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

Monday, January 31, 2011

Gurkha Fights Train Bandits With Kukri: A Follow-up

Bishnu Shrestha being awarded a medal for his valor in resisting a September 2010 train robbery.

A few days ago I reported the remarkable story of Bishnu Shrestha, the Gurkha soldier who used his kukri to drive 40 robbers off a train in India, killing three and wounding eight. In early January, Shresta was awarded a medal for his valor during the incident, which occurred in September 2010.

An article shortly after the incident gives an account of events that differs in important respects from the one published recently. The earlier account describes Shresta inflicting severe wounds on three of the bandits before being overpowered and losing hold of his knife, which was then used against him. It also gives the number of bandits as 30, loses the (presumably gorgeous) 18-year-old girl seated next to him, and does not suggest that the bandits all fled the train after Shresta's attack. Did more facts about the incident come out between September and January--for example, did the three severely wounded men die and were eight others discovered to have been wounded? Or was the story revised to more closely fit the conventions of a Bollywood action movie? There is no doubt of Shresta's heroic efforts against the bandits, but I am presenting the earlier account below for purposes of comparison.
The Times of India
Soldier Takes on Dacoits on Train; Gang Of 30
TNN, Sep 4, 2010

KOLKATA/CHITTARANJAN: A Gorkha Rifles jawan [soldier] travelling on a train did not hesitate to take on a gang of 30 armed dacoits [bandits] singlehandedly, armed with just a khukri, when he saw them looting his fellow passengers. A GRP escort team posted on the train reportedly did nothing to stop the robbers on Maurya Express late on Thursday.

Nearly 30 armed dacoits looted cash and valuables worth 10 lakh [a lakh refers to a quantity of 100, 000, in this case ruppees] from passengers of Maurya Express between Kulti and Chittaranjan stations along the West Bengal-Jharkhand border on Thursday night.

The armed dacoits refused to mess with Vishnu Shresta when they came to know that he is a soldier, but the 45-year-old Gorkha Rifles jawan would not sit back and watch his fellow passengers being manhandled and looted. The fearless Gurkha pulled out his khukri and fell upon the dacoits till he was overpowered. After a hurried shot fired at him went astray, they used the same khukri to slash Shresta's wrist.

Shresta is posted at Ranchi and was proceeding on leave to Pokhra in Nepal. He boarded the Hatia-Gorakhpur Jn Maurya Express from Ranchi on Thursday evening. When the raid took place, he was fast asleep on his berth.

"Suddenly, there were shouts and the sound of running feet," Shresta recounted from his bed at Kasturba Gandhi Hospital in Chittaranjan. "Somebody pulled at my bedclothes. I sat up and found a number of people standing near my feet. They demanded that I hand over all my cash and valuables. There was confusion all around and I shouted that I am an Indian Army jawan. The criminals backed off and turned their attention to a woman and her child, who were on a berth close by," Shresta added.

He lost his cool when he saw a miscreant trying to pull out the girl, about 8 years old, from the berth and snatch a necklace from her mother.

"I am a soldier and get paid to protect citizens of this country. I could not sit back and watch as passengers were looted. I pulled out my khukri and attacked the criminals. Initially, they were taken by surprise and I succeeded in connecting with at least three of them. The blows were severe and they must have got themselves admitted to some hospital. By then, the criminals started fighting back. They fired a shot that missed me. At one point of time, the khukri fell from my hand and I was overpowered. They picked it up and used it on me," the jawan said.

After Shresta slumped to the ground, profusely bleeding from his wound, all fight went out from the other passengers. None of them dared to make eye contact with the criminals and did their bidding.

According to authorities, members of the gang were travelling on the train posing as passengers. Around 11.25 pm, about 10 minutes after the train left Kulti station, the criminals detached the vacuum hose between two coaches. This brought the train to a stop. While some dacoits entered S1, S2 and S3 coaches, others smashed the windows of the A1 and B1 air-conditioned compartments to gain entry.

"The miscreants were shouting in Hindi. When they asked us to hand over all our valuables, I gave them my purse and cellphone," said Nilu Verma, who was on her way to Lakhisarai from Katras. Ajay Srivastava was walking back to his berth from the toilet when he was accosted by the criminals. "One of them snatched my cellphone and asked me to hand over my wallet. As I took some time to react, he slapped me and snatched my belongings," said Srivastava, who was going to Muzaffarpur.

Anita Modi, on her way to Barauni, felt that the 15-20 minutes of terror would never come to an end. "Passengers were beaten up and abused. Even women were not spared. People were screaming but nobody came to our assistance. When the train reached Chittaranjan, we were feeling ill," she said.

Shresta said the criminals were in the late thirties and carrying various types of weapons, including guns, daggers and tangis. Strangely, railway staff on the train said they were not aware that passengers had been robbed till they reached Chittaranjan. "We shall discuss with the RPF and GRP on how to provide security on night trains in this stretch," said G C Roy, senior divisional commercial manager of Asansol.

Police succeeded in arresting six of the criminals and recovered a part of the booty later. A manhunt has been launched for the others. Asansol divisional railway manager Jagadanand Jha claimed that there was a GRP escort on the train, but the personnel did little to prevent the crime.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Throwing Bowie by Joe Brokenfeather Darrah

Anyone who sets out to write a book in order to make money is delusional. In terms of the return generated divided by the time invested, it's not really a paying proposition; however, it does have its rewards. For one thing, it can put you in touch with interesting people such as Joe Brokenfeather Darrah.

Joe  is an eight-time World Knife Throwing Champion (winning Quick Draw, Long Distance, Tomahawk, 12-foot Knife, 18-foot knife, Obstacle Course and other competitions), holds 40 National titles, has been inducted into the Knife Throwers Hall Of Fame three times for three different accomplishments, as well as an honorable mention for helping start the "Throw Inside the Alamo" competition in San Antonio, Texas. Joe won the Atlanta Blade Show "Tournament Of Champions" three years in a row and is the National Tournament Director for the AKTA (American Knife Throwers Alliance) as well as an ex-professional circus knife thrower.

Joe also makes knives, and he recently made me a gift of one of his Mountain Man Bowies. It's a "Bulls Eye Seeker," which have been used in almost every Mountain Man tournament in the United States as well as Europe. A Moutain Man knife must have handles of period correct materials, i.e., leather, wood, or bone/antler. Leather is the preferred handle material, as it holds up to the impact, is easily replaced, and the cost is low.  Joe also uses antler for handles, putting a thin piece of deer hide between the handles and tang to absorb the shock. He also uses copper harness rivets, which, being a bit soft, will usually give a little bit.

Here's a picture of the knife Joe made me:

The knife is 13.25 inches overall, with a nine-inch blade, and weighs 11.4 ounces. The full length of the blade is sharp, as is the false edge. The handle is made of the composite material used for outdoor decks. I told Joe I was unlikely to practice throwing the knife to the extent he does.

The Brokenfeather signature.

The knife is inscribed with my name.

I had one great triumph throwing knives, many years ago. I was visiting a friend whose 12-year-old son had three throwing knives that he was trying to stick in the side of a shed from a few yards away. He asked me if I could do it. I took the knives and, without much thought, threw and stuck them in a neat row, each within two inches of the others. "You are so cool!" the boy shouted. I was more surprised than he was and retired from the game knowing that I could only go downhill from that point on.

Anyway, I have to say this is one of the nicest gifts I've ever received. As strange as it seems, a couple of other people with whom I've corresponded over the years, but have never met, have also sent me bowie knives and I'll post photos of them in the near future. 

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Bältespännarna: the Belt Fighters

I based the illustration on the cover of my book, Bowie Knife Fights, Fighters, and Fighting Techniques, on this sculpture by J. P. Molin, displayed in Göteborg, Sweden. (See also here.) Commonly called "The Knife Fighters," its Swedish name is "Bältespännarna," which translates as "The Belt Fighters." This type of knife fighting, in which the opponents are bound together by a belt, is described in The Alhambra and the Kremlin: The South and the North of Europe (1873) by Samuel Irenæus Prime.
Another very remarkable memorial of past times and customs treasured in the [Christiania, Norway] museum is the girdle and the knives which the gentlemen of Norway used in the good old days, now lost, when they pitched into one another in duels. First, each one of the combatants took a butcher-knife (we call them bowie-knives now), and plunged it as deep as he could into a block of wood. The blade, so much as was not in the wood, was then wound round tight with strips of leather, and the knives were cautiously drawn out, and each man took his own. It therefore had now a longer or shorter point, according to the strength he had to plunge it into the wood. Their girdles were then fastened together, so that they could not get away from one another. Now they went at it hip and thigh, cut and slash, till one or both were killed. If modern duellists were put to such tests of strength and courage, there would be few challenges.
Interesting that the man of superior strength, able to plunge his knife deeper into the wood, is further advantaged by being allowed that much blade to work with in the duel. Sounds like the viking notion of fairness; i.e., "Sucks to be you."

Friday, January 28, 2011

The Shape of Sword (and Knife!) Blades

The Journal of the Royal United Service Institution, 1863, contains a fascinating paper titled "The Shape of Sword Blades," delivered by John Latham, of the Wilkinson sword makers, to an assemblage of military officers. A lot of what he has to say about the mechanics of cutting and thrusting applies to the knife as well as the sword. The article is very long and if I were to use it in a book I would probably edit it down, but since it's not costing us money, only band-width, and so much of it may be interesting to the dedicated student, I am including it in its entirety. Both original plates are included, as are some additional illustrations.
The Shape of Sword Blades
In the course of an experience of nearly twenty years in the manufacture of swords, I have frequently noticed in examining any pattern, or model, which I have not met with before, how instinctively the shape seems to suggest the best method of using the weapon; and I have almost invariably found upon inquiry that the method of swordsmanship adopted was the same that I had supposed.

A moment's reflection is sufficient to show that there is nothing extraordinary in this. A swordsman selects or constructs his weapon on exactly the same principles as a carpenter chooses his tools, and if you show a workman a chisel from any part of the world, though he may never have seen the pattern before, he will tell you at once the use to which it should be applied. He will know, for instance, that it is not intended to drive nails, or bore holes; that its office is to cut wood or some soft substance, and not iron or steel. He recognises these points at once from the shape, the angle of edge, its temper, weight, &c.; and in the same way, by examining a sword of whatever country, we can form a pretty correct estimate of the method of swordsmanship adopted there. Having noted a great number of peculiarities of this kind, some of which seem to me very curious, I have arranged them in a short paper, in the hope that they may prove as interesting to you as they have been to myself.

We may very fairly surmise that the origin of the sword as a weapon of attack was the idea of some ingenious savage, who fashioned his wooden club to a rude approach to a cutting edge, probably from noticing the effect of a knot, or some accidental projection upon it. The wooden swords with which the Mexicans were armed when first discovered by the Spaniards, and those of the South Sea Islanders, of which there are many specimens in the Museum of this Institution, are instances of this, being hardly more than sharpened clubs.

In nations more civilised, swords were made in the hardest metal procurable. Copper swords have been found in Ireland; iron among the Britons and Gauls; bronze was used by the Romans, and probably by the Egyptians; and steel of varying degrees of hardness is now the only metal employed.

Upon the questions of the material, temper, or manufacture of swords, I do not propose to touch, but only upon their shape, which is, as I have said, determined by the way in which they are to be used. There are three ways in which a sword may be used, viz. in cutting, thrusting, and guarding. The first of these, cutting, I have assumed to be the earliest use which would suggest itself; but the man who first employed the sword for thrusting made a discovery which more than doubled the effective force of the weapon; and, still later, the one who first used it to defend himself from the attack of his adversary, as well as to return his blows, completed the idea of the sword, as it is now understood in Europe. It is in this triple character, as a weapon for cutting, thrusting, and guarding, that I propose to consider it. If these three qualifications could be combined in their fullest extent, there would be no difficulty in deciding upon the best form for a sword; but, unfortunately, each interferes with the other to a great degree, and therefore it will be best to consider them separately, which will also enable us to understand more clearly the various modifications of shape in use in different parts of the world.

The most simple and effective form of a cutting instrument, to be used by the hand, is the American axe. This is the same form as the early headsman's, or executioner's, axe, but is generally known in this country as the American, from its being the form used by the settlers for clearing the forests in the backwoods of America. It consists merely, as you see, of a heavy wedge of steel, fixed on a stout wooden handle of convenient length.

The first thing we notice in this weapon is, that there is no uncertainty where you shall strike with it. It has a light handle and a very heavy head, and, all the force being concentrated in the head, you strike instinctively with that part of it; but, if you take up a sword, you have the whole length of the blade to choose where you shall cut with it. Suppose you make a cut at a branch of a tree with the point of the sword, the probability is that your cut will produce very little effect, and you will feel a considerable jar upon the wrist and elbow. The same result will follow if you cut close to the hilt of the sword. In either case you waste a great deal of force, as is evident from the vibration you perceive in the blade, which represents so much force lost in the cut. If you go on cutting inch by inch along the whole length of the blade, you will at last come to a point where there is no vibration (Plate I. fig. 1, C. P.). This point is called the "centre of percussion," and that is the point where the whole force of your blow will be effective, and where the greatest result will be produced on the body struck. This model on the table illustrates the position and effect of the centre of percussion. It consists of a straight wooden blade jointed in the middle so as to bend freely in either direction, and the centre of percussion is marked, as you will see, at about 10 inches from the point. If I set the blade straight and cut with it, so long as the blow strikes exactly upon the centre of percussion no effect is produced upon the blade; but, if I shift the cut either an inch above or below that point, the vibration produced causes the blade to bend at the jointed part; if I strike above the centre of percussion, the blade bends backward; and, if I strike below it, the vibration is in the opposite direction, and is sufficient to bend it forwards considerably. As I have explained, the centre of percussion can be experimentally ascertained by cutting inch by inch along the blade, and comparing the effect; but it is obviously of importance to have some means of ascertaining this point mathematically without the tedious process of experiment with every sword. This can be done by a formula, first proposed by Mr. Henry Wilkinson, and which is based upon the consideration of the properties of the pendulum. I have here a pendulum vibrating seconds in the latitude of London. Its exact length is 39.2 inches, and it consists of a very light wooden rod, terminated by a heavy leaden ball. In one respect it resembles the axe, as nearly the whole weight is concentrated in this one point. When I cause it to swing upon a fixed centre, I find it makes sixty vibrations in one minute; and I know that the centres of oscillation, of percussion, and of gravity are all concentrated within this leaden ball. If this were what is termed a mathematical pendulum, in which the connecting rod is supposed to have no weight at all, these three points would lie precisely in the centre of the ball, and from this point to the point of suspension is exactly 39.2 inches. Now, I hang up this regulation Infantry sword, fastening it as nearly as possible at the same point on which it would turn in making a cut, and I set it swinging upon this point, converting, in fact, the sword into a pendulum. You observe that the vibrations are very much quicker; if you count them, you will find that while the pendulum is making sixty vibrations the sword will have made eighty. Having obtained this point of comparison, our object is next to determine the length of a pendulum which will make the same number of vibrations which the sword has made, viz. eighty in a minute. By a very simple formula, I can calculate that the length of such a pendulum would be 22 inches. I measure this distance, therefore, from the point at which the sword was suspended and mark it on the back of the blade, and I shall find on cutting with it that this mark is the centre of percussion, where there is no vibration, and where I can cut the hardest with this sword.

Another point which we notice in examining the axe is this, that the cutting edge is considerably in advance of the wrist or hand. The effect of this is to carry the edge forward in the direction you wish it to take in making a cut with it. If the cutting edge were placed at the back, the tendency of the whole weapon would be to fall backwards, or away from the line of your cut; and in making a blow you would have to exert and waste a certain amount of force to overcome this tendency. Instead of this, the edge of the axe, being placed in advance of the wrist, moves naturally in the direction of the blow struck with it.

In nearly all cutting swords some contrivance is made use of to produce a similar effect. If we examine any of these curved swords we shall see that the line of the hilt is thrown forward so as to form an angle with the line of prolongation of the blade, and this angle is more or less as the blade is more or less curved. If you endeavour to balance the sword upon the pommel or rivet, you will see that the effect of this is to cause the edge to fall forward precisely as the axe does. This gives the feeling which we express when we say of a sword "the edge leads forward well;" and I have nearly always found this point has been studied in the swords used by nations who make cutting a part of their system of swordsmanship.

But the curved blade which is so universal among these swords has another and very important effect, which you will understand from this diagram.

In making a cut with a curved blade, the edge meets the object at a considerable angle, and the portion of the blade which penetrates is therefore a wedge, not accurately at right angles with the sword, but of an angle more or less oblique according to the curvature, and consequently cutting with a more acute edge. In this diagram (fig. 2), if the swordblade move in a straight line, A B, to cut any object, C, it will merely cut in the same way that a wedge, D, of the same breadth as the blade would do. But the effect of the curve is to throw the edge more forward, so that it cuts as a wedge, E, which you will see is longer and consequently more acute, the extreme thickness (that of the back) being fixed. In the same way in cutting nearer the point the increased curve gives, as you see, the effect of a still more acute wedge, F. In order to explain this more clearly I have made a small model similar to the diagram. If you compare these three pieces, which are parts cut out of the same blade, differing only in the angle at which they are supposed to meet with any obstacle, you will see the enormous cutting power which is produced by this oblique motion of the sword. We may say that the effect of the curve in this Indian tulwar, as compared with a straight blade, is, that it cuts as though it were four times as broad and only one-fourth the thickness. I have selected the tulwar as an illustration, because we have all heard of the extraordinary effects produced by the natives of India in cutting with this weapon. Men inferior in stature and bodily strength to our own countrymen can use this weapon so as to produce effects which strike us with astonishment:—heads taken off—both hands severed at the wrist—arm and shoulder cut through—legs taken off at one blow. Such are the sword-cuts of which our soldiers had too fearful experience during the Sikh war and later campaigns in India.

To understand more clearly how such effects can be produced, we must distinguish the different methods of cutting. In the first place I may take up a sword, and, keeping the elbow and wrist stiff, may make a sweeping cut with it, throwing the whole force of the body into the blow. To use as simple terms as possible, I will distinguish this as the "slicing" cut. In the next place I may take the sword, and, as an Englishman generally does, make a downright blow from the shoulder and fore-arm. This appears to be the instinctive method of cutting with a sword, as we find that most people who take up a sword for the first time use it in this way. "We may distinguish this as the "chopping" cut. Or we may use a light sword in the way the German students use the "schlager " in their duels, keeping the elbow and arm stiff and making a quick cut from the wrist. This we will call the "whip" cut.
 An Indian tulwar.
Now very different muscles are brought into play in these three methods of cutting. With the Indian tulwar, the first, or slicing cut, is used, and in this the cut is really given from the strong muscles of the back and shoulder, and, as these have nearly ten times the extent of the muscles of the arm, and the whole weight of the body is also thrown into the cut, you can easily understand the force with which such a blow is given. The second kind of cut, which is the one usually employed in Europe, is made with a movement of the shoulder and forearm. As a rule it cannot be compared in its effect, especially upon soft bodies, with the slicing cut given by the natives of India, and the large hilt, necessary to afford sufficient play to the wrist, lessens the cutting force still further. The small hilt of the tulwar, by confining the hand and preventing any play of the wrist, increases the force of the slicing or body cut. It is customary to say that these swords have such small hilts because the natives have small hands. My own hand is not a very small one, but I find no difficulty in using any of these Indian swords in the way in which they are intended to be used. The hand being confined in the hilt gives a stiffness to the wrist, so that the whole force is thrown into the blow. The wrist-cut can also be used with great effect, from the high velocity which can be given to a light sword by using it in this way. The German students who use this cut in their duels with the schlager are frequently fearfully cut about the face, and even the quilted leather pads with which they protect the body are sometimes cut through. It takes very little weight to cut flesh, or any soft substance, if sufficient velocity be given. The cut from the shoulder and fore-arm is most effective upon any hard substance, such as iron, wood, or lead.
German student duel, or Mensur, with the Schlager.

To estimate the effect of a sword-cut we will take the formula generally in use for expressing the vis viva or force of a moving body, which is, the weight multiplied by the square of the velocity. Assuming this formula (which, however, requires considerable qualification), we will suppose a strong man, cutting with a sword of 4 lbs. in weight, to which he is able to give a velocity which we will call 1. The effect produced we will therefore call 4. We next suppose a weaker man who takes a sword 2 lbs. in weight and able to give it a velocity double that of the first, the effect produced will be equal to 8, or twice that which can be exerted by the stronger man using the heavier sword. But let us suppose that the strong man takes the lighter sword; he will be able to give it a higher velocity, which we will assume to be equal to 3, in which case the effect produced, squaring the velocity, will be 18, or three times the effect that is produced by the same sword in the hands of the weaker man, and more than four times the effect which he himself could produce with the heavier sword. I merely take this illustration as showing that the force of a blow is enormously increased by increased velocity, but much less by increased weight in the moving body. The nature of the body cut at, however, affects the result very much, but the common error is, that a very strong and powerful man chooses a heavy sword and fancies that he can do more with it than he can with a light one. Because he feels that it requires a greater exertion of strength on his part to put it into motion, he naturally fancies the effect produced will be greater; whereas by taking a lighter sword, to which he can give a higher velocity, he will do better. Of course I do not mean to say that the lighter the sword a man uses the greater the effect he will produce with it, but merely that there is a limit as to weight, which is generally exceeded.

The weight a man can move with the greatest velocity is that with which he will produce the greatest effect, but the lightest sword is not necessarily the one he can move the quickest. It is possible for a sword to be so light that we feel the resistance of the air in making a cut with it, and this is what we express when we say a sword feels "whippy" in the hand. Such a sword is worse than one too heavy.

Another point in a sword is the position of the centre of gravity (fig. 1, C G.) This is not what we generally mean when we speak of the "balance" of a sword, which term is applied to a feeling of the weapon in the hand which results from the relative positions of the centre of gravity and the centre of percussion. The considerations as to the position of these two points would take too long for me to explain to you now. It may be sufficient to say that in light swords these points may be further apart than in heavier ones, that they should be closer in a straight than in a curved blade, and nearer in a thrusting than in a cutting weapon.

We will next examine the sections of weapons used for cutting. These are of course all modifications of the wedge. I have here an illustration consisting of a series of wedges, representing sections of different sword-blades. The first form (fig. 5) is the wedge which would be produced by taking the thickness of the back of an ordinary sword and continuing it in an even line down to the edge. This forms an angle of 9°, which is very much too thin for any practical purpose. We find that a certain thickness is necessary for the edge of any cutting tool. For a very soft substance, as flesh or food, it may be from 10° to 20°, and this is the angle we find in dinner knives, &c. For wood an angle of 25° to 35° is the best, and this is the angle of a carpenter's chisel or plane. For cutting metals or bone the angle required is from 40° to 90°; and, as a sword-blade may meet with substances as hard as these, the least angle which we can give it with safety is 40°. Even this angle will fail against a hard substance if the cut is not a very true one, and we therefore put on a still more obtuse angle, viz., 90° at the extreme edge, as shown in fig. 6, where these two angles are distinguished as the entering angle 90°, and the angle of resistance 40°. You will also see by the outline (figs. 7, 8, 9,) that a true wedge of 40° would be of such enormous thickness and weight as to be useless for a sword, and we have to find some method of lightening the blade, while preserving the necessary angle of resistance. The following sections of blades show the principal methods of effecting this object. In figs. 9 and 12 the two sides are cut away to a flat surface—this is the general form of the Mahratta or Hindustan tulwar. In figs. 8 and 11, the angle is carried in a curved line to the back, which is made very thin, giving the section a bi-convex form. This is the shape of' the celebrated Khorassan, Persian, and Damascus blades generally. Both of these plans give a very strong but heavy blade. The third form Nos. 9 and 13, in which the blade is hollowed into two broad grooves from the angle of resistance, making the section bi-concave, is that adopted in the English regulation sword blade. These drawings being made to scale, you can readily estimate the relative amount of metal in each of them, and you will see that this form gives the lightest blade for a given breadth and thickness. I believe it was this consideration which determined its adoption in the service; but it is not by any means the strongest form, and there are other technical objections to it which I will not enter into.

Nearly all the other forms of blade are also grooved, as you will see, though in a different manner, and I should here explain a peculiar function of the groove which renders it of great use to us. One of the most important requisites in a sword-blade for real service is stiffness. There is no possible use of a sword in cutting, thrusting, or guarding, in which too great flexibility would not be a disadvantage. It is a singular illustration of the little attention paid to this subject in England, that this very defect, flexibility, is frequently assumed as the criterion or test of a good blade. The blade which springs the most easily, is called the best; whereas nothing is easier, by making the blade thin enough, and useless enough, than to produce a sword which shall bend twice round the hilt and go into a hat-box, or clasp hilt to point and form a waist-belt—both of which wonderful swords I have myself made. The error arises from confounding flexibility of the blade with elasticity of the steel—the latter is necessary, the former useless and always injurious. But to resume: a blade which has been ground thin to lighten it, will frequently be too flexible and whippy. In this case by putting a groove on each side (see figs. 13, 14, 17,) we not only make it still lighter, but we also make it stiffer; for if we apply any force to bend a grooved blade sidewise we meet with the greatest amount of resistance which any mechanical form can supply. We are, in fact, bending an arch inwards upon its crown, and of course the deeper the arch the greater the resistance, which explains why the narrow groove in figs. 14 and 17 is preferable to the broader groove of the same depth in fig. 13.

The blade fig. 14, with a narrow groove on each side near the back, is a very old form and a very good one; the weak point of it, that is, the part between the two grooves where the metal is thinnest, is in the best place, viz., near the back, where strength and thickness are of the least importance; in this respect it is superior to the regulation form No. 13. The next blade, No. 15, is rather lighter, but is open to the objection that it has two of these weak places instead of one. The blade No. 16 is better in this respect, it has three grooves, which are much shallower, and the blade is consequently thicker between them. The same remarks will apply to Nos. 17 and 18, which are sections of the single-grooved and three-grooved claymore blades.

An ingenious method of obviating the weakness caused by deep grooves in a blade is shown in fig. 19, which is the section of a very curious blade made at Klingenthal, the sword manufactory established by the first Napoleon on the banks of the Rhine. In this two very deep grooves are cut in the blade, but not opposite to each other, so that the groove can be made even deeper than the line of axis of the blade. This gives very great stiffness; but I found, on testing it, that it was deficient in cutting power. I may have been erroneous in my judgment, for I was not able to make any very careful comparative trial, but such was my impression, and I could only attribute it to the depth of the groove passing beyond the axis, which might cause loss of power by vibration. Nos. 20 and 21 are experimental blades; the groove in No. 20 is placed at the back so as to preserve the sides of the wedge intact: there was great difficulty in grinding this sword, and the groove being in the back it hardly stiffened the blade at all. The resistance of the crown of the arch was wanting, and the blade sprung almost as readily as a straight sword. No. 21 is another combination which I tried, but, although having some good points, it was on the whole a failure. No. 22 is the old ramrod-back regulation blade, and I believe it to be the worst form of any; the very sudden change from the thick round back to the thin edge, renders it hardly possible to get a blade of equal temper, and the back acts as a check or stop in cutting with it.

There is another curious form of cutting-blade in which the curve is the reverse way to the usual form. Instances of this form are seen in the Khora, and Kookree knife of the Ghoorkas. In tools we have a familiar illustration in the billhook used to lop off small branches of trees, and in some forms of pruning-knives. The Kookree knife is the best known weapon of this kind, and the stories related of its cutting power are very marvellous. If you examine it you will find that the weight is well forward, and in advance of the wrist, and in fig. 4 you will see that the effect of the inward curve is to increase the cutting power by rendering the angle more acute. It acts, in fact, in precisely the same way, but in an inverse direction, to the outward curve in the blade, fig. 2.

Straight cutting swords, of which we have many examples—for instance, the claymore and the old fox-blades of Cromwell's time—are all of them necessarily inferior to curved blades in their power of cutting. They may be made to cut better by the simple expedient of making a drawing or slicing cut with them; this produces in some degree the oblique action of the wedge, which is produced naturally by the curve of the cimeter [scimitar] blade (see fig. 3).

There is another method of using the curved blade, which is in fact a combination of the cut and thrust, by thrusting the edge forwards and along the body aimed at obliquely from point to hilt. It is hardly possible to apply much force in this way on foot, but on horseback, where the horse is moving forwards and supplies the necessary force, it is very effective and difficult to guard.
Dayak sword.
There is another very curious sword, the Dyak sword, from Borneo; the tassels ornamenting the hilt, which are said to be tufts of human hair, corresponding in number with the heads which have been taken off by the blade. This sword is broadest at the centre of percussion; the edge leads well forward in advance of the wrist, and, combined with the inward curve (though this is very slight), gives great cutting power to the weapon. In this Mahratta straight sword you will notice how very marked is the throwing forward of the edge of which I have spoken; it bends away in advance of the hilt to an extent of two or three inches.
 Light Cavalry Sword, Pattern 1796
The old light cavalry sword of George III is an excellent weapon for cutting; light, thin, and very much curved, and with the hilt thrown well forward. In fact this position of the hilt, of which I have endeavoured to explain the reason, may be traced to a greater or less extent in every cutting-sword with which I am acquainted, with only one exception. This single exception is the Japanese sword-blade, in which, as you will see by this specimen, the line of the hilt corresponds with and is a continuation of the curve of the blade. I have not been able to learn any particulars of the way in which these swords are used, but I cannot conceive any method of cutting in which this position of the hilt would be advantageous.

Japanese katana.
Here is another curious illustration of the analogies between the weapons of very remote nations. This wooden club or sword is selected from one of the South Sea Island trophies in the Museum of the Institution, and if I place it side by side with this elaborate steel weapon, the Khora of Northern India (fig. 4), you will see how perfect is the resemblance in shape. The coincidence in every point is too close to be accidental; it is evident that the same principles were present in the minds of the designer of each of these weapons.
Khora of India.
  Polynesian war club.
I come now to consider the sword as a weapon for thrusting; models of hand-thrusting tools are so numerous that it is difficult to choose from them. The bradawl, the gimlet, the needle, the dinner-fork; any of these will serve for illustration; with regard to the method of their progression they may be considered as a very acute wedge entering obliquely.

The thrust has always been considered in swordsmanship as infinitely preferable to the cut, and the reason is as old as one of the first definitions of Euclid—that "a straight line is the shortest way between any two points." In making a thrust the sword moves in a straight line, and in making a cut it moves in a circle, and of course the thrust is much quicker. You will see in the sketch representing two men in the position of guard, Plate II, fig. 23, that the distance which the figure A with the straight sword has to traverse in making a thrust is less by two-thirds than the distance which the figure B must traverse in making a cut; therefore, if they move with equal velocity, the thrust will reach its mark in one-third of the time, because the one traverses the diameter and the other the circumference of a similar circle.

In figs. 24 to 30 you have various sections of thrusting blades. Fig. 24 is the oldest form, known as the Saxon, or among workmen as the "latchen" blade. You see this form in many of the Toledo and early rapier blades; it consists of two obtuse angled wedges joined at the back, and is sufficiently strong and stiff, but very heavy. Two methods of lightening it by grooving are shown in the next two figures, Nos. 25 and 26. The third (No. 27) is the Biscayan form, with three deep grooves, better known as the French duelling rapier. Technically, either of the former forms is superior to this, as there is very great difficulty in getting these blades straight and of even temper; so much so, that I have never seen one of these three-cornered rapier blades which was not either soft or crooked. Theoretically, however, the shape is a very good one. Fig. 29 is a section of a very curious thrusting blade. It is probably an experimental sword of the date of 1810 to 1814, and is from the manufactory of Klingenthal. I have seen a great number of these experimental blades, many of which are very curious and suggestive. Here, for instance (fig. 29), is an attempt to give cutting power to a rapier blade, but these angles being very obtuse, have scarcely any effect in a cut. The next, fig. 30, is an improvement on the same form; it cuts much better; but the defect in both these swords is, that they have a tendency to turn over in the hand and to spring at the flat side on the point meeting with the least resistance.

Of course the proper shape for a thrusting sword is pre-eminently straight. As an illustration of the difference in this respect I have a diagram (figs. 31 to 33) showing the effect of a straight thrust into a block of wood with a straight sword, with a slightly curved (regulation) blade, and with a sword of the tulwar or cimeter curve. You see the straight sword moving in a straight line makes a hole exactly the size of the blade; the slightly-curved sword moving in a straight line cuts a hole of about double the width of the blade; but the cimeter blade thrust into the same depth makes a hole five or six times the width of the blade itself, and of course meets with six times the resistance to its penetration. You see, therefore, how difficult it is to use one of these curved blades for the straight thrust. This difficulty probably suggested a method of thrusting which is styled the curved thrust, in which the blade is propelled, not in a straight line, but in an arc of a circle more or less curved to correspond with the blade. The arm makes this curvilinear or cycloidal movement very readily, and it is doubtless the best way of using a curved blade for thrusting at all, but it is open to the objection that the space traversed (as in the cut) is longer than is necessary to reach the object, and that it cannot be used with the "lunge," so as to throw the force of the body into the attack. Like the "thrusting cut," this attack is better suited for horseback than for foot, and in any case it is inferior to the straight thrust. However, this idea of the curved thrust was at one time considered very valuable, and Colonel Marey, of the French army, in an elaborate and excellent work on swords, published at Strasbourg in 1841, went so far as to suggest that the shape of the yataghan, which is excellent as a cutting weapon, and for thrusting can be used with considerable effect in this way, should be adopted as the regulation Infantry sword.
 Turkish yataghan
It was adopted and tried to a certain extent in the French service, and finally, just as the French were beginning to abandon it, it was adopted partially in England. It is the parent of the present short Enfield sword bayonet, and, as you will see by comparing the two, it has been cleverly modified so as to lose all the distinctive excellences of its original.
 Enfield Sword Bayonet, Pattern 1856.
The beautiful curved line of the yataghan, so accurately coinciding with the motion of the wrist in cutting, is completely lost, and it is applied to the worst possible use in being placed at the end of the gun, where the weight forward, which is so valuable in cutting by the hand, renders it, when placed upon the gun-top, heavy and unmanageable. It is very much inferior to the ordinary bayonet, and it has frequently caused surprise how it came to be adopted here. The reason is simply that it had been tried in France. It has now been abandoned there, and I imagine that we shall soon have to abandon it in the same way, as it is vastly inferior as a thrusting weapon to the ordinary bayonet, and the power of making a cut is poorly purchased by the loss of all manageability in the arm.

The only other point we have to consider is the sword in its use for guarding. In considering this point we must recollect that guarding is very rarely practised in Eastern swordsmanship. The Eastern soldier is taught to use his sword as a weapon of attack only, and is well provided with steel gauntlets, helmet, and shield to resist a cut. He is therefore contented with a very small guard to his sword, and prefers what we consider a very top-heavy "balance." But we have to contrive a sword that shall be useful in guarding as well as in cutting or thrusting, and to do this we must modify it considerably. The best cutting sword, if it were not necessary to "recover" to guard with it, would be the axe, and the only reason why we want it modified into the form of a sword at all is, that we may be able to use it to defend ourselves as well as to attack our adversary.

The "balance" of a sword, of which I have spoken, is essential for guarding, and for guarding only. The stiffer and heavier a blade is, the better is it adapted for both cutting and thrusting, and it is only when yon want to "recover to guard" that it becomes necessary to have it light or elastic. In the old Highland claymore you will find the hand so cramped that it is not possible to form a guard with it truly and readily; this is explained by the fact that the claymore was not used for guarding. The defence of the Highlander was entrusted to the dirk and target on the left arm.
Basket-Hilt Claymore
The principal requisite for a good hilt is that it should have as much guard as possible without cramping the hand. The claymore, as I have said, is deficient in this respect. In the Eastern cimeter, which is not intended for guarding, the only protection to the hand is a simple crutch. Most modern swords are defective in the hilt. The Light Cavalry regulation sword has a very bad guard indeed. There is no protection against a thrust, and the whole inner line of the wrist is exposed. The whole weight being on one side of the blade, it has a tendency to turn over in that direction, and in using it you have to exert and waste a certain amount of force to overcome that tendency. The regulation Infantry sword has a much better guard, but it is defective on account of the metal of which it is made, which is liable to be cut through or broken by a fall. The Engineers' is a very good guard, as is also the heavy Cavalry, but both have the defect of being over-balanced, i.e. heavier on one side than on the other.
A sword I have lately made for India is free from this defect, as the sword will really balance along the edge, the guard being equal on each side. It is only fair to say that this hilt was suggested to me by the straight Mahratta sword I have so often referred to. You will doubtless be amused at me when I say that this sword shows more thought in the contriver than any other with which I am acquainted, and the swordsman may obtain many useful hints from it. Here is an officer's regulation Infantry sword of twenty or twenty-five years' ago. It is a specimen, I believe, of the worst possible arrangement of hilt, blade, and shape, that could possibly be contrived. It is crooked, but has no regular curve; is wrongly mounted for thrusting and wrongly shaped for cutting. The hilt is so flimsy as to be no protection for the hand, and it is made of bad metal badly tempered.
 British Regulation Infantry Sword, Pattern 1845.
If you ask me how such a model came to be adopted, I can only answer by a supposition. At that time the three principal purveyors of swords to the British army were a tailor, a goldlaceman, and a hatter. I can only suppose that the tailor was the first consulted; if his production was unsatisfactory, the pattern was referred to the laceman; and finally the hatter was called in, who put the crowning touch to the whole.

There are some very curious old swords, both European and Eastern, which I dare say most of my hearers have met with, in which the back of the blade is made hollow, and mercury, placed in the hilt, is carried towards the point in cutting, thus adding to the force of the cut. You will see at once that, though this added to the force of the blow, the additional weight rendered the sword top-heavy, and told against the swordsman, if his cut were parried and he had to recover to guard himself. In the same way some of the German headsmen's swords were made with a ball of steel to slide down the blade and add increased force to the cut. Here is a curious instance of what I mentioned to you with regard to the effect of overweighting. It is a sword weighing 6 1/2 lbs. ; it originally weighed 9 lbs., but has been considerably lightened. It was made for an officer in a cavalry regiment, who thought it would strengthen his wrist to use it in post practice. The result is that no living man can cut with it. You can lift it up, and let it drop on any object you please, but beyond this you cannot go. The weight is so great that it is impossible to give it any velocity, and its cutting power is therefore nil. A very simple test shows this. It is easy enough to cut a copper penny in half by a quick blow with a bowie or hunting knife. I have tried to do the same thing with this sword, and hack and hammer as I may, I cannot get it to go through the penny. With the knife I can give a high velocity; with the sword I can give none at all, and so I can do nothing with it.

I think these are the only points to which I have to call your attention, and, as I have already detained you beyond the allotted time, I will conclude by thanking you for the kind attention with which you have listened to me.
Original article is here.

NOTE: A reader, J. Saavedra, contacted me to point out that whole passages of Latham's paper were included in Sir Richard Francis Burton's The Book of the Sword (1883) without attribution. Most of the plagiarized material appears in Chapter Seven, "The Sword: What is It?"

I had noticed this when I first came across the Latham article and should have mentioned it in this post. In Burton's defense, in his day that sort of borrowing was not frowned upon and I have seen many similar examples in 19th-century writing. Copyright laws were not formalized until the early 20th century.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Big-Knife News: The Kukri Kicks Ass!

A beautiful photograph of a kukri from

The following was headline story in Republica, a website devoted to news from Nepal. While it doesn't involve a bowie, I include it under the excuse that it's a cool story of a heroic exploit with a big knife. While it sounds like something from a Jet Li film, the hero, Bishnu Shrestha, has been decorated for his bravery and the incident has gotten a lot of press in India and Nepal.  
Lone Nepali Gorkha who subdued 40 train robbers

POKHARA, Jan 13: Gorkha soldiers have long been known the world over for their valor and these khukuri-wielding warriors winning the British many a battle have become folklore.

A retired Indian Gorkha soldier recently revisited those glory days when he thwarted 40 robbers, killing three of them and injuring eight others, with his khukuri during a train journey. He is in line to receive three gallantry awards from the Indian government.

Slave girl Morgiana in the Arabian Nights used her cunning to finish off Ali Baba´s 40 thieves, but Bishnu Shrestha of Baidam, Pokhara-6 did not have time to plot against the 40 train robbers. He, however, made good use of his khukuri to save the chastity of a girl and hundreds of thousands in loot.

Shrestha, who was in the Maurya Express to Gorakhpur from Ranchi on September 2 while returning home following voluntary retirement from the Indian army--saved the girl who was going to be raped by the robbers in front of her hapless parents, and in doing so won plaudits from everybody.

The Indian government is to decorate Shrestha with its Sourya Chakra, Bravery Award and Sarvottam Jeevan Raksha Medal and the 35-year-old is leaving for India Saturday to receive the first of the awards on the occasion of India´s Republic Day on January 26.

“The formal announcement of the awards will be made on Republic Day and on Independence Day on August 15,” said Shrestha, whose father Gopal Babu also retired from the same 7/8 Platoon of the Gorkha Regiment around 29 years ago.
 Bishnu Shrestha receiving medal for his valor.
His regiment has already given him a cash award of Indian rupees 50,000 [a little over US $1,000], and decided to terminate his voluntary retirement. He will get the customary promotion after receiving the medals. The Indian government will also announce a cash bounty for him and special discounts on international air tickets and domestic train tickets.

The band of about 40 robbers, some of whom were travelling as passengers, stopped the train in the Chittaranjan jungles in West Bengal around midnight. Shrestha-- who had boarded the train at Ranchi in Jharkhand, the place of his posting--was in seat no. 47 in coach AC3.

“They started snatching jewelry, cell phones, cash, laptops and other belongings from the passengers,” Shrestha recalled. The soldier had somehow remained a silent spectator amidst the melee, but not for long. He had had enough when the robbers stripped an 18-year-old girl sitting next to him and tried to rape her right in front of her parents. He then took out his khukuri and took on the robbers.

“The girl cried for help, saying ´You are a soldier, please save a sister´,” Shrestha recalled. “I prevented her from being raped, thinking of her as my own sister,” he added. He took one of the robbers under control and then started to attack the others. He said the rest of the robbers fled after he killed three of them with his khukuri and injured eight others.

The capabilities of the kukri are demonstrated in this Cold Steel video.

During the scuffle he received serious blade injury to his left hand while the girl also had a minor cut on her neck. “They had carried out their robbery with swords, blades and pistols. The pistols may have been fake as they didn´t open fire,” he surmised.
The train resumed its journey after some 20 minutes and a horde of media persons and police were present when it reached Chittaranja station. Police arrested the eight injured dacoits [bandits] and recovered around 400,000 Indian rupees in cash, 40 gold necklaces, 200 cell phones, 40 laptops and other items that the fleeing robbers dropped in the train.

Police escorted Shrestha to the Railways Hospital after the rescued girl told them about his heroic deed. Mainstream Indian media carried the story. The parents of the girl, who was going for her MBBS studies, also announced a cash award of Indian rupees 300,000 for him but he has not met them since.

“Even the veins and arteries in my left hand were slit but the injury has now healed after two months of neurological treatment at the Command Hospital in Kolkata,” he said showing the scar. “Fighting the enemy in battle is my duty as a soldier; taking on the dacoits in the train was my duty as a human being,” said the Indian army nayak [Sanskrit Nayaka, meaning a leader], who has been given two guards during his month-long holidays in Nepal.

“I am proud to be able to prove that a Gorkha soldier with a khukuri is really a handful. I would have been a meek spectator had I not carried that khukuri,” he said.

He still finds it hard to believe that he took on 40 armed robbers alone. “They may have feared that more of my army friends were traveling with me and fled after fighting me for around 20 minutes,” he explained.
Working in Shrestha's favor: the narrow aisle of a train limits the number of assailants who can confront you at once, and they can't come at you on your flanks. The situation is even more favorable if all your opponents are in front of you. This is the kind of situation in which the chopping power of the big knife is a tremendous asset.

The Dirk: "It is not against the law, the law is against it!"

Googling dirks, I came across this page, the website of Rab and Tanya Gordon, who make traditional Celtic and Pictish arts and artifacts in Scotland. Look at the dirk below, made for a wedding and inscribed with the date and the names of the bride and groom:

It has a carved ebony handle and engraved brass fittings. It was used to cut the wedding cake, and the bride later wrote its maker: "Thank you so much for the beautiful dirk you made for us. It gave a much better sense of occasion than an ordinary boring cake knife and it is lovely to have now as a memento of the day."

Above the photos of this exquisite traditional knife is the dismaying statement: "This page shows examples of our past work, however we can no longer sell similar items. Unfortunately, due to recent changes in legislation we cannot supply Dirks without a license, even for export. However, we can continue to make custom Sgian Dubhs with blade lengths of 3.5" or less."

In the above photo, the lower knife is a Sgian Dubh, traditionally tucked into the top of the right stocking when wearing a kilt. Being less than 3.5 inches long, it is legal. However, you won't be able to carve a cake with it and there isn't enough room to get your names engraved on its blade. Your initials will fit, though.

Here is Prince Charles  being presented with one of Rab Gordon's exquisite dirks. He looks very pleased with it. But why don't the people standing near him look frightened? Isn't it terribly dangerous? Might he not go on a killing spree at any second? Can anyone in Great Britain be trusted with a pointy object?

A Classic Dirk from Fischer Custom Knives

While I'm one the subject of classic dirks, here's a beautiful stag-handled example at Fischer Custom Knives.

I love the sheath with the Celtic design.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Dirk: The Scottish Bowie

While researching the bowie I did some reading on the Scottish dirk, a large knife which, like the bowie, served as both tool and weapon. The Bowies were of course of Scottish background, and they may have known something of the traditional use of the dirk. The following description of the dirk is from Letters From a Gentleman in the North of Scotland (1822), by Edward Burt:
 Having lately mentioned the dirk, I think it may not be unreasonable here to give you a short description of that dangerous weapon; and the rather, as I may have occasion to speak of it hereafter. The blade is straight, and generally above a foot long; the back near one-eighth of an inch thick; the point goes off like a tuck, and the handle is something like that of a sickle. They pretend they cannot do well without it, as being useful to them in cutting wood, and upon many other occasions; but it is a concealed mischief, hid under the plaid, ready for secret stabbing; and, in a close encounter, there is no defence against it.
The Scotish Gaël: Or, Celtic Manners, as Preserved Among the Highlanders (1849), by James Logan, provides information on its history and use.
The dirk of the Highlanders is called bidag, or biodag, the bidawg of the Welsh, in the latter syllable of which we perceive the root of the English dagger.

The bidag is adapted for fighting at close quarters, where the sword cannot be used, or where the party may, either in the heat of action, or otherwise, have been deprived of it. When dexterously wielded by a strong and resolute Highlander, this was a most terrific weapon. It was not held in the same way as the sword, but in a reverse position, pointing towards the elbow, and the manner in which it was carried allowed it to be drawn with perfect facility. The belt which fastened the plaid, became the baldrick by which this trusty blade was secured. It was placed on the right side, and instead of hanging loosely as it is now generally worn, the belt was either slipped through a hook affixed to the sheath, sometimes steady, and frequently movable on a swivel, or a long hook, or slide, answered the same purpose. It was thus firmly attached to the thigh, and was consequently so judiciously suspended, that it could be drawn in an instant, and this was of some importance in the event of a sudden assault, or so close a contention as would prevent a free use of the sword. If it hung loosely, it would have incommoded the wearer, and could not be so promptly at command, but, carried as it was, the hand could instinctively be laid on the hilt.

From the peculiar manner in which this weapon was managed, the most dreadful execution was sometimes performed with it. When the arm was raised, the dirk was pointed to the assailant in front: when lowered, it menaced the foe behind, and, by turning the wrist either way, the enemy was kept at bay, or, if he escaped destruction, received the most deadly wounds.

Incredible feats have been achieved by the dirk, which was a convenient instrument to execute revenge. A violent feud had long subsisted between the Leslies and the Leiths, powerful names in Aberdeen and the adjoining counties, and one of the former having been invited, on some occasion, to the castle of a nobleman not concerned in the quarrel, he found himself in the company of a number of his enemies, the Leiths. Waiting his opportunity, he joined the dance, and, suddenly drawing his dirk, he struck right and left, as he rushed through the hall, and, leaping from the window, effected his escape. To commemorate this bold and bloody exploit the tune of "Lesly amo' the Leiths" was composed. Another early instance of its use as an instrument of secret revenge, occurs in Ossian; as Carthon was binding Clessamor, the latter, perceiving the foe's uncovered side, "drew the dagger of his fathers." With this destructive instrument, at a later period, Forbes, the Laird of Brux, who was out in 1745, made "sun and moon shine through" the enemy, as he expressed himself to a friend of mine.

The Highlanders were always partial to "the cold steel." The sword and dirk were well adapted to their fierce and overwhelming hand to hand mode of attack, and their dexterity in the use of both, ensured the success of many a foray, and was the means of their gaining many a victory. There were always, even in late times, many of the "Highlandmen," who had no other arms, and from the many desperate conflicts in which they signalized themselves with "sword and dirk into their han', wi whilk they were na slaw," these came to be spoken of as almost the only weapons they possessed. At the battle of Killicrankie, fought in 1689, it is said of King William's troops, that
"The dirk an' d'our, made their last hour,
An' prov'd their final fa', man."
[Please don't ask me to translate that.]
I have remarked that more broad swords than dirks are to be now seen, and the reason, I apprehend, is, that the latter were appropriated for domestic purposes, when it was no longer necessary or lawful to carry them as arms. Pennant observed the dirk frequently converted into a very useful knife, by the butchers of Inverness, being, like Hudibras's dagger,
"a serviceable dudgeon,
Either for fighting or for drudging."
I have seen them employed for various uses. Some chopped up moss fir as well as if they had never been intended for more honorable service, whilst others served in the humble but useful office of a "kail gully." ["Kail" refers to the vegetable, while "gully" is a big knife.] Few are to be met with that do not appear to have been in requisition for other purposes than originally intended. The Highlander has often, by its means, provided himself with a "clear the lawing," i. e. a good cudgel.

In attacking the Duke of Cumberland's army, at Clifton, rebels cut through the hedges with their bidag, and it was one of the complaints on the disarming act, that they should be deprived of their dirks, with which they cut down wood, &c. Before the invention of [table] knives they supplied their place at table. Possidonius says the Gauls applied them to this purpose. The Highlanders used them in quartering deer and other game. The dirk was the favorite "brand" of the Gael. The dagger of Ogar was "the weapon which he loved." The most solemn oath was swearing on it, and so convenient an implement was it found, that it was almost part of their weed. I recollect one John McBean, who fought at Culloden, and was among the McIntoshes, who made so furious an irruption on the king's army. This old man, who died at the age of 101, and was able to walk abroad some days before his death, never thought himself dressed without his belt and a small knife. A gentleman of my acquaintance had shown his pistols to an old man at Skellater, in Strathdon, who, in reply, drew his dirk, and, regarding it with a look of satisfaction, observed, "my pistol will no miss fire." The Highlanders thought it hard when the act for disarming them was passed, that they should not be permitted to carry this useful and convenient article, and were loath, when the gun, the sword, and the pistols were laid aside, to part with the dirk. It was a shrewd remark of one Steuart, in Avenside, who, coming down to the lower part of Strathdon, was reminded that it was now against the law to carry his dirk; "No!" replied he, indignantly, "It is not against the law, the law is against it!"
I really like that last line.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Bowie-Knife Butchery in Bleeding Kansas

When pro-slavery and anti-slavery contended for dominance in the Kansas Territory during the 1850s, both sides established newspapers that promoted their viewpoint. One of the anti-slavery newspapers was the Kansas Tribune, published by the brothers John and Joseph Speer. The following article from December 14, 1855 describes an attack on Joseph by Shannon's militia,  pro-slavery group:
The Chicago Tribune has a private letter from Kansas, giving information that Joseph Speer of the Kansas Tribune, published in Leavenworth, had been assaulted by a gang of Shannon's militia, a gash cut from his mouth to his ear with a bowie knife and his life only saved by the resolute interference of his friends. His injuries were so serious that his paper is for the present suspended. Mr. Speer formerly resided in Cleveland, Ohio. He was most horribly cut and mangled.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Bowie-Knife Stabbing of "Buffalo Bill" Cody's Father

In the decade before the Civil War, the Kansas Territory was the scene of a violent struggle between those who would have it enter the Union as a free state and those who would have it enter as a slave state. Isaac Cody, father of William F. "Buffalo Bill" Cody, had settled his family there. This is Buffalo Bill's account of the attack on his father.

Near the Salt Creek trading post was [a] store, kept by a Missourian named Rively, around which a considerable settlement had been made, which became the rendezvous of many different elements, and particularly of proslavery men, who enjoyed Rively's sympathies. In the summer of 1854, and within a few months after the "Enabling Act" was passed, a very large meeting was held at the popular rendezvous, and father being present was pressed to address the crowd on the slavery question, he being regarded as favorably disposed to making Kansas a slave territory, owing to the fact that his brother, Elijah, was a Missourian.

After much urging he at length spoke substantially as follows: "Gentlemen: You have called upon me for a speech, and I have accepted your invitation rather against my will, as my views may not accord with the sentiments of a majority of this assembly. My remarks will therefore be brief and to the point. The question before us to-day is, shall the territory of Kansas admit slavery, and hereafter, upon her admission, shall she be a slave State? The question of slavery is itself a broad one, which will not permit of discussion at length in this place. I apprehend that your motive in calling upon me is to have me express my sentiments in regard to the introduction of slavery into Kansas.

I shall gratify your wishes in that respect. I was one of the pioneers of the State of Iowa, and aided in its settlement when it was a territory, and helped to organize it as a State.

"Gentlemen, I voted that it should be a white State -- that negroes, whether free or slave, should never be allowed to locate within its limits; and, gentlemen, I say to you now. and I say it boldly, that I propose to exert all my power in making Kansas the same kind of a State as Iowa. I believe in letting slavery remain as it now exists, and I shall always oppose its further extension. These are my sentiments, gentlemen, and let me tell you . . ."

He never finished this sentence, or his speech, His expressions were anything but acceptable to the rough-looking crowd, whose ire had been gradually rising to fever heat, and at this point they hooted and hissed him, and shouted, "You black Abolitionist, shut up!" "Get down from that box!" "Kill him!" "Shoot him!" and so on. Father, however, maintained his position on the dry goods box, notwithstanding the excitement and numerous invitations to step down, until a hot-headed pro-slavery man, who was in the employ of my Uncle Elijah, crowded up and said: "Get off that box, you black Abolitionist, or I'll pull you off."

Father paid but little attention to him, and attempted to resume his speech, intending doubtless to explain his position and endeavor to somewhat pacify the angry crowd. But the fellow jumped up on the box, and pulling out a huge bowie knife, stabbed father twice, who reeled and fell to the ground. The man sprang after him, and would have ended his life then and there, had not some of the better men in the crowd interfered in time to prevent him from carrying out his murderous intention. The excitement was intense, and another assault would probably have been made on my father, had not Rively hurriedly carried him to his home. There was no doctor within any reasonable distance, and father at once requested that he be conveyed in the carriage to his brother Elijah's house in Weston. My mother and a driver accordingly went there with him, where his wounds were dressed. He remained in Weston several weeks before he was able to stir about again, but he never fully recovered from the wounds, which eventually proved the cause of his death. My uncle of course at once discharged the ruffian from his employ. The man afterwards became a noted desperado, and was quite conspicuous in the Kansas war.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Bowie Knife Affray in New Orleans, 1860

From Vincent's Semi-annual United States Register, 1860, comes the following account of an affray in a New Orleans hotel lobby involving pistols and a bowie knife.
This day, the crowded rotunda of the St. Charles Hotel, New Orleans, was thrown into the most intense state of excitement by a rencounter which took place there about one o'clock, or shortly before that hour, between Mr. Charles N. Harris, of Carroll parish, and Col. W. H. Peck, of Madison parish, a member elect of the State Legislature. The result of the difficulty was the killing of Harris by Col. Peck, who inflicted upon his person seven wounds,--three shot-wounds and four stab-wounds, two of which were necessarily fatal, as will be seen by the result of the examination made, and which appears below.
In order to give the whole facts of the case, we would state that, about a year ago, a difficulty occurred between the parties, in the parish of Madison, State of Louisiana, which led to some correspondence between the gentlemen, the exact result of which were ignorant of. However, it appears that Mr. Harris came down to New Orleans a short time ago, and Col. Peck arrived also on the steamer Vicksburg, on her last trip down. The day before the murder, Col. Peck and a friend, with whom he came down to the city, came out from the gentlemen's ordinary, where they had been dining, and proceeded to make their way through rather a large crowd into the centre of the rotunda.
While going through the crowd, Mr. Harris--who was unknown to the friend of Col. Peck--turned round and asked if they intended to insult him by pushing against him. Col. Peck's friend, thinking, from Harris's appearance, that he was drunk, replied, politely, that no one intended to insult him. Harris, while asking the question, looked at Col. Peck, who at once recognized him. Harris, after the answer given by Col. Peck's friend, and looking directly at Peck, said, as he placed his hand in his pocket, to the latter, "D--n you. you did intend to insult me."

Harris, the moment he had finished speaking, drew a pistol and fired at Peck, who was in the act of placing his hand in his side-pocket for his pistol.
After firing and missing his aim, Harris turned and ran through the crowd; and Peck, seeing, doubtless, that he must kill innocent persons if he fired, desisted from so doing.
A short while after this affray, Harris was arrested, at the request of Mr. Hildreth, for disturbing the peace of the St. Charles Hotel, by firing a pistol in the rotunda, and locked up in the First District Station-House, where he remained until the following morning. When he was arrested, he had in his room a revolver, a Derringer pistol, and a bowie-knife, which were also taken to the station-house, he was arraigned before Recorder Summers and fined twenty dollars, which, upon paying, his weapons were handed back to him. When about taking them away, his attorney advised him not to put them in his pocket, but to wrap them up in a piece of paper and carry them in his hand; which he did. He intended leaving the city that evening, and was at the window of the clerk's office of the St. Charles paying his bill when the difficulty recommenced.
Col. Peck, it is said, thought that Harris had left the city the previous evening, but was standing in the rotunda of the hotel when the baggage-master of the hotel, who knew him, said to him, "Colonel, there is the man who shot at you yesterday," (pointing at Harris;) and, probably supposing that Peck was not acquainted with him, added, "Don't molest him; for I am not positive he is the man."

The baggage-master then passed up the stairs on the right-hand side.
Col. Peck, it appears, on having his attention directed toward Harris, walked over from the stairs toward him, who, as we before stated, was paying his bill at the window, and halted a few paces from him, with his hands resting upon his hips.
At this juncture, Harris turned his head somewhat and saw him; and the statements of what occurred during the nest few moments are somewhat conflicting. The clerk, Mr. Mayne, who had just handed Harris a ten-dollar bill in change, says that Peck looked for about a quarter of a minute at Harris, then a few words passed which he did not hear, and both drew about the same moment and fired; but he thinks Col. Peck shot first. Others state that, as Col. Peck advanced toward Harris, the latter asked him if he intended taking advantage of him; that Peck replied, "You took advantage of me yesterday: I am armed, and I suppose you are;" that both then drew; some say that Peck shot a little in advance, some say that Harris shot first, and others that the reports were simultaneous. Another version of the affair is that Peck asked Harris if he was armed, and he, avoiding the question, replied, "I am not prepared to have a difficulty with you here, and I wish you would leave me;" and that both drew at once. However, the testimony which will be taken before the coroner will doubtless clear up this portion of the difficulty.
The firing having commenced, Harris retreated, and finally dodged into the door of the small bar and cigar room, and, shielding himself partly behind the glass door, looked out and fired from time to time. Two of his balls can be seen where they entered,--one in a pillar in a line with Peck, and another on the opposite side of the wall,--both high up. Peck, while Harris retreated, stepped out from the office, nearer to the dining-room, and fired several shots, --three of which took effect upon the person of Harris,--and was in that position when he was fired at from the room.
Exhausting his pistol, Peck drew his bowie-knife and deliberately advanced toward the door of the cigar-shop from behind which Harris had shot, and seemed to hesitate a moment whether to enter. The next moment, Harris, doubtless seeing his shadow upon the glass, fired at the open doorway, the ball of his pistol entering the side or jamb of the door.
After firing this last shot, Harris ran back just as Peck entered the door, got over the marble counter of the bar, and got into a corner among the bottles. Peck, following, sprang over after him, and, grasping hold of him, inflicted upon his person four stabs with the bowie-knife.
Thus ended this terrible rencounter. Harris was picked up and placed on the floor for a moment, and then carried to his room near by, expiring almost the moment he was placed upon the bed. This account of the affair has been gathered through various persons who were present, though, from the great excitement which prevailed, there may have been things which were overlooked. The excitement was very intense, and most of the crowd got out of the way at the first firing. Some got behind pillars, others ran into the passages leading to the dining-room and ladies' parlor, and not a few, thinking it too late to fly, made shields of the chairs. A group of gentlemen were standing conversing immediately in a line with the shot from Harris, which lodged in the wall a few feet above their heads. The accused was arrested, a short time after the killing, by Lieutenant Dryden, of the First District Police-Station.
Col. Peck is a large, powerful-looking man, about six feet in height. The deceased was a man of ordinary stature and rather slight build.
The post-mortem examination was held by Dr. Lethelet, which showed the following wounds: One shot-wound in the right shoulder; two stab-wounds in the left arm; one stab-wound in the left side, between the fifth and sixth ribs, penetrating the lungs; one shot-wound in the right side, between the seventh and eighth ribs, penetrating the liver; (these two wounds last above mentioned were the immediate cause of death); one shot-wound in the breast, between the first and second ribs.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Bowie Knife Fight Ends Painfully, But Not Seriously

From the New York Times of January 16, 1878, comes an article titled “A Desperate Fight in Virginia”:
Danville, Va. Jan. 15. - A desperate encounter between Philip Grasty, a tobacconist, and W.P. Robinson, a merchant, occurred in the latter's store this morning. Grasty was formerly Robinson's clerk, but quit a year ago without settling accounts. He called on Robinson for this purpose to-day, but Robinson refused, stating that Grasty had forged his [Robinson's] books, and he did not intend to pay him anything. Grasty thereupon struck Robinson, and when he advanced to retaliate Grasty drew a pistol. At the same time Robinson produced a bowie-knife. Grasty then fired and broke Robinson's left arm, but the latter stabbed him several times in the left shoulder and arm, and nearly cut off his little finger. Grasty kept up a promiscuous fire, and Robinson, at last, dodged behind the counter, being unable to fight any longer. Both parties are well connected and stand high in society. Being separated, physicians were summoned and the wounds dressed. Both men are painfully hurt, but not seriously.
Somehow I suspect that today's New York Times would classify these wounds as "serious"; however, at the time, so soon after the Civil War and in the midst of the Western expansion, they were dismissed as merely "painful."

Friday, January 21, 2011

Packing a Bowie Knife in the War of Northern Aggression

The following observation on arms carried by Union troops in the War of Northern Aggression (as my Southern friends admonish me to call it) is from Hardtack and Coffee; Or, The Unwritten Story of Army Life (1887) by John Davis Billing.
I have spoken of the rapid improvements made in arms [during the war]. This improvement extended to all classes of fire-arms alike. Revolvers were no exception, and Colt's revolver, which monopolized the field for some time, was soon crowded in the race by Smith and Wesson, Remington, arid others. Thousands of them were sold monthly, and the newly fledged soldier who did not possess a revolver, either by his own purchase, or as a present from solicitous relatives, or admiring friends, or enthusiastic business associates, was something of a curiosity. Of course a present of this kind necessitated an outfit of special ammunition, and such was at once procured. But the personal armory of many heroes was not even then complete, and a dirk knife -- a real "Arkansaw toothpick" -- was no unusual sight to be seen hanging from the belt of some of the incipient but blood-thirsty warriors. The little town of Ashby in Massachusetts, at one of its earliest war-meetings, voted "that each volunteer shall be provided with a revolver, a bowie-knife, and a Bible, and shall also receive ten dollars in money." The thought did not appear to find lodgement in the brain of the average soldier or his friends that by the time the government had provided him with what arms, ammunition, and equipments it was thought necessary for him to have, he would then be loaded with about all he could bear, without adding a personal armory and magazine. Nor did he realize that which afterwards in his experience must have come upon him with convincing force, that by the time he had done his duty faithfully and well with the arms which the government had placed in his hands there would be little opportunity or need, even if his ambition still held out, to fall back on his personal arsenal for further supplies. Members of the later regiments got their eyes open to this fact either through correspondence with men at the front, or by having been associated with others who had seen service. But the troops of '61 and '62 took out hundreds of revolvers only to lose them, give them away, or throw them away; and as many regiments were forbidden by their colonels to wear them, a large number were sent back to the North. Revolvers were probably cheaper in Virginia, in those years, than in any other state in the Union.