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Thursday, November 25, 2010

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., and Theodore Roosevelt on the Bowie Knife

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. (1809 – 1894), American physician, professor, lecturer, and author, and father of the Supreme Court justice, had this to say about the bowie knife in 1858:
We are the Romans of the modern world, the great assimilating people. Conflicts and conquests are of course necessary accidents with us, as with our prototypes. And so we come to their style of weapon. Our army sword is the short, stiff, pointed gladius of the Romans; and the American bowie-knife is the same tool, modified to meet the daily wants of civil society. I announce at this table an axiom not to be found in Montesquieu or the journals of Congress: -

The race that shortens its weapons lengthens its boundaries.

Corollary. It was the Polish lance that left Poland at last with nothing of her own to bound.

"Dropped from her nerveless grasp the shattered spear!"

What business had Sarmatia to be fighting for liberty with a fifteen-foot pole between her and the breasts of her enemies? If she had but clutched the old Roman and young American weapon, and come to close quarters, there might have been a chance for her. . .
When Holmes says "our army sword," he is referring to the Model 1832 Foot Artillery Sword.

Model 1832 Foot Artillery Sword.

Holmes's confidence in the bowie knife must have been rooted in America's success in the Texas War of Independence and the Mexican War, as well as the westward expansion. However, the notion that a nation seeking to expand its boundaries is hampered by a long spear is contradicted by the success of Philip of Macedonia's army with the sarissa, an unusually long spear which made its phalanx unbeatable. With these 13- to 21-foot spears the army of his son Alexander stretched the boundaries of his empire to hitherto unimagined lengths.

A young Theodore Roosevelt in cowboy garb with his Tiffany-made bowie knife in his belt.

In a visit to the Alamo after the Spanish-American War, Theodore Roosevelt quoted Holmes's sentiment approvingly:
Col. Roosevelt . . . . talked of Bowie and his old blacksmith’s file that, forged and sharpened, became the weapon par excellence of his generation.

“Do you remember what Holmes had to say about the Bowie knife and its relation to the Roman gladius?” he asked. “’The race that shortens its weapons lengthens its boundaries.’ There is undying truth in that axiom in spite of our adoption of the Krag-Jorgensen and other long-distance engines of destruction. I am glad that we are to have these machetes, for, after all, you have got to get back to first principles in the end; you can’t do much with a fifteen-foot pole between you and the breast of your adversary. You have got to get up close to him sooner or later.”


  1. Re the Holmes information:
    What about the Swiss pike?

  2. The assertion is interesting mainly due to the source, and was widely quoted, but as you point out there are any number of exceptions that disprove it.

  3. Alexander's phalanx formations and the training and disipline to do it was the key to success. After Alexander's death, the greeks tried to defend with the phalanx using those long pig stickers and got it handed to them by Roman short swords, but I must say the greek army was not what it once was under Alexander.