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The American Exalibur: Jim Bowie's lethal legacy.

Devotees of the Arthurian Legend speculate the Singing Sword acquired the name "Excalibur" because the hilt and guard were cast around the blade and the finished product emerged from a mold. Lightweight historians like to force James Bowie into a mold of a different sort. They are amazed about how a boy from humble beginnings could rise by dint of character and application to become an American icon.

In truth, the sons of Rezin Bowie The Elder, born in the closing decade of the 18th century, were solidly ensconced in the frontier aristocracy. While they entertained a frontier frame of mind, they also acquired the business acumen and drawing room manners of the prosperous. Jim and his brothers were well equipped to seize the opportunities of their day.

One such opportunity arose from laws forbidding the importation of slaves. Jim and Rezin partnered up with pirate Jean Lafitte who was abstracting slaves from Caribbean vessels and selling them from his base on Galveston Island. The Bowies, John, Jim and Rezin, would land the slaves in Louisiana and then turn themselves in to local authorities. They would then be allowed to claim half the value the unfortunates drew at public auction. They bought some of the slaves themselves and, since the domestic slave trade was still legal, resold them on the open market. The brothers made $65,000 on that dodge and amassed other fortunes in manufacturing and land speculation. Perhaps the latter enterprise paved the way for James Bowie's emergence as an American celebrity.

Bowie got crosswise with one Norris Wright leading to a violent street encounter. Brother Rezin, wanting James to be properly accoutered, commissioned a neighbor Jesse Clifft, to make a defensive knife. Rezin later filed a statement the knife was made from a file, the blade straight-backed without false edge, 9 1/4" long, 1/4" thick and 1 1/2 wide. The instrument had neither guard nor any features distinguishing it from a Spanish hunting knife or, for that matter, a common butcher knife. The chronicles relate Jim wore it in a silver-mounted sheath.

In September 1827, Wright, his contingent and Bowie became attendants on the opposite sides of a duel situated on a sandbar on the Mississippi River near Natchez. The two principals blazed away at each other in the time-honored fashion and, as was frequently the case, both missed twice. Honor satisfied, they cheerfully quit the field more or less arm in arm. The respective attendants were less sanguine and there erupted what the newspapers dubbed "a sanguinary affair." Wright got a shot into Bowie and several of his companions began sticking him with their sword canes. Observers reported Bowie, though severely injured, drew a "big butcher knife," disemboweled Mr. Wright and chased the sword cane retinue from the sand bar. The sandbar duel made Jim Bowie an overnight celebrity and gentlemen everywhere retired their sword canes in favor of the big knives.

"All the steel in the country it seemed was immediately convetted into Bowie knives," read The Red River Herald of Natchitoches, Louisiana. Everybody wanted a knife like Bowie's and legends do not grow from kitchen cutlery. Rezin had local blacksmiths hammering out knives from every file in sight, but a few months later, the brothers traveled to Philadelphia and showed the knife to Henry Schively requesting the cutler to render the basic pattern in a knife of high quality and suitable embellishment. A number of domestic knife makers produced Bowies much like the Clifft design. Vestigial handguards became part of the package to keep the owner's hand from slipping onto the blade. Daniel Searles of New Orleans was another favorite knifemaker employed by the Bowies to make knives for themselves and eventual presentation to friends and associates.

Even after the emergence of the knives commonly identified as Bowies--the Sheffield types and the design attributed to James Black--Rezin stayed with the original pattern. One famous example is the Searles knife now on display at the Alamo. Rezin presented this knife to Captain Henry Fowler of the United States Mounted Rifles. This occurred between 1836-41 and the knife remained part of Fowler's kit until his death in 1848. I have a copy of this knife from Dixie Gun Works. The blade measurements are right in line with the Rezin Bowie Formula. Made from good quality carbon steel hardened at 57 58 Rockwell C, it takes and maintains a very aggressive edge. I have used it for morning shaves, skinning squirrels and filleting bass.

The Legend Grows

Rezin Bowie was a prolific donator of knives but disavowed any influence on what he termed "the improvements of several cutlers." The original pattern found its way to Texas when Jim and Rezin continued their land speculation. Knife makers in San Antonio stayed busy knocking out "Bowie Knives" for the local populace impressed by Jim's growing reputation as an Indian fighter. Jim married the daughter of the Alcalde of San Antonio, mounted expeditions to search for the lost San Saba mine, eventually became a Colonel in the Ranging companies and an advocate of independence from Mexico.

Excalibur Emerges

There are hints of a conspiracy hatched by President Andrew Jackson including W.B. Travis, Bowie and Sam Houston to win Texas from Mexico and put it on the fast track to statehood. Washington, Arkansas, is situated a few miles from the Texas border and was the final point of debarkation for most Texas emigres. According to legend, the plotters frequently assembled in the tavern owned by Joshua Shaw and his partner, James Black, who maintained a blacksmith shop. The most thoroughly provenanced of the early Bowie knives, the Carrigan and the Tunstall, probably came from James Black's forge. In December of 1830, Jim Bowie handed him a wooden model of a knife he had designed. According to the story, Black produced a knife of the Bowie design--a long blade of 10" or more and 2 1/2" wide with a pronounced clip and false edge along the back of the blade.

At the same time, he produced a similar knife modified with the clip sharpened to make it useful for the back slash element of Spanish saber fencing. When Bowie came around in January 1831, Black claims to have offered him his choice of knives at the agreed price and Bowie selected the Black design. Arkansas culturalist and researcher Russell T. Johnson describes the James Black knife in the following manner and at the same time captures the quintessence of the Bowie Knife: "It must be long enough to use as a sword, sharp enough to use as a razor, wide enough to use as a paddle, and heavy enough to use as a hatchet."

The actual appearance of the Black Bowie remains a mystery though there are knives from the correct period matching the general description attributed to his shop. James Black took pains to imbue his blades with magical qualities. We don't know if he actually said it was forged from a piece of a star (meteor), but this was the claim in the Alan Ladd movie, Iron Mistress. He hid his forging and tempering operations behind a leather curtain saying he had not worked out the process himself, but received it in a revelation of supernatural character. His claim the process involved 10 steps led a later governor of Arkansas to say Black must have rediscovered the Damascus process. Much the same rumors occur in versions of the Excalibur legend. Since Black forgot the process in his dotage, it would not be out of line to wonder if it ever existed in the first place.

Gruesome Showcase

The events that followed immediately upon Bowie's acquisition of the knife seem tailor-made to demonstrate its vaunted qualities. According to the legend, as Bowie crossed into Texas three hired assassins accosted him. In Bowie's skilled hands Black's creation yielded one split skull, one "near decapitation," and one disembowelment. Thus did Bowie consummate and consecrate this American Excalibur in its role as a sword, hatchet and instrument of razor-like sharpness. We do not know if he used it in place of a boat oar or not. A few years later though, a contingent of Texas Rangers did use their Bowies as spades. They dug through an adobe wall to reach and attack a group of Mexican soldiers. When the defenders of the Alamo assembled in the spring of 1836, even the weapons-savvy David Crockett was impressed by Bowie's knife.

Historians generally concede Bowie's knife disappeared at the siege of the Alamo. One would expect the number of pretenders to the title would rival the splinters of the True Cross, which eventually added up to enough lumber to encompass a small forest. Only a few such knives entered the popular mythos, though the stories surrounding them are both numerous and confusing. They successfully obscure the form of the actual Bowie Knife and the genesis of the design that became popular and prolific over the next century and a half.

There are a number of broad-bladed knives with radically sharpened false edges dating to the 1830s. Some bear the initials "JB" possibly referring to James Black or Jim Bowie. Blades vary in length from 8 1/2," to 14". Some modern knifemakers base their Bowie designs on these. Others believe Bowie carried the sandbar knife for the rest of his career. A goodly number of equally sapient researchers believe the designs of Sheffield and American makers with their clip points, false edges and full guards are the true icons of Bowie Kniffery. One Texas historian when asked to describe or define exactly what a Bowie knife is replied, "What isn't?" The single consistency emerging is telling somebody his Bowie Knife "ain't real" has been an excellent way to start a fight for the last 160-odd years.

If the long-term survival and proliferation of the Bowie Knife was not already assured by the late 1830s, it became a certainty when state legislatures began to inveigh against its existence. An Arkansas congressman punctuated a session of the assembly by eviscerating one of his honorable colleagues. Southern lawmakers decided to end the Reign of the Bowie Knife with Tennessee passing laws forbidding its manufacture and sale. Alabama declared all killings involving Bowie Knives or Arkansas Toothpicks were ipso facto murder.

The predictable, immediate and long-lasting effect of all such legislation was a wild upsurge in the popularity of the object proscribed. In 1871, Texas declared it would be unlawful to carry on or about one's person, saddle, saddlebags or portfolio any pistol, dirk, dagger, poniard, sword, sword cane, Bowie knife, metal knuckle, or club. The law would not be enforced in those counties known to be subject to the incursion of hostile Indians. (Just about all of the Indians were hostile having been screwed over by the same idiotic legislative bodies.)

The American affinity for Bowie knives was the salvation of the Sheffield knife industry from the late 1820s until late in the century. British and continental adventurers were avid users also, but the Sheffield product made up the bulk of Bowie knives circulating in the American West. Early blades bore mottoes extolling the virtues of Zack Taylor and no doubt sided the Texas Rangers in Matamoros and Mexico City. Some wore Latin inscriptions extolling the wearer to "Draw me not without cause; sheath me not without honor." Celebrating the prevailing mayhem in the '49 gold fields was the "California Knife" so inscribed and bearing an engraving of the California Bear.

By the time of the civil war, Confederates were engraving "Death to Abolitionists" on their domestic Bowies but you could also get them out of Sheffield where they awaited shipment on the same shelf as those marked "Death to Rebels." There were "S-guard Bowies" and cutlass-like "D-guard" Bowies. There was an experimental primitive-type Bowie bayonet for the Krag Jorgensen service rifle. Blades ranged in length from 6" to infinity. The Bowie profile persists in military utility/fighting knives and is a mainstay among hunting and fighting knife designs.

The Practical Bowie

Those who use their Bowies for routine chores quickly dismiss the nattering about large knives being "impractical." My modest array of using Bowies, kept surgically sharp, prove themselves equal to the most delicate of tasks while dealing with brush and bone in a businesslike manner. The Ontario Marine Raider Bowie, in the pattern of the Iron Mistress and the Primitives, serves very well as a hatchet and machete but is deft enough to remove a squirrel skin intact. My decades old Buck Frontiersman has skinned and butchered deer and wild hogs, served as a snake stick and once helped me dig my Ford Explorer out of an erosion ditch.

The centerpiece of my Bowie collection is a stag-handled wonder from the Katz Alamo Bowie line. Marketed toward the Cowboy Action Shooters, the knife has found equal favor with well-heeled hands who appreciate the excellent materials and workmanship. No mere belt-hanger ornament, the 10" blade of 440C+ steel, at 58-59 Rockwell C takes and holds a razor-like edge that divides flesh like Moses parting the Red Sea. It has that synergy born of superior material, handling dynamic and form, defining the essential Bowie Knife better than all the argument and analysis that have gone before.

I've tried to give you an overview of what the Bowie knife fuss is all about. I've mentioned just some of the many people currently making Bowies. All of them would fill a book itself. More importantly is seeing the many shapes called Bowie, so you can think of new ways to fill the gaps in your collection. It's a hobby in itself.



(800) 326-2825


P.O. BOX 162, PUTNEY, GA 31782

(229) 436-4182


P.O. BOX 130, UNION CITY, TN 38282

(731) 885-0561, WWW.DIXIEGUN.COM


P.O. BOX 730, CHANDLER, AZ 85244

(480) 786-9334


P.O. BOX 17247, ANAHEIM, CA 92817

(714) 777-7881



(800) 222-5233




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Author:Cumpston, Mike
Publication:Guns Magazine
Date:Apr 1, 2007
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