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Monday, November 22, 2010

Description of the Bowie Knife from 1847

Description of the bowie knife by Charles Hooton, an Englishman who visited Texas in the 1840s, from his book St. Louis’ Isle, or Texiana (1847):
Having already mentioned the bowie-knife, as not only so common but so formidable a weapon, both in Texas and the whole South, the reader will perhaps not be displeased to hear a little more of it,—the various tragical hand-to-hand exploits which have been from time to time performed, even amongst the "highest circles" of that quarter of the world, through its agency, having conferred upon it a degree of bloody and horrible distinction never yet acquired by many of its elder brethren of the same craft. Let it not, however, be regarded altogether in the light of an engine of human slaughter; since, in many other respects, it is one of the most useful of articles to the settler and frontierman. The same blade which this morning, perhaps, was buried to the hilt in the body of an enemy—or it may be of a friend, with whom its owner had a "difficulty"—will also serve to-night to carve the venison for supper; to skin and cut up the hunter's game; to extract hooks from the gullets of ponderous red-fish, when its master goes a-fishing; or to supply any other need, no matter how small (if not too small for its own size), for which a knife can possibly be required. In short, Butler has accurately predescribed its various uses—aided, no doubt, by a wonderful spirit of poetical prophecy—in the following charming portrait of the dagger of his "Sir Knight":—
It was a serviceable dudgeon,
Either for fighting or for drudging;
When it had stabb'd, or broke a head,
It would scrape trenchers, or chip bread;
Toast cheese or bacon, though it were
To bait a mouse-trap, 'twould not care.
To the best of my knowledge, this instrument was devised by Col. James Bowie, an American, and a man of desperate valour. He considered, and apparently with justice too, that in close fighting, a much shorter weapon than the sword ordinarily in use, but still heavy enough to give it sufficient force, and, at the same time, contrived to cut and thrust, would be far preferable, and more advantageous to the wearer. He accordingly invented the short sword, or knife, which has since gone under his name. It is made of various sizes; but the best, I may say, is about the length of a carving-knife,—cast perfectly straight in the first instance, but greatly rounded at the end on the edge side: the upper edge at the end, for the length of about two inches, is ground into the small segment of a circle and rendered sharp; thus leaving an apparent curve of the knife, although in reality the upturned point is not higher than the line of the back. The back itself gradually increases in weight of metal as it approaches the hilt, on which a small guard is placed. The bowie-knife, therefore, has a curved, keen point; is double-edged for the space of about a couple of inches of its length; and, when in use, falls with the weight of a bill-hook. I have heard it stated, that a blow from one well wielded is sufficient to break a man's arm. . . . Bowie went to Texas during the troubles which preceded the independence of that country, and was lying sick in bed at the Fortress of the Alamo, when, on the 6th of March, 1836, it was stormed by Santa Anna and taken. Bowie was murdered there upon his pillow. The hand that formed the dreadful knife could no longer wield it.

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