-inch blade. Granted, I am at least 1 inch shorter than Jim Bowie was. But the 10-inch blade was cumbersome to carry and, quite frankly, just too long for what a soldier needed. Also, it would be challenging to deploy the knife without having it in a cross-draw setup similar to what the samurai employed.
Dimensional Changes To Cutom Bowie Knives
While it isn’t much different from the ABS Bowie, the current hot custom bowie features a 9-to-9.5-inch blade. The other difference on many of the blades is that the width has expanded from 1.5 to 1.75 inches. The additional blade width allows makers who so desire to use some curves along the primary edge.
I think that the shorter, wider blade is more aesthetically appealing. It no longer looks long and thin like its lengthier, narrower cousin. Moreover, the additional width results in a more substantial blade. Finally, extending the blade width allows bladesmiths to tweak the accompanying damascus patterns. Mosaic damascus patterns have gained favor among makers and collectors over the past two years. The extended blade width may give rise to new mosaic patterns. At the same time, the extra width may add a fresh take on standard damascus patterns such as ladder and twist.
The Constant Change Of The Bowie Knife
Today, most of us don’t use large bowies to defend our honor or protect our loved ones. Whether antiques or current models, many bowies have been relegated to collections. Given the amount of 10-inch custom bowies made over the past 30+ years, hundreds of them are for sale in the primary market and thousands are available in the aftermarket. Should you want a 10-inch bowie, your choices of materials and combinations are almost limitless. Given the number of 10-inch bowies available in both the primary market and aftermarket, it should be no wonder collectors are looking for something different.
As many of you may know, as a purveyor I keep pretty close tabs on several custom knife market sectors. Damascus bowies is one such sector. Over the past 18 months, I’ve seen both collectors and makers move away from the standard 10-inch bowie. This is not to say such bowies are not being made but that the demand has slowed. Makers are creating new types and patterns of damascus. Is it any wonder then that what were considered standard dimensions over the past 30 years are being revisited? The new sweet spot of the 9-to-9.5-inch blade is appearing more on today’s custom bowies. Eventually, bowie collectors will once again look for something new and different for their collections. As the Greek philosopher Heraclitus said, “The only constant in life is change.” The same is true in custom knives.
More Bowie Knives:
- Bachtel’s Bowie With A Pedigreed Background
- Three Quality Factory Bowie Knives
- What is a Dog-Bone Bowie Knife?
- 10 Steps In Making A Bowie Knife Handle
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