The Bowie Knife
What would Rambo use? Once he's draped a couple of bandoliers over his torso, pinned some grenades to his headband and hitched a bazooka on his shoulder, what blade would he strap to his squat, muscular body? The film of that name shows the answer: the most recognizable knife on the planet-The Bowie Knife.
The Bowie knife has been through an evolutionary process, with the production of many variations on the theme. For such an item to be considered the real McCoy, it must be long enough to be used as a sword, sharp enough to shave with, wide enough to double as a paddle and heavy enough to act as a hatchet. Sounds good enough for Rambo.
Common folklore says that Colonel James 'Jim' Bowie (pronounced Boo-whee, at least in the southern states) created the knife that bears his name and eventually met his death while wielding it at the Battle of the Alamo in 1836. In reality, things are never that straightforward.
Alternate histories are numerous and occasionally contradictory, only serving to cloud the myth until it becomes the American equivalent of King Arthur's Excalibur. It seems that more than one Bowie was involved. Jim's brother, Rezin, has been credited for the original design and Louisiana blacksmith Jesse Clift (or Cleft, or Cliffe) forged it for him. However, legend has it that in December 1830, Jim Bowie took a carved\ wood prototype to another smithy in Arkansas, run by James Black. Black duly carried out the work, but he also made a variation with a sharpened concave edge on the top part of the blade. Bowie liked it. This modification made the backslash move particularly effective in knife fights.
And Bowie had been in a few skirmishes. Such as the Sandbar Fight. He was a second in someone else's duel that took place on the Vidalia Sandbar in the Mississippi River, near Natchez. About 10 men were present. Events took a turn for the worse- Bowie was shot in the arm and hip, and stabbed in the chest, but still came out alive, thanks to some luck and some nifty knife twirling.
Black was a particularly skilled metalworker. The original steel blade was said to be tempered superbly, measuring 10 to 15 inches in length, about a quarter of an inch wide and two inches across at its widest part. In addition, the Bowie knife was so well balanced that it could be thrown with ease and accuracy. The hand guard, known as a quillon, was made of brass.
Just as 'race on Sunday, sell on Monday' became a truism for the car industry, a similar principle was in practice when, returning home to Texas, Bowie encountered three men hired to kill him. Bowie obviously had the edge. One was almost decapitated, the second was disemboweled and the third's skull was split open. Tales of the man and his weapon percolated throughout the region. People would go to Black and say: "Make me a knife like Bowie's." Demand exceeded supply, especially after Bowie's dramatic demise turned him into a hero. By the 1850s, Bowie knives were coming from as far away as Sheffield, England. It was the tool of choice for frontiersmen and backwoodsmen. It could skin game, cut meat and chop firewood. The handle, often made from animal horn such as antler, could be used to hammer in nails or pound a bag of coffee beans.
Thus the Bowie knife was elevated to iconic status and is still being used today. In the 1960s, it gained a sawtooth edge on the top part of the blade so it could cut through the plexiglass canopies of downed aircraft. American helicopter crews engaged in the Vietnam War were issued with this kind of model.
It's now a criminal offense to carry a Bowie knife in Texas, where the state classifies it as an illegal knife. Big Jim's probably carving his way out of his coffin right now, in a fit of indignant rage.