Jim Bowie was a scoundrel, land speculator, scofflaw, slaver and, many claim, a murderer. He also just happened to be at the Alamo and dying of tuberculosis when Santa Ana decided to teach the uppity Texicans a lesson by wiping them out.
|Jim Bowie. Without the knife.|
Several years before the Alamo, while living in Louisiana and Mississippi, Bowie had cause to use a big ol' hunting knife on a few folks. One of these fights, originally arranged as a formal duel, devolved into a melee that ended with Bowie disemboweling the sheriff of Rapides Parish. He used a big knife his brother Rezin had given him. This was the infamous Sandbar Fight that established the legend of Jim Bowie and the Bowie knife.
But what did the first Bowie knife look like? Who knows. Whatever Bowie was carrying at the Sandbar and at the Alamo has been lost to time.
|An early pattern Bowie, commissioned by Jim Bowie's|
brother Rezin. This is probably close to the style of knife
carried by Jim Bowie. This knife is on display at the Alamo
in San Antonio, Texas
What we do know is that it was probably made in Arkansas by a local blacksmith and it was most likely nothing more than an enlarged butcher knife. Historians are pretty sure it didn't look anything like the Bowie knives we see made today. The blacksmith's name was James Black and he did a good business in knives. A number of his blades exist in collections today but none have been identified as the Bowie knife, the original carried by Jim Bowie at that Alamo or a close authentic copy.
|A picture of James Black, reputed to be the blacksmith|
that created the first 'bowie knife' for Jim Bowie's brother Rezin.
Note the knife he's holding in his left hand.
No matter - by the 1840s the Bowie knife and Jim Bowie's death at the Alamo had become the stuff of legend. American cutlery manufacturers couldn't make Bowie knives fast enough. Literally. To fill the gap the English stepped in with their own interpretation of the knife and they exported tens of thousands of 'bowie style' blades and finished knives to the US right up into the early 1900s.
The fact that nobody really knew what Bowie's knife looked like didn't seem to slow anyone down - all they had to do was make it big and call it a 'Bowie style' and it sold. Early on two features became almost standard - a clip point blade and a coffin-shaped handle. Seems these two features had shown up on a James Black knife made after the Alamo and everybody just assumed that was what Jim Bowie's famous knife looked like. Rezin Bowie was always real circumspect with his description of the original knife, probably because he couldn't really remember what it looked like. But he wasn't about to admit that - there was too much money and prestige on the line!
Once the Bowie knife was burned into American folklore it proved impossible to root out. It has become a movie star. Literally. Any movie about Jim Bowie or the Alamo had to have the Bowie knife as a co-star. Just as in real life, the Bowie knife on screen became an integral part of the Jim Bowie persona. It became the iconic American blade style. Even in today's jaded age of the internet where pundits work overtime to pull down our heroes, Jim Bowie and his knife remain an almost untouched icon of the American frontier. Sure, he was a flawed character, but he was authentic! He was as big a personality and as forceful a character as his legend suggests, and the knife he carried was as authentic and as forceful as the man. By God, he was an American! Well, at least until he was granted Mexican citizenship and headed to Texas...
Virtually every knife maker - whether a large cutlery firm or a small time maker - has a Bowie style knife (or two, or three) in their catalog. Some offer entire lines of Bowies. Some independent knifemakers make nothing but Bowies. They are as popular today as they were in the 1840s.
If, like me, you spend any time and effort accumulating knives you will very quickly add several Bowie-style blades to your collection. They are impossible to avoid. A knife must satisfy two or three stylistic trademarks before it can be called a Bowie. First, it has to be big. Why big? Simple - Jim Bowie didn't win the fight at the Sandbar with a pocket knife. Real Bowies are big, manly knives. Girls don't carry Bowie knives, they carry dainty little pen knives. A Bowie is a man's knife. It's gotta' be big. If it ain't big it ain't a Bowie. Period. Next, it has to have a clipped blade. A clipped blade is one where a false edge is ground along the top 1/3 or so of the blade. This clip angles down to meet the belly of the knife blade at the tip. What's the false edge for? Why, for easier penetration when disemboweling your enemies. Did you learn nothing from the Sandbar Fight incident? Last, it must have a double cross guard. This is so when you are going mano a mano with your enemies your hand is protected as you thrust, slash and parry with your knife. It also helps if the knife has a coffin shaped handle because, well, because that's what James Black put on his knives and if it's good enough for James Black (and James Bowie) it's good enough for us!
Another classic modern interpretation of the Bowie. This one is
by Buck Knives and is their Model 119 Special. This has been Buck's
#1 selling fixed blade knife for decades.
But is the Bowie style knife good for anything other than fightin', slashin' and stabbin'? Opinions vary, and they vary very, very widely. Some consider it the ideal all-around knife. Some consider it good for nothing but killing (well, duh). That last group is mainly politicians from Chicago, downstate New York and the entire state of New Jersey. Hell, let's just throw the entire Democratic Party into the blame pool and call it a day. The truth is that this style does make a good all-around outdoor knife. I'll be fair and admit that there are other blade styles better suited for things like skinning animals or delicate camp chores like slicing food, and sometimes the shear size of the blade gets in the way. These relatively minor complaints aside, the Bowie knife is a great all-around design. Plus, it's just darned cool looking. So menacing. So ready for a fight. So damned politically incorrect. I love it!
So dear readers, your assignment for this week is to go watch John Wayne's classic movie 'The Alamo' and then go buy yourself a good 'ol Bowie knife.