When most people envision a Bowie Knife, they tend to picture a large knife with heavy, clip point, blade since that is believed to be the original design. However, since the knife that Jim Bowie used to dispatch is assailants during the infamous “Sand Bar” fight which took place on a sandbar in the Mississippi River near Natchez-Under-the-Hill on September 19, 1827 has been lost, there is no definitive, documented, evidence as to exactly what Bowie’s knife looked like. However, according to history, in 1827, Rezin Bowie, who was Jim Bowie’s brother and an Arkansas plantation owner at the time, was attacked by a bull and, in self-defense, he was forced to draw his belt knife and attempt to stab the bull in the head! But, the knife that he carried at the time proved inadequate for the job because it was unable to pierce the bull’s skull. Fortunately, Rezin did manage to survive the attack and, in his quest for a more reliable knife, he commissioned a local blacksmith named James Black to grind down an old file to create a large, single-edged, knife with a blade that measured over 9″ in length and approximately 1 1/2″ in width which he then fitted with large quillions and a simple, wooden, grip. Consequently, it is believed that this is the knife (or one like it) that Rezin gave to his brother James prior the infamous sand bar fight. Also, this knife was a much larger knife than was commonly carried by men of the time and was considered to be very unusual because most personal defense knives of the time were patterned after the European double-edged dagger.
However, since the use of large knives for self defense has since given way to the handgun, Bowie Knives are now most often considered tools rather than weapons. Thus, they are often chosen by both campers and wilderness survivalist who require a large, robust, knife to perform many different tasks such as clearing a camp site, making tools, traps, and primitive weapons for hunting, and a myriad of other outdoor jobs which require a large, heavy-duty, knife.
My Favorite Bowie Knives:
|Bowie Knives||Steel||Overall Length||Blade Design & Length||Grind||Rating|
|Fallkniven Northen Lights||1/4”, VG10, laminated stainless steel||15''||Clip Point (10”)||Flat Grind|
|ESEE Junglass||3/16”, 1095, high carbon tool steel||16.5"||Drop Point (10 3/8”)||Flat Grind|
|Cold Steel San Mai III||5/16”, laminated, San Mai III high carbon tool steel||14 1/2"||Clip Point (9 1/2”)||Flat Grind|
|Buck General Bowie Knife||0.175”, 420HC (high carbon) stainless steel||12''||Drop Point (7 3/8”)||Hollow Grind|
WHAT TO LOOK FOR WHEN CHOOSING A BOWIE KNIFE
Because a Bowie Knife is most often chosen by people who require a large, heavy-duty, knife for outdoor use, there are six key features that today define a well designed Bowie Knife consisting of the size of the knife, the design of the blade, the type of steel from which the blade is constructed, the construction of the tang, and the material from which the handle is made:
When choosing a Bowie Knife, most outdoorsmen tend to prefer a knife with a blade that measures 7 inches to 9 inches in length since blades of this length work well for performing light chopping tasks as well as batoning and yet, they also provide enough control over both the tip and the edge if the blade to perform more delicate tasks such as sharpening stakes and cutting notches to make traps and snares as well as removing the hide from harvested game animals.
2. BLADE DESIGN
When choosing a Bowie Knife, blade design is another critical factor. For instance, for situations where a significant amount of control over the tip is required, a Clip Point blade design is often the best choice. In fact, the iconic Bowie Knife features a classic Clip Point blade design which is characterized by a straight spine that extends forward from the bolster or handle and then incorporates either a straight or concave drop to the tip of the blade such that it appears as if that section of the blade has been “clipped” off and, the purpose of this design is to both lighten the tip of the blade for better balance and to position the tip of the blade below the spine, close to the center line, for greater control and increased piercing ability. On the other hand, both Drop Points and Straight Backs also work well on large knives intended for outdoor use and the Drop Point blade design is characterized by a straight spine that extends forward from the bolster or handle and then incorporates a continuous, convex, curve from the spine of the blade to the tip such that it positions the tip of the blade below the spine and near the center line of the blade for greater control when performing precision cutting tasks. Whereas, the Straight Back is characterized by a straight spine that extends level from the bolster or handle to the tip and provides the least amount of control over the tip but also causes the belly of the blade to have an extended cutting edge which is useful for slicing.
3. EDGE DESIGN
Then, there is the issue of edge design. For instance, most Bowie Knives feature a straight edge extending from the handle to the belly which is often the best choice for a general purpose knife because it both slices and carves well but, it is not nearly as well suited for chopping as a recurved edge. Consequently, some Bowie Knives feature a recurved edge which can be either straight or slightly concave near the handle but which then descends downward into a convex curve which then rises to the tip and, the purpose of this blade design is to move the balance point of the knife significantly forward so that it has more momentum when chopping.
4. BLADE STEEL
In most cases, the whole reason outdoorsman carry large Bowie Knives is that they require a general purpose knife that is capable of performing numerous different tasks which often include light chopping as well as slicing and piercing. Thus, large knives need to be made from a blade steel that is both able to withstand the impact of using a baton to split firewood or felling a sapling without breaking while still being able to hold an edge when carving or slicing. Therefore, on the one hand, they need to be made from a tough steel and, on the other, they need to be made from a hard steel. Unfortunately, in the world of metallurgy, these two properties are mutually exclusive and thus, in most cases, bladesmiths have to choose a steel that represents the best possible compromise depending on the intended use for the knife. However, there is a technique in which a layer of hard steel is laminated to a layer of softer steel on either side which then creates what is arguably the best possible blade steel since the thin, hard, core holds and edge extremely well while the softer outer layers provide flexibility and impact resistance.
In additon, blade steels are clearly divided into three different categories consisting of high carbon tool steels, stainless steels, and laminated steels and, the reason that this distinction is important is that high carbon tool steels are commonly significantly tougher than stainless steels, they are generally easier to sharpen, and they can be honed to a finer edge. But, they are also far more prone to corrosion and, they generally do not hold and edge quite as well. Therefore, some popular high carbon tools steels for constructing large knives are A2, O1, 1095, 1055, and 5160. Whereas, stainless steels are generally less tough than high carbon tool steels because they are often significantly harder which means that although they are more brittle, they also tend to hold an edge better. In addition, although stainless steels will corrode under the right conditions, because of their significantly higher Chromium content (stainless steel requires minimum of 12.5 percent depending on which definition you choose), they are far less prone to do so than high carbon tool steels which, by definition, have considerably less Chromium. Therefore, some popular stainless steels for constructing large knives are AUS 10, AUS 8, 440C, and 420 HC.
Last, it should be noted that most manufactures list the hardness of their blades after heat treating using a scale known as the Rockwell Hardness C Scale (designated HRC) and thus, tough blade steels generally have a Rockwell Hardness ranging from 51-54 HRC whereas, hard blade steels generally have Rockwell Hardness ranging from 56-62 HRC.
Because large knives are often used for heavy duty tasks, it should be noted that the weakest point of the knife is where the handle or bolster stops and the blade begins. Therefore, the construction of the tang (the portion of the knife where the handle is attached) is also of importance when choosing a Bowie Knife and, they can feature one of several different designs such as a Full Tang, a Hidden Tang, or a Partial Tang. For instance, a Full Tang is defined by a tang that extends the full length of the handle as well as the full width and thus, it is the strongest of the three types of knife tangs. Whereas, a Hidden Tang is somewhat more narrow than a Full Tang and extends nearly the full length of the handle so that the handle can be slid over the tang and secured with either epoxy or pins or both and thus, it is not quite as strong as a Full Tang. However, the Partial Tang is significantly slimmer than a Hidden Tang and is also noticeably shorter and thus, it is noticeably weaker than either a Full Tang or a Hidden Tang.
6. HANDLE MATERIAL
Although you might not think so at first, both handle design and handle material are important factors to consider when choosing a Bowie Knife. For instance, The handle should be designed in such as way that it is ergonomic, provides you control over both the edge and the tip of the knife, and enables you to retain the knife in your hand when chopping and, when the handle is wet. Thus, it should be noted that although Full Tangs are the strongest, they force the bladesmith to attach two slabs to either side of the tang to create a handle which can be quite comfortable but, provides no protection from shock generated when chopping or batoning.
However, because both Hidden Tangs and Partial Tangs completely enclose the tang, handles for this type of tang can be made with hard cores covered by shock absorbing materials such as Kraton or Hypalon which also provides an excellent grip when wet. But, regardless of what type of tang you choose, you should look for a handle material that is very tough, impervious to immersion in water, and which will not crack when subjected to extremes in ambient air temperature. Therefore, the most popular handle materials for large knives are linen Micarta, canvas Micarta, G10, Zytel, Kraton, and Hypalon.
THE BEST BOWIE KNIVES: MY 4 FAVORITES REVIEWED
1. Fallkniven Northern Lights series Thor Bowie Knife
The Fallkniven Northern Lights Thor Bowie features an overall length of 15″ inches with a Clip Point blade measuring 10” in length and is constructed using 1/4”, VG10, laminated stainless steel with a Flat Grind and a Rockwell Hardness of 59 HRC. Consequently, the Flat Grid enables it to be honed to a fine edge and the hard, VG10, core does an excellent job of holding that edge while the softer sides provide both flexibility and shock resistance. In fact, this knife in nearly unbreakable! In addition, it features a Rattail Hidden Tang (has threads on the end) with a very tough oval handle made from stacked ox hide discs that is impervious to both water and extremes in temperature. Last, it includes a heavy-duty leather sheath. It’s my favorite Bowie.
2. Cold Steel San Mai III Trail Master
The Cold Steel San Mai III Bowie features an overall length of 14 1/2″ inches with a Clip Point blade measuring 9 1/2” in length and is constructed using 5/16”, laminated, San Mai III (a proprietary Japanese blade steel), high carbon tool steel with a Flat Grind and an unknown Rockwell Hardness. Consequently, the Flat Grid gives the blade a keen edge while the hard core does an excellent job of holding that edge and the softer sides provide both flexibility and shock resistance for nearly unbreakable performance. In addition, it features a Hidden Tang covered by a handle made from a hard core which is coated with finely checkered Kray-EX (Kraton rubber) for improved grip and shock absorption and which is impervious to both water and extremes in temperature. Last, it includes a heavy-duty Kydex sheath.
3. ESEE Junglass
The ESEE Junglass Bowie features an overall length of 16.5″ inches with a Drop Point blade measuring 10 3/8” in length and is constructed using 3/16”, 1095, high carbon tool steel with a Flat Grind and an unknown Rockwell Hardness. Consequently, the high carbon tool steel does an excellent job of providing both flexibility and shock resistance to create a very tough knife that does a good job of holding an edge while also being relatively easy to sharpen. In addition, it features a Full Tang with a very ergonomic handle made from removable, canvas Micarta, slabs screwed to the tang that is impervious to both water and extremes in temperature. Last, it includes a heavy-duty Kydex sheath.
4. Buck General Bowie Knife
The Buck Model 120 is worthy of special mention because, not only is it a fine knife, it is significantly smaller than the other knives listed above and thus, it’s more controllable. In fact. it features an overall length of 12″ inches with a Drop Point blade measuring 7 3/8” in length and is constructed using 0.175”, 420HC (high carbon) stainless steel with a Hollow Grind and a Rockwell Hardness of 58 HRC. Consequently, the 420HC stainless steel does an excellent job of resisting corrosion as well as holding and edge but, it is not a tough as a high carbon tool steel blade. In addition, it features a Rattail Hidden Tang and a very ergonomic handle with an aluminum pommel made from your choice of black phenolic plastic or “Dynawood” that is impervious to both water and extremes in temperature. Last, it includes a heavy-duty leather sheath.
WRAPPING IT UP: IT’S YOUR TURN
So, as you can see, there is actually quite a bit to consider when purchasing a Bowie Knife for outdoor use because the blade needs to be large enough and tough enough to perform all of the tasks that you are likely to ask of it while retaining the ability to take and hold a fine edge. Also, both the blade and the tang need to be strong enough and tough enough withstand the impact generated when chopping or using a baton and the handle needs to be impervious to immersion in water and extremes in temperature. Plus, it is helpful if the handle has an ergonomic shape and a positive grip, as well as a handle design that enables you retain the knife when chopping. Therefore, you should carefully consider all of these factors when choosing a Bowie Knife for any given purpose.