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Modern Vs Vintage Bowie

Discussion in 'Non-Firearm Weapons' started by Tired_and_hungry, Dec 27, 2012.

  1. Tired_and_hungry

    Tired_and_hungry Well-Known Member

    If we compare a bowie knife made by a contemporary cutlery manufacturer (like the Laredo Bowie made by cold steel) with an antique bowie from the late 1800s, which would have the better:

    1) Balance?
    2) Craftsmanship?
    3) blade quality (edge holding, tensile strength)?
    4) standard of fittings?

    Which would you rather own and use? (Considering the possibility of acquiring a "NIB" version of an antique bowie that had been packed in grease and stored in a cool and dry place.)
  2. PRM

    PRM Well-Known Member

    Are you comparing a Yugo to a Cadillac???

    This is a question that can only be answered by comparing the two. The vintage knifes were most likely hand made. Sounds good on the surface, but what was the skill level of the maker???

    If they were good, it will probably be better than a mass produced knife. If not...well you get the picture. Be the same as comparing a modern Randall to a Marbles - or like one made by a third grader to a Marbles.
  3. Steel Horse Rider

    Steel Horse Rider Well-Known Member

    The quality of the steel could vary greatly also. The newer steel should be of more uniform quality (if a quality steel were used) than something from the 19th century although many things in the modern world are manufactured with lower grade steel which is processed (heat treating, plating, etc) to make it appear better than it is. My take on historical weapons is that the materials are probably not as good but the workmanship is usually better, but I mostly purchase the older stuff for the historical value.
  4. JShirley

    JShirley Administrator Staff Member

    I'd get an Ontario or ESEE and call it good.

  5. Sam1911

    Sam1911 Moderator

    I am a history guy by trade, focusing on traditional building methods and tools. What we might consider "historic" tools and weapons might fall into any of several categories -- depending on what, when, where, and who. There are truly hand-made items, items roughed-out by machine and hand-assembled and -finished, and items that really didn't get more than a minor touch from a craftsman's (or plant-worker's) hand. Some were very utilitarian and tough, though plain looking. Some were ceremonial and fragile, but very highly ornamented. Some were just bad and cheap. Some -- and often those most touted and fondly remembered -- were masterpieces.

    Just like with guns, some of the great old examples that have survived were the cream of the crop when new. A very great lot was of quite poor quality and were discarded with a "good riddance" when broken or un-serviceable.

    The steel we have readily available now is significantly better (purer, more advanced metallurgy, much more precise heat-treatment, much better studied and understood, etc.) than what even the very best makers would have been able to get their hands on 100 years ago. That's where such constructions as "Damascas" steel came into vogue -- trying to get a better blade by mixing two known steels to hopefully get the better characteristics of each. That's not necessary these days as homogeneous super-alloy steels will outperform any folded combination of lesser metals.

    As for balance, construction, fittings, etc? Again, it's hard to say universally, but in general the whole state of the art advances as makers try new things, experiment, develop materials and methods, and share ideas. Not every blade-smith pounding away at a forge in Podunk, MO ca. 1869 (or wherever, whenever) knew much about blades beyond what felt ok in his hand and got the job done. Even the big centers of steel (and blade) production in Europe and/or Asia were not necessarily aware of what their contemporaries were doing in other places -- so they weren't readily able to share technique, form, new materials and the like. Now, just about every maker can know what every other maker is trying and producing pretty much instantly via the web and publications. And that goes for the little makers and the big production hosues, too.

    I've got a Natchez Bowie like you're describing (actually it's with my sheath-maker at the moment) and it is quite nice. I've not put it through any very rigorous testing to see just how well it would survive intense use, but based on what I know of the steel and maker I would expect it to hold up well enough if used in ways appropriate to its form. (That tip isn't going to live through a lot of heavy chopping, but if you're going to spend you life kinfe-fighting, why it might last you your whole life long...however short that may be! ;))

    I would imagine that if you asked a blade smith to make such a thing for you in, say 1790 or 1850 or some other pre-20th century time, you could get something pretty much equivalent, but highly variable. The steel would be a lot less pure and if you wanted it laminated the way Cold Steel is doing with their SanMai stuff that might not be possible to find at all depending on how knowledgeable the smiths in your area were, the heat treat would be a more seat-of-the-pants (done by tempering color, not by thermocouples and precise measurements), the handle material would be bone or horn or wood instead of a stable, tough modern synthetic, and so forth. And it would probably cost you a significant portion of a working-man's yearly wages.

    All-in-all, I'd say it is FAR easier for the average person to get a MUCH better knife today than s/he could have 100 or 200 years ago.
  6. rcmodel

    rcmodel Member in memoriam

    A very high percentage of mid-1800's Bowie's were not hand made by the village blacksmith out of scrap iron mystery metal though.

    The majority of them were imported from Sheffield England, and could be very good steel, and very ornate.
    And too valuable to use for anything except collecting.

    A beautiful example down near the bottom of this page:

    Last edited: Dec 27, 2012
  7. Sam1911

    Sam1911 Moderator

    Yes indeed, and Sheffield was one of the centers of industry I was thinking of when I mentioned sharing of technology. Even with their grand reputation (and product), I question whether a fine Sheffield blade blank imported at great cost in the mid 19th century could touch even the purity and "quality" of an average knife-making steel blank (say 1095 or W2) that I could buy from NJSB for $10 today? And that's not to even begin to compare with something like 3V or S35VN or any of the crazy-good alloys you can play with for just a little bit more money.
  8. Mp7

    Mp7 Well-Known Member

    Just like most of those ornate arabian swords from the 18-1900s.

    i think just one shipload of Solingen blanks accounted for most of the swords
    that were fitted and decorated down there.
  9. Gordon

    Gordon Well-Known Member

    I think a George Wostenholm IXL Bowie, like William Cody and other sucessfull frontiersmen used in the 1880s were very well made indeed. A modern $200+ knive though is probably "stronger " and more "durable" , for all the above mentioned reasons, but the old IXLs and other quality blades (mostly imported) were good enough to last 100+ years if maintained.
  10. hso

    hso Moderator Staff Member

    There were at least as wide a range of quality for "bowies" then as now. Some were utter junk made for the "rubes" and others were true forged tools and others were works of art that worked.

    I'm not even sure you can make a comparison since we'd have to narrow down the maker to compare the modern manufacturer to.

    The Laredo in carbon steel is a fine knife, but a quality vintage bowie would be hand forged and fit and finish could have been as fine as anything from a custom maker today. Since cutlers made fine versions of working "bowie" knives at the time (Searls, Constable and others) you have to decide if you want to compare the better vintage bowies or the mass produced Sheffield bowies to the modern version.
    Last edited: Dec 27, 2012
  11. Smokey Joe

    Smokey Joe Well-Known Member


    Tired & Hungry--You asked,
    Well, the way you phrased the question, I'd have to answer that I'd rather own the NIB antique, but couldn't use that--to do so would instantly ruin its NIB character. Ah, given that I could afford such a thing. Except that, last time I looked, there was no sign in front of my house stating "Smokey Joe's Museum."

    The tools I have, I USE. Including the antique ones. So, I'd have to answer that I'd rather own the modern-day version, expensive, but with no historical significance. And use the heck out of it.

    You see, there are at least 2 ways of looking at the answer to your question.

    Finally, I have a question for you: WHY do you care which I'd rather have??
  12. Tired_and_hungry

    Tired_and_hungry Well-Known Member

    To Smokey Joe:

    Just wanted to find out how many of those on THR preferred manual craftsmanship and old style fittings with mediocre steel vs those who'd rather have the latest steels and mass produced but souless uniformity.
  13. hso

    hso Moderator Staff Member

    There's no reason to think that "mediocre" steel would be on a quality vintage bowie. You'd be dealing with a hand forged carbon steel if you had a knife from one of the better cutlers.

    Given a choice between a 19th century bowie from a quality cutler that somehow was in "NIB" condition and a modern factory knife you'd have to be mad to pick a modern factory knife.
  14. JShirley

    JShirley Administrator Staff Member

    Yeah, I'll just take the Ontario, thanks very much. :)

    "Mad" John Shirley :D
  15. hso

    hso Moderator Staff Member


    You'd take a modern factory knife over the chance to own one of the vintage bowies made in the height of popularity for bowies that had been preserved as it came from the maker's hands? I just can't understand that.

    I'd happily trade any of the bowies I have for an original Searls or Woodhead or a Will and Fink and you've handled more than a couple of what I have.
  16. rcmodel

    rcmodel Member in memoriam

    I was gonna say somewhat the same thing.

    By the mid 1800's, the manufacture of very pure high carbon steel was pretty well understood and perfected.
    And the better knife makers in Sheffield and America knew what was needed to make a very good carbon steel blade.

    As for edge holding?
    Some of my old carbon steel hunting & butcher knives from the early 1900's are razors when sharpened, and can be easily sharpened to a razor edge again on an old crock rim, or with a grey whet stone & spit.

    Try sharpening your D2 / 154CM / CMP3v wonder steel knife out in the field while you got nothing but a sandstone rock and deer blood on your hands!

  17. JShirley

    JShirley Administrator Staff Member

    Heck, hso, to use or just to own? I like nice stuff, sure, but I'd never expect a 120-year-old knife to withstand the abuse a quality modern one could handle.

    I think it's somewhat similar to Japanese swords. I'd love to have a good 600-year-old blade, but know the steel is better on a modern one that wouldn't run a twentieth of the cost of the antique.

    RC, I've used 5160 more than anything else. And it ain't hard to sharpen-I've usually used a piece of steel (chakmak). I also really like BD-1. Ridiculously easy to sharpen.

  18. hso

    hso Moderator Staff Member

    I've handled a few "Confederate" bowies that were pretty well constructed and antique bowies that were pretty well constructed full tang tools. While the steel was unknown the performance with the one I saw a cutting test demonstrate with appeared to be equivalent to differentially heat treated 1095. It made it through the entire ABS competition cutting steps without missing a beat. While that's just one piece it is indicative that 19th century blade smiths had the ability to produce a working blade that would perform in a ABC cutting competition. Win, probably not, but be competitive.

    I doubt all of the 19thC bowies would perform as well as that one, but at least I saw that one of them had the ability to make a performance knife.

    Since I'm far more of a collector than a user, not that I don't use knives, but that I collect a lot, I'd be tickled to death to get my hands on a "NIB" grade 19th C bowie of good to excellent quality. I'd barely be interested in most of the factory knives by comparrison.
  19. rcmodel

    rcmodel Member in memoriam

    If you abuse your knives like that?
    You probably should stick with throw-away $4.95 Harbor Freight Rambo Bowie's anyway!!

    Just buy'm by the case lot!

  20. JShirley

    JShirley Administrator Staff Member

    Abuse like what? The most strenuous thing I've ever done with a quality knife is something I did as a test, that many (foolishly, I think) users do. But it wouldn't have worked with any number of $4.95 knife-like objects, so I guess the $175 handmade knife I was using was still cheaper.

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