The Bowie Knife: Unsheathing an American Legend (Book Review)

6/12/2006 • Book Reviews

Reviewed by Max B. Brown
By Norm Flayderman
Andrew Mowbray Inc., Lincoln, Neb., 2004

The Bowie knife (or bowie knife) has been on the cutting edge of many articles about the frontier West, from Jim Bowie’s demise at the Alamo in 1836 to William "Buffalo Bill" Cody’s scalping of the Cheyenne warrior Yellow Hair after an alleged duel on July 17, 1876. While the term "Bowie knife" causes most people to visualize a large, nasty fighting knife, it’s not that easy to get a handle on which frontier cutlery items were Bowies and which were not. Norm Flayderman, author of the definitive Guide to Antique American Firearms, has now produced a massive (512 pages), beautifully illustrated book on a weapon that has a unique place in American history and folklore. But be forewarned that even Flayderman admits that defining Bowie knife to everyone’s satisfaction many not be achievable. What is achievable, as Flayderman demonstrates here, is producing a book as large, as sharp and as awe-inspiring as one of those legendary knives.

The term Bowie knife appeared on the scene because of an incident on a Mississippi River sandbar near Natchez, Miss., on September 19, 1827, when future Alamo participant James Bowie plunged his hunting knife into an enemy. "The actual deed for which the knife achieved lasting fame took less than two minutes, yet it created an enduring image that ultimately caused a man’s name and a weapon to become a common phrase in the English language, a feat unique to American heroes," writes Flayderman. Still, he points out that in the 1830s and into the early ’40s, the kind of knife wielded by Jim Bowie on the sandbar was most often called a "butcher knife." Still, by 1835, several makers and dealers were advertising Bowie knives for sale, and many frontiersmen carried them either as a primary weapon or in reserve, since the firearms of the first half of the 19th century were a one-shot deal and often misfired. The Bowie knife, as historian James S. Hutchins writes in the foreword, "has attained iconic status, becoming part of the very fabric of the nation’s westward movement."

Flayderman provides numerous descriptions and definitions of the Bowie knife (actually a family of knives that all bear certain similar characteristics), examines the history of the knife and puts it into the context of its times. It’s not an easy task. Even the spelling of Bowie knife is disputed. The lowercase "b" used by Wild West Magazine and many other publications is correct, says Flayderman, but he has chosen to go with the capital "B," since "it seems to add to the romance of the knives themselves, and it was felt demeaning to do otherwise." So, without further ado, let me just say that Western historians and arms collectors will find this fully loaded book unbeatable, and, unless some good-intentioned proofreader changes it before publication, I’m going with the big B. Long live the Bowie!

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