BOWIE KNIFE DESIGN: Trailing Point, Possible Origin and Uses.
I’ve been interested in the bowie knife for several years now and and have been exploring the pros and cons of different designs. One element I’ve been examining of late is the clip point and more specifically, the pros and cons of the straight vs the trailing clip point.
The photo above shows five bowie knives that have a trailing clip point.
From top to bottom they are:
1: Survival Bowie from Ricardo Vilar
2. Cold Steel 1917 Frontier Bowie
3. Cold Steel Black Bear Bowie machete
4. Ontario Knives SP-5 Survival Bowie
5. Ontario Knives SP-10 Raider Bowie
Here are four knives with a straight clip point.
From top to bottom they are:
1. A cheap clone of a Cold Steel Trailmaster that I use as a practice knife.
2. Cold Steel OSI. Note; the rubber top guard and sub hilt are removed for better use as a camp kitchen knife.
3. A Cold Steel Recon Scout that custom knife maker Zach Whitson modified for me with a micarta handle and steel butt cap.
4. Cold Steel SRK in Carbon V
So, what’s the difference between the two styles? First I should mention that both tip styles are classified as clip points by most knife makers and historians. I use the terms “trailing” and “straight” as a reminder of the differences in function that each style brings to the table.
What I call the Trailing Clip Point has a concave curve from the beginning of the false edge to a point that meets or nearly meets the spine, or rises beyond it.
Meanwhile, what I call a Straight Clip Point is, as the name implies, a false edge that runs in a straight line to the tip.
My preferred blade shape for many years has been the straight clip point style, as this fits in better to the martial art I’ve been training in since 1975, ( the Pekiti-Tirsia system of Filipino martial arts ). However, as I have studied the history of the trailing point and learned about its use, I have come to appreciate where and when this style might be a better choice in some circumstances.
First some general background on the clip point on blades. While some may think of this as an invention first used on the early 19th century Bowie knife, this design goes far back in history and can be seen on the early Medieval “Broken Back” or type 4 Seax (1) , Medieval Falchions ( 2) and Grosse Messers (3) of the 13th to 16th centuries.
Seax typology charts downloaded from the work of Kirk Lee Spencer at:
Matt Easton: Anglo-Saxon seax compared to 19th century Bowie knife (Excellent channel that I highly recommend)
MEDIEVAL SINGLE EDGE TYPOLOGY CHART (note the clip point falchions in type 3) https://www.deviantart.com/shad-brooks/art/Elmslie-Typology-of-single-edged-medieval-swords-629294615
15th Century Medieval Falchion (2)
Plate from 15th Century fighting manual of Hans Talhoffer showing fighting with the Messer (3)
Cold Steel MMA Messer
(For info on the difference between a falchion and a messer see note 10)
St. Bartholomew. 1523 engraving by Albrecht Durer.
Saint Bartholomew is shown with one of the weapons of his martyrdom. It is common for saints in Renaissance art to be shown with the weapons that were used to execute them. Tradition has St. Bartholomew being skinned alive and then beheaded. You will see many depictions of him with a knife in his hand that resembles what we would think of as a “bowie” knife.
As you can see, the clip point on swords and knives is an old design, but how did it originate?
Some historians will say that the name “clip point” refers to the “clipper ships” of the late 17th through early 19th centuries (4). But many blade smiths will contend that the term comes from how the tip on a blade with that shape was formed, by “clipping” the excess steel from the tip to form a point. There is good evidence for the smith’s argument on this contained in the historical blade forging process itself.
Before the widespread use of the Bessemer process furnace in the late 19th century, (7) steel was expensive, had inconsistent carbon content and often contained impurities that affected the quality of the tools made with it. Therefore, blade smiths developed techniques to mitigate these problems.
I have taken several blade smithing lessons down through the years. The first in 1984 in Texas, (unfortunately I don’t recall the smith’s name) and another in the 1990s with Dan Maragni (formally with Cold Steel and now with Ontario Knives. See note 8 ) and the latest in 2013 with Brazilian bladesmith Ricardo Vilar (9). Added to this is what I’ve learned from my fellow instructors at the New England Bladesmith Guild seminar at Ashokan, NY over the 20+ years I have taught and lectured there. (5)
These classes were in the old school method of blade making by forging hot steel with hammer and anvil. One thing that was emphasized in each class was how the steel would move under the hammer when struck. Hot steel becomes malleable when above a certain temperature (varying by carbon content, among other factors) and can be formed into desired shapes by repeatedly striking with a hammer.
One of the first steps in the forging classes I took was to pre-form the shape of the blade by bending it inward, towards the edge. This is because when you are hammering the edge to form a bevel, the steel will spread out from the hammer blows, bending the bar upward, away from the edge, which is being made thinner but broader by the hammer. If you start with a straight bar without a pre-form, you will end up with a curved blade that resembles a saber, scimitar or shamshir. (11)
1796 British Cavalry Saber
Ottoman Kilij and Egyptian Shamshir
So, if you start with a straight bar of steel and hammer it along the edge, you will end up with a backwards curving blade, such as a saber or scimitar: but what happens when you get to the end of the bar? Your hammer blows on the edge will stretch that area out so that you end up with a curved tip on the blade that looks very much like a trailing clip point. If you don’t wish to have a trailing point, but wish to have a straight point, then one way is to cut off or “clip” the trailing point to make it straight. These days, with our modern, homogeneous steels, a blade smith can form whatever tip he wishes. But in ancient times, with steels whose exact composition was unknown, it was often safer to either keep the trailing point on the blade, or to clip off the excess. The reason for this is that our modern steels are more forgiving on multiple trips to the fire than were most ancient steels. (Although, even with modern steels, the fewer “heats” the better for our blades).
STRAIGHT VS TRAILING CLIP POINTS: PROS AND CONS
The first swords I saw with a clip point were the pinuti swords from my teacher's region of the Philippines, the Visayas. He had given me and the other senior students a pinuti for our use during the 1983 training camp. This straight clip sword was a versatile design that fit in well with the techniques we had been learning in the Pekiti-Tirsia system. The pinuti’s point being in line with the middle of your grip meant that you knew where the point was and could easily use it in a variety of thrusts, both straight ( like a fencer’s lunge ) and curved (like a boxers hook ).
In the years since my early days of training, I have come to learn that there is a reason for the great variety of blade shapes around the world and all have their specific uses. The videos below show some of the uses of the trailing point on the bowie knife, both in wilderness survival and in combat use.
SURVIVAL WITH THE VILAR JUNGLE SURVIVAL BOWIE
The Bowie Back Cut 1: While the back cut is a useful technique to know, you still have to do your part, which begins with a sharp blade.
BOWIE KNIFE BACK CUT 2: Edge Down vs Edge Up. In this video I examine the pros and cons of two variations of the back cut; one with the bowie knife held with the cutting edge facing downward and one that was said to be favored by James Bowie, with the cutting edge facing upwards.
9. RICARDO VILAR: https://www.uaht.edu/vilar-forged-in-fire-champion/
Also read: https://www.army.mil/article/230811/ny_guard_soldier_passes_tough_brazilian_jungle_warfare_course
10. Medieval Misconceptions: the TRUE origin of the KNIFE SWORD - Messer
11. Early development of sabres - introduction
12. For more on the subject of blade design and history, please see the following videos.
Historic Arkansas Museum Bowie Knife Exhibit
The Origin of the Bowie Knife
Pre-Bowie fame Bowie knives:
Bowie Knife 1820-1870
Bardini: Saint Michael and the Dragon. Notice the falchion in St Michael's hand.
FILIPINO ITAK By Jpogi - Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=50116412