Sunday, February 16, 2020

The Bowie Knife

This Large Beautiful Bowie Knife Is Like The One Recently Presented To Me
By The John Coffee Hays Club
While hero of the Alamo Jim Bowie is attributed with designing and making the first Bowie knife, it was actually his brother Rezin Bowie who made the first Bowie knife while their family was living in Avoyelles Parish, Louisiana.

Legend says it was made for close combat fighting, but in reality Rezin Bowie designed it as a hunting knife. He gave it to his brother Jim for protection after his brother had been shot in a fight. A fight that made him a legend. Jim Bowie wore it in a silver-mounted black-leather sheath.

Rezin Bowie asked close friend and blacksmith Jesse Clifft to forge the knife according to Rezin Bowie's design. James Black was an American knifemaker who is said to later make improvements to Bowie knife design. Black did not invent or create the first Bowie knife. As for Rezin and Clifft, their families became close when they lived in Bayou Boeuf.

The Bowie knife gained widespread notoriety after the Sandbar Fight which took place on September 19th, 1827. The Sandbar Fight started out as a duel that took place near Natchez on a large sandbar in the Mississippi River, near what is today Vidalia, Louisiana. Because of it's location, the Sandbar Fight also became known as the Vidalia Sandbar Fight.

What started out as a simple duel turned ugly and deadly when witnesses decided to take up the fight after the duel ended in a draw. Things got so bad that two men, General Samuel Cuny and Major Norris Wright were both killed that day. It's true. What started out as a feud between two Alexandria, Louisiana, families over competing financial interests, vote-fixing and ballot box stuffing in a local sheriff's election, defaulted bank loans, and the supposed impunity of a woman's honor all contributed to the duel -- and subsequent battle which included a fist fight that escalated into gunplay and knifings.

The Sandbar Fight was not the first duel between those rival families. Two previous duels ended without resolution. In those cases, both of them ended with shouting matches between Seconds. Some say those duels were actually called off because one or the other combatant failed to show-up for the fight.

The Sandbar Fight duel between Samuel L. Wells III and Dr. Thomas H. Maddox was held on a sandy shoal in the middle of the Mississippi River because anti-dueling laws made it so that the combatants needed to find somewhere outside the jurisdiction of local law officials. On that Wednesday, at noon, Wells and Maddox arrived with Seconds and a large number of friends.

Jim Bowie supported Wells. Counting Bowie, it's said that 17 men were there. The duel was conducted by formal rules of the time including with a lengthy delay between exchanges of fire. The non-combatants present kept a safe distance from the duel for the duration of the fight.

Dueling was a common practice in the South up until the end of the Civil War. Dueling was a way to settle disputes outside of the courts. What might surprise folks is that duels weren't simply fought over a matter of honor. In fact, it was more the case that duels were fought to settle disputes over land deals, unpaid debts, and money. Of course duels over women is something that's been around since time and memorial. There is no telling how many fights have been over women.

As duels go, this was uneventful. Wells and Maddox each fired two shots. As was the case in many duels, neither man was injured. They then resolved the formal duel with a handshake. Yes, all as was the custom of the time. It was after the duel that things got ugly.

The outcome didn't set well with their friends who wanted blood. So, at the conclusion of the duel, shots were fired from one of the Seconds. One of the rounds fired by a friend of Jim Bowie actually hit Bowie in the hip and knocked him to the ground. It's believed that he was shot by mistake. The intended target moved and Bowie was in the path of the bullet.

Rising to his feet, it was then that an attacker drew a pistol and shot at Bowie -- but missed. That attacker then drew his sword cane and quickly thrust his blade into Bowie's chest. It's believed that Bowie was saved when the thin blade of the cane sword deflected off his sternum. It was at this point that Jim Bowie reached out and was able to grab his attacker -- and pull him into his Bowie knife. It's true. Pulling himself to his feet, Bowie raised himself, grabbed his attacker -- and sank his big knife into his assailant's heart, killing him instantly.

While he killed that attacker, that didn't stop other assailants from shooting and stabbing Bowie. Jim Bowie answered that attack by using his Bowie knife to cut off part of one attacker's forearm. In those 90-seconds, two men were killed and two men were wounded.

One doctor reportedly said of Jim Bowie, "How he lived is a mystery, but live he did." In reality, all five of the doctors present for the duel feverishly worked to treat Bowie's wounds. Some say it was a miracle that he lived.

Newspapers ran the story of what took place, and while their facts were wrong or fabrication for sensationalism purposes, the battle became known as the "Sandbar Fight". As for Jim Bowie, he survived his multiple gunshot wounds and stabbing. All which added to his status as a formidable opponent. His being seen as a formidable opponent answers why he was targeted that day. Bowie was the focus of their attacks because, as one newspaper reported, "they considered him the most dangerous man among their opposition."

As for Bowie's knife, it became instantly legendary. In fact, the Sandbar Fight made Jim Bowie and his knife a household name throughout the country. His legend became one of a rugged American frontiersman. Yes indeed, he was a true American icon.

Because of the Sandbar Fight, it's said sword makers, blacksmiths, craftsmen, and other blade manufacturers started making their own versions of what became known as the "Bowie knife." Jim Bowie himself was said to have marveled at the "Bowie knife" advertisements from American and English makers. And frankly, it was no wonder since his knife was seen as an excellent defense weapon.

We have to keep in mind that those were the days when pistols were known to frequently misfire. In contrast, the Bowie knife was seen as a reliable and effective backup weapon. They became so popular that The Red River Herald of Natchitoches, Louisiana, reported, "All the steel in the country it seemed was immediately converted into Bowie knives."

As for foreigners producing Bowie knives and flooding the market with spin-off versions that they thought a Bowie knife would look like, it's said that only one in ten Bowies sold commercially was American made by the start of the Civil War. And don't make the mistake of thinking that English Bowie knife makers didn't recognize their target buyers. English cutlers are said to have used all sorts of marketing tricks to get Americans to buy their Bowie knives. For example, English makers would use clever motifs and blade etchings to appeal to patriotic spirit of Americans.

Their etchings included such labels as "American Bowie Knife," "Texas Ranger Knife," "Arkansas Toothpick," "Patriot's Self Defender," "Death to Abolition," "Death to Traitors," and "Americans Never Surrender." During this time, there were also schools teaching knife fighting specifically geared to using a Bowie knife. Of course, while this was taking place, I find it ironic that the same hysteria about guns today was actually acted out in regards to Bowie knives. Yes, believe it or not, by the early 1840's there were people in some places calling for bans on Bowie knives.

By the Mexican War in 1846, the Bowie knife was a popular weapon with Texas Rangers. Legendary Texas Ranger Captain John Coffee Hayes outfitted his men with Bowie knives and Colt Dragoon pistols. And during the Civil War, both Union and Confederate troops were armed with Bowie knives. While the Bowie was still seen as a great defensive weapon after the Civil War, as a matter of use, the Bowie knife started to go out of favor by the late-1870s. It was about then that Bowie knives were being used more as a hunting knife than a defensive weapon. Part of the reason for that had to do with the reliability of revolvers by that time.

As for Jim Bowie, after the Sandbar Fight, he moved to Texas and took his famous knife with him. In Texas, he married into wealth and even searched for a lost silver mine. Sadly, he lost his family to cholera. He then became a leader in the Texas Revolution of 1835 to 1836.

Jim Bowie is a true American legend. He's a true American hero who fought for Texas Independence and died fighting the Mexican army at the Battle of the Alamo. Jim Bowie was a legend in his own time for all the right reasons. And while he was known as an early American frontiersman and a legendary knife fighter, he was actually in only one knife fight. That was the Sandbar Fight.
Believed Closer To The Original Bowie Knife Design

When one thinks of a Bowie knife, most think of a large blade with a concave arch (clip point) cut into the end of the blade, and a cross-guard to protect the hand. While that may be the case today, it's said that early examples of Bowies were not made that way. Many early Bowie versions were made with thick heavy butcher-knife type of blades with a straight back and no clip point or hand guard. Their blades varied in length from 8½ to 12½ inches and were only sharpened on the true edge. Thankfully those makers did hold to one aspect about the Bowie knife -- it was never designed for throwing.

The design of the Bowie knife evolved over the years. By the middle of the 20th century, it's design took on that of a large sheath knife with a "concave clip point, sharp false edge cut from both sides, and a cross-guard to protect the user's hands".
USMC Ka-Bar Fighting Knife

It's said that the Bowie knife is the basis for most modern fighting knives. The original Bowie knife was considered extremely simple, durable, and long-lasting, which are excellent qualities to have in an all-purpose fighting blade.

Here's something else, back in the early 1970s when I was a young Marine, as with all Marines, I attended knife fighting close combat classes. It was back then that I learned that our issue USMC Ka-Bar fighting knife's design was based on the Bowie knife design. But more than that, I found out that our knife fighting classes were a continuation of the knife fighting slash and stab techniques started back in the 1840s when U.S. Marines were outfitted with Bowie knives as part of their war-fighting gear.

Tom Correa 




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