I found these cutting tests interesting.
The fellow in this video attempts to cut 13 water bottles with a single slash of his KA-BAR.
In this video, a man tries to cut through 16 water bottles with one slash of his Kiku Matsuda custom knife with 6.75" blade.
Friday, December 31, 2010
Thursday, December 30, 2010
Nathan Bedford Forrest
In my book, I covered the 1845 fight in which Nathan Bedford Forrest used a borrowed bowie knife against the Matlock brothers in the town of Hernando, Mississippi. Someone recently told me about an account of the fight left by William H. Matlock (1819-18780.
William Matlock wrote that he told his story "because there has been too much talk about hate between the Matlocks and the Forrests. To my children, I say, this is not so….There has never been any ill-will betwixt us -- nor will there be."
The fight came about because of an uncle of Bedford’s in Hernando, Mississippi. I had gone there in 1844 with wife Lucy and two small children to take up lands, and my two brothers had gone with me....Bedford’s uncle, Jonathan Forrest, already living in Hernando before I got there, ran a store on the square, and was noised to be a queer and contrary old man. He went security on a bond for a neighbor of mine - one Martin Jones, a good and honest man, but poor and having a hard time, which did not matter to Old Man Forrest, for he came out to close the bond and to take Mr. Jones’ land.At this point, the sheriff arrived to clean up and packed everyone off to jail. Bedford left the jail the next day to bury his uncle, the only fatality. William Matlock stayed three days in jail recuperating from the knife wound.
This got me in the matter for two reasons: Jones’ land joined mine and Old Forrest claimed three feet over my line; and I did not like the way he was treating Jones, which was shameful.
I appealed to Mr. Forrest but he would not listen. I even begged mercy on behalf of Mr. Jones but the sour old man had hardened his heart. One day he sent Jones word to get off his land.
A few days later I chanced to go to Town for harness and things…and James and Jefferson [his brothers] elected to go also.... I did not notice people were looking at us scared …till Jeff called my attention to it … but I learned later Old Forrest had made threats against me....
Bedford Forrest stepped out the door and commenced talking to us (he had of late gone in business with his uncle). At first I did not know what he was talking about, for he was asking us not to fight his uncle, which I had not thought of. He said he knew his uncle was hard to get along with, but if we commenced a fight, he would have to join in on his uncle’s part.
I said to him, "Why, Bedford, we did not come here to fight, but to appeal to Mr. Forrest once more about the Jones matter."
Bedford said, "Well, Will, I fear it is not a good time. He is most likely to take offense at anything you say."
So, we turned toward the Court House and walked a few steps when all of a sudden Jeff pulled his pistol, hollered "Look out!", turned quick and fired.
Surprised, I turned myself… saw old Jonathan Forrest fall to the ground with an old blunderbuss in his hands--for he had come of a sudden out of the store to kill us all, and would have, if Jeff had not acted quick.
But Bedford must have thought Jeff was shooting at him instead of the old man behind him, for he pulled out a 2-barreled pistol and fired one shot at Jeff and one at James, who was trying to get his pistol out, and both fell down in the mud and lay groaning--Jeff struck in the right side and James in the left leg.
Believing Bedford had killed my two brothers, I got out my single-shot pistol and fired at him, hitting him in the left shoulder.
He stood a minute, then rushed me with a knife. His face was red as a beet and his eyes bright like a snake for he was in a killing rage. We fought hard for some time, but were the same age and of equal strength.
The fight ended when he cut through the great muscle of my right arm and I fell in great agony. At this, all the rage left him, and with words of sorrow, he tried to stop my blood.
There was much talk then. Some thought it meant we were more at fault than Bedford and that the sheriff had imprisoned us.
But Bedford took our part and said the whole affair was a terrible mistake and that blame must be laid to his Uncle Jonathan who was known to be ill-tempered and that he was satisfied we had fired in self-defense.
We parted from Bedford on good terms and with many expressions of sorrow for the event and I have but the best feeling for Bedford to this day, even though his cut caused me to lose (the use) of my right arm after I got back to Tennessee.
I served all through the War with one arm for which I did not blame Bedford. A while in that time I was honored to serve under his command, and we both took pleasure in it. He was the greatest General of the War, and I honor him for it.
UPDATE November 25, 2011: I received an email from Michael Cotten, who wrote:
I thought I would let you know that this account of Forrest's fight with the Matlock brothers is a fake. The man who wrote it has created other false documents which have been a major headache for me and others working on the genealogy of the Cotten family. In this particular instance, it looks like he circumvented the possibility of being found out by a carbon dating of the paper on which the account was written by purchasing a sufficiently old book and writing it all out on the flyleaf of the book.
Wednesday, December 29, 2010
The following sketch of the South American gaucho comes from Monte-Video, Buenos Ayres, and the River Plate (1845), by General O'brien. If the portrait seems intended to be unflattering, it is nevertheless redolent of romance; the gaucho sounds like the quintessential hero of an American Western.
The readiness to shed blood--a ferocity which is at the same time obdurate and brutal--constitutes the prominent feature in the character of the pure gaucho.
The first instrument that the infantile hand of the gaucho grasps is the knife--the first things that attract his attention as a child, are the pouring out of blood, and the palpitating flesh of expiring animals. From his earliest years, as soon as he is able to walk, he is taught how he may with the greatest skill approach the living beast, hough it [sic], and if he has the strength, kill it. Such are the sports of his childhood--he pursues them ardently, and amid the approving smiles of his family. As soon as he acquires sufficient strength, he takes part in the labours of the estancia; they are the sole arts he has to study, and he concentrates all his intellectual powers in mastering them. From that time forth he arms himself with a large knife, and for a single moment of his life he never parts with it. It is to his hand an additional limb--he makes use of it always, in all cases, in every circumstance, and constantly with wonderful skill and address. The same knife that in the morning had been used to slaughter a bullock, or to kill a tiger, aids him in the day time to cut his dinner, and at night to carve out a skin tent, or else to repair his saddle, or to mend his mandoline. With the gaucho the knife is often used as an argument in support of his opinions. In the midst of a conversation apparently carried on in amity, the formidable knife glitters on a sudden in the hand of one of the speakers, the ponchos are rolled around the left arm, and a conflict commences. Soon deep gashes are seen on the face, the blood gushes forth, and not unfrequently one of the combatants falls lifeless to the earth; but no one thinks of interfering with the combat, and when it is over the conversation is resumed as if nothing extraordinary had occurred. No person is disturbed by it--not even the women, who remain as cold unmoved spectators of the affray! It may easily be surmised what sort of persons they must be, of which such a scene is but a specimen of their domestic manners. Thus the savage education of the estancia produces in the gaucho a complete indifference as to human life, by familiarizing him from his most tender years to the contemplation of a violent death, whether it is that he inflicts it on another or receives it himself. He lifts his knife against a man with the same indifference that he strikes down a bullock: the idea which everywhere else attaches to the crime of homicide does not exist in his mind ; for in slaying another he yields not less to habit than to the impulse of his wild and barbarous nature.
If, perchance, a murder of this kind is committed so close to a town that there is reason to apprehend the pursuit of justice, everyone is eager to favour the flight of the guilty person. The fleetest horse is at his service, and he departs certain to find wherever he goes, the favour and sympathy of all. Then, with that marvellous instinct which is common to all the savage races, he feels no hesitation in venturing into the numerous plains of the pampas. Alone, in the midst of a boundless desert, and in which the eye strains itself in vain to discover a boundary, he advances without the slightest feeling of uneasiness--he does so watching the course of the stars, listening to the winds, watching, interrogating, discovering the cause of the slightest noise that reaches his ears, and he at length arrives at the place he sought, without ever straying for it, even for a moment. The lasso which is rolled around his horse's neck; the bolus suspended to his saddle, and the inseparable knife suffice to assure him food, and to secure him against every danger--even against the tiger. When he is hungry, he selects one out of the herd of beeves that cover the plain, pursues it, lassos it, kills it, cuts out of it a piece of flesh, which he eats raw, or cooks, and thus refreshes himself for the journey of the following day.
If murder be a common incident in the life of a gaucho, it often also becomes the means to him of emerging from obscurity, and of obtaining renown amongst his associates. When a gaucho has rendered himself remarkable by his audacity and address in single combats, companions gather around him, and he soon finds himself at the head of a considerable party. He ‘commences a campaign,’ sets himself in open defiance to the laws, and in a short time acquires a celebrity which rallies a crowd about him.
The following account of a knife encounter was told by James G. H. Colter, a Deputy Sheriff in Arizona during its rough-and-ready years, published in Thomas Edwin Farish's History of Arizona, vol. 6 (1915):
Julius Becker had a little store at Springerville, and the desperadoes used to come in every two or three months, and tell him to go out of the store, and they would take all the tobacco and clothes, and drink all the whiskey they wanted, and dance and have a good time, and keep the store about a day and a night, and then send word to Becker that he could come back and take charge of their store. He had a few goods and a barrel of whiskey setting there. One time they got to fighting in Springer's store, and shot two of themselves. At one time they took possession of the country, and I went to Camp Apache and the officer in command gave me three companies of soldiers, and came himself; the officer in command at Camp Apache and three companies of soldiers came out and restored order after a fight in which several of the desperadoes were killed.
At another time I was threshing in Springerville Valley with my machine, the boys started over the valley, and I went over to a little Mexican town to get some things. I had neither six shooter nor gun. I was horseback and when I got up to the little store they told me that there was a man there that I had a warrant for, a desperado, and that he was in another room; that he had given up his arms, six shooter and guns, to them. I was not armed then either, and, foolishly, I went to arrest him. I went up to him and told him I had a warrant for his arrest. At that time they wore their pants inside their boots, and as I went up to him, he pulled a long dirk knife out of his bootleg and struck at me. The knife went straight between my eyes, then he kept following me back across the room with his knife and gave me five wounds in the body, near the heart, each time striking a rib, before I knocked him down and, with the assistance of others who had run in, overpowered him. I was cut up pretty bad. He got up after I knocked him down and came at me again. A fellow by the name of Stanley rushed in and grabbed the knife, and cut his hand.
Monday, December 27, 2010
The following account of an action involving a bowie knife during the Vietnam War appeared in the Oakland Tribune, March 1, 1967:
LT. GEN. RICHARDSON PINS MEDAL ON SGT. HALE'S UNIFORM
Hand-to-Hand Combat With a Pistol and a Bowie Knife
DSC for Heroic Sergeant
A Buena Park soldier who charged a Viet Cong bunker armed with a bowie knife and a pistol, killed two enemy soldiers in hand-to-hand combat, then later on shot two more to death after he was critically wounded, has won the nation's second highest award for valor -- the Distinguished Service Cross. The DSC was pinned on Staff Sgt. Richard M. Hale, 27, by Lt. Gen. J. L. Richardson, Sixth Army Commanding General, in rites yesterday at Letterman General Hospital where Hale is a patient.
Sgt. Hale, a native of Ada, Okla., was leading a six-man squad in Operation Attleboro near Tay Ninh, last Nov. 19 when their armored personnel carrier ran into a strong, entrenched Viet Cong Force.
When the First Battalion Mechanized of the 25th Infantry Division came under heavy fire, said his citation, "Sergeant Hale immediately ordered his personnel carrier into the center of the action." When grenade fragments felled one of his men, said the citation, Hale ordered the rest of the squad to evacuate their wounded comrade.
"Then, with complete disregard for his safety, while armed only with a bowie knife and a pistol, he charged the hostile emplacement alone. Dauntlessly running 30 meters through intense hostile fire, he leaped into the bunker and engaged the two insurgents in fierce, hand-to-hand combat.
"After killing both Viet Cong, (he) reorganized his squad and continued to search the area until he was shot in the chest by a sniper. Although painfully wounded and weak from the loss of blood, he gallantly crawled to the hostile position and killed two more more insurgents with his pistol."
Sergeant Hale was serving his second tour of duty in Vietnam. He spent five months in 1964 as a door gunner on the helicopter "gun ships" in Vietnam.
Sunday, December 26, 2010
The following is a report of a bowie-knife killing published in the Daily National Intelligencer, December 20, 1838:
Cincinnati, Dec. 10. An atrocious murder was committed in this city on Friday night last, at a house of ill fame, by a man (retained in the establishment) by the name of Thomas Butler, who, with a Bowie knife, stabbed a young man by the name of James T. White, a clerk in a commission house on Broadway. Mr. White was married, but his wife is not residing in this city.Nineteenth-century journalists did not hesitate to offer a moral at the end of a story!
We understand that some disturbance took place in an upper room of the establishment, (but with which Mr. White had nothing to do,) which attracted the notice of Butler, who immediately started for the scene of riot. In going upstairs, he met Mr. White coming down, and instantly gave him two fatal stabs in the region of the heart, and so far as is known, without the slightest provocation. White died almost instantly. Butler made his escape, and has not yet been arrested. The Mayor offers a reward of $250 for his apprehension.
The unprovoked character of this murder, the place where it was committed, the domestic ties and character of the deceased, all contribute to render the occurrence exceedingly shocking to every virtuous and well-regulated mind. We trust that it will furnish a salutary lesson to the young men of this city, and will teach them to avoid all such detestable places of vice and rowdyism as they would the pestilential effluvia of the plagues of Egypt.
Friday, December 24, 2010
You've gotta love a guy who would title a book Christmas and the Bowie Knife. It is a 65-page collection of short articles and is available here.
Its author, J. Frank Dobie (1888-1964), was a Texas writer, journalist, and folklorist who wrote many articles about James Bowie. He retold the Bowie legends in a number of newspaper articles, but also published more scholarly examinations of the Texas hero in historical society journals. The following article was published in the Southwest Review in 1931:
BOWIE AND THE BOWIE KNIFEThere's an entry on J. Frank Dobie at Wikipedia. Interestingly, he identified himself as a liberal Democrat, which might not be apparent from his writing.
By J. Frank Dobie
A "cutting scrape" nowadays is apt to connote Negroes with a razor, Mexicans with any sort of knife settling "their jealousies over some señorita at a fandango," or Italians in a back-alley dive. The glory of the "knife men" wearing proudly their ivory-handled Bowies in embroidered sheaths has indeed faded. Nevertheless in the traditional tales of the frontier tales yet to be heard all over the Southwest, Bowie's knife has become nothing less than the American counterpart of King Arthur's "Excalibur" or of Sigmund's great sword "Gram," forged with runic rhymes by the dwarf smiths of the old Norse gods. And its origin is wrapped in multiplied legends as conflicting and fantastic as those that glorify the master weapons of the Old World.
On the bloody grounds of Kentucky, in the mountains of Tennessee, and all down the Mississippi Valley the frontiersman's knife was used with deadly effect for years before the Bowie men of history came on the scene, in the 'twenties and 'thirties of the last century; but it was one or more of the Bowie men who gave it a name and a final form and brought its vogue to a climax. The fame of the Bowie knife is forever interwoven with that of the Bowie men.
Of all the characters connected with pioneer history in the Southwest, James Bowie comes nearer being unadulterated legend than any other. He did nothing really great or constructive; yet his name has probably been more widely popularized than that of the truly great and constructive founder of the Texas Republic, Stephen F. Austin. He affected the destiny of the nation little, if at all, and merely a scrap of his paper survives; yet the stories that sprang up about him are second in number only to those about the voluble and spectacular Sam Houston. He is remembered popularly for three things: first, his brave death in the Alamo, fighting for Texan independence; second, his supposed connection with a lost Spanish mine on the San Saba River that came to bear Bowie's name and that today, after thousands of men over a period close to a hundred years have vainly sought to find it, is yet the object of ardent search; third, the knife that bears his name--and that to many people symbolizes his character.
All three of these claims to remembrance are wrapped legend. The traditional tales, some of them truly extraordinary, centering around the Lost Bowie Mine would, if compiled, fill a volume. History is clear as to Bowie's part in the Alamo, but the best stories about him there do not get into documented histories. Nor do the tales of how he succored abused slaves, took the part of bullied preachers, and rescued wronged women. But our subject is the Bowie knife.
The known facts about James Bowie's early life are that he was born in Tennessee in 1795, two years later than his distinguished brother, Rezin P. Bowie, and that in 1802 he came with his parents and their numerous progeny to Louisiana. The name Bowie at that time was already more than a century old in Maryland and had been known two generations in Virginia and South Carolina, the several branches of the family having shot out from a stout clan of Scottish Highlanders. The male members of it--hard riding, hard-headed, well propertied, decently educated, contentious in politics, and ready to die in adherence to the code of the Cavaliers--generally deserved the epithet given to them, "the fighting Bowies".
The pair that whelped James were equal to holding their own in a wilderness where turbulent men were made more turbulent by the confusion of land claims following the Louisiana Purchase. On one occasion, relates the historian of the Bowie family, Rezin Bowie, Sr., father of James, in defending his land against a gang of squatters killed one of them. He was arrested, charged with manslaughter, and put in jail to await trial. Mrs. Bowie, accompanied by a slave, rode on horseback to the jail, demanded entrance, and entered. In a few minutes she and her husband reappeared, each armed with a brace of pistols. While the jailer retreated, they mounted the horses in waiting and rode away. It is not recorded that Rezin Bowie was again molested. Years later when this wife and mother was told how her son had been killed by Mexicans in the Alamo, she calmly remarked, "I'll wager no wounds were found in his back."
In time James Bowie and his brother Rezin P. came to own and operate a great sugar plantation on Bayou Lafourche called Arcadia. Meantime John J., a third brother, had moved to Arkansas and established a large plantation that he proudly named "Bowie." The times and the territory carved out of the Louisiana Purchase were conductive to the wildest speculation and the most glaring frauds in land. There is evidence that James Bowie, in partnership with John, sold "honest but ignorant" settlers in Arkansas land titles that, despite claims of Spanish origin, were held by the Federal courts to be fraudulent.
Whatever his activities in land may have been, Jim Bowie was a man of surpassing vigor, of headlong energy, and of great ambition to lead. He was six feet tall and all muscle. He roped and rode giant alligators for fun. Generally polite and courteous, in anger he appeared "like an enraged tiger." He was somehow connected with Doctor Long's filibustering schemes against Mexico, and with one or more of his brothers he seems to have carried on an extensive business in slave smuggling. The Bowies are said to have bought blacks from the pirate Lafitte on Galveston Island at a dollar a pound. On one occasion, says the historian Thrall, Jim Bowie while driving ninety of his purchases through the swamps of Louisiana lost the entire band. Thereafter he prepared himself against a similar disaster by wearing "three or four knives" so that he could transfix any nigger that tried to run away. Jerking a knife was quicker by far than reloading a horse pistol at the muzzle. "Big Jim," as they called him, showed the "knife men" among Lafitte's crew several things in the art of knife throwing.
And this brings us to our theme--a theme concerning which history must stand abashed before the riot of legend. Who made the first Bowie knife? How did it originate?
According to an unpublished letter, dated 1890 and preserved among the historical archives of the University of Texas, from John S. Moore, grandnephew of James Bowie, the original knife was modeled as a hunting knife by Rezin Bowie, Sr., and wrought by his own blacksmith, Jesse Cliffe. Some time later Jim Bowie had a "difficulty" with one Major Morris Wright, in which a bullet from Wright's pistol was checked by a silver dollar in Bowie's vest pocket. While Wright was in the act of shooting, Bowie "pulled down" on him, but his pistol snapped and the two foes parted expecting to meet another day. When Jim told his father of the trouble and of how his pistol had snapped, the old gentleman got out his prized hunting knife and presented it to his son with these laconic words: "This will never snap."
In the "Sandbar Duel," as it is called, that followed, the knife fully realized all expectations. This duel was in reality a free-for-all fight that took place among twelve men who met on a sandbar of the Mississippi River near Natchez, September 19, 1827. In it two men were killed and three badly wounded. Bowie was down, shot in four places and cut in five, when his mortal enemy, Major Wright, rushed upon him, exclaiming, "Damn you, you have killed me." Bowie raised himself up and stabbed Wright to the heart. At once Bowie's knife became famous and copies of it were widely disseminated.
According to notes kept by another scion of the Bowie family, Dr. J. Moore Soniat du Fosset, of New Orleans, now deceased, it was Rezin P. Bowie, the brother of James, who devised the knife. The occasion for it arose thus:
The Bowie brothers were very fond of riding wild cattle down--a sport popular among planters of Louisiana at the time. There were two ways of dealing with the maverick animals. One was to shoot them from horseback as sportsmen on the plains shot buffaloes; the other was to ride against them and stab, them with a large couteau de chasse [hunting knife]. Sometimes the cattle were lassoed and then stabbed. The chase with knife and lasso was wilder and more exciting than the chase with pistol or rifle. Hence the Bowies preferred it.
One day while Rezin P. was thrusting his knife into a ferocious bull, the animal lunged in such a way as to draw the blade through the hunter's hand, making a severe wound.
After having his hand dressed, Rezin called the plantation blacksmith, Jesse Cliffe, and told him that he must make a knife that would not slip from a man's grasp. Using a pencil in his left hand, he awkwardly traced on paper a blade some ten inches long and two inches broad at its widest part, the handle to be strong and well protected from the blade by guards. The model having been settled upon, Rezin gave the smith a large file of the best quality of steel and told him to make the knife out of that. With fire and hammer the smith wrought the weapon--just one. It proved to be so serviceable in hunting and Rezin came to prize it so highly that for a long time he kept it, when he was not wearing it, locked in his desk.
Then one day, Dr. Soniat du Fosset's account goes on, Jim Bowie told his brother how his life had been jeopardized by the snapping of a pistol while it was pointed at a man firing on him. After hearing the story and learning how the final reckoning between the enemies was yet to be made, Rezin unlocked the desk, took out his prized personal possession, and handed it to his brother with these words: "Here, Jim, take 'Old Bowie'. She never misses fire."
Another story has it that in preparation for the "Sandbar Duel" Jim Bowie himself took a fourteen-inch file to a cutler in New Orleans known as Pedro. Pedro had learned his trade in Toledo, where the finest swords in all Spain were forged; and all his skill went into the making of a blade which was to be, in Bowie's words, "fit to fight for a man's life with." Yet another story avers that while recovering from wounds sustained in the famous fight Jim Bowie whittled from soft wood a pattern of the knife that was to make his own name historic, and had a blacksmith named Lovel Snowden fashion the weapon.
When in doubt go to the encyclopedia. This is what the Encyclopedia Americana (1928) sets forth: "Colonel James Bowie is said to have had his sword broken down to within about twenty inches of the hilt in a fight with some Mexicans, but he found that he did such good execution with his broken blade that he equipped all his followers with a similar weapon"--the Bowie knife.
But let us not be too rash in drawing conclusions. Arkansas has yet to be heard from, and Arkansas has better right to speak on the subject than any encyclopedia. The Bowie knife used to be commonly known as the "Arkansas toothpick," and Arkansas is sometimes yet referred to as "the Toothpick State." Arkansans certainly knew their toothpicks. The very spring that Bowie died in the Alamo, Arkansas became a state, and, fittingly enough, history records that the members of the first legislature used, after adjournment in the cool of the evening, to take their knives and pistols and repair to a grove hard by, there to practice throwing and shooting at the trees.
Some members of the legislature were in fine practice. The speaker of the house was John Wilson, sometimes known as "Horse Ears," from the fact that when he was excited, whether by love, humor, or anger, his ears worked up and down like those of an aroused horse. One of his political enemies in the house was Major J. J. Anthony. When a bill relating to bounties on wolf scalps came up, Anthony arose and in the course of his remarks made a cutting allusion to Speaker Wilson.
With ears working and quivering "in a horrific manner," Wilson leaped from his chair, at the same time drawing a Bowie knife and started towards his antagonist. Alfred W. Arrington, the author of a very scarce and lurid item entitled The Lives and Adventures of the Desperadoes of the Southwest, describes the blade of this particular Arkansas toothpick as being engraved on one side with a coiled rattlesnake about to strike and on the other with a bear hugging a man to death while the man fiercely gouged at its heart with a Bowie knife.
Anthony was waiting for Horse Ears with his own knife drawn. A legislator thrust a chair between them. Each seized a rung in his left hand and went to slashing with his right. Anthony cut one of Wilson's hands severely and in the scuffle lost his knife. Wilson came on and literally disemboweled his enemy. He fell on the floor beside the dead man. However, he quickly recovered, was in court triumphantly cleared of the charge of murder, and at a meeting of the legislature a few years later drew his Bowie on another member. Those were the days when the Bowie knife governed in Arkansas.
So it is not without reason and just basis for pride that Arkansas insists on having originated the Bowie knife. It has already been said that John J. Bowie established a plantation in that state. A former Arkansas judge, William F. Pope, maintains in his Early Days in Arkansas (1895) that Rezin P. Bowie once came to Washington, Arkansas, and engaged an expert smith named Black to make a hunting knife after a pattern that he, Bowie, had whittled out of the top of a cigar box. "He told the smith that he wanted a knife that would disjoint the bones of a bear or deer without gapping or turning the edge of the blade. Black undertook the job and turned out the implement afterwards known as the Bowie knife. The hilt was elaborately ornamented with silver designs. Black's charge for the work was ten dollars, but Bowie was so pleased with it that he gave the maker ten dollars [more].
"I do not hesitate to make the statement," concludes Judge Pope, "that no genuine Bowie knives have ever been made outside the state of Arkansas. . . . Many imitations have been attempted, but they are not Bowie knives."
Despite such strong assertions, it would appear that Judge Pope based his judgment on a false premise. The classic Arkansas story comes from Dan W. Jones, governor of Arkansas from 1897 to 190 1. The manuscript containing it lay long unpublished but finally saw the light in the Arkansas Gazette, November 20, 1919, and has since been several times reprinted.
According to Governor Jones, the James Black who alone made the only "genuine" Bowie knife also designed it. Black was born in New Jersey, May 1, 1800, and, after having served as apprentice to a Philadelphia silver-plate manufacturer, came south in 1818, settling that year at Washington, Hempstead County, Arkansas.
Here he found employment with Shaw, the village blacksmith. Shaw was an important man and he had ambitions for his daughters. Consequently, when Anne fell in love with the young smith, only a hired hand, Shaw objected. The young people married nevertheless, and James Black set up a smithy of his own.
He specialized in making knives, and very soon they had won a reputation. "It was his rule," to quote the Governor Jones narrative, "after shaping and tempering a knife, and before polishing it, to cut very hard wood with it, generally an old hickory axe-handle which had been used for a long time and had become quite tough and hard. This he would do f or half an hour, and then if the knife would not easily shave the hair from his arm, he would throw it away. . . .
"About 1831 James Bowie came to Washington and gave Black an order for a knife, furnishing a pattern and desiring it to be made within the next sixty or ninety days, at the end of which time he would call for it. Black made the knife according to Bowie's pattern. He knew Bowie well and had a high regard for him as a man of good taste as well as of unflinching courage. He had never made a knife that suited his own taste in point of shape, and he concluded that this would be a good opportunity to make one. Consequently, after completing the knife ordered by Bowie, he made another. When Bowie returned, he showed both the knives to him, giving him his choice at the same price. Bowie promptly selected Black's pattern.
"Shortly after this Bowie became involved in a difficulty with three desperadoes, who assaulted him with knives. He killed them all with the knife Black had made. After this whenever anyone ordered a knife from Black, he ordered it made 'like Bowie's', which finally was shortened into 'Make me a Bowie knife.' Thus this famous weapon acquired its name. . . .
"Other men made knives in those days, and they are still being made, but no one has ever made 'the Bowie knife' except James Black. Its chiefest value was in its temper. Black undoubtedly possessed the Damascus secret. It came to him mysteriously and it died with him in the same way. . . . He often told me that no one had taught him the secret and that it was impossible for him to tell how he acquired it. Large offers were made him for the secret, but he refused them all. He was stealthily watched, in order that his process might be discovered, but his reputation for courage was such that no one approached him too closely after having been warned to desist."
The death of the secret is a part of the story. About 1838 Black's wife died. Not long thereafter Black himself was confined to his bed by a fever. While he was down, his father-in-law, who had all along been jealous of Black's growing reputation, came into him and beat him over the head with a stick. Probably he would have killed him had not Black's dog seized Shaw by the throat. As it was, inflammation set up in Black's eyes and he was threatened with blindness. As soon as he had strength enough to travel, he set out for expert treatment. A quack doctor in Cincinnati made him stone blind. He returned to Arkansas to find his little property gone and himself an object of charity. A Doctor Jones, father of the future Governor Jones, gave him a home. When Doctor Jones died, the blind man went to live with the son.
"Time and again," recalls Governor Jones, "when I was a boy, he said to me that notwithstanding his great misfortune, God had blessed him in a rare manner by giving him such a good home and that he would repay it all by disclosing to me his secret of tempering steel when I should arrive at maturity and be able to utilize it to my own advantage.
"On the first day of May, 1870, his seventieth birthday, he said to me that he was getting old and could not in the ordinary course of nature expect to live a great while longer; that I was now thirty years old, with a wife and growing family, and sufficiently acquainted with the affairs of the world to utilize properly the secret which he had so often promised to give me; and that, if I would get pen, ink, and paper, he would communicate it to me and I could write it down.
“I brought the writing material and told him I was ready. He said, 'In the first place'--and then stopped suddenly and commenced rubbing his brow with the fingers of his right hand. He continued this for some minutes, and then said, 'Go away and come back again in an hour.'
"I went out of the room, but remained where I could see him, and not for one moment did he take his fingers from his brow or change his position. At the expiration of the hour I went into the room and spoke to him. Without changing his position or movement, he said, 'Go out again and come back in another hour.' I went out and watched for another hour, his conduct remaining the same.
"Upon my speaking to him at the expiration of the second hour, he again said, 'Go out once more and come back in another hour.' Again 1 went out and watched. The old man sat there,
His frame sunken, immobile, his only movement the constant rubbing of his brow with the fingers of his right hand.
"When I came in and spoke to him at the expiration of the third hour, he burst into a flood of tears and said: 'My God, my God, it has all gone from me! All these years I have accepted the kindness of these good people in the belief that I could repay it all with this legacy, and now when 1 attempt to do it, I cannot. Daniel, there were ten or twelve processes through which 1 put the knives, but I cannot remember one of them. When I told you to get pen, ink, and paper, they were all fresh in my mind, but they are all gone now. My God, my God, 1 have put it off too long!'
"I looked at him in awe and wonder. The skin from his forehead had been completely rubbed away by his fingers. His sightless eyes were filled with tears, and his whole face was the very picture of grief and despair. . . .
"For a little more than two years longer he lived on, but he was ever after an imbecile. He lies buried in the old graveyard at Washington, and with him lies buried the wonderful secret of the genuine Bowie-knife steel."
Texas, too, has asserted her claim to being the place where Bowie originated the knife. There are other stories-many of them. However they may contradict each other, the preponderance of evidence goes to show that the knife used by Jim Bowie in the "Sandbar Duel" of 1827 set the fashion for Bowie knives. It was duplicated in many places-by solitary smiths over a vast pioneer country, by a factory in Sheffield, England. It was improved upon and elaborated upon, and until the six-shooter supplanted it, it was the chief weapon employed to settle personal difficulties over a vast territory of the South and West where pioneer conditions obtained. (The knife that the "Mountain Men" of the Northwest relied most upon was, from a trademark, known as the Green River knife.)
The exact proportions of the original Bowie knife will probably never be known, though the blade was undoubtedly about ten inches long. The ideal Bowie knife was forged from the best steel procurable. It was differentiated from other knives by having more curve to the blade, near the point, by having a heavier handle--often of horn--and by having handle, blade, and guards all so well balanced that the knife could be cast a maximum distance with the most deadly effect.
It was the rule to "use a knife and save powder and lead." The Bowie knife was the best possible knife to use, and knife throwing and thrusting were arts to be excelled in as well as shooting and wrestling. Indeed, many frontiersmen regarded any other weapon than the knife, for work in close quarters, as "fit only for the weakly." Bowie himself, it is claimed, could juggle a number of knives in the air at the same time and at twenty paces send one through a small target of thick wood.
The handiness of the Bowie knife and the skill of the frontiersman in its use are well illustrated by an incident taken from the memories of a Texas Ranger named Maltby. After a raid by Kiowa Indians, Maltby and his men rushed to a well known crossing on the San Saba River, hoping there to waylay the marauders. By the time they struck camp they had been two or three days with almost nothing to eat, for a gun could riot be fired at game without risk of alarming the expected Indians. At dark Maltby took one man with him and, leaving the other rangers to guard the crossing, went up the trail a short distance to keep watch.
The two men sat down under a live-oak tree three or four feet from the trail. About midnight they saw an object approaching. Presently it revealed itself to be a buck deer. Noiselessly Maltby drew his Bowie, cautiously raised himself up against the trunk of the tree, and threw the knife. The deer gave but one leap before falling dead, its heart pierced. The surprise of the men in camp next morning when they saw dressed venison for breakfast was equalled only by their appetites. Noiselessness in operation often gave the knife a value appreciated as highly as its not "snapping".
For dozens of purposes the Bowie knife was "as handy as a shirt pocket." The hard bone or horn handle of it was often used as a kind of pestle to grind coffee beans, the blade, sometimes as heavy as a Mexican machete, served to hack limbs from trees and to cut underbrush as well as to dress and skin game. An Englishman named Hooten who visited Texas in 1841 and straightway wrote a book had much to say about this striking phenomenon of the frontier. A blow from a well wielded knife, he recorded, "is sufficient to break a man's arm. . . . I have myself seen skulls of unburied Mexicans brought in from the battle-ground of San Jacinto that were cleft nearly through the thickest part of the bone behind, evidently at one blow, and with sufficient force to throw out extensive cracks, like those of starred glass."
How many men Bowie killed with the blade that saved his life on the Mississippi sandbar we do not know. Rezin P. Bowie flatly affirmed that the knife was never used more than the once for other than hunting purposes. Maybe Bowie used at other times an improved model, though, as we shall see, he was passionately devoted to "Old Bowie." Estimates of the number he stabbed--exclusive of his work in the Alamo--vary from sixteen to nineteen. In the absence of authentic history the rule for readers and writers alike to follow in considering killers is to choose the most interesting number. (See accounts of Billy the Kid and Wild Bill Hickok.) It is significant that Rezin was careful to make a distinction between a "difficulty" and a "duel"; consequently his flat assertion that neither he nor James "ever had a duel with any person whatsoever" is to be taken technically.
The technically trained judge Pope, already quoted from, overruled, we might say, Rezin's definition--or assertion. "Several months ago," he records, "I met a descendant of the Bowies who informed me that his great-uncle James once fought a desperate duel with a Mexican with knives, the combatants, face to face and within mutual striking distance, sitting on a log to which the stout leather breeches each wore were securely nailed." The historian of the Bowie family inserts the tale that on one occasion James and a neighboring Spanish planter, having become "involved in a difficulty, decided to fight it out with knife and dagger." The Spaniard, of course, was the man who chose the dagger. The left hands of the two opponents were lashed securely together. The duel was brief. "As the Spaniard drew his arm back to strike, Bowie thrust forward and drove his awful knife through his antagonist's body; then, coolly cutting the cords that held them, he allowed the corpse of his adversary to sink to the ground."
Bowie was as gallant as he was gory. One time, so another yarn goes, he met in Natchez Under-the-Hill a young man named Lattimore whom he recognized as the son of a much esteemed friend. Young Lattimore had sold a large amount of cotton and in a faro game was being cheated by "Bloody Sturdivant," a notorious gambler.
"Young man," said Bowie, "you don't know me, but your father does. Here, let me take your hand."
In a short time Bowie exposed the cheat. Then he won back the money Lattimore had lost and gave it to him with the advice to gamble no more. "Bloody Sturdivant," meantime, ignorant of who his opponent was, had become so incensed that he challenged Bowie to a duel, proposing that they lash their left hands together and fight with knives. Bowie accepted, at the first stroke disabled the right arm of his antagonist, and then forebore to take his life.
Duels of this character, between men lashed together, were not exactly everyday affairs, but the fact that they occurred at all bespeaks the spirit of the times-and the popularity of the Bowie knife. In the region of Texas below San Antonio they were called "Helena duels," from the fact that the town of Helena fostered them rather frequently. Sometimes they were known as "Mexican fights."
More dramatic perhaps, and certainly as chilling to the imagination, was another form of duel that Bowie is said to have inaugurated. He was challenged, so the story goes, and had the privilege of arranging the combat. He stipulated that the fight should take place at night in a dark room into which the combatants, stripped to the waist, barefooted--so that sound would not reveal movement--and armed with Bowie knives, were to be locked.
In the dead of night they were accompanied to the appointed room, in a deserted house. They entered. The door was locked. The seconds outside listened for long minutes without hearing a sound. Then they heard a scuffle, accompanied by a click of steel, a moan, and a voice crying, "Come in." By the light of a lantern Bowie was seen standing in a pool of blood, the other man dead.
Two testimonials have come down regarding Bowie's attitude towards the knife that bears his name.
In 1828, the year after the "Sandbar Duel," Noah Smithwick was a blacksmith in San Felipe de Austin on the Brazos River when James Bowie came along with his knife.
"The blood-christened weapon," says Smithwick, "was an ordinary affair with a plain wooden handle, but when Bowie recovered from his wounds, he had the precious blade polished and set into an ivory handle mounted with silver; the scabbard also being mounted. Not wishing to degrade it by ordinary use, he brought the knife to me at San Felipe to have a duplicate made. The blade was about ten inches long and two broad at the widest part. When it became known that I was making a genuine Bowie knife, there was a great demand for them; so I cut a pattern and started a factory, my jobs bringing all the way from five to twenty dollars, according to finish."
The other testimonial is from David Crockett's rollicky Adventures in Texas, probably written by someone other than Crockett:
"I found Colonel Bowie, of Louisiana," Crockett is made to say, "in the fortress [of the Alamo], a man celebrated for having been in more desperate personal conflicts than any other in the country, and whose name has been given to a knife of peculiar construction now in general use in the Southwest. I was introduced to him by Colonel Travis, and he gave me a friendly welcome, and appeared to be mightily pleased that I had arrived safe. While we were conversing, he had occasion to draw his famous knife to cut a strap, and I wish I may be shot if the bare sight of it wasn't enough to give a man of squeamish stomach the colic, specially before breakfast. He saw I was admiring it, and said he, 'Colonel, you might tickle a fellow's ribs a long time with this little instrument before you'd make him laugh; and many a time have I seen a man puke at the idea of the point touching the pit of his stomach.' "
So Bowie still had his knife at the Alamo, then--at least a Bowie knife. Dallas T. Herndon, Arkansas historian, says that he died in the Alamo "with the knife made by James Black clasped in his hand." Others have said that around Bowie's cot--for he was ill--was a heap of Mexicans whose ribs had been tickled by the knife. Among the relics in the Alamo itself at present is a not very formidable specimen of cutlery that some man by the name of Bowie donated a few years ago as the original Bowie knife. The Witte Museum, in San Antonio, has another knife that is supposed to have been owned by Bowie and presented by him to a friend. (Bowie seems to have been fond of making presents of the knife, very much as an author presents his own books.) One tradition is that Bowie gave the original knife to the great actor Forrest. No doubt Bowie admired actors. Another report has it that one of the Louisiana descendants of Rezin P. Bowie lost the original knife in a boggy river some forty years ago.
Old Cephas K. Ham, who went with the Bowie expedition in quest of the lost Spanish mine on the San Saba and was with the expedition in the astounding fight against a band of Indians that outnumbered them sixteen to one, used to tell how Bowie after having worn his precious knife for years finally left it on the ground, near the Goliad road, where he had butchered a deer. He was miles away before he missed it, but he rode back to get it, only to find it gone. "He supposed a wolf had found it and packed it off on account of the blood upon it."
Happily, Bowie died before the knife that bears his name was supplanted by the six-shooter. It is generally said that Captain Jack Hays of the Texas Rangers, at the battle of the Perdanales with Comanche Indians, about 1842, first fully demonstrated the superiority of the Colt's revolver over all other weapons in close combat. It was about this time that Robert M. Williamson, better known as "Three Legged Willie," a lawyer and one of the most singular characters among the highly individualized men of Austin's colonies, made a gesture that signified the waning dominance of the Bowie knife in the Southwest.
The President of the Republic of Texas commissioned Judge Williamson to go to a certain county and there hold a term of court. No court had been held in the county for years; the citizens were principally engaged in feuds and wanted no legal meddling. Just before court was to be convened, a mass meeting of the feudists adopted a resolution declaring that no court should be held. When "Three Legged Willie" took his seat on the bench, a lawyer who had been selected to set forth the resolution arose and read it aloud. The courtroom was crowded with armed men. After the lawyer had concluded and taken his seat, the judge asked him if he could cite any statute to warrant the adjournment of court for any such reasons as he had set forth. Coolly enough, the lawyer again arose, pulled out his long Bowie knife, laid it on the table, and said: "This is the statute that governs in such cases."
At this the fiery Williamson leaped from his chair, drew one of the new Colt's revolvers, pointed it at the lawyer, and roared: "And this is the constitution that overrides the statute. Open court, Mr. Sheriff, and call the witnesses in the first case."
Whether they be literally true or largely the product of imagination--and many of them must be fabrications--the tales that have come down regarding the origin of the Bowie knife and of its use by Bowie and other frontiersmen reflect, in a phrase from Henry Adams, "what society liked to see enacted on its theater of life." Indeed, they reflect not only what society "liked to see enacted" but what was enacted. As truly as documented history, they reveal a time and a people.
A news story from 1885:
Murderous Affray on a Freight Car.
LOUISVILLE, KY., Jan. 12.--George Jackson, conductor, and James Wilson, brakeman of a freight train on the Louisville and Lexington Railroad, were taken to their boarding-house in Louisville on Friday evening suffering from wounds inflicted upon each other in a duel fought with bowie knives on top of the train while it was running at the rate of thirty miles an hour. Jackson was traveling to Louisville from Lexington with his train, when he and Wilson quarreled over a woman in the caboose.
The men were about to come to blows when a proposition was made to fight a duel on top of the caboose with bowie knives, with which both men were armed. No sooner was the proposition made than it was accepted and, drawing their weapons, the men climbed to the top of the car. The other employees on the train gathered around to witness the combat. The train was whirling along at a lively rate between Christiansburg and Louisville when the men announced themselves ready for battle. They rushed upon each other and closed with each other. Blood trickled from the knife blade and bespattered the roof of the car. The train sped along, and the men separated once when the signal was given that the train was to pass under a bridge. They renewed the fight after the bridge had been passed. Both men were badly hacked, and the train men, dreading to witness a murder, put a stop to further fighting. Jackson got the worst of the fight, being badly cut across the breast.
Thursday, December 23, 2010
I want to thank Dwight McLemore for the gracious comments about my book that he posted at Blade Forums. Dwight is of course the bowie-knife fighting expert who wrote and illustrated Bowie Knife and Big-Knife Fighting System and Advanced Bowie Techniques: The Finer Points of Fighting With a Large Knife, as well as The Fighting Tomahawk, volumes I and II, The Fighting Sword, and The Fighting Staff, all of them available from Paladin Press:
Thanks to Paul and Paladin Press I got my copy today. Bottom-Line: This is a 'Good Read'! It is very clear survey of Bowie ( & Bowie-like) knife fights from the 19th century to the present. While I question a couple of the sources, these are too insignificant to mention and fall more into the category of my opinion and no more valid than that of the author. It is a great desk-side reference for the history of the weapon and does a good job of placing the folklore and myth in the proper context. I wish this were available before I undertook that first book of mine....would have kept me from believing some of the myths. Hey didn't we all back then. The artwork is dynamic and iconic, it provides a good break from the text. Paul's use of the hard edge gives the feeling of the old woodcuts of the period. I would buy this book if only for the numerous references provided after each chapter. At any rate this motivated me. Good job, Paul.
Sir Edward R. Sullivan, an Englishman who visited America in 1850, left an account of "quadroon balls" in New Orleans in his 1852 book Rambles and Scrambles in North and South America. (Quadroon balls were social events, usually requiring paid admission, at which white men could meet and socialize with mixed-race women. There is a lengthy Wikipedia article on the subject here.)
There is hardly one man out of fifty from St. Louis right down south, that does not always carry a bowie-knife or a revolver.
I made a point of going to some of the quadroon balls. . . . These balls take place in a large saloon: at the entrance, where you pay half a dollar, you are requested to leave your implements, by which is meant your bowie-knifes and revolvers; and you leave them as you would your overcoat on going into the opera, and get a ticket with their number, and on your way out they are returned to you. You hear the pistol and bowie-knife keeper in the arms-room call out, "No. 46 - a six-barrelled repeater."
"No. 100 - one eight-barrelled revolver, and bowie knife with a death's-head and cross-bones cut on the handle."
"No. 95- a brace of double-barrels."
All this is done as naturally as possible, and you see fellows fasten on their knives and pistols as coolly as if they were tying on a comforter or putting on a coat.
As I was going upstairs, after getting my ticket, and replying to the quiet request, "whether I would leave my arms" that I had none to leave, I was stopped and searched from head to foot by a policeman, who, I suppose, fancied it impossible that I should be altogether without arms. Notwithstanding all this care murders and duels are of weekly occurrence at these balls, and during my stay at New Orleans there were three. There are more murders here than in any other city in the Union. In the first place, everybody drinks hard, and every man is armed; and a man who does not avenge an insult on the spot is despised. It is a word and a blow, and not unfrequently the blow without the word.In his 1839 travelogue, A Diary in America: With Remarks on its Institutions, Frederick Marryat commented on how easily the security at the New Orleans dancehalls was sidestepped:
To shew, however, how difficult it is to eradicate bad habits, a gentleman told me that it being the custom when the Quadroon balls were given at New Orleans, for the police to search every person on entering and take away his bowie-knife, the young men would resort to the following contrivance. The knives of a dozen perhaps were confided to one, who remained outside; the others entered, and being searched, were passed; they then opened one of the ballroom windows, and let down a string, to which the party left outside fastened all their knives as well as his own; they were hauled up; he then entered himself, and each person regained his knife. The reason for these precautions being taken by the police was, that the women being all of colour, their evidence was not admissible in a court of justice; and no evidence could be obtained from the young men, should a murder have been committed.
Wednesday, December 22, 2010
After Union troops were routed at the First Battle of Bull Run, also known as First Manassas, newspapers claimed that the bowie knife had played a decisive role in the hands of the Confederates. One article describes the Southerners using a most unlikely weapon: A bowie knife tied to a long elastic rope, so that it could be thrown at the enemy and then return to its owner's hand, like a yo-yo or boomerang. Here is the report:
One of the New York Fire Zouaves who was wounded at the battle of Manassas on Sunday last, a stalwart, hardy fellow, of considerable intelligence, passed through this city yesterday, en route homeward, remaining here several hours waiting for the cars. From him I obtained a thrilling narrative of an encounter between his regiment and a Mississippian.This weapon sounds preposterous, and it was with some surprise that I came across another reference to it in an article in the Atlanta Constitution on October 28, 1895, thirty years after the war.
After the battle had been raging for some hours, according to the account of this Zouvian here, he saw an immense body of Mississippians, accompanied by some (believed to be) Baltimoreans rush furiously over the Confederate ramparts. They at once saw the conspicuous uniforms of the Zouaves, and made at them. The Mississippians, after approaching near enough, sent a terrible volley from their rifles into the Zouave ranks. This done, they threw their guns aside and charged onward until each contending enemy met face to face, and hand to hand, in terrible combat.
The Mississippians, having discarded their rifles after the first fire, fell back upon their bowie knives. These were of huge dimensions, eighteen to twenty inches long, heavy in proportion, and sharp or two-edged at the point. Attached to the handle was a lasso, some eight or ten feet in length, with one end securely wound around the wrist.
My informant says that when these terrific warriors approached to within reach of their lasso, not waiting to come within bayonet range, they threw forward their bowie knives at the Zouaves after the fashion of experienced harpooners striking at a whale. Frequently they plunged in and penetrated through a soldier's body, and were ready to strike again whilst the first victim sunk into death. On several occasions the terrible bowie knife was transfixed in a Zouave, and the Zouave's bayonet in a Mississippian, both impaled and falling together. So skillfully was this deadly instrument handled by the Mississippian that he could project it to the full lasso length, kill his victim, withdraw it again with a sudden impulse, and catch the handle unerringly.
If by any mischance the bowie knife missed its aim, broke the cord fastening it to the arm, or fell to the earth, revolvers were next resorted to with similar dexterity. The hand to hand closing in with both pistol and bowie knife, cutting, slashing, carving and shooting almost in the same moment, was awful beyond description. Blood gushed from hundreds of wounds, until, amid death, pitiful groans and appalling sights, it staunched the very earth. My Zouave companion says himself and comrades did hard fighting, and stood up manfully to the murderous conflict, but he felt no further ambition to engage in such encounters.
Novel Weapons With Which a Screven Company Was Armed.I remain skeptical about the concept, but am curious if anyone has heard anything else about it. By the way, the recent movie Kick-Ass had a young heroine named Hit Girl who used a throwing knife on an elastic cord that sounded just like this, but she had the magic of special effects to make it work. Here is a scene from the movie:
Sylvania, Ga., October 27. (Special)
A confederate veteran of Sylvania recently talked to a Telephone reporter of a lot of curious weapons of warfare with which a company from Screven were armed at the beginning of the late war, and before they had been supplied with rifles. It will be remembered that Governor Joseph Brown had caused to be constructed a large number of pikes with which to arm the Georgia troops, and this probably gave rise to the peculiar weapons that were made for the Screven company.
Mr. George Cooper, the noted blacksmith and the inventor of the of the well-known Cooper plow, was the designer and manufacturer of this unique weapon, and it undoubtedly surpassed Governor Brown's. It consisted of a bowie knife set in a firm handle, the whole thing being about two feet long. The knives were somewhat on the order of a short sword, and carried in a kind of scabbard at the side. The old soldier who was describing it and who belonged to the company, said that attached to the handle of these knives was a strong piece of elastic, probably eight or ten feet long--so that in an engagement the knives could he hurled at the enemy and then, after inflicting a wound, or in either event, would rebound into the hands of the owner. It could thus be used an infinite number of times, and at a distance, too, where swords could not be brought into play. It will be seen that it was very much on the order of the ancient javelin, only the elastic attachment made it much more serviceable and a more dangerous and effective weapon at close quarters.
Mr. Bob Kelly, who was a member of the company, still has one of these old knives in his possession, which he treasures very much as a relic, and there are probably others scattered through the county. The blades of the knives were made mostly from large flat files, and being pointed and ground very sharp, were capable of piercing a man through and through if thrown with accurate aim. The Screven boys, however, did not have the opportunity to test the weapons in conflict, for they were soon furnished with other implements of warfare and had to discard the knives.
Tuesday, December 21, 2010
I thought I'd link this video for two reasons. The first one you can probably guess, the second one is that Hernandez demonstrates a disarm I read about in an 1890 newspaper article about knife fighting, which I quote almost in its entirety in the book. It describes a technique in which, when your opponent thrusts forward, you cut at the inside of his wrist with your knife hand, while hitting the back of his hand with the other. This should cut the tendons, disabling his hand.
Another reminder of me of why I look forward to making my way to my dotage without getting into any knife fights.
Monday, December 20, 2010
The gun store I used to frequent in the 1970s carried a small selection of custom knives. I had not given much thought to buying one, but one day I spotted a "chute knife" on display and it was a case of lust at first sight. It was nearly $200, so I had my wife buy it for my birthday. Every line and proportion of this knife, as well as its workmanship, struck me as perfect. It was made by Jimmy Lile, and the store owner assured me that he was a highly respected knife maker.
The following article about Lile was published in the Jefferson City Post-Tribune on June 29, 1978. Lile was already renowned among knife enthusiasts, but he rocketed to true celebrity as the designer of the knives for First Blood (1982) and Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985).
The following article about Lile was published in the Jefferson City Post-Tribune on June 29, 1978. Lile was already renowned among knife enthusiasts, but he rocketed to true celebrity as the designer of the knives for First Blood (1982) and Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985).
Jimmy Lile with Sylvester Stallone, posing with "Rambo" knife
RUSSELLVILLE, Ark. (AP) - Knife-making, which evokes images of burly artisans sweating over backwoods forges, seems to fit Jimmy Lile, a white-haired, affable man with work-scarred hands.
Aided by two assistants in a shop just off his Russellville, Ark., kitchen, Lile, 44, earns a comfortable living and has achieved worldwide fame from what once was a hobby.
Owners of Jimmy Lile knives include King Carl Gustav of Sweden and former President Richard Nixon. Two Lile creations -- a Bowie knife and an Arkansas "toothpick," a long fighting knife, share a spot among the U.S. Bicentennial memorabilia.
The knife blades are ground in the Lile workshop from long slender bars of a metal known as D2, which is mostly iron and chromium, with some carbon and molybdenum. After being heat-treated in an electric furnace, the blades are sharpened to a fine edge on hard Arkansas and Ouachita oilstone, stone so hard that diamond saws are used to cut it.
Lile fashions the knife handles out of ivory taken from elephant tusks, Indian stag antler, wood and German silver. Then come the frills: exquisitely carved tigers, quail and folio-like etchings of old-time hunting scenes.
His most recent innovation is a pocketknife that locks open and shut with a muted click. He's trying to patent it. A pocketknife with two blades that lock open and shut will be introduced in two years, he says.
Much of Lile's work is made-to-order; some he sells at handicraft shows.
Lile's cutlery sells for up to $5,500, and it can be found displayed in the showcases of nobility, concealed in the boots of law enforcement officers and airline pilots and dangling from the belts of hunters. Nixon was given a Lile Bowie knife by the late Sen. John McClellan, D-Ark., to commemorate the completion of the Arkansas River Navigation System, a project that opened up Arkansas and Oklahoma to heavy shipping.
A friend of King Carl Gustav ordered a pearl-handled pocketknife for the Swedish sovereign.
But Lile isn't one to rest on his laurels. Out of the shop off the Lile kitchen come up to 500 knives a year. "I call it a family operation. I try to keep it small and efficient," Lile says. He says that's why he is successful.
It wasn't always that way, though. Until eight years ago, when he became a full-time knife-maker, Lile was a teacher, coach, general contractor and construction superintendent. He made knives during his spare time in those years. Some of those times were lean, like the time he went broke as a general contractor.
"Instead of filing for bankruptcy, I paid it all back with interest -- $164,000," he says. And he paid off his debts in the same way he financed his college education -- by making knives. His determination to repay his debts endeared him to the banks. When he needed a loan to start his knife- making venture, he had little trouble getting it. "They knew that if they kept me alive, I'd pay them back," Lile said.
Lile designed this knife for Rambo III. Below the knife is the wooden prototype. Stallone rejected the design, ending their relationship.
Stallone selected this bowie knife designed by Gil Hibben for Rambo III.
Sunday, December 19, 2010
One of the risks a man takes when carrying a big, fixed-blade knife is that in certain types of accidents, such as being thrown from a horse, the blade may be thrust through its sheath and into his body. One such an occurrence, in connection with a railroad accident, was briefly noted in the Daily Free Democrat of November 20, 1855:
Mr. Melvin, one of those killed by the Pacific Railroad calamity, was found with a bowie knife, which he had on, thrust up to the hilt in his body. He was terribly mangled.
On November 8, 1852, Thomas Carneal, son-in-law of Henry S. Foote, then the governor of Mississippi, was killed after he stabbed a planter with his bowie knife. The following report is taken from the Vicksburg Sentinel:
We have abstained thus long from giving any notice of the sad affair which resulted in the death of Mr. Thomas Carneal, the son-in-law of the governor of our state, that we might get the particulars. It seems that the steamer E. C. Watkins, with Mr. Carneal as a passenger, landed at or near the plantation of Judge James, in Washington county. Mr. Carneal had heard that the judge was an extremely brutal man to his slaves, and was likewise excited with liquor; and, upon the judge inviting him and others to take a drink with him, Carneal replied that he would not drink with a man who abused his negroes; this the judge resented as an insult, and high words passed.
The company took their drink, however, all but Mr. Carneal, who went out upon the bow of the boat and took a seat, where he was sought by Judge James, who desired satisfaction for the insult. Carneal refused to make any, and asked the old gentleman if any of his sons would resent the insult if he was to slap him in the mouth; to which the judge replied that he would do it himself, if his sons would not; whereupon Mr. Carneal struck him in the mouth with the back of his hand. The judge resented it by striking him across the head with a cane, which stunned Mr. Carneal very much, causing the blood to run freely from the wound. As soon as Carneal recovered from the wound, he drew a bowie-knife, and attacked the judge with it, inflicting several wounds upon his person, some of which were thought to be mortal.
Some gentlemen, in endeavoring to separate the combatants, were wounded by Carneal. When Judge James arrived at his house, bleeding, and in a dying state, as was thought, his son seized a double-barrelled gun, loaded it heavily with large shot, galloped to where the boat was, hitched his horse, and deliberately raised his gun to shoot Carneal, who was sitting upon a cotton bale. Mr. James was warned not to fire, as Carneal was unarmed, and he might kill some innocent person. He took his gun from his shoulder, raised it again, and fired both barrels in succession, killing Carneal instantly.
It is a sad affair, and Carneal leaves, besides numerous friends, a most interesting and accomplished widow, to bewail his tragical end.
Friday, December 17, 2010
The famous Sandbar Fight on September 19, 1827, started out as a duel between Dr. Thomas H. Maddox and Samuel L. Wells. Several accounts of the fight were published soon afterward, written by eyewitnesses and participants. Dr. Maddox did not write down his own recollection until 1880, 53 years after the event. As it is less well-known than the other accounts, I am reprinting it below:
I am the only survivor of the twelve persons engaged in the 'Sand Bar Fight', and having seen lately many various accounts of what they call the 'Bowie Sand Bar Fight', and there being little truth in them, I am induced to give a true statement of the affair as I saw it.
Some difficulty occurring between myself and General Montford Wells, or for some other cause which I do not recollect at this time, induced Samuel L. Wells to send me a very offensive 'Carte Blanche' which I accepted as a challenge, and it was agreed that we should meet at Natchez and settle the matter, each party leaving Alexandria Sept. 17, 1827.
Of my party there were R. A. Crain, my second, Norris Wright, Alfred and Cary Blanchard and myself, being five of us in number. The opposing party were: Samuel L. Wells, McWhorter, his second, James Bowie, Richard Cuney, Jefferson Wells and Sam Cuney, making six of them in number. Having arrived at Natchez, I called Dr. Denny to be my surgeon, who made number six of my party, and making six of each party, and no more.
Having accepted the carte blanche as a challenge, I directed Col. Crain, my second, to call on Mr. Wells and state my terms and mode of combat, which were: to stand eight paces apart, right side to right side, pistols down, to be raised at the words "Are you ready?" One-two-three-Fire!; the usual way in which gentlemen vindicate their honor.
Mr. Wells objected to my terms; assumed that he was the challenged party and had the right to name the terms, as I was informed by my second, Col. Crain. Whereupon, I told Col. Crain to go back and get his terms, as I waived my right, which he did. They were: stand left side to left side, pistols down, and at word "prepare" we were to raise our pistols in an opposite direction from each other, and at the word "Fire", we were to fire as we chose. I fired across my breast. How he fired, I do not know. Two rounds were fired without effect, and the affair was then settled by Mr. S. L. Wells withdrawing all offensive language.
We shook hands, and were proceeding to my friends, in the edge of the woods, to take a glass of wine as a cement. Dr. Denny and myself were a few paces ahead of the rest of the party when Gen. Cuney, James Bowie and Jeff Wells came running down to us; General Cuney saying to Col. Crain that this was a good time to settle their difficulty, he, Cuney, and James Bowie, drawing their pistols.
Col. Crain saw at a glance how things stood; therefore, he shot the one he thought to be the "Major General" of the party through the breast, as I believe, and so it was said at the time, for Bowie declared he was glad there was so much powder in the pistols, as all the balls passed out. Col. Crain after shooting at Bowie, who had also shot at him, wheeled around and passed over a little wash in the sand-bar, and he and Cuney fired simultaneously at each other. Cuney fell, mortally wounded, and then Col. Crain, with an empty pistol in his hand, turned to meet James Bowie, who was rushing upon him with his famous "Bowie Knife" in his hand; and when, within reach of his arm, he, Col. Crain, struck him over the head with the empty pistol and brought him to his knees. As he arose, I caught hold of him, and he threw me off and faced Wright and the two Blanchards, who had arrived on the field from the edge of the woods. I, at that time, had a pistol pointed at me, but it was not fired, and being totally unarmed myself, I ran to the edge of the woods, a few paces off, to get my shot-gun; and on returning met Mr. S. L. Wells, who said to me, "Doctor, for God's sake, don't do any further damage, for it is all over."
On my arriving at the seat of war again, to my surprise, I found my dear friend, Major Wright, dead, and General Cuney dying from excessive hemorrhage, Bowie badly wounded and Alfred Blanchard slightly wounded. And this was the end of that memorable affair, the "Sand Bar Fight". So there were two killed and two wounded [actually, four wounded: Bowie, Crain, and the two Blanchards] out of the twelve, six on each side, and not, as has been erroneously stated by some writers, six killed and fifteen wounded. Nor were we over at the "Gushing Spring", as has been said, and where I was said to have sent for champagne, brandy and cigars. Some writers have stated that Bowie killed Col. Crain in the melee, and that the duel was not between myself and S. L. Wells. Such contrariety of opinion is, indeed, singular. Col. Crain and James Bowie were not so inimical as has been represented; the only feeling between them was owing to the advocacy of James Bowie to the cause of those opposed to himself and Major Wright. Subsequently, in New Orleans, James Bowie invited Col. Crain to his room, and contrary to the advice of his friends, he went; and upon entering the room, Bowie locked the door and asked Col. Crain to take a seat, where they had their talk, and came out perfectly reconciled with each other.
Thursday, December 16, 2010
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.
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.