It still amuses me that despite having two blogs; this blog on – usually – political and social issues, and my other blog (http://ndktravels.wordpress.com) on – usually – photo and photo education issues, one of the most viewed posts of either blog had nothing to do with either main topics but instead is one from this site on knives, discussing specifically the pros and cons of Bowie styled knives. Click here to read it: (https://ndkphotoblog.wordpress.com/?s=Bowie+Knife). That post was written to answer a question from a previous more generealized post on knives and knife sharpening and uses for different designed blades. And because I was bored with politics and am a student and aficionado of the American frontier and old west, it was a fun diversion for me. Characters who were larger than life even back then in their own time fascinate me, in no small measure because even the “normal” folks of their time were so vastly tougher than we are. What were the people THEY thought were tough like? Too many soft sheets separate our generations and every time some experiment is conducted to see how modern people fare trying to live the lives of ordinary folk back then, the moderns fail miserably.
I also had no idea that people these days were so interested in knives, especially THE one belonging to Colonel James Bowie, late of Texas by way of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Arkansas. And now, over a year since I wrote and illustrated that post, I received another question from a viewer who somehow stumbled across and read my comments on Bowie knives.
The reader asked a very legitimate question. He asked how I could write so specifically about a knife style that was based on a near mythical knife that had never been illustrated. No one, he correctly pointed out, knows exactly what the famous knife actually looked like since although there are lots of examples of large knives from that period, there were no drawings or paintings (photography was not available at the time) showing Bowie and his knife together.
The questioner is correct and that fact in itself is interesting since it was part of Bowie’s persona and legend and many other portraits of the time show individual males with their weapons. In fact, over time, it was clear that during his life Jim Bowie owned and used several different large knives from several sources and the knife that started his reputation as a knife fighter at the “Sandbar Fight” was a gift from his brother Rezin, and was NOT the blade that later became famous in its own time. It almost certainly was not the blade Bowie had when he fell at the Alamo or even after its famous use on the sandbar.. Why do I think this?
Big knives were common and not the stuff of news stories; knife fights were common — there were even schools, especially in New Orleans, like fencing academies, that taught various styles of knife fighting. We do not know if Bowie ever attended one or if his fighting style followed one or another approach, in fact other than for the results in terms of wounds to opponents, we know almost nothing about how he used his knife or knives in various encounters.
Additionally, dueling was increasingly frowned on officially but it was still a common way to settle affairs of honor. Rarely were the weapons used set out for special comment like Bowies knife had been. (The growing illegality of dueling was why the fight took place on a sandbar: it was an impermanent feature in the river and therefore in no one’s official jurisdiction.) Rezin’s knife was beautifully made but it was not the sort to inspire legend. That took a different and unique type of weapon.
It should be noted that some historians believe ALL of Jim Bowie’s knives were designed by Rezin but if so there is no hard evidence to support it and a lot of anecdotal evidence to contradict it. Resin cashed in on his brother’s growing reputation at every opportunity including designing and selling knives as “Bowie’s” knives. No one knows for sure, however, but history seems to not support Rezin as the prime designer of the knives that came to be called “Bowie knives” even though he likely DID design the knife Jim used at the Sandbar fight.
So who cares? Well does it not seem odd that we know so little about what is arguably the most famous real weapon wielded by a real person in history? Yes, this is a bit of historical trivia with little or no modern relevance. But try to tell me you would turn down a chance to recover, say, Excaliber! The Bowie Knife as an archetype has become a sort of American “Excaliber,” a legendary blade wielded by a mighty and perhaps mythical warrior. But Bowie and his knife were real.
Setting aside for this discussion the inconvenient truth that James Bowie was a land speculator, slave owner and trader, timber seller, gambler, notorious hot head as if the term were created to describe just him, and part time con man and scoundrel whose legend and general personal reputation was saved for posterity largely by having the good luck to die at the Alamo, what remains accepted is that his knife and his fighting prowess were legendary in his own time and that by all accounts he was essentially fearless.
As it is with following gunslingers from Hickock to Hardin, real and pretend historians get apoplectic over how many fights – if ANY – he actually had or used his knife beyond the first very heavily documented one on the sandbar outside Natchez. He came from a well-to-do family but could have become even richer in his own time just licensing his blade design. But there were no such “intellectual property” protections available then and as his reputation grew, every knifemaker in the country was inundated with requests for a knife “like Bowie’s.”
And yet, strangely, there are a couple of drawings/painting of him, one even holding a sword… but not one of him with his knife… or ANY knife. In fact in all of his writings, Jim Bowie himself never mentioned a knife of any sort. The only paper evidence that Jame Bowie ever even owned a knife is a store receipt from 1823 in the Cris Nolen collection and from four years before the sandbar fight..
So what did the knife, especially the last one, the one he had with him at the Alamo, look like? We know he had one since surviving women wrote in their journals about Col. Bowie and his knife. But no one took the time to describe it.
Perhaps because big knives were so common at that time that even if it had a unique design the assumption was that it was not the knife per se that won the fights but the person wielding it. We think of knives as weapons of last resort today, but in the era of unreliable one-shot firearms they were higher in the order of selection. If, in the middle of a fight you carefully aimed your one shot firearm and heard a click instead of a bang, without a backup you were likely in for a very bad day. Not until the era of repeating and reliable firearms did the knife lose its status as a primary weapon. Jim Bowie did indeed, at the Sandbar, take a knife to a gunfight, but for most humans today that would be a terribly desperate action.
Because of their importance as tools and weapons, Bowie (and his family) commonly gave knives as presents or as trade and a number of those have been passed down through the families of the recipients. They are of several blade designs although multiple examples look very much like the Collins/Musso/Hibben knives (a Hibben version is shown below). There is even an old image of an unknown man (below right) holding a knife that is almost a dead ringer for those knives including the brass back..
(I do not know who that portrait is of? It does not look like James Bowie at least based on other portraits, or of Rezin Bowie either. If anyone knows — and why he might be holding a Bowie knife — please let me know. Today, with our modern attitudes playing down the concept of exceptional people, we often credit the tool with the users’ success and so are interested in it thinking that if only WE had that gun, camera, car… knife… we could do what they did, so we focus more on that tool than the user and their skills. And so an interest in and countless arguments have ensued over just what that knife looked like. And enormous amounts of effort have been spent trying to find an example, perhaps THE example — THE knife itself — to end the discussion.
Some claim we will never know the answer — which is good for maintaining the argument. Others claim we already have it and just won’t accept it or at least those with a different idea about what it “must” be like won’t accept it and thereby crush their fondly held theories. There are a couple of interesting possibilities.
Phil Collins, the musician, is an avid follower of all lore involving the Alamo. He possessed the largest collection of Alamo artifacts in the world and recently donated them to the Alamo museum. In his travels he came across a very old knife in a museum that was said to have been THE knife taken off of Bowie’s body by one of Santa Anna’s soldiers, handed down through the family and finally sold. This is not the first or only such claim for the knife in some family collection, but this knife is more like what one would expect and that knife looks very much like the 1830’s pattern Bowie by Gil Hibben shown in the previously noted post and below and in the portrait to the right.
And it also looks like the knife now owned by John Musso, a Hollywood art director which has “JB” engraved on it and has been mineral tested and dated to the 1830s. If course there was no properly credentialed provenance for either so no one knows with absolute certainty that either specific example was Bowie’s own knife (and in fairness, Musso has never claimed that the knife he acquired was, in fact, owned by Jim Bowie). Both of those knives, however, nearly identical in appearance, were well made while some others claiming to be THE KNIFE were pretty crude by comparison. It is unlikely that Bowie, who was not poor by any means, would accept a poorly made knife — or anything – much less inscribe it as his own.
We have muddied the water with all this attempt to find THE knife as a sort of historical Holy Grail, but the people of the time knew what a Bowie knife was. And it scared them so much that in many places they were banned and killing a another man with one, even if the opponent was armed, was a prima facie case of murder. C’mon now, that has to be some incredible hunk of steel! Below is Gil Hibbens’ modern handmade copy of one of the better candidates for Bowie’s own knife.
To add to the confusion, although the knife was loosely described a number of times in period newspaper accounts… those accounts vary in details. Additionally other famous knife makers of the day including Searles of Baton Rouge and Schively of Philadelphia made versions for customers based on tales of “Bowie’s knife” and the English knife makers of Sheffield, who made some of the most sought after cutlery in the U.S. at the time, produced quite a variety of so-called Bowie knives sold in large numbers to frontiersmen of the mid to late 1800s and even early 1900s, some even marked “Bowie.”
Among the most common styles was a pattern with a shallower but longer clip or “swedge” that extended back of the clip along the spine or back of the blade. That style is now known as the “I*XL” style Bowie and was incredibly popular, In fact the Sheffield Bowie knives were for a spell England’s second major export item shipping all over the world.
Here below is a more modern adaptation of the I*XL Sheffield pattern. This knife, made by Schrade with a 12 inch blade is a very strong working knife, extremely sharp yet easy to handle. The tip is inline with the grip axis. I’ve not seen old examples of double hilt knives (though there may be some) though it is more prevalent in modern knives. It significantly improves the grip on an already heavy knife. As I noted in the first post, this is a knife I often have lashed to a backpack or otherwise had handy when heading into seriously off-trail areas.This knife will — and has — made short work of making a shelter or a fire.
Another style somewhat between the Hibben and the Shrade/Sheffield styles came after the turn of the century from Cooper knives, one of the oldest continually manufactured custom knives known. Beginning in 1924 Cooper who made incredibly popular knives for outdoorsmen, farmers and ranchers, patented a process to seal the grip and tang to avoid moisture seeping into the spaces and rotting the handles which were often wood and prone to cracking. Now however a “Cooper Style” knife refers more often to the sealing process than any specific blade design. Steve Voorhis makes a “Texas/Alamo” style Bowie though with a narrower blade with less of a full “belly” than Hibben’s. It more closely follows the original Cooper style and as with all of his knives, it is a mirror-finished beauty.
As an aside, I recently read the opinion of an armchair outdoorsman who waxed poetically about how anyone going into the woods with a knife bigger than a folding knife or small belt knife was a “fool” — his word. Goodness knows I’ve done some foolish things in my life, of that there is no question. But I’ve been on my share of survival outings, some lasting several weeks, and I’ve made fires and shelters with little knives and big ones from skinnning knives to machetes and including with that Schrade shown above. I can assert categorically it was easier and faster to do so with that Schrade. And if there had been any sense of urgency (weather or medical issue) mandating the need for the fire and shelter quickly, I would far rather have that big Bowie than just my Swiss Army knife or even a small belt hunting/skinning knife. But that is getting me off track and away from the question at hand…
Old Jim, looking down from that great land office in the sky, must be quite amused. He was the namesake for arguably the most well-known knife in history and yet, my questioner is quite correct: no one can say with any certainty what it actually looked like.
However there is one blade design that became so associated with the Bowie type that most non-collectors or historians upon seeing it would immediately say was obviously a Bowie knife because they have seen it over and over in the movies and on television playing its role as The Bowie Knife. In the early 1950s Warner Brothers bought the rights to the recently published book on Bowie’s life by Paul Wellman titled “The Iron Mistress.” The book is a good read, unflinchingly depicts the sordid side of Bowie’s life by accepting the sensibilities of the early 1800s southern states. A little more squeamish about things and far more politically correct than the author, and needing more of a love interest for its story arc, Warner Brothers produced a movie of the same name, “The Iron Mistress,” with Alan Ladd as Bowie. They ended the story before his death at the Alamo in order to concentrate on the love(s) of his live using the knife as a backdrop and supporting character. It was released on 1952.
But THE KNIFE could not be ignored as a major part of any story about Bowie but, as we noted, no one knew for sure what it looked like. So Warner’s prop master, Arthur Rhoades and John Beckman, the Art Director, buried themselves in research, studying all they could of period accounts of the weapon as well as seeking out examples of so-called Bowie knifes of the era from private collectors and even the Smithsonian. Phil Collins’s knife had yet to be discovered so there was no actual knife existing in 1951 that claimed to be Bowie’s own. The closest were copied and recopied patterns from James Black and family, who made the thing in the first place according to most historians, and nearly endless Sheffield versions. Marketed as “like Bowie’s” there were myriad American and British-made Bowie style knives that flooded the various collections.
Many of the Sheffield Bowies, though very well made, had a narrower blade. They could be sleek and “pretty” (if a tool designed to remove an oppponent’s body parts can be called pretty) and were quite lethal but they didn’t “look” so intimidating.
Here is another example of a derivative pattern from the Sheffield Bowies that is a gorgeous Rosewood handled Damascus steel knife, but despite the fact that it is strong and hair-shaving sharp, it is not all that scary looking. It is also not a true Bowie knife, it has a clip blade but the clip is not sharpened and the tip is not in perfect alignment with the grip axis. I did not highlight it in this photo but the back has some custom file work that is decorative but would be a barrier to penetration in a fight. This is more of a big outdoorsman’s camp/hunting knife than the true Bowie.
However, for the movies especially, Bowie’s blade needed that intimidation factor… in spades. Armed with that intensive research and informed by the needs of the viewing public to be awed by “The Knife” Beckman designed and Rhoades made the “Iron Mistress” knife. I’ve not read whether or not they ever anticipated the public response to it but it was immediate. When in the movie Bowie/Ladd picked it up from the maker, Black, and held it up for the camera, it instantly became the iconic Bowie knife for generations of movie goers and old western buffs. If it was not what Bowie’s knife actually looked like it certainly should be… it had the visceral feel of the knife that made Bowie famous – and infamous as a ruthless duelist known mostly for disemboweling or decapitating opponents with his knife. His was a knife that when displayed, according to some period accounts, brought several fights to a halt before they even started. Given the alcohol-soaked realities of the frontier, that had to be some knife.
For a moment try to put yourself into the mind of a potential antagonist facing Bowie. Here was a man whose common reputation was that against all odds he ended deadly bloody knife fights with minimal injuries to himself and maximum injuries to his opponents. All the papers carried lurid accounts of opponents being disemboweled or beheaded. Almost every one in those days had been injured at one time or another and knew what it felt like to receive a cut. But this blade was different
You could imagine that devilish tool raking along an arm or leg or side and parting flesh like a razor, except a lot deeper. And there you stood with your hunting knife and a blade of maybe 7-9 inches. Knife fighting was no elegant enterprise like dueling with epees or rapiers. Knives were and are brutal awful tools with minimal finesse; like dueling with cutlasses or battle axes. And there you are, staring at a man reputed to be adept at carving body parts like a Christmas turkey.
In our modern world we automatically think of a firearm as more deadly than a knife but FBI statistics do not support that idea. To the contrary, within its range, an edged weapon is statistically far more lethal than a firearm. According to those FBI statistics, 10% of attack victims who are shot will die of their wounds, but 30% that were stabbed will die. According to Darren Laur, an expert on edged weapons and tactics, in a comprehensive multi-country study, “Knife attacks were found to be exceptionally accurate, to penetrate deeper that some bullets, creating remarkably permanent cavities and rip through numerous organs in one stroke.”
So here then, Bowie’s adversary is facing a person who has been here before as evidenced by, the planted, balanced stance that lets him advance or retreat easily, his knife hand and arm cocked back, the point of his knife never leaves a line to your throat and his eyes never waver from watching for any twitch or movement that will trigger that cocked arm and its cold steel. and that knife… dear God that awful knife… A thought starts down in your toes and quickly infiltrates all the fibers in your body: first it whispers then it silently screams at you that this is a huge mistake and you think of an urgent need to be somewhere — ANYWHERE else. You did not have to be a coward to size up this unflinching man and his massive blade to think better of going ahead with the fray.
Now here, folks, with the Iron Mistress, is what a Bowie knife should look like. It met all the design criteria we have come to accept: the point is in line with axis of the grip for thrusting. It had a sharpened recurved scythe-like clip for “rib tickling” and eliminating the need to turn the knife into a blade edge up position for fighting (though in the movie Bowie/Ladd does needlessly turn the knife main blade up in a fight probably for effect), and a long, thick, heavy blade that could easily chop through muscle and bone. Rhoade’s version did not have the swell and “belly” of Collins’s find or Hibben’s version (which are probably more accurate), nor did it have the “Spanish Notch” often mentioned in old descriptions of Bowie’s actual knife. But it had its own vicious “look.”
It was not quite as big as those found versions from Collins and Musso (the blade was 11+ inches instead of 14,) but in the hands of the actor it was designed for, Alan Ladd, who was not a large man himself, it looked plenty big. And plenty intimidating. (Interestingly the posters and one sheets of the film REDUCED the size of the knife in Ladd’s hand… I’ve never understood why unless to downplay the violent aspects and build up the love interest with Virginia Mayo). And it still would be more than a match for some punk’s switchblade or balisong in the hands of someone who knew how to use it.
This movie version of the knife was a somewhat brutish, inelegant design that seems purpose built to carve opponents into spaghetti with frightening ease. The design effect, more pointed cleaver than hunting knife, was softened by giving it a mirror polish. That prop knife (and its trick special effect siblings) became so associated with the Bowie character that Warner Brothers, whose prop department owned it, used it in several Warner movies featuring Jim Bowie (played by Sterling Hayden and Richard Widmark) and even rented it to Disney for “Davy Crockett” with Kenneth Tobey as Bowie and then to DesiLu studios for the pilot of the TV series about Bowie starring Scott Forbes. It is a trick version of that same knife that opened each episode of the series as it was thrown at and stuck in a doorway. It should be noted that in the movie, Bowie/Ladd throws his knife away leaving it to viewer speculation what he ended up carrying at the Alamo.
Answering a flood of requests, Warner Brothers commissioned a commemorative limited edition of 200 fully functional copies of their now famous contribution to the Bowie lore (which sold out almost immediately) and famous knife makers like Bo Randall, Gil Hibben and Jimmy Lile (first Lile then Hibben made the knives for the Rambo series of films and who claimed their interest in knifemakng came from the Iron Mistress) to Steve Voorhis have made versions of the Iron Mistress that are still in demand. And since most have accepted that Bowie’s real knife is lost to history, the arguments now have centered on whether the Iron Mistress pattern is good or bad, whether it looks like the real one or not.
So… OK, OK, if we don’t know for sure what the real knife looked like, what does the famous/infamous Iron Mistress look like? I can hear the question filtering through cyber space: “Are you going to quit talking about it and show it to us?” Alright, since you asked so nicely, I’ll show you… The knife below is one of that limited edition of 200 knives. Except for lacking the escutcheon plate it is identical to the movie knife and is a fully functional, extremely sharp knife made of 5160 steel. There are a number of better made versions by custom knifemakers, indeed I have one by Steve Voorhis that is in all ways a superior knife. But this knife in the photo below is one of the commissioned limited edition knives, so I am please to have it in my collection.
It may have no resemblance to Bowie’s real knife but nevertheless it remains what, to many people, is the quintessential Bowie knife. But before it is dismissed entirely as a modern invention, as some modern “experts” are quick to do, log onto Youtube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kUFYU3cTm3I for a video on Bowie’s sandbar duel and more data on period Bowie knives. At 09:39 of that video the camera is panning across a display case of period knives and there in the case, 3rd and 4th knife up from the bottom on the right side of the case, are two spitting images of the Iron Mistress blade design. HMMMMmmmmmmm…
So to answer the question, while it is true we have no renderings of Bowie’s actual knife and no defendable provenance for found knives that may or may not be his, it remains one of the more interesting mysteries from the early days of the American frontier. But since large knives were a common adornment of frontiersmen and outdoorsmen throughout the 18th and 19th century, we do know what came to be commonly accepted as a design reflecting Bowie’s knife created circa the late 1820s (The Sandbar fight was in 1827). The knife he used in that fight was certainly technically a “Bowie knife” since it was made by a family member (Rezin Bowie) and worn by and used by his brother Jim Bowie. But it was basically a well adorned straight bladed butcher knife (in the early 1800s any large knife was generically referred to as a “butcher knife” regardless of design or actual purpose) and it is possible we actually have that knife or a twin still being displayed. It is very different from what we now call a Bowie Knife. As his brother’s fame grew, Rezin cashed in on it and had many finely wrought knives of HIS knife’s pattern made and distributed as gifts calling them, accurately, “Bowie’s Knife.” After all, he was as much a Bowie as Jim was.
But as brother Jim’s legend grew and the concept developed and solidified a very different blade design emerged to lay claim on the “Bowie Knife” title.. Being big did not make it a Bowie; having a clip point did not make it a Bowie, having a sharpened false edge did not make it a Bowie. It was a unique combination of these characteristics and others that made it a Bowie knife.
It was a large heavy bladed knife (10″-14″ in blade length) but not just any large knife would meet the criteria. To properly be called a Bowie knife the clip of the blade was 1/3 to over 1/2 of the total blade length and was sharpened, usually showing a recurve (though some examples were more straight), It needed a good thickness (1/4 inch or more).for strength and to avoid breaking against an opponent’s blade but did not rely on a fuller (often misidentified as a “blood groove”) to stiffen and strength the blade, Its tip or point was inline with the grip axis to facilitate thrusting, The balance is slightly forward of the guard to facilitate cutting and chopping strokes and frequently a soft brass bar was soldered or welded to the back of the unsharpened blade starting at the hilt to help slow or parry an opponent’s blade. And it had a cross guard sufficient to protect your hand from an opponent’s blade sliding down your blade during a parry. This created a knife that was both frontier tool chest AND a deadly fighting weapon sometimes of first resort when your single shot smokepole either misfired or was quickly empty while the enemy was still coming at you. Black claimed the characteristics noted above were an accurate reflection of the knife he made, but that is the only word we have for it. And we even have others claiming that Black did NOT make the famous knife but some other knife for Bowie. Good grief…!!!
So whether or not ol’ Col. Jim ever had or even ever saw a knife like that is open to speculation. But if not, I think he would have loved it and wanted one for his own. But as to historical accuracy for ANY of these designs, we simply do not know. All we can do is the best research we can, factor in what we know about the grim business of fighting with knives, and then, like everyone else… guess.