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  • The Bowie Knife: Unsheathing an American Legend
  • Nathan E. Bender
The Bowie Knife: Unsheathing an American Legend. By Norm Flayderman. Fwd. by James S. Hutchins. (Lincoln, R.I.: Andrew Mowbrey Inc., 2004. Pp. 512, illustrations, bibliography, index.)

Norm Flayderman's vast experience as an antique arms dealer and historic weapons expert (Flayderman's Guide to Antique American Firearms . . . and Their Values, 8th ed., Iola, WI: Krause Publications, 2001) has allowed him to use his ties to both collectors and scholars to produce a massive, copiously illustrated book that clarifies the history of Bowie knives in general and the development of legends surrounding blacksmiths James Black and James and Rezin Bowie in particular. Flayderman's connections to the world of collectors have allowed him to select some of the finest and most representative examples of Bowie knives imaginable, making the visual aspect of the book stand head and shoulders above previous works on the topic. A first glance may be deceptive, as the extraordinary full color photography by Massis J. Boujikian and Rick Oltmans is so lush that it gives the work the appearance of a coffee table picture book. In the photographs, the knives are often posed decoratively on historic documents, artwork, or even fine firearms. On closer examination, it becomes evident that the lighting and printing are superb, making the knives, and often their sheaths, clearly visible for those interested in details of construction or stylistic elements. Full captions for each picture often provide dimensions and inscriptions. Vintage nineteenth-century photographs of persons wearing or displaying Bowie knives are also used to excellent effect.

However, it is Flayderman's historic overview and well-informed discussion that instantly make this book the authoritative text on the topic. Flayderman goes to great lengths to document the growth of the Bowie legend, showing its many embellishments and distortions over time. The interplay of popular print culture and the development of a body of common folklore that developed into a great American legend is largely detailed through the research and writings of Raymond Thorp, one of the most creative and influential students of the Bowie knife. Flayderman examines Thorp's 1948 book The Bowie Knife (University of New Mexico Press) to reveal in it a strong pattern of misrepresented historical accounts, rewritten material, and even newly written material represented as authentic history or oral tradition. Examples of ideas in Thorp's book based on highly questionable or even fictitious sources are "schools of Bowie knife fighting" supposedly located throughout the nineteenth-century American West and formal Bowie knife duels conducted according to European codes of honor (pp. 312, 481–4). Revisiting Thorp's book is a valuable service. Even though many people already regard Thorp's writings as highly suspect, it is helpful that Flayderman conscientiously validates the general concern. Flayderman also shows how Thorp's writing influenced others, allowing for further research into the ways in which exciting and entertaining popular accounts grow to become generally accepted and influential American legends.

Discussions of Bowie knives as material culture [End Page 373] are, of course, an important part of the text. Topics include the concept of a Bowie knife; the symbolism of recurring stylistic elements; the manufacturing history of the knives in America and Sheffield, England; and the ways to detect frauds and forgeries. Flayderman's extended examination of the half-horse/half-alligator motif found on a number of mid-nineteenth-century Bowies is particularly welcome, as it ties in with the regional folklore of American frontiersmen such as Davy Crockett and Mike Fink.

Flayderman also presents new research in his examination of the marketing of Bowie knives by Sheffield manufacturers, who swamped the American market for nearly a century with knives whose blades were etched with patriotic or political mottos and slogans. These etchings provided a means to express one's political leanings, including such favorites as "DEATH TO ABOLITION," "DEATH TO TRAITORS," "THE UNITED STATES the land of the free and HOME of the BRAVE protected by her noble and brave VOLUNTEERS," and nonpolitical etchings such as "I'm a real Ripper" or "NEW ORLEANS HUNTING KNIFE" (pp. 403–34). One cannot help but compare this marketing strategy...


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