There is no knife more etched in the national consciousness of America than the bowie knife. It is a symbol of individual power and freedom, of fighting for a just cause against all odds, and of the noble traditions of fencing and dueling. Though Jim Bowie never taught anyone to fight "just like him", we know that tens of thousands of Americans carried Bowie knives "back in the day" and fought all kinds of ways with them. Some schooled, some not, but the Bowie knife is its own teacher, though an unfogiving one.
There were many schools which taught the Bowie knife along with other arms, found in such places as men had need of them. In cities like New Orleans there was a long heritage of Masters at Arms; professional fighters who could teach a man to duel and to defend their life on the streets. One must realize that the 19th century was a dangerous time. If you were poor, there was no social safety net of welfare. You were either a criminal of some kind, or effectively a slave to your job to eek out a meager subsistence (sadly, in many ways no better than today). Either way you were probably armed, angry, and a real danger when intoxicated, which was not an uncommon way for people to block out the pain of their lives (again, much like today).
The open carry of the Bowie knife, either alone or with a pistol, was quite common, and gentlemen out for an evening would sometimes be required to "check their tools" at the door of a theater or party along with their coats! What made people at the time nervous was not the open carry of weapons, but their concealed carry. It was made a crime to carry a Bowie knife or pistol concealed, as they felt it showed that you had bad intentions. Exceptions to these laws were made for travelers far from home, who it was felt had more need of a "hidden helper".
Open carry of weapons was considered a man's right
in the 19th century, and it was felt that an armed society was a
polite one as well. Pistols and Bowie knives were to some extent
another fashion accessory for men in the period, and were just
another thing a person might wear, even if they didn't have the skill
or heart to use them. Others took pride in their skills in using
them, and may have had different knives or pistols to wear with
different outfits. Cassius Macellus Clay referred to his one Bowie
knife as his "Fancy dress-up Bowie." Still, when pressed by
circumstance, American's are a tough people and "do not go quietly
into that dark night."
To the American mind, fighting for your life was an act not only allowed by their faith, but it was an act almost required in response to one who would murder you. To allow a bad person to simply murder you was akin to suicide as far as sins go. Just as it was believed that you would not go to Heaven if you committed suicide, to allow yourself to be murdered was considered near as the same. That meant that for the salvation of your soul, you must fight back under such circumstance. In Thorpe's classic book The Bowie Knife there is a story which I think help illustrate this point succinctly. He tells us of a preacher who marries a young couple and gives the husband a bible and a Bowie knife. He tells him that the bible is for the salvation of the family's souls, and the Bowie knife for their physical salvation (the defense of his wife)!
To the 19th century mind, the Bowie knife was considered almost more deadly than a pistol. It was said that a pistol might misfire, or the shooter may miss the target, but that a Bowie knife in skilled hands was certain death. Though some people today are quick to chime in with sayings like "Don't bring a knife to a gunfight", in the 19th century it was "Don't forget to bring a knife to a gunfight!"
Now, let us examine the methods that were employed
with the Bowie knife. The professionals who taught in the day were
often trained fencing masters or military men. They were swordsmen
who applied their skills to this big American knife. Other great
knife fighters were self-taught, learning whatever "tricks" they
could through the school of hard knocks. The problem there being that
the Bowie knife is an harsh mistress, and there were street brawlers
missing hands from it's gentle steel kiss.
One can only imagine the great skill in fencing that a master like Don Jose "Pepe" Llulla had. He survived 30 duels and numerous other encounters in his long career as one of New Orleans most famous teachers. His skills with the Bowie knife are legendary. He learned his art on the sea, the street, and in the salle' of Maestro L'Alouette. "Pepe" was also a crack shot, able to shoot eggs of the top of his son's head at 20 paces, and clearly skilled in less than lethal means as he served as a bouncer in a sailor's bar prior to his apprenticeship with Maestro L'Alouette.
One important idea from fencing to understand from the beginning with the Bowie knife is the dual concepts of range and time. Every action that you make takes time, and your opponent thus has time to counter if you are slow. To better understand this concept, we will examine 4 Ranges and George Silver's 3 True Times and how this relates to range, defense, and attack.
The closest range allows for an attack using only the Time of the Hand. This is simply executing an attack with the extension of the arm. If you are so close to the opponent that you can hit him by just extending your arm, then you are using the Time of the Hand. You are in danger of being hit before you can react at this range, however, so you do not want to stay in this range unless you have some other control of the man.
The middle range allows for an attack employing the Time of the Body. This is the extension of the arm followed by a turn of the shoulders and flexion of the front knee to gain distance in the attack. Since you have to do two things to hit from this range, it is easier to perceive the threat and counter from this distance.
The long range allows for an attack using the Time of the Foot. This attack starts with an extension of the arm, a turn of the shoulders, and then a step with the lead foot to gain maximum reach. Since one has to do three things to come in and hit from this range it is the easiest to see coming and defend. Still, when used with the non-telegraphic, point-oriented delivery of fencing this attack is powerful and surprisingly quick.
The extended range is the open fight, when the
people are not close enough to immediately strike. You have maximum
time to moniter the opponent as he enters from this range, which
ideally would let you stop-thrust him. A danger in maintaining this
range is that it will eventually force an aggressive opponent to
charge, which can be mutually deadly if you are caught flat-footed.
You want to stay mobile and keep the threat on him as you work from
here. At this range the Bowie knife may be thrown or other weapons
employed. There are many period references to throwing the knife, and
the simple underhand throw using the large Bowie delivers a powerful
and accurate punch from this range.
Now that we have a better understanding of the Times and ranges, it is important to learn them for your own build and specific weapon. Each man's range will vary slightly, and the man who knows his ranges will be able to exploit the subtle differences that others may not perceive. The fencing master knows when he is 1/4" inside his range, and when he is 1/4" too far out. This allows him to use range as a defense and mobility to lure his adversary into position for a deadly "snipe." Train your eyes to judge the distance for each of the Times and you will have a combat skill that will not fade with age.