New copies of my book Bowie Knife Fights, Fighters, and Fighting Techniques are now available from Amazon at $24.95.
This blog contains additional information about the bowie knife, as well as the fighting knives of other nations.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Bowie Knife Murderer Tied to Tree

Report of a murder in Alaska in the 1890s:
Murder in Alaska
SEATTLE, Oct. 25.-The passengers of the steamer Farallon, which arrived here yesterday from Alaska, brings the news of a murder committed near Lake Tagish on October 1st. Two men from Seattle, named Henderson and Peterson, quarreled over a trivial matter, and Henderson, after stabbing Peterson with a bowie knife several times, drew a revolver and beat his victim's head into a jelly. Peterson died soon after from the effects of his wounds, and Henderson was arrested and bound to a tree for ten days, until the arrival of the Canadian Mounted Police, who took him to Dawson City for trial.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Texans Armed With Bowie Knives in Civil War

From The Gulf States Historical Magazine, Volume 2 (July 1903), comes this description of the production of bowie knives for Texas troops:
Enlistment in Texas commenced in earnest in June 1861. Arms and all necessary military equipments were exceedingly scarce. No attempt in Texas, was made to arm men who enlisted for service east of the Mississippi river. Outside of the arms and munitions that had been secured from the Federal troops in the state, which had been turned over to the Confederate states by the Convention, there were no arms, except double-barreled shot guns, hunting rifles, and pistols, that belonged to private individuals. The state had made some appropriations to buy arms, and ammunition had been procured, but not a tithe needful to meet the demand. The most of the companies raised for service west of the river equipped themselves as best they could, with such arms as each man had, and such clothing as he had or could procure. . . . At this time, the Texas soldier seemed to be impressed with the idea that hand-to-hand and man to man fights would frequently occur, and that in such case a bowie knife, or some other big knife, was an indispensable part of his fighting outfit, and as the knife never failed to fire, the Texas soldier was strongly impressed in favor of the knife. To supply this demand for knives the merchant's stocks in the country were soon depleted, and then came a demand for all of the new and old files that could be found large enough to make a bowie knife; and so it was that the demand for . . . knives kept the blacksmiths busy day and night. They did not carry the big knives long, for they soon found them useless and burdensome. Another curious idea occurred in the early part of the war. Colonel Carter raised a regiment of cavalry, and proposed to arm them with iron spears, into which wooden handles, about twelve or fourteen feet long were fitted. The writer saw a number of these weapons. They were certainly a strange anomaly in modern warfare. Whether the Colonel really armed his men with these lances, the writer does not know. These weapons of a bygone age only emphasized the scarcity of arms and the straits of the Confederacy to arm and equip her soldiers. A brigade of those poorly armed Texas cavalry, who were dismounted and made into infantry by order of General Holmes in 1862, was marched into Arkansas and camped between the Arkansas and White rivers, not very far from Duvall's Bluff. Many of these soldiers had no arms at all, some had nothing better than shot guns and squirrel rifles, with very little ammunition, and what they had were of poor quality, and ill suited to their guns. While so camped, the brigade was ordered post haste to meet a rumored detachment of the enemy, marching up White river. These Texas soldiers manifested the utmost eagerness to meet the enemy. The rumor proved to be false. No enemy appeared, and this was fortunate, for equipped as the Texans were it would have been murder for them to have met a well armed and disciplined foe.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Bowie-Knife Atrocities Linked to Drunkenness

A newspaper editorial from March 4, 1839:
A Temperance Law in Mississippi.
General Foote has introduced into the Legislature of Mississippi, a law more severe against spirituous liquors than that of Massachusetts. This is striking at the root of the Bowie knife atrocities. It prevents the sale of spirits under a gallon, and at the place where sold subjects tavern-keeper to penalties and securities of $10,000, &c.
When I was researching my book Dueling With the Sword and Pistol, it struck me how connected dueling was with the heavy drinking so common at the time. Dueling faded out in the English-speaking world during the Victorian era, around the same time that public intoxication was no longer socially acceptable among the gentry.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Bowie Knife vs. Shark

From Rambles in Polynesia (1897), by "Sundowner" [Herbert Tichborne], comes this account of a Polynesian native chief taking on sharks with a bowie knife:
As we steamed slowly through the passage between Ile Nou and the southern headland of Noumea harbour, the chief walked the foc's'le deck impatiently. It was known that we should be compelled to lie in the stream for two or three hours before any of the passengers would be allowed to land, and the dusky warrior made up his mind not to wait. We dropped anchor about three hundred yards from the wharf, and the bulwarks were immediately crowded with passengers, watching the lazy tiger sharks as they moved in shoals around the vessel. . . . Our Maré chieftain had determined upon going ashore early, and a school of fifty thousand sharks was not likely to shake him from the purpose. . . . So, taking a large bowie-knife between his teeth and a short spear in his hand, with his bundle tied upon his head, he swung himself overboard by one of the ropes attached to the companion ladder, and boldly struck out for the shore. All eyes and all available glasses were upon the plucky islander as he cut his way swiftly through the water in the direction of the quay. The excitement on board the steamer was intense when occasionally the dorsal fin of a terrible 'tiger' was observed to move in the direction of the swimmer. When he had gone about two hundred yards he rose suddenly from the water, and it was seen that he grasped his bowie. A shark had got under him evidently. He appeared to make a game fight of it for a few minutes, but when a 'tiger' once draws blood, it is hard to shake him off. The surrounding sharks, too, had scented blood, and the tremendous dorsal fins were moving towards the scene of the encounter from all directions; and before the boats could reach him the monsters were dragging him all over the place -- chasing each other for possession of the savoury prize. The boatmen from the shore succeeded in securing various portions of the poor chieftain's body -- enough, at all events, upon which to hold the necessary coroner's inquiry. Much sympathy was felt for the unfortunate fellow.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Quality of English Swords

An article on English swords was published in Chambers's Edinburgh Journal in 1834, shortly before the heyday of the bowie knife. Note that the author describes some tests of a good sword that were later refuted by John Latham of the Wilkinson Sword Company in a lecture titled "The Shape of Sword Blades."
One of the most important pursuits which Mr. Gill, the celebrated mechanist, ever engaged in, was his retrieving the reputation of English swords, which in 1783 had fallen into such deserved ill-repute, that an English officer would not trust his life to the hazard of the probable failure of his English sword-blade, upon any consideration whatever; although, only a century preceding, James II had passed an act expressly prohibiting, under severe penalties, the importation of swords from Germany, or any other nation; a clear proof that at that period the English swords were sufficiently good to be relied on. However, in the year 1783, a petition was presented to the lords of the treasury, by the London sword-sellers, praying leave to import sword-blades from Germany duty free. But as a friend to the manufacturers of England, the Duke of Norfolk, then Earl of Surrey, one of the lords of the board, wrote a letter to a gentleman of Sheffield, Mr. Eyre, to the following purport: “You will please inform those whom it may concern, that a petition has been this day presented (October 1) to the treasury, praying permission to import swords and swordblades from Germany, duty free, on account of the inferior quality of the English blades. I should be very happy that any ingenious manufacturer of Sheffield would supply me with such information, both as to price and quality, as would enable me to remove so disgraceful a reflection on English ingenuity."

The business of sword-making being, however, more immediately within the province of the Birmingham manufacturers, Mr Eyre sent Mr Gill an extract from his lordship's letter, who, in December of that year, presented a memorial to the lords of the treasury, stating that sword-blades could be made by him of as good a quality as those from Germany, or any other nation, and praying that the comparative goodness of those of both countries might be examined into.

It was not till the year 1786, that Mr. Gill obtained the object of his pursuit, though he made repeated and fruitless attempts for that purpose. For, on an order for ten thousand horsemen's swords being issued by the East India Company, which was divided indiscriminately amongst English and German manufacturers, Mr Gill, being still anxious for the comparative proof, presented a petition to the committee of shipping of the East India Company, requesting that all the swords of the different countries and manufacturers might be proved by a test, so as to ascertain the difference of their qualities. This produced an order for that purpose, and a resolution that none but such as on inspection and proof stood that test, should be received. Accordingly, when the swords were sent to the company's warehouse, they underwent an examination by a test or machine, recommended by Matthew Boulton, Esq., of the Soho, for trying the quality or temper of the sword-blades; namely, by forcing the blade into a curved state, and which reduced its length of thirty-six inches to twenty-nine and a half inches only, from the point to the hilt. The result of this trial proved, that Mr Gill had two thousand six hundred and fifty swords received and only four rejected; that of the German swords, fourteen hundred were received, and twenty-eight rejected, being in the proportion of thirteen to one of Mr Gill's; and that of the other English swords, only two thousand seven hundred were received, and one thousand and eighty-four rejected!

It was owing to the parsimony of the London retailers of swords, that the English swards fell in disrepute; the fact was, they employed unskilful workmen, and bought goods of an inferior quality. To corroborate this fact, it may be necessary to relate a case in point:--A London dealer having earned a commission for swords for General Harcourt's regiment of dragoons, prior to its going to North America, in the war of the revolution of that country, was called upon by the general on his return to England, and upbraided by him in the severest language of reproach for having supplied his troops with swords of so base a quality, that they either broke to pieces, or became useless, in the first onset of an engagement, by which many of his brave soldiers were unworthily slaughtered, and his own person exposed to the most imminent danger. In this distressed predicament the contractor applied to Mr Gill, who had never before supplied him with any sword-blades, in consequence of another regiment wanting some at that time, to know at what price he could render swords of such quality as to bear what he, the contractor, called  severe mode of trial, namely, striking the sword with violence upon a large flat stone. But Mr Gill, in answer, told him he thought it by no means so severe as it ought to be, to determine properly the real quality of swords; and that he would engage to serve him with such as should stand a much severer test, at advance of only ninepence for horsemen's, and pence for small swords, more than was given to other makers for those of an inferior quality. Intact, besides subjecting his sword-blades to the test of bending them in the manner above mentioned, he caused them to struck flatways upon a slab of cast iron, and edgeways upon a cylinder of wrought iron, frequently a piece of a gun-barrel, which they often cut into two parts. Nay, so exceedingly tough were they, although made of cast steel, that, after cutting a gun-barrel asunder, he would frequently wind one of them around it in the manner of a riband, without its breaking; and, indeed, the greater part of the blade would recover its original straightness, the part nearest to the point only remaining in a coiled state. The result of this great success was, that he was very frequently applied to for his superior sword-blades, even by German officers who preferred them to those of the their own country.
(From the Technological and Microscopic Repository.)
Stories of swords that could cut a gun barrel in two have persisted for centuries. During World War II, there was purported to be a film of a samurai sword cutting through the barrel of a machine gun. I would have to witness that in order to believe it.