By 1837 the states of Tennessee, Mississippi and Alabama passed laws making it a felony to kill a person with a Bowie knife. Self defense was recognized and acceptable. But even if you justifiably saved your life using a Bowie, you were going to spend considerable time behind bars or outside breaking rocks with a sledge.
No such jeopardy resulted from using one of the unreliable, single shot, black powder pistols of that era. Mississippi even put a $100 dollar sales tax on the Bowie. Why the political hostility to the Bowie? Because it was quite simply the deadliest weapon, certainly the deadliest knife, the anyone had ever seen. It remains so to this day.
The legislators reasoned that if you shot someone there was a fair chance the party might survive. Many did. But with a well made Bowie a single properly delivered strike, whether a thrust, slash, or chop was not survivable. Forget the Hollywood choreography of lengthy knife fights. One well delivered blow from the Bowie and the fight was finished, as was the recipient. So, the thinking-if it can be called that-was that it was okay to defend your life, but don’t defend it too well. That wouldn’t be fair. Go figure.
Bowie knives attained great popularity and were carried by large numbers of soldiers during the Civil War, especially by our Southern lads. But with the rapid deployment of revolvers there was less need for a formidable back up weapon. The Bowie went into decline but never came close to disappearing.
Today few knife makers and martial artists understand the unique geometry of a Bowie. Nor do they understand the physics which result from that geometry. One who does is Bill Bagwell, a master blade smith and specialist in battle blades. He not only makes some of the best Bowies available, he has given highly rated knife instruction to our Special Forces.
In his book, Bowies, Big Knives, and the best of Battle Blades, Bagwell reveals the requirements and the magic of a properly made Bowie. Properly made means of correct size (a minimum blade of 9 ½ in.), near perfect balance including a suitable guard and handle with a sharpened false edge and properly shaped point. The false edge is on the top part of the blade parallel to the primary edge and running back from the tip.
The point on most knives is what is called a trailing point. Because of the sharpened false edge, the point of the Bowie becomes a leading point upon delivering the devastating back cut. The effect of the back cut should be seen to be appreciated. But the back cut itself cannot be seen, and if it could be seen it would still be impossible to avoid it!
Mr. Bagwell explains that the speed of the back cut is so fast that the human eye can’t see it. To illustrate this he offers a demonstration we can do on our own. Stick your arm out full length and palm down. Now make a fist but let your thumb stick out at a 90 degree angle. If you are right handed your thumb will be pointed to the left. Slowly rotate your thumb into the vertical position. You are giving the “thumbs up” sign. Snap your thumb back to the horizontal as quickly as you can. You will be unable to see your thumb traversing that arc.
It turns out that our eyes blink in .15 second and the human eye cannot pick up any motion that occurs more quickly than it blinks. The back cut occurs in under .15 second.
Why does the true Bowie need to be so large with a blade no less than 9 1/2 inches? There is the obvious advantage of reach. Maybe you recall from school days that a longer lever multiplies the force applied to it. But wait! There’s more, as they say on TV. Velocity is also multiplied along with the force. These are significant advantages when using a blade for serious social purposes. Despite its size, the well made Bowie is light in the hand and ferociously quick and nimble.
There are many more significant attributes of the Bowie beyond what is covered here. You will find any number of books about the Bowie, but I recommend you begin with the writings of Bill Bagwell. He knows the Bowie. He lives the Bowie.
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