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This blog contains additional information about the bowie knife, as well as the fighting knives of other nations.

Monday, August 23, 2021

Chauncey Thomas on the Bowie Knife

 I recently came across an article in my files titled "The .45," by Chauncey Thomas, who wrote frequently for Outdoor Life magazine. This particular article was published in the September 15, 1922, issue of Arms and the Man. Though writing mostly about the Colt Single-Action Army revolver, Thomas makes some observations about the Bowie knife, and even if many of them are flat-out untrue, I found his thoughts on how the bowie would be used in a fight to be of interest. 

The bowie knife was just one kind of a knife, just one shape and size. It had the clip point commonly seen today in hunting knives, but the curve on the top of the blade was sharpened to an edge, thus mak­ing it double edged part way back from the point. The blade was 9 inches long, the handle 6 inches, total length was thus 15 inches. The bowie varied in only one item—weight. It was never less than two pounds, and often even three pounds in weight. The grip had a swell—usually of buckhorn or wood or horn—on the lefthand side of the handle as one looked down on the back of the knife. 

The knife was al­ways used with the longer edge, toward the user, thus this swell in the grip fitted into the hollow of the right hand. The hilt was always very heavy, at least 3 inches or more from point to point, and always pointed top and bottom. The butt or end of the handle was also of heavy metal, and the three iron points thus projected from the outlines of the hand, so that the handle or the hilt could be used somewhat like a pair of brass knucks. Thus with a bowie knife the hand-to-hand fighter could strike downward with the end of the handle on the top or against the side of a foe's head, and as the edge was always held inward and the knife used with a long side sweep, the knifer could thus stick it into his foe's right side, or into his back, if in a clinch, or if a bit farther away, then could dis­embowel him with one sweep. If he missed his stroke, he could backblow with the end of the handle, as just mentioned, on his foe's skull. Or a back stroke of the shorter incurved edge on the top of the blade could be raked like a claw across the, foe's belly, face or throat. The genuine bowie combined the fine points of the dagger and the razor. 

It is said to have been invented by a negro slave of Col. Bowie, who saw it accidentally, and at once, appreciating its fine points, had a better one made, with which, traditions say, he promptly disemboweled a man with one stroke. The legend goes on to say that that one stroke made such a terrible wound that the knife became immediately popular, and thence its fame spread. The .45 put the bowie out of business. 

The bowie was used mostly in the South, later in Texas, the Southwest, and somewhat in the Rockies and on the Plains in the good old days before the cowboy, but it flourished most on the old Mississippi river steamboats, particularly among the gam­blers. In the confined spaces of a paddler's cabin there was no room for the long cap and ball revolver; besides the weather was too hot and the climate too damp to make a revolver a thing of comfort or reliance. It would not always go off, and it was too easy to grab in a closed-in free-for-all over marked cards. Hence the river gam­bler's favorites, the tiny little muzzle-load­ing single-shot derringers, weighing but a few ounces and about .50 caliber, loaded even to the muzzle of its 2-inch or even shorter barrel, with a lead slung driven in tight with a hammer, and the more reliable and far deadlier bowie knife. 

Outdoor, in the rain and saddle, the cap and ball guns were none too reliable, and slow to reload. So of the more or less free fighters on both sides, usually with mixed uniforms, in the Civil War on the Western edge of civilization, especially in Kansas and Missouri, carried no rifles or sabers at all. They depended entirely on their revolvers, and often carried from four up to a dozen of them, swung from the belt and from saddle horn. These revolvers could be reloaded, too, almost as rapidly as we can reload today on horseback by simply changing a fired for a loaded cyl­inder, and often a supply of these extra cylinders, all loaded, were carried handy. And with them always a bowie knife, that because of its point could pierce like a dagger, because of its long, thin edge could slice like a razor, and because of its length and weight would chop like a hatchet. When the guns were wet or empty it was his last load and hope.


Then came the cartridge revolver, and it put the cap and ball on the nail just as quickly and forever as the cartridge  rifles hung the muzzle-loading rifles on the pegs. The .45 also made the bowie not only needless, but nearly worthless, so that pleasant instrument of quick extermination also vanished from Western clothes, so much so that today the bowie knife is almost unknown, except to a few old timers who, like myself, have seen long ago, before the rails and the cowboys came, the wild buf­falo and the free feather heads.