The term Bowie Knife which is commonly used today refers to any large sheath knife but it also applies directly to the specific original design by Colonel James "Jim" Bowie and originally created by James Black.
The historical Bowie knife was not a single design, but was actually a series of knives improved several times by Jim Bowie over the years.
The model most commonly known as the historical Bowie knife was somewhat large and of massive construction, as knives go, having usually a blade at least six inches long and 12 inches was not uncommon, with a relatively broad blade that was an inch and a half to two inches wide and made of steel usually between 3/16" and 1/4" thick. The back of the blade often had a strip of soft metal (normally brass or copper) inlaid intended to catch an opponent's blade, a concept borrowed from the medieval Scottish dirk, and also often had an upper guard that bent forward at an angle, also intended to catch an opponent's blade. The back edge of the curved clip point, also called the "false edge," was often sharpened in order to allow someone trained in European techniques of saber fencing to execute the maneuver called the "back cut" or "back slash." A brass guard was attached to protect the hand, usually cast in a mold. It is likely that the blade shape was derived from the Spanish clasp knives carried in Spain and the Spanish colonies in the Americas.
Bowie was known for his many knife fights which is why the original Bowie Knife was designed primarily as a weapon. The shape and style of blade was chosen so that the Bowie knife could serve usefully as a camp and hunting tool as well as a weapon. Many knives and daggers existed that could serve well as weapons, and many knives existed that could serve well as tools for hunters and trappers, but the Bowie knife was designed to do both jobs well, and is still popular with hunters and sportsmen even in the present day.
The curved portion of the edge, toward the point, is for removing the skin from a carcass, and the straight portion of the edge, toward the guard, is for chores involving cutting slices. The blade is generally long enough and heavy enough that the knife can be used as a hatchet or machete, but not so heavy or long as to be cumbersome. Most such knives intended for hunting are only sharpened on one edge, to reduce the danger of cutting oneself while butchering and skinning the carcass.
Starting in the 1970's a version of the Bowie Knife with sawteeth on the back side of the blade have been very popular with knife collectors, probably due to the knife being displayed and used by Sylvester Stallone's character in the original "Rambo" movie. These knives are still popular today and are sold as survival knives in many cases and are manufactured with a hollow handle that could carry small survival items.
The actual usefulness of sawteeth on a knife is debatable, not to mention the hollow handles, which may be prone to breaking if the knife is poorly constructed, and many contend that the sharp teeth endanger the user when used to gut and skin a large animal carcass such as a deer or elk, as well as making the knife much less useful as a weapon as they make it prone to getting stuck. A proper Bowie knife is long enough and heavy enough that the user can usually chop through wood with it much faster than he could use the saw teeth.
Avid fans of the Bowie knife say that for a knife to be called a "Bowie", it has to be long enough to be used as a sword, sharp enough to use as a razor, wide enough to use as a paddle, and heavy enough to use as a hatchet.
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