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Friday, November 19, 2010

Bowie Knives Still Made in Sheffield

When the bowie knife came into vogue in the 1830s, America did not yet have the manufacturing capacity to meet the demand. However, the cutlers of Sheffield, England did, and soon flooded the market with their high quality bowies, available in a dazzling variety of styles. (I have noticed that many internet sources identify the 1850s as the time Sheffield knives were first introduced to the American market. This is incorrect. There were Sheffield imports here in the late 1830s.)
In the course of my research, I decided to buy myself a bowie knife that resembled as closely as possible one that a man might have taken with him to the California gold rush or the Civil War. After a lot of searching on the internet, and wistfully passing by the custom models that I couldn't afford, I settled on  this beauty from John Nowill & Sons in Sheffield, England, which has been in the cutlery business since 1700. It has a 10.5-inch blade, stag scales, a brass crossguard and pommel, and a very well-made sheath of harness leather. The stock is a quarter inch thick, with a full-length tang, and the knife weighs just under two pounds. I noticed that some of the models shown in advertisements had decorative filework on the back of the blade. To each his own, but I happen to hate filework, considering it superfluous, ugly, and inauthentic. I'm also not crazy about the fuller, or so-called "blood groove." When I phoned in my order for the knife I requested that both these features be omitted. As I completed my order, the woman on the other end of the line said "Loov-ley" in that charming English manner. The knife arrived a few weeks later, wrapped in cardboard and brown paper, in a plain box, with my address hand lettered. I liked that additional historical verisimilitude and the knife itself is a delight. The only problem was that it was as dull as a Merchant-Ivory film, so I took it to a professional sharpener in Meriden, Connecticut, who runs a small shop called The Sharper Edge. He did an excellent job. I realize I lowered the collector value by doing so, but a dull knife is an abomination in the eyes of god. (I think that's in Leviticus somewhere.)

I was so pleased with the big bowie that I had to buy a little brother for it. With an eight-inch blade, it's a large knife but doesn't give you the charge you get from the super-sized model. The one pictured above has faux ivory scales, but I ordered mine with stag. Since it was shown in the ad with a plain back edge, I didn't think to specify "no filework," so naturally it came with filework. I sent it all the way back to Sheffield to exchange it for a plain version. (When did this execrable filework become the norm?)

Nowill sells another bowie that appeals to me, but my self-allocated research budget had run out. It has a nine-inch blade, a traditional coffin grip,  genuine buffalo-horn scales, and a Spanish choil. The choil is defined as the area between the cutting edge and the tang. Sometimes there is a small notch at that point, which helps separate the part of the blade you're supposed to sharpen from the part you're not. What makes it a Spanish choil (or Spanish notch) is the little teardrop-shaped inlet into the blade at that point, whose purpose is not exactly clear. Is it merely a stylistic touch? Can it be used to trap an opponent's blade and perhaps break it? Does it allow blood to drip from the blade before it reaches the hand, as a similar choil on the kukri is said to do? Bowie-knife expert Bernard Levine theorized that it could be used to pry used percussion caps off the firearms of the day.

Here is a close-up of a Spanish choil on a knife made by Dean Oliver of Oregon:

The Sheffield knives can be seen and ordered through the website of John Nowill & Sons. Just be sure to tell them you don't want the f---ing filework! (unless you do).

UPDATE: Below is an example of a bowie with extensive filework, for those who don't know what I'm talking about. To me, it looks like it was gnawed by gerbils.

UPDATE 2: I got a message from Vin Malone of Sheffield, England. He writes, "You mention your dislike of what you call decorative filework. Having worked in the Sheffield cutlery industry for fifty years we never call it “decorative filework”; it's known throughout the trade as “Jimp and Bevel.”

I found that interesting and wanted to add it to this post. Thank you, Mr. Malone.


  1. I don't like the look of the filing either. Maybe it was thought useful for parrying, slowing down or controlling an opponent's blade?

  2. The filing on the back of the blade is rarely seen on 19th-century knives. It seems to be more of a modern affectation.

  3. i have one of j nowill and sons knives and i dont know how old or what one it is. it looks like ivory in the middle part of its handle. if anyone knows about them please email me on

  4. Kukris have a very similar notch. Its purpose is unknown as well.

  5. I own a knife marked Cambridge Cutlery Works, Sheffield. The blade is 4 and one half inches long and the handle is stag, worn almost smooth. There are 5 notches along the top one inch, and four notches along the bottom of the 3/4 inch ricasso. This is a pre 1890 Sheffield, since the England is not there. There is no guard and the notches actually are very functional with the index finger gripping the bottom notches and the thumb pressing down on the top. Thereby giving better control of the knife...especially useful when skinning or gutting a fish. That can make things slimy and slippery. The notches do help in this case.

  6. I own Alan C. Warren's Sheffield Style Bowie(Serial#1500)and personally, this is the ultimate Bowie knife.
    A beautiful knife with the mirror-polished blade made of ATS-34 steel which is perfectly soldered into the stainless handguard, and the handle made of fossil walrus ivory is a work of art!
    Alan is a custom knife maker from Portland, OR, who neither advertises nor runs online sales so if you ever come across his work, just jump on it.

  7. Choosing a strong and reliable survival knife is very important. You don't just go out shopping and purchasing something that your eyes fancy right away. shieldon knives

  8. Hi can anyone tell me anything about this knife and how much it’s worth please, it’s a J Nowill & sons Bowie Knife made in Sheffield, I have had it 40 years and it wasn’t new then and I can’t find it anywhere on the internet, many thanks ?