The Ozarks: Survival of a Culture 
 Through Timeless Turmoil, Bravery and Blood. 
                                                         By James Keating / Master At Arms - Comtech

The first European to reach Arkansas was the Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto in 1541.
At one point in history the high plateau of the Ozarks was considered to be on the edges of the civilized world. It was a gateway to the "frontier" that lay beyond. A wild and beautiful place that encompassed the older world along with the promise's of the coming new world. It was a rough place, wild animals, earthquake prone and largely unexplored. A place where men were as wild as the mountains themselves.

In a time when there were no cars, river travel and horse travel were the only two options available. It is known that men on horseback carry sabers not swords. The saber's curvature, length and weight distribution is ideally suited to cutting tasks while mounted. So it was the saber which dominated the field more so than the sword, at least at that period in time. Moving on to the loyal friend of all warriors the sword, again a weapon still very much in use at the time. The sword could serve as a weapon for either a man afoot or a man who was mounted.

As the frontier became more populated and towns sprung up all along familiar trails and ancient paths the mentality of the people also changed with the land. The need for a smaller yet still functional edged weapon had taken hold of the populace. The saber concept was then downsized. The scimitar-like curve was kept. The sharpened swag or swedge was kept as well. A guard configuration of that like a saber was also adopted. (Think of the D-guard Bowie). As this weapon-cutlery evolution grew into it's apex the Bowie knife emerged triumphant. (a superior design cannot be denied). Hence the Bowie is a design which harkens back to it's ancestor the saber. 

The same sort of thing occured in old Italy as men transferred from the sword to a more civilized and practical form weaponry called the "Espada Ropera" or "clothing sword". A smaller and less cumbersome edged weapon was needed and thus one was created and it was called The CINQUEDIA (or the "five finger dagger"). It was a nortorious old world design known for producing grievous wounds. The Cinquedia is a weapon that very much resembles the Arkansas Toothpick and they were both created for the same reasons. Great minds and great cultures often do think alike! The Arkansas Toothpick is a large double edged, double guard type fighting dagger (Think Roman short sword). The toothpick is symetrical like a sword. It's balance is like that of a small sword. It is the offspring of the venerable sword. 

The Foil, Epee and Saber are the modern versions of the ancient weapons. The modern versions are meant for sport, their older counterparts were meant for battle. Only the saber teaches the use of the "backcut". This is a specific movement or technque straight out of saber fencing. The Bowie knife also employs this most fiercesome move as well. It is known through Arkansas's oral tradition and legend of Jim Bowie's "dreaded backcut" with his creation the Bowie knife. Indeed this wicked, reticulated blow is one of the finest moves in the knifeman's deadly arsenal of tricks. 

The toothpick was not known as a backcutting weapon. In fact it was meant for thrusting and for throwing as well. It's symmetry and balance makes it an easy knife to throw once you understand it's secrets. In many instances a man would in times past carry a "brace" of weapons. This combination was often a Bowie knife and an Arkansas toothpick - the best of both worlds! There were also hybrids of the two designs that were made and influences from both of the big knives were incorporated. My own CROSSADA for instance is a hybrid design of both Bowie and Toothpick. 

The Toothpick and the Bowie are both impressive tools of protection. But it was James Bowie who used his famous Bowie knife in a series of duels and encounters and that fame propelled the Bowie (and it's creator) into legend. It rapidly became the fashion of the day to openly parade such  large fighting knives in public. The men would boast of their fighting skills and soon trouble would develop. Soon ruffians of the worst sort were using these fierce weapons to intimidate, rob and kill the innocent. You must recall that this was in an era of single shot, muzzle loading firearms. So you may have had one shot, then it would be back to blades. The blade was still the primary weapon of choice for many on the frontier (and continued to be until repeating arms were developed). "These formidable instruments, with their sheaths mounted in silver, are the pride of an Arkansas blood, and got their name of Bowie knives from a conspicuous person of this fiery climate." / November 1834, Englishman George W. Featherstonhaugh

The author Raymond Thorpe in his book "The Bowie Knife" covered the history of this little known period in time when America had actual schools dedicated to teaching the ways of the Bowie knife. These academies where the use of the Bowie knife could be learned were unique to young America. These schools catered to duellists, men at arms and those just wishing to merely survive in those savage times. New Orleans was a hot spot for the training in the ways of the Bowie knife. But other schools existed in several locations in the south. I heartily recommend the book "The Bowie knife"  to any and all fans of the Bowie knife. You are sure to enjoy it.

This period where these edged weapons were most abused soon produced a public backlash. By 1838 congress banned the sale, the making of or the carrying of a Bowie knife. Why? The Bowie and it's hawk-like beak simply produced a wound unlike any other weapon in use at the time. All knives and swords wound severely, but the bowie with it's advanced design wounded to grievously to allow it's continued use in the United States. Just as the roaring twenties gangsters abused the machine gun and got it banned from public access, the bowie too suffered under the ban. It wasn't until the 1950's that the great knifemaker Jimmy Lile finally got the law off the books and repealed! Who Knew?

Another important figure in the history of the Bowie knife was Cassius Marcellus Clay. Known as the "Lion of Whitehall",  Clay championed the Bowie knife like none before him. He is said to have even produced a small manual on the usage of the Bowie knife. Mind you, many men carried Bowie knives, but only a few had been properly trained in their use.  Clay fought many duels and won. He was our first ambassador to Russia. While there he is said to have engaged in a duel with a Russian count. 

Clay was a great supporter and educator of the black race. Clay established a college and a community for the betterment of black people in a time when such feelings could get a man killed. Clay never backed down from his convictions that all men should be free. Because of Clay's legacy the great boxing champ Muhammed Ali was originally named after him, hence Cassius Clay. Some authors have put forth the idea that the Bowie knife is a symbol of the old south slavery days. Nothing could be further from the truth, even to this day the Bowie knife is a symbol of freedom for all men. It is known that Cassius Marcellus Clay had an extensive Bowie knife collection. His teachings, beliefs and skills at the use of the Bowie knife are still with us today. Every time you pick up a Bowie Knife you are handling history, liberty and hope.

The early mentioned Raymond Thorpe also co-sponsored the "Thorpe Bowie" built by the famous Randall Knife Company. This knife and his book heavily influenced a Bowie knife revival during the fifties and early sixties. The Thorpe Bowie still stands strong as an iconic version of the great knife envisioned by the author and fan of the knife. As a gifted writer and American historian Thorpe was one of my favorite writers as I was growing up. I enjoy his style.

Today Arkansas and the south in general is the home to many of the world's greatest bladesmiths. True to it's tradition Arkansas knives are better. The men who make them understand the roots of all of this and reflect that grasp of history in their knives even today. From folders to fixed blades you can be sure of your investment (and life) if you run an Arkansas made knife. 

Washington, Arkansas is also home to the world-renowned Texarkana College/Bill Moran School of Bladesmithing. Established in 1987, the school continues the tradition James Black, the gifted Washington bladesmith who was commissioned by James Bowie in 1831 to hand-forge a weapon that was to become the legendary "Bowie Knife" Colonel Bowie wielded in the defense of the Alamo. The school's prestigious faculty includes some of America's finest bladesmiths and is the only school in the world dedicated to art of making knives and swords.

In 1976, four men gathered in Louisiana to discuss the possibility of creating an organization to keep bladesmithing from becoming a lost art. Bill Moran, my old friend Bill Bagwell, Don Hastings and Bill Hughes met at Bagwell's knife-making shop and traded hopes and fears about the future of forging. Bill actually told me abouth this meeting. After several months of long-distance discussion, they again met, this time at the Shreveport, Louisiana, airport, to sign the papers creating the ABS. A tradition was saved, a new generation was born and the American Masters stepped forth from the shadows into the light. And the good old bowie was right there at the heart of of it all.

Today we are experiencing another revival in the interest of these big knives. Online forums carry on the debate of what Bowie's actual knife must have looked like. They argue the maker, the man and the myth ad infinitum! It is a black hole that can engulf the mind for many years. The possibilities are unlimited as imagination itself. No one really knows the real story, they speculate with intellects as keen as the Bowie's blade itself. But the mystery still remains. Each person in their heart of hearts must decide the truth on these things which we discuss here today. There is a truth as good as any other truth out there and it grows from your own educated opinion. Study, research and share what you discover on this subject of weapons and their ways. Walk the ancient pathways that generations of mankind has walked and feel what they felt.

I am honored to be the ambassador of the Bowie knife to this generation of people. The history of the Bowie is deeply entertwined with this place called Arkansas.  It has sometimes been a trail of blood and regret, at other times it was about survival and victory against all odds. The history of the Bowie knife contains all of the elements of the human condition, elements both good and bad. Pride and confidence are generated when a good man holds one of these wonderous creations of steel. A protector of the realm ye suddenly become. Noble Achilles himself would have smiled had he the chance to own one of these beautiful belles of the battlefield. The Bowie knife is both a high art piece and a deadly unforgiving weapon all rolled up into one. Such is it's mystery and appeal to men of action today, just like it was to old Jim Bowie himself.

To end this I'll leave you with a short quote, a passage from a greater body of work by Rudyard Kipling. My dear friend and colleague Bill Bagwell (King of the Bowie Knife Makers) can say this entire poem by heart by the way, it is quite awesome when he does it. Once at Riddle of Steel he performed it magnificently much to the surprise of all of us! It sent shivers down the spine of every man who was there in that epic gathering!  This is the first passge and it tells all that truly must be said:

Gold is for the mistress
Silver for the maid
Copper for the craftsman, cunning at his trade,
“Good!” said the Baron, sitting in his hall,
“But Iron- Cold Iron – is Master of them all.”
                                                       -Rudyard Kipling