The Bowie Knife – The Most Famous Blade in Texas

A Bowie knife is a style of fixed-blade knife first popularized by Colonel James “Jim” Bowie in the early 19th Century.

Much like the owner with whom this blade is synonymous, the “Bowie” knife is shrouded in myths, legends and questionable facts. Even the experts are still arguing over what is truth and what is legend.

Let’s start with what the experts know:  A blacksmith named James Black from Washington, Arkansas, was well-known for his guardless “coffin” knife, meaning the handle is shaped like a coffin and there is no guard to keep the wielders hand from slipping onto the blade.

From here, the truth gets a little murky.

One version of the creation of the famous knife is that Rezin Bowie commissioned the knife from blacksmith Jesse Cleft of Avoyelles Parrish, Louisiana.

Another has Jim’s brother, John, claiming the knife was made by a blacksmith named Snowden.

The favored version of the story is that Jim Bowie went to Black in 1830 with a wooden mock-up of the knife he wanted. Black made that knife and another one with several improvements. When Bowie returned for his knife, Black offered him his choice. Bowie took the improved model.

“It was said that a Bowie had to be sharp enough to use as a razor, heavy enough to use as a hatchet, long enough to use as a sword and broad enough to use as a paddle.”

The historical Bowie knife had a blade of at least 6 inches in length, some reaching 12 inches or more, with a relatively broad blade that was an inch and a half to two inches wide. Bowie knives often had an upper guard that bent forward at an angle (called an S-guard) intended to catch an opponent’s blade or provide protection to the owner’s hand.

The moniker “Bowie Knife” seems to have grown from the account of an attempted murder of Bowie. In Mississippi in 1827, in what became known as the “Sandbar Duel,” Jim Bowie was attacked by three men on the orders of a local sheriff that Bowie had vocally refused to back for re-election. Bowie, using the knife, survived; his attackers did not. Yes, I know this happened before Bowie bought the knife from Black. But keep in mind the historical “Bowie knife” was not a single design, but was a series of knives improved several times by Jim Bowie over the years.

James Black became famous on his own merits; he was and is considered one of the best blade-makers of that time period. Black’s knives were copied by cutlers in Sheffield, England, and sold in America as the “Arkansas Toothpick.”

“The term Arkansas toothpick became synonymous with “bowie knife” for most of the population [of the United States]. Sheffield cutlers thought the addition of this term in particular added value to the knives they made to sell in the United States…” http://www.historicarkansas.org/collections/knives.aspx?id=54

Black’s knives were known to be exceedingly tough, yet flexible, and his technique has not been duplicated. Black kept his technique secret and did all of his work behind a leather curtain. Many claim that Black rediscovered the secret of producing true Damascus steel. [An interesting process, but I’m going to let you research that one on your own. If you want to see some beautiful knives, go to http://www.mountainhollow.net/bowieknives2.htm]

The Bowie knife became the most famous blade in the states, perhaps in the world, following The Alamo. But, as is the way of most things, by the end of the Civil War, the knife gave way to the bayonet, rifle and revolvers for self-defense.

Hollywood launched something of a revival of the knife’s popularity when, in the 1950s, Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie were featured in books and movies.

Here’s some of the links I discovered, if you want to learn more:

http://www.historicarkansas.org/knife_gallery/

http://www.historicarkansas.org/collections/knives.aspx?id=153

http://www.historicarkansas.org/jamesblackrevisited/

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History, Texas, cowboys, horses—these are a few of Tracy’s favorite things. Check out her westerns at www.TracyGarrett.com.

8 thoughts on “The Bowie Knife – The Most Famous Blade in Texas”

  1. Fascinating info, Tracy. I’ve been looking forward to this blog since your last one.
    In the ’50’s movie with Alan Ladd, he goes to the blade maker, who comes up with a chunk of metal from a meteorite, which he uses to make the knife. Fun story, if only it were true…
    🙂

  2. Enjoyed reading this post. It was very informative about the Bowie knife. I think I might check out the links you provided for more information. I used to collect knifes, but nothing real fancy.

  3. Interesting article on the knife. When I was in high school, I read a book by Paul Wellman called The Iron Mistress and it was about Jim Bowie, his knife and how he came to be at the battle of the Alamo. An enjoyable book to read.

  4. Winnie, that’s part of what caught me in the first place.

    Joye, “The Iron Mistress” was made into a movie starring Alan Ladd. I wonder how it stands up against the book?

  5. Interesting blog. I love it when I can learn even more by checking out the links you leave. Never read the book “The Iron Mistress” but loved any movie starring Alan Ladd.

  6. I have been waiting for this blog. My son is a blacksmith and my husbands does some work too. We have been to workshops and shows over the years. The Damascus work some of the smiths create is beautiful. Our son has made several Bowie style knives for himself and friends. He has done some Damascus style work, but a power hammer helps create the best stuff (At least that is their story), and that isn’t in the budget. The video on damascus is good.

    Thank you for the links. They will enjoy checking out those sites. The video on damascus is good.

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