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