April 17, 2023
By Joe Engesser
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“In the history of American arms, three weapons stand out above all the rest: the Kentucky rifle, the Colt’s revolver, and the Bowie knife,” wrote noted historian Harold L. Peterson in ‘American Knives: The First History and Collector’s Guide.’ Peterson went on to assert that, “Each was a superb weapon, but more than that, each became so much a part of the American scene that it transcended its role in history and became a part of the great American legend. Of none is this truer than the Bowie knife.”
Developed on the banks of Bayou Boeuf, Louisiana in 1826, the Bowie knife has been offered in numerous shapes and styles, including the distinctive clip point tip that came to define some of the most popular antique Bowie knife variations. To the American hunter, settler, and gambler of the mid-19th century, the Bowie knife offered a versatile weapon for survival and close-quarters fighting.
As Harold Peterson rightly observed, the Bowie knife earned a revered place in American folklore and carries a larger-than-life origin story befitting one of the most famous frontiersmen of the era.
Jim Bowie has his name tied to two American legends – the Alamo and the Bowie knife. The story behind the original Bowie knife has been wrapped in myth and speculation. Jim Bowie's brother, Rezin Bowie, always maintained that “The first Bowie knife was made by myself in the Parish of Avoyelles.”
Regardless of its origin, the original Bowie knife captured national attention after Jim Bowie wielded the blade during the Vidalia Sandbar Fight on Sept. 19, 1827. The deadly clash on the Mississippi broke out after a duel between two wealthy gentlemen from Alexandria, Louisiana. The formal duel was resolved amiably, but lingering rivalries between the two men’s friends and supporters resulted in a bloody brawl. Jim Bowie was shot in the arm and stabbed by a sword cane, yet still managed to gut one opponent and severely wound another with his hunting knife.
The Sandbar Fight was widely reported in local papers and quickly went national. Jim Bowie and his knife skyrocketed to fame, and blacksmiths around the country scrambled to meet the demand for blades pattered on the design Bowie carried. The Bowie knife became an international sensation, and after Jim Bowie fell at the Battle of the Alamo in 1836, the blade that bore his name became truly immortalized.
Shortly after Jim Bowie’s death in 1836, the Red River Herald of Natchitoches, Louisiana wrote, “All the steel in the country, it seemed was immediately converted into Bowie knives.”
An exceptional Woodhead & Hartley half horse, half alligator American Bowie knife with pearl grips and scabbard. The pistols in the image are a pair of silver-mounted, gold-banded Henry Derringer pocket pistols.
The first American Bowie knives were plain, rugged blades that reached up to two inches in width and nine to 13 inches in length. Their grips were fashioned of bone, horn, or hardwood. Even the concept of a simple crossguard to protect the user’s hand was far from standard initially.
Henry Schively, a famed Philadelphia surgical instruments maker, crafted some of the earliest Bowie knife examples, possibly using the guidance of Jim Bowie himself. Captain Daniel Searles, a gunsmith and cutler in Baton Rouge, became one of the more prominent Bowie knife makers in the 1830s and produced several knives for Rezin Bowie.
The original Bowie knife looked more like a heavy butcher knife than the iconic profile we know today. The Bowie knife clip point, or the concave arch cut into the back of the blade, emerged during the 1830s and was often sharpened to aid in combat. Soldier and future Texas Ranger Jesse Robinson wielded a 14 inch long, clip pointed Bowie knife throughout the Texas Revolution. During the Siege of Béxar 1835, the Texians used their Bowie knives as both barricade-breaking tools and close-quarters weapons.
With revolvers in their infancy and the pistols and derringers of the day slow to load and often unreliable, the Bowie knife became the nation’s backup weapon of choice, usurping the tomahawks of the East and sword canes of the South. The newfound popularity of the Bowie knife also brought public scrutiny.
In an attempt to curtail dueling and knife violence across the Cotton Belt, several Dixie states passed laws restricting citizens from carrying Bowie knives. Most famous was the Tennessee legislature’s “Act to Suppress the Sale and Use of Bowie Knives and Arkansas Toothpicks in this State” in early 1838 that felonized the wearing of any weapon “that shall in form, shape or size resemble a Bowie knife.”
These legal efforts went largely ignored, and the popularity of the Bowie knife only grew throughout the late Antebellum period as America pushed westward.
In the 1830s, the popularity of the Bowie knife swept the country, like this rare example of a percussion cutlass pistol that was manufactured by Henry Morrill, Silas Mosman, and Charles Blair of Amherst, Massachusetts, c. 1837. This unique weapon combines a box-lock percussion pistol with a Bowie type knife blade.
Due to their experience crafting custom surgical and dental instruments, expert cutlers were commissioned to create the finest American Bowie knife variants. Prominent names included Henry Schively, John D. Chevalier, and Thomas Lamb in the North and Daniel Searles, Rees Fitzpatrick, and Samuel Bell in the South. Across the pond, British blade makers quickly took note of the Bowie knife frenzy and started producing their own models for export.
The South Yorkshire city of Sheffield had long been the heart of Great Britain’s steel industry. As a leading provider of American cutlery since the Colonial era, Scheffield was well-positioned to meet the insatiable demand for the Bowie knife as well. British blade makers like Henry C. Booth & Co., the George Wostenholm firm, R. Bunting & Son, and Unwin & Rodgers quickly solidified a substantial share of the market in the United States. Modern historians and Bowie knife collectors estimate that English makers manufactured upwards of 80% of all Bowie knives created during the weapon’s heyday in the mid-19th century.
British imported Bowie knives covered every style imaginable, ranging from utilitarian to richly decorated. For the higher-end market, handles and grips were fashioned of ivory, pearl, tortoiseshell, and German silver. Engraved pommels featured lavish geometric designs. In addition to the classic large-bladed, clip point Bowie knife style, English makers offered spear point Bowie knives and dagger-shaped slant point Bowie knife variants.
Some of the English Bowie knives available in RIAC’s May auction, including an Unwin & Rodgers Sheffield spearpoint Bowie knife with sheath (left).
To appeal to their American market, British Bowie knives were often stamped or etched with motifs based on region and utility, such as “A Sure Defender,” “The Hunter's Companion,” “Rio Grande Camp Knife,” “Texas Ranger Knife,” and “Great Far West.” More sensational slogans were featured as well, like “Americans Never Surrender,” “I’m A Real Ripper,” and “I Can Dig Gold From Quartz.”
A Henry C. Booth & Co. Sheffield "A Sure Defender" etched blade Bowie knife (top), a Thomas Short Jr. "FOR Australia" marked Bowie knife (middle), and a G. Wostenholm & Son I-XL "The Hunters Companion" Bowie knife (bottom).
After his three-year stay in California during the height of the gold rush, author Hinton R. Helper wrote, “I have seen purer liquors, better segars [sic], finer tobacco, truer guns and pistols, larger dirk and Bowie knives, and prettier courtesans here in San Francisco than in any other place I have ever visited, and it is my un-biased opinion that California can and does furnish the best bad things that are obtainable in America.”
An attractive and rare Tillotson Sheffield patriotic "Gold Hunters Knife" etched Bowie knife inscribed to John Teague, a California miner, with pearl grips and sheath. Available this August.
Cutlers found a lucrative trade supplying tools and weapons to the thousands of gold seekers who flocked to California during the 1850s, and the Bowie knife proved well-suited for the lawless mining camps and untamed wilderness the typical prospector was forced to navigate. Australia’s mid-19th century gold boom attracted a similar surge of new migration and became another profitable market for British Bowie knife makers looking to expand their reach.
This unique and attractive Bowie knife was manufactured by Thomas Short Jr. of Sheffield, England around the mid-late 19th century and features the slogan “FOR Australia” in a banner, indicating that this knife may have been made to take advantage of the booming knife markets created by one of Australia's many gold rushes.
The Bowie knife saw action on both sides of the American Civil War, especially in the early days of the conflict. After President Lincoln’s blockade slowed Southern arms imports to a trickle in 1861, Confederate manufacturers were tasked with creating guns, swords, pikes, and Bowie knives to fill the growing arms shortage. In 1862, for example, Georgia Governor Joseph E. Brown spearheaded a campaign to purchase nearly 5,000 Bowie knives from fourteen local makers. One popular variant of Confederate Bowie knife had a large, wide blade with a D-guard hilt.
Reliable metallic cartridge revolvers like the Colt Single Action Army and Smith & Wesson Model 3 became widely available in the 1870s. While knives were still a necessity on the American frontier, the most popular Bowie knife variations became smaller and more suited to skinning game and survival tasks than close-range combat.
In a 1920 interview with Stuart Lake, legendary lawman Wyatt Earp noted how the perception of the Bowie knife’s role had shifted over the years. “Bowie knives were worn largely for utility sake in a belt sheath back of the hip; when I came on the scene (in the early 1870s), their popularity for purpose of offense was on the wane, although I have seen old timers who carried them slung about their necks and who preferred them above all other weapons in the settlement of purely personal quarrels.”
This early production Colt SAA revolver was manufactured in 1875 and includes a Shelton-Payne Arms Co. of El Paso, Texas leather holster rig and a bowie knife with a leather sheath. The clip point blade measures 11 inches long and features an etched U.S. patriotic motif with “E PLURIBUS UNUM” in a banner, brass guard, and stag handle.
Though the popularity of the Bowie knife had diminished along with the American frontier, its influence continued into the 20th century. The Bowie knife’s inspiration is seen in bayonet designs like the 2,000 Springfield Armory produced for field trials in 1900. The British employed a variety of trench knives in WW1, including blades styled after the classic clip point Bowie knife shape, though with brass knuckles added onto the hilt.
In the early years of WW2, some U.S. Marines carried privately purchased Bowie knives suited to the dense jungles of the Pacific. The later issued KA-BAR and U.S. Air Force Survival knives took inspiration from the Bowie, though in a much thinner and lighter design. This influence carried into the SOG knife and countless modern tactical knives, including the Rambo-inspired blades of the 1980s and today's popular line of Becker Combat Bowies.
From the Alamo to Afghanistan, the Bowie knife has served as an essential military and survival blade. With a legend only equaled by its immense versatility, the Bowie knife ranks high in the pantheon of iconic American arms and has become one of the most desirable edged weapons in the collecting pursuit.
A display case with paraphernalia, a Bower pocket knife, and two Randall Bowie knives: A Randall Model 12 Smithsonian Bowie knife with an 11 inch blade and a Randall Model 13 Arkansas Toothpick with a 12 inch blade.
The Bowie knife’s list of adopters reads like a who's who of American history, from frontier icons like Wild Bill Hickok and Buffalo Bill to President Theodore Roosevelt. While buying a reproduction Bowie knife can quench some of the desire to own a piece of frontier legacy, there’s nothing like adding an antique Bowie knife to your arms collection, and some of the finest examples are found for sale in Rock Island Auction Company’s May 2023 Premier Auction.
The Bowie knife was an essential for the experienced 19th century frontiersmen, and the famous knife was accompanied by an array of iconic firearms as America pushed westward. Subscribe to the Rock Island Auction newsletter for new gun blogs and gun videos featuring popular Old West guns like the Sharps rifle, the Spencer carbine, the Marlin Model 1881, the double barrel hammer shotgun, and the Yellowboy rifle, as well as the two most iconic Wild West firearms of all time, the Winchester 1873 and the Colt SAA.
Anyone thinking about dipping their toe into the world of firearms collecting should visit one of Rock Island Auction Company’s Sporting & Collector
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