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Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Boomerang Bowie Knife of the Civil War

After Union troops were routed at the First Battle of Bull Run, also known as First Manassas, newspapers claimed that the bowie knife had played a decisive role in the hands of the Confederates. One article describes the Southerners using a most unlikely weapon: A bowie knife tied to a long elastic rope, so that it could be thrown at the enemy and then return to its owner's hand, like a yo-yo or boomerang. Here is the report:
One of the New York Fire Zouaves who was wounded at the battle of Manassas on Sunday last, a stalwart, hardy fellow, of considerable intelligence, passed through this city yesterday, en route homeward, remaining here several hours waiting for the cars. From him I obtained a thrilling narrative of an encounter between his regiment and a Mississippian.

After the battle had been raging for some hours, according to the account of this Zouvian here, he saw an immense body of Mississippians, accompanied by some (believed to be) Baltimoreans rush furiously over the Confederate ramparts. They at once saw the conspicuous uniforms of the Zouaves, and made at them. The Mississippians, after approaching near enough, sent a terrible volley from their rifles into the Zouave ranks. This done, they threw their guns aside and charged onward until each contending enemy met face to face, and hand to hand, in terrible combat.

The Mississippians, having discarded their rifles after the first fire, fell back upon their bowie knives. These were of huge dimensions, eighteen to twenty inches long, heavy in proportion, and sharp or two-edged at the point. Attached to the handle was a lasso, some eight or ten feet in length, with one end securely wound around the wrist.

My informant says that when these terrific warriors approached to within reach of their lasso, not waiting to come within bayonet range, they threw forward their bowie knives at the Zouaves after the fashion of experienced harpooners striking at a whale. Frequently they plunged in and penetrated through a soldier's body, and were ready to strike again whilst the first victim sunk into death. On several occasions the terrible bowie knife was transfixed in a Zouave, and the Zouave's bayonet in a Mississippian, both impaled and falling together. So skillfully was this deadly instrument handled by the Mississippian that he could project it to the full lasso length, kill his victim, withdraw it again with a sudden impulse, and catch the handle unerringly.

If by any mischance the bowie knife missed its aim, broke the cord fastening it to the arm, or fell to the earth, revolvers were next resorted to with similar dexterity. The hand to hand closing in with both pistol and bowie knife, cutting, slashing, carving and shooting almost in the same moment, was awful beyond description. Blood gushed from hundreds of wounds, until, amid death, pitiful groans and appalling sights, it staunched the very earth. My Zouave companion says himself and comrades did hard fighting, and stood up manfully to the murderous conflict, but he felt no further ambition to engage in such encounters.
This weapon sounds preposterous, and it was with some surprise that I came across another reference to it in an article in the Atlanta Constitution on October 28, 1895, thirty years after the war.
Novel Weapons With Which a Screven Company Was Armed.
Sylvania, Ga., October 27. (Special)
A confederate veteran of Sylvania recently talked to a Telephone reporter of a lot of curious weapons of warfare with which a company from Screven were armed at the beginning of the late war, and before they had been supplied with rifles. It will be remembered that Governor Joseph Brown had caused to be constructed a large number of pikes with which to arm the Georgia troops, and this probably gave rise to the peculiar weapons that were made for the Screven company.

Mr. George Cooper, the noted blacksmith and the inventor of the of the well-known Cooper plow, was the designer and manufacturer of this unique weapon, and it undoubtedly surpassed Governor Brown's. It consisted of a bowie knife set in a firm handle, the whole thing being about two feet long. The knives were somewhat on the order of a short sword, and carried in a kind of scabbard at the side. The old soldier who was describing it and who belonged to the company, said that attached to the handle of these knives was a strong piece of elastic, probably eight or ten feet long--so that in an engagement the knives could he hurled at the enemy and then, after inflicting a wound, or in either event, would rebound into the hands of the owner. It could thus be used an infinite number of times, and at a distance, too, where swords could not be brought into play. It will be seen that it was very much on the order of the ancient javelin, only the elastic attachment made it much more serviceable and a more dangerous and effective weapon at close quarters.

Mr. Bob Kelly, who was a member of the company, still has one of these old knives in his possession, which he treasures very much as a relic, and there are probably others scattered through the county. The blades of the knives were made mostly from large flat files, and being pointed and ground very sharp, were capable of piercing a man through and through if thrown with accurate aim. The Screven boys, however, did not have the opportunity to test the weapons in conflict, for they were soon furnished with other implements of warfare and had to discard the knives.
I remain skeptical about the concept,  but am curious if anyone has heard anything else about it. By the way, the recent movie Kick-Ass had a young heroine named Hit Girl who used a throwing knife on an elastic cord that sounded just like this, but she had the magic of special effects to make it work. Here is a scene from the movie:

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