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Bowie Knives

Bowie Knives

In 1827 an Arkansas plantation owner named Rezin Pleasant Bowie was attacked by a bull. Rezin tried to stab the bull in the head, but his knife could not pierce the bull’s skull. Rezin managed to survive nonetheless, and in his quest for a more reliable knife he had an old file ground down to create a large single-edged knife. The blade was over 23cm (9in) long and 4cm (1.5in) wide, and it was fitted with a cross guard and simple wooden grip. Rezin gave a knife of this form to his brother James, who later that same year was involved in the famous “sandbar fight” at Vidalia, Louisiana, on the Mississippi River. James was shot and stabbed, but still managed to use his brother’s knife to disembowel one assailant, wound another and chase off a third. The local press reported the fight, along with details of James Bowie’s unusually large knife, and a legend began.

RIGHT: This portrait of James Bowie (1793—1836) was probably completed in the late 1820s, around the time he and his brother Rezin were perfecting their famous knife.

“Jim” Bowie’s fame increased in 1829 when he wounded and then spared a man in a knife fight. That episode in itself would perhaps not have proved newsworthy but for the fact that shortly thereafter Bowie was attacked by three associates of his defeated opponent. He apparently decapitated one and disembowelled another. The third fled.

The knife that Jim Bowie used in 1829 was a new version that he had commissioned himself, a modification of his brother Rezin’s original idea. The weapon had a longer blade with a clipped point sharpened on both sides. This design became the basis for the traditional Bowie knife, as it is known today.

ABOVE: The English manufacturer James Rodgers & Co produced a number of different types of Bowie knife for the American market in the years immediately before the American Civil War. This Rodgers “medium” includes an antler grip.

In 1830 Jim Bowie moved to Texas and became involved in the local rebellion against Mexican rule. After numerous battles, he ended up at the siege of the Alamo in 1836. One hundred and eighty-eight Texans defended this small mission complex against an overwhelming Mexican force. When the Mexicans stormed the mission, the Texans killed at least 200 and wounded another 400 before being wiped out. Bowie was ill in bed during the final assault; nevertheless, he is said to have defended himself with his pistols, a broken rifle and his famous knife before being killed...

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ABOVE: The 1836 storming of the Alamo mission by Mexican troops. James Bowie died during the battle, purportedly defending himself from his sickbed with firearms and his knife.

After this last battle, it seemed that everyone wanted a Bowie knife, even if nobody could agree on what it was supposed to look like. Clearly it needed to have a big blade and there was a general consensus that it should be single-edged. Soon the name “Bowie knife” was used to refer to any large single-edged knife. They began to be manufactured in Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, Texas, Tennessee and Missouri. The blades were 23—38cm (9—l5in) long and generally 4—5cm (1 .5—2in) wide. The guards were straight or S-shaped, while grips were usually made of wood or antler. Many Bowie knives were also customized and personalized by their owners in some way.

RIGHT: Bowie knives were popular with trappers, mountain men and cowboys. Here the famous gunfighter James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok (1837—1876) is photographed with two revolvers and a long Bowie knife.

English cutlery manufacturers quickly realized the potential of this product and began exporting it in large numbers for sale to hunters, trappers, soldiers and others in the harsh environment of the American frontier. As more Bowie knives became available, firms began to compete by producing more elaborate and expensive versions. Mother-of-pearl and turtle-shell grips were mounted on silver hilts, while blades were acid-etched and even blued and gilt. English makers also emblazoned them with jingoistic slogans conceived to appeal to Americans at the time, such as “Death to Traitors” (hinting at rising pre-Civil War tensions), “Death to Abolition” (appealing to the predominant southern demand for the continuation of slavery), and “Equal Rights and Justice for All” (representing the northern stance against slavery).

At the beginning of the American Civil War, the Bowie knife was popular on both sides, the Confederates favoring a version fitted with a D-shaped knuckle guard. This initial popularity in a way mirrored the original passion for the war in both the Union and Confederate States, and just like that enthusiasm, it died out as the conflict became longer and bloodier. By the end of the war both North and South had discarded their fighting knives, and after peace was declared the wearing of knives became distinctly unfashionable. By 1880, the true Bowie knife had disappeared.

ABOVE: Sheffield was perhaps the most important foreign producer of Bowie knives in the mid—late 19th century. This silver-handled one is from c.1870.

ABOVE: Both Union and Confederate armies issued Bowie knives to their soldiers at the start of the American Civil War. This Confederate example came from Selma, Alabama.



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