The version most commonly known as the historical Bowie knife would usually have a blade of at least six inches (15cm) in length, some reaching 12 inches (30cm) or more, with a relatively broad blade that was an inch and a half to two inches wide (4 to 5 cm) and made of steel usually between 3/16" and 1/4" thick (from 4.8 to 6.4 millimeters). The back of the blade sometimes had a strip of soft metal (normally brass or copper) inlaid which some believe was intended to catch an opponent's blade while others hold it was intended to provide support and absorb shock to help prevent breaking of poor quality steel or poorly heat treated blades common on imported Bowie knives from England. Bowie knives also often had an upper guard that bent forward at an angle (S-guard) intended to catch an opponent's blade or provide protection to the owner's hand during parries and corps-a-corps. Some Bowie knives had a notch on the bottom of the blade near the hilt known as a "Spanish Notch." The Spanish Notch is often cited as a mechanism for catching an opponent's blade, however, some Bowie researchers hold that the Spanish Notch is ill suited to this function and frequently fails to achieve the desired results. These researchers, instead, hold that the Spanish Notch has the much more mundane function as a tool for stripping sinew and repairing rope and nets, as a guide to assist in sharpening the blade (assuring that the sharpening process starts at a specific point and not further up the edge), or as a point to relieve stress on the blade during use. The version attributed to blacksmith James Black had the back edge of the curved clip point, also called the "false edge," 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 quillon was attached to protect the hand, usually cast in a mold. The English Sheffield knife making region was quick to enter the market with "Bowie Knives" of a distinctive pattern that most modern users identify with the true form Bowie. The Sheffield pattern blade is thinner than the Black/Musso knives while the false edge is often longer with a less pronounced clip. The shape and style of blade was such 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, similar in concept to the traditional Finnish hunting knife, the "puukko" (though the typical early 19th-century Bowie knife was far larger and heavier than the typical puukko). Arkansas culturalist and researcher Russell T. Johnson describes the James Black knife in the following manner and at the same time captures the quintessence of the Bowie Knife: "It must be long enough to use 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." 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.
Since the 1960s, Bowie knives with sawteeth machined into the back side of the blade appeared inspired by the Air Force survival knife NSN: 7340-00-098-4327. The sawteeth were intended to cut through the Plexiglas canopy of a downed aircraft. During the Vietnam war the US Army issued them to helicopter crews for the same purpose.
This knife became famous as the knife used by Bowie at the Sandbar Fight, which was the famous 1827 duel between Bowie and several men, including a Major Norris Wright of Alexandria, Louisiana. The fight took place on a sandbar in the Mississippi River across from Natchez, Mississippi. In this battle Bowie was stabbed, shot, and beaten half to death but managed to win the fight.
Jim Bowie's older brother John claimed that the knife at the Sandbar Fight was not Cleft's knife, but a knife specifically made for Bowie by a blacksmith named Snowden.
Bowie returned, with the Black-made knife, to Texas and was involved in a knife fight with three men who had been hired to kill him. Bowie killed the three would-be assassins with his new knife and the fame of the knife grew. Legend holds that one man was almost decapitated, the second was disemboweled, and the third had his skull split open. Bowie died at the Battle of the Alamo five years later and both he and his knife became more famous. The fate of the original Bowie knife is unknown; however, a knife bearing the engraving "Bowie No. 1" has been acquired by the Historic Arkansas Museum from a Texas collector and has been attributed to Black through scientific analysis.
Black soon did a booming business making and selling these knives out of his shop in Washington, Arkansas. Black continued to refine his technique and improve the quality of the knife as he went. In 1839, shortly after his wife's death, Black was nearly blinded when, while he was in bed with illness, his father-in-law and former partner broke into his home and attacked him with a club, having objected to his daughter having married Black years earlier. Black was no longer able to continue in his trade.
Black's knives were known to be exceedingly tough, yet flexible, and his technique has not been duplicated. Black kept his technique secret and did all of his work behind a leather curtain. Many claim that Black rediscovered the secret to producing true Damascus steel.
In 1870, at the age of 70, Black attempted to pass on his secret to the son of the family that had cared for him in his old age, Daniel Webster Jones. But Black had been retired for many years and found that he himself had forgotten the secret. Jones would later become Governor of Arkansas.
The birthplace of the Bowie knife is now part of the Old Washington Historic State Park which has over 40 restored historical buildings and other facilities including Black's shop. The park is known as "The Colonial Williamsburg of Arkansas". The American Bladesmithing Society has also established a college at the site to teach new apprentices, journeyman, and masters in the art of bladesmithing.
Over the years many knives have been called Bowie knives and the term has almost become a generic term for any large sheath knife. During the early days of the American Civil War Confederate soldiers carried immense knives called D-Guard Bowie knives. Many of these knives could have qualified as short swords and were often made from old saw or scythe blades.
The Bowie is still popular with collectors, in addition to various knife manufacturing companies there are hundreds of custom knife makers producing Bowies and variations. The KA-BAR Knife of World War II fame is based on the Bowie design. Custom knife maker, Ernest Emerson originally used a Bowie knife in his logo and manufactures a folding Bowie known in his line-up as the CQC13.
The Bowie knife is sometimes confused with the "Arkansas toothpick," possibly due to the interchangeable use of the names "Arkansas toothpick", "Bowie knife", and "Arkansas knife" in the antebellum period. The Arkansas toothpick is essentially a heavy dagger with a straight 15-25-inch blade. While balanced and weighted for throwing, the toothpick can also be used for thrusting and slashing. James Black is also credited with inventing the "Arkansas Toothpick" but no firm evidence exists for this claim. Jim Bowie was posthumously inducted into the Blade Magazine Cutlery Hall of Fame at the 1988 Blade Show in Atlanta, Georgia in recognition for the impact that his design made upon generations of knife makers and cutlery companies.