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Bowie knife specifically refers to a style of knife popularized by Colonel James “Jim” Bowie and first made by James Black, although its common use refers to any large sheath knife with a clip point.
The historical Bowie was not a single design, but was a series of knives improved several times by Jim Bowie over the years. The earliest such knife, made by Jesse Clifft at Rezin Bowie’s request resembled the Spanish hunting knives of the time and differed little from a common butcher knife. The blade as later described by Rezin Bowie, was nine and one half inches long, one quarter inch thick and one and one half inches wide. It was straight-backed having no clip point nor any hand guard with simple riveted wood scale handle. Rezin presented the knife to his brother because of a recent violent encounter with one Norris Wright. This is the knife that became famous after the sandbar duel of 1827. Bowie and Wright were attendants on opposite sides of the duel. When the principals quit the field, a fight broke out among the attendees and Bowie, though seriously injured by a rifle shot, killed Wright and drove his companions from the sandbar. Bowie and his knife, described by witnesses as “a large butcher knife,” quickly attained celebrity and the Bowie brothers received many requests for knives of the same design. They commissioned more ornate custom blades from various knife makers including Daniel Searles and John Constable.
The version most commonly known as the historical Bowie knife would usually have a blade of at least six inches (15 cm) in length, some reaching 12 inches (30 cm) or more, with a relatively broad blade that was an inch and a half to two inches wide (4 to 5 cm) and made of steel usually between 3/16″ and 1/4″ thick (from 4.8 to 6.4 millimeters). The back of the blade sometimes had a strip of soft metal (normally brass or copper) inlaid which some believe was intended to catch an opponent’s blade while others hold it was intended to provide support and absorb shock to help prevent breaking of poor quality steel or poorly heat treated blades. Bowie knives also often had an upper guard that bent forward at an angle (S-guard) intended to catch an opponent’s blade or provide protection to the owner’s hand during parries and corps-a-corps. Some Bowie knives had a notch on the bottom of the blade near the hilt known as a “Spanish Notch.” The Spanish Notch is often cited as a mechanism for catching an opponent’s blade, however, some Bowie researchers hold that the Spanish Notch is ill suited to this function and frequently fails to achieve the desired results. These researchers, instead, hold that the Spanish Notch has the much more mundane function as a tool for stripping sinew and repairing rope and nets, as a guide to assist in sharpening the blade (assuring that the sharpening process starts at a specific point and not further up the edge), or as a point to relieve stress on the blade during use. The version attributed to blacksmith James Black had the back edge of the curved clip point, also called the “false edge,” sharpened in order to allow someone trained in European techniques of saber fencing to execute the maneuver called the “back cut” or “back slash”. A brass quillon was attached to protect the hand, usually cast in a mold.
Knives made in Sheffield, England, were quick to enter the market with “Bowie Knives” of a distinctive pattern that most modern users identify with the true form Bowie. The Sheffield pattern blade is thinner than the Black/Musso knives while the false edge is often longer with a less pronounced clip. The shape and style of blade was such that the Bowie knife could serve usefully as a camp and hunting tool as well as a weapon. Many knives and daggers existed that could serve well as weapons, and many knives existed that could serve well as tools for hunters and trappers, but the Bowie knife was designed to do both jobs well, and is still popular with hunters and sportsmen even in the present day.
The curved portion of the edge, toward the point, is for removing the skin from a carcass, and the straight portion of the edge, toward the guard, is for chores involving cutting slices, similar in concept to the traditional Finnish hunting knife, the “puukko” (though the typical early 19th-century Bowie knife was far larger and heavier than the typical puukko). Arkansas culturalist and researcher Russell T. Johnson describes the James Black knife in the following manner and at the same time captures the quintessence of the Bowie Knife: “It must be 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.” Most such knives intended for hunting are only sharpened on one edge, to reduce the danger of cutting oneself while butchering and skinning the carcass.
Since the 1960s, Bowie knives with sawteeth machined into the back side of the blade appeared inspired by the Air Force survival knife NSN: 7340-00-098-4327. The sawteeth were intended to cut through the Plexiglas canopy of a downed aircraft. During the Vietnam war the US Army issued them to helicopter crews for the same purpose.
The first knife Bowie became famous with was allegedly designed by Jim Bowie’s brother Rezin in Avoyelles Parish, Louisiana, and smithed by blacksmith Jesse Cleft out of an old file. Period court documents indicate that Rezin Bowie and Cleft were well acquainted with one another. Rezin’s granddaughter claimed in an 1885 letter to Louisiana State University that she personally witnessed Cleft make the knife for her grandfather.
This knife became famous as the knife used by Bowie at the Sandbar Fight, which was the famous 1827 duel between Bowie and several men, including a Major Norris Wright of Alexandria, Louisiana. The fight took place on a sandbar in the Mississippi River across from Natchez, Mississippi. In this battle Bowie was stabbed, shot, and beaten half to death but managed to win the fight.
Jim Bowie’s older brother John claimed that the knife at the Sandbar Fight was not Cleft’s knife, but a knife specifically made for Bowie by a blacksmith named Snowden.
The most famous version of the Bowie knife was designed by Jim Bowie and presented to Arkansas blacksmith James Black in the form of a carved wooden model in December 1830. Black produced the knife ordered by Bowie, and at the same time created another based on Bowie’s original design but with a sharpened edge on the curved top edge of the blade. Black offered Bowie his choice and Bowie chose the modified version.Knives like that one, with a blade shaped like that of the Bowie knife, but with a pronounced false edge, are today called “Sheffield Bowie” knives, because this blade shape became so popular that cutlery factories in Sheffield, England were mass-producing such knives for export to the U.S. by 1850, usually with a handle made from either hardwood, stag horn, or bone, and sometimes with a guard and other fittings of sterling silver.
Bowie returned, with the Black-made knife, to Texas and was involved in a knife fight with three men who had been hired to kill him. Bowie killed the three would-be assassins with his new knife and the fame of the knife grew. Legend holds that one man was almost decapitated, the second was disemboweled, and the third had his skull split open. Bowie died at the Battle of the Alamo five years later and both he and his knife became more famous. The fate of the original Bowie knife is unknown; however, a knife bearing the engraving “Bowie No. 1” has been acquired by the Historic Arkansas Museum from a Texas collector and has been attributed to Black through scientific analysis.
Black soon did a booming business making and selling these knives out of his shop in Washington, Arkansas. Black continued to refine his technique and improve the quality of the knife as he went. In 1839, shortly after his wife’s death, Black was nearly blinded when, while he was in bed with illness, his father-in-law and former partner broke into his home and attacked him with a club, having objected to his daughter having married Black years earlier. Black was no longer able to continue in his trade.