Bold, beautiful and brash, the Bowie knife became an American icon in the early 19th century, predating the widespread use of Winchester rifles and Colt revolvers during the Western expansion. Its massive sales were fueled partially by the cult of celebrity surrounding its namesake soldier whose legend was just as rooted in myth as in fact.
“The Bowie Knife: Icon of American Character,” now on display at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum, pays tribute to both, with examples on loan from E. Norman Flayderman, author of a book on the subject.
Richard Rattenbury, curator of history for the museum, said the popular weapon was born when Col. James Bowie dispatched a man with it during the Sandbar Fight of 1827. Reportedly, the brawl left Bowie shot and stabbed before he ended it by disemboweling his opponent.
“The newspaper accounts were certainly just as exaggerated as they are today,” Rattenbury said. “They made a big deal out of it.”
Bowie knives emerged soon thereafter as blacksmiths and cutlery manufacturers capitalized on the mystique. Ironically, at the height of its popularity, England — not the U.S. — made the weapon that helped define America’s growing identity.
“When it comes to the Sheffield makers, the quality was unsurpassed,” Rattenbury said. “The cutlery industry in America in the 19th century was almost nonexistent. In America, the really great makers of Bowie knives prior to the Civil War were usually surgical or dental craftsmen. They did Bowie knives as a sideline.”
In a marketing ploy, many Sheffield makers engraved sayings into the blade that would stoke patriotism or bold claims of fighting prowess. Examples of acid-etched slogans that the English guessed would hit home with Americans include “Death to Traitors” and “Try Me.”
Many knives represented masculinity for “Gentlemen Stabbers,” as the Arkansas Advocate wrote in 1837. Boasts of knife duels and knife-fighting schools were likely embellished, but Rattenbury said the weapons proved tremendously useful in the untamed West.
“You have an American culture that is largely frontier, so self-protection is an issue,” he said. “Single-shot pistols could not be relied upon, but a knife never misfires.”