Sunday, February 20, 2011

D-Guards and Toothpicks

D-Guard Bowie Knife

Arkansas Toothpick

Among Confederate troops, the most popular knife was a version of the Bowie knife; a knife with a 10 to 18 inch blade and a D-shaped knuckle guard affixed to the handle.  Because of its elongated blade, the D-Guard Bowie knife was more like a short sword than a knife.  Countless photos or carte de visites show young “Johnny Rebs” posing with their drawn D-Guard Bowie knives, held upright and close to the chest. 
The Bowie knife evolved from a series of designs.  Its actual inventor has never been fully established.  The original knife is widely believed to have been designed by Rezin Bowie, the brother of Texas legend Colonel James Bowie.  Rezin’s design closely resembled that of the standard butcher knife.  Jim Bowie used his brother’s design in the famous Sandbar Fight of 1827; a wild free-for-all where Bowie was stabbed, shot and beaten to within an inch of his life.  During the fight’s ten minute duration, he managed to kill one of his assailants with his knife.  Across the U.S., newspapers carried accounts of the fight and Bowie’s new knife.
The most popular design featured the distinctive clipped point and was manufactured by James Black, a blacksmith in Washington, Arkansas.  Bowie carried Black’s design with him to Texas and eternal glory at the Alamo.  Business boomed for Black until he was savagely attacked by his father in law; a former business partner who didn’t approve of his daughter’s marriage to Black.  While lying ill in bed, Black was clubbed on the noggin and left partially blinded.
British craftsmen, known as “Little Mesters,”began producing quality Bowie knives from their workshops in Sheffield.  The word "mester" is a Sheffield variant of the word "master," which indicates a master craftsman.  Hundreds of these Sheffield knives were exported to the United States as the knife gained international fame.  Irish, Victorian author Bram Stoker included the knife in his popular horror novel, “Dracula.”  In the book, Texan Quincy Morris deals Count Dracula a mortal blow with his Bowie knife.
Another James Black creation, the Arkansas Toothpick, was also popular in the South.   The Arkansas Toothpick was an immense 15” double edged dagger as opposed to the Bowie’s single sharpened edge.  “As fighting knives, both the D-Guard and Toothpick are comparable,” said knife maker and authority, Carl Simms.

Confederate knives were well sharpened compared to Union artillery swords which were dull to prevent sticking after a thrust to the ribs or collarbone.  The Union Army did not have government issued knives, but had bayonets and swords which were more for thrusting rather than slashing.  Confederate knives were produced by local blacksmiths in various shapes and sizes.  Old files and saw blades were often used.
Like all Civil War knives, the Bowie knife and Arkansas Toothpick were rarely used in an actual fight.  Instead they were used as tools to cut tree limbs, prepare food, dig entrenchments, or cut fabric for uniforms.  Many found them a hindrance and simply discarded them.  Whether used in hunting, fishing, home defense, or slaying vampires, the venerable Bowie knife will always have its place among native Texans.
Civil War Knife Display (Texas Civil War Museum)

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