My book Bowie Knife Fights, Fighters, and Fighting Techniques is available from Paladin Press. This blog contains additional information about the bowie knife, as well as the fighting knives of other nations.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Bowie Knife in Africa

Mary Henrietta Kingsley (1862-1900) was a British explorer who made two pioneering trips to West and Central Africa. She was the first European to enter remote parts of Gabon. In her book Travels in West Africa (1897) she had this to say about her choice of personal armament:
Always have your revolver ready loaded in good order, and have your hand on it when things are getting warm, and in addition have an exceedingly good bowie knife, not a hinge knife, because with a hinge knife you have got to get it open--hard work in a country where all things go rusty in the joints--and hinge knives are liable to close on your own fingers. The best form of knife is the bowie, with a shallow half moon cut out of the back at the point end, and this depression sharpened to a cutting edge. A knife is essential, because after wading neck deep in a swamp your revolver is neither use nor ornament until you have had time to clean it. But the chances are you may go across Africa, or live years in it, and require neither. It is just the case of the gentleman who asked if one required a revolver in Carolina and was answered, "You may be here one year, and you may be here two and never want it; but when you do want it you'll want it very bad."
Kingsley notes the problem with the folding knife, or "hinge knife" as she calls it: it's hard to open when you need it and it's prone to closing on your fingers. She mentions the importance of sharpening the false edge of the clip point of the bowie, but unfortunately doesn't give a reason. Among modern bowie knife aficionados, the sharpened false edge is considered to be a major feature, as it allows the knife-fighter to make a back cut. I have wondered whether people thought much about the back cut in the 19th century, and the accounts we have of fights are not sufficient detailed to determine this. Arms expert Norm Flayderman has examined hundreds--possibly thousands--of antique bowie knives, and recalls fewer than half having a sharpened false edge, so evidently its value was not obvious to everyone.

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