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The Bowie Knife: An American Legend

Classic edged knives

In America, there are knives, and then there’s the Bowie knife. Whether written with a capital “B” to acknowledge James “Jim” Bowie, who popularized it, or in the more common lower-case form as a term, the Bowie knife has achieved legendary status as a part of Americana.

Since its creation, circa 1826, the Bowie knife has been manufactured in a variety of styles and sizes, some as long as 30 inches, all easily identified by the distinctive clip point double-edged tip, a feature that actually was not in the original Bowie knife design.

“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.”

– Knife historian Harold L. Peterson

The original Bowie knife, designed by Resin Bowie and forged by blacksmith Jesse Clifft, (or according to a long article in the Louisiana Historical Quarterly, a blacksmith named Snowden) had a butcher knife profile with a blade 9 1/2 inches long, a quarter-inch thick, and 1 1/2 inches wide.

The Bowie knife achieved its legendary status thanks to a duel: the Vidalia Sand Bar Fight, fought on the neutral territory of a Mississippi River sand bar between Vidalia, Louisiana, and Natchez, Mississippi, on Sept. 19, 1827.

Jim Bowie

James “Jim” Bowie is responsible for popularizing the Bowie knife, thanks to a bloody duel. Texas State Preservation Board painting

Some background is in order: In newly settled regions of the United States in the 1820s, disputes were as much decided by individual confrontation as by the courts. The Vidalia Sand Bar duel was a consequence of a tug of war between two political factions. Adding fuel to the fire was resentment over local bank foreclosures and loan restrictions. As it turned out, James Bowie, a land speculator and slave trader living in Rapides Parish, Louisiana, wound up on the losing side in both instances. Other members in the dueling parties had similar experiences. Thus, when duelists Samuel Levi Wells III and Dr. Thomas Harris Maddox squared off on the Mississippi River sand bar on Sept. 19, a number of simmering unresolved ancillary conflicts existed among the seconds, awaiting an excuse for violent closure.

Everyone expected Bowie to die, but somehow he survived. Detailed stories of the fight quickly became a national sensation that spread across the ocean. Demand in America for knives based on Bowie’s design skyrocketed.

The Wells – Maddox duel was the result of Maddox’s inability to keep his mouth shut. During an examination, one of Maddox’s female patients indiscreetly confided some gossip involving Wells. Maddox, a known gossip, repeated the embarrassing information. Learning of the source, Wells challenged Maddox to a duel. The principles, their seconds, and doctors agreed to meet on a Mississippi River sand bar and settle matters.

Krag Bowie Bayonet

The fame and influence of the Bowie knife ranged far and wide, affecting even the usually conservative U.S. military. Shown here is a Bowie pattern bayonet for a U.S. Army Krag-Jorgenson rifle, marked US, and on the reverse 1900.
Photo by Hmaag via Wikimedia Commons

James Bowie was one of Wells’ seconds. The generally accepted version of the story has it that Maddox and Wells, single-shot smooth-bore pistols in each hand, squared off. Both missed with their first shot, and with their second. Honor satisfied, the two relieved duelists shook hands and made peace.

U.S. Air Force Bowie Knife

The U.S. Air Force designed a Bowie knife with sawteeth for use as a survival knife. The sawteeth were designed to help pilots cut through plexiglass canopies as well as tree limbs. These knives were also assigned to U.S. Army helicopter crews during the Vietnam War for the same purpose. U.S. Air Force photo

That’s when the conflicts between the seconds erupted. Gen. Samuel Cuny, a Wells supporter, decided to settle scores with Maddox supporter Col. Robert Crain. Crain and Cuny drew their sidearms and fired. Crain’s first shot missed Cuny and struck Bowie in the hip, knocking him to the ground. An exchange of second shots resulted in Cuny fatally wounded and Crain slightly wounded. Bowie rose to his feet, drew his knife, and charged Crain. Crain defended himself by crashing his pistol onto Bowie’s head, breaking the pistol and knocking Bowie to the ground. Maddox supporter Norris Wright rushed up and fired his pistol at Bowie, missing. He then drew his sword cane and stabbed Bowie in the chest, its tip glancing off Bowie’s sternum and burying itself in his lung. As Wright tried to yank the blade free, Bowie gutted Wright with his knife, killing him instantly. With part of the sword cane still protruding from his chest, Bowie staggered to his feet. He was stabbed by one attacker and shot at by two others, with one bullet hitting him in the arm. Bowie managed to slice off part of one assailant’s forearm with his knife. So ended a fight that lasted about 10 minutes, leaving two men dead and four wounded, all of which followed a duel in which the principals were totally unharmed.

Everyone expected Bowie to die, but somehow he survived. Detailed stories of the fight quickly became a national sensation that spread across the ocean. Demand in America for knives based on Bowie’s design skyrocketed. Bowie repeatedly redesigned the knife, ultimately creating the style known today. He would later die in the Battle of the Alamo in 1836, a dramatic death that only added to the legend of the knife he made famous.

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DWIGHT JON ZIMMERMAN is a bestselling and award-winning author, radio host, and president of the...