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.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Bowie Knife Adopted for Trench Fighting

Here's another document dump. This was a full-page article on the use of the fighting knife published in the Fort Wayne Sentinel on December 30, 1916, a time when the war in Europe had been raging for over two years but the United States was not yet involved. The article contains much that is interesting, as well as much that is verbose, overly familiar, and/or inaccurate, but rather than edit it down I thought I'd toss it out in its entirety (at no extra charge!). The article was accompanied by its original illustrations, which combined photographs and line drawings to show the use of a knife against a bayonet.

The article refers to the French Model 1916 knife, which had a steel cross-guard and a 6.5-inch double-edged spear point blade.

Bowie Knife Adopted for Trench Fighting
Recently the French soldiers in the trenches were supplied with a short knife as being a better weapon for close hand-to-hand work in the trenches, when  the bayonet would be too long, and the darkness, which covers many bayonet attacks, too dense to allow the soldier be able to do vigorous work against the body of his equally aggressive enemy. The long-range mortars may do wonderful service in reducing forts, the high-powered rifles and machine guns may produce a terrible sheaf of flying bullets sweeping over the trenches, and compelling the enemy to keep under cover; the bayonet, too, has its moral effect when presented to the sight of the enemy by an oncoming host; and to a certain extent it is undeniably a splendid weapon for driving the enemy when at close quarters; but when the opposing forces are face to face in the trench, where two men can hardly pass, all these weapons fail in effectiveness, and "body-to-body" fighting requires another sort of weapon.
Such a weapon the French army has in the knife, which is shorter than the bayonet, and while capable of being applied to several more peaceful uses, is designed for the vigorous use at close quarters, when man struggles with man in a death grapple, to be ended only when the knife finds the vital spot and turns the terrible enemy into a bit of useless flesh. 

Again, in this introduction of the short knife, has the fighting of the twentieth century reverted in detail to that of the earliest times.

The ingenious contrivances of the most scientific of military minds are abandoned for the weapons of archaic principles, and as the man in the trenches in Belgium or the borders of France is much the same in body and spirit as the man of the bronze age, so he reverts to the weapons that were most serviceable in the days when men strove together, and body-to-body and hand-to-hand grappled and struggled for an opportunity to kill with the knife or short word. The human equation is always to be considered where humans are concerned, and no matter what the time or the man or his breeding, when the struggle for life is on, whether in the water, on land, for food or for life, the caveman comes out, and all mankind the equal. So it is not remarkable that in these war times, when men have become more troglodytes than representatives of the highest civilization, they should find that the simple weapons of the past are better fitted to the conditions of their fighting, and that when body-to-body only the short arm is of real use.

All races and nations of the world have found the short sword a common weapon, and whether it be the Oriental or Occidental, and no matter what the origin of the race, the short knife has been the one arm that could be depended on, in the last decision of the fight.

The weapons of the earliest peoples were short as might be expected when material was scarce and costly, and implements for fashioning the knife were crude, but remarkable were the results that were obtained under those disadvantages; results highly creditable to the artisan of the times and their ability as designers and smiths.

Those races which have resisted the advancements of civilization have clung with considerable tenacity to the short form of weapon, and we have a recent illustration, impressed on the American soldier with too frequent terrible results, in the bolo and barong of the Philippine Islands; weapons which, wielded by the strong hands of the fanatical tribesmen, have shown how absolutely defenseless is the soldier at close quarters when armed only with the rifle and bayonet. The majority of the bayonets of the modern rifles are of the "sword" type, intended to serve as a side arm when needed, but the soldier has so rarely found it of use in that capacity and so frequently used it to make the place to set his shelter-tent pole, that the military bayonet can hardly be considered in any other capacity than as the spear point for the rifle.
All the instruction in the use of the bayonet is with it affixed to the muzzle. The soldier has not been taught to use it in close quarters, as a weapon of defense or even offense; and it was not till this great war upset all military theories and developed a number of obsolete forms of weapons and ways of using them that it was found necessary to provide for an hitherto unknown emergency.

It has been said "the nation which shortens its weapons lengthens its boundaries," and nations accustomed to modern rules of warfare, interpreted by the Hague conferences, are now learning that the adage is perfectly true, and if France has proved the truth of it, it is for the United States to take advantage of the experiences and adopt similar weapons and learn how to fight "body to body."

Probably no weapon is more peculiar to America than that known as the "Bowie knife," which was a popular weapon of offense and defense for many years on the border, during the gold mining in California; was used in the Civil War and for several years afterward, becoming at last the hunter's knife for dressing his game or cutting fuel. It exists now in a modified form as a hunting knife, but as a weapon of murderous intent it is obsolete.

The Bowie knife was the result of necessity. Danger came suddenly in those days, and the hand firearms were pistols of doubtful reliability. Flintlock weapons were slow of execution, inaccurate and, being capable of but one shot, were soon as valueless as so much old iron. In the emergency following the single discharge, or two at best if a brace of pistols was carried, the only reliance was a knife. A sword was too long, a dagger or poinard was too short and not a natural weapon to the hand of the burly and ferocious American; he needed something more substantial and better suited to his way of fighting.

James Bowie, to whom the credit of the invention of the knife bearing his name is given, was born in Tennessee, where his parents settled after leaving Maryland at the close of the revolutionary war. In 1803 the advantages of the newly acquired territory of Louisiana attracted the Bowie family, which included the two sons, Rezin P. and James.

Tradition has it that the design of the famous knife was originated by James Bowie while convalescing from a wound received in one of the brawls into which he had been drawn, and the pattern was whittled from wood, along the lines which he thought would make a knife suitable for his personal use in his affairs.

Who made the original weapon from this pattern is a matter of some question. It is said that Bowie sent the pattern to two brothers named Blackman, at Natchez, and told them to spare no expense in producing the knife in steel. Another story is that it was made for Bowie by the local blacksmith at Shreveport, La., but it is also understood that the original Bowie knife was made by a negro blacksmith named Manuel, on the plantation of Rezin P. Bowie, from a large rasp. The blade was 10 inches long, and with the handle, the knife was 15 inches long over all.

When James received the knife from his brother. It was with the statement that it was "strong and of admirable temper. It is more trustworthy in the hands of a strong man than a pistol, for it will not snap. Keep the knife always with you. It will be your friend in a last resort, and in a last resort may save your life.”

James Bowie carried this knife for several years, and about 1830 he heard of a New Orleans cutler, a Spaniard named Pedro, who was making some knives of a wonderful kind and temper. They could be driven through a silver dollar without injuring the point or the edge. Bowie went to this cutler with his knife, and he made him one according to the general design, which was a marvel of temper and beauty. The blade was 9 inches long, and blade and handle together measured 16 inches. This weapon was used by Bowie in nineteen fights, and was the one with him at the time of his death in the Alamo.

The first blade, the one made from the rasp, had a slight carve to the edge, but the back was thick and strong. On one occasion, Bowie was obliged to use it to advantage in a duel to the death with a Spaniard who was constantly annoying him with his insults. At last his conduct became so unbearable that Bowie challenged him. The Spaniard being the challenged party, named the weapons, knives; he also stipulated that the combatants were to be seated face to face astride a timber trestle.

Each combatant could use the knife of his choice. The Spaniard had his long hunting knife, while Bowie used his own pet weapon.

Both men, naked to the waist, took their seats astride the trestle, and at the signal the Spaniard drew back his arm to make a lunge. Bowie instantly thrust his knife forward into his adversary’s body, killing him at once.

The new knife was the type from which the later Bowie knives were made, and had a keen edge on one side of the blade, which was drawn to a sharp point, and the back of the blade clipped oft, in a slight inward curve; the back of the blade was straight and strong, the edge curving gently from the hilt to the point.

It is said that Bowie's method of using this knife was peculiar to the style of weapon, and  was originated by himself. He did not hold the knife in his hand with the long point downward, as a poinard or dagger is held, but he grasped the knife as a swordsman would grasp the grip of his sword. He always struck at the neck of his adversary, aiming to slash the jugular vein, and he seldom missed his mark. In one of his famous battles he cut the heads of  two men almost off by his peculiar sweeping, slashing blow.

This circumstance happened in what was probably the most spectacular of Bowie's battles, which occurred September 19, 1827, on a sandbar in the river at Natchez, and was the result of a feud which had existed for several years between two parties of the parish of Rapides, on Red River. The principals in the parties were Dr. Maddox, Maj. Wright and members of the Blanchard family on one side, and on the other the Cuneys, Wellses and Bowies.

A challenge was passed between Dr. Maddox and Samuel Wells, and it was arranged to meet near Natchez, and principals and seconds met as arranged. The place selected was a sandbar immediately under the upper bluff, near the city. The principals used pistols, and when the preliminaries were arranged, took their positions, and exchanged two shots without effect, and, having satisfied the demands of the code, were ready to settle the difficulty without further resort to weapons.

But the bad feeling had extended to the seconding parties, and as the principals started to leave the battleground, Bowie, who was in company with Wells and Cuney, started to meet them. Between Bowie and Crane a feud had existed for some time, and, knowing it, the friends of Maddox and Crane started to meet Bowie. The two groups were soon in contact. Cuney immediately advanced upon Col. Crane, remarking, "Col. Crane, this is a good time to settle our difficulty," at the same time beginning to draw his pistol.

Bowie drew his pistol. Crane, armed with a brace of dueling pistols, stood awaiting the attack. Cuney was seized by his brother, who begged him to desist Bowie and Crane fired at each other, the bullet of Crane wounding Bowie in the hip. Bowie drew his knife and started to close with Crane, who was turning his attention to Cuney, and fired at him, wounding him fatally. He then struck Bowie over the head with his pistol butt, felling him to the ground, where Maj. Wright approached him.

Bowie pulled himself to his feet, holding to a snag in the sand, where he was attacked by Wright, who had drawn his sword from his cane. He lunged at Bowie, and Bowie parried the attack with his knife, so that the point of  the sword struck his breast bone and, bending, went around the rib. Bowie seized Wright and, pulling him to the ground, said, "Now, major, you die," and plunged his knife into his heart, killing him instantly.

Bowie was a man of quiet, mild manners. He did not drink nor was he in any way dissipated. Although a man of slender physique, he was possessed of enormous physical strength for his size and was as quick as a cat. He was a terror to evil-doers and his name was a warning. In illustration of this the incident is told that at one time the Methodists about Church Hill, Miss., were holding their annual meeting.

They had been disturbed by the gangs of flatboat men who were in the place. Bowie, hearing of the disturbances, said to a number of  the men in the congregation, who were trying to find some means of stopping the disturbances: "I will attend the services tonight, gentlemen, and will help you to settle any difficulty that may occur."

The evening service had begun, and presently a big flatboat man staggered up in front ot  the pulpit and let out a war-whoop. In an instant Bowie had him by the collar with his left hand and with his knife in his right hand held the point against the boatman's throat. "If you say another word," said he, "or make  the slightest noise, I'll drive this knife through your neck from ear to ear." The boatman was awed to a trembling silence, and the meeting proceeded without any further disturbances from the boating contingent.

Martin Price of San Francisco is credited with having manufactured some of the finest types of the weapon. His first attempt was in 1858, and it was exhibited at the first mechanic’s fair in that city. After the fair the knife was raffled for $150, and, commanding such a price, it was necessary that it should be tested against the knives of Billy Allison of Yolo, which were considered excellent knives.

Surveyer General Higley, having an Allison knife, backed it against the Price knife, then in the hands of Ward Eaton. Higley laid a silver half dollar on the counter and drove the knife through it without turning the point. Ward duplicated the feat. Higley then tried  to raise the limit by stabbing two half dollars, but the point of the knife turned. Eaton went his opponent one better by placing three coins atop each other and impaled the three on the Price knife without turning the point.

Such a feat gave the Price knives a prestige and the flush miners ordered them from him at  fabulous prices. Marlon Moore ordered one, the "best knife Price could make." He was a noted miner and sporting man, so he stood at nothing. He gave Price a gold ingot and a piece of gold quartz to be worked into the weapon. This "toothpick" cost $175.

To a certain extent the latest type of bayonet for the United States magazine rifle is a descendant of the Bowie, but it is longer, the blade being 16 inches, and with 5 inches of edge on the back—a trace of the Bowie point--but it is too long for a hand weapon at close quarters, for when men are closed in a “body-to-body" grapple, there is not sufficient room to use a stabbing knife which has so long a blade. The situation has been recognized by the French, hence the return to the more original weapon.

1 comment:

  1. Great Blog!!

    http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive-free/pdf?res=F20E17FF3D5415738DDDAC0A94DB405B8485F0D3

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