The historical Bowie was not a single design, but was a series of knives improved several times by Jim Bowie over the years. The earliest such knife, made by Jesse Clifft at Rezin Bowie's request closely resembled the Spanish hunting knives of the time and differed little from a common butcher knife. The blade as later described by Rezin Bowie, was nine and one half inches long, one quarter inch thick and one and one half inches wide. It was straight-backed having no clip point nor any hand guard with simple riveted wood scale handle. Rezin presented the knife to his brother because of a recent violent encounter with one Norris Wright. This is the knife that became famous after the sandbar duel of 1827. Bowie and Wright were attendants on opposite sides of the duel. When the principals quit the field, a fight broke out among the attendees and Bowie, though seriously injured by a rifle shot, killed Wright and drove his companions from the sandbar. Bowie and his knife, described by witnesses as " a large butcher knife." quickly attained celebrity and the Bowie brothers received many requests for knives of the same design. They commissioned more ornate custom blades from various knife makers including Daniel Searles and John Constable(Cumpston 2007.)
The version most commonly known as the historical Bowie knife would usually have a blade of at least six inches (15cm) in length, some reaching 12 inches (30cm) or more, with a relatively broad blade that was an inch and a half to two inches wide (4 to 5 cm) and made of steel usually between 3/16" and 1/4" thick (from 4.8 to 6.4 millimeters). The back of the blade sometimes had a strip of soft metal (normally brass or copper) inlaid intended to catch an opponent's blade, and also often had an upper guard that bent forward at an angle (S-guard), also intended to catch an opponent's blade or a blade catching notch on the bottom of the tang (Cumpston 2007). The version attributed to blacksmith, James Black had the back edge of the curved clip point, also called the "false edge", sharpened in order to allow someone trained in European techniques of saber fencing to execute the maneuver called the "back cut" or "back slash." A brass quillon was attached to protect the hand, usually cast in a mold.
miniaturized bowie knife (hunting knife).
The English Sheffield knife making region was quick to enter the market with "Bowie Knives" of a distinctive pattern that most modern users identify with the true form Bowie. The Sheffield pattern blade is thinner than the Black/Musso knives while the false edge is often longer with a less pronounced clip.(ibid Cumpston 2007.) The shape and style of blade was such that the Bowie knife could serve usefully as a camp and hunting tool as well as a weapon. Many knives and daggers existed that could serve well as weapons, and many knives existed that could serve well as tools for hunters and trappers, but the Bowie knife was designed to do both jobs well, and is still popular with hunters and sportsmen even in the present day.
The curved portion of the edge, toward the point, is for removing the skin from a carcass, and the straight portion of the edge, toward the guard, is for chores involving cutting slices, similar in concept to the traditional Finnish hunting knife, the "puukko" (though the typical early 19th-century Bowie knife was far larger and heavier than the typical puukko). The blade is generally long enough and heavy enough that the knife can be used as a hatchet or machete, but not so heavy or long as to be cumbersome. Most such knives intended for hunting are only sharpened on one edge, to reduce the danger of cutting oneself while butchering and skinning the carcass.
A knife with sawteeth machined into the back side of the blade.
Since the 1960s, Bowie knives with sawteeth machined into the back side of the blade appeared inspired by the Air Force survival knife NSN: 7340-00-098-4327. The sawteeth were intended to cut through the Plexiglas canopy of a downed aircraft. During the Vietnam war the US Army issued them to helicopter crews for the same purpose.