History of the Bowie Knife

The first knife Bowie became famous with was allegedly designed by his brother Rezin in Avoyelles Parish, Louisiana and smithed by blacksmith Jesse Cleft out of an old file.

The Sandbar Fight

The first knife Bowie became famous with was allegedly designed by his brother Rezin in Avoyelles Parish, Louisiana and smithed by blacksmith Jesse Cleft out of an old file. Period court documents do indicate that Rezin Bowie and Cleft were well acquainted with one another. Rezin's grandaughter 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.

James Black's Bowie Knife

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 of 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 half or more of the back edge sharpened, 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 US 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 his knife, to Texas and was involved in a knife fight with three men who had been hired to kill him. Bowie killed the three erstwhile assassins with his new knife and the fame of the knife was established. 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 immensely 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 Washington, Arkansas shop. Black continued to refine his technique and improve the quality of the knife as he went. In 1839, Black was nearly blinded by an attacker and was no longer able to continue in his trade.

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 to producing true Damascus steel.

In 1870 at the age of 70, Black attempted to pass on his secret to the son of the family that had cared for him in his old age, Daniel Webster Jones. But Black had been retired for many years and found that he himself had forgotten the secret. The only thing Black could remember was that ten separate steps were involved. Jones would later become Governor of Arkansas.

Other Bowie Knives

Over the years many knives have been called Bowie knives and the term has almost become a generic term for any large sheath knife. During the early days of the American Civil War Confederate soldiers carried immense knives called D-Guard Bowie knives. Many of these knives could have qualified as short swords and were often made at home from old saw or scythe blades.

Bowie knives are sometimes confused with the "Arkansas toothpick". The toothpick is essentially a heavy dagger with a straight 15-25 inch blade. The toothpick is balanced and weighted for throwing and can also be used for thrusting and slashing. James Black is also credited with inventing the "Arkansas Toothpick" but no firm evidence exists for this claim.

In recent years the Bowie style knife has sometimes been referred to as the Buck knife, for the Buck Knife Company.

This information is taken from the Wikipedia.