The Bowie Knife Yesterday and Today

This past Christmas I received a book about the history and unique characteristics of the Bowie knife. It explained in detail, what goes into making a high quality knife. My attention was captured for some time as I devoured the book’s pages, one by one. I had heard of the author, Bill Bagwell, before, and knew that he was a well known bladesmith. He claims that “the Bowie is the most effective fighting and survival knife ever made.” I wanted to learn more. I had no knowledge as to why it is supposedly such an effective outdoor knife. I was intrigued by Bagwell’s claim. What was the Bowie’s role in history and why is it such an effective outdoor knife compared to other knives?

As an Eagle Scout, having spent a number of years hiking and camping, I have developed an appreciation for the design and utility of well-made knives. My assumption before this was that the Ka-Bar was the most effective overall outdoor knife ever made because the Ka-Bar is famous for being the knife of the Marine Corp. It also happens to have the longest steel manufacturing process description of all the knives in any catalog in my library (bathroom).

It turns out that the original Bowie knife was not actually made by Jim Bowie himself, but by his brother, Rezin Bowie, as he explained, “The first Bowie knife was made by myself in the parish of Avoyelles, in this state [Louisiana], as a hunting knife, for which purpose, exclusively, it was used for many years…” It is said that in 1826, in Alexandria, Louisiana, James had an unpleasant encounter with Sheriff Norris Wright, in which he was shot at by the Sheriff, so Rezin gave James the knife. “I presumed that a second attempt would be made by the same person to take his life, so I gave him the knife to be used as occasion might require, as a defensive weapon,” said Rezin Bowie. The exact design of the knife is unknown, but most historians believe that it looked like what is called the primitive Bowie today. Sure enough, James got into another fight not long after, in which Rezin’s knife saved his life.

Over the next few years, an Arkansas blacksmith named James Black made a good number of knives for James Bowie which had thick, ten to fifteen inch blades, brass hand guards, and a curved clip
point tip. James Bowie carried these knives from the late 1820’s to the early 1830’s through several victorious knife fights. It was during this period and by these knife fights, that made James Bowie with his big knife on his side so notorious, and the term “Bowie Knife” came to be. By the beginning of the 1830’s, Bowie knives were being made across the country and even in the city of Sheffield, England, which is still the major cutlery manufacturing city of the United Kingdom.

The Texas revolution began on October 2, 1835 and James Bowie accepted the offer of serving as a colonel in the militia. A year later, Colonel Bowie died in the battle of the Alamo. Soon after James
Bowie’s death, the popularity of the Bowie knife increased dramatically. Everyone wanted a knife with the name “Bowie” stamped onto it to remember him by, and even smaller knives carried his name
because it made them sell.

Although the battle of the Alamo occurred in the state of Texas, and the Bowie is usually thought of as a Texan knife, it was in and around the city of New Orleans and along the Mississippi river from
the 1830’s through the 1860’s that the Bowie knife’s physical characteristics evolved. The original Bowies were built specifically for the job of knife fighting and with a closer look at the environment in and around New Orleans during this period, it is easy to see why the knife design was perfected there.

By 1830, New Orleans housed the second largest port of the United States. This, along with the connecting Mississippi River, made the city a wealthy and important trade center. Up until the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, the region was controlled by the French and the city remained culturally European long after the purchase. The city attracted wealthy people from all over Europe, particularly fencing masters who craved the so-called wild life of living in America. Piracy in the Gulf of Mexico was also rampant at this time, and the majority of pirates were skilled swordsmen with their 25-30 inch cutlasses.

In these years, the knife was considered the most effective concealable weapon in close quarters fighting because small firearms were so inaccurate and sluggish to load and fire. Because of this, wealthy people were willing to pay large sums of money to blacksmiths to develop the perfect knife, giving birth to the deadliest knife ever known—the Bowie.

There is a difference between the ideal fighting Bowie and an ideal survival Bowie, even though the basic design is relatively similar. The ideal fighting Bowie and survival Bowie would have roughly the same blade length of about nine to ten inches, because this is the length that offers the perfect amount of balance and leverage in both scenarios. But the ideal survival Bowie might be a fair amount
heavier overall and have a greater concentration of the weight further up the blade. This concentration of weight further up the blade gives the Bowie a balance more like a hatchet, so that it has greater chopping power, separating it from the more nimble fighting Bowie class.

“Most edged weapons have a specialty. For example, some slice or slash; razors come to mind here. Others, such as the kukri or cleaver, are primarily power weapons and chop at best. Icepicks, spikes, and daggers have penetration as their specialty. The Bowie stands alone among the edged weapons of the world in that it is the only knife that will make all of the cuts as well as the specialty weapons themselves and in some cases even better. A good Bowie will slice like a razor, chop like a cleaver and very nearly as well as a kukri, and will, in fact, stab and penetrate better than a dagger,” explains Bagwell. This quote pretty well sums up why the Bowie is the most effective fighting and survival knife ever made.

So why are so many hollow handled saw back knives sold these days? This is because of marketing. When people saw the Rambo movies, everyone wanted a knife like his. Realistically however, a hollow handle used for holding matches or fishing line only robs the sturdiness and balance of a full tang construction and the saw on the back of a knife makes it much more dangerous to handle—and it won’t cut wood any faster than another knife can chop through it. But the fact is, commercial manufacturers have to keep up with these trends and build whatever will sell, not whatever will work best.

Another classic example of how marketing affects cutlery is the type of steel used in commercial knives. Ninety-nine percent of commercially made knives today are made out of what is called “surgical”
stainless steel. People see the word “surgical” and assume that it is superior steel, but in reality, it is a more brittle, difficult to sharpen steel and won’t hold an edge. The only advantage to stainless is that it doesn’t tarnish very easily, making it well suited for kitchen knives, surgeons’ scalpels or artwork, but for an outdoor knife, it is an unwise choice.

The most common steel used to make pretty much any piece of cutlery from before 1900 was high carbon steel. This type of steel is much stronger than stainless, will hold an edge longer and is quicker
to sharpen. High carbon is an all around better steel for knives than stainless with the only downside that it tarnishes easily, and will rust if not given a finish or seriously neglected.

The third and final type of blade is called Damascus. This type of blade is made from anywhere between 250 and 1,100 layers of steel and iron that have been folded and forged together. Damascus blades have proved themselves as the most durable and legendary blades of all time. So much skill is required to properly forge the layers together that, today, only a handful of the most skilled bladesmiths can create this type of blade properly.

To make things even more complicated, the tempering process of the blade is almost as important as the type of steel used. Tempering means that the steel is heated and then cooled at a selected speed
which determines how hard the steel is. Just because a particular type of steel is hard, does not mean that it is strong. A glass window is an example of this. Glass is very hard but by no means is it strong. The faster steel cools, the harder and more brittle it is. The slower the steel cools, the softer and stronger it is.

New Orleans bladesmiths from the early 1800’s mastered the tempering process in which the back bone and handle of the blade are cooled very slowly to make it incredibly strong and flexible while the
edge is cooled very quickly to make it hard and hold an edge well. No commercial cutleries temper their knives in this way. A custom knife tempered this way will likely cost well over $1,000 and require
a six month wait.

So, where is one to find a well made Bowie that is still affordable? While there are some well balanced knives costing under $300, they don’t have the varied heat tempered blades that I just described. This problem is what prompted me to think of starting a bladesmithing business of my own. Would it be possible for me to learn to make high quality custom Bowie knives myself?

Time will tell. As you read these pages, I have started to craft my first, custom made knife. If it all works out, who knows? Maybe you’ll see an ad in a future issue of this magazine, offering custom
made “Alex” (Bowie) Knives for sale!

How to Prevent Perfectionism from Polluting Your Major Celebrations

Tina SwerdlowWhen we experience a rite of passage, in a sense, we are walking across a bridge. In the process, we are leaving a familiar place and transitioning to an unfamiliar place. These important rite of passage “bridges” in our lives serve as platforms to momentarily embrace, honor, and celebrate major life transitions. Rite of passage rituals—or celebrations—provide us a time to pause, adjust, and balance before moving forward to our next destination. In addition, while our identities are in the rockin’ and rollin’ process, these important celebrations offer our loved ones an opportunity to help stabilize us with their blessings and their heartfelt support.

Many societies recognize and create ceremonies to honor rites of passage. In 1909 French anthropologist Arnold van Gennep authored Les Rites de Passage and shared his theory of socialization, which described how rituals mark the various transitional stages between childhood and full integration into a tribe or a social group.

The three stages that differentiate the rites of passage are:

  • Separation
  • Transition
  • Incorporation

First, during the separation stage, people withdraw from one status to move forward into the next status. When we are in the separation stage and move from a familiar environment into an unfamiliar
environment (which is often combined with an unfamiliar routine) we’re likely to experience substantial amounts of stress. It is common in the separation stage to experience a symbolic “breaking
free” or “cutting away” from the self that we are leaving behind.

For example, when infants are birthed, they leave the familiar dark environment of their mothers’ wombs and are thrust into the light of their new destination…the outside world. In this separation
stage, the infants’ umbilical cords are literally cut to free them from their prior life stage. Clearly, this is an important initial rite of passage.

Next, after the separation stage, we enter the transition stage. In this transitional time, we stand centered on the rite of passage “bridge” and experience the in-between place of the three stages.
We’ve left the known but are currently…in limbo. As a result, transitional times often create a sense of confusion and disorientation.

Adolescence is considered one such major transitional stage. The adolescent has left childhood but is not a full grown adult yet. Most of us are familiar with the “normal” adolescent angst and growing
pains that teens endure—either by remembering our own experiences…or from being parents of teenagers. (I bet some of you are fervently nodding your heads right now!)

Finally, during the incorporation stage, the rite of passage is complete and the new identity is embodied. For example, as citizens in our country—when we move beyond adolescence and we enter
fully into adulthood—we can vote, make a will, and get medical treatment without our parents’ consent.

Intellectually or on paper, these rites of passage seem like a breeze. And, these “major celebratory events” where we pause to receive support and “bridge” our life transitions are supposed to flawlessly play out…right? Well, in theory…yes…but reality is often a completely different animal.

Those of us who are consciously aware of “our humanness” can attest to the fact that flawless expectations, when combined with the pressure of a life transition, will create chaotic thunderstorms
around our important “celebratory events.” Have you noticed that if perfectionism shows up as an “uninvited guest” to our celebrations, then the natural joy of the event is compromised?

Let’s face it, a wedding ceremony, a graduation party, a retirement party, an anniversary party, or any other kind of major celebratory event can amp our stress levels to full throttle—if we allow a
perfectionist to take over. The perfectionist I am referring to here manifests from the inside and is a part of ourselves. It’s the part of ourselves that believes that if we don’t do things perfectly, then we are a failure.

When in a perfectionistic mode, we think in terms of black and white, good or bad. Meanwhile, we focus on results and our fear of failure relentlessly pushes us and prevents us from enjoying (or
appreciating) the small steps toward a goal. Surprisingly, procrastination can “creep into the mix” due to our becoming stuck in obsessive thinking…leading to analysis paralysis.

If we identify with having a strong “inner perfectionist,” then it’s obvious why celebratory rituals can wreak havoc on our nerves-as well as the nerves of those around us. In fact, unbridled perfectionism
can transform an important rite of passage—a major celebratory ritual—into high drama! For example, the sensitive (and potentially fretful) decisions required in creating celebratory events often result
in multiple breathless sighs of “Who-weee….” Such sighs become audible when we consider decisions concerning, who-weee invite, who-weee seat next to whom, who-weee hire to cater, who-weee
choose to photograph the event…and the list of “who-weees” goes on and on.

Okay, you probably have a better understanding now of the stressful issues that often develop during rites of passage. So, are you ready to hear what my suggestions are for preventing perfectionism
from polluting major celebrations? Great, here goes.

Basically, when I work with clients who come to me because they’re stressed about an upcoming major event, I usually teach them some relaxation techniques and then offer them a piece of paper and a
pen. I encourage them to sit quietly with their eyes closed (breathing deeply) for a few minutes. After becoming centered, they focus on the following simple query process.

I ask the client five questions; they think about their responses for a moment, and then jot down whatever comes into their minds.
Here are my questions:

  1. What is my intention for creating (or attending) this celebratory event?
  2. Can I recognize and calm my “inner perfectionist”?
  3. Can I remind myself that there is a “me” and a “we” involved in this important event?
  4. Am I willing to practice assertive communication (to avoid passive, aggressive, or passive-aggressive communication)?
  5. Can I invite my sense of humor into this “rite of passage” process?

Now, let’s brainstorm a scenario of someone who worked with these questions. Katie, a client of mine who was preparing for her upcoming wedding, answered these questions in the following way
(yep, she allowed “her humanness” into the process).

  1. What is my intention for creating (or attending) this celebratory event? I want to give Tom and me a place to publicly share our loving commitment to one another before God. I want the church to look gorgeous with tasteful decorations and fresh flowers. I want the food to taste delicious. I want everyone who attends to have a great time! I want to bring Tom’s family together with my family so that they can bond and celebrate the new life that Tom and I are creating. I want to look beautiful and perfect in my wedding dress.
  2. Can I recognize and calm my “inner perfectionist”? Yes, I see that my inner perfectionist started to show itself in response to the previous question, especially when it comes to how I look. I feel tearful right now. So, to calm my inner perfectionist, I will need to reassure this scared and insecure part of myself that: “I am beautiful and unique inside and out.“ And, I can remind myself that I will do my best to look outwardly beautiful at my wedding. However, I won’t allow the pressure of “perfectionistic expectations” to keep me self-absorbed, which would drain the joy out of embracing the special moments with those around me. I also know that it’s unrealistic (magical thinking) to “hope” that everyone who attends our wedding event “will have a great time.” Since I can’t control the universe, or other people, I need to let go, breathe, and simply focus on being present in each moment (including this one right now).
  3. Can I remind myself that there is a “me” and a “we” involved in this event? Yes, I can clarify my wants and needs regarding the wedding and then attentively listen to Tom’s wants and needs. I am willing to negotiate, since this will be good practice for our becoming a solid couple.
  4. Am I willing to practice assertive communication (to avoid passive, aggressive, or passive-aggressive communication)? Yes, I will use assertive “I-statements” rather than aggressive you-statements” when expressing my thoughts and feelings. I will remember that being on a transitional “bridge” is stressful for Tom, our families, and me. So, speaking my truth in a gentle, respectful way is my goal. I also want to be a compassionate listener for others too. I will keep reminding myself that this wedding is not just “all about me.”
  5. Can I invite my sense of humor into this “rite of passage” process? I will try because taking myself (or this event) too seriously will create high stress and high drama. I can remind myself that I want our wedding to be spiritual and heartfelt, as well as light, joyful, and FUN! Being able to laugh is a good thing!

After Katie answered my five questions and processed her responses, she felt clear about the boundaries that she wanted to tend. She knew that honoring her boundaries (as well as respecting other
peoples’ boundaries) would be a gift to her upcoming wedding. And, prior to the wedding, she reviewed her notes regularly and continually realigned herself with her positive intentions and the insights she gleaned from her inquiry process. In addition, Katie shared my questions with Tom, who gleaned his own set of inspiring insights as a result of completing the simple set of queries.

You too can consider answering my five simple questions before your next rite of passage event. And call me if you’d like to “freshen up” your assertive communication skills or learn some practical and
simple stress-reducing techniques. Then, hopefully, you will be able to prevent perfectionism (and unrealistic expectations) from polluting your major celebratory experiences. Thus, you will allow “bridge experiences” to offer you a nurturing place to pause, adjust, and balance as you move forward to your next destination.

In closing, as you courageously embrace your important rites of passage, remember Albert Einstein’s words of wisdom…”I must be willing to give up what I am in order to become what I will be.”

(Name and client details changed to protect confidentiality)

Attend Trina’s Inspiring Workshop: Managing Emotional and Compulsive Eating at the Women’s Health Center, John Muir/Mt. Diablo
Health System: 1656 N. California Blvd., Suite 100, Walnut Creek, Wednesday, June 30, 6:30-8:30 pm. Seats are limited—register today: (925) 941-7900 option 3.

Trina Swerdlow, BFA, CCHT, is a certified clinical hypnotherapist, an artist, and the author of the 2-CD Set, Weight Loss: Powerful & Easy-to-Use Tools for Releasing Excess Weight. She is also the author of Stress Reduction Journal: Meditate and Journal Your Way to Better Health. Her CDs and her book are available from John Muir Women’s Health Center online store:
Trina has a private practice in downtown Danville. You can reach her at: (925) 285.5759, or To receive her free newsletter, “Trina’s Transformational Tips for Mindful Living,” sign-up at her site: (Certified Clinical Hypnotherapy services in California can be alternative or complementary to licensed healing arts, such as psychotherapy.)
Photo by Susan Wood,

Photo Journal: Tyler Hoffman

This collection of extraordinary images was submitted by Northgate High School senior, Tyler Hoffman.
We suspect we’ll be seeing more from this talented amateur photographer in the months and years ahead—right here in ALIVE!

Tyler Hoffman Photo Journal Tyler Hoffman Photo Journal
Tyler Hoffman Photo Journal Tyler Hoffman Photo Journal
Tyler Hoffman Photo Journal Tyler Hoffman Photo Journal