Life is rough, so you gotta be tough.Johnny Cash
When James Bowie disemboweled Norris Wright with a large butcher knife at the Battle of Sandbar, you couldn’t really blame him.
I mean, Wright’s sword cane was in his chest at the time. And Bowie had already been shot in the hip and had a pistol broken on his head during the skirmish. Not to mention, he’d started wearing the large sheath knife in the first place because Wright had shot him on a previous occasion. So, there is that.
However, after Bowie killed Wright, he pulled the sword out of his chest and was shot and stabbed by Wright’s friends—his doctor said he didn’t know how Bowie was still alive—but he kept fighting and his famous knife managed to do some major damage, including removing one of the forearms of his attackers.
As a result of his Rasputin-like survival at this duel-gone-wrong incident, men everywhere wanted a knife just like the one Rezin Bowie made for his brother, Jim. (Remember, television hadn’t been invented yet. The Battle of Sandbar? That was some top-drawer entertainment, right there. And the media made the most of it.) The Bowie knife was all the rage.
When Bowie died almost ten years later fighting at the Alamo, his reputation was cemented as the ultimate frontiersman. His exploits made it almost impossible for any knife collector not to have a version of the iconic blade in their arsenal. Especially if you’re American or interested in US history. But it’s a knife that is by far not just for collectors. The bowie knife is an exceptional tool whether you’re into camping, hunting, fishing, or just like having the ultimate survival knife with you.
That said, the original Bowie knife probably didn’t look much like the classic bowie knife, the traditional bowie, that we think of today. It was probably just a really, really, big knife. But nobody knows. So if you want us to sell you a perfect replica of the famed blade, we can’t promise you that. But no one can. Today it’s evolved into a clip blade with a false edge along the swoop to the tip—and, generally, it’s still a really, really, big knife.
Ready to take the plunge?
Here’s What You Need to Know
- It’s actually pronounced BOO-ee. But you do you. The English language is ever evolving.
- Make sure the bowie is legal in your state.
Look up the newest information on this. Knife laws change all the time and can be complicated. For instance, bowie knives are illegal in California, but only illegal in Virginia if they are concealed. Also, some infractions of these knife laws are a misdemeanor, but in other states, it’s a felony. Either way, don’t mess around. Be careful.
- Generally, a full tang is best for heavy use.
If you’re purchasing a bowie for display only, don’t worry about this. But if you plan on putting your bowie through the wringer, you need to consider the construction of your knife. The idea is to have the unsharpened part of the blade extend down through the handle. If you didn’t have the scales, you could still hold onto the non-cutting part of the metal and use the knife in much the same way. This keeps your knife in one piece instead of metal and handle going their separate ways on impact and possibly maiming you when you have the sudden urge to chop something. A skeletonized or encapsulated tang may have enough support if you want to lighten up on weight and still have the steel run down through the handle.
- Get the right steel for you.
Steel: Let’s talk steel. Well, to a certain extent. We don’t want a riot on our hands. People have very strong opinions on steel. Let’s just say a lot of bowies are made with carbon steel. Why? Because premium steels with excellent corrosion resistance and great edge retention are usually not known for toughness. With a big blade that’s going to be put to work, manufacturers lean towards using carbon steel. As you figure out the right steel choice for you and your bowie knife, consider the tasks you’re going to put your knife through, how much time you want to put into maintenance, and how much you’re willing to spend.
- Pick size with care.
Bowies are intimidating. Especially around the general, non-knife public. Be careful how you carry your sheathed beauty. When waving it around, maybe stick to outdoorsy environments. Don’t clean your nails in the food court at the mall and pick the size you need for what you’re using the blade for. If you want the biggest just for fun, that might be a display knife. (Or if you need to whack a lot of foliage.) A smaller bowie knife may be more suitable if you’re planning to use your blade in the city as well as the country, and you need more versatility for a variety of tasks. And don’t want to terrify passersby.
When it comes to size, I was going to make some recommendations, but what size comes down to really depends on you. What are you using the blade for? Smaller is more maneuverable and generally can accomplish a greater variety of tasks, but bigger has more reach. People tend to use the tough, larger blades in hunting, batoning, and as a cooler-looking machete.
If you want bigger, I think of it like I do butterfly knives: it takes skill to use one. How good are you at wielding a big knife? Because your skill level will directly impact your success. That clip point is great at fine work if you can maneuver the larger blade. But let’s be honest—if you’re here, you probably already have smaller blades, and you also have the know-how to wield or the ability to learn how to wield a bowie.
Now, let’s talk about specific knives.
Here’s why I like the Special. First of all, it seems buying bowie knives made in the USA is a requirement when collecting. (Similarly, if you like stilettos you should have a least one that’s from Italy.) Bowies and America just go together. It’s not a dealbreaker for me, but I like supporting American businesses and manufacturers.
Buck Knives became hugely popular during WWII, with the Buck Special dominating the market since 1942. To this day, the Special is the choice of hunters and outdoorsmen everywhere. This American tradition is still going strong.
Second, the steel. The 420 stainless steel used to make this blade provides corrosion resistance, is tough, and is easy to sharpen and maintain when you’re out in the field. This model was particularly made for use in hunting but is also an excellent all-around survival bowie knife.
I also appreciate the polymer handle. The swells fit your palm and make it more grippy. It’s easy to clean, too, which is a big plus in a hunting knife.
Full tang, leather sheath, sharp clip point for detail work, and a grippy handle—and all for around $70? This one ticks all the boxes.
Besides, a modified Buck 120 was used in Scream, and that thing was punching through walls! And we all know Hollywood never lies.
When you talk about the Buck Special, you have to talk about the classic Ka-Bar USMC. If they could, those knives would get up on their own and have a fight to the death. They’re the dominators of American-made bowie knives—and knife people tend to have strong opinions on which is better.
It’s a great sharp knife, and it’s easy to sharpen. The black-coated 1095 steel is a good quality, so if you keep your blade dry and oiled, it will serve you well. You’ll find the material is tough and ready to be used for a variety of tasks. The stacked leather handle is classic, provides a solid hold, and looks great.
This is another classic USA-made tactical knife, and it’s also great for self-defense. I’m glad to say it has a full tang, although maybe not the thickest one out there, and it’s at a great price point. I’m all about a good value.
When a bowie and a pocketknife love each other very much…
Let’s go smaller for a minute. Now, you may love the style of the bowie but are realizing the traditional huge that’s-not-a-knife-THIS-is-a-knife thing isn’t something you’ll use a lot in your day-to-day life. If you’re thinking, “Isn’t there something similar but … more useful?” The CRKT Minimalist clip point might just be your go-to.
The stainless steel is tough and corrosion resistant. It’s a softer steel so it won’t hold an edge for an extraordinary amount of time, but it gets razor sharp fast. You’ll have to sharpen it more often, but it’s an easy process and you can always perform the task in front of your daughter’s/niece’s boyfriend while glaring meaningfully at him. It’s called multi-tasking.
The handle is a tough, easy-to clean G-10 which is a huge bonus. The texturing makes it grippy which would be great all on its own, but this CRKT knife was designed to fit like the proverbial glove. It’s small but will fit your hand better than many bigger knives. It just falls into place like it’s been waiting for you for its whole life.
If you read the reviews on our website, our customers recommend wearing this baby bowie as a neck knife and were surprised by how much they love it. And wow, is this little guy inexpensive. For when you’re short on cash or pocket real estate, you might want to consider adding the CRKT Minimalist Bowie to your EDC routine.
This is the only knife we’re covering today that isn’t a fixed blade sheath knife. It’s also a smaller one, but not as mini as the Minimalist.
This little bowie blade makes an exceptional auto everyday carry. It’s fast, snappy, and opens with a satisfying snick sound. The D2 steel is tough and corrosion resistant, and the whole build of this EDC is durable and made to last. There’s a reason the Kalashnikov is so popular.
I love the copper finish on the clip blade, and the tough aluminum handle. This knife design takes its inspiration from the Mikhail Kalashnikov AK-47, and its development resulted in a cool little knife. Love a bowie shape but are more of an EDC person? (And, let’s face it, autos are fun.) This is the blade for you.
“But I told you I wanted a big knife! Don’t you have anything bigger?”
Well, now that you mention it, gentle reader…
The Svord Von Tempsky comes in at almost 17” in overall length and looks like the killer traditional bowie you’ve always dreamed of. With the flame-finished steel and wenge wood handle, I have to agree it’s a beaut. I’d love to hang this on my wall as a collector and take out His Majesty, Mr. McHugeness with me when I go camping.
This knife is a useable New Zealand replica with American roots. When Gustavus Ferdinand von Tempsky participated in the California Gold Rush and discovered a bowie knife, he became skilled. He later used it during the New Zealand wars as a member—and eventual leader—of the Forest Rangers.
The blade is tough L6 carbon steel and will hold up to some abuse but—once again—wipe it down and oil it up when you’re done with your adventures. The tip is strong, it has good bite to it, a nice thick full tang, and yes, it can throw sparks.
The handle is a beautiful wood, so you might worry about the lack of grip if things get slippery. Never fear! We’ve heard only good things—no one seems to have any problem with it, and you do have that sizeable hand guard there so you’re all set.
If you want a beast of a bowie with a gorgeous finish, this is the knife for you. Pricier than the others, but worth it if your budget is up for the ding.
And now for something a little different.
I thought it might be fun to take a look at a bowie that was designed by a skilled bladesmith and created for a different purpose.
Mattia Borrani designed this exquisite Damascus-clad VG-10 blade as an homage to the traditional bowie. This is the American-made chef bowie knife that takes those French, German, and Japanese classics head on. Love to cook? A fan of the pinch grip? This knife is for you. It’s drop-dead gorgeous, has a stylish black micarta handle, excellent balance, and I’d proudly wear this in a sheath—Jim bowie probably did just have a giant chef-type knife—but I’d be more likely to display it prominently with my kitchen knives. If you came to my house, though, I might make you go into my kitchen and gaze at it with open admiration.
Plus, this stylish kitchen knife is available in a variety of looks, some with vaguely-threatening graphics that are sure to keep the attention of your dinner guests. As a collector, a cook, and knife fiend—this is the best of all worlds. If this describes you, then get yours while you can.
I hope I have helped you towards your decision of which bowie knife suits you best. Let us know in the reviews what you appreciate about your new knife!
Also, since most bowie knives are made from carbon steel, check out this Blade HQ blog from May: 10 Reasons to Choose a Carbon Steel. And if you don’t believe the Bowie knife’s merits as a survival tool, check out this video where we put the Bowie to the test!