Hunting Knives: Why Bigger Isn’t Better

Was Jim Bowie’s hunting knife actually a paring knife?

I’d definitely want Jim Bowie on my side in a bar fight. I’d especially want him on my side in a sandbar fight. In fact, it was at the 1827 “Sandbar Fight” that Bowie first distinguished himself as a knife fighter and all-around badass tough guy.

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According to eyewitness accounts, it went down something like this: A duel on a sandbar outside Natchez ended amicably when both men missed, then shook hands. But since many of the seconds and onlookers held grudges of their own, a more informal fight broke out almost immediately.

Bowie, shot in the hip, struggled to his feet and charged his attacker, who then broke his empty pistol over Bowie’s head and knocked him to the ground. (This, remember, was in the days when pistols were single-shot muzzleloaders.)

The other guy shot at Bowie with a second pistol, missed him, and took a bullet from Bowie’s pistol. He then skewered Bowie with his sword cane. Bowie was down, apparently for good. But when the other guy put his foot on Bowie’s chest so he could pull out his sword, Bowie reached up, pulled him down, and finished him off with a large knife that might or might not have resembled the ones we know today as Bowie knives.

Bowie, with the other guy’s sword still in his chest, was then shot and stabbed by another combatant. But before long the fight was slowing down, and the doctors already present at the duel were able to patch Bowie up just fine. He lived almost 10 more years before famously dying at the Alamo.

That day a Bowie knife would’ve been the right tool for the job. But let’s remember that even Jim Bowie didn’t use a Bowie knife for field- dressing or butchering deer. No one else did, either. Such knives were special-purpose tools used only for fighting.

The era’s frontiersmen and mountain men used smaller, more utilitarian blades for hunting, trapping and other chores. A few examples still exist, and re-enactors striving for authenticity use modern-day recreations. Most were small knives that would have looked a lot like your grandma’s wood-handled paring knife. Frontiersmen did occasionally use a skinning knife with a 5-inch swept blade—but only for skinning Buffalo, which tend to be slightly larger than the average whitetail.

A smaller blade provides more control and precision; that’s one reason surgeons use scalpels rather than Bowie knives. Using a larger blade only increases the chance you’ll cut something you don’t want to cut. Potentially, that includes your own fingers. A larger blade is also more difficult to maneuver inside a deer when you’re field-dressing it.

Plus, when you’re not using your knife, you’ll be carrying it. A small folder fits in your pocket, and larger one can ride in a belt sheath or in your day back. Even if you prefer a fixed-blade knife, a shorter one is lighter and less likely to catch on the brush or get in the way when you sit down. For moose or elk, it might be a different story, but most deer hunters are best served by a blade somewhere between 2.5 and 4 inches.

If Jim Bowie were alive today, he’d shake his head at the thought of hunters using knives nearly the size of Bowie knives to field-dress their deer. It’s likely that his distant relative, David Bowie, would also recommend that you not use a Bowie knife for that purpose.*

*The two Bowies are not actually related. But according to Wikipedia, David Bowie was born David Robert Hayward-Jones, then changed his name in the 1960s because he feared his name was too similar to that of Davy Jones, a member of the already famous The Monkees. He actually did choose the surname Bowie because he admired James Bowie and the Bowie knife.

Al Cambronne is co-author of “Gut It. Cut It. Cook It.: The Deer Hunter’s Guide to Processing and Preparing Venison.” His most recent book is “Deerland: America’s Hunt for Ecological Balance and the Essence of Wildness.” On Twitter: @AlCambronne.