History


Bowie Knives: The Old West’s Most Famous Blade

bowie knife history
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Colt revolvers aside, the Bowie knife was the weapon that made the Wild West wild. The unique design of the blade gave it its power and its name — thanks to James Bowie, a hero of the Alamo — gave it its prestige.

The Bowie knife began as a gift of love from one brother to another, but the weapon proved invaluable in the famous 1827 Sandbar Fight. As word of the new weapon grew from fact-based accounts to exaggerated tall tales and legends, more and more people sought bladesmiths to craft Bowie knives.

This is the story of the Bowie knife, its creation, rise to prominence, and how the public demanded laws to regulate it.

From the Alamo to the Texas Rangers, to Civil War soldiers and Wild West frontiersmen, the Bowie knife slashed and stabbed its way into American history.

Who Were James and Rezin Bowie?

Rezin Pleasant Bowie and James “Jim” Bowie were Kentucky-born and Louisiana-raised. The brothers lived adventurous lives. In addition to being farmers, they smuggled slaves, became land speculators, explorers, and even built the first sugar mill in Louisiana that was powered by steam.

jim bowie portrait
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Rezin Bowie, the elder brother, was a mercenary and even dabbled in politics, serving in the Louisiana House of Representatives for three terms. Jim Bowie was a frontiersman and soldier. A key figure in the Texas Revolution, Jim Bowie perished along with all his comrades at the Battle of the Alamo.

rezin bowie
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Although the brothers were polite, humble, and eschewed profanity, they were the guys you wanted on your side during a fight.

In fact, it was a fight that inspired Rezin Bowie to invent the knife that would bear his name. The Bowies line of work in the late 1830s meant they crossed paths with some unsavory characters.

When his little brother, Jim, was fired upon by unknown assailants, his life was spared because a gun misfired. Guns, in those days, were unreliable. Misfires and jams were common. When guns failed, fighters often resorted to hand-to-hand combat.

Rezin Bowie wanted to give his brother an advantage if he found himself in a gun fight without a gun. So, he sketched up a design for a modified hunting knife and had his buddy, Jesse Clifft, a blacksmith, forge the blade.

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The Infamous Sandbar Fight

Jim Bowie had an ongoing feud with a Louisiana sheriff named Norris Wright. It all started when Bowie endorsed Wright’s opponent in an upcoming election for sheriff. Angry at the slight, Wright, who was a banker, denied Bowie’s application for a business loan.

On September 19, 1827, Bowie and Wright both found themselves in the audience at the same duel, which was held on a sandbar offshore from Natchez, Mississippi. Naturally, they were rooting for opposing duelists.

The duel itself was anticlimactic. Both men fired two shots at each other and missed. Their disagreement was settled with a mere handshake. But the members of the audience had other plans.

Some of the men in the crowd started arguing. The shouts turned into fist fights and soon, an all-out brawl broke out. Jim Bowie and Norris Wright took the opportunity to vent their hatred for each other.

At first, things didn’t look good for Bowie. He took a bullet to the hip and another through his lung and went down. He struggled to his feet and charged at Wright. Wright tried to fire again, but his gun misfired.

Instead, he struck Bowie over the head with his pistol. The pistol broke into pieces and Bowie, once again, fell to the ground. Wright pulled out his sword cane and plunged it in Bowie’s abdomen.

But Bowie wasn’t finished.

Norris Wright placed one boot on Bowie’s chest to give him the leverage he needed to pull out his sword cane. Bowie grabbed Wright by the leg and knocked him to the ground. With his Bowie knife, Jim Bowie sliced Morris Wright open from navel to neck, completely disemboweling him.

Wright died on the spot. A couple of doctors in the crowd tended to Bowie’s wounds, helping him to make a full, speedy recovery.

The Legendary Bowie Knife

News accounts of the Sandbar Fight circulated in newspapers around the country. In each one, Jim Bowie’s actions became more and more superhuman. Witnesses backed up his claim that he did not instigate the fight with Wright but was the victim of his vicious and unprovoked attack.

Bowie was described as “near death” after being shot and stabbed. Some of the credit was given to Bowie’s incredible strength and agile fighting skills, but most journalists focused on his unusual knife.

bowie knife
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The weapon, they said, gave Bowie a competitive edge. After the Sandbar Fight, Jim Bowie earned a national reputation as an excellent fighter, and his knife became equally famous.

The Bowie knife was designed to be a lethal weapon in hand-to-hand combat. Other knives of the time may have been just as sharp, but they were designed as hunting knives. They were meant to skin deer and gut fish, so the grip was different.

Other knives that were intended to be used as weapons were balanced for throwing. The Bowie knife was the ultimate weapon to have in your hand when you were in a brawl. Your pistol might jam, but your Bowie knife would never let you down.

What made the Bowie knife special?

The knife that Rezin Bowie designed had a blade that was thick and heavy, not unlike a butcher knife. Later Bowie knives featured a clip point at the end of the blade. Users would sharpen this clip point so that it could inflict a wound along with the blade.

It also has a cross guard at the base of the blade to offer some protection to the user’s hand and prevent it from sliding over the blade. The blade itself was between eight to twelve inches in length. The handle, which was fastened on with washers and silver pins, were typically made from fire-hardened wood, animal bone, or deer antlers.

The Bowie knife was a simple, unpretentious instrument. It was not designed to be a fashion accessory or statement piece. It was built for combat. The Bowie knife fit well into the user’s hand, making it comfortable to grip and easy to hold on to when fighting.

By design, it lacked the balance of throwing knives. It was meant for hand-to-hand combat, yet it was strong and durable enough to be used as a frontier tool and hunting knife. Users could cut saplings, gut a deer, dig a hole, and cut through canvas.

Mass Producing Bowie Knives

The American public clamored for their own Bowie knives.

A few months after the Sandbar Fight, Jim Bowie brought his knife to Philadelphia. There, he presented his famous blade to Henry Schively, a well-known cutler who made expertly crafted surgical instruments.

He asked Schively to make a dozen or so knives patterned after the original one. For his brother, Rezin, Bowie asked Schively to add a silver sheath. His initials, RPB, were engraved into the blade.

By all accounts, Rezin Bowie enjoyed riding on the coattails of his mythical brother. He proudly wore his Bowie knife at his side. As for the other Bowie knives made by Schively, they were gifted to close friends and important acquaintances.

Henry Schively wasn’t the only bladesmith to replicate the original Bowie knife. Daniel Searles, a cutler from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, also produced several Bowie knives at the request of Jim and Rezin Bowie.

Numerous other bladesmiths didn’t wait for a commission from the Bowie brothers. They made their own versions of the famous knife. The Bowie knives were in such high demand that it was hard for cutlers to keep up. According to an article in the Louisiana newspaper, the Red River Herald, “All the steel in the country was immediately converted into Bowie knives.”

English Bowie Knives

During the early 1800s, the blades and knives made by English cutlers were far superior to American ones. With the introduction of the Bowie knife, they wanted in on the action, too.

Fueled by wild, exaggerated news stories about the lawless American frontier, English bladesmiths flooded the American market with their own Bowie knife knockoffs. They gave their blades catchy names in hopes of capitalizing on the American patriotism: “Arkansas Toothpick,” “Patriot’s Self Defender,” “Americans Never Surrender,” and “I’m A Real Ripper.”

Historians today believe that about 80 to 90 percent of all Bowie knives of the 1830s and 1840s were English made.

A Weapon of the People

Before Rezin Bowie designed the Bowie knife, the sword cane was the way for men to discreetly keep a weapon at their sides. But they appealed to a certain class of men. It was common for well-to-do gentlemen to add a sword cane as a fashion accessory.

At that time, most wealthy men were at least somewhat trained in swordsmanship. As for the working-class men of the day, it would be odd for them to carry a sword cane. This put them at a disadvantage when it came to self-defense. The Bowie knife changed that. In fact, in a relatively short time, the Bowie knife usurped the sword cane as the most popular blade in the land.

Upper society folks were instructed on using swords for battle. Using the Bowie knife for close combat, however, was a whole new concept. Greenhorns in particular needed instruction on how best to defend oneself with the Bowie knife. In the late 1830s and throughout the 1840s, there were even schools in the South and West that taught fighting and self-defense techniques.

Bowie Knives and the Texas Rangers

The Texas Rangers added Bowie knives to their equipment list in 1846, when the Mexican-American War began. In fact, most Rangers carried two weapons at their sides: the Bowie knife and the Colt Dragoon pistol.

Key figures in the Mexican War, including John Coffee “Jack” Hays, Ben McCulloch, and future president Zachary Taylor were all big proponents of the Bowie knife. Jim Bowie himself was also a member of the Texas Rangers, albeit before they were officially organized by Stephen F. Austin in 1835.

john coffee hays
John Coffee “Jack” Hays. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Initially established to keep law and order in Texas and to protect American settlers from attacks by indigenous people, the Texas Rangers grew into their own Wild West legend. The Bowie knife was an important part of their legacy.

Bowie knives played a role in the Siege of Bexar, one of the first skirmishes of the Texas Revolution. Using their Bowie knives, members of the volunteer Texan army, the precursor to the Texas Rangers, were able to slice through walls and roofs to engage the Mexicans in close combat.

Bowie Knives and Civil War Soldiers

With the outbreak of the Civil War, the Bowie knife was viewed as a necessary weapon for Confederate soldiers. Since the blade was developed and popularized in the South, it was a mainstay for Southern soldiers, although plenty of Union soldiers also carried them.

civil war bowie knife
Source: Wikimedia Commons

As the Civil War progressed, however, many Confederate soldiers replaced their Bowie knives with bayonets mounted to their guns. During the Civil War, cutlers seized the opportunity to etch slogans and messages onto the blades of the Bowie knives, in a show of support for the Southern cause.

Some blades read “Death to Yankees,” while others were labeled “Confederate States Defender.”

Tall Tales and Bowie Knives

From its origins at the Sandbar Fight through the Civil War, the Bowie knife was often the subject of sensational news accounts. These reports added to the myth of the weapon. Folks in those days loved to hear about the exploits of frontiersmen and the accuracy of the stories were of little concern.

Many of the reports told of one brave man, armed with a Bowie knife, who successfully fended off multiple attackers at once. Tales like this, while crafting the legend of the Bowie knife, did a disservice to the weapon’s wielder.

It was the fighter’s skills at dodging and thrusting that saved him, in many cases, just as much as it was the quality of the knife. It is also likely that the number of assailants had been exaggerated for dramatic purposes.

Jim and Rezin Bowie did, however, have a well-documented incident in which they were able to fend off an attack by Indians thanks in part to their Bowie knives. The brothers had become interested in the lost San Saba Mine, an old Indian silver mine that had been seized by the Spanish. The whereabouts of the mine were unclear, but legends spoke of its vast riches. In 1831, the Bowie brothers and a group of ten other men set out to locate the mine.

At one point in the expedition, the men encountered an Indian raiding party. There were more than 150 men in the raiding party, so Jim and Rezin Bowie attempted to negotiate with them for safe passage on their journey. Things didn’t work out in their favor. For the next 13 hours, the Bowie brothers and their men fought off the raiding party, even though they were outnumbered about 15 to 1.

As the battle waged, a Comanche scout arrived in San Antonio with word of the fight. He explained that the Bowies and their men were vastly outnumbered, and the outcome didn’t seem favorable. The people of San Antonio assumed the worst. Even Jim Bowie’s young bride, Ursula, donned widow’s garb and entered mourning.

Meanwhile, the fighting wound down. About 40 Native Americans were killed in the battle, but miraculously Jim and Rezin Bowie lost only one of their men. A few weeks later, to the amazement of the residents of San Antonio, the Bowie brothers and their remaining men rode back into town, very much alive.

Tales of Jim and Rezin Bowie’s adventure was circulated in newspapers across the country. It further cemented the legends surrounding Jim Bowie and the Bowie knife.

A Call to Ban the Bowie Knife

News accounts of the Bowie knife and its lethal ability caused concern among the general population in the closing years of the 1830s. There were calls to either regulate the weapon or to ban it altogether.

The state of Tennessee passed the “Act to Suppress the Sale and Use of Bowie Knives” in January of 1838. More states followed suit, even though the ban was difficult to enforce.

The state of Arkansas’s Speaker of the House attacked and killed another legislator on the floor of the Arkansas House of Representatives in 1837 after a heated exchange. His weapon of choice was a Bowie knife.

A law passed in Alabama stated that an attacker who used a Bowie knife to slay another person should “suffer the same as if the killing had been by malice,” thus negating the idea that Bowie knives were used for self-defense.

The Knife that Made the Old West

The durability and versatility of the Bowie knife made it a sought-after weapon and tool in the Old West. The blade that Rezin Bowie designed was effective in hand-to-hand combat but could also be used as a hunting knife.

In Texas and throughout the South, the Bowie knife was present at many historic events, including the Battle of the Alamo, in which Jim Bowie lost his life.


Read more about life in the American West:

Although Karen lives in the Midwest, she likes to put the emphasis on the "west." A freelance writer who specializes in American history, Karen has a bachelor's degree in journalism from Central Michigan University and a master's degree in English from Indiana University. A wannabe world traveler, Karen spends her days writing and her nights researching cheap flights to far-off places.

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