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Fighting Bowie Knives and the Brass Strip

Discussion in 'Non-Firearm Weapons' started by Anthony, Feb 4, 2003.

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  1. Anthony

    Anthony Member

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    Hello Everyone,

    In the early 19th century, many of the large Bowie fighting knives employed a brass strip along the back spine of the knife. Some have opined that its purpose was to catch an opponent's knife so that a disarm could be employed.

    After some research, I have begun to subscribe to an opposing view that suggests the brass strip was for parrying weapons longer than the knife itself (e.g., swords). This makes sense to me given that a blow to a flat brass surface would spread the impact force of the the longer weapon. Especially given that the greater leverage afforded by the additional length would increase said impact force significantly. This seems especially true given the large guards on most of the Bowies of this era. Also, it would spare the Bowie's blade from damage and given the sword's continued use for dueling in the South in the 1830s and 1840s it makes sense. Finally, the trend toward deleting the brass strip from Bowie designs roughly equates the decreasing use of the sword in this country with the rise of repeating handguns.

    To me, if one plans on ordering a custom Bowie as a pure fighter today, it only makes sense to order one with the brass strip and a generous guard given that it does not add appreciably to the bulk of the knife and gives you an unconventional capability against longer implements that might be used to attack you (e.g., length of pipe, clubs, machettes, etc.).

    What do my fellow High Roaders think?

    - Anthony
     
  2. BigG

    BigG Member

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    I'm no expert, but I subscribe to the former opinion. While many ruffians may have fallen on victims unawares, Jim Bowie made his name in several colorful duels. Duels were with matched weapons, ie, not a gun against a sword or knife against sword. Stockinged feet in a darkened house was one duel. Another was both men nailed by the seat of their pants to a log. I imagine the ability to parry is pretty important because the bowies I've seen can cut like a hatchet.
     
  3. Joe Demko

    Joe Demko Member

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    I think some 19th century version of Lynn Thompson came up with the idea of fastening a penny's worth of brass to the back of an otherwise undistinguished knife. He then hyped it as an uberweapon like the noted duellist Mr. Bowie used and could therefore charge 3x-4x its actual worth.
     
  4. BigG

    BigG Member

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    The first known example of a knife with tactical doodads, as it were. :cool:
     
  5. Jim March

    Jim March Member

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    Is it barely possible some of 'em were fighting sword in the strong hand, Bowie in the weak?

    Not as crazy as it sounds. The Italians were known for "parrying daggers" with massive forward-hooked guards. A brass-strip Bowie could accomplish sorta the same thing.
     
  6. Anthony

    Anthony Member

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    It is very possible from what I have read.

    It's funny you mention the Italians, Jim. :D

    I'm of Italian descent and my good friend from Milan (who is a part of this board) studies and teaches the Italian style of fencing that uses a dagger in the weak hand.

    Since I started taking Modern Arnis last year, which uses a system known as "Espada y Daga" that arguably emenates from the Italian style, we have been comparing notes quite a bit. The idea of using a Bowie as an offhand weapon with a medium length sword is very intriguing to me. This is where my interest in the brass strip started.

    To me, the strip doesn't hurt a thing if it isn't in use, but could prove useful in the instance it is applicable to the situation at hand.

    Do any of you see any disadvantage to having the brass strip there even if it isn't in use?

    - Anthony
     
  7. Jim March

    Jim March Member

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    "Do any of you see any disadvantage to having the brass strip there even if it isn't in use?"

    YES. Weight and balance issues. Bill Bagwell, Ernie Mayer, Mad Dog and others have been pursuing a "holy grail" of big, FAST handling Bowies with low tip weight and a center of balance about 1" forward of the grip. All involve a "distal taper", so effectively the basic blade stock shrinks as you head towards the tip. Bagwell has done more research into the origins of the blades and techniques of the Mississippi river valley of 1820 - 1850ish than the others but having personally handled big Bowies by all three, I can say with authority that they're all knocking on the same basic doors. Handle a Bagwell Helle's Belle, Black Cloud fighting Bowie or a Mad Dog Panther and you'll know what I mean.

    A buncha brass on the blade would screw these up completely.

    During the same period and subsequent, there were big "chopping Bowies" being made too. We know that by the time of the Civil War, the Brits at Sheffield were producing "Bowie blades" in quantity, sometimes fully equipped and sometimes blades-only for bulk shipping to be gripped here, or sold/traded to Indians as raw blades. God only knows if the Brits got the heft and balance issues fully sorted out; you also had various American makers screwing with the design.

    I can see how a Cowboy of 1870 might want a hefty woodsman's blade that could chop firewood but would be only a secondary weapon if that.
     
  8. BigG

    BigG Member

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    From what little I've read there is no definitive bowie knife. There were several different patterns claimed to be bowies but nobody knows for sure what ol Jim had as it perished with him at the Alamo. The best speculation I read was it was a largish butcher knife. Not many more details than that but as Jim March mentioned there were plenty of contenders for the knife buyer's dollar. Arkansas Toothpick was also a common name used for tactical knives in those days. Also Green River.
     
  9. Jim March

    Jim March Member

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    True, but Bagwell and Keating did some digging and kept coming up with references to the "Bowie Back-cut" as a normal thing that ended a lot of fights. And it works best with something with a lot of "tip speed", with pieces that are big, but deceptively fast-handling.
     
  10. CWL

    CWL Member

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    Anthony,

    Espada y Daga & similiar styles of martial arts practiced in Asia are of Spanish origin, not Italian. Spanish ships sailed the world.
     
  11. BigG

    BigG Member

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    True, I seem to remember the knife was sharpened on the back false edge.
     
  12. ahenry

    ahenry Member

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    True, but if the blade was designed from the ground up with a brass strip I think the fast blades could be still be obtained. I don’t see any reason at all to put the strip on a Bowie of today, but if you wanted to and were having one built for you, its possible you could maintain the fast blade and have the brass on the spine.


    BigG, an Arkansas Toothpick is totally different from a Bowie.

    As to what (if any) use a brass strip would have, I don’t buy that it was used to handle blows from larger weapons. First, the spine of a Big Blade was already flat so the brass wouldn’t add anything there. Perhaps the malleability of brass allowed it to absorb some of the blow better than the steel of the blade, but it doesn’t seem likely to me. A longer blade like a sword would be able to overpower the smaller blade (give equivalent human strengths) with or without the brass. What is gained then? If brass strips were ever actually used on a fighting Bowie then I think their use was to catch an opponents blade.
     
  13. BigG

    BigG Member

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    I know but it was still a contemporary fighting knife with the Bowie. From what I remember of what I read most of the knives then were imported from Sheffield England. All kinds of tacktical names like BIG BAD COYOTE KILLER, IIRC.
     
  14. Anthony

    Anthony Member

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    CWL: Yes, I know Espada y Daga is based on the Spanish style, but the Italian and Spanish styles had considerable influence on one another. The sword and dagger technique was also common in Germany. This is partially because at the time Italy was not country, but a myriad of small nations which often "rented" their armies out to other nations as mercenaries for war. Further, Italian instructors worked throughout Europe as instructors to other countries. It would not surprise me if Spanish and German instructors also taught abroad as well. It has even been theorized by Arnis historians that mercenaries from other countries like Italy and Germany may have accompanied the Spanish in their war with the Filipinos?

    With that said,

    Yes, I would think one could construct a knife with both the brass strip and exquisite balance. I'm not sure how difficult this would be though. It does raise a good question to be asked of any prospective custom makers.

    Thank you for bring up the balance issue.

    Does anyone have any suggestions of top drawer makers of fighting Bowies?

    - Anthony
     
  15. BigG

    BigG Member

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    AG Russell sells a lot of bowie type knives but I don't know what a "fighting knife" is, really. The Randall was always talked about as a fighting knife in our day. Also the Ka-Bar.

    Thre are coffin handle bowies but they really leave me a little cold with their appearance.
     
  16. bobs1066

    bobs1066 Member

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    A original brass strip on an old Randall Smith bowie has the effect of multiplying the value of the knife...:D
     
  17. Joe Demko

    Joe Demko Member

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    Too many "taktikewl" bowies are way too thick. If you are looking for a dedicated weapon, then something with a mondo-heavy blade probably isn't the direction to go. You actually end up with something more like a pointy meat cleaver when you buy one. In combat, the ability to strike quickly, and therefore first, can't be valued highly enough. Look for a bowie with a relatively thin blade. It doesn't matter if it won't chop down a full-grown mahogany tree or whittle a cast iron engine block. You want a fast blade, capable of taking a good edge, and heat treated properly so that it doesn't snap or permanently bend. Interestingly, the old Western Cutlery bowie was a lot like this. The handles were too thick, and needed thinned down a bit for me. The big S-guard also needed trimmed and the false edge didn't come sharp from the factory. But in an afternoon with some simple tools you could turn one into a first-class "fighting" bowie.
     
  18. ahenry

    ahenry Member

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    Uh Golgo-13, the point being made (pardon the pun) was that a properly made bowie, doesn’t have to sacrifice anything to speed. If you’re basing your opinion of a big blade solely on "lesser" knives that just have the traditional shape, then you do yourself a disservice. I recommend a look at a Bagwell Bowie to see how even a large and fairly thick blade can still be incredibly fast.

    I misunderstood you BigG. I’m with you on the toothpick being another version of that days “fighting knifeâ€.
     
  19. Joe Demko

    Joe Demko Member

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    Uh, actually there ahenry old sock, the point of the distal taper that Mad Dog and Bagwell use is thin down a blade in the appropriate areas so that it will be fast in the hand. To that, I will add that thin blades cut better. Try slicing (not chopping) meat with a thick blade and then a thin one sometime.
    I have a number of bowies from various makers and factories in my personal collection, which I have been building since the 70's. Thicker does not equate to better. The Western Cutlery bowie remains one of the more cost-effective variations out there. A genuine Bagwell or a Mad Dog will set you back a far more significant chunk of money. If there is one thing I have learned about knife people over the years, it is that expensive knives tend to see very little use. Maybe you aren't that way, but the majority of high-end knife owners use their expensive toys very lightly or not at all. Thus, in the years I have played with knives, I have tried to pick out cost-effective knives to point out to friends who want a knife for a particular task, but who cannot or will not pay hundreds for a knife.
    Finally, back when knives were part of the "main show" most people carried specimens produced w/o any great sophistication. A typical "Old Hickory" knife is closer to what your average frontiersman carried than one of Bill Bagwell's pieces is. Jim Bowie, at least initially, used a knife produced by Rezin's blacksmith. I suspect that today's high-end knives are far more sophisticated and well thought out than the vast majority of the knives produced during the bowie's period of actual use were.
     
  20. Bruz

    Bruz Member

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    I was given a Bowie knife with a "clip-on" brass strip and always wondered what it was for...is it possible that the knife was used as an "all purpose" tool for cutting, hacking, fighting, and the brass strip could be used to protect the blade if one needed to hit the blade in order to use it as a "chisle" to go through bone or something? Also, I have always wanted to know more about the knife, it is a Case XX 1836 with a black "plastic" handle and a picture of Bowie on the blade...whats a good site where I can look it up?

    EDIT...when am I going to learn everything is on E-Bay! :rolleyes: If anyone is curious what the copper rail looks like... http://cgi.ebay.com/ws/eBayISAPI.dll?ViewItem&item=2157571869&category=10949
     
    Last edited: Feb 6, 2003
  21. BigG

    BigG Member

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    The brass I understand because it is softer than the blade will catch an opponent's edge and allow you to tie it up or flip it out of the way and stab him. This is theoretical of course. I do not know of anyone living who has successfully used this technique. Some of the legends of Jim Bowie indicate that he might have used it. :confused:
     
  22. ahenry

    ahenry Member

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    I agree. I also agree with my earlier comment that a properly made big blade can still be fast as well as fairly thick. Much of this obviously depends on the length and width of the blade. A 10 inch blade can be thicker than a 15 inch blade. A 1-2 inch wide blade can be thicker than a 3 inch wide blade. Mix and match dimensions and steels and you have the ability to create a fast yet thick big blade. You’re right that a thin blade can more easily cut something like meat than a thick blade. But then a thick blade can more easily chop something like a limb. What’s your point? Each blade profile has its advantages and its disadvantages. The important issue here for Anthony is to determine his needs and be aware that a fairly thick, yet still fast, big blade is entirely possible.



    That is perhaps true, perhaps not. The origin of Jim Bowie’s first “Bowie†knife is somewhat obscure. Some hold that Rezin first designed, and had the plantation blacksmith build, a rough profile of the blade after slicing his hand on an older design. Some say that Jim Bowie himself came up with the design after his sandbar duel and while he was bed ridden. Some say he himself designed the knife prior to that incident, back while he was turning himself in for running slaves for LaFitte. My personal view is that Rezin probably did design a knife with a guard and very probably gave the knife to Jim as the popular view holds. However, I believe that the clip point was entirely Jim Bowie’s design and my guess is that the first knife with both guard and clip point, was built by the best blacksmith Bowie was able to find. Whether that person was James Black and whether Black really had any special process is debatable. I think it is most probably however that Bowie chose not to spare any cost in the creation of his fighting knife. I believe that the knife, if any, given to him by his brother was at best a crude prototype and lacked several important features. The first “Bowie†knife was a creation of Jim Bowie and was most likely not built by the old plantation blacksmith.
     
  23. Joe Demko

    Joe Demko Member

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    ahenry,
    I think you'd have difficulty finding original sources praising blades for being thick prior to the 20th century. Marbles started everybody down the road toward ever-thicker blade stock. In the 70's, when I started collecting, 1/4" stock was the "real deal." since then, I've seen ridiculous pieces made out of 1/2" and 3/4" stock. AG Russell is doing the cutlery world a great favor by trying to start a trend back to thinner blades.
    What is the point about meat cutting? Simple. People are made mainly out of meat. I've dissected one, so I'm pretty sure about that. A properly wielded thinnner blade will sever a hand just as easily, if not more so, as a thicker blade. The thinner blade will also do a very fine job of slashing and slicing up soft tissue w/o the wedginess issues presented by thick bladed pieces.
    As for your thoughts on what the "original" bowie was like and who designed it, they are your thoughts. James Bowie, himself, wasn' courteous enough to leave us a set of blueprints or a written description. Rezin, who appears to have been somewhat of a BS'er, left more info. There are also a few bowies floating around that Jim and Rezin presented to people. If you have some knowledge of what the real true authentic bowie looked like, who designed it, and who made it, please spill that info. There's an army of historians and knife enthusuasts out there dying to know about it. If you want my opinion, I don't believe there was "a" bowie knife. James probably owned lots of weapons, particularly during his wealthier interludes. Any knife he owned or used was, therefore, a bowie knife.
     
  24. ahenry

    ahenry Member

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    Perhaps we’re disagreeing based on what we each consider “thickâ€. FWIW, I wasn’t trying to say you could make a super fast blade out of 15 inches of ¾ inch steel. I understand your point about people being made of meat. People also have bones. A scalpel will do a heck of a job slicing through a leg muscle but you might as well forget about going through bone. The point here is that a Bowie knife is a design well suited to do a multitude of tasks and if one wishes to emphasize the tasks better suited with a thicker blade, one can while retaining blade speed. Again, the entire point of my statement that a properly made Bowie can be “thick†and still be fast is so that Anthony can dictate his criteria and know that a compromise in that specific area is not necessary.

    Of course my thoughts on the origination of the Bowie are my thoughts. Thats why I took the time to state that “I believe†and “I think†throughout. Of course your comment that Bowie originally used a knife designed and built by Rezin and the plantation blacksmith are just as much “your thoughtsâ€. I am not privy to anything that hundreds of historians haven’t been privy to. I merely took the time to read all I was able to and then draw my own conclusions. Thinking for myself isn’t something I have been able to forego simply because somebody with a string of letters after his name tells me what he believes.
     
  25. skinwalker

    skinwalker Member

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    brass backed bowies

    I have seen some really old bowies with brass backs , and some of the older knives are thick bladed , and some thin . I think that all comes down to personal preference. as for bowie or james black being the first to combine a large gaurd with a clip point blade , thats just not so . I have handled a knife that was used by a landsknecht in the 15`th century that would be recognized today as a bowie , gaurd, sharpened clip point , the whole nine yards ! I prefer a large blade with a nice distal taper , and yet a heavy thick bladed knife is just as effective as a weapon , dont think so ? ask a gurhka ! as for the brass strip , your guess is as good as mine ! I see no real reason for it other than being able to charge a bit more , and if done right it does make for a prettier piece.
     
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