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American Bowie Knife
Proud Symbol of Freedom and Power
Part II

Swordplay was a major influence on the handling of the Bowie knife, as we have stated in part one of this article. Now, we will examine some of the specific skills from classical Western fencing that carry over to the large knife.

One of the first things that becomes apparent when training with the Bowie knife is that, unlike training with small folding knives where one can more freely attack the weapon hand, with the long Bowie knives you must deal with an opponent's weapon before you can reach his hand. If a practitioner is in a correct on-guard stance with the Bowie knife, it will force their opponent to "deal with the steel" first. Having a Bowie knife with a large working cross-guard will also help to protect your hand against the cut, and this principle was still being taught in America into WWII.

Another example of folding fighter from the 1800's, this one with a substantial guard.

The cross guard on the Bowie knife is a Western convention on fighting knives back to the cruciform sword guards of the Middle Ages. The correct use of the guard, or quillions (the French term), prevented an opponent's blade from cutting along your blade and striking your hand. This was both a passive protection from a correct on-guard stance, or could be used actively when parrying with the blade. With an "S" or "U" shaped guard, these same parries could turn into traps and disarms. The wide guard can also make grabs to the weapon wrist more difficult. Sometimes in attempting a grab at speed one will accidentally ram their palm into the quillion, and though this does not sound like much, one of our people got a 1/4" deep hole in their palm from a rounded brass guard. Used aggressively, the guard can do a lot, especially in conjunction with the grabbing-hand!

Two Bowie knife designs by Col. Dwight McLemore, made by Bob Burgess of Edges2
One can see the Main-Gauche's inflence on the Scorpion, which also can mount a side quillion.

Now, since we can come into contact with our opponent's blade before we can come into contact with his flesh, one common strategy adapted from fencing is the use of a beat. This is an attack onto the man's weapon to move it off-line to expose his vital targets. The beat can be done in a number of ways, and in simple or compound series. John Styers summarized the beat as "knocking the man's weapon aside so you can kill him", a simple yet extremely clear description.

Late 1700's "Pre-Bowie" large American fighting knife. Note the substantial guard and saber styling.

The beat may be done with the flat, spine, or blade of the Bowie knife. Each type of beat will have a slightly different effect. The use of the blade to parry and beat was the reason that so many early Bowie knives had a brass strip running along their spine. This brass strip helped to absorb the shock of impact, which might otherwise break a knife made from a hard metal like a file steel. Some authors have maintained that the brass strip would "catch" another blade as it cut into the soft metal, but I do not believe this to be the case.

To maximize the use of this brass strip, some stylists preferred to wield the knife edge up in what we refer to today as a "mountain man" grip. This grip, similar to what might be used for skinning, allowed for the use of the spine in direct, hard, saber-style parries. These could also be powerful beats which could break a knife or knock it from a man's grasp. If one had to defend against other weapons with the Bowie knife, such as a club, rifle-butt, or tomahawk, this unorthodox grip allowed for a stronger defense in active blocking.

3-step flow drill using the parry with the brass strip

Tod stabs to the belly and I parry with the spine in a back-cut action.
This parry is common to saber fighting of the time period.

I thrust on the high line and Tod parries high and to the outside with the spine.
This is similar to the small sword parry of quarte over the arm

Tod fires a high thrust, and I also parry high and to the outside with the spine.
From here I stab Tod low to his belly, he parries, and the drill repeats with our roles reversed

One special type of beat is the Glissade. This is a small sword technique in which a beat is delivered to the opponent's blade with a gliding forward pressure. The attack following the Glissade is one continuous movement.

From an on-guard position...

Beat with the Glissade, as if I am cutting into his knife.

The thrust springs off of his blade to strike high.

Onward to Part III

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