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Either way, St. Louis gun dealers appreciated George Elgin’s weapon.

Except for the first multi-barreled pepperbox pistols of the late 1830s, and before Sam Colt began marketing his five- and six-shot percussion revolvers in 1836 and again in 1848, almost all pistols were single-shot or double-barreled. Their owners usually carried these pistols in pairs to give them more than one shot at an opponent. They also carried a hunting knife or a stiletto for additional protection.

So in 1837 an American inventor named George Elgin patented a single-shot percussion pistol with a bowie knife blade attached to the bottom of the barrel, pointing forward well past the muzzle so that the pistol became the “handle” of the knife.

The concept of attaching a knife or stiletto blade to the bottom of a single-shot pistol barrel was not novel. What made Elgin’s “cutlass pistols” unique, though, is that he fashioned their blades into the same basic configuration as Jim Bowie’s legendary knife, which had exploded into legend when Bowie died at the Alamo in 1836, allegedly with his faithful fighting knife still clutched in his hand. As Flayderman’s Guide to Antique American Firearms explains it, the Elgin cutlass pistol was “inspired by the fame and lore surrounding the then popular legendary fighting knife of James Bowie.”

And so—like the stories of Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday, neither of which can be told without relating the other—the story of the Elgin cutlass pistol cannot be told without a brief history of James Bowie and the bowie knife.

In the 1820s James Bowie and brother Rezin were operating a successful plantation outside of New Orleans. As the legend goes, one day a wild bull badly gored Rezin, who tried to fight it off with a narrow-bladed fighting knife that had no cross guard, and his grasp slipped down around the blade, badly cutting up his hand. These narrow-bladed knives and stilettos were the standard type of fighting knife of the times. And the typical way to use one in a fight was to hold the handle with the blade pointing down below the hand and then swing the knife downward with an overhand motion to stab with it instead of thrusting forward with it.

So Rezin Bowie designed a heavier, thicker, wider blade about 12 inches long that could be used as a fighting knife, hatchet or machete. It had a cross guard on it to protect the fingers from sliding down onto the blade, and to stop an opponent’s knife blade from hacking at the fingers holding the knife. The other unique feature of this first “Bowie” knife was that the top of the blade about a third of the way back from the point was also sharpened into a half-moon shape known today as a “clip point.”

There remains a lot of controversy about who actually designed the knife—Rezin, James or the blacksmith who made it, allegedly out of a piece of a meteorite for hardness and sharpness. Whatever the case, Rezin eventually gave this first bowie knife to brother Jim to carry for protection.

On September 19, 1827, Jim Bowie was a second in a pistol duel that broke out into a deadly melee on a sand spit on the east bank of the Mississippi River near Natchez, Miss. Bowie was shot twice and run clear through with a sword before disemboweling an opponent with a giant knife. The national publicity that surrounded Bowie’s miraculous recovery from his wounds brought him instant fame. Even more fodder for the newspapers was the fact that instead of stabbing with the knife overhand, he had swung his knife upward in a thrusting manner with the long, sharpened edge of the blade facing up instead of down.

Whether the knife he used was Rezin’s first bowie knife or just a large butcher knife is still debated, but the legend of Jim Bowie himself was born at what is now known as the Vidalia Sandbar Fight.

And so, after the fall of the Alamo in February 1836, it was probably not by coincidence that George Elgin patented his “bowie knife pistol” and in 1837 began marketing it. Produced simultaneously for Elgin by Cyrus B. Allen of Springfield, Mass., and Morrill, Mosman & Blair of nearby Amherst, the pistols made for civilian sale varied in size from .35- to .41-caliber, usually with rifled or smoothbore octagonal barrels 4 to 5 inches long and blades 7 1/2 to 10 1/2 inches long.

The Ames Sword Co. in Springfield made the blades for the C.B. Allen pistols, so it is assumed Ames also made the blades for the Morrill, Mosman & Blair pistols. Some blades were plain, but many civilian versions had patriotic designs or the makers’ names etched on them.

Elgin also had the notion that instead of having one sailor armed with a cutlass and another with a pistol, the U.S. Navy could replace the two men with only one sailor armed with his cutlass pistol, thereby exposing fewer sailors to injuries during battle. So in 1838 the Navy bought 150 larger-sized Elgin cutlass pistols to use in its Wilkes/South Seas Exploring Expedition.

Made by C.B. Allen, these giant weapons were .54-caliber, with 5-inch smoothbore octagonal barrels and 11-inch blades, an overall length of 17 inches and with an elongated finger guard that stretched from the trigger guard to the butt.

It is estimated that less than 500 Elgin cutlass pistols were made altogether, so anecdotes about their use on the frontier are scarce. “Though made for use by the U.S. Navy, some Elgin cutlass pistols made their way west,” says noted firearms historian R.L. Wilson in his classic book The Peacemakers: Arms and Adventure in the American West. One known Elgin copy was made in England and imported by the Confederacy during the Civil War.

In the December 3, 1838, Missouri Republican, St. Louis gun dealer L. Deaver glowingly advertised the Elgin as a bowie knife instead of a pistol: “Life Guards— Just rec’d two dozen Elgin patent Bowie knives with pistol attached which will shoot and cut at the same time.” And in Firearms of the American West, 1803– 1865, firearms historians Louis A. Garavaglia and Charles G. Worman write: “Although the production of this pistol lasted only about three years, its St. Louis sales—due to the predilection of Westerners for Bowie knives—were presumably respectable. In parts of the West other than St. Louis, however, the Elgin cutlass pistol was probably a distinct novelty.” So whether you think of the Elgin as a knife or a gun or a hybrid weapon, it is easy to imagine how menacing a tattered early frontiersman would have looked taking a knife-fighting stance with a big Elgin cutlass pistol in each hand.

Not much is known about George Elgin’s later years. But his epitaph could easily read, “With his bowie knife–bladed pistol, he had cleverly heeded the 1836 battle cry to remember the Alamo.”


Originally published in the August 2014 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.