I recently had a conversation with a friend on Facebook regarding historical bowies and their use. If you look at original bowie knives, most of them lacked a hilt, and the reason for this was quite simply that lack of a hilt made it easier to carry on the person close to the body. You see the same trend in Balkan knives of the same period. The popularity of the Bowie was established in the 1830s, expanded during the 1840s, and reached its peak in the 1850s and the Civil War. Many bowies were actually made in England, however. The trickle of Sheffield Bowie knives in the early 1830s developed into a flood before the Civil War, with whole factories springing up in England. Bowie knife collections today indicate (not prove) that only about one in ten knives was American made. Union soldiers generally favored Sheffield-made Bowie knives, while Southerners used hand-made versions from individual blacksmiths. After the Civil War the bowie knife diminished in popularity, and by the mid-1870s was relegated to use as a hunting knife, which is where it started, before it became popular again as a fighting knife in the 1970s.
Let’s take a look at some originals:
(Great article, make sure to click through all the photos!)
Interestingly enough, only one original knife survives that was clearly a dueling blade for knife on knife. This blade is of Mexican origin, and is also claimed to be the one Jim Bowie carried at the Alamo,:
It carries a strong Spanish/dueling influence, and it is likely that Bill Bagwell based his extraordinary Hell’s Belles on this design. But as you can see, the original bowies looked very different, and had no hand guard- just like Balkan knives and Caucasian qamas.
Pavle “Paja” Jovanović (June 16, 1859 – November 30, 1957) was a Serbian Realist painter. His most famous and recognizable painting is the Fencing Lesson. Balkan yatagans tend to have larger ears and are often of bone or ivory; I studied them when I was researching Pammachon.
For me, such weapons are clearly used with the system of quadrants used today in saber/backsword fencing, unlike the eastern saber dance which most resembles gatka. But I have to question if we are missing something – there is no hand support for what is clearly a stabbing as well as chopping weapon. Why? This is not a shamshir or kilij, where the thrust was primarily a backcut during which the hand does not indeed slide (tried it full force on a cow torso with a real kilij while wearing leather gloves). But for the Balkan yataghan I just don’t get it. How is the hand protected from sliding down onto the blade during a stab?
The qama, Pammachon’s short sword, has two little studs that guide the edge and prevent slippage. It also has a pseudo-guard your hand slips into; I have thrust one through a bull’s spine as a test. But the yataghan escapes me.
As I mentioned earlier, the bowie, like the saber and the kilij, relies on the backcut for much of its functionality. Without the backcut, the bowie quickly becomes irrelevant. So my question is, how many points are we missing? My brief 44-year sojourn in the martial arts and hand to hand combat has shown me that people tend to forget many details very quickly, within a decade for example – I have proven that repeatedly myself during my own studies. So again, the question is, are we missing the point during historical reenactment and reconstruction? Do we lack vital information? And if so, are our egos preventing us from discovering that information? Are we trying to become IMPORTANT rather than trying to discover the truth?
If you are primarily ego-driven, chances are that you are wearing blinders of a sort. And in this day and age, many of us are motivated by our ego and desires rather than the primary function of the warrior, which is to protect the group, and to lose personal ego and desire. Remember, you only have to fear what you carry with you into the Dark. Many of us carry a 50 kilo backpack of subconscious and unconscious urges and hatred with us all day long – that is why we fail.